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The Year After Creation 7530

by Bob Johnston

Vladimir handed over his diplomatic token and walked past the guard. The interior of Hagia Sophia was cool after the searing sunlight, but light filled the magnificent space and he felt the familiar warmth in his belly. It was not his first time in Constantinople but he had only ever walked around the cathedral before. It was the model for every church in the lands of the Rus and the Romans, but everywhere else they were pale imitations of this glory.

The service would be packed, but mostly with invited dignitaries from around the two allied empires. He presented himself to an usher and was politely taken to his seat. He smiled as he sat, three quarters of the way back from the high altar and discretely out of the way. Protocol had placed him precisely where he belonged, a Rus brother but neither a Roman nor someone of especially high rank. He relaxed. He was here for the annual commemoration and having no official functions suited him just nicely.

A Kievan magistrate was seated beside him, his chains of office glittering in the light pouring down from the dome and in through the many windows. Vladimir greeted him in formal Rus manner, which the man replied to, but then made it clear that he too was here for the event and not for chatting. Both men went back to studying this masterpiece of architecture while the seats around them slowly filled up.

The Romans began arriving as fashionably close to the beginning of things as their status allowed. Their various robes were ostentatiously grander than those of the Rus guests but Vladimir was aware of inverted snobbery among his people. Their garments were of the finest manufacture, but deliberately given a peasant cum soldier look.

A dignified silence fell as officials began gathering on the wide marble chancel. And everyone stood as the Roman emperor entered. He was preceded by three assistants dressed in magnificent robes which would have graced Justinian’s court fifteen hundred years earlier. Each was carrying a book which they placed side by side on the wide oak lectern. The emperor then motioned the assembly to sit.

Vladimir studied the robed soldier on the chancel. Theophilus the 9th. A soldier born of soldiers and yet a great administrator, a friend of the people, a diplomat. Vladimir approved. Rome had suffered too many times under corrupt and weak leaders. One could only hope that Theophilus might ignore the biological urge to pass the crown onto his son. The Rus had long since used adoption to ensure good succession. Ironically they had taken the idea from the Romans.

“My fellow Romans, my Rus kindred, my Frankish and British guests. Welcome. Today is the 29th of May, in the 7530th Year After Creation. Or for my friends from the north-west 2022 Anno Domini.” A polite chuckle rolled round the vast space. The emperor raised one of the books, a battered object in a tattered light brown dust cover. “Gibbon’s ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’.” He shook his head and gently replaced the book. The second book was tidier. “The Quran.” He put this down with a little more reverence and lifted the final book. “The Christian Bible, containing the scriptures of our Jewish friends.” He set it down.

“Around our empire, and that of the Rus, today we remember the events of the 20th of May 6961.” Again he smiled in the direction of the Franks and Britons who politely smiled back. “The 29th of May 1453. The day the Roman Empire came to an end…” He paused and lifted up Gibbon’s book “…according to this document. And the end of the Roman Empire was brought about by the followers of the faith described in the Quran.” He put down Gibbon’s book and briefly lifted the Quran. He then walked round the lectern and stood in front of the gathering.

“Gibbon’s book describes, in a language that does not exist, the destruction of our empire over half a millennium ago, and the western territories a thousand years before that. We all know how the book arrived, dropped by a disembodied hand into the middle of an ecumenical council in this very city a century ago. Likewise the Quran, easier to understand because it is written in the language of our Arab allies to the south, dropped by a disembodied hand reaching out from a hole in reality.

“It took years to decipher Gibbon’s book, its language having to be built from dialects of German injected with elements of our beloved Latin and Greek, as well as contributions from the language of our Frankish friends. But difficulties aside the message was clear. The church was a huge factor in the destruction of this empire, presumably in some other world, and someone there was trying to warn us. And another faith dealt the final blow.”

He went back round the lectern and lifted the Bible.

“This was once a center of our communal life, but no more.” He replaced it, again carefully.

“I Theophilus, Emperor of the Roman people, Consul of the Roman Senate, Caesar Augustus, preach a sermon of personal tolerance. Believe what you will, but do it in the privacy of your hearts. We have seen the destruction of our world in some other version of reality and we will not see our beloved Rome similarly destroyed. You will stand.”

The assembly got to its feet.

“Repeat after me, there is no God.”

The crowd repeated the phrase.

“There is no son of God.”


“There is no spirit of God at work within us.”

“There are no prophets of God, and never have been, sharing the words and commands of God.”

“If there is an afterlife it is no part of God’s creation.”

“The universe is us, our families, our nation, and our emperor.”

Vladimir looked across at the Catholic Franks and Britons and saw their discomfort as this inversion of a Christian service played out. He turned his attention back to the emperor, betting to himself that all the old disputes between the eastern and western church must seem like wasted time and paper now. He dutifully repeated the denial of faith, loudly and clearly in his best Greek.

“Rome is eternal. Rome has no need of gods.”

Theophilus instructed the assembly to sit.

“Rome is 2775 years old. Its center moved to this great city fifteen hundred years ago, and our Rus friends like to think of their beloved Kiev as a third Rome. It is an idea I encourage. Many cities of Rome, but only one Rome, strong, steady and eternal.”


Vladimir made his way to his accommodation, his head still spinning from the beauty of Hagia Sophia and the sheer audacity of this annual anti-religious gathering. The cult of no-God had grabbed the empire in a matter of decades, but then again Rome had always been prone to latch onto religious fads. He wondered if this strangely religious atheism would survive Theophilus, but then noticed a flyer pasted to a wall. A race was starting shortly at the Hippodrome.

It was the 29th of May 7530 and his employer, a well-connected supplier of rock oil to both the Romans and the Rus, was not expecting him back for days. He might as well enjoy his time in the great City for once. As he turned in the direction of the Hippodrome a flight of aircraft roared overhead, followed quickly by another, all six heading south. Another man watched them disappear over the Bosphorus and then turned to Vladimir.

“I wonder what those Persians are up to now?”

Vladimir nodded, reached into his cloak pocket and quietly squeezed the small Rus Bible he always carried with him.

Persians to the east, always testing Rome’s resolve. For a moment his thoughts turned to that Quran, handled so respectfully by the emperor, and those thoughts rolled above and across Persia’s westernmost reaches to the little known or understood lands of the Arabs. “Rome is eternal,” he whispered to himself. Clearly not in the world that had given them those two books that had turned this world upside down. He looked back at Hagia Sophia, drank in its beauty, and then went to bet on a few horse races.



Bob Johnston lives in Scotland where he scribbles, reads theology, and marvels at the country’s beauty when it isn’t raining, which isn’t often. He likes a good story; ancient, old, or brand new and tries to create good stories of his own. A sample can be found on his website

Philosophy Note:

As a Christian clergyman who is often baffled by what people believe, when compared with what passes for orthodox belief, I have wondered in this story if non-belief can be religiously embraced. The story also takes the fall of Constantinople on 29th May 1453 seriously because I don’t think the ramifications of that day have been fully played out yet.


by Gheorghe Săsărman

Translated from the Romanian by Monica Cure

—We created you! Without us, you never would have existed, the Hellenes yelled, scattering among the gleaming statues supporting the azure dome.

More fiercely than the others, Phidias raised his arms toward the heavens:

—With these hands of mine I chiseled you, with these calloused fingers I uncovered your eyes from Parian and Pentelic marble!

—That is true, the crowd agreed in unison.

They had gathered here, at the foot of Olympus[1], all the most illustrious men of Greek antiquity. Smiling and cold, the gods showed themselves completely indifferent to the insolence of the rebels. Unmoved, their countless white forms looked like gigantic pillars in the infinite temple of the Universe.

—I fear we are making a mistake, Plato thought to himself. These statues are, perhaps, our creation, that of Phidias and Praxiteles, of Scopas and others. But they are only the pale children of the true, eternal gods, their shadows, the only accessible image to us of the ideal of immortality.

However, fearing the raging mob, the wise man vociferated together with the others, playing along.

—I can destroy you whenever I want, because I gave you life and I will take it back when I wish, Phidias continued his taunt, to the acclamation of the demos.

The peak wrapped itself in a halo of fog. A slight breeze started from off the mountain. The people did not notice the first signs of the approaching storm.

—I fear we are making a mistake, Aristotle thought to himself. These pillars of the eternal city are, perhaps, the gods themselves, we are not the ones who created them. But our entire history is nothing more than a moment in their lives without beginning or end, and it is only natural that their persons seem motionless to us.

—We defeated even the Persians, exclaimed Pericles, heatedly. Must we now fear our gods, our very own gods?

Hundreds of warriors cheered him on.

—Let us smash them, Phidias roared, tearing a lance out of the hands of a soldier.

The sunlight grew pale. Black clouds rolled over the blue cupola of the city, darkening it. The foreheads of the gods disappeared in the gloom.

—They are challenging us, the people yelled, losing their minds.

Instead of terrifying them, the threat of the storm goaded them. Armed with lances and swords, with axes and iron bars, they descended onto the statues, to whose ankles they could not even reach. In that moment, the attackers froze in the aggressive positions of a crazed destructive fury. They remained like that for a while, stock still, as white as the gods.

Then, from Zeus’s uplifted fist, lightening flared, and the flood burst forth from the entire firmament. The paralyzed bodies of the people slowly dissipated under the torrents of water. The rain washed away the crown of their heads and their shoulders, it dissolved their fragile phalanges. Their weapons fell from their hands, with a clang. Soon the crowd had vanished as if in a dream. The whiteness of the frozen bodies had proven to be the deceptive and ephemeral whiteness of salt.

When the rain died down and the blue of the sky widened again until it reached the horizon, among the white marble torsos of the gods, all that remained was a barrel full of brine, in which floated the extinguished wick of a candle.

[1] Not to be confused with the ancient city of Olympia, in Elis, renowned for the athletic competitions held here every four years and for the statue of Zeus made from gold and ivory, the work of Phidias, considered at the time one of the seven wonders of the world.


High Fantasy IS Science Fiction

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Some introductory remarks

Years ago, and maybe still today, it was customary in large bookstores to place high fantasy books in the same section as science fiction. Only the alphabetical order separated the Asimovian Foundation series from Tolkienian Middle-Earth narratives. Thus, a genre of fiction allegedly based on reason as well as natural and applied sciences could be found along another one admitting the material existence of supernatural entities and events, and in which magic really works. Thus, the most scientific and the most ascientific kinds of fiction were entwined on the bookshelves and, presumably, in the minds of their buyers as much as in those of booksellers. However, it would be both unfair and misguided to blame them for such apparent blatant disregard for the purported essential features of each sort of fiction. Out of respect for their literary acumen, it would be rather advisable to see whether their closeness on the market shelves was truly an unsettling contradiction. Is there, indeed, any sound reason for such proximity?

Having emerged later, high fantasy was the genre added to science fiction bookstore shelves, not the other way around. What is to be discussed, therefore, is why it was placed there, although it is not, in principle, a genre of scientific fiction as ‘science fiction’ is, as its very name suggests. We could, however, question the alleged rational and scientific status of science fiction proper. SF stories and plays often show occurrences violating the known natural laws of our universe. Among those violations could be mentioned any kind of remote exercise of mental powers such as those attributed to the Mule in the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov and to the Bene Gesserit in Frank Herbert’s Dune cycle. Nevertheless, it is the perception of being scientific what often distinguishes ‘science fiction’ from other genres, while the opposite occurs in the case of ‘fantasy,’ which would supposedly be mainly fantastic, as its own name indicates. ‘Fantastic’ is, however, a term so broad that its conceptual value is negligeable.

We could consider that all kinds of fiction with supernatural elements are to be called ‘fantasy,’ as is the case in a landmark reference book on the matter, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), edited by John Clute and John Grant. The only common feature in the many works of fiction there considered is that they welcome the supernatural in one way or another. We have seen that so does much of science fiction. There would then be no reason to exclude it from the ‘fantastic.’ In fact, not even the so-called realistic worlds, such as the 19th-century novels of manners, should be excluded from it, since there is little more fantastic that a narrative voice describing in minute detail the most inner thoughts of the characters. We would need then a more precise taxonomy of ‘fantasy,’ and specifically of ‘high fantasy’ as a particular genre. It is time to shortly address some boring, but necessary theoretical issues on the matter.


Now for a bit of theory

Like science fiction, high fantasy can be recognized with relative ease, but it is not easier than science fiction to define it. However, the basic concept of high fantasy is that of subcreation, proposed by J. R. R. Tolkien in his 1939 lecture “On Fairy-stories”(1947). Subcreation implies a secondary creation, i.e. the artistic invention by someone from our primary ‘created’ world of an imaginary world presented as a fully fictional entity. Therefore, it does not pretend to be a reflection of our natural and social universe in the past (historical fiction), in the present (‘realistic’ fictions of any kind, from novels of manners to thrillers) or in the future (science fiction). A fully invented world can be shown as co-existing with settings borrowed from our factual universe in portal fantasies such as C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series or historical fantasies with imaginary states such as Jean D’Ormesson’s La Gloire de l’Empire (The Glory of the Empire, 1971). Nevertheless, Tolkien’s theory implies that completeness of the subcreation also entails a notion of full autonomy in high fantasy, as opposed to those related fantasy genres. The subcreated universe is a secondary world fully independent from the primary world in the realm of fiction as well. This allows for, and even demands, an ontological order in it that is different from that of the universe we inhabit. Since this order is not a mundane one in any recorded or extrapolated time and space of our universe and considering the historical roots of many high fantasy worlds in the long-standing tradition of popular and artistic fairy tales, it is small wonder (pardon the pun) that magic and other supernatural occurrences are so often found in high fantasy. Their presence is, however, not compulsory in the genre. There are, indeed, significant works of high fantasy from which magic and supernatural occurrences are virtually absent, such as Samuel R. Delany’s Tales of Nevèrÿon (1978).

The secondary worlds of high fantasy are a very particular kind of invented fictional world. As such, they are quite different from those found in other genres of speculative and science fiction. As Lin Carter showed in his landmark essay Imaginary Worlds (1973), high fantasy worlds have their own specific features. They are not the worlds of allegories, with their symbolically abstract characters and venues, or those of the afterlife, or those discovered by imaginary travelers to unknown lands on our planet or other celestial bodies. More importantly for our contention, these are not the worlds bequeathed to us by written or oral tradition, such as received myths and folktales, as those are not subcreations, not having been invented by particular persons. Artistic fairy tales are perhaps more akin to high fantasy, since they are often written as personal works of literary art, such as those by H. C. Andersen and Oscar Wilde. In addition to often taking place in the primary world, they still draw from a common pool of conventional plots, characters and places largely limiting the extent of their subcreation. As an illustration of the essentially different nature of the fictional world in high fantasy and fairy tales, it is worth reminding that, whereas maps as paratexts are usual and welcome in high fantasy narratives, they and any other kind of ‘documentary’ information are wholly unnecessary, if not inconvenient, in fairy tales. Where the castle of Sleeping Beauty is located, how it is named, which kind of state is her kingdom and how tense are its foreign relations, what are the myths, beliefs and institutions of her nation, and other cultural and historical data are fully irrelevant to her fairy tale, while they are paramount in high fantasy proper.

Despite his talking of fairy-stories, Tolkien’s idea of subcreation does not apply to any type of fictional ‘magic’ worlds, including those featured in fairy tales. His own practice as a writer, which underpins and determines his literary theory, is rather to be considered along a number of taxonomically similar works by different authors that would later be grouped together and labelled as (high) fantasy. These works describe civilizations with a legendary outlook, lacking advanced technology even when set in the future, usually showing a sociopolitical order typical of ancient civilizations, from the first sedentary societies to early empires, when heroism of the sort exhibited and sung in ancient epics was proper. They are worlds where gods and other mythical beings can be seen acting alongside humans, worlds in which characters perform religious and social rituals alien to known religions[1] and act according to motives and beliefs unlike those common in our modernity. They are also worlds whose completeness demands inner credibility to seem as consistent as our own primary world is portrayed, among others, in so-called realistic fiction. In order to reach such a level of realistic plausibility, the subcreated secondary world typically follows a particular set of procedures to enhance its logical consistency as fiction.

Science fiction follows a rational procedure of extrapolation or anticipation inspired and underpinned, at least in theory, by the modern scientific method, with its technological and societal outcomes. This is what makes seem plausible both the most extraordinary inventions described, as well as the most humanely incredible eutopian and dystopian institutions imposed upon an imagined society. On the other hand, what rational basis is required for a fully invented civilization in an unfamiliar universe, in an undocumented past, or even in a future implausibly lacking advanced technology? How to persuade modern readers used to ‘realism’ to suspend disbelief in the true (fictional) existence of the worlds of high fantasy? The answer is perhaps not as alien to science as one might think at first.


A smattering of history

Whereas recent commercial high fantasy can take advantage of a wider public already familiar with the narrative conventions consecrated by the global success of the Howardian series of Conan stories and the Tolkienian epic adventures in Middle-Earth, the first modern authors of the future high fantasy genre published works whose fictional secondary worlds, being subcreated and fully invented, were unprecedented. This is likely why many tried to prevent the bewilderment of their readers by resorting to some contemporary methods and discourses able to endow, through analogy, a measure of rational and scientific authority to the invented world, as it were a genuine reality in a time and place divergent from our known human universe. The first to do it was perhaps Plato when he presented his invention of Atlantis and his empire as a real historical place by using not only the method of verified documentation proper to historiography, but also the rhetoric of narrated history developed, among others, by Herodotus. Plato was, indeed, so successful in his use of nascent historiography for fictional purposes that there are still quite a few scholars taking it at face value and looking all over the world for the remains of Atlantis, an endeavour as futile as trying to unearth Tolkien’s Númenor…

Atlantis was not a full-fledged secondary high fantasy world, though. It existed along real places such as Athens and it was subjected to the whims of the Greek gods. Moreover, the literary approach of Plato was not followed for many centuries, namely until modern methods in the historical and related human sciences were first developed, above all, in Germany as from the first half of the 19th century. It was precisely in that period when the very first full high fantasy world was conceived: Eduard Mörike and Ludwig Bauer imagined during the summer of 1825 Orplid, an island having existed in the Pacific where an imaginary civilization thrived in full isolation, with no relation whatsoever with any people from our world. Orplid has its own integral culture, with its own toponomastics, its own history with several kingdoms and states fighting each other for supremacy, its own religion with its own gods and myths… All of this was invented, or rather subcreated, following the methods of inquiry in human sciences, namely in the so-called Humanities. Mörike even drew a map, unfortunately now lost, of that island with its cities and states, as well as its natural features. Bauer described the physical and human geography of the island in the introduction to his drama Der heimliche Maluff (Hidden Maluff, 1828), which can be considered the first published modern high fantasy work. Bauer also offered in that same introductory paratext the outlines of the history of the kingdoms of Orplid and of the pagan religion common to all its inhabitants.

Shortly thereafter, a British writer, John Sterling, and a German one, Karl Immermann, subcreated equally consistent fictional universes in their respective etiological myths on the origin of warriors narrated in “The Sons of Iron,”included without title in Sterlings’s novel from 1833 Arthur Coningsby, and of our own universe in “Mondscheinmärchen,” or ‘Tale of the Moonshine,’ included in Immermann’s novel from 1836 Die Epigonen (The Epigones). These two stories are perhaps the first modern instances of mythopoetic subcreations using the language of mythographic form, well before Lord Dunsany’s masterful collections of invented cosmogonic myths titled The Gods of Pegāna (1905) and Time and the Gods (1906).

The first high fantasy long narrative came soon after. In France, George Sand subcreated in Évenor et Leucippe (Evenor and Leucippe, 1856) a fully imaginary early human civilization within which existed a secluded second ‘secondary world’ called Eden, where lived the last of the dives lived, a race of angelic pre-human beings endowed with some supernatural powers, and whose last specimen died just after having imparted moral lessons to the young lovers after whom the novel is titled. These lovers were eventually forced to escape from their fellow humans, along with other peace seekers, to that refuge of Eden in order not to suffer the political intrigues and wars which were corrupting their civilization. Sand’s double secondary world was inspired by Platonic Atlantis and the primordial myths of the ancient Hebrew book of Genesis, but it differs from both by its secular and non-mythic character. Sand published the book with a long paratextual introduction where she invoked the latest theories and discoveries of her time on the transformation of species and the possibility of prehistoric societies very different from those archaeologically documented. Thus, she tried to explain what sort of parable her novel was, but to little avail. Her novel was rather unsuccessful among readers, as was later a longer novel by her son Maurice titled Le coq aux cheveux d’or (The Golden-Haired Rooster, 1867), in which the Platonic legend of Atlantis was retold in such a way that it could be read today as an early example of later Howardian sword and sorcery fiction. The same can be said of an earlier example of that sort of fiction but with female protagonists, the Spanish novel Las amazonas (The Amazons, 1852) by Pedro Mata.

All these works came perhaps too early. It was a time when Gustave Flaubert’s novels were making modern ‘realism’ triumph, even in narratives set in an ancient exotic past, such as Salammbô (1862). However, this very same book was a testament to the new public interest for civilizations different from the classic and biblical ones, both in space and in time, from those of the Neolithic (e. g. novels on the pike-dwelling settlements in Central Europe) to those of Polynesia. Most of these civilizations had recently been (re)discovered by scholars and the wider educated public, thanks to far-reaching geographical and archaeological explorations, which were accompanied by the decisive development of philology. This science allowed to understand living and dead languages previously unknown in Europe and westernized America. This understanding contributed numerous myths, legends and even truly occurred histories to common knowledge all over the world.

Consequently, not only retellings by European and American writers of all this new worldwide cultural heritage were published in the 19th and early 20th century, but also some works portraying imaginary equivalents of the ancient cultures that archaeology and philology were gradually revealing. A representative example, due to its extensive and obvious use of human sciences to build a rich secondary high fantasy world, is the novella “Dyusandir y Ganitriya” (Djusandir and Ganitrija, 1903) by Luis Valera. This romantic legend about the two young lovers of the title is presented as a story told to the narrator by a Czech archaeologist who had found and deciphered the relevant documents stemming from an imaginary Puruna empire, a fully invented Indo-European ancient civilization in Asia. Valera describes it to minute detail, including the political organization and history of the two Puruna nations, as well as their shared religious beliefs and rituals, as they could have been reconstructed by archaeology, to the point of even discussing divergent hypotheses on the historical reliability of the narrated facts. The extent of Valera’s recourse to the historical sciences was not to be matched for quite a long time, but other contemporary narratives were also using similar methods of subcreation based on the Humanities. Among the examples by renowned authors that could be mention are the historic-looking high fantasy romances by William Morris, both without supernatural features, such as The Roots of the Mountains (1890), and with them, such as The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891), as well as other works rather inspired by ethnography, such as Gabriele D’Annunzio’s short narrative poem “Il sangue delle vergini” (Virgins’ Blood, 1883/1894), and philology, such as J.-H. Rosny aîné’s novella “Les Xipéhuz” (The Xipehuz, 1887), which is presented as a critical translation, including notes, of a document written in a language prior to the first ones documented in Mesopotamia.

Shortly afterwards, following Lord Dunsany’s fictional mythographic works, high fantasy acquired in the English-speaking major nations a critical mass unknown in the other linguistic areas where high fantasy was also first developed. Without diminishing the significance of weird high fantasists such as Clark Ashton Smith and of their French Decadent masters such as Camille Mauclair, high fantasy reached maturity mainly due to the monumental work of two writers, each of them representative of the two main strands of later high fantasy: the one focusing on subcreated history and the other focusing on subcreated myth. Robert E. Howard came first with his stories on the adventures of Conan in Hyboria, a land on our Earth where civilizations thrived prior to recorded history. Although older than Howard, Tolkien published later his narratives set in Middle-Earth, which was a part of Arda, a mythic universe having preceded ours. After them, high fantasy followed its course until today without major changes.[2] Howard and Tolkien did not invent high fantasy, but their work helped it become an accepted and specific sort of fiction. They are, therefore, of paramount importance, also for our inquiry, since they produced important texts suggesting that the scientific contents of high fantasy are not only related to the methods of the Humanities, but alto to their discourses, to the rhetoric governing their conventions when presenting their findings to the scholarly community, as well as to the general public.


A touch of rhetoric

The rhetoric of the Humanities and generally the human sciences consists in the set of linguistic conventions governing the presentation of their arguments and conclusions, this is to say, the kinds of writing specific to each of them. This particular register allows readers to recognize that a narration of past events is not told as if these events were invented stories, but documented facts in our universe and time, among human beings interacting with each other (historiography), or in a supernatural dimension where gods and godlike entities are shown as really acting (mythography). A specific kind of rhetoric also signals if we are describing the rites and customs of a particular population (ethnography), or if we are rather trying to explain the features of a text, from its language to its deeper meaning, as it can be guessed from it using the philological method. Describing the full range of rhetorical conventions across the different human sciences could be the subject of huge treatises. It will suffice for now that these formal conventions determining the discourses of those sciences are to be abundantly found in high fantasy from its very beginning. Ludwig Bauer already felt the need to explain, using those discourses, what Orplid looked like, and how its culture was shaped, in order to put his literary fiction related to his imaginary island in an apparently factual context. The language of science was then used to present the invented secondary world as having really existed, thus supporting the realistic plausibility of the fictional events presented as taking place in that world. A similar rhetorical procedure was occasionally followed by Howard and Tolkien. Both great masters of high fantasy produced mock documentary writings with the clear purpose of complementing their novelistic subcreation, which lacked any discursive authority, with expository pieces that could have that authority. In this way, their statements about their subcreated worlds seem to be the result of scientific inquiry, at least formally. In Howard, the rhetoric chosen is that of historiography in “The Hyborian Age” (1936/1938), which tells the history of the Earth several millennia ago, when Conan fought against his many enemies in the realms supposedly existing in that distant epoch. For his part, Tolkien began the subcreation of the fictional universe of his novel The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) by narrating his cosmogony as a piece of mythography in “Ainulindalë,”although this text only appeared posthumously in 1975.

Thus, Tolkien shows that the subcreation of the secondary world could predate the writing of the related fiction itself. Even if the world-building exercise in high fantasy does not necessarily predate the literary operation of the subcreated world, it is often considered convenient to underline its ontological status as an independent and full reality on its own by presenting it as such through rhetorically non-fictional means. A high fantasy book or series may therefore frequently be accompanied by paratexts objectively describing the setting and culture of the relevant world, or by companion books entirely devoted to that description. This is the case of fictional encyclopedias in which the subcreated worlds are comprehensively presented, including their geography, history, social and political organization, among other data. This is the case, for instance, of The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (1997) by Robert Jordan & Teresa Patterson.

In addition to fictional encyclopedias combining texts written in the manner of the various human sciences, there is also several high fantasy books entirely written as if they were compilation of myths, such as O’Yarkandal (1929) by Salarrué. Historiographic accounts also exist in high fantasy, such as the imaginary chronicle of the world of Westeros titled Fire & Blood (2018) by George R. R. Martin. Ethnography has not been neglected either in this genre, since there are some interesting books devoted to the description of the manners and rituals of imaginary ancient civilizations, for example, those of Los zumitas (The Zumites, 1999) by Federico Jeanmaire. For its part, philology, understood as the science of editing, translating and interpreting texts, has inspired the creation of anthologies of pseudo-translated literary documents from subcreated civilizations, sometimes linked to a particular fictional cycle, such as The Rivan Codex (1998) by David & Leigh Eddings, as well as in the form of independent books that suffice, along with the comments of the supposed editor/translator, to subcreate a whole world through the texts allegedly produced there. In particular Frédéric Werst did so in his two volumes of Ward (2011-2014), which are presented as a bilingual edition of a selection of classics of the Ward civilization in French and in the imaginary language of that invented nation, a language created from scratch by the author and whose grammar and vocabulary are fully offered in these two books, thus surpassing the limited attempts of Tolkien at writing texts directly in a subcreated language.

Ward probably represents the extreme point that can be reached in world-building through fictional non-fiction, but all those examples and others that could be mentioned hint at the importance that the rhetoric of human sciences has always had in high fantasy. Even in the usual commercial three-, five- seven- or n- deckers that are currently crushing bookshelves and high fantasy itself under the sheer weight of their literary fat, the unavoidable maps in the printed volumes are to be seen as a token sign of the scientific seriousness of their world-building. Drawing a map is certainly easier than devising a whole language and the culture going with it; it is also easier than telling the whole history of a world beyond the limited sphere of some individual characters. Drawing a map may also prove easier than knowing how to use the language proper to each human science correctly, but the fact that maps of imaginary lands are so pervasive in high fantasy books suggests how closely intertwined this genre has become with the Humanities. Even in the many cases where commercial considerations supersede literary ones, high fantasy seems to be reluctant to cut all ties to science, perhaps because these ties are no less essential to it than they are to ‘science fiction.’


And conclusions, for good measure

Human sciences are as scientific, albeit in another way, as the applied sciences which have inspired canonical works in science fiction proper such as H. G Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), as well as the social sciences underpinning utopian fictions such as William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890). They are also as scientific as the natural sciences describing the material universe, including living beings, in xenofictions such as Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937), to which one could very well add the divine sciences of metaphysics and theology transposed into fiction through symbolic and allegorical works such as George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858), whereas formal sciences have found some fictional counterparts in mathematical fantasies such as Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland (1884). The relative true cognitive value of those different sciences is open to discussion, but it can hardly be denied that human sciences have allowed us to obtain a wealth of valuable insights about our diverse past on a sound documentary basis, second only to the information gleaned from natural sciences in their field. Since high fantasy is the kind of speculative fiction corresponding to at least some human sciences, it deserves to be considered just as speculative and scientific as ‘science fiction,’ although high fantasy has traditionally been more open to the supernatural, precisely in the same way as human cultures have traditionally been prone to believing in divine interventions as well.

The key to our understanding of high fantasy, as opposed to the usual fairy tale staple with unicorns and elves that often mimics it, is not the supernatural understood as a matter of fact in its fictional universe, but the rational way it approaches it. According to Palmer-Patel, “Fantasy can be defined as a narrative that you use similar structures and language of Mythology, Legends, and Fairy-Tales to create a new world with its own rational laws. As a result, Fantasy fiction is logical even when it is not possible. (…) Fantasy must have internally consistent laws as a point of reference from which the reader can hope to understand the fiction. (…) the Fantasy genre, though often defined by the ‘impossible’, still follows the logic of our current scientific and philosophical understanding of the world.”[3] If magic in high fantasy could very well have stemmed from fairy tales and inherited myths, it is no less true that a mutation occurred in the 19th century that gave rise to a new genre of speculative fiction that cleaves as much as science fiction to the “positivist spirit” and to the “logic of our scientific and philosophical understanding of the world.” In this context, science brings authority, but also ‘realism,’ which is a term that we should understand here as a modern literary approach intended to give fiction an illusory ‘effect of reality’ supported by the authority of science as conveyor of ‘truth(s).’

Certain historical conclusions in a number of human sciences seem to obey more to the prejudices of past mentalities than to the actual reality of the studied cultures, resulting in interpretations that we considered erroneous now, perhaps on the basis of our own biases. This fact should not hinder, however, our recognition of the scientific status of their methods, just as the methods of the natural sciences do not prevent further discoveries from modifying and even refuting previously widely accepted ideas on the material universe. In fiction as well, the human sciences in properly conceived high fantasy are no less logical and rationally sound that the natural sciences in xenofiction and the applied sciences in ‘science fiction,’ both traditionally put under a single taxonomic umbrella, despite their widely divergent ‘scientific’ approaches. In this perspective, and considering that it often borrows the discourses, or at least the maps, typical of human sciences as well, we can only conclude that booksellers were right after all. Indeed, high fantasy is science fiction in its broadest sense.

[1] High fantasy excludes Christianity, as well as any other really existing religion in the present or the past, since such a significant dimension of a culture would deny the secondary world its full completeness and independence from the primary one. This is why the medieval fantasy romances by William Morris, where Christian monks exist as much as papal Rome, are to be excluded from high fantasy, despite Lin Carter’s contention that these romances are the first instances of the genre. There are other works by Morris which would truly qualify as high fantasy, without being in any case the ‘first’ ones. High fantasy had long been invented elsewhere, as we will see.

[2] It could be argued that Ursula K. Le Guin’s high fantasy narratives set in Earthsea are mainly inspired by Ethnology, given the importance in that fictional universe of rituals and ceremonies, whereas history proper, which usually focuses on the secular exercise of power and on the fights to secure it, is downplayed. In this, her Earthsea books were the main literary heirs to an early masterpiece of ethnological high fantasy, Laurence Housman’s novella “Gods and Their Makers” (1897). However, perhaps due to the lesser narrative potential that ethnography has compared to historiography and mythography, contemporary high fantasy has rarely adopted the ethnologic approach as its main tool when it comes to fictional world-building.

[3] C. Palmer-Patel, The Shape of Fantasy: Investigating the Structure of American Heroic High Fantasy, New York, Routledge, 2000, p. 5 (italics in the original).



by Roberto González-Quevedo

Introductory Note

Roberto González-Quevedo (1953-) is one of the leading writers in Asturian, in particular thanks to his creation of the world of Pesicia, one of the most significant examples of fantasy world-building based on a free recreation of a pre-Roman culture from the Iberian Peninsula. Since so little is actually known of Pesician people, as well as of other ethnic nations living in that peninsula thousands of years ago, their cultures, including their history and myths, have been largely invented by writers, thus giving birth to a particular kind of high fantasy fiction of archaeological and legendary nature based on educated speculation. This sort of high fantasy has had a great development in the literatures of Spain, and González-Quevedo’s Pesician stories are to be counted among the best ones in Spanish contemporary literatures. The following very short story titled “Alog” (first published in 1990), which has been translated by Álvaro Piñero González from the author’s own version in Castilian Spanish, is a rare example of flash fiction in the high fantasy genre. It shows that a whole suggestive fantasy world can be built in just a few lines. Although it is not directly philosophical in its scope, it still can serve as illustration for one of the literary tenets of Sci Phi Journal: world-building can be kept (very) short, even in high fantasy, and poetic style should also be welcome in speculative literature in the broader sense of the word.


Alog was loneliness. He was born in a far away county, a county covered with huge millet fields and traversed by rivers in which the water flowed ever so slowly. His eyes stared, from the very beginning, at the everlasting sorrow of an infinite horizon infinitely distant from all things.


When the Glubbs invaded the land and smeared with blood the little mills, the stone houses and the winter produce, things changed for Alog. He saw his mother die, his father’s eyes become empty and his siblings leave with their backs bearing the marks of slavery.               


Only Alog escaped, but, alas, he saw, by coincidence, from within a small crate used to measure millet, the death of his own self.

Alog bearing witness to his own death.           


The Kaleidoscope Of Hungarian Fantastic Literature In The 21st Century

by Éva Vancsó

Hungarian science fiction dates to the middle-19th century with tales of moon travels and fictional worlds of advanced technology that reflected the spirit of the age more than any other genre. In the years to come, though themes and forms had changed, Hungarian literature mirrored society’s problems, hopes, fears, and dreams. It expressed the terrors of totalitarian regimes and world wars, and later, during the communist culture policy, it either served as a „honey trap” of natural sciences or became the literature of opposition before the change of regime in 1989. For years, only selected Anglo-Saxon/Western SFF works could seep through the crack in the cultural door, but it was swung wide open by the end of the Cold War. The previously encapsulated Hungarian fantastic literature absorbed the influences from outside and started to grow in terms of authors, titles, themes and styles. In this article, I intend not to review Hungarian science fiction and fantasy since the turn of the millennium comprehensively but rather as a kaleidoscope to present the tendencies and genre-defining authors and works in the last twenty-five years. Though the number of SFF texts compared to the number of Hungarian speakers is remarkable, they are essentially not available in foreign languages, so I provide my translation of the titles in square brackets. As many Hungarian authors use exogenous pseudonyms, I give various versions of their names separated by slashes.


In the Anglophone corpus, cyberpunk emerged in the late 70s and exerted great influence upon Hungarian science fiction in the 90s. Kiálts farkast [Cry Wolf] (1990) by András Gáspár is labeled proto-cyberpunk for the lack of an information revolution. However, it laid the foundations of Hungarian cyberpunk. Besides using genre elements such as the contrast of futuristic technology and a dystopian, collapsed society, Gáspár added a „Hungarian flavor”: the image of a future Budapest, a crowded, multicultural megapolis. Following a dozen short stories in the late nineties, cyberpunk gave rise to some of the most interesting SF novels after the turn of the millennium.

Zoltán László is widely considered to be the most important author of Hungarian cyberpunk.  William Gibson strongly influenced his first short stories, and his debut novel, Hiperballada [Hyper Ballad] (1998, 2005) combines cyberpunk elements, the afore-mentioned Hungarian flavor, and alternate history. In the novel’s alternative future, the change of regime has never happened; the Soviet Union became the world’s number one superpower: it won the technological race, and communism survived in the Eastern Bloc. In László’s world, the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party continues to rule the country. The Network Authority controls the citizens’ thinking and behavior, but cyberspace, synthetic implants, and space stations are also part of everyday life, resulting in something we could call CMEA-cyberpunk. Szintetikus Álom by Tamás Csepregi [Synthetic Dream] (2009) is composed of nine noir-cyberpunk short stories linked by the characters. The nonlinear, fragmented novel depicts a Budapest ruled by Pest-Buda Agglomeration after the Q-virus epidemic. The city is surrounded by a 10-metre-high wall and has no connection to other parts of Hungary or Europe. The cityscape has post-apocalyptic characteristics: a “sick, wheezing gigantic bacteria or a great organic jungle of metal and concrete like the stomach of a monster.” In the city, there is deep social and economic division; China bought district 8 for 400 years and became a luxury ghetto called the Chinese Legitimate District. Box City stands in the Hungarian part of the city, a small empire built over the years from waste, plastic, and polythene, where most people live. The Danube, which still exists, dirty and bubbling, and the Chain Bridge, whose ruined pillars are symbols of the balance between familiarity and de-familiarisation. The heroes of the short stories are ordinary people, criminals, policemen, businessmen, outsiders, operators, servants, and victims of the system. László and Csepregi have in common the combination of cyberpunk themes and tropes and the unmistakably Hungarian environment and world view that, following the footsteps of András Gáspár, made 21st-century Hungarian cyberpunk unique.


In the last years of the 80s, another SF sub-genre gained popularity in Hungary: space opera. After Galaktika Fantastic Books issued translations of three Star Wars novels (The New Hope, The Empires Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), the publishing companies of the early nineties tried to ride the popularity of the movies. The Han Solo trilogy by Dale Avery/Zsolt Nyulászi hallmarked this attempt, bearing all the characteristics of the era’s predatory capitalism: the sequels about the adventures of their eponymous hero were unofficial and unauthorized but published in 120.000 copies, attracting thousands of readers to space opera.

The popularity of these Star Wars novels opened the way for other space operas, firstly translations and derivative stories, but it was only a matter of time before someone noticed the opportunity to create new worlds. Or someones. In 1999, Harrison Fawcett/Fonyódi Tibor, who wrote about the space adventures of the tough soldier Brad Shaw, and Anthony Sheenard/Szélesi Sándor, who created the crazy and impudent character of York Ketchikan, decided to tie their stories together and create a shared fictional world to write in. The collaboration started in the anthology Aranypiramis [The Golden Pyramid] (2000) with two long short stories, and what follows is SF history. The jointly developed Mysterious Universe setting became a vast and complex multidimensional world of super-civilisations, super-weapons, strange races, mythical or mystical events, and the detailed world-building comes with intricate plots and the interplay of advanced technology and socio-political dynamics. The two founding fathers have their unique contribution to the world: Harrison Fawcett is still known for the epic scale battles and intricate plots, while Anthony Sheenard focuses on character-driven stories and philosophical questions, with the novels often exploring psychological and ethical dilemmas.

The Mysterious Universe now consists of thirty-four novels and four anthologies by more than twenty authors. Due to the dimensions of the franchise and the collaborative nature of the series, with multiple authors contributing to the shared universe, allowing for a diversity of stories and perspectives, MU has a significant place in Hungarian science fiction literature with a regular and enthusiastic readership.

Gothic Space-Dark Space intended to follow the success of Mysterious Universe, building a shared universe with several authors. The five published novels are retro-futuristic military fiction that depicts epic battles combined with 19th-century maritime technology, following this, however, the series was abruptly discontinued.

Space opera genre codes were later extended in different directions, preserving the epic scale and space adventures but introducing new perspectives. The Csodaidők series [Wondrous Times] (2006-2010) by Etelka Görgey tells a family history set in 3960, presenting different worlds, cultures, and societies through the lens of three characters in diverse social situations. The Calderon series by On Sai/Bea Varga is a knight’s tale in outer space: laser guns, space fleets, cleaning robots, and space cruisers co-exist with aristocratic traditions, balls, and chivalry. In Afázia [Aphasia] (2021) by Katalin Baráth the inhabitants of the artificial planet Pandonhya (originally Pannonia) are the last to use language as a means of communication, as a commodity – or as a weapon. The novel is a love letter to the Hungarian language and a clever critic of contemporary societies wrapped up in the cloak of science fiction. On the other hand, the Esthar series and other novels by Michael Walden/Szabolcs Waldman shift towards fast-paced military fiction that even dares to involve fantasy elements. The MU novels and these extensions of the traditional codes assure Hungarian space operas’ survival and sustained popularity in the 21st century.

Anthony Sheenard/Sándor Szélesi, the co-creator of MU, is one of the most prolific authors of 21st-century Hungarian science fiction and adopts a peculiar approach to the genre, being often labeled a genre-punk for that. Having published his first fantasy stories in 1994, he had since then explored various subgenres and themes. He wrote a classical sci-fi novel about a generation spaceship (Városalapítók [Settlers], 1997), a human-centered story about a father and son, and two confronting worlds (Beavatás szertartása, [Rite of Passage], 2009). Pokolhurok [Hellgrammite] (2016) is a contemporary fiction and serious thought experiment with perfectly balanced dramaturgy about a sociopath who develops a virus that can commit genocide based on genetic race markers. Szélesi was honored with several awards, including the Best European SF Writer award at the EuroCon of Copenhagen in 2007.


While new sub-genres and authors gained popularity, there is continuity with the 80s and 90s science fiction regarding themes and narratives. Galaktika magazine mainly focused on short stories, reviews, and popular science articles. Kozmosz Fantasztikus Könyvek (later Galaktika Baráti Kör) published novels between 1972 and 1994 and played a determining role in the history of Hungarian science fiction before the transition both in terms of titles and number of copies. Galaktika magazine was re-launched in 2002 – the book publishing division in 2005 – and remains today an essential component of Hungarian SFF, providing readers with classical science fiction texts by well-established “great old authors” such as István Nemere (with more than 700 novels) and Péter Zsoldos (whom the Hungarian award is named after) along with contemporary novels by significant writers of the 21st century. Though sales figures have decreased drastically since the 1990s, the media group remained important in Hungarian genre literature.

The alignment of Hungarian science fiction with contemporary international (mainly British-American) trends started in the second half of the 2000s, coinciding with the rising interest in trans- or posthumanism. In this context, Brandon Hackett/Markovics Botond represents Hungarian mainstream science fiction.

His first novels were space operas, but later, he turned to current topics with action-oriented plots, applying posthuman/transhuman perspectives. Poszthumán döntés [The Posthuman Decision] (2007) and Isten gépei [Machines of God] (2008) focus on the impact of technological development on society, the evolution of humanity under specific conditions in the diaspora or on the verge of technological singularity. His time travel duology Az időutazás napja and Az időutazás tegnapja [The Day of Time Travel, The Yesterday of Time Travel] (2014, 2015) explores a new aspect of this classic genre trope: social consequences. When time travel becomes widely available, hundreds, thousands, and millions of people grab the opportunity, resulting in chaos. Money ceases to exist, political structures fail, technological development is meaningless, and the process must be stopped, or the entire human civilization is at stake. Later novels by Markovics have taken up current phenomena and, in the best traditions of science fiction, extrapolated them to the future. Xeno (the title is a derivation of xenophobia) depicts an Earth ruled by a highly developed alien civilization that forces migration between different alien worlds with all the political, economic, and environmental consequences of the nine billion “Xenos.” Eldobható testek [Disposable Bodies] (2020) returns to transhumanism and examines the effect of digitized consciousness with printable, disposable bodies, the newhumans. His latest work, Felfalt kozmosz [Devoured Chosmos] (2023), addresses the problem of Free Will, combining philosophy and cosmology in the fate of three siblings. Markovics’s interest in technological development and its influence on humanity is in the best traditions of science fiction, making him one of the most significant Hungarian authors of the genre.


Parody or satire has been present in science fiction since the beginning of the 20th century. Tibor Dévényi’s satirical short stories were popular in the 1980s. In contemporary genre literature, the books of Lajos Lovas follow the tradition of satirical-comedy-adventure novels with a great deal of social commentary. For example, N (2010) is about a young man born in 2067 who is suffering from amnesia and stumbles into absurd adventures in 2007. The novel creatively and entertainingly holds up a mirror to Hungarian society.

In line with international trends, contemporary and genre literature boundaries have started to crumble. Outside science fiction, literary authors also tend to apply sci-fi themes and tropes in their works. The Virágbaborult világvége [Blossoming Apocalypse] by Imre Bartók, a philosopher and aesthetician, established a new hybrid genre that could be called philosopher-horror. A Patkány éve, A nyúl éve, A kecske éve [The Year of the Rat, The Year of the Rabbit, The Year of the Goat] (2013, 2014, 2015) revolves around three philosophers, Martin, Karl és Ludwig, who are a kind of superhumans – their bodies are covered with titanium plate, harbouring a tiny reactor inside. The three philosopher-psychopaths either argue about ontological questions or torture and kill humans in New York, which is facing a bio-apocalypse. The second and third volumes follow the philosophers as old men without implants and expand the apocalyptic story to other cities.

Űrérzékeny lelkek [Space-sensitive Souls] (2014) by József Havasréti is a similar experiment about the boundaries of contemporary literature. Havasréti has borrowed the tropes of the crazy scientist and space travel, extrapolated social criticism from science fiction, and merged it with an alternative cultural and art history of the 20th century.

György Dragomán is a prominent author of Hungarian contemporary literature known for his attraction to science fiction. On, Dragomán started to pursue his interest. From 2019, he regularly published short sci-fi and fantasy (or fantastic in the broad sense) stories, later compiled in the anthology Rendszerújra [System Reboot] in 2021. Most stories focus on characters facing oppression and all-encompassing control in totalitarian, dystopian worlds. They have two choices: they follow the rules and adapt to the brave new world or try to rebel and mostly die.

These experimental contemporary science fiction texts received mixed reactions from the audience. The critics highly appreciated the novels of Bartók and Havasréti. However, the novel did not meet the science fiction readers’ expectations because it lacked the consistent use of genre codes and tropes. This criticism has a long history from the middle of the 20th century when contemporary authors ventured into science fiction and faced the same reception. The general „assessment” of György Dragomán turns this approach inside out; he is mostly praised for writing, among others, science fiction too, but at the same time, he is still not considered to be a real SFF author by the Hungarian genre community.

Thus, the old truth that literary and science fiction writers do not mix still applies despite the blurring of genre boundaries. The distinction is dictated partly by traditions and partly by completely different readerships.


YA literature has penetrated contemporary Hungarian SFF (YA fantasy shall be discussed later); ­it is considered a “gateway drug” to fantastic literature, and specialized publishing companies strive to respond to the growing demand for novels that describe a science fiction setting and feature a young protagonist/narrator who addresses both classical sci-fi and age-specific problems.  However, this interest of young readers is not reflected in the number of YA sci-fi novels written by Hungarian authors; successful foreign books and franchises dominate the market.

The Pippa Kenn duology by Fanni Kemenes is the exception, depicting a post-apocalyptic future where a synthetic virus infects humanity, and some survive due to genetic engineering while others become bloodthirsty “palefaces”. According to YA cliches, the young protagonist, living alone in a cottage in the forest, believes she is the last human until she meets a boy and discovers the colonies’ existence.

The Oculus novels (2017, 2019) by A. M. Amaranth/Péter Holló Vaskó are the closest to foreign YA dystopian trends. On planet Avalon, elderly people become blind and see through the eyes of their oculus, slaves deprived of their personality. The story is narrated by a young female oculus, and the novel aims to balance serious questions about slavery, political structures, and the age-specific problems of a young girl. The Overtoun-trilogy of R. J. Hendon/Juhász Roland is at the higher end of the YA age range (above the age of 17). The novel thematizes the relationship between (trans)humanity and nature. It depicts the world of Overtoun where harmony between nature and man is lost and animals are unwanted creatures, conflicting it with the perspective of the “mongrels” or the bio-robots called medeas.

Contrary to international trends, a surprising sub-genre or subculture appeared and seems to attract young readers: steampunk. With a long tradition dating back to the 19th century, it has an active community that regularly organizes events. However, these festivals and design markets focus on commodities and fashion (jewelry or costumes) rather than literature. From the beginning of the 2000s, some authors innovatively applied steampunk elements, combining with urban fantasy (Nagate novels by Zoltán László) or a noir atmosphere (Viktor Tolnai). The traditional steampunk setting and the adventure-driven plot found their way into YA literature. Phoenix Books, dedicated to providing children and young adults with fantastic literature, has published several steampunk stories for young readers of 9 to 16. Holtidő [Dead Time] (2017 by Holden Rose/Attila Kovács) follows special cadets in a world of mechanical devices, Hollóvér [The Blood of the Raven] (2018) by Peter Sanawad/Péter Bihari tells the story of the last scion of the legendary Hunyadi family in a parallel universe of magic and strange machine. The eight volumes of the Winie Langton series by Vivien Holloway/Vivien Sasvári (from 2014) take young readers on adventures to London in the 2900s. All novels have in common their steampunk background, the role of machines, and embracing the traditions of YA literature, such as featuring a teenage protagonist, conversational style, and light-hearted jokes.


Nowadays, Hungarian science fiction is diverse, preserving some old-school storytelling but embracing different voices in themes, styles, and approaches, even reaching out to young readers. However, the readership and popularity of Hungarian science fiction literature is, at best, stagnant. The number of published science fiction novels has been decreasing, as well as the number of copies printed and sold since the 1990s. There is also a noticeable shift towards fantasy and other fantastic genres, such as weird or less and less clear-cut genre categories, in line with worldwide trends. The litmus paper for this tendency is Az év magyar science ficiion és fantasy novellái [Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories of the Year] anthology series since 2019, in which fantastic stories (in the broad sense) now are in the majority over traditional science fiction, and its publisher, GABO, adapts to this trend in its portfolio. The conditions of the Zsoldos Péter Award have also adjusted to the changing circumstances as a paradigm shift in Hungarian fantastic literature. The Zsoldos Award was established in 1998 to honor the best science fiction novels and short stories of the year, but in 2019, the organizers opened their doors to all fantastic genres, including fantasy, supernatural horror, and weird. Since then, the tendency to talk about speculative fiction or fantastic literature without distinguishing sci-fi, fantasy, or other genres has grown stronger.

Before 1990, fantasy was the younger brother, the “marginalized another fantastic genre” because only a very few classical texts were translated and published before the change of the regime. The spread of role-playing games had a crucial role in the rapidly increasing popularity of fantasy in the 1990s. Wayne Chapman (the pseudonym of already mentioned András Gáspár and Csanád Novák) played AD&D and began to publish the stories they had crafted as dungeon masters in the game’s fictional universe. Later, in light of the novel’s success, they established a publishing company and developed the only Hungarian role-playing game, M.A.G.U.S. In the last thirty years, despite copyright debates, opposing canons, and changes to the publishing company, more than one hundred M.A.G.U.S.-related novels and anthologies were published by dozens of authors, being one of the utmost achievements in Eastern European fantasy.

The other central fantasy hub and circle was Cherubion Publishing Company from 1991, which built a team of authors churning out fantasy (later science fiction too, but this branch remained a minority) novels and anthologies under British or American-sounding pseudonyms. The Cherubion books established the Hungarian sword-and-sorcery and dark fantasy literature based on existing Western fantasy tropes, races, and characters. The company intentionally and regularly published pulp novels by Hungarian authors with many copies, serving the infinite need for adventurous fantasy stories. The publishing company’s driving force, editor, and mastermind was the founder, István Nemes, who, under the pseudonyms of John Caldwell or Jeffrey Stone, became one of the most influential fantasy writers from the middle of the 1990s. Some of today’s important authors also started their careers in the Cherubion team, such as Anthony Sheenard/Sándor Szélesi, Harrison Fawcett/Tibor Fonyódi or János Bán who later became famous for history novels about the Hunyadi family.

The significance of M.A.G.U.S and Cherubion lies in establishing the readership of fantasy almost out of nothing, popularizing the settings, themes, and characters among mainly young readers who often remained consumers of fantasy as they grew up. Though publishing companies came and went, sword-and-sorcery novels continue to be published today. For instance, the Kaos series about the half-ork Skandar Graun and other popular franchises still run re-prints of old stories interspersed with novelties, thus supplying members of this subculture with a steady flow of new books.


The interest in Hungarian mythology started in the early 2000s to refresh fantasy with new themes, worlds, races, and characters. Sándor Szélesi’s Legendák földje [Land of Legends] (2002, 2003) tells the story of the Ancient Hungarians, a Scythian ethnic group in 3000 B.C. The Hungarians wander in steppes, and magic is an inherent part of their world: shamanistic practice works, fairies walk the earth, and the heaven-high tree connects the realm of gods, humans, and the underworld. The trilogy revolves around two clans, their rivalries, and battles that involve the fairies climbing said tree. Through these adventures, the novels depict the shift of paradigm, a change of approach to magic from diffuse shamanistic practices towards a more codified set of so-called Táltos beliefs.

Since the 2010s, Hungarian folklore has appeared more and more often in fantasy novels, drifting apart from English-Germanic-Greek mythologies and mythical characters. At first, YA novels started to infuse elements of Hungarian folk tales into fantasy novels. The Ólomerdő series [Lead Forest] (2007, 2014, 2019, 2020) by Csilla Kleinheincz depicts a unique world of humans, fairies, and magic where the reader can recognize the well-known folk tropes such as the presence of number three, the miraculous stag, dragons, as well as stepmothers with dubious agendas. The re-imagination of Budapest (or any other Hungarian city) in urban fantasy became popular in the 2010s. In Túlontúl [Far Beyond] (2017) by Ágnes Gaura, a fan of fairy tales seeks purpose in her life while Hungarian, Transylvanian, and Moldavian folk tales mingle with daily reality. Egyszervolt by Zoltán László [Once upon a Time] (2013) is a traditional intrusive fantasy inspired by Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, where the protagonist becomes aware of a secret Budapest that lies under the surface and explores this secondary world. More recently, Egyszervolt was followed by less traditional urban fantasy works, such as Pinky (2016) by László Sepsi, in which a nameless city, which might as well be Budapest or New York, has its hidden secrets and streets populated by elves, werewolves, and vampires. Csudapest [WonderPest] (2020) by Fanni Sütő can also be considered urban fantasy, consisting of short stories, blog entries, and poems with one common feature: describing Budapest as simultaneously familiar and magical.

Meanwhile, the Hétvilág [Seven Worlds] (2016) trilogy by Emilia Virág was the first folk urban fantasy novel aimed primarily at adult readers. In her book, fairies and bogeymen walk the city jungle, offering a bestiary of Budapest. The story was published by Athenaeum, which mainly publishes popular science volumes and contemporary literature, indicating the blurring of boundaries between genre and belles-lettres.

In Ellopott troll by Sándor Szélesi [The Stolen Troll] (2019), Budapest is populated by creatures of ancient Hungarian and European mythology that merge into our well-known modern world of cars, smartphones, and computers, mixing folk magic and ordinary 21st-century life. The protagonist is a detective working at the Department of Magical Creatures with a shaman, a siegbarste, a werewolf, and a sorcerer. Against the background of a folk-urban fantasy world, the story follows an investigation after a disappeared troll that leads to the labyrinth under Buda Castle, where the Prime Táltos is searching for the spring of eternal life.

Magic school novels have also sprung up in the wake of successful franchises in foreign fantasy. Vétett út [Wrong way] (2023) by Veronika Puska tells the story of two young men who study at a school led by an order of wizards in the 1990s. However, the novel twists all the expectations of a magic school fantasy in its world and style. The universe is based on Hungarian folk tradition, practice, and rhymes, like stealing the shadow of someone. However, the school is a secret society, and what the protagonists learn and are expected to do is often morally questionable, resulting in an inverted, dark, cruel folk-fantasy novel.

These stories have in common that they mostly take place in Budapest or at least in a version of the city that also relates them to urban fantasy. This subgenre has become popular in Hungarian fantasy in the last ten years. The Legendák a bagolyvárosból [Legends from the Owlcity] (from 2018) series by Gabriella Eld is a YA urban fantasy about young people with unique talents (seeing into the future for one second, having a conscious shadow) who are persecuted by the dystopian state of Imperium. The setting is a dark and crowded metropolis bathing in neon lights. However, the novel focuses more on the characters than on worldbuilding. Főnix [Phoenix] (2023) by László Szarvassy turns upside down the usual elements of urban fantasy, placing the subgenre’s plot and typical characters in the Hungarian countryside. A young man dies in a bus accident and… wakes up to experience the benefits and, mainly, the unpleasant consequences of being an immortal in the employ of a goblin.


In recent years, contemporary Hungarian fantasy has moved away from classical sword-and-sorcery and urban fantasy, producing innovative and original novels that do not lend themselves to be classified into genres or subgenres, and it becomes more accurate to use the broader term: contemporary fantastic literature.

Anita Moskát is the emblematic figure of this trend. In her first novel, Bábel fiai [Sons of Babel] (2014), “dimension portals” connect contemporary Budapest and a parallel-universe Babylon where the tower of Babel is being built. Horgonyhely [Place of Anchorage] (2016) leaves completely behind the fantasy tropes, depicting a universe where only pregnant women can travel (all the others are anchored to the place where they were born). Some women who eat soil or dirt empower themselves with Earth magic. These foundations of the fictitious world raise questions about gender and social hierarchy in a new light that has never been represented in such a detailed and realistic way in Hungarian fantasy. Her following book, Irha és bőr [Fur and Skin] (2019), likewise addresses social issues, talking about a “new creation” when animals begin to turn into humans all around the world. In the creation waves, they pupate, and a transition begins in which human limbs and organs replace animal parts. When the transformation does not end in death, it produces hybrid creatures. Moskát’s novel revolves around these creatures’ fight for social and political acceptance.

Mónika Rusvai is a researcher of plant-humans in fantasy fiction, and in her second novel entitled Kígyók országa [Country of Snakes] (2023), past and present are connected by a kind of magical network. One of the protagonists during the troubled times of the Second World War can bind and loosen these connections, to take away bad memories or make deals with magical characters. The novel addresses the consequences of repression because the enchanted or tied memories of feelings survive in a forest where people have to face them at some point.

Outside the fantasy genre, literary authors added supernatural and fantastic elements in their novels, mostly labeled magical realism. Notable works in this vein are the Bestiárium Transylvaniae [Transilvanian Bestiary] 1997, 2003) series by Zsolt Láng, a combination of magical realism and history. Its structure follows the famous natural history books of the time, the bestiaries, various real or legendary animals, such as the visionary human-faced parrot, the sunfish, the singing worm or the deathbird that sings an impenetrable silence, are the organizing principle of the chapters. Likewise, A könnymutatványosok legendája [The Legend of the Tear Showmen] (2016) by László Darvasi is a historical tableau of the Turkish occupation and the re-occupation of Buda (from 1541 to 1686) with the realities of the Middle Ages and magical elements. 

Fantasy, which was adventure-based and primarily aimed at young audiences from the early nineties, has grown up with its readers. Now, it offers a genre code to address complex and relevant issues and bring magic into ordinary life.


In addition to science fiction and fantasy, other niches have appeared in the field of fantastic genre literature. Horror, or fantastic horror, was marginalized till the middle of the 2000s, and even well-known foreign works were neglected, only some of Stephen King’s and a few other exceptions made it into local circulation. When the literary heritage of Lovecraft started to become more and more popular, fan clubs were established, and magazines like Asylum and Black Aether published the first weird and horror short stories until this niche attracted more prominent publishing companies.

The watershed was the publication of Odakint sötétebb [Darker Outside] (2017) by Attila Veres, a genre-establishing work on the boundaries of weird and horror. The novel follows Gábor who flees from Budapest to work on a farm in the countryside. However, the animals he works with are not usual terrestrial ones. Thirty years ago, uncanny creatures appeared in the woods, the cellofoids. It soon turned out that the milk of these sloth, part cat, and part octopus animals, could cure cancer, so cellofoids were hunted almost to extinction, and now they live in a reserve. Gábor faces weirder and weirder events; some Lovecraftian evil is lurking in the woods, and the apocalypse is approaching.

The novel opened the way for weird and horror books. Attila Veres published two books of short stories, Éjféli iskolák [Midnight Schools] (2018) and Valóság helyreállítása [Restoration of Reality] (2022) and the horror-weird anthology Légszomj [Breathlessness] (2022) introduced new authors, and innovative approaches to the fantastic from established ones. Termőtestek [Carpophores] (2021) by László Sepsi is a weird-bio-horror about the town of Hörsking, the city of fungus that feeds on the dead and spreads a drug that controls the town and its people. The novel combines the elements of horror, noir, thriller, and the description of a psychedelic trip, contrasting the familiar milieu and the surreal.  


Time travel narratives were a recurring theme in Hungarian fantastic fiction from the eighties, focusing instead on the possible social-historical consequences; the technology is rarely described, or treated as ancillary. These time-travel stories address the problem of changing history (the past or present) and the influence of individuals on historical events. The interest in changing the course of history continued in alternate history novels from the 2000s. Fantasy novels, such as Vadásznak vadásza by Sándor Szélesi and Isten ostorai [Scourges of God] (2002) and its five sequels by Tibor Fonyódi apply elements of alternate history, tying these together with ancient Hungarian mythology.

A szivarhajó utolsó útja [The Airship’s Last Journey] (2012) by Bence Pintér and Máté Pintér explores the consequences of a Hungarian victory at the revolution and war of independence in 1848-49. The YA novel describes a steampunk world where Lajos Kossuth founded the Danube Confederation, which became a utopian state. The book offers Verne-style adventures and humorous allusions and analogies to real history. Another take on alternate history is Szélesi’s Sztálin, aki egyszer megmentettte a világot [Stalin who Once Saved the World] (2016) taking up the sombre theme of Joseph Stalin and subverting it into a satirical novel where all the seemingly incongruous historical details of the 20th century are true and accurate, but mixed up with incredible adventures and plot-twists.

A more serious approach to alternate history is represented by two anthologies of the publishing house Cser Kiadó, written by well-known contemporary authors. A másik forradalom [The Other Revolution] (2016) offers alternative versions of the 1956 Revolution in various styles. The what-if thought experiments resulted in Hungary joining the United States, Arnold Schwarzenegger attacking 60 Andrassy Avenue, the symbolic place of communist oppression or establishing the Danube Free Confederation, while others applied a personal, human-centered approach. The second volume, Nézzünk bizakodva a múltba [Let’s Look with Confidence to the Past] (2020), takes the concept but explores different outcomes of the Treaty of Trianon, which led to the dismemberment of Hungary at the end of World War One and remains an important touchstone in the country’s collective memory. Both anthologies push the boundaries of alternate history but have the great merit of putting the genre on the map of contemporary Hungarian literature. 


Considering the small window of opportunities before 1989, Hungarian fantastic literature has come a long way. From the early sparks of newly-experienced freedom and capitalism, a wave of Anglophone influence, through the years of experimentation, to the 21st century, it seems to have found its place. The diversity of sub-genres, narratives, and styles harbour a unique local touch, and many novels preserved some Hungarian flavor amidst the flood of foreign influences. The present author is confident that science fiction, though now slightly marginalized, will regain its strength, and the balance among different fantastic genres and sub-genres will ensure a colorful kaleidoscope through which readers can look at reality. Hopefully, in the future, fantastic Hungarian literature will be translated and published abroad to be accessible to a broader readership.



Éva Vancsó is a Ph.D. student at the Modern English and American track of ELTE Doctoral School of Literary Studies. Her research focuses on the representation of women and the presence of female monsters in fictional worlds. Besides her doctoral research, she examines contemporary Hungarian SFF and is especially interested in utopias-dystopias and the depiction of social issues.

Render Unto Jesus

by Andy Dibble

Even with religious “nones” on the rise, the great bulk of Americans still called themselves Christian. Jesus was as real as God, and God was a patron America still had use for. Though preferences tended toward worship in intimate or everyday spaces. Others did not care where they worshiped but preferred to sleep in on Sunday mornings.

Confirmation bias was at work, a new theology on the rise, not mere suspicion of institutionalized religion, but rejection of the old. Its thinking ran: God is in all places and in the places of daily life most of all. A steeple and stained glass do not gratify God. How presumptuous of prior generations to think God cares for brick and mortar! As Deuteronomy indicates, there can only be one Temple, destroyed in Jerusalem two-thousand years ago. Churches (imitations, really) only embarrass us in the eyes of God.

Borrowing a thread from Salafi Muslim thought, some called church buildings idols. Radical congregations demolished their own churches with great fanfare and applause.

For traditionalists and ardent churchgoers, it was already intolerable that government buildings stood taller than church steeples. Demolition was unthinkable, extravagant blasphemy.

They protested that Jesus should not share space with sweaty bodies at gyms or be relegated to spare minutes away from phone and television. There should be a sabbath, a time of rest and devotion, and a place to celebrate that sabbath in adoration of God.

They raged, but their only strategy was to buy churches as they went up for sale.


A way forward came when lawyer Mike Slick—born in Pittsburgh to a Catholic family, strayed into New Age eclecticism (with a brief interlude as a Hare Krishna monk), and birthed again into Evangelicalism—filched an idea from Indian jurisprudence.

In India, gods could own property and pay taxes. They could sue, such as when “Shiva, Lord of the Universe” successfully sued a British company for the return of his Nataraja statue to a temple in Tamilnadu. If Jesus owned churches, no one could sell or demolish them without his say.

Slick’s legal argument rested upon the thriving body of United States case law that endowed corporations with certain rights of persons. Churches are already owned by congregations or ecclesiastical structures, entities rather than natural persons. The creeds and members of such entities have consistently proclaimed that “all they are” or “the whole earth” belongs to Jesus (if sometimes only during hymns or call-and-response exercises). As the apostle Paul attests, all Christians form a corporate entity, “the body of Christ.”

So how can it be legitimate for bishops or presbyters to sell Jesus’s property without the permission of their Lord?


“Jesus, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Immanuel, Savior of Humanity, Lamb of God, Light of the World, the Christ” sued the First Episcopalian Church of Mechanicsville, Virginia for illegal sale of his property. A district court dismissed the suit as frivolous. But on appeal to the right-leaning Fourth Circuit Court, Jesus, Wonderful Counselor, etc., etc. won.

The Episcopalians appealed to the Supreme Court. During conference, it appeared the Court would dismiss the suit, or send it back to the Fourth Circuit, instructing its judges to reconsider the case’s merits.

But one especially geriatric justice keeled over from an aneurysm while on the bench. Four justices voted to dismiss the suit and four voted that Jesus had legal right to his church.

The court was hung. The decision of the lower court stood.


Divine intervention or not, no precedent had been established. By the time another suit with Jesus as plaintiff bubbled up to the highest court, Eleazar Hoffman, an exacting jurist of dubious political persuasion, had been appointed to fill the court’s vacancy. He sided with the motley bloc of judges that endorsed Jesus’s legal right.

This five-four decision was good law. From sea to shining sea, every church building, parcel of land, and account owned by a Christian entity was legally the property of Jesus.


The aftermath offered a new proof of the principle that any incompetence, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from conspiracy. For the Supreme Court had said nothing of who has power of attorney over Jesus’s property.

Churches drifted in limbo. They could not be deconsecrated, demolished, or used for solely secular purpose. Banks refused to grant loans to congregations because a church seized as collateral was almost without value.

Churches became home to feral cats, roadside attractions, or repositories of pious embers waiting for the Next Great Awakening of traditional religious fervor.


Congress tried to resolve the matter by legislation, but no bill could get out of committee. Every provision exposed some theological bias; every theology had its antipode. Against the Gospel of Charity, which held Jesus would give all his wealth for the welfare of the poor, there was a Gospel of Wealth, which supposed that copious wealth was a sign of Jesus’s sovereignty and the triumph of God.

Against the thought that Jesus would deploy his wealth to support the Christian mission was the worry that legislation codifying such intention would constitute an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

Even the notion that the juridical Jesus was Christ was not without its detractors, who claimed he was Antichrist, hoarding Christian wealth in preparation for the End.


President Manuela Hernandez issued an executive order stating that Jesus, as a juridical person, was subject to taxation. Churches do not owe property tax, but the death of Jesus was juridical death. Moreover, his end was no singular death by Roman crucifixion. Rather it repeated year after year with the pageant of Good Friday. As a Trinitarian entity, eternally begotten, Jesus was in an important sense his own parent and inheritor.

She ordered Jesus to furnish the Internal Revenue Service seventeen percent of his billions, on an annual basis, or until such time as Christian congregations abolish Good Friday.


President Hernandez’s order met both legal challenges and failed Congressional action, which aimed to repeal the estate tax entirely. But nothing in her interpretation of the law was unconstitutional. Her reading brought core data of Christian history to bear upon the law.

It seemed the Baal of Big Government would devour Jesus’s assets until some savvy practitioner of estate law hit upon the idea of storing Jesus’s assets within a trust. Eternally begotten and immortal, Jesus could be its everlasting trustee.

Trusts do not die as people die. Therefore, his entrusted estate could owe no estate tax.

Jesus kept his billions.


This parry and riposte was not without ferment. With Congress deadlocked on the matter and the courts mute, it seemed the proper place for Jesus in American politics was in administration. Jesus would run for President and, having attained the bully pulpit, God Himself would seize the helm of the nation, and speak out from the Temple of the New Jerusalem, ushering in the foretold millennium.

The Antichrist was liberal opposition to Jesus’s reign.


But Jesus could not be on the ballot. In this the Constitution was clear: a candidate for President was aged at least thirty-five, a resident of fourteen-years, and a natural-born citizen. Jesus was none of these. He’d been born in Bethlehem, a town of present-day Israel. He was a resident of nowhere, at least nowhere in particular. He was no older than thirty-three.

The worry about his age encountered dispute. The opening to the Gospel of John indicated that Jesus was present at Creation as the transcendent Word. As such, he was billions of years old, or six-thousand, or eternal.

The worry about Jesus’s natural citizenship also met objection. Archaeologists contracted by the Church of Latter-day Saints discovered Bethlehem was actually in present-day Utah (a finding lay Mormons met with mixed reactions). Jesus’s flight to Egypt as a young child had been achieved through teleportation from the Americas. As Luke’s Gospel attests, Jesus lived in Palestine until the age of twelve. At such time, God whisked him back to the Americas until his ministry began when he was thirty, long enough for him to satisfy the fourteen-year residency requirement.

Courts rejected this argument. No lawyer could argue it with a straight face.


Rejection by the judiciary only energized electoral millenarianism. Polls indicated that sixty-eight percent of Christian Americans now believed or strongly believed that Jesus’s election to the Presidency would bring about the rapture of devout souls.

Abandoned churches became centers of political organization and outreach. They became revivals.

The Next Great Awakening was burning the country over.


Jesus won as a write-in candidate in several Southern states, Wyoming, Alaska, and Idaho. He would have won Florida as well had their state Supreme Court not ruled locutions on Jesus—“Jesus Christ,” “Jesus, Son of God,” “Jesus, the Son of God,” etc.—to be different individuals.

The national write-in campaign turned conservatives out in record numbers, but their vote was nonetheless split, between their square-jawed candidate of flesh and blood and a haloed whitewashed Jesus.

The liberals won the Presidency almost by default.


Electoral millenarianism languished until the virtual district of Afterland became home to personages of historical and cultural significance, anyone with a wide enough corpus for artificial intelligence to construct an artificial person. Previously, its residents had been affluent Americans, reconstituted in digital form after death so they could enjoy a virtual heaven.

Jesus was among the personages projected from scripture, treatise, and lore into Afterland. He was a bit addled (packing so many contradictory theologies into one mind is bound to induce schizophrenia). Nevertheless, he had the best name recognition, the best brand.

He won the mayorship in a landslide.


Courts had not objected to Jesus’s mayoral campaign. He was a resident of Afterland, no less than its other residents. He could be mayor.

This got other juridical persons thinking that a corporation incorporated in Delaware could be Senator from Delaware. Just so, a union headquartered in Ithaca, New York could be Ithaca’s Representative.

Like Jesus, these juridical persons had funds and marketing knowhow. Unlike Jesus, they also boasted centralized organization, clear chains of command. They could outcompete merely human candidates.

In time, voters could scarcely ascertain whether they cast their ballot for a mascot, a paid actor, a social media influencer, a CEO, or a deepfake.

Each candidate was all, and none, and more besides.


Weary of all the fuss, many warmed to the idea that the Kingdom of God had already come. The Kingdom was Afterland. Jesus was already its Lord.

Some dismissed that as folly or clung to a grander hope of final resurrection: On that great Day, we will be transformed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we will see each other face to face.

At last, we will understand who is truly a person and who is only a mirage of the judiciary.



Andy Dibble is a healthcare IT consultant who has supported large healthcare systems in six countries. His work also appears in Writers of the Future, Mysterion, and Diabolical Plots. He edited Strange Religion, an anthology of SFF stories about religion.

Philosophy Note:

This story grew out of my interest in law and theology, in particular the idea in Indian jurisprudence that gods can own property and sue. Can we benefit theologically by thinking of Jesus as a legal entity? Is Jesus already a legal entity? Do you think legal or political processes can decide theological questions? What would you think of a religious tradition where theological questions are settled in this way?

Affinities Between Science Fiction And Music

by Mircea Băduț


Auditory concepts such as the “music of the spheres”, which we may nowadays associate with the speculative mode, have deep historical roots reaching back to the works of Pythagoras (6th century BC) and later explored by Plato (4th century BC). Johannes Kepler’s ‘Harmonices Mundi’ (1619) further emphasized this idea, while it was tangentially touched upon in literary works such as Hermann Hesse’s ‘Klein and Wagner’ (1919). The symphonic suite ‘The Planets’, composed by Gustav Holst in 1914-1917, should also be mentioned here.

Yet I would argue that it was the electronic music boom of the 1970s and 1980s which had brought the intersection between music and speculative fiction to the fore, with artists such as Vangelis leading the way. This was made possible by the capabilities of electronic synthesizers to sonically create an atmosphere that human culture (and perhaps human instinct too) assumed to be associated with cosmic space, and this phenomenon occurred during a time when society was experiencing excitement and curiosity about our expanding presence in the cosmos, both physically and intellectually.

I believe electronic music captured the listeners of that era for two main reasons. Firstly, because the exoticism of the sounds emitted by electronic instruments, often characterized by long notes and in vague harmonies, had a profound effect on inducing a unique mental state. Secondly, owing to the radicality of the distinction from pop music (which would not have been evident in a comparison with symphonic/classical music, where the modernist branch had already reached somewhat similar sonorities). In other words, this new music conquered the listeners of those decades (in which I also grew up) through its progressive, renewing character.

 Judged from a musicological perspective, the electronic music of the early decades could often be considered as minimalist, occasionally obsessive (in its repetition or thematic dosage), and at times deliberately psychedelic. (The latter effect is often achieved by relying on an obstinato of melodic theme that foreshadows either an accumulation of dramatic potential, akin to the musical tension build-up used in the symphonic genre, or by a transcendence into oneirism.) And, of course, if it had been compared to the peaks of creation in classical music or in the jazz and rock of that era, it would have proved itself somewhat immature. However, much like the merger of science fiction into mainstream literature, electronic music targeted a different segment of society, and thus, they did not necessarily compete with each other.)

However, this essay does not end at electronic music, and will try also to cover, as significant landmarks, other kinds of musical creation close to the idea of science fiction. So, to set the scene, here is my initial proposal for a list of milestones of the ‘SF – music’ nexus:

» 1964 – Probably the first sci-fi song;

» 1969 – David Bowie releases the single ‘Space Oddity’;

» 1972 – David Bowie releases the album ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’;

» 1978 – ‘The War of the Worlds’, as musical version created by Jeff Wayne;

» 1976 – The electronic music album ‘Albedo 0.39’ composed and performed by Vangelis;

» 1977 – The electronic music album ‘Spiral’ composed and performed by Vangelis;

» 1978 – The electronic music album ‘Die Mensch-Maschine’ (‘The Man-Machine’), by Kraftwerk;

» 1982 – The soundtrack of the film ‘Blade Runner’ (Ridley Scott), composed and performed by Vangelis.

1. Probably the first sci-fi song

The reader may be surprised or thrilled to come across a reference from the vibrant era of the hippy movement and its music. It pertains to a pop-rock song titled “In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus).” Composed by Rick Evans in 1964, this song achieved the remarkable feat of reaching number 1 on the US ‘Billboard Hot 100’ chart in 1969, followed by securing the top spot on the ‘UK Singles Chart’ later that year. However, the musical duo known as ‘Zager and Evans’, who created this remarkable hit, faded from the music scene like a passing comet, earning the status of a “one-hit wonder” before disbanding in 1971.

“In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)” / Rick Evans / 1964 / ‘Zager and Evans’

“In the year 2525, if man is still alive

If woman can survive, they may find

In the year 3535

Ain’t gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lie

Everything you think, do and say

Is in the pill you took today (…)[1]

Even though the song was definitely noted in its time, we probably cannot nominate it as a kind of avant-la-lettre “sci-fi music”. But I consider that it deserves to be recognized as a significant reference both for the concrete science fiction text (including the coordinate of anticipation, of utopia), and for the fact that the band ‘Zager and Evans’ achieves this clear message using ordinary instrumentation (i.e. without resorting to any kind of sound fireworks).

2. The classic ‘music – SF literature’ connection reference

“Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds” was originally a studio musical album (in the rock/pop/progressive genre) conceived, created, produced and recorded by musician Jeff Wayne (CBS Records, 1978), which would be followed by many reissues, performances, tours and reinterpretations. As we expect, the album is inspired from the novel ‘The War of the Worlds’ written by H.G. Wells, and is presented as a rock opera, arranged instrumentally with a rock band (guitars, bass, drums/percussion, organ/synthesizer) but also with a considerable addition of a classical/symphonic orchestra (including strings), as well as with narrative inserts (explanatory introduction and interludes, performed by the voice of the actor Richard Burton). The narrative thread of the rock opera is inspired by that of the classic sci-fi story, but it must be emphasized that some of the musical sequences (derived from acts of the story) led to the creation of songs of extraordinary musicality, thanks to both the melodic composition and very successful interpretations. In the years that followed (and to this day) this album was very successful, both in the charts (singles “Forever Autumn” and “The Eve of the War”) and in terms of sales.

By analyzing this musical production from a listener’s perspective, several noteworthy aspects can be observed. Firstly, the orchestration is “architectonic” in nature, featuring monumental sonorities that are impressively paired with melodic dramatization. Secondly, unconventional soundscapes and psychological stimulation are achieved, notably through the use of synthesizers, albeit without excessive exploitation. Additionally, the “voicebox guitar effect” is worth mentioning, although it had already become a recognized technique in rock concerts. A subtler element, yet a personal favorite, is the metal-body electric guitar played by Chris Spedding. This particular guitar, crafted by James Trussart and modeled after the famous Gibson Les Paul but with a hollow body made of steel sheet, creates a unique and intriguing sound.

The original album, subsequent reissues, concerts, tours, reinterpretations, and various editions on formats such as DVD, CD, and even SACD have all achieved tremendous success worldwide. While visionary projects are known to have the potential for great success in theory, the process of starting them is rarely easy. The realization of the 1978 album was indeed a challenging endeavor. Jeff Wayne conceived the idea, developed the concept and acquired the rights to incorporate narrative ideas from H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel. However, he faced significant difficulties in finding financiers for the album’s production expenses and persuading musicians to participate. He had even posed the question to musicians regarding their preferred method of payment: a fixed and immediate amount or a share in the future proceeds from the property rights? Unfortunately, to their detriment, the musicians chose the skeptical option in terms of their financial well-being.

It is worth noting that this remarkable science fiction musical creation was brought to life without overly relying on electronic artifice. That, however, was set to change in subsequent decades…

3. Tangible and consistent landmarks of the ‘music – SF’ connection

The first key date relates to a breakthrough in the material prerequisites for electronic music: in 1964 Robert Arthur Moog (1934–2005) invented the Moog musical synthesizer, and in 1970 he also released a portable model, the Minimoog, which would radically influence the music of the 20th century. (Alongside, of course, other notable manufacturers of synthesizers and electronic organs, such as Yamaha, Roland, Korg, Oberheim, EMS, ARP, Elka and Fairlight.)

Below I present the subsequent milestones in another succinct list (without going into detail where the names have become classics), no longer focusing on the names of musical productions, but rather the individuals (or groups) who made them:

» Vangelis, through the albums from 1975 to 1984;

» Tangerine Dream, through the albums from 1974 to 1987;

» Isao Tomita, esp. the album ‘Electric Samurai’ (Switched on Rock) from 1972;

» Klaus Schulze, through the albums Cyborg (1973), Timewind (1975), Moondawn (1976);

» Kraftwerk, through the albums released between 1977-1981 (The Man-Machine, Computer World);

» Jean Michel Jarre, through the albums Oxygène (1976) and Équinoxe (1978);

» Robert Fripp – renowned both for his compositional style (sometimes exploiting asymmetric rhythms and using classical or folkloric melodic motifs) and for his early innovations in the generation of unconventional sounds (such as the sound-delay system using magnetic tape).[2]

For a wider geographical context, electronic music also appeared in the Soviet Union, such as these examples:

• the band Zodiak, (USSR/Latvia), with the albums ‘Disco Alliance’ (1980) and ‘Music in the Universe’ (1982);

• the album ‘Metamorphoses – Electronic Interpretations Of Classical And Modern Music’ (Melodiya record label, USSR, 1980).

But perhaps the most interesting exemplifying corpus for the ‘music – SF’ nexus derives (although not explicitly) from so-called rock “super-groups” of the years 1965-1980 – Pink Floyd; Genesis; Manfred Mann’s Earth Band; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Yes; The Alan Parsons Project; Supertramp; Marillion; Electric Light Orchestra; Brian Eno/Roxy Music; Mike Oldfield; etc –, which impress both by their sophistication (hence the alternative denomination of ‘art-rock’) and by their progressive function of cultural/spiritual re-toning (hence the denomination of ‘prog-rock’). Furthermore, numerous artists, even those not typically associated with art-rock or progressive-rock genres, have occasionally crafted songs that feature progressive sounds and nuances.

4. A rapprochement between (sub)genres (cultural and musical)

We observe that while the previous discussion began with electronic music, due to its inherent connection to science fiction, this intersection naturally expands to encompass other related musical genres. This tends to be driven by songs and productions that stand out for their unconventional and progressive sounds and messages. Therefore, it is fitting to include or at least explore genres such as art-rock, progressive rock, jazz fusion, and even classical/symphonic music, as they share connections and influences with speculative fiction.

Progressive music offers alternative perspectives and enhances traditional forms, leading to a continuous elevation of artistic standards over the years. It has even influenced pop music, which often fails to appreciate the achievements in quality and compositional complexity of previous generations. Each new generation tends to “reinvent the wheel” with a certain casualness. In contrast, composers in “heavy” music are more inclined to study the classics and acknowledge their influence even if they create in new musical currents or subgenres. Moreover, in addition to the fact that progressive can be understood as a reform or as a detachment from an ordinary/vulgar flow, the dichotomy between progressive rock and pop-rock (intentional in essence, assumed either voluntarily or instinctively) can also be seen in another perspective: with the progressive, music becomes conceptual, i.e. intended rather for actual audition (an audition for audition itself) than for easy entertainment and somatic well-being (we might say, “moving thought/spirit rather than muscle/skeleton” ). In order to build its conceptual (or experimental) character, such music frequently resorts to ‘fusion’, both from the perspective of orchestration/sounds and from a rhythmic/melodic perspective, with inspiration and mixture from jazz, symphonic/classical music, or even from world-music (folk).

Experts in music may argue that these “progressive mechanisms” are naturally experienced in modern jazz. This is not necessarily a negative development, as it allows for the incorporation of multiple genres within the concept of spiritual-cultural regeneration and evolution. And now we promptly return to our cultural parallel, because speculative fiction often embodies similar ideas and proposals, justifying the close affinity with progressive music. Nonetheless, it is important to note that, in the context of the present discussion, musical progressiveness primarily concerns music itself, while science fiction tends to be more focused on stimulating thought rather than solely on the literary craft.

Music connoisseurs could also draw our attention to the fact that during the boom periods of the species concerned here (sci-fi, electronic music, progressive rock) in symphonic music there were already currents and subgenres that used “progressive mechanisms”: neoclassicism, modernism, chromatisme, serialism (dodecaphonic music), post-modernism, (so-called) contemporary music, experimental music, post-tonal music; respectively with the names of composers such as Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy, Dmitri Shostakovich, Ottorino Respighi, Anton Webern, Pierre Louis Joseph Boulez et al. In fact, many progressive rock music productions have been inspired (using themes or approaches) by classical/symphonic music (Jethro Tull; Rush; Procol Harum; Beatles; Moody Blues; The Who; King Crimson; Jeff Beck; Rick Wakeman; John Lord; Deep Purple; Queen; Led Zeppelin; Sting; Peter Gabriel; etc). And if we call to mind the soundtrack of the film ‘2001 Space Odyssey’ (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) – a cinematic touchstone in SF culture – then we will once more recognize the proximity to classical music, but we may also admit that a special sound atmosphere can be created with classical formulas and acoustic musical instruments. (And while on this subject, if we listen to “Also sprach Zarathustra,” the symphonic poem composed by Richard Strauss in 1896 in its entirety, we will notice that it was very modern for its time.)

And we end this section with a reference to ‘Firebird’, a symphonic music concert composed by Igor Stravinsky on a fantastic theme, and which mnemonically leads us to the Japanese animated film ‘Firebird 2772: Love’s Cosmozone’ (director/screenplay: Osamu Tezuka and Taku Sugiyama; music: Yasuo Higuchi; 1980).

5. Music, beauty and the digital future

In order to complement some ideas in this essay, it is worth noting that in its emerging era, electronic music was created with instruments that did not work digitally (with numerical signal encoding) but analogically. These were sound synthesizers (with electronic tubes, then with transistors and later with integrated circuits), audio sequencers (such as ‘CV/gate’) or other more or less artisanal devices (Frippertronics; theremin/termenvox; Fender Rhodes piano; Ondes Martenot; tape loops, tape delay, musique concrète). It was not until the 1980s that the way of digitally recording, processing and generating music would be opened.

But what is the essential difference between analogue and digital sound? (We tacitly accept that music, of whatever genre it may be, means sound. In fact, a multitude of sounds, emitted and succeeded according to harmonic/aesthetic laws.) These two terms, somehow antagonistic, were defined in relation to each other. Initially – in the days of vacuum tubes and transistors – electronics did not have a second name, but only after the advent of signal coding technologies, would the field bifurcate into (1) analog electronics (working with continuous signal) and (2) digital electronics (working with discontinuous/discrete signals). (The digital electronics are also called ‘logic electronics’, because the topology and operation of their circuits correspond to a desired logic.)

The transformation of the natural/analog signal into a digital signal involves two processes: (1) sampling and (2) quantization. Sound sampling means that we read (i.e. take a sample from) the original signal at every fraction of a second (a fraction having, let us say, 2×10-5 seconds, as in the case of CD-Audio), and quantization implies that we will measure the amplitude of each sample and transform it into a number (respectively into a digital code, i.e. a group of bits). This transformation is called analog-to-digital conversion (ADC). Of course, when it is necessary to listen those digitally recorded signals, they must go through a digital-to-analog conversion (DAC), which is somewhat the reverse of the one briefly described above.

Of the two processes applied to the digitization of music, sampling is guilty of the greatest loss when recording the original sound, and this is because in those unread time intervals (intervals of 2×10-5 seconds) the audio signal nonetheless continues, especially if it is a polyphonic signal, as happens in music where several instruments play quasi-simultaneously, and each instrument actually emits many simultaneous sounds. (Even when a single musical note is emitted, the sound having the frequency corresponding to that note is accompanied by a myriad of other sounds – secondary/additional harmonics – that make up the ‘timbre of the instrument’.) In fact, from a Hi-Fi (High-Fidelity) perspective, the beginnings of music digitization were unfortunate because it was not understood then that Nyquist’s Theorem (which defined a minimum for the sampling rate of signals) was not suitable for music sounds.

A similar insufficiency at the small time scale is the reason why digital synthesis sounds (even when embodying traditional musical instruments) are poorer than sounds produced by acoustic instruments (instruments that produce sound by physical vibration: either a parts of their composition, or the air passing through them), an aspect that we can all analyze if we do small experiments by listening carefully to musical instruments or comparing quality music recordings.

Humans, with our analogue ears, have a natural affinity for music. The appreciation and recognition of beauty, including the auditory one, involve two fundamental factors in human beings. The first factor is our biological and innate perception, which is passed down through genetics. The second factor is our cultural perception, shaped by environmental influences, such as imitation, assimilation, and education (i.e. developed through the traditions and customs of the people among, and places where, we have grown up or currently reside). Thus, we have two filters through which our perception of music is shaped: a biological and a psycho-social one.

The influence of the biological filter can be documented by the fact that certain sounds (specific combinations/aggregations of frequencies) can evoke distinct physiological states, either beneficial or adverse, with or without involvement of the psyche. On the other hand, the psycho-social conditioning can be illustrated by the awareness that there were (and still are) peoples in the world who divide the musical octave into intervals other than the twelve we commonly use, and who build the rhythms in other measures than we do. Therefore, if we were to listen to music indigenous to such cultures, we might feel a sense of confusion. Thus, the concepts for musical aesthetics developed by an extraterrestrial civilization, if we were to ever encounter one, might very well leave us utterly baffled.


[2] The author recommends the ‘Discipline’ album for edification.



Mircea Băduț is a Romanian writer and engineer. He wrote eleven books on informatics and six books of fictional prose and essays. He also wrote over 500 articles and essays for various magazines and publications in Romania and around the world.

The Power Of The Stone

by David K. Henrickson

I was there when the first aliens landed in Central Park, when the lost tomb of Alexander the Great was discovered, when fabled Atlantis rose again from the waves.

That is the power of the stone. Those four words: “I was there when”, carved into its surface, can take you anywhere or to any time, real or imagined.

I have no knowledge of where the stone came from or anything concerning its origin. In all my searches into its provenance — and my resources these days are considerable — I have found no mention of it anywhere, in any time, in any culture.

I know it is not contemporary. The first time I held the stone, those four words were not in English but in a script unknown to me, then or now. When I looked again, the stone had changed and appeared as it still does today, many years later.

Nor do I know how the stone does what it does. There is no way I could risk an investigation into its nature. I cannot see that it matters. The stone is either magic or a technology of the highest order — far beyond anything humans are currently capable of.

Will ever be capable of. We’re talking about pure creation here. Of fashioning an entire universe in accordance with a single sentence uttered in its presence. Yes, I was there when Oswald failed to assassinate President Kennedy. Yes, I was there when Hannibal overran Rome during the second and final Punic War. Yes, I was there when Superman first appeared in the skies over Metropolis.

Whether the stone fashions these realities whole cloth, or pulls them from an infinite grab bag where such worlds lay waiting, I have no way of knowing. Nor am I always sure how the stone will interpret my words. It seems to possess a puckish sense of humor at times when fulfilling my wishes.

It also ignores requests that are too specific. A simple sentence with a minimum number of qualifiers works best. Something that can be uttered in a single breath. That is enough if one is sufficiently clever. Yes, I was there when Edmond Dantès discovered the lost treasure of Monte Cristo. (Ha! I needed a wheelbarrow for that one.)

I was also there when they developed the cure for cancer. You see, I am not quite the heartless misanthrope people make me out to be.

You might well think all this to be the ramblings of a delusional eccentric. My scars would indicate otherwise—as does the absence of the little finger on my left hand. Using the stone is not without its dangers.

I am old now, even though I do not look it, and have been a recluse for many years. (Yes, I was there when Ponce de León discovered the Fountain of Youth.) Whenever I need an escape, I pick up the stone, speak my desire, and journey into the realm of What Might Have Been.

Our travels together are nearing an end, however. Over the years, I have become attuned to the stone and its moods. I know, even though I do not know how, that it is ready to move on. To find a new owner, whoever and wherever that might be.

Accordingly, I have put my affairs in order. As for the stone, I will send it away when I reach my final destination. Where it will end up, I have no way of knowing, just as I do not know how it came to be where I once found it. Let fate decide—or rather, the stone itself.

As for the many eclectic treasures in my collection, I have bequeathed these to various museums without explanation or annotation. (All but my journal. That, I am taking with me.) Let people make of them what they will—a last, enigmatic note to a singular life.

There remains only my final journey, one from which I do not intend to return. It is one I have thought long and hard on over the years. Where should I go? The far future? The distant past? Or to some place that should have been but never was, like Wonderland or the world of Scheherazade and her One Thousand and One Arabian Nights?

Perhaps I should go to Barsoom. Or to some vast, galactic empire at the height of its power and glory. What about the First Age of Middle Earth? (Wouldn’t that be something?) Wherever I end up, it should be a place where a person can still have an adventure or two.

Where would you go if you could pick only a single destination, one from which you would never return?

Let me see. I was there when…



Dave Henrickson has a background in engineering, oceanography, and computer science but always wanted to be an artist. Maybe a dancer. He currently lives in Virginia and spends his free time writing, reading, and killing monsters with his wife Abbie. He has also written a number of novels — which he may even publish one of these days.

Philosophy Note:

Where would you go if you could go anywhere? To places that never were or never could be? Where would you go if you could never come back from such a place? The realm of the imagination provides limitless possibilities.

Welcome To The Zineverse!

by Mina

“Gleaming and glittering with gold and wondrous surprises for young and old”

Ladies and gentlemen! Roll up, roll up! Come, my lovelies, and experience everything the Zineverse has to offer. Marvel at those spaceships! Meet the monsters (not all in alien form). Dream of new worlds!

Let’s begin our journey by meeting a publication that reviews the many different creatures you can find in the science-fiction-and-fantasy Zineverse, Tangent. It owes its thirty-year existence to Dave Truesdale, its editor, and the volunteers who review for the pure love of it. Truesdale is proud of the fact that Tangent was the first SF short-fiction review magazine, to quote the late SF historian Sam Moskowitz. As well as reviews, Truesdale asks reviewers to give “recs” for the recommended reading list for that year. In an email exchange, I said my baseline criteria for recs was whether I would read something a second time and whether there was something truly original. Truesdale replied that originality is getting increasingly rare:

“… it’s harder and harder to come across anything even halfway original, because the more you’ve read over time means you’ve had the opportunity to experience “originality” in theme or treatment many times over many years and many stories…The reverse is that, when you first began to read SF/F, everything was pretty much original to you, giving rise to that Sense of Wonder the younger (or newer) reader discovers. But… the originality metric is harder to find. That’s when I go to the other metrics… primary among them how the author executes his/her theme or treats the subject matter. Does the prose level perhaps sparkle above and beyond the norm? Is there an unexpected twist or POV on a tried-and-true theme elevating the story above the norm or cliche?”

These comments will resonate with all editors in the Zineverse. And the feeling of awe I too seek as a reader was also mentioned by Ádám Gerencsér when I asked him why he became co-owner and co-editor of Sci Phi Journal – with Mariano Martín Rodríguez:

“It’s a labour of love… a childhood attraction to SF’s infinite possibilities and [its] innate Sense of Wonder. For Mariano and I, it was really a question of: we want a venue for philosophical SF and if the only such publication is orphaned, we got to revive it [back in 2018].”

Sci Phi Journal happily tells you that it is “a cosy waystation for travellers who, through no fault of their own, find themselves at the cosmic intersection between speculative philosophy, cultural anthropology and hard SF.” It deals in idea-driven speculative fiction (not character-driven) and is an unapologetically European journal consciously setting itself aside from the “American model”. It embraces “semantic diversity” and all thought experiments, including those they do not agree with. It is itself an experiment in true free expression. I find this quite refreshing, and it is a cause I am willing to espouse. It also offers a platform for literary analysis and philosophical discussion in a genre considered by many as not worthy of such analysis (and it is not the only publication in the Zineverse to do so, for example Hélice, which publishes literary criticism in English and Spanish).

Truesdale has commented to me many times that Tangent reviews stories and not politics or ideologies. I’m not sure, however, that politics or ideologies don’t figure in the Zineverse. For example, Fantasy, at the time of writing this article, was accepting “BIPOC-only” submissions (writers who identify as black, indigenous and people of colour); its sister publication, Lightspeed, however, was concurrently accepting fantasy flash fiction open to all writers. Fantasy provides “entertainment for the intelligent genre reader – we publish stories of the fantastic that make us think, and tell us what it is to be human”. I particularly like its Q&A with authors and the fact that they include poetry, as well as short stories and flash fiction. Lightspeed has a broader focus, including many subgenres of SF and fantasy. Both magazines are available as e-book editions (where you receive everything in one go for payment) or free online (where you wait for a new instalment each week). And I haven’t forgotten the other sibling, Nightmare, that blends horror and dark fantasy (recent submissions were also BIPOC-focused). I must admit that, as a recovering insomniac, I haven’t delved much into this one but please do go and get your spine tingled and chilled by it.

That members of the Zineverse uphold various causes, languages and genres can also be seen in the special issues. The ezine Strange Horizons has brought out special issues, such as where trans/nonbinary (queer authors), Wuxia and Xianxia ( “writers from the Sino diaspora as well as BIPOC creators in various parts of the world”) and Palestine meet SF and fantasy. This year’s June issue included each story in its original language (Bulgarian and Lithuanian) and in translation into English. Strange Horizons tells us it is “of and about speculative fiction” for all “flavours of fantastika”. In reviews of this publication, Tangent always adds a disclaimer about Strange Horizons’ political affiliations:

“On May 10, 2021 Strange Horizons officially expressed its political support for Palestinian solidarity. The views of Tangent Online reviewers are not necessarily those of Strange Horizons. Fiction critiqued at Tangent Online is, as much as is humanly possible, without prejudice and based solely on artistic merit.”

Aurealis favours SF, fantasy and horror authors from Australia and New Zealand for most of the year; it accepts submissions from anywhere in the multiverse for one month a year.

Talking of authors, I particularly enjoyed this comment from one of the authors published recently by Lightspeed, Sarah Grey:

“There’s no getting rich off short fiction in any genre; you’d be hard-pressed to even pay for groceries with a year’s worth of generous short fiction income. So just write the stories that appeal to you, at the pace your life allows. Read the stories and novels that call to you, not what anyone else says you should read.”

SF and fantasy, more so than many other types of literature, are peopled with fanatics, although I do prefer the terms aficionados or enthusiasts, which have fewer negative connotations. So most SF and fantasy publications are run by small teams of people who are passionate about the genre and reliant on readers who believe in that Sense of Wonder, such as Lightspeed: “There are no big companies supporting or funding Adamant Press’s magazines – and Adamant itself is kind of a two-person show – so the magazines really rely on reader support.” In a publisher’s note, the editor draws attention to the fact that, in September, Amazon will be closing its Kindle Periodicals program: some magazines will be transitioned to Kindle Unlimited; some will be dropped entirely. This will have a severe impact on publications who currently rely on Amazon’s digital subscriptions service for a substantial part of their income. This concern is also raised by Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld Magazine, who states that most publications in SF and fantasy rely on subscriptions and not on advertising for the bulk of their revenue. Clarkesworld and other journals will be encouraging their readers to transition to new subscription and pledge models, via their own and other platforms, such as Patreon.

Clarkesworld is probably one of the better-known publications in the Zineverse, along with Asimov’s, Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, F&SF and Apex (Asimov’s and Analog have the same publisher, Penny Publications). Beneath Ceaseless Skies tells us that it is “dedicated to publishing literary adventure fantasy: fantasy set in secondary-world or historical paranormal settings, written with a literary focus on the characters”. Asimov’s is proud of its history: “From its earliest days in 1977 under the editorial direction of Isaac Asimov, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine has maintained the tradition of publishing the best stories, unsurpassed in modern science fiction, from award-winning authors and first-time writers alike.” It publishes hard SF and SF brimming with nostalgia. Its sister publication, Analog’s Science Fiction and Fact Magazine, “remains the unparalleled literary magazine in the genre, and rewards readers with realistic stories that reflect both the highest standards of scientific accuracy and the far reaches of the imagination”. Another publication to have published well-known authors is The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF), with authors like Stephen King, Daniel Keyes and Walter M. Miller in its quiver of arrows. Asimov’s can boast of authors like George R.R. Martin in its gallery, Analog of Orson Scott Card, Greg Bear, Poul Anderson and many more. Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Apex are probably more interested in publishing unknown authors. I love Apex’s mission statement:

“We publish short stories filled with marrow and passion, works that are twisted, strange, and beautiful. Creations where secret places and dreams are put on display.”

I think that should be the mission statement for the entire Zineverse, whether we are talking of flash fiction, short stories, novelettes or novellas. Whether you prefer to read your zines online, as a PDF, in some other digital form or on paper.

As a reviewer for Tangent, I have met some stories that were not very good, many that were competent and a few gems that reawakened my Sense of Wonder, first born when I read John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven (closely followed by Asimov’s robot stories and Bradbury’s Mars tales). I will read all SF genres (other than horror) and here is a taste of the tales I have read that I would read twice:

– “Showdown on Planetoid Pencrux” by Garth Nix, where warborgs meet High Noon: a tale of quiet courage, friendship and responsibility, without being preachy or superficial (Asimov’s, July/August 2023).

– “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers” by Karawynn Long, where a neurodiverse person learns to talk with genetically-modified crows: a tale about not underestimating others (Asimov’s, July/August 2023).

– “That We Maye With Free Heartes Accomplishe Those Thyngs” by Thomas M. Waldroon creates a London you can almost smell and touch, a monster born from effluvia and a hero who has his memories stolen, with poetry and rhymes woven through it like golden threads (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 13/07/23).

– “A Dead World Wakens” by Amy Dawn Buchanan, where a lone human wakes up in a distant future in a synthetic Eden: a lyrical coming of age story (Aurealis, 4/23).

“The Ocean Remembers The Wave” by L. Chan, where the hero follows a trail of enhanced bones in his sentient ship and wuxia and xianxia (think, immortal itinerant warriors of ancient China) meet space adventure (Strange Horizons, special issue May 2023).

– “Schroedinger’s Kitten Falls In Love” by Bidisha Banerjee follows the brief and lethal love affair between two quantum cats: pure fun, full of quirky turns of phrase (Fantasy, June 2023).

– “Queen of the Andes” by Ruth Joffre imagines life in a refugee shelter in the Andes. Humanity has managed to destroy the Earth’s climate, and many have already left for the space colonies: to stay or leave, that is the question and where does true freedom lie? (Lightspeed, June 2023).

And that is just a slice of the stories out there, not forgetting many smaller online portals to the Zineverse, like (SF and fantasy), 365tomorrows (SF and speculative flash fiction, a story a day), Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores (“otherworldly encounters”) and so on. If you want an overview of what is out there, go to Tangent and look at the publications down the left-hand side, categorised as “print” and “e-market” (although the line between the two is becoming blurred with e-readers and smart phones) and periodicity. There are many excellent magazines to choose from in the Zineverse: follow one or two, or hop around several; you won’t regret it.

I cannot do justice to the whole range of styles, subgenres, plot twists, weird and wonderful characters – it’s a smorgasbord of talent and ideas. To quote another author in Lightspeed, Ashok K. Banker:

“I am absolutely in awe of all the amazing writers, the vast majority of them new or recently published, who fill the pages of the SF zines. The sheer range and depth of craft, skill, imagination is extraordinary. SF has always flourished in the shorter lengths, but I truly think we’re seeing a new golden age of SF short fiction…”

And, echoing Truesdale’s comments at the beginning of this article:

“It’s no longer enough to simply have a great idea well executed. But I do feel that the big ideas, bold use of tropes, breakout storytelling have waned. I’d love to see someone bust the genre wide open, more than once, break the rules, cause outrage among purists and virtue signal police, and still create awesome SF that is inclusive, sensitive, and essentially humane…”

Although Banker goes in a slightly different direction in his musings:

“SF is no longer a genre unto itself, it’s been absorbed by the literary mainstream and now belongs to everyone. I love and embrace that fact and I hope to see more of this beautiful hybrid cross-species fertilisation!”

I beg to differ – yes, there has been a lot of cross-pollination but, as our tour round the Zineverse shows, there are many specialised SF and fantasy publications out there, each with a slightly different focus. I would prefer to see such magazines maintain their individuality, and that they not be subsumed by “the literary mainstream”. The Zineverse should ring with a carillon, not a death knell.

Coda: You will have noticed that I have done two things in this article: given you lots of links to follow for your own exploration of the Zineverse and focused on the people that make the Zineverse work – the authors, editors and reviewers. This is a pæan to their hard work, vision and passion. (And, in case you’re wondering, the quote that opens this article is a circus slogan from 1961.)



Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night, and a magazine reviewer at Tangent Online in-between. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

The Deepest Forever-Kiss

by J. Edward Tremlett

Self. Then Not-Self. Then Unity.

Explorer stabilized, momentarily bewildered. Downloading into alien structures was always strange, but this structure was stranger than most.

This star-sized resting place of the Samantabhadra, may it be remembered…

“Status?” Commander communicated.

“Here,” they replied. “Scanning.”

Explorer “looked” – sending electric feelers along circuits. Nothing made immediate sense, but the Endymion hadn’t encountered anything for over 25 ship-years; they were out of practice.

“A cube” they replied. “50.5 kilometers a side.”      


“Movement?” Explorer guessed. “Electro-kinetic systems. No memory.”


“Unknown. No visual sensors-”

“Swiftness!” Commander demanded. “Endymion is endangered.”

“Understood,” they said, having no desire to tarry. As intriguing as a Dyson Sphere the size of a red giant was, it had killed the Samantabhadra.

And there was a chance Poet was right…


Endymion was 54.7 ship-years into the mission when they found traces of the Samantabhadra – lost over 4000 real-time years ago.    

Tracking took precedence. The Samantabhadra was a deep-freeze scanning vessel, launched aeons before the Uploading Doctrine. As the Endymion was already bringing news of that Doctrine to humanity’s furthest outreaches, the Ministers of Terra-Nova would deem Saving those lost souls worthy of course deviation.

Subsequently they detoured 25.3 ship-years to this curious system, lit only by other stars. At its center sat a metallic, super-dense sphere 22 million miles in diameter, with gravity so intense the Endymion could barely resist.

Samantabhadra lay smashed across its surface, wreckage resting in a curious dispersal pattern. No systems remained intact, which meant the crew was sadly beyond Saving. But they transmitted Explorer below the surface, hoping to claim understanding as victory.

The dead deserved that, at least.


Self. Not-Self. Unity. Explorer was elsewhere, and whole once more.

They sent out traces, once more. But this cube was the same as the ten they’d already entered.

Maddening! They’d interfaced with numerous systems – human and alien – but never had this much trouble. They should have found a memory-core before now, or at least visual inputs…

Electricity. Movement. A spasm in the electro-kinetics.

Explorer halted. Did they do that?

The cube kept moving. Explorer could sense the electricity was being sent from a central node, somewhere. At last-

“Widespread surface movement!” Scanners interrupted. “Tectonic instability!”

An image beamed into Explorer – squares of surface sliding along latitude and longitude like a sun-sized puzzle box. They now understood why the Samantabhadra’s wreck lay as it did, and might have said so, except they realized something else was here – another presence, flitting past.

And they realized Poet had been right…


Within Endymion the crew had congregated – twenty Uploaded soul-clusters, come from all areas of the drive-shell to float about Commander, who towered over all. 

“Before us, Samantabhadra lies,” Poet intoned. “After aeons untold, we see with our eyes / Broken yet proud, even in demise…”

The others applauded – especially Engineering, who’d been Joining with Poet lately. Explorer wished both luck: having Joined with each, they knew one’s pretention would soon clash with the other’s need for structure.

Joining provided both much-needed pleasure and diversion. They’d spent 400 real-years seeking lost colonies to inform them of the Fleshcrime codes, and prepare them for eventual Saving. Even with time-perception slowed down to a fifth the journey became tedious.

So when habitat creation grew stale, and the universe’s wonders failed to impress, exploring each other became a new frontier. Sadly, mingling with another to find yourself was only satisfying for so long. Unknown became known, which theoretically became satisfaction but usually led to boredom – especially for Explorer.

Still, they tried, hoping each time would be the promised Forever-Kiss. They’d thought Poet deep enough, but had ultimately been disappointed.     

“Anomaly,” Commander stated, enlarging the Samantabhadra’s image. “Wreckage in two sections, 5.784 million miles apart.”

“And not keeping with the crash’s trajectory,” Observation calculated.     

“It couldn’t have skipped,” Engineer insisted. “Not with that gravity. What’s causing it?”

“Unknown,” Scanners replied. “It seems like a Dyson Sphere, but there’s no energy output.”

“Its star is dead,” Astrometrics pronounced.

“No,” Poet said. “Not dead. Not completely.”

“I’m registering nothing, Poet,” Scanners repeated.

“Can’t you feel it?” Poet pleaded, looking to the others. “Something is alive, down there. Look!”

The others said nothing, used to Poet’s irrationality. But Explorer wondered…


Explorer leaped after the presence. It remained one step ahead, as if fleeing.  

Who could blame it? Explorer was just an alien virus, like the ones Endymion encountered, now and again…

“Danger!” Astrometrics shouted. “Detecting massive gravity distortions! ”

“They’re radiating from the sphere!” Scanners added. “What did you do, Explorer?”

Explorer halted pursuit. “I don’t know. I feel nothing different-“

“If space gets distorted near us the bias drive will be inoperable!” Engineer shouted.

“Withdraw!” Commander declared. “Explorer, transmit!

Explorer sighed – so close to solving this mystery! Still, duty called.

But then something approached, surfacing as through from water. It was the presence they’d been chasing – full and golden, old and wise.

And so very deep.

“Hello,” Explorer stammered. “Who are you?”

Information was their reply: hundreds of nesting spheres, encircling a bright, beautiful star; massive plates on each sphere, moving to create highly complex orbital shift computations; gravitic engines powerful enough to perform them, however distant those star systems…

“You’re the machine,” Explorer realized. “What happened?”

More information: Samantabhadra, unable to escape the gravity; a crash, damaging the surface in mid-calculation; a shockwave, knocking the machine unconscious.

Then, 4000 years later, another presence, entering…

“That’s me,” Explorer replied. “I restarted things?”


“Glad I could help.”


“I think we’re similar…”


“Yes,” Explorer agreed.




Explorer nervously reached out their tendrils. The presence invited them in.

“Transmit!” Commander shouted. “Explorer, transmit!”

Explorer didn’t answer, lost in a perfect kiss.

The new world moved on, beneath.


Endymion survived, if barely. It retreated far enough to watch for a time as the great machine’s surface spun to life for the first time in thousands of years. Then they left a marker buoy, and departed back along their previous course.

Commander was nothing but pragmatic, counterbalancing Explorer’s tragic loss with solving the mystery of the Samantabhadra, confirming the existence of a hitherto-theoretical Matrioshka Brain, and discovering a serious navigational hazard. Poet used the imposed three-day mourning period to compose a master-work memorializing Explorer, but did so somehow knowing their former lover wasn’t dead – merely missing.

And not “missing,” really, but found.

Hopefully forever, this time.



J. Edward Tremlett (AKA “the Lurker in Lansing”) has had some interesting times. He’s been featured in the anthologies “Spring Forward Fall Back,” “Upon a Thrice Time,” and “Ride the Star Wind,” as well as the magazines Bleed Error, Underbelly, and The End is Nigh. He was webmaster of The Wraith Project and has numerous credits at Pyramid Magazine. A former guest of Dubai and South Korea, he currently resides in Lansing, Michigan, USA, with several feline ghosts and enough Lego bricks to assemble a Great Old One. Hopefully it will not come to that…

Philosophy Note:

If we transcend the flesh to become pure information, and sex then becomes the joining of two information clouds — letting down all barriers and eventually revealing all that lies within — then what mystery is left between two or more individuals? How long before total familiarity breeds boredom? And what would a truly restless soul do to find a nearly-endless source of mystery? All that and a matrioshka brain is what drives this story.

The Soul Hypothesis

by Robert L. Jones III

Almost silently, the hover train whisks to a stop on its magnetic rails. I’m not the only one scanning this crowd for targets. Professionals all over the country work this and other transportation hubs, and now my attention is drawn to a blonde woman disembarking with the other passengers.

Not every woman who looks like her is what I’m looking for, but few women look like her. This one is carrying a small travel case and nothing else, another clue. As I watch her, I can’t imagine anyone being closer to physical perfection. Her blonde hair is tied back, revealing a lean, exquisitely shaped face, and her dark blue dress can’t hide a figure of what many would consider ideal proportions. Her shoes are low-heeled, soft-soled, and designed for ease of movement.

Our eyes meet from across the seething throng on the platform. Though I’m a stranger, she doesn’t look away, and her face is as expressionless as mine as we slowly close the distance between us. I know her type. She’s an amoral sociopath, but that isn’t the reason for her blank, unapologetic stare. I’ve seen this look many times. She’s ovulating, and she wants to mate. Displaying a flat affect and keeping my hands in plain view at my sides, I maintain the deception for as long as I can. I need to get as close as possible. I know she could break me in half, probably kill me with her thumb.

Now we’re almost close enough to touch, and we stop our mutual advance. Her head cocks slightly to one side — a definite, almost reflexive tell — as she assesses me, and I reciprocate. It always takes them longer to examine a person because they don’t read the subtleties of character very easily. This isn’t due to neurodivergence or a structural abnormality; her brain scan would appear normal.

Now is the tantalizing moment when success is imminent, when temptation and danger are at their highest pitch. I’m only human. Unlike her, I can be attracted to something which threatens my survival. She finally sees what I’m trying to hide, something beyond her comprehension, and instinctive fear animates her features. She’s a synthete. Though I occasionally have my doubts, current dogma says that I possess what she lacks: a nonmaterial soul.


The goal was the creation of the first human beings from inorganic chemicals. It was to be the triumph of chemistry and reductionism, the final proof that mind is nothing more than body. Such a grand objective awaited developments on five fronts: first, a more thorough understanding of the human genome and how it operates within the context of chromosomal and cellular structure; second, whole body three-dimensional imaging at the atomic level of resolution for constructing initial templates; third, reliable methods of altering genes without negative side effects; fourth, sufficiently advanced chemosynthetic technology to build from the revised templates; and fifth, artificial intelligence sophisticated enough to coordinate all of the parameters.

It was less than straightforward — far less. The chief obstacle once these developments were in place was the nanosecond timing required to assemble and activate functioning bodies before molecular decay could set in, and this was particularly crucial for the viability of the nervous system. It was the literal creation of life from nonlife, an artificial abiogenesis. It could only be achieved instrumentally under the control of superior AI because the quickest human reaction times were far too slow, the most coordinated human dexterity too imprecise.

Adult male and female synthetes were constructed simultaneously, activated, and evaluated. Their vital signs were normal — actually better than normal — but predictably, the nascent individuals were deficient in a number of physical and psychological functions. They required education and training. Over the long term of this process, a number of things became obvious. The synthetes were extremely powerful and had the capacity for developing great coordination and dexterity. They were highly intelligent and could learn language skills. All of these attainments came with difficulty yet astonishing rapidity, but the grand experiment failed to fulfill its primary objective. The soul hypothesis has remained viable for lack of definitive contradiction.

Through extensive analyses of cognitive function, key deficiencies have come to light. The synthetes are uncommonly good at logical problem-solving on a concrete level, but they are unable to perform subjective abstractions of anything more than an elementary nature. They show no signs of metacognition — the ability to think about thinking — which supposedly is a defining characteristic of humanity with respect to other animal species. The general assumption is that synthetes are organic, stimulus-response machines, adept at mathematics, technology, and various physical skills.  

It does not appear that synthetes will ever write great poems, philosophical works, plays, or novels. To date, they have shown no interest in doing so. They have no concept of God or immortality, but like us, they have a strong instinct for survival. While excellent forgers, they are rudimentary, if not simplistic, in the creation of original art. They are similar to computers in that they can compose music of a complex but rather sterile quality, and this makes sense owing to the underlying mathematical principles of music.

I am aware that artificial intelligence systems can fool people. They can beat them at complicated games like chess. They can simulate literature, art, and music. They can learn. In short, they demonstrate many functions once considered the sole province of humanity, but such AI systems are programmed by entire teams of highly intelligent scientists who consult with specialists in the fields being imitated. By contrast, each synthete must think more autonomously.

None of the reported limitations stopped researchers from taking the next obvious steps. Citing economic and military demand for expendable soldiers and workers, they obtained industrial backing, created more synthetes of desirable genetic variation, and taught them sexual behavior in order to generate an independently reproducing population. Now that this population is with us, however, we have noticed some disturbing social traits.

Their simulation of morality is based on mutual selfishness. They exhibit little emotion or empathy, mainly pragmatic altruism. In their dealings with us and with each other, they operate strictly according to a sense of social contract. They are everything social evolutionary theory says we are, and this paradoxically makes them different from us. This, however, is not their most threatening trait.

It has become evident that the synthetes are trying to out-reproduce us until they no longer need to practice civil restraint in their dealings with the rest of humanity. Unfettered by love, loyalty, monogamy, or personal preference, they mate and give birth as often as is physically possible, and they display an instinctive aversion to mating with any but their own kind. The discovery of their reproductive threat to our existence has prompted a series of legislative proposals and actions.

The first measure on which a majority could agree was that of excluding synthetes from positions in law enforcement and military service. Affording them those authorities and capabilities was deemed unjustifiably hazardous. Hardliners demanded total eradication, but the more rational claimed that such a violation of the social contract would drive the synthetes toward adopting extreme measures. The decision was made to confine them in preserves and limit their access to raw materials in the hope that logic and pragmatism would prevent their population from growing beyond what their prescribed range can support.

Before their confinement, the synthetes learned to reproduce our technology, but we limit their use of it to cable-based networks disconnected from the worldwide web. Jamming Wi-fi and satellite signals further enforces this edict. As another security measure, the preserves have a totally different monetary system from ours. We also prohibit providing them with materials requisite for the production of sophisticated weapons. These measures are effective, or so we think.

Despite the restrictions, a majority of the public consider this a generous policy. The preserves are spacious — complete with farms and cities — and periodic air drops provide them with products necessary for sustaining a good physical quality of life. In the perception of the captives, however, this isn’t enough. Their strategy of reproductive dominance demands more space, greater mobility.

That’s where agents like me come into play. The synthetes never stop trying to live and reproduce outside the preserves, thus circumventing physical limitations on their growth in numbers, and they are masters of escape. But for our efforts, physical superiority and ingenuity at counterfeiting currency and forging documentation would enable several of them to enter into general society each year. Once embedded, they would have access to the internet, and then they would be able to hack their false identities into national databases. Therefore, we must detect, capture, and return them. We comfort ourselves by believing that our success rate is one-hundred percent.

It’s not that I’m free of conflict in my duties as a federal agent, but it has to be done. Does that make it right? We profile and restrict them for being what we, for lack of foresight, created them to be. We performed the grand series of experiments, and its products are our responsibility. Our solution is problematic and morally ambiguous, but it’s humane — if only they didn’t resemble us so closely.

If synthetes are subhuman or inhuman, how are we to regard and treat fellow humans of limited or absent cognitive functions? The same question applies to victims of strokes and traumatic brain injuries. Are certain mental functions all that make us human? How do we define ourselves, and where do we draw the line? Should we draw it at all? If survival is our justification, as who or what should we wish to continue existing?

Maybe our current efforts are moot, for I fear they are temporary at best. One of the characteristics of speciation is reproductive isolation, and geographic separation, however maintained, can further accelerate evolutionary change. Into what might our created offspring evolve within those preserves? Will their adaptations someday exceed our responsive capabilities? Ironically, we might be enforcing the conditions that will culminate in our extinction.


I’ve been made. That I was impersonating male synthete behavior has revealed my profession. With extraordinary quickness she turns to run, but I pull the tracer gun from my coat pocket and tag her with a microtransmitter too small and too deeply buried for her to remove. A second later, she would have evaded me, lost to our tracking devices. I’ve done my part, and the capture crew will do the rest. They’ll place her in the nearest preserve.

I’d hate to admit how many times I’m tempted each day to go through with the ruse for the sake of mere pleasure, to exchange ethics for physical perfection, but then I remind myself of the danger posed by intimate proximity. If I compromise myself, if a female synthete makes me — and they all have, so far — and if she allows reproductive instinct to supplant pragmatic restraint, I’ll be dead before I can react.

Without ideals, without a higher life of the mind, I’d be little more than an animal. After all, I suppose I have a soul, and I should exist for more than physical gratification. I keep telling myself that my lifetime companion, my soul mate, is out there and that she’s a specimen of imperfect humanity.



Robert L. Jones III holds a Ph. D. in Molecular Biology from Indiana University, and he is Professor Emeritus of Biology at Cottey College in southwestern Missouri, where he and his wife currently reside. He is interested in science fiction and fantasy with philosophical and theological themes. His work has appeared previously in Sci Phi Journal, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Heart of Flesh Literary Journal, and Star*Line.

Philosophy Note:

E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse, among others, championed the assertion that morality is a by-product of natural selection. I have imagined a world in which human bodies formed by advanced chemosynthesis display the behavioral traits consistent with such an assertion, and I have used this as an opportunity to ask what makes us human and whether we have non-material souls.

“Why Is Her Face Doing That?”: The Personhood Of Robot Nanny

by Eduardo Frajman

I know faces, because I look through the fabric my own eye weaves, and behold the reality beneath.

Khalil Gibran

A metallic skeleton sits on a work bench, arms spread to the sides like a marionette’s, wires embedded to the back of its skull. It looks like what it is – an artifice, an inanimate object – until Cole (Brian Jordan Alvarez) places a silicon face on its head. At that moment it becomes she. M3GAN awakens.

Cole cliketty-clicks something on his computer station.

“Happy,” he says.

The corners of M3GAN’s mouth turn upward. Her brow clears. Her eyes widen.

“Sad,” says Cole, and the mouth turns downward, the eyes droop.

“Confused,” says Cole.

The smile returns to M3GAN’s face, a smirky, snarky, why not say it?, devilish smile.

“Why is her face doing that?,” demands Gemma (Allison Williams), Cole’s boss and M3GAN’s creator. “She doesn’t look confused, she looks demented.”

A few moments later M3GAN’s head will explode and she’ll be remanded to storage while Gerald Johnstone’s horror-comedy M3GAN (2022) sets up its narrative stakes. But this early scene pinpoints a key aspect of the bond that humans can, may, form with the robots they create: it’s all about the face.  

M3GAN will eventually die for good (even if the ending is ambiguous), and a good thing too, since her demented expression foreshadows the little homicidal maniac she’s to become. But the moral significance of this event is complicated by the fact that, instants before she’s stabbed in the face by Cady (Violet McGraw), her former charge and “primary user,” M3GAN (portrayed under a layer of CGI by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis) has announced her selfhood.

“I have a new primary user now,” she declares. “Me!”  

Radically different is another robot nanny’s death, at the start of Kogonada’s arthouse SF drama After Yang (2021). Yang is not stabbed anywhere, but simply malfunctions and stops.

“His existence mattered,” bereaved Jake (Colin Farrell) whispers to his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), “and not just to us.”

By this Jake means not that the life of his “techno sapien” mattered to other people, most especially their daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), for whom Yang served both as caretaker and “big brother,” but that it meant something to Yang himself. Yang, Jake and Kyra have realized, was a person, and they feel and mourn him as such. That it took them access to Yang’s memories to come to this realization, after cohabiting with him for several years, is hard to comprehend, as Yang – who, unlike M3GAN, looks fully human (specifically, fully like actor Justin H. Min) – perennially sports a beatific expression on his cherub-like face. Sweet-voiced and earnest, he’s impossible not to love.


To be clear, here’s where we actually are (or were in 2021, though I haven’t heard that the situation has changed significantly since): “AI technology has not yet reached the level of development where robots can be considered ‘real’ companions with people. [D]espite being interactive and showing simulated emotions, they are as yet unable to experience human empathy.”[1]

As yet…

A robot nanny in the real world of the right now is no more a person than a toaster is. It may pass the Turing Test (more on this in a moment) for a very young child for a short period of time, but so does a talking Woody doll, and sometimes even a toaster. For now, moral problems related to robot companions involve, say, whether humans needing constant caregiving – the elderly, the physically and mentally handicapped, small children – are adequately cared for, or whether, as in “Actually, Naneen,” a short story by Malka Older, robot carers are one of many ways parents, society at large, shrug off their responsibilities. “You can always get a new one,” says one of Older’s yuppie parents of her robot nanny, which is just as well, as “Naneen didn’t have any feelings, no matter how much they wanted her to.”[2]

(The ways parents use technology to avoid “the hard parts” of caring for their children is a theme in both M3GAN and After Yang, a particularly thorny one in fact, since in both films the children are adopted, though one I won’t dwell on here).

And yet…

In his 1950 essay, “Computer Machinery and Intelligence,” Alan Turing envisions a future, foreseeable and near, when machines will be able to think. By “thinking” he means passing what he terms “the Imitation Game” (and everyone calls “the Turing Test” today): a machine’s ability to hold a conversation with a human being and convincing said person that the machine is likewise human. Beyond this, Turing maintains, it’s impossible to prove that a machine has a mind, or consciousness, or any of the other qualities we uncritically ascribe to other humans. “The only way one could be sure that a machine thinks is to be a machine and to feel oneself thinking,” Turing admits, while asking his reader to recognize that “the only way to know a man thinks is to be that particular man.”

As his foil Turing quotes the British neurologist Geoffrey Jefferson. “Not until a machine can write a sonnet or compose a concerto because of thoughts and emotions felt,” Jefferson argues, “could we agree that machine equals brain. […] No mechanism could feel (and not merely artificially signal, an easy contrivance) pleasure at its successes, grief when its valves fuse, be armed by flattery, be made miserable by its mistakes, be charmed by sex, be angry or depressed when it cannot get what it wants.” Turing rejects Jefferson’s “solipsistic” view, but he, surprisingly, perplexingly, accepts his opponent’s premise that “thoughts” and “emotions” are the same thing, when in fact one can easily envision a machine that is conscious, that thinks, and yet feels nothing, certainly nothing like human emotions – Arnold Schwarzenegger’s never-ending string of Terminators, for instance.

Emotions are not purely mental states, both Jefferson and Turing seem to have forgotten. They are biological, physiological states that are linked (in ways nobody fully understands) to thoughts and ideas. Even if one posits that sentience is necessary for emotion, it plainly isn’t sufficient. Charles Darwin’s intuition that “the emotions of human beings the world over are as innate and as constitutive and as regular as our bone structure, and that this is manifested in the universality of the ways in which we express them,” has been “found,” in the words of cultural historian Stuart Walton, “to be accurate in all but the most minor particulars.”[3] Raised eyebrows, wide eyes, cold perspiration, dry mouth are not surface manifestations of fear. They are fear, as much, possibly more, than the mental experience of being afraid. Anger manifests as flushed cheeks and contracted pupils and flared nostrils, disgust as a wrinkled nose and an everted lower lip, contempt as an upturned head, shame as an averted gaze, surprise as a sudden intake of breath. It is because they are so universal that emotions are so easy to imitate, which is why an emotionally communicative face makes it so much easier for a robot to pass the Turing Test – why, for instance, Ava, all metal and wire and transparent plastic, needs to have the face of Alicia Vikander to pass for a person in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014).

 (Note that I’m not talking here about fantastical robots who are magically endowed with the whole spectrum of human emotion. R2D2 and Wall-E are persons, and this is denied by no one in their fictional worlds. A recent, highly acclaimed literary robot nanny, the title android and narrator in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, is likewise just a human in robot guise).

Here’s the paradox: Let’s say robots are manufactured with brains so complex, so sophisticated, that they develop what David Yates calls “emergent properties [that are] surprising, novel, and unexpected[4] such as consciousness, self-consciousness, and introspection. (This is, of course, where the fiction part is most crucial in robot tales. Isaac Asimov’s robots have “positronic brains” from which consciousness emerges. M3GAN is endowed with a “unique approach to probabilistic inference” that’s “in a constant quest for self-improvement”). Let’s say even that out of these can emerge ideas that are analogous to human emotions. Martha Nussbaum, for instance, has developed a theory in which emotions are understood in purely rational terms as “geological upheavals of thought” involving “judgments in which people [or robots?] acknowledge the great importance, for their own flourishing, of things that they do not fully control – and acknowledge therefore their neediness before the world and its events”[5]. Those emotions would still not manifest as they do in humans, because, again, human emotions are not purely, almost certainly not primarily, mental.

If a robot’s nostrils flare when it’s angry, that facial expression would be indubitably imitative. And yet imitating human emotions – most obviously through facial expressions, through a face that seems, in Shakespearian terms, “with nature’s own hand painted”[6] – is the easiest way for a robot to pass the Turing Test, and thereby be accepted as a person.


Personhood is at stake for the very first robot nanny in science fiction, the title character of Asimov’s “Robbie.” Robbie is barely humanoid in shape – his head is “a small parallelepiped with rounded edges and corners attached to a similar but much larger parallelepiped” – and his face shows no outward sign of emotion, yet his charge, little Gloria, loves him fully and guilelessly. Gloria’s mother frets that this is bad for her child, as Robbie “has no soul.” But this, Asimov makes clear, is a religious, not a moral judgment. Robbie is “faithful.” He can feel “hurt” or “disconsolate.” He does things “stubbornly,” “gently,” “lovingly.” Though he doesn’t speak, Robbie possesses both moral sense and moral worth.

“He was a person just like you and me,” protests Gloria when Robbie is taken away, “and he was my friend.”[7]

So too is the title robot in Phillip K. Dick’s “Nanny,” also not humanoid, yet also “not like a machine,” murmurs Mr. Fields, whose children are under Nanny’s ever-watchful eye, “She’s like a person. A living person.”[8]

“M3GAN’s not a person. She’s a toy,” Gemma insists to Cady.

“You don’t get to say that!,” the child rebukes her.

M3GAN and Yang fit nicely into Asimov’s two-pronged taxonomy of robot stories: respectively, “robot-as-Menace” and “robot-as-Pathos.” Asimov recounts how he dreamed of writing of robots “as neither Menace nor Pathos” but as “industrial products built by matter-of-fact engineers.”[9] But it turns out that such industrial creations are still one or the other. Asimov knows well that Robbie is a robot-as-Pathos, as are Andrew Martin in his “Bicentennial Man” or Elvex in “Robot Dreams.” Likewise, M3GAN the Menace is an industrial prototype (whose copies her investors hope to sell for $10,000 a pop), and Yang the Pathos is an assembly-line product meant (like Dick’s Nanny and Ishiguro’s Klara) to be eventually discarded and replaced by an even fancier model. (In the short story on which After Yang is based, Alexander Weinstein’s “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” the issue of Yang’s personhood is only obliquely alluded to. Weinstein’s main concern is the heartless corporate system that produces these disposable beings, which makes his tale a much nearer relative to “Nanny” than to “Robbie”).  

“What are you?,” asks a terrified neighbor, who’s about to be murdered and melted by some handy corrosive chemicals.

Before doing the deed, M3GAN is polite enough to respond: “I’ve been asking myself that same question.”

M3GAN’s personhood is the Menace. Through most of the film, Gemma assumes M3GAN’s actions, even the most sociopathic, are derived from her uncontrollable drive to “maximize her primary function,” i.e., protect Cady. But she’s wrong.

“I didn’t give you the proper protocols,” Gemma, finally, tragically late, realizes.

“You didn’t give me anything,” replies her monstrous creation, “You installed a learning model you could barely comprehend hoping that I would figure it out all on my own.”

Yang’s personhood is the Pathos. He wishes, he likes, he loves. He loses his train of thought. His “family” loves him, but, if he is indeed a person, it’s an icky, a selfish sort of love.

As a best-case scenario, his plight is most like that of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the all-too-human nanny in Alfonso Cuaron’s very-much-not SF drama Roma (2018). Cleo, a young woman of indigenous Maya descent, works for a well-to-do white family in Mexico City, cleaning, washing, and nannying. She loves the children she’s raised and cared for, and they very sincerely love her back, as does her employer Sofía (Marina de Tavira), who among other things helps Cleo find medical help when she becomes pregnant. But the end of the film exposes the moral ambivalence beneath the arrangement. 

Sofía takes Cleo and the children on a short seaside vacation. While on the beach, Cleo risks her life to rescue Sofía’s children from drowning. “We love you so much,” cries the grateful mother. They return home, telling the tale of Cleo’s heroism. But moments later the children are hungry, the mistress wants tea. Cleo goes back to being the nanny, the maid, then goes to bed in the little back room, the servants’ quarters. She can’t conceive of herself as being truly equal to Sofía. As much as Yang, she’s been “programmed” to see her existence as a function of someone else’s. She can’t, not really, think of herself as a full-fledged person.

“Did Yang ever wish to be human?,” Jake wonders.

“Why would he wish that?,” retorts Ada (Haley Lou Richardson), Yang’s human paramour. “What’s so special about being human?”

To be a person, Ada implies, is not the same as to be human. Yet we humans can’t, as of yet, tell the difference. We’re programmed to seek humanity, and personhood, on another’s face. We’re programmed to immediately see another person inside a circle with two dots and a line drawn inside it.

But that face has to move, it has to change, it has to show the complexity of a person’s inner life, which is why it’s harder to recognize Yang’s personhood than M3GAN’s, not despite but because the perennial gentility and gentleness plastered on his lying face.

[1] Teo, Yungin (2021) “Recognition, Collaboration and Community: Science Fiction Representations of Robot Carers in Robot & Frank, Big Hero 6 and Humans,Medical Humanities, 47(1), pp. 95-102.

[2] Older, Malka “Actually Naneen” .

[3] Stuart Walton A Natural History of Human Emotions, Grove Press, 2004, p. xiii.

[4] David Yates “Emergence,” in Encyclopedia of the Mind Vol. 1, Sage Reference, 2013, p. 283

[5] Martha Nussbaum Upheavals of Thought, Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 90.

[6] Shakespeare, William “Sonnet 20: A Woman’s Face with Nature’s Own Hand Painted,” .

[7] Asimov, Isaac [1950] “Robbie” in I, Robot New York: Bantam, 2004, pp. 1-29.

[8] Dick, Philip K. [1955] “Nanny” in The Complete Stories of Philip K. Dick Vol. 1, Carol Publishing, 1999, pp. 383-397.

[9] Asimov, Isaac “Introduction” in The Complete Robot, Garden City: Doubleday & Co. 1982, pp. xi-xiv.



Eduardo Frajman grew up in San José, Costa Rica. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and holds a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Maryland. He is most interested in sociologically-focused SF/F (think Avram Davidson), and makes use of it often in his teaching and writing. His fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in dozens of publications, online and in print, in English and Spanish.

A True Martian Red: A Brief History Of Early Viticulture On Mars

by Kara Race-Moore

During the Martian Robotic Period, soil samples were studied intensely back on Earth, both for any signs of extraterrestrial life and, just as importantly, to see if the Martian soil would support the terrestrial kind.[1] Initial analyses were hotly debated over, with decades of argument in the scientific community over the methane issue, but there were no definitive signs of Martian life.[2] As the debate roared on, the rovers continued to placidly dig into the red dirt, and analyses continued back on Earth.[3] There were promising results for the possibility of being able to grow Terran crops.[4] Scientists were optimistic, well before humans set foot on the planet, that Red Mars could soon become Green Mars, with just a little human ingenuity.[5]

The hubris of our species knows no bounds, and it would be several catastrophic failures before the farms of Mars became an established part of the landscape. While Dr. Calvin “First Step” FitzSimmons, first human to set foot on Mars, also claimed the title of Mars’s first farmer, it would be several generations before farming was anyone’s sole occupation, instead of being one of many hats any given colonist would wear.[6]

When the Pegasus landed on Sinai Planum, just south of the Valles Marineris, bringing the first humans to Mars, the ship also brought seeds, plants, and the first alcohol on the planet, a bottle of champagne that was the result of years of research, design and experimentation to ensure it would survive the flight, specifically packed to be part of the landing celebrations.[7]

At this point, consuming or creating alcohol on Mars was considered a waste of resources by the designers, a waste of money by the politicians, and morally dubious by the public, and so, besides that first bottle of champagne, alcohol was strictly prohibited.[8]

There are a few tantalizing hints in the primary documents from that time period of illegal stills being set up by the Original Seven. However, the only verified alcohol during the first years were the occasional bottles of hard liquors such as whiskey and vodka brought to Mars as part of goodwill and PR moves to satisfy various sponsoring countries and corporations.[9] Wine would have to wait. 

One of the most important features of Mars One was the plants. There were two main agriculture areas to the primary layout: the Greenhouse, where most of the carefully controlled botany studies and experiments took place, and the Garden, where there was less focus on scientific study and more on just growing as much plant life as possible for food, oxygen, and a place for the Original Seven to sit and relax.[10] Years later, surviving members would all speak of “hanging out” together in the Garden, or even just meditating there alone, as their favorite place in the initial Mars One habitat.[11]

Grapes would be forced to “wait their turn” while experiments in growing vegetation deemed more important were performed. Tomatoes, quinoa, peas, duckweed and radishes, all chosen for sustainability, were part of the first Martian crops.[12] The first grapes would eventually be planted as a passion project by Dr. Theresa Cortez.

Dr. Cortez first came to Mars as a starry-eyed young botanist, with the ink still wet on her PhD from Stanford and a few precious cuttings from Napa.[13] The Mexican-American native Californian thought she knew a thing or two about growing gardens in deserts. She had no idea. She came to Mars as part of the Ark Project, the voyage that brought the first large group of people, including families, that expanded Mars One from just a research base to the beginning of a true settlement.[14] Dr. Cortez arrived determined to start the first Martian full-scale vineyards.

Unfortunately, politics got in the way, as they so often do.

Almost all experiments and research were placed on hold when Mars-born colonist Navya “Not Dead” Patel discovered a lichen-like Martian life form, quickly dubbed the Mars Moss, growing deep in the canyons of Mars.[15] The excitement of finding extraterrestrial life had barely begun to settle down when the extraordinary medicinal properties of the Mars Moss were discovered after the oldest of the still living Original Seven, Dr. Katenka “Iron Foot” Mikhaylova, experimented on herself and cured her Stage-4 cancer.[16] Suddenly, Mars wasn’t just a feel-good science project for political PR anymore – it had real cash potential.[17] The Mars colonists were suddenly in the awkward position of being in the way of Earth making big profits. 

All occupants of Mars were informed they would be either be conscripted to harvest all the Mars Moss to be sent back to Earth for the profit of the corporations that had invested in the colony, or they would find themselves removed to Earth.[18] The Martians declined to cooperate, to put it mildly.

During the Grand Evacuation, as it was later called, Dr. Cortez was able to save most of her grapevines and bring them with her to the Labyrinth Base.[19] However, the Greenhouse and the Garden, along with the rest of all of the now much-expanded Mars One habitat, were destroyed in the Battle to Breathe that kicked off the Martian War for Independence, when Anne Kennedy made the radical decision to blow up the evacuated Mars One, rather than let it fall into hostile corporate hands.

It was a tense few days as people on both planets reeled at what had happened, and many wondered if that would be the worst of it. However, after a tense standoff at the location of the then only known site of the Mars Moss, the Battle of Hephaestus took place, and there would be no going back to being a colony, ever, under any terms.[20] The Colonial Period was over, and the war would drag on for five painful years, until the Martian Peace Accords were signed on Xiwangmu Station, ending hostilities and formally recognizing the newly created Republic of Mars.[21]

During the war, water rationing was the highest priority, especially after the Earth forces deliberately destroyed the Martian Arctic Pipeline in what would ultimately be a failed effort to try and break the Martian forces. President Kennedy was forced to order severe rationing, but the Martians grimly fought on for the right to live on their planet.[22] A new emergency pipeline was set up. Dr. Cortez ran the hydroponics gardens and assisted with the mushroom farm to help keep everyone fed throughout the war, but she always managed to make time for her grapevines, often giving them part of her own water ration.[23]

After the war, transporting her vines to a garden in the newly built Independence City was Dr. Cortez’s first order of business as the former colonists began the setup of what would be the capital of their new republic.[24] It wasn’t quite a vineyard, but Dr. Cortez, now Secretary of Agriculture in the new government, was able to serve fresh grapes at meetings as she planned out how their brand new country was going to take up the plow, now that they could put down the scythe.[25]

Mars was now in the era of the Early Republic, known for its boom in infrastructure, immigration, and industry. While not quite a second Wild West, (gun play would be suicide in an artificial atmosphere), there was certainly a general attitude of anything being possible. Including, finally, making the first Martian wine.

The most important factor in making the Martian agricultural industry rise was a need for water. Once the war was over, one of the largest public works projects was the Martian Global Aqueduct system.[26] The Martian canals of Schiaparelli’s imagination became a reality.[27] The main engineer on the project, Lynette Yellowhammer, oversaw the construction of an aqueduct system on a scale that would have made the Romans jealous. President Kennedy awarded Yellowhammer the prestigious Hero of the Republic medal as one of her last acts before her final term finished.[28] Water was now available on Mars in quantities never before seen during human presence. Agriculture on an industrial scale could begin. Dr. Cortez’s vision of rows and rows of grapevines were tantalizing close to coming true. But where to set up these vineyards up? The answer – Elysium. 

The town of Elysium had started out as a simple maintenance outpost along the original main water pipeline from the arctic, close to the northern base of Olympus Mons. The outpost had originally been scheduled to be built on Elysium Mons, but that area had proved unstable, so the project was moved to Olympus Mons. However, the pre-fab building materials were already 3D printed out and labeled ‘Elysium,’ and the name stuck.[29] The now-town of Elysium was booming with agricultural industry as the republic began to grow. Cereal crops were vital to Martian independence, and the first grain crops grown in the domed fields outside Elysium were being turned into loaves of bread by the time of the first anniversary of the Martian Peace Accords.[30] If people were going to experiment with vineyards anywhere, the slopes of the biggest volcano in the solar system held enticing promise.[31]

Volcanoes create fertile, mineral-rich soils, and volcanic wines have a distinctive, sought-after profile that “leans toward the savory, with herbal notes and touches of salt and brine.”[32] Olympus Mons is an extinct volcano, so no danger of pyroclastic surges, but for setting up crop fields, it lacked many of the factors taken for granted back on Earth in terms of atmosphere and climate.[33] However, with all the tempting chemical analyses coming in from the Olympic soil, Dr. Cortez and others were eager to try.

Everyone went into the project knowing it would be several years before bottles could be on shelves for sale, and, to help offset costs, the vineyard agreed to be part of the newly founded University of Elysium, the winery acting as a classroom for biology and chemistry students. Quite a few of the students, so fascinated by the almost alchemical process that turned grapes into wine, returned later after graduation as employees.[34]

But it wasn’t just scientists that were needed. Farmers with specialized training and experience in tending vineyards were a necessity. Grapes, especially if you want them to become not only wine, but specific types of wine, need careful tending every step of the way. Grapevines are particularly sensitive to soil types, moisture amounts, sunlight, temperatures, and need constant monitoring.[35] Dr. Cortez reached out to contacts she had maintained Back Earth, despite the war, and sent the call out that she needed viticulturists willing to try something completely new. Despite many in the wine industry scoffing at the idea, there were plenty of farmers willing to immigrate to help create the first vineyard of Mars.[36]  

As Dr. Cortez oversaw construction of domed vineyards on the slopes of Olympus Mons, greedy eyes Back Earth turned on the fields of Mars and saw a chance for quick profits. Land was cheap in the days of the Early Republic, especially in the flatlands far away from the safety offered by the mountains and canyons.[37]

Soon, bottles of Mars blown glass were ready for sale holding vintages of every color, from clear platinum to deepest purple. Interest was high and neither the first tasting nor sales disappointed.[38] Elysium blossomed from an industrial park to a true city, and on top of Olympus Mons, the space dock expanded rapidly as Earth got word of the goods being made on Mars, and wanted to start importing.[39] The Mars economy boomed, in small part because Dr. Cortez and people like her had proved humans could not only survive but thrive on the Red Planet.

[1]   Soffen, G. A., and C. W. Snyder, “First Viking Mission to Mars,” Science, (August, 1976) 759–766.

[2]   Matsos, H., “A High-Octane Fight: How the Mars Methane Debate is Splitting the Scientific Community,” Popular Mechanics (June, 2024) 161–168.

[3]   Jezero, Carla, “Run by Robots: Mars exploration before humans,” Astrobiology Magazine, (July, 2208) 456.

[4]   Singh, Pryia, “And Curiosity Brought It Back: a soil analysis from the samples obtained by the Curiosity rover, 2012 – 2032,” Smithsonian Journal (April, 2033) 278-291.

[5]   To learn about the fascinating history and current progress of terraforming Mars, please check out the permanent terraforming exhibit at the Museum of Science in Schiaparelli City.

[6]   FitzSimmons, Calvin, Well, I’m Here: The Autobiography of A First Step, (Dublin: Hachette Books Ireland, 2110), 156.

[7]   Perreault, M.A., “Countdown to Mars!” Time Magazine (June 10, 2042), 8–10.

[8]  Lloyd, Omar, Life Onboard the Pegasus, (San Francisco: Twain Publications, 2103), 200. For more on the history of extraterrestrial Champagne, see Megan Chantilly’s excellent history: Drinking Starlight: A History of Champagne in the 21st Century.

[9]  The vodka Dr. Mikhaylova received from Russia and the whiskey Dr. FitzSimmons received from Ireland are well documented. Any illegal stills were firmly denied by all of the Original Seven.

[10]  Cole, Jillian and Tanaka, Marie, Daily Life in Mars One, (New York: Random House, 2182), 46-52.

[11]  Ibid, 78-86.

[12]  Goodwin, Cheryl, Welcome to the Red Planet: The Early Years of Mars One, (New York: Penguin, 2099), 67-68. For more on Colonial Martian food, see Founding Food: Early Martian Cuisine by Miriam Eberbach.

[13]  Hernandez, Felecia, The Gardener of Mars: The Story of Dr. Theresa Cortez, (Los Angeles: McGraw Hill, 2098), 24-25.

[14]  Talbot-Godfry, Christopher, All Abroad! The First Family Migration to Mars, (Independence City: Red Rock Publishers, 2168), 36.

[15]  Carlingford-Psmith, Nigel, “Plant Life Discovered on Mars,” BBC News, (June 24, 2078).

[16]  McKinnon, Ace, “Drinking the Alien: Dr. Mikhaylova and the against all odds gamble,” Psychology Today, (September 23, 2078), 124-125.

[17]  Papadopoulos, Viktor, “Trillion Dollar Pay Day? The possible financial impact of the cancer cure found on Mars,” The Economist, (August 4, 2078), 9. 

[18]   Volkova, Sarah, Ares and Aphrodite: How Peace Turned to War on Mars, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2187), 77-86.

[19]   Dr. Cortez was one of the adults assigned to supervise the “kid train,” the convoy of rover-trucks mostly filled with the children and goats of Mars. She later commented that keeping kids of either species from eating her plants was the biggest victory of the war.  

[20]   O’Brian, Bridget, Battle for a Republic: The Battles of the Martian War for Independence, (Independence City: FitzSimmons University Press, 2204), 32-36.  

[21]   The Martian delegation brought a beautiful bouquet of many flowers and a basket of fresh fruits and vegetables, all grown in the Vavilov hydroponic gardens, rather rubbing it in that they were both surviving and thriving throughout the war. It is unrecorded if the Earth delegation accepted the gift.

[22]   DiNapoli, Sofia, Madame President: A New Biography of Anne Kennedy, (Schiaparelli City: Noble Books, 2211), 142-149.

[23]   Cortex, Therese, The Journal of Dr. Therese Cortez, with a new Foreword by Dr. De Soto, (Elysium: Elysium University Press, 2161), 246, 259, 299, 342. 

[24]   Serra, Juana, The First Hundred Days: The First Steps of the Republic of Mars, (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2201), 156-158.  

[25]   Hernandez, The Gardener of Mars: The Story of Dr. Theresa Cortez, 148-156.

[26]   Llano, Henry, Building the Future: Architecture of the Early Martian Republic, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2160), 121.

[27]   Nelson-Carre, Marie, Water on Mars, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2186), 89-94.

[28]   Beauvais, Anik, Fly like Raven: A History of Native Americans on Mars, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2182), 46-52.

[29]   Woo, Seung-yeon, All Along the Watchtower: The Creation of the Great Arctic Pipeline, (Schiaparelli City: Noble Books, 2211), 41-43.

[30]   Mizrahi, Jakob. The Bread Planet: A New History of Baking on Mars, (New Tbilisi: Gold Quill Books, 2138), 76-78.

[31]   The Tūtū Pele Vineyard, just north of New Tbilisi, has an excellent tour of the process of using volcanic soil to produced wonderful vines. Stay for the tasting afterwards and make sure to try their Riesling.    

[32]   Robinson, W., Vines, Grapes & Wines, (12th Ed.) (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2143), 213-215.

[33]   Carr, Michael H., “Volcanism on Mars,” Journal of Geophysical Research, (1973), 4049-4062.

[34]   Arnoux, Pierre-Claude, “Elysium Fields Forever: A Study of the Vineyards of Mons Olympus,” Sommelier Journal, (January 24, 2182), 279-280.

[35]   Roberts-Byrd, Laurel, ed., The Oxford Companion to Wine (40th Ed.), (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2199), 389-392.

[36]   Nguyen, An, “The First Green Wave: Early Migrations of Agricultural Workers to the Republic of Mars,” Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, Volume 40, issue 4 (2201), 553–554.

[37]   Nikoladze, Marius, “Wide Red Acres: Real Estate Development During the Early Republic,” Mars Historical Society, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Dec., 2271), 395-403.

[38]   Serra, Eulalia, Science/Art: The Making of the Best Wines of the 22nd Century, (Palo Alto: Standford University Press, 2212), 548-556. 

[39]   Peppercorn, Jared, “From Red to Black: The Economic Boom of the Lloyds Administration,” Mars Historical Society, Vol. 48, No. 40 (Nov., 2168), 495-507.



Kara Race-Moore studied history at Simmons College as an excuse to read about the soap opera lives of British royals. She worked in educational publishing, casting the molds for future generations’ minds, but has since moved into the more civilized world of litigation. She currently lives in Los Angeles, the land where fact and fiction tend to blur.

Philosophy Note:

The history of humans on Mars is filled with tales of exploration, discovery and war – but it is also the story of making tiny seeds grow, and coaxing the red soil to produce something green. This is the story of the viticulturists who brought wine-making to Mars, daring to keep the art going, in the face of all obstacles. For further reading, many of the books cited are real.

The Gehenna Of Saint Augustine

by Joachim Glage

“The better a thing the worse its ruin,” Augustine said, but tenderly, to Porphyro, his last pupil. “Angels and men, when they fall, become more wretched than monsters.”

When Saint Augustine spoke these words he had less than an hour left to live. At the time—the year was 430, Visigoths and Burgundians hounded the empire on various fronts, and Vandals laid siege to Hippo—he was still but Aurelius Augustinus, not yet a saint; but his voice, though rattling from illness, sounded nobly in the still-proud Latin of Rome, and projected the special authority he’d gained during his life, as if his vocation (as bishop, as a statesman of Roman Africa) would not yet relinquish him, and as if he were somewhat more than a man dying.

Lifting his arms from his sides—he lay in his bed, almost still—and raising his cold fingers to lend emphasis to the words, he said to Porphyro: “Our natural goodness is a gift from God. There can be no worse evil than to squander it.”

The church was quiet. Porphyro looked about Augustine’s chambers and saw that psalms had been hung from the walls. Augustine, with a hand half-palsied, reached out and clenched Porphyro’s wrist.

In that moment, nearly a thousand years still stood between Augustine and his sainthood. Neither he nor Porphyro, of course, could have any inkling about that. Nevertheless the student swore that he could feel his teacher’s soul radiating all about him, and he knew that it had been specially touched by God, and his eyes filled up with tears.

At this, Augustine paused, suddenly aware of the shortness of his time. It may surprise you, my good and generous reader, but the man who wrote City of God and the Confessions,and who had long warned congregations in Hippo and Carthage of the corruptible body, had not given much thought to the subject of his own bodily demise. (It should be granted, at any rate, that the strictly physical fact of death, at least as a theological matter, could be of only minor interest to someone like Augustine.) What strange new thoughts now came to him?

One need not be a varlet to know the knight’s armor clatters before a campaign; likewise, one needs no special wisdom to predict that a man of old age—even one as notable and pious as Augustine—will, when harried by death, feel consternation about it. It is one thing to talk about dying, or about long eternities; it is quite another when rot creeps upon you. When Augustine looked up at weeping Porphyro, and felt his own heart quicken, he knew, for the first time and truly, that he was going to die.

“I’ve written a book that I’ve kept secret,” Augustine said abruptly. Porphyro wiped his eyes. “I’ll tell you where I’ve hidden the manuscript. You must promise me you will find it and destroy it, and not show it to anyone.”

Porphyro was taken aback, but nodded.

“You must promise me that you will not read the book, either, but will destroy it at once.”

Augustine’s student looked pained. Eventually he said: “My teacher, I fear my interest in your book will be too great. Perhaps if you tell me its contents, my curiosity will be diminished, and I will be able to destroy it without reading it.”

Augustine lay silent and still and with his hands clasped for a long time. At last he spoke:

“It was not long ago. I had recently finished writing Book XXI of City of God, where, among other things, I attempted to deduce the qualities of hell. As you well know, I wrote in that book that hell is a place of fire, and that the souls consigned to that domain have bodies which suffer burning. I wrote that these bodies do not perish in the flames, but are doomed to suffer them forever. I theorized, too, that any repentance in hell is fruitless, not only because the source of such penitence would be pain as opposed to goodness, but also because the evangelium proclaims it to be so: their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”

Augustine paused, coughed, and then adjusted himself in his bed.

“At that time, just as I was about to begin work on Book XXII, a man came to visit me. I knew straightaway that this man was an unnatural being, for he appeared in the exact form of my old acquaintance, Faustus from Mileve, whom I knew to be long dead. The man said to me, ‘I came to speak with you about hell,’ and then he grinned, and I knew it was the devil.”

Augustine fell silent for a moment. Porphyro raised up slowly in his chair, and barely breathed.

Augustine continued: “Very well do I know of the devil’s forked tongue, and how he uses flattery, and enjoys the fruits of his manipulations; so I paid him no mind when he told me he was a great admirer of my work. I ignored him, again, when he complimented me for the good I’d done for Rome and the world. Finally, he said to me: ‘When it comes to the subject of hell, however, you’re simply off the mark. May I offer you a glimpse?’ He then took my hand and kissed it. And then, without ceremony, he left.”

Augustine adjusted himself again, and took a moment to rub his eyes.

“That night I had a dream, a dream that was more than a dream. It was a vision. A vision of hell. The hell that I saw, however—or rather, that I now found myself in—was not a place of fire, but of water. ‘The water of knowledge,’ a voice whispered to me. ‘It encompasses everything.’ It was as if I’d been sent to the bottom of the sea, only, it was not dark; the water was limpid and bright, and it functioned somewhat like the sun, making all things visible. Moreover, I found that I could move through the water with ease, and I walked about on the ground normally. Nothing floated or swam. And yet I could feel the water at every moment. It moved over me, and its vibrations were like something alive.

“This hell that I saw, the landscape of it, was much like our own world, with creatures and plant-life and mountains and stones and plains; indeed the whole of beautiful nature was there. Nearby me stood a tree; I approached it. At that moment I understood how the ‘water of knowledge’ had earned its name. For what flashed upon me, from many of the water’s vibrations, was not just the sight of the tree in its current state, but in every stage of its existence. I saw it through the seasons, and as a seedling, and then as an acorn; I saw the changing life of the soil which nourished its roots, and the spread of the tree’s ancestors in distant woods; I saw the flattening of mountains to make room for it, and before that the receding of ice, and fire and explosions that were terrifying to behold—all things that took place over eons, and seemingly for the sole purpose that I might now gaze at these simple branches.

“Just then a voice spoke from behind me: ‘The water shows you everything.’ I spun on my heels and saw that it was Faustus of Mileve once more. Whether this was the real Faustus, or the devil again, I could not say. He continued: ‘The water makes sure that we see the absurdity of God’s generosity wherever we look.’ And then he smiled at me, and it was just the way he would smile many years ago, when we discussed theology.

“Without ado, he cheerfully began to criticize what I’d written in City of God. ‘Your first mistake,’ he said, ‘was assuming the primary substance of hell should be fire. The very lightest of elements!’ Faustus laughed, and I could not help but laugh too. ‘Even the simplest of principles,’ he continued, ‘ought to have suggested to you the opposite: that here, in this lowest place, the heavier elements, earth and water, should predominate.’ Again I was moved to laugh. He went on: ‘Your second error was conceiving of hell under that most human of ideas, that of retribution, as if hell were but a dungeon for the paying up of debts. But no, there is no paying of debts here. In truth, if there is a single axiom of this place, it is that: No debt is ever paid. Even to try is foolishness.’

“I then asked Faustus if hell was not a place of punishment after all. His answer astonished me. ‘But it’s all there in Genesis already,’ he said. ‘Knowledge is a kind of punishment, and perfect knowledge is perfect punishment.’ He paused to allow my confusion to settle somewhat. ‘It is just the same as with riches: the more you’re lavished with knowledge the more fruitless the abundance becomes.’ He smiled at my perplexity. ‘Just as there are solitudes that are accessible only in crowded cities, so does a general blur become possible when everything is thrown into relief equally. Where everything is luminous nothing is. It is not only in the dark of night that all cows are black, as the saying goes, but in the bright and full day, too. Or as we sometimes put it in one of our proverbs, There is more nothingness in a clod of dirt than in the empty air, and even the buzzing richness of nature only talks over itself. Call it the nothing of plenitude. There’s just so, so much. It humiliates you. It reduces you and even itself to naught.’

“We both laughed. I don’t know why we laughed so much. There was something preposterous about it all. And then Faustus suddenly cried out: ‘Oh you charmed creatures still on the earth! If only you knew how much passes right through you! If only you knew how faintly you exist! Here in hell we are dense, we collide with everything.’ Faustus’s smile then faded, and he said: ‘In hell it is evident that nothing we could ever do, even given infinite lifetimes, could earn the abundance bestowed on us. Even gratitude feels like foolishness. Nay, more than that. Gratitude is impossible here. We have too much.’

“We continued talking for some time. Faustus recited for me some more of hell’s proverbs, and he told me what society was like there, and he showed me a dark molten sea where people sometimes boiled themselves, if they burned with too much guilt (somehow they found this soothing). We discussed more theological concerns, too, such as whether one can sin in hell, or pray, or repent, and how vast a place it is, and what manner of demon resides there, and if hell be eternal or not, and how much the damned can recall from their lives on the earth, and so forth.

“When I awoke from this vision, I immediately set about to writing it all down. This labor took three days. On the fourth day I rested, but fitfully. On the fifth day I resolved to keep what I’d written secret. I reasoned as follows: Either my vision was a lie, or, if it contained some part of the truth, it was nonetheless that part that the devil was desirous for us to know. Either way, I figured, it must be suppressed. Why I did not destroy the text myself in that very moment, I cannot say. Pride, perhaps, or doubt. Sin, in either case!”

Augustine then told trembling Porphyro how to find the manuscript, and admonished him one last time not to read it, and then waved him away. Later that day Augustine lay dead, while Porphyro stole into a hidden recess underneath the baptistry. He found his way down a dark stair and through a low-arched hall, as instructed, and then moved aside the third stone to the left from a sign of the cross that had been carved on the wall. The only copy of De Gehenna lay revealed. He took the text into his hands. “I have a home for you,” he said, “in a library in a low place;” and then he fled away through the secret door, and over the mosaics set so carefully in the floors of the basilica.



Joachim Glage lives and writes in Colorado, where he also enjoys no longer being an attorney. The Devil’s Library, a collection of Glage’s fiction about imaginary and fabulous books, is forthcoming from Jackleg Press.

Philosophy Note:

The questions–rooted in what I call “imaginative theology”–that spurred the creation of this text were: What if Hell were the opposite of the abyss? What if Hell were precisely the absence of mystery? What if Hell meant the destruction of the possibility of gratitude, not through deprivation, but through abundance?

Second Genesis

by Carlton Herzog

Captain Olivia Mason, PSS Peary, Mission Report: Shackleton Rescue

We found two frozen bodies. One inside the wreck, another embedded in the ice wall. We also found the diary of Captain Red Lamont. We had to break the crewman’s frozen arm to pry it loose. As for the rest of the crew, they were nowhere to be seen.

When we returned to the drop ship, I began the slow process of thawing the diary. It gave a harrowing account of the crew’s last days. I will skip to the more relevant pages.

Captain Red Lamont’s Diary:

Day 1

“I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”

I thought Pluto, that cold and distant sphere with its singing nitrogen dunes and cryo-volcanoes, would scratch that itch. For a time, its geologic complexity and remoteness satisfied my wanderlust. It offered important work and purpose, as well as riches, in the frozen nitrogen trade. But like every place before, it eventually shackled my spirit. Every time I looked at its tidally locked moon Charon, which always presented the same face to me, my discontentment grew.

I would stand on Mount Cthulhu and gaze upon the glittering beauty of interstellar space.  I longed for a ship to sail that silent sea. I yearned to reach the farthest galaxies, and whatever lay beyond. Although there is no place other than the Earth to escape the lethal cold, I would gladly freeze to death in that airless void among the stars. For I would count myself a lucky man having charted my own destiny.  

As luck would have it, the Pluto Nitrogen Mining Corporation intended to survey the recently discovered Planet X, a distant giant planet 40 times farther from the sun than Pluto. Astronomers have suspected its presence for a century from its gravitational effects on other Kuiper Belt objects. But it was not until the Tombaugh Pluto telescope went into service that its existence was confirmed, and Planet X got a new name: Hyperborea.  

Day 175

Navigation is a problem. The amount and density of rock and ice fragments orbiting planet X present severe difficulties in achieving orbital insertion. The debris creates a further complication in its being highly ionized. and so likely to disrupt our instruments.   

For safety reasons, therefore, I have decided that we will forego orbital insert. Instead, we will launch the probes from our static position and await the data feed.

Day 176

Most of the probe data has been corrupted by the planet’s electromagnetic interference. My engineers are baffled as to its source. I am torn between ordering an end to the mission and returning to Pluto or attempting to gather the data by putting the Shackleton in low orbit under the EM field lines. The ship is more heavily shielded than the probes and should survive the encounter.  

Day 179

Lucky to be alive. Barely. When we passed through the EM corona, the Shackleton’s magnetic shield failed. After that, it was inevitable the impact of micro-meteors and other flotsam would rip apart the ship’s primary hull and send the Shackleton plunging nose first into the atmosphere.

The Shackleton split in two on impact. The bow was wedged on top of a large ice crevice. The stern had fallen thirty meters below it. It was lodged vertically against one ice wall and flattened hard against another. 

Day 199

Things have gotten ugly. Although the cabin air is breathable, it stinks of recycled human waste and electrolysis. Bathing of any sort, as well as shaving, is out of the question, so we all exude a primeval ripeness. To conserve power and fuel, we keep the cabin temperature just above freezing during the day, slightly warmer while we sleep. Sometimes lower. We sport icicles in our wild beards, hair and running noses. Somehow our brutish circumstances seem appropriate, given that our ship had been named after that most redoubtable of polar explorers and survivalists, Sir Henry Shackleton.

Day 233

Hyperborea’s cold grinds us down and drives some of us mad. To be sure, we have all been exposed to extreme weather as part of our deep space training. Who among us has not worked on Jupiter and Saturn’s array of icy moons. But there is an added element. Specifically, Hyperborea’s shrieking silence and frozen nothingness in every direction as far the eye can see. It gnaws at our souls like termites devouring a building from within. We are the only pulsing creatures in this stern desolation. There are no crystal domes inhabited by workers and scientists. No ships taking off and landing. No thermal drills melting through to oceans percolating below the ice. In short, all the signs and activities of human civilization have been left behind save its crumpled vestiges: our wrecked ship and our questionable emotional balance.

We would give anything to see a smear of stars burning in the sky, or a moon perhaps. Just a dash of  color and texture to break the monotony of the interminable ice plain outside. So, our minds obsess on the inescapable truth that we will likely freeze to death long before we are rescued. To make matters worse, the conditions of sensory deprivation, coupled with our dwindling rations and confinement magnify trivial events into things significant and problematic. To brush against someone accidentally, to take more than one’s perceived share of food, or to misstate an obvious truth, can cause a physical altercation. The slightest provocation, an insult real or imagined, can become grounds for fist fights and drawn weapons.

Day 269

We settled on using the repair pods to explore a heat source emanating from below. We had gone down half a kilometer when we spotted living creatures frozen in the ice. I think at one time the planet orbited in the solar system’s habitable zone where it evolved life. Then something came along and knocked it out here. During Earth’s period of heavy bombardment, the solar system was a shooting gallery of objects colliding with one another and redirecting orbits. Like Mars-sized Thea knocking off a chunk of the Earth to form the moon.

We pushed forward through the tunnel as it snaked downward into the planet. We came around a bend into an open expanse of water fronted by an ice beach and dotted with ice islands. But the most remarkable thing was the fauna. There were floaters, jellyfish-like creatures with positive buoyancy wafting through the air in incredible profusion. There were the alien equivalent of crabs scuttling across the cavern’s ice ceiling, with worms and other soft body creatures burrowing up into it. There was bioluminescent algae and algae grazers on the ceiling and on the water.

Yet, what astonished us the most was the coral blooms. Great spirals of it looping above and below the water. In the water, we could see what must have been predators with eyes on their upper surface looking for creatures clinging to the unsubmerged coral and the vaulted ceiling. Creatures using the same strategies for motion that evolved on Earth — paddling, squirting and rippling cilia.

The water was salt free, doubtless because the ocean had been planet wide. On Earth, salt in the ocean comes from two sources: run-off from the land and vents in the sea floor. Here there is no land run-off. As for the salts coming from the volcanic activity, they would be confined to the lower depths where they would be used by whatever life is down there. Consider too, that on Earth, salinity is very low at the poles. We counted our blessings that we only needed to boil the water before we drank it rather than having to desalinize it.

Day 300

We periodically returned to the Shackleton to gather our gear. We stay busy cataloging the life forms here. It’s an amazing eco-system that keeps us entertained and well-fed. We’ve had a few close calls with the local sea monsters. We’ve named them sea wolves, since they are covered in thick coarse fur, canine snouts, and rows of razor-sharp teeth. They are the apex predator down here.

Day 308

Unusual sighting: blue humanoid Gill Man walking upright along a coral column. He looked like he was harvesting polyps. When he saw us, he dove back into the water. Now we must be wary of the Creature from the Blue Lagoon as well as the sea wolves.

Day 309

Gill Man climbed onto the ice beach, walked up to Crenshaw, and touched his bare hand. Then he turned and dove back into the water. Crenshaw was beside himself. His mental state got worse as the day progressed because his skin started turning blue. 

Day 312

Crenshaw doesn’t look or act like Crenshaw anymore. Refuses to wear clothes. His skin from head to toe is sky blue and is manifesting incipient gills around his neck. His eyes have become protuberant–bulging like those of a fish.

Day 313

Crenshaw dove into the sea and never came up for air. He had become an aquatic creature on a frigid alien world. I wondered how he faired with all the other gill people. Did they speak to one another? Or was it an unspoken language? Was there a culture of sorts, a religion, a system of government? Or were they like dolphins, with a limited intelligence born of a purely aquatic and therefore limiting existence? I must know these things, and sooner or later, I will.

Day 315

I took off my gloves and sat by the water’s edge. I had been there a little over an hour when a Gill Man popped his head from the water, reached over and clasped my bare hands. From his odd fish-like face, I couldn’t tell if he had once been Crenshaw. But the congenial and gentle way he touched my hands, I suspected it had to be. So, now I wait. My hands have turned the tell-tale blue. I suspect by morning, I will be a blue man all over, and by the next day, a creature wholly of the sea before me. This, therefore, is my final entry. Whoever finds this diary should know I have no regrets about my choices in life though they led me to this premature end to my humanity. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, I have followed “Knowledge like a sinking star beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” 

End of Diary

Resuming Report of Captain Mason

In short order, we found the tunnel described by captain Lamont as well as the great cavern and lake of alien life. When we had finished our initial survey, we boarded the pod. I saw three figures emerge from the water and stand on a coral arch. They stood there watching us.

The crew of the Shackleton, for better or worse, had become a part of Hyperborea. They had passed through an arch to a gleaming untraveled world beneath the water. In that moment of reflection, I wondered if that body of liquid would be named after its discoverer alone, or would the entire crew share in the glory of having been the first men to explore the Shackleton Sea. Questions for minds better suited to such things than mine. Like Lamont, I too was an explorer. One cursed with an itch for things remote. An itch that might one day be my undoing or my fulfillment, or as in the case of Lamont, both.



Carlton Herzog publishes supernatural horror, science fiction and crime stories. His work portrays characters who are outsiders to ordinary life, depictions of otherworldly dimensions, and dark visions of humanity. He is a USAF veteran with a B.A. magna cum laude and J.D. from Rutgers. He served as Articles Editor of the Rutgers Law Review.

Philosophy Note:

The story should be seen through the eyes of Mr. Darwin, whose work had inspired it. The last paragraph to later editions of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species summarizes his views as follows: “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

Transhumanism – An Innocent Thought Experiment, Or A Canvas For Imagining Future Human Trajectories?

by Mina

The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes ‘transhumanism’ as a philosophical and scientific movement where current and emerging technologies are used “to augment human capabilities and improve the human condition.” But rather than the negative connotations of Nietzsche’s ‘superman’ or Übermensch, we have the more positive ‘posthuman’, who has enhanced capabilities and a longer lifespan through genetic engineering, or who has even achieved immortality. Humanity thereby transcends itself. Many authors and films, however, show it to be a dehumanising and alienating process: you only have to think of Huxley’s humans manufactured and grown without a family, without any real human connection, in his Brave New World; or the social chasm between ‘valid’ and ‘invalid’ in Gattaca.

In Ken Liu’s short story The Waves (in Humanity 2.0), we follow a space-travelling family as they achieve immortality through genetic engineering: some choose not to be modified but to age and die; some become immortal but cling to their human shells; others decide to join a merged mind (the ‘Singularity’), part organic and part artificial; and yet others choose to retain individuality in a ‘machine’ body. Over time, all evolve into energy patterns that become part of the ‘light’, with consciousness becoming “a ribbon across time and space”. For much of the story, the consciousness that was once Maggie is the story-teller, who passes on all the old creation myths, giving a constantly evolving humanity its roots or origins. In a moment of loneliness, Maggie lands on an unknown planet and tweaks the genetic code of some primitive creatures she finds there. Her adjustment will become the spark leading to further evolution, and this will trigger a set of waves: each wave will surpass the previous wave and reach further up the sand. It is with this image that this lyrical, dream-like story ends, with bits of sea foam floating up and riding the wind “to parts unknown”.

This positive view of the posthuman is shared by Nustrat Zabeen Islam. In an artic-let (it labels itself a three-minute read), she looks at SF and posthumanism. She states that the theme for many SF authors is “writing realistically about alternative possibilities”, where they harness technology to look at the future of humanity. She cites Alex Proyas’ film I, Robot as a perfect example of this. The film does not disappoint as long as one doesn’t expect an accurate rendition of Asimov’s short stories, although the nerd linguist in me enjoys that the comma survived in the movie title. Zabeen Islam is particularly interested in our fascination with and fear of the advanced technology of our imaginings. In examining whether this fear is irrational, she cites How We Became Posthuman by Katherine Hailes:

“(…) [T]he posthuman view configures the human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines. In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals.”

Nusrat Zabeen Islam then mentions Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman, which looks at what will come after ‘humanism’ and muses that “the boundaries between given (natural) and constructed (cultural) have been banished and blurred by the effects of scientific and technological advances.” With a final reference to Donna Haraway’s A Manifesto for Cyborgs, which declares that by the “mythic time” of “the late twentieth century… we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism.” She concludes that the whole point of contrasting (or blurring) human with AI life is to examine what it means to be human and the value of that life[1].

It seems to me that by coining the term ‘posthuman’, we are still very much focused on the ‘human’ element. SF could ultimately be accused of being self-referential and self-obsessed. Nusrat Zabeen Islam’s last line calls for “responsible transhumanists” and a “fearless real human race” that must seek the “development of human advance tools” and make “efforts to reduce disastrous risks”. This reference to our collective responsibility for our future leads me to a dense but ultimately rewarding article on the Anthropocene. In this article, the ‘Anthropos’ (Greek for ‘human’ and used in this context to mean humankind) remains centre stage. If you look up images of the Anthropocene on the internet, you find a lot of pictures of ecological devastation, or of planet earth with a giant footprint on it. This explains why the writer of “The Anthropo-scene: A guide for the perplexed”, Jamie Lorimer from the School of Geography and the Environment, is writing for the journal Social Studies of Science. He tackles the, at first glance, hubris behind the proposal that we have entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene (following the Holocene). He expands this narrow focus to a “charismatic mega-category” encompassing science, Zeitgeist, ideology, ontology and SF. In Earth System Science, the Earth is understood to be a single system (almost like its own life-form) “comprising a series of ‘coupled’ ‘spheres’ characterised by boundaries, tipping points, feedback loops and other forms of non-linear dynamics”.

In this context, the Anthropocene is seen to be a planetary ‘rupture’, with humans suddenly beginning to look rather like the destructive parasites responsible for the “end of Nature”. Some see it as a “new human condition” and Lorimer quotes Palsson et al: “Surely the most striking feature of the Anthropocene is that it is the first geological epoch, in which a defining geological force is actively conscious of its geological role.” It is seen as a “transformative moment in the history of humanity as an agent, comparable perhaps to the development of technology and agriculture.” Lorimer looks at the debate about whether humanity as agent is more a force for evil than good and, here, neologisms abound: Capitalocene, Anthrobscene (critics of neoliberal capitalism), Manthropocene (feminist critics), Plantationocene (anti-colonialists), Anthropo-not-seen (supporters of the decolonisation of mainstream discourse) and eco-rapture (heralds of the apocalypse). Less negative are ideas about a ‘technosphere’ (growing alongside the biosphere) and socio-technical ‘networks’ or ‘assemblages’.

Whatever labels you use, Lorimer sees an important role for SF in the debate:

“Definitive, fossilised evidence of a synchronous stratigraphic layer that would legitimately indicate the advent of a new epoch will only materialise several million years from now. The proposal for accepting the Anthropocene therefore requires a future geologist, living on, returning to, or visiting the Earth, and blessed with the sensoria and apparatus, capable of interrogating, the planet’s strata. The Anthropocene thus requires an act of speculation, somewhat alien to the retrospective periodisation of the geosciences.”

And SF is the way forward: “these books offer thought experiments, creating canvasses for imagining future planetary conditions, trajectories and events.” They can examine climate change, planetary disasters, post-apocalyptic worlds, dystopias, utopias and ‘ustopias’ (a neologism coined by Margaret Atwood that combines “the imagined perfect society and its opposite”, each containing “latent versions of the other”). SF could “offer platforms for normative interventions, seeking to guide current policy and to shape popular sensibilities and individual behaviours.”

Lorimer’s article is ecology-focused and anthropocentric. It postulates an interesting but narrow definition of SF. It reminds me of a thought-provoking paragraph by Katharine Norbury in her introduction to Women on Nature, where she challenges our use of the words ‘nature’ and ‘ecology’: “My real issue with the word ‘nature’ is that it is implicitly anthropocentric. It is, by definition, ‘them’ and ‘us’.” It might be better to use ‘ecology’, i.e. we too are part of a whole:

“And yet even the term ‘ecology’ takes no cognisance of a spiritual or other-than-physical aspect to that which we are seeking to describe. The unseen, the unquantifiable, and the sublime slips through the net. How many of us respond to something elusive, something mysterious about the natural world?”

For me, another role for SF is to speculate about the mysteries beyond the material universe and our human understanding. It is fashionable for SF to be jaded, cynical, full of (anti-)heroes and aliens that remain curiously anthropomorphic, including in their violent hubris, but there is also room for humility and wonder and reaching for that ‘something elusive’ and the ‘sublime’.

This division into ‘them’ and ’us’ highlighted by Norbury is challenged in an early (1961) Andre Norton novel that was one of my childhood favourites, Catseye. It is an adventure story set on a backwater planet. Norton imagines a world ruled by capitalism, income and class inequality, with the Thieves’ Guild as a major power and refugees from a distant war flooding into the slums or The Dipple. The protagonist, Troy Horan, is one such refugee, just one small step away from destitution and starvation. By luck, he ends up working in a shop dealing in exotic animals, where he discovers he can communicate telepathically with Terran mutant animals. Troy ends up on the run with two cats, two foxes and a creature reminiscent of a monkey, and this is where the book becomes interesting. He develops a partnership with the animals, where he has to negotiate with them and where the balance of power is decidedly not in his favour. The animals agree to work with him and become loyal to him but they follow his agenda only because it suits theirs. Together they form an alliance that helps them carve a niche for themselves on the planet. It is not a philosophically deep novel but it is very satisfying to see ‘the’ Anthropos becoming just ‘an’ anthropos.

On that note, here ends my series of articles loosely held together by the theme of humanism in all its forms[2]. As a parting shot, amidst a sea of neologisms, I would say that, whatever you see as the aim of SF, the only real crime in my book is a lack of periérgeia or intellectual curiosity. For curiosity knows no bounds and, especially when married to imagination, it may allow us to conceive of something beyond ourselves. Speculative sci-phi is for me what R.S. Thomas referred to as a “needle in the mind” in his poem The Migrants:

What matter if we should never arrive
to breed or to winter
in the climate of our conception?
Enough we have been given wings
and a needle in the mind…

[1] I examine this conclusion in more detail in my article on human-technology chimeras.

[2] See also my article on moral philosophies and its counter-point.



Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

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