Death comes knocking

Messengers From The Stars – No. 3 (2018)

Guest Editors: Martin Simonson & Raúl Montero Gilete
Co-Editors: Angélica Varandas & José Duarte

One of the fundamental characteristics of fantastic fiction is its capacity to penetrate apparently solidified textures, unravel the threads of canonical tapestries and reweave them into new patterns that complicate and problematize traditional notions of beauty as well as social, ethical and political premises. This inherent elasticity has also proven to be fertile ground for various kinds of generic cross-breedings – indeed, one of the most conspicuous features of such classics as Frankenstein (1818), Dracula (1897), The War of the Worlds (1897) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is the suggestive way in which they combine the genres of science fiction, dystopia and horror, to spectacular effect. Out of this generic mélange arise narratives that engage obliquely (albeit not less forcefully than works of social realism or naturalism) with contemporary social maladies. Shelley’s tragic tale, written at a time in which the ethical boundaries of science were called into question, revolves around the confession of a haunted scientist who refuses to take responsibility for the powerful creature he has unleashed; Stoker raises monsters from the dead in his portrayal of Victorian fears of colonial and female emancipation; Wells’ brilliantly imagined Martian invasion forces “civilized” readers to redefine the Other from the unsettling perspective of the colonized subject, and Orwell’s allegory of the perverse ménage-à-trois of totalitarianism, technology and propaganda serves to unveil the ugly reality behind contemporary political discourse.

In an ever-changing world, new social malaises keep appearing and one of the tasks of science fiction and other “fantastic” modes of writing is to provide alternative models and new approaches to such predicaments. Happily, the capacity of science fiction to problematize and subvert hegemonic discourse is far from dead, as the essays of the third issue of Messengers from the Stars amply demonstrate. Almost two hundred years after Frankenstein, the genre still mutates and cross-breeds with adjacent narrative organisms in order to tear open, expose and revitalize stale notions of reality, forcing us to think twice and look again – for one of the basic premises of science fiction is that the world is never definitely settled, never devoid of complication. The present issue of Messengers from the Stars centres on the disruptive, eye-opening and liberating possibilities of mutating science fiction narratives in a variety of media, ranging from novels to comics, films, TV series and photography. Collectively, the essays show that despite heterogeneous plots and settings, the artistic expressions under study all interrogate mainstream conceptions of reality and propose disquieting alternatives.

In the first essay, Katherine A. Fowkes sets the discussion in motion by contrasting the idea of the soulless zombie, this very modern monster, with that of the rebellious “trickster” to show how the subversive “trickster” qualities of fantastic cinema make it particularly apt as a generic vehicle for the purpose of breathing new life into outworn cinematographic discourse and expression.

Zombies are also at the heart of Amaya Fernández Menicucci’s analysis of Richard Matheson’s dystopian novel I Am Legend (1954) and its three movie adaptations. Fernández Menicucci holds that the presence of the undead in this story serves to set off the shortcomings of the traditional role assigned to male heroes, and convincingly argues that each version of the story reveals and dismantles contemporary conceptions of heroic masculinity, as the male protagonist evolves into a mythical Other.

In another reflection on how science fiction can engage with previous referents, Joseph Giunta discusses the Duffer Brothers’ suggestive use of science fiction and horror in the first season of Stranger Things (2016). In an intriguing reading of the creative forces of nostalgia at work in the Netflix series, Giunta contends that it reimagines the anxieties of an age through the postmodern filter of pastiche, but instead of merely replicating the nostalgized subject matter, the series subverts the tenets of its generic underpinnings (science fiction and horror), and contextualizes the sociocultural connotations of the period by inserting nostalgic intertexts.

The subject of Kwasu David Tembo’s essay is how another cultural icon of the recent past, Superman, is deconstructed in Mark Millar’s Red Son (2003) and played out as an agent of paranoiac horror. Tembo looks at the comic through the double lens of Foucault’s reading of Bentham’s “panopticon”, and argues that the supernatural capacities of the protagonist, together with the panoptic perspective of a “single superbeing”, boosts the powerful presence of an Otherness that introduces troubling elements of confinement and perpetual surveillance into the narrative.

Moving from the global to the local, Summer Sutton’s “A Narrative of Moral Imagination: Collective Survivance in Indigenous Science Fictions” analyses two recent narratives stemming from widely separated cultural spheres in her reading of Gerald Vizenor’s novel Treaty Shirts: October 2034 – A Familiar Treatise on White Earth Nation (2016), set in North America, and Ryan Griffen’s Australian television series Cleverman (2016). Sutton shows how the world-building dynamics of science fiction can be employed in combination with story-telling strategies rooted in indigenous cultures to give voice to natives who have been silenced by mainstream colonial discourse, and simultaneously articulate a project aimed at reclaiming the land taken from them.

Swedish photographer Thomas Örn Karlsson illustrates the essays of the present issue with a number of harrowing photographs, taken both in Sweden and Spain, in which he attempts to capture elements of fantasy and horror in natural settings. In the interview with Karlsson that follows the essays, he explicitly states that he seeks to “take people out of their comfort zone” – which today is just as much about taking the spectator out of the city as exposing them to the uncanny or grotesque. The combination of both elements comes through as particularly forceful in Örn Karlsson’s art.

Then, in a review of the recent adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for television (2016), Katherine Cornnell discusses how the series’ dynamics, based on a series of flashbacks from the protagonists’ peaceful lives in North America that are contrasted with physical violence of the dystopian present, parallels the current political climate in the U.S. and brings forth an atmosphere of muted but impending terror.

Finally, John B. Kachuba rounds off the issue with a suggestive short story about the lingering presence of the dead among the living and the effects of music on sensitive minds, which surely will incite more than one reader to re-explore Schubert’s symphonies in search of beckoning echoes just beyond the borders of awareness.

It is thus a pleasure to welcome the reader to join us as we unlock the gates to the unknown and embark on a journey through both uncanny and mutating spaces in this third report from the Messengers from the Stars.