Rooted in the disciplines of cultural and political theory, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Politics sets out to analyse the various ways through which a number of SF and fantasy franchises reflect, question, and perhaps challenge modern late period Western capitalism, and the ways in which fan groups both transform and conform to the questions and models presented in these properties. Through his examination of eight exemplars—Tolkien’s Middle-earth (and in particular the films); Star Trek (in particular The Next Generation); George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and its television version, Game of Thrones; Battlestar Galactica (focusing on the 2004 remake); Spartacus (book and TV series); The Hunger Games (books and films); The Walking Dead; and Janelle Monáe’s “Metropolis Saga.” While most of these began life in a single form—books, a television series, graphic novels—nearly all of them have expanded out from their origins to exist across a wide range of consumable media (including in several cases both computer and tabletop games, action figures and interactive advertising provided by the producers). Hassler-Forest sets out to chart how these fictional worlds have responded to the challenges of modern capitalism along roughly chronological lines (although it should be observed that most of the texts and responses cluster in the 21st century). This is an interesting book, an ambitious one, and in some ways a challenging one, but it’s a book I’m very glad to have read and one which opens up a number of potentially productive new lines of criticism, analysis, and research. The texts—if a book that concentrates in the main on television and film can be said to have texts—are grouped in pairs, linked roughly by date, and each pair analysed in terms of changing social and imaginative responses to the demands of modern Western culture and economics and how that culture has placed constraints on this, and in most cases relates fan activity to this. He makes a number of cases along the way, both on a text-by-text basis, and a more general one, and while I have questions and reservations about the former, I have to say that by and large he makes a solid and well-supported argument for the latter: “… these imaginary empires have a radical potential that reflects some of the most basic contradictions of capitalism. The way these contradictions are negotiated, both within the texts and in their reception, teaches us a great deal about the contradictory logic of immaterial labor, participatory culture, and the imperial nature of global capitalism” (p.194). The problem, as he makes clear, is that the logic of capitalism itself constrains and warps the creative impulse at multiple levels, from internalised cultural norms to the demands of the market, and no text, however pure the original impulse, can remain outside the capitalist framework. More, indeed: many creators end up unable to escape fully this scaffolding, which is refracted in the details and boundaries of the worlds they create. Further: when a text expands outwards into wider media, more and more layers of market demand and expectation come between intention and presentation (hence, for example, the increased objectification of women between the book series A Song of Ice and Fire and the TV show Game of Thrones, driven by a cultural insistence that “sex sells” and that the default and significant gaze is straight, male, white).
Hassler-Forest identifies several stages and modes of response, from the nostalgic and ambivalence of Tolkien towards industrialisation and change to the complex, non-conformist, and radical vision of Monáe (who explicitly denies the norms of late capitalism via her independent, collaborative, and cooperative means of production alongside her visions of futurity and post-humanism). This makes for a convenient analytical framework, though his division of his texts into pairs is sometimes a little awkward, involving chronological and media-based jumps that can be disconcerting—and, in the cases of the first and last pairs (Tolkien and Star Trek; The Walking Dead and Monáe) somewhat weakens his argument. His logic in selecting these pairs is sound; it’s more that the texts themselves tend to sit uncomfortably together (at least for this reader). Tolkien and Star Trek both found potent responses in 1960s counterculture, and some fan reactions to the book The Lord of the Rings did indeed reflect the optimism and romanticism of the original series of Star Trek. But Hassler-Forest concentrates on the films of Tolkien’s work, as there is already plenty of critical work on the books. Peter Jackson’s films are several stages away from both Tolkien’s books and early fandom (they are, in particular, far more focused on the individual, which Hassler-Forest notes). And Middle-earth did not spring from the same idealism that fuelled Gene Roddenberry in creating Star Trek, and for me, at least, any analysis of Lord of the Rings in a transmedia context is incomplete without rather more attention to the original authorial impulses, sources, and influences. Middle-earth is indeed hierarchical, class-ridden, and inherently racist and misogynist, as a reflex of its writer’s context. But alongside his internalised prejudices and his romanticism, Tolkien went some way to present an (admittedly background) image of an alternative to the industrialised society that surrounded him, and an alternative political model. This is neither the bucolic Shire, nor the idealised kingship of Aragorn, but the Rohirrim. Drawing on late nineteenth-century rediscoveries of the Icelandic sagas and Anglo-Saxon poetry, Tolkien describes a culture that works by consensus, under the leadership of a ruler who is not absolute (unlike the rulers of Gondor, or, apparently, the later heirs of the Noldor) but who requires at least some level of consent and has high levels of obligation. (It’s also slightly less sexist than other parts of Middle-earth.) The films remove most of this, but it should be noted in passing that in terms of the world of men, it is the Rohirrim, and not Gondor (let alone the fading worlds of elves, ents and hobbits), who are envisioned as the probable future—and may represent on some level Tolkien’s vision of a better form of social order. Plus the Rohirrim are not nostalgic (a word which fits most of the text) but forward-looking. This element might, I think, have helped expand Hassler-Forest’s argument at this point (and expanded his analysis of how Lord of the Rings tries to make sense of a contradictory world). In terms of the final chapter and pairing, I am unconvinced of the post-human potential of The Walking Dead (although it is, as Hassler-Forest points out, a sharp and effective response to the fears inherent to late capitalism). This is, I will admit at once, down to a difference in interpretation. To me, The Walking Dead is a deeply libertarian, and inherently capitalist property, which simply replaces the current social Others of Western culture with zombies while reinforcing tropes around gender, race, ownership, and patriarchy. As such, it has less for me to contribute to any envisaging of genuine post-capitalism (even in terms of a failed or flawed response) than say, iZombie (which gives its zombies agency) or the SyFy show Dark Matter, which juxtaposes multiple forms of post-humanism with a range of social responses to capitalism (including imperialist businesses, re-formed feudal cultures, attempts to reinvent the nature of humans, and revolutionary action). This is not to say that Hassler-Forest’s analysis of The Walking Dead is weak—it is not—or uninteresting. But I am unconvinced that it has as much to say to his overall thesis as the work of Monáe, with which it is paired. (And which, on the strength of this book, I listened to: I am profoundly grateful to Dr Hassler-Forest for the introduction.)
The greatest strength of the book is, I think, in the analysis of fan culture, and Hassler-Forest’s detailed presentation of the ways in which production companies co-opt, manipulate, and exploit fan activities is extremely important. Reader/viewer/player reactions are increasingly marketised, and companies increasingly expect to be able to control these in order to add to revenue streams. Star Trek was an early pioneer of this, with the novels—essentially authorised fan-fiction. Fan responses are often extremely creative, and introduce radical elements (particularly around gender, sexuality and masculinity) to their canons. And, as Hassler-Forest points out in the case of The Hunger Games, fans will critique marketing and rework it to other aims, often far less money-focused than those of the company producing it. The incursions of late capitalism into every element of daily life and the imposing of marketing opportunities into creative properties are one of the greatest challenges faced by modern culture and Hassler-Forest’s makes a convincing case for the co-option of the immaterial (and unpaid) labour of fans by Big Capital. If I have a caveat, it is that he perhaps does not go far enough into how fan culture collaborates with this (his best case for this is Spartacus). This extends beyond consumption and free marketing into the internalised assumptions of fans themselves. It has to be noted that for every genuinely challenging text, from Lord of the Rings onwards, there are fans who remove the political and radical elements and instead normalise the characters within their own every day, late capitalist culture. This is perhaps most apparent to me with explicitly political texts—Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Les Miserables, The 100, Blake’s Seven—but seems to happen across most canons, including pretty much all those studied by Hassler-Forest. Fans downplay or remove political content via mundane alternate universe stories without the challenges of the original, by focusing on romance or family, and by backgrounding (or, in a handful of cases, outright denying and demonising) the original political concerns of the text. This is a fine example of contagious capitalism: creators may offer challenges to it, but some fans are unable or unwilling to engage with them at all.
This is an interesting book, and one that I hope will open up new areas for debate. It is not perfect—I could wish for a better gender balance in the creators of the texts, and, in a couple of places, for a less male perspective on those texts. (I think Hassler-Forest has missed the subversive force, for instance, of the refusal of Katniss Everdeen to take power at the end of the series; her action is not normative, but an overt challenge to patriarchal models of hierarchy and a reinscription of her own agency.) It is a very Western-focused book and, with the exception of Tolkien, entirely North American. Cultural responses are variable, and there are a few assumptions which are too Western (I am less certain that the sharing of experiences by Western fans is as subversive as the books suggests, for instance, because individualism is a marker of Western capitalism). It is not an easy read, unless you are familiar with modern theoretical models and language. It is, however, well worth reading and a valuable contribution to academic debate.