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science fiction

Book Review: Deleuze and Baudrillard: From Cyberpunk to Biopunk

25 Apr, 17 | by amcfarlane

Deleuze and Baudrillard: From Cyberpunk to Biopunk by Sean McQueen, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016, 288 pages, £70.

Reviewed by Dr Anna McFarlane (University of Glasgow)

Sean McQueen’s first monograph ambitiously aims to create “a cognitive mapping of the transition from late capitalism to biocapitalism” (1) and to do this through tracing trends in science fiction from the cyberpunk movement of the 1980s and early 90s through to a subgenre only recently designated as ‘biopunk’. Following Fredric Jameson, a scholar known for his analysis of postmodernism and Marxism in late capitalism, McQueen argues that cyberpunk is the quintessential literature of late capitalism and therefore a fitting place to begin his analysis of this recent cultural movement from late capitalism to biocapitalism which, McQueen argues, “is the frontline of capitalism today, promising to enrich and prolong our lives, whilst threatening to extend capitalism’s capacity to command our hearts and minds” (1-2).  In McQueen’s schema this is a transition from the ‘control’ of late capitalism to the ‘contagion’ of a biocapitalism that he argues is an increasing threat to individuality and the autonomy of the body.

The book’s title belies its contents to some extent, given that the first half of the book does not focus on texts from cyberpunk’s ‘canon’, such as it is, but focuses on the ‘cyber-‘ aspect of cyberpunk to investigate texts that engage with the concept of control. Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) is not generally considered cyberpunk-proper in reviews of the genre, but its themes of control, and of the renegade individual fighting subjection by the state, certainly resonate with the work of figures in the cyberpunk canon such as William Gibson and Pat Cadigan. Another of McQueen’s chosen texts, JG Ballard’s novel Crash (1973), has been subject to debate about the extent to which it can be considered science fiction, let alone cyberpunk. Such deviations from the ostensible theme may be traces of the monograph’s origins as McQueen’s PhD thesis, but their reworking in this monograph is satisfying for those coming to the book for considerations of Deleuzian and Baudrillardian thought, who might consider the texts to which their philosophies are applied a secondary consideration. McQueen successfully cuts through the archaeology of decades of readings and misreadings of these two thinkers, often with a sharp word for scholars who come to the original philosophy with their own preconceptions, and hence leave it repeating unjustified or inconsistent critiques of these two thinkers. His own readings come across as fresh and new, perhaps because he works against a backdrop of scholars who have become too accustomed to invoking the names of Deleuze and Baudrillard without putting in the time to tackle their complex bodies of work first-hand.

The primary interest in the book for scholars of the medical humanities comes in the latter half, where McQueen turns to biopunk. This is a relatively new term in science fiction scholarship (following in the -punk traditions of cyberpunk, steampunk, and dieselpunk, to name but a few), but McQueen finds the term’s origins in classic science fiction, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818, commonly considered science fiction’s foundational text) and HG Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau (1896). The first example of contemporary biopunk McQueen draws upon is Vincenzo Natali’s 2009 film Splice, in which a couple who work for a pharmaceutical company use DNA to create a hybrid creature.

The film draws on the tradition of Frankenstein to express fears of uncontrollable technological change, while also specifically critiquing a biocapitalism guided primarily by profit margins, rather than by philosophical or ethical considerations about the effects of its research.

McQueen’s readings of Deleuze and Baudrillard focus on some of these thinkers’ key concepts, how these have been relevant to cyberpunk and its investigation of ‘control’, and how they might function in contemporary debates about the ‘contagion’ that McQueen finds characteristic of biopunk. He contrasts Deleuze’s concept of the ‘body without organs’ with Slavoj Žižek’s ‘organs without a body’, both of which attempt to offer a representation of desire without the restrictions of hierarchy (to draw on only one valency discussed in the book). Žižek provides something of a bridge between Deleuze and Baudrillard here, as his Lacanian impulses are echoed in Baudrillard’s attempts to consider psychoanalysis, and how it might function in a society defined by the imaginary realm of consumption and consumer fetishism. Under biocapitalism, the consumption impulse could quickly move towards the point where the market’s freedom to use cells and discarded bodily tissue for profit is in tension with the long-held belief that it is immoral to profit from the cells of organs – as argued by Marlon Rachquel Moore in a recent article for BMJ Medical Humanities, “Opposed to the being of Henrietta: bioslavery, pop culture and the third life of HeLa cells”, which teases out the historical racial injustice that is now being relived, without hope of reparations, by the family of Henrietta Lacks whose ‘immortal’ cells continue to be the basis for untold profit in the biotechnology industry. The move from co-opting the labour of classes of the population under slavery, and later forms of capitalism, to co-opting the use-value of the body itself is the journey with which McQueen engages here as he moves from readings of Karl Čapek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1921), the science fiction play that brought the word ‘robot’ into English usage, and Eric Garcia’s The Repossession Mambo (2009, filmed in 2010 as Repo Men) which sees a biounderclass fitted out with artificial organs and forced to pay crippling interest rates or face having their organs repossessed – and dying in the process.

The electronic copy of this book, from which I reviewed, leaves something to be desired. Like many academic books, it uses endnotes which cannot be easily referenced as one reads in the electronic form, and the book’s use of abbreviations for the major works of Deleuze and Baudrillard exacerbate this problem as the reference list at the beginning of the book cannot be easily consulted. This makes for particular difficulties when quotes from the major texts are picked out as introductory to chapters and their sections, leaving the reader occasionally unsure as to which of the theorists is being quoted. However, the content of the book ultimately extends the case for considering biopunk as a unique and important subgenre of science fiction that, in turn, deals with the unique and important development of biocapitalism. McQueen’s readings of Baudrillard and Deleuze manage to scrape away some of the sedimented assumptions and misreadings of the past and offer exciting new ways to consider their work. His reference to both major and minor texts from both thinkers will introduce readers to insights they had not previously considered – again, especially relevant to students of the medical humanities might be Baudrillard’s comparison between cancer and capitalism in The Transparency of Evil (1990), the biopolitics of organ transplantation in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), or Thierry Bardini’s account of subjectivity after bioengineering, Junkware, which McQueen turns to in his final chapter reading of Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral (2012).

As I pointed out above, McQueen’s book does not always stick to the limits laid out in his title, (for example when he reads texts that are not considered archetypically ‘cyberpunk’ under that rubric, or in the latter half of the monograph where Foucault’s thought is just as crucial to his argument as that of either Deleuze or Baudrillard), and his book should come with a warning for those who have never tackled Deleuze or Baudrillard before, given the slew of concepts that are not fully unpacked here for beginners. However, the book that emerges is cohesive and amounts to an often passionate argument for considering class consciousness in the era of bioengineering, biohacking, and biopolitics.

Film review: Arrival

19 Jan, 17 | by cquigley


What can aliens teach us about being human?


Review of Arrival, my film of 2016 (USA, 2016, directed by Denis Villeneuve)

By: Dr James Hartley, Foundation Year 2 at Brighton and Sussex University Healthcare Trust


The above question is one that is commonly asked in the sci-fi genre. Think Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of homo sapiens eternal desire for survival when pitted against “the perfect organism” in Alien, or Scarlett Johanson’s exploration of the human experience in Jonathon Glazer’s abstract extra-terrestrial-thriller Under the Skin. In Arrival, the latest outing from talented Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, based on a short story by author Ted Chiang, the study goes more than skin-deep and profound questions are raised that have relevance to us not only as humans but as clinicians.

Twelve alien space crafts with the appearance of giant obsidian eggs have landed on our planet. Within each machine there is a gravity-bending corridor that, every 18 hours, opens itself, inviting visitors from planet earth. Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a highly regarded linguistics professor, is tasked by the US military to establish a dialogue with the life forms within. As Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) puts it: ‘What do they want? Where are they from?’ Her partner for the challenging task is Physics jock, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Using linguistic science as their weapon, the duo battle with the 7-legged ‘heptapods’ and their inky ‘logographic’ scrawls. In the global backdrop, there is a growing unease amongst certain nations about the true nature of the intergalactic guests and to complicate matters further, Dr Banks is struggling with a growing intensity of traumatic memories and visions. The film builds to an emotional climax and ends as any good cerebral drama should; answering some questions whilst leaving others open for further thought.

Language and the role it plays in our thinking is the beating heart of the film. Defined as “the method of human communication[i]”, language is something that many of us take for granted. At 18 months old, humans already have a vocabulary of 50-100 words, and by age 5, some of us are able to practice the art of literacy, lending permanence to our thoughts and cognitions. But how does language influence our thoughts? And is it even possible to ‘think’, without language? In linguistic circles, these questions sum up a theory known as the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’. Whilst the theory is not without contention there does appear to be a growing body of evidence demonstrating the powerful effect of language on thought.  In their study into the effects of Korean and Chinese language on visual interpretation, Rhode et al (2016) showed a statistical difference in “attentional bias”. Korean speakers were more likely to focus on information in the background of an image (‘ground information’), whilst Chinese speakers better recalled information pertaining to ‘salient figures’ in an image. The authors postulate that the formal structures of language itself underpin these differences. In Arrival’s take on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Dr Bank’s growing adaptation to the non-linear constructs of heptapod language allows her to perceive the world in a different light altogether – an eloquent, if somewhat hyperbolic, demonstration of the differences seen in Rhode’s 2016 study.

Thinking of language in a medical context, we can appreciate the impact of pathology on language in stroke syndromes. There are a number of language deficits that occur depending on the site of vascular brain damage. Wernicke’s and Broca’s aphasia are two ‘textbook’ examples (Harding M, 2014). The effect that these deficits can have on one’s cognition is demonstrated powerfully in the documentary film ‘My Beautiful Broken Brain’, which tells the story of Lotje Sodderland, a young Londoner who suffered an intra-cerebral haemorrhage in 2011. I was fortunate enough to see the film and meet Lotje, when she visited Princess Royal Hospital in October 2016 as part of the ‘World Stroke Campaign’. In the film Lotje presents the world around her after her stroke as surreal and frightening, comparing it to a David Lynch film. Lotje’s stroke had affected her temporal and parietal lobes, causing severe aphasia and changing her perception of the surrounding world forever. In an article for The Guardian, which Lotje dictated via siri following three years of intensive rehabilitation following the stroke, she explained that losing the ability to speak, read or write had left her “unable even to contemplate the idea of fear…as if I had become fear itself” (The Guardian, 2014). In a strange resemblance to Dr Bank’s familiarity with heptapod’s ‘non-linear logograms’ in Arrival, Lotje describes her new-found perception as lacking in ‘left-to-right’ patterns. In a further echo to Dr Banks character awakening at the end of the film, Lotje describes her new world as “a kind of rebirth; unexpected and painful, but also more vivid, filled with purpose, meaning and potential”. Not withstanding the significant differences that exist between Denis Villeneuve’s fictional screenplay and Lotje’s challenging reality; both Dr Banks and Lotje’s stories demonstrate the power of language in its influence on the mind.

Arrival is one of the most interesting and emotionally arresting films of 2016. It is refreshing to see a big budget Hollywood film not shying away from exploring a thought-provoking idea based on solid scientific grounding. In addition to highlighting the importance of language in human cognition, the film also delivers another topical message; the merits of compassion, understanding and tolerance in ‘trumping’ over wall-building and divisiveness, a message more pertinent than ever in our current socio-political climate and one I hope we can carry forward into 2017.



  1. Rhode, a.k., voyer, b.g. and gleibs, i.h. (2016) ‘does language matter? Exploring chinese–korean differences in holistic perception’, 7.
  2. Harding, m. (2014) dysarthria and dysphasia. Medical information. Patient. Available at: (accessed: 3 january 2017)
  3. Sodderland, l. (2016) ‘i felt as if i had become fear itself’: life after a stroke at 34. Available at: (accessed: 20 december 2017)


Recommended further reading:


Address for correspondence:

Science Fiction Book Review: Spaceship Medic

23 Nov, 16 | by cquigley


The theme for the next issue of Medical Humanities is Science Fiction. There are many online articles already available on the theme (see Related Reading below).


A Spaceship in Trouble: Reflections on Harry Harrison’s Spaceship Medic.

Puffin books, 1976

Kindle version currently available


Reviewed by Matthew Castleden


Lieutenant Donald Chase, a young medical officer serving on the interplanetary passenger liner Johannes Kepler, is relaxing on a bunk in the sick bay— with a textbook describing the effects of low gravity on bone deterioration— when he feels an impact shudder through the fabric of the ship, followed immediately by a cacophony of alarms. A meteorite has blasted through the bridge and killed all of the vessel’s senior officers, leaving Chase, as the highest-ranking remaining member of the crew, as captain. He must overcome a series of seemingly insurmountable crises— including massive solar flares, mutiny, and a mysterious epidemic— that threaten the survival of everyone on board. Drawing on a broad knowledge of astronomy, physics, and chemistry, whilst utilising a newly qualified doctor’s grasp of his own craft, and showing an impressive capacity for logical reasoning and quick decision-making, Chase struggles against the odds to bring his ship safely to— where else— Mars.

The late Harry Harrison (1925-2012) clearly wrote the novella Spaceship Medic with children, and more specifically boys, as his target readership. Published in 1970, the story must have appeared dated even then. The linear narrative describes a strong male character problem-solving his way through a series of ‘hard’ science challenges, in a hierarchical space setting that any reader familiar with ‘Golden Age’ science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s would immediately recognise.

Of course, none of this mattered to one young reader who stumbled upon the story one sunny afternoon sometime in the late 1980s. He picked up a well-thumbed Puffin edition of Spaceship Medic in his school library and was instantly hooked. Perhaps he linked the simple heroism described in the book to his sketchy knowledge of his grandfather’s experiences as a newly qualified medical officer serving on board a Royal Navy frigate in the North Atlantic convoys. It certainly brought the boy’s nascent interests in science, medicine, and storytelling together into one irresistible package. And it undoubtedly contributed to the development of two significant lifelong interests: medicine and science fiction.

It is a gripping tale. The thrills of a taut, tight plot are spilled with sparse, unpretentious language and near-faultless manipulation of dramatic tension. Much of the science, particularly with respect to orbital mechanics and spacecraft design, holds up well and the extrapolations remain plausible. The overall plot direction holds no big surprises: with the exception of one character, we are left in little doubt as to who are the good guys, and who the bad (and they are all guys). In many respects it is simple, straightforward science fiction: a tale of Boy’s Own derring-do in space, with the only obvious quirk being the professional background of the protagonist.

Re-reading the book nearly thirty years later, Spaceship Medic is both less and more than I remember it from that afternoon in the school library. It is short— easily demolished in a couple of hours, then as now— and the limitations of its language, structure and broader social and cultural perspective are sometimes painfully apparent. Yet there is more going on than the direct language, simple narrative form and Golden Age trappings might suggest, and much in the portrayal of the protagonist that remains relevant to the practice of medicine in the present day.

There is certainly more to the young Doctor Chase than first meets the eye. He spends most of his time competently dealing with one disaster after another, yet is constantly assailed by doubts regarding his capacity to succeed in his new role and, on occasion, sinks into ‘black depression’ when considering his situation. Chase’s predicament appears to be an exaggerated version of the insecurity —sometimes manifesting as fully-fledged ‘impostor syndrome’— that many doctors experience at various times in their career: often in its early stages, when starting new jobs or ‘acting up’ in a more senior role. Unexpectedly assuming command of a stricken spacecraft tumbling through the uncaring vacuum of space may not be too dissimilar, in terms of its emotional and psychological impact, from enduring a busy and chaotic acute hospital medical on-call shift for the first time as a junior doctor.

It is significant that we first meet the young medic reading a textbook. Circumstances may force Harrison’s reluctant protagonist into an active role, but he is first introduced to the reader as a thinking man. The tension between contemplation and action is a common thread running through much of Harry Harrison’s work: many of his protagonists are compelled to negotiate the difficult path between thinking and doing, which is, of course, a familiar one to most doctors.

Chase’s insecurity is unjustified; he overcomes his fears and delivers excellent outcomes to the population under his care, and does so in a manner that may seem familiar to modern medical readers. Despite working within the hierarchical environment of a spaceship the young doctor’s approach to problem solving is essentially collaborative, and he relies extensively on the knowledge and experience of the other members of his team. An early scene in which he evaluates the key skills and strengths of his remaining crew and delegates accordingly reads like an illustrative case study for a contemporary leadership and team-building exercise.

The story also prompts broader consideration of the scope of health and healthcare. We can see how the death of the Johannes Kepler’s senior officers allows the reach of Chase’s medical practice to suddenly expand to encompass the functional health and pathophysiology of the entire ship, not just the physical health of its human passengers and crew. Through Chase’s medical eyes, we start to view the spaceship as a body; a holistic socio-technical system comprising both physical hardware, and the lives and interactions of the people it carries. It is hard to read the story as an adult without constructing extended spaceship analogies: spaceship as hospital; spaceship as a microcosm of society; perhaps even ‘Spaceship Earth’.

Harrison’s choice of profession for his protagonist provides is itself telling— as is that of his mutinous antagonist, one of the ship’s passengers named General Briggs. Briggs is pompous, hidebound, and has an overinflated opinion of his own self-worth: an embodiment of Harrison’s distrust of the military dating from his time in the US Army. Harrison’s portrayal of Chase establishes the medical profession as an alternative, non-military ideal for young men: one that showcases qualities such as determination, hard work, and self-sacrifice without the need for violence or killing.

Spaceship Medic therefore sits squarely within the pacifist school of medical science fiction. Like James White’s Sector General series of novels, it paints a refreshingly positive picture of medicine within its fictional future. Although the world it describes is, in many respects, similar to the old-fashioned medicine of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries— male-dominated, hierarchical, and heroic— elements of Harrison’s essentially liberal worldview are also evident, and there is much in his portrayal of Lieutenant Donald Chase that a contemporary doctor would recognise. In short, it is a curious and compelling mixture: while its dated setting and structure may reflect the Golden Age of science fiction, there are signs of a more open, experimental and progressive ‘New Wave’ sensibility lurking beneath.

But first and foremost it is a ripping yarn. The story was written to inspire interest in science in young people by engendering a sense of fun and excitement. As Harrison wrote: “Science, and the facts of science, can be fun – because real things make a real world.” [a]

For one once young reader, it was and is an astounding success. Thank you, Harry Harrison.




Related Reading – check out these Science Fiction titles online first at Medical Humanities:

Doctors in space (ships): biomedical uncertainties and medical authority in imagined futures

The medical science fiction of James White: Inside and Outside Sector General

Human life as digitised data assemblage: health, wealth and biopower in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story

Zombie Tapeworms in Late Capitalism: Accelerating Clinical and Reproductive Labor in Mira Grant’s Parasitology Trilogy

Rewinding Frankenstein and the Body-Machine: Organ Transplantation in the Dystopian Young Adult Fiction Series Unwind – Original Article

Towards A Structure of Feeling: Abjection and Allegories of Disease in Science Fiction ‘Mutation’ Films

Film Review: Doctor Strange

7 Nov, 16 | by cquigley

The theme for the next issue of Medical Humanities is Science Fiction. There are many online articles already available on the theme (see Related Reading below). The blog will feature a series of reviews and original pieces on Medical Humanities and Science Fiction over the next weeks.



A Superhero inside you…


Review of Doctor Strange, USA, 2016, directed by Scott Derrickson, in UK cinemas now.

Reviewed by Dr Khalid Ali, Screening room editor.


Can a blockbuster film telling the story of a Marvel Superhero ask serious existential questions about mortality in a character-study narrative in addition to providing edge-of-the-seat popcorn entertainment? Doctor Strange, the 14th film from the Marvels Cinematic Universe (MCU), responds to that question with an emphatic Yes, and makes the viewer eager to see part 2 in the not so distant future. Dr Stephen Strange, played with abundant charm and wit by Benedict Cumberbatch, is an egotistical, highly driven brain surgeon who is called upon to operate in the most complicated life threatening neurosurgical emergencies. An unexpected turn of fate in the form of a car accident causes serious damage to his hands, preventing him from operating. A series of surgical interventions fail to restore his hand function. His quest for super-natural recovery takes him on a journey of self-discovery around the world, and an ultimate Superhero transformation.

The key to Doctor Strange’s redemption as a human being comes with a hefty prize; he must choose between saving his career as a surgeon and ‘saving the entire universe’. Even though he is an accomplished surgeon, Doctor Strange still needs a mentor in the form of ‘The Ancient One’, played impeccably by Tilda Swinton, to help him unravel the mysteries of the universe. The values of apprenticeship, such as listening and following advice are extremely challenging to a highly qualified surgeon who is used to the rules of strict mentorship and to being obeyed. Through the journey of the reluctant student and his benevolent master, serious questions about the sanctity and purpose of life, the nature of religion, and philosophy are posed.

In spite of the fact that the theme of ‘One chosen man saving humanity’ has been explored before in films like The Matrix, Superman and Spiderman, Doctor Strange still manages to look and feel original with mind-blowing time and space bending special effects. The co-existence of kind and caring traits alongside an evil personality in one doctor have formed the backstory of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. However, Doctor Strange takes the theme of good vs. evil to a whole new level by expanding the personal struggle to explore the basic nature of human existence – our purpose in life, spirituality and faith, and man’s everlasting quest for eternity.

Several scenes will be familiar to an audience with a healthcare professional background: Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) features twice, in one scene graphic details of how to perform peri-cardiocentesis (evacuation of blood from around the heart) are shown, and in another highly imaginative scene, the dying patient being resuscitated leads the CPR procedure. In addition to the physical dimension of the CPR act, a parallel exploration of who determines a patient’s best interests when it comes to making the ultimate ‘Do not Attempt Resuscitation’ (DNAR) decision. The scene of a key figure dying, and using their power to stretch time to enjoy a few more seconds of living, is a powerful metaphor for the value of life of patients in their terminal stages. It is also a call for doctors to truly appreciate the significance of their irreversible judgement when they stamp that DNAR order. An inherent ethical and moral dilemma faces Dr Strange when he is about to kill for the first time; he questions his convictions as a ‘doctor sworn to save lives’ who is about to take away forever a human life.

Are doctors so different from Superheroes? Both save lives and care for humanity. They might wear different uniforms; doctors mostly wear white coats, while Superheroes wear trademark costumes like Doctor Strange with his ‘Cloak of levitation’. The story of Doctor Strange reminds us that doctors are as vulnerable as most other human beings, and are prone to accidents, personal and professional setbacks and tragedies. A redeeming fact though remains in that both doctors and Superheroes still have the power to overcome adversary, and save themselves and potentially others. One life saved is as worthy and as valuable as saving millions of lives. So if you happen to be a doctor, search for the Superhero inside of you.


Film trailer

Film poster and trailer are included with permission from Disney Entertainment, UK.


Address for correspondence: Dr Khalid Ali,


Related Reading – check out these Science Fiction titles online first at Medical Humanities:

Doctors in space (ships): biomedical uncertainties and medical authority in imagined futures

The medical science fiction of James White: Inside and Outside Sector General

Human life as digitised data assemblage: health, wealth and biopower in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story

Zombie Tapeworms in Late Capitalism: Accelerating Clinical and Reproductive Labor in Mira Grant’s Parasitology Trilogy

Rewinding Frankenstein and the Body-Machine: Organ Transplantation in the Dystopian Young Adult Fiction Series Unwind – Original Article

Towards A Structure of Feeling: Abjection and Allegories of Disease in Science Fiction ‘Mutation’ Films


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