“Sick at Work” by Dona McCormack



Yuki cramped over double and dropped a clot of blood into the toilet. Both lips bit down between teeth and she clawed the slick, silver poles she couldn’t see through the wash of pain snow. White ice uterus in shreds and breath burst from her nostrils with another little plop, plop into the bowl. Knees like water as the blade in her belly melted to lava. Black frosting on the crotch of her favorite purple silk panties with the pink lace accents. She lifted the thin barrier between her body and her creamy beige pants. Released her lips in a blood-tinted inhale of relief that no leaks had made it through. Suddenly aware of the yawning gap at the bottom of the bathroom stall, she pulled her pants and underwear up, pinning them in place with the tension of her spread knees.

Irregular bleeds could mean a few things, but they often meant Yuki getting caught in the bathroom without protection for her underwear. And she was not prepared with the five quarters she needed to arm herself with the sanitary napkins in the bathroom’s wall dispenser. She scraped at the oxygenated blood in her panties with dry toilet paper and tried not to cry. She wanted to talk to Butch, who would at the moment be perched on the couch, making smart-aleck remarks at The Talk, which she loved. She could tell Butch about her irregular bleeds and painful uterus and ovary garbage. He would ruffle his mohawk and pinch his face and screech in his grating voice, “Son of a bitch!” Since that about summed up how she felt about her uterus and ovaries most of the time, his company and response in these times was what she wanted most. But Butch was an eight-mile uber ride across town.

And an eight-minute walk outside the bathroom door sat her tidy desk with her aloe plant and her picture of Butch in a red frame. The phone, she knew, was a dazzle of red lights, because she was in aux eight. That counted against her time management, which counted against her review, which counted against her salary and her bonus. A cramp of anxiety gripped her as she thought of aux eight. Yuki unspooled the rough stuff from the roll next to her and wove it around the crotch of her underwear. She knew from experience it would turn to gravel in her crotch, but it was still better than nothing. She peeked between her legs.


She reached behind her and flushed.

“That’s new.”

She stood up and pulled up her pants. The lava in her belly shifted down and settled. “That’s new too.” She grabbed her purse and stepped out of the stall. Froze on her way to the door. She stared at her reflection. Her skin looked like daffodils, and her eyelids where they wilted brown. Her lips still bled and swelled where she’d bit them. She stepped to the sink and tended her lips, but the cuts were deep. In her purse, beneath a tiny sealed clay jar of her mother’s burnt bone and ashes, she found makeup. Makeup fixes everything.

Three steps from her desk, Yuki’s knees slipped and slid like water. She could see Butch’s picture—his white plumage magnificent, his beak open in a joyful squawk, his keen black eyes following the camera. She focused on him to get her to her comfortable ergonomic chair, geared to her perfect settings. She fell into her seat. The lava in her belly spread upward. Her pants squelched.

She reached for her headset, wanted to relieve the phone of its many pinging lights. She wanted to work. But her fingers felt slippery. For that matter, she thought as she ran a finger across her forehead, all of her felt wet and slick. Her neighbor-across-the-divider glanced at her, did a double take, his eye’s filling with concern. Mark’s salt-and-pepper spikes and forehead and blue eyes—the view she was used to—became a full man as he stood up and said into his headset, “Mr. Phares, I have just poured piping hot coffee on myself, I’m going to have to put you on hold.”

Seconds later he leaned over the divider and asked, “What’s wrong with you?”

Yuki froze. She trusted Mark. But he wasn’t Butch. Could she tell Mark her ovaries were rioting and maybe trying to kill her right here in her seat? Would he think her inappropriate for having a body with a uterus and ovaries that got sick at work?

Prickles of ice began to stab her in the eyes and tickle her fingers and toes. Bursts of light and rainbow colored the edges of Mark’s face and hair. She couldn’t tell him. Couldn’t admit having those body parts. Not to him. She sank further into the lava in her chair.

Butch swam to her out of the swirling light. “I’m sorry, bird,” she mumbled.

“What? Yuki!” Mark tore off his headset and all but vaulted the divider. “Noodle, what the hell is going on?” He pelted around his desk and hers to kneel by her chair.

“Maybe you’ll outlive us both.”


Dona McCormack is a queer, disabled writer living in Northeast Ohio with their partner of 19 years, our 5 fuzzbutts, and their too-big turtle named Bob in her 65-gallon tank. They are completing their Master’s thesis in English and Creative Writing from SNHU. They write short stories and my publishing credits include Tahoma Literary Review, Helen Literary Magazine, and Postcards Poems and Prose Magazine.



“The Bugs Are Apparently in Me” by Vanessa Maki

System Log


The definition of a “dirty computer” is very much similar to what Janelle’s description happens to be. Everyone can come up with their own definition, of course. Regardless, in the eyes of ignorance and hate, I’m a dirty computer.

There’s a sense of internalized shame in being seen as someone who has corrupted files in a sense. It’s even more prominent in those of us who have grown up in religious spaces. Such as Janelle I’ve been surrounded by religious people all my life. That’s something that’s brought on a lot of resentment towards the universe. The “why couldn’t I have been born in a life where I can be myself fully?” passes through my mind too often. This has fractured how I look at religion quite frankly.

“Searching for someone to fix my drive
Text message God up in the sky
Oh, if you love me, won’t you please reply?
Oh, can’t you see that it’s only me?”

This part of the song explores Janelle’s confusion about her own religious standings. She’s a black queer woman that grew up in the Baptist faith. She also said in this interview:

“A lot of this album is a reaction to the sting of what it means to hear people in my family say, ‘All gay people are going to hell.‘ ”

Verse 3 is so very important for the album itself. It’s pointing a huge finger at the idea that queer folk who may believe (this term takes on different meanings)  in the Christian God , are no longer loved. That their queerness in itself makes them unloved and doomed. For me verse 3 causes me to get introspective (this album does in general) and it makes me think of my own personal experiences. How this album would have been even more powerful during my teen years. How it would have changed how I saw myself.

Being black or any other person of color also comes into play and dances hard with the shame of being queer. The world hates you double time. It slaps the label “dirty computer” before it even realizes you’re queer. Then once it does you get the same label again. While I’m hated for more than one reason, I wouldn’t want to get someone to fix my drive.





Vanessa Maki is a queer writer, artist & other things. She’s full of black girl magic & has no apologies for that. Her work has appeared in various places like Entropy & others. She is also forthcoming in a variety of places. She’s founder/EIC of rose quartz journal, interview editor for Tiny Flames Press, & regular contributor for Vessel Press. She enjoys self publishing chapbooks. Her experimental chapbook social media isn’t what’s killed me will be released by Vessel Press in 2019. Follow her twitter & visit her site.


“word as a four-part vanishing act” by Quinn Lui





Quinn Lui is a Chinese-Canadian student who wrote this instead of sleeping at what would be considered a reasonable hour. Their work has been published in L’Éphémère Review, Synaesthesia Magazine, and Occulum, among others. You can often find them loitering in bookstores, getting overly invested in D&D characters they will never play, or spending too much money on milk tea instead of actually studying.

“and god said: no gods” by Grey Burnett



before punk was Punk,

before even she was “street

urchins” or “worthless”

she was “rotten wood

used as tinder”


before god took her safety pins

and pierced the world

she was already

promised to the flame


(i too

am kindling)


they say rock and roll’s

post-war anxiety headache

got so bad he took his ax

and jack-nicholsoned Punk

onto 1974’s pavement

fully disformed

she decrees:


and chugs a molotov

she is beautiful

like a burning cop car


(“faggot” is also

made to burn

from the tinder

of witchfires

i rise flamboyant)


this god is not dead

this Punk is not dead

she resurrects in the flames

black leather phoenix

burning in the small places

every day by every show

she is very much like me


(and sure that’s

why i thought

i wrote better

drunk like hey

this alcohol is so

damn flammable

you know

we spent three

whole months

on fire that hot


and it’s the same

chemical in

cars too and

we drove fast and

we drove loud and

oh god we ran and—)

Punk grabs me by shoulders

lovingly socks me

across the face







Grey is an ill omen currently manifesting as a flock of blackbirds in Salt Lake City, Utah. She currently serves as managing editor for ellipsis…Literature and Art and in the past has fulfilled the roles of poetry editor and productions editor. She is a judge for the 2018 IronPen competition at Utah Arts Festival. You can find her interactive poetry at https://greyb.itch.io/

“There is a City Where Fire Burns Underground” by Kailey Tedesco and M. Perle Tahat

Becoming Mysticore: A Guide to Post-modern Occult Empowerment

Screenshot 2018-10-14 at 1.07.41 PM


M: I tell my friend who is not from the U.S., “There is a city where a fire burns underground indefinitely.”Watching the 2006 documentary The Town That Was centering the lives of Centralia’s residents from about the 1960’s neglects the history of the upheaval of indigenous people. I thought of Centralia while watching VICELAND’s Abandoned, in particular there was an episode on abandoned shopping malls (season 1, episode 1 “Ghost Mall”) where Ohio residents in their 30’s offer a tour of one of the malls. There’s a scene where one of the men is pointing to the smashed store windows and garbage littering the inside of the mall tearing up saying, “I just wish people would respect this place, you know? Like people spent time here, they loved this place.” In my mind there is this low twang saying “No, you are erasing indigenous communities and their original inhabitants here. You are asking for the respect you never gave or don’t remember or were never taught.” As with Centralia we are looking at a narrative removed from its larger history, but it’s as if the land remembers and has this sense of humor and ability to renew the space, even if it’s through purging the inhabitants.  One of the pieces I took away from the film A Ghost Story (2017) was that same way we can observe the futures and pasts of Centralia in one panorama if we decide to be critical of the discourse based on what we can learn about our shared histories. M. Ansli Dukan who works in the tradition of afrofuturism notes as a rationale for their 2016 film Invisible Universe, “In the present we dreamed of this future, in the future we dreamed of this past.” Centralia is all its past and all our futures locked up in one space and set free by fire. Centralia as representation of white settler colonialism and what we will become, our inevitability in the U.S. that’s why this space is engrossing. There’s also this ecofeminist critique that’s glaring: these miners came into this space to strip resources from the land with no regard for the future and within only a matter of one hundred years or so we see the culmination of these intentions as something that has inspired eerie tales of horror in the public imagination.

K: The woman I nannied for as a teen was the first person to tell me about Centralia. One afternoon when she was driving me home, she started talking to her kids in the backseat about how her school bus used to travel over a town of fire. As a fifteen-year-old Pennsylvania newbie, this was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. Intrigued, I asked her to tell me more, and I got the whole story.

It wasn’t until a whole decade later that I traveled to the town to see it for myself. It wasn’t at all what I expected. And you’re right, M., the whole place is just this rejection of its population. The environment retaliated & smoked out its inhabitants. There are no ghosts except for the town’s glaring inability to move forward and/or reflect, even now. I think of Pompeii — all the bodies preserved in their soot. The culture of the surrounding towns is similar. Here’s just a little bit of my day in Centralia:


  1. Ate at a diner in western PA. This diner, decked out in gaudy patriotism, was a welcome rest spot after passing many an all you can eat buffet advertising “seafoods & steak products.” I wore crystals & dark red lipstick and my partner wore jorts. An elderly couple in a booth did not take their eyes off of us the entire time we ate. In the back, by the restroom, a chalk drawing of Trump stared out at all of us.


  1. Our trip to Centralia was a spontaneous one. We were initially going to go to the Mütter Museum, but took a wrong turn (it’s kind of all the same, anyhow). I needed to change out of my dress and clogs, so we stopped at a Dollar General. I bought some shorts & some walking shoes. As we approached the check out line, the cashier spoke with another woman about how lazy millennials are & how the world is screwed because of us.


  1. We pass a woman mowing her lawn outside of a ranch home. This is the last residence we see before entering the winding side roads that lead to Centralia’s graffiti highway. The woman has covered the entire front of her home with an enormous “Make America Great Again” banner. This seems comical to me especially because the America this woman presumably knows best has literally been on fire since 1962.


  1. We enter Centralia and start to hike. We want to check out the Russian Orthodox cemetery, completely untampered with. A man in a t-shirt and jeans casually slings a rifle over his shoulder. There are families with children just in front of him. We’re told that as long as he doesn’t shoot, there’s nothing we can do. We don’t check out the cemetery.


  1. We finally descend to Graffiti Highway. The whole town is a slow descension. It’s trying to convince you that it’s the real hell & maybe it is. Before I can take in the wonder of vandalism negated by abandonment, a group of men on quads shout about what they wish they could to anyone with a “tight pussy” who happens to be walking by. My partner and I look to two other women walking by. We form a temporary pack. We all have the feeling it is needed.


What is left of Centralia is at once a Norman Rockwell painting, flipped inside out to show its implicit exploitation & destruction & prejudice, and a sacred ground — the answer to what happens to Americana when it dies.   And it is dying. That fire is spreading, literally and figuratively. It’s begging for change, but few seem to be listening.

M: When I was a teen my then boyfriend used to play video games and invite me to hang out in his friend’s attic while they played. Since I was the guest I’d always request they play Silent Hill because the story and realistic (at the time) graphics were intriguing to me.

There was something about the way I’d been taught that made me feel like I needed to ask someone to play the video game for me while I watched. The man is looking for his wife. So here I am asking a group of young men to play a video game where they are in first person looking for their wife who presumably has mental illness from postpartum and trying to raise a daughter in a world she can’t entirely fathom by herself. This idea that we, as people who are imperfect and partially guided by outside forces can be guides to small humans is frightening. In the film I am struck by the attention to motherhood, mental health, and connection to traumatic memory. Therefore when the man as the protagonist of the video game is led by the whims or the will of a woman who forces him to grapple with all she has buried underground is a highly subversive theme, even now.

Kailey Tedesco and M. Perle Tahat are the co-founders of Rag Queen Periodical and met in Eastern Pennsylvania in 2014.

“Closing Time” by Ben Berman Ghan


“Playa” by Judith Skillman


The Machinery sings itself to life at opening time again. Automated hinges framing long broken windows tremble and twitch, trying to light up the empty displays along the street, to open the wooden royal-blue double-doors, to let in the waiting customers to fill the stools and couches and unsteady chairs. But the doors aren’t there anymore. There’s nobody outside. Somewhere behind the counter, an old voice calls out the last instructions in its memory, words that weren’t meant for animatronic cooks.

Beneath a soft layer of dust, long black burns pattern the white marble.

The paint on the walls has outlasted everything else. A dull, permeating yellow, brushstrokes of the sun reach out, wrapping the room in a warm embrace that curls around to the entrance to the kitchen. There are shadows on these walls, and on the tiled black and grey floors. The snow-angel outlines of people who were pressed into the old bricks long ago. There’s one, over by what was once the dish bins, where dirty plates were carelessly tossed by exiting patrons. It has one arm raised up, just above its face, like it’s waving to something outside, where once there’d been a bright light, but no more.

The machines of the fully automated bistro are doing their best. They are powered by a central city grid that has survived neglect and violence and decay. The grid is deep into the earth, converting power from the molten core beneath. It will last until the world falls apart. There are no shadows behind the counter or the bar. The machines could do everything themselves, even the cooking.

The final orders travel through the microphone by the counter. The payments, once automatically scanned for the convenience of the customer through dna-checking and logged permanently in the system to be able to check against complaints or miscalculation in payment, have never gone through. The machines are still stuck, always trying to process that last day.

Outside, nature has begun to take back the streets as radiation fades. Moss and shoots are growing through the cracks. The cursive yellow letters that still stand hanging from the bricks along the windows, welcoming the patrons in from the cold or the snow, have been adorned with flowers, purple and blue droplets spreading slowly to take in a spring that is soon coming. The words cannot be seen.

But inside, words still hang above the fake fireplace – its digital flames signaling that the heater has been switched on – and flicker to life as the sun goes down, a light in the darkness.

The tacky yellow writing has faded. Only one legible word is left standing, a signal. Another shadow stands next to the word, its arms are raised, as if reaching out for the writing on the wall. The word is: Futures.

At six in the afternoon Eastern Standard Time, there’s a howl of wind from the ruins outside, and Server, a holographic representative of the kitchen systems, appears by the door. Today, Server is the shape of the former 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy. Algorithms had confirmed the average Canadian would have been more likely to recognise a famous American historical figure than one of their own.

“Welcome to Futures,” Jack says to the wind, and the ghosts on the yellow walls.


The ship touches down at the corner of Bloor and Avenue Road, what had once been a major intersection, violent with cars and life. The skeleton of a museum is standing there waiting for them.

The ship leaves a hiss of thin smoke in its wake, like the shadow of old smoke that has long since faded into the sky. Where does the ship come from? It originates from the Moon, hanging in the chilly night, and the people who live there.

Three figures emerge, vacuum sealed, bodies hidden behind white clouds of suits equipped with oxygen tanks and reflective visors. They move slowly, alien to their world of origin, a world they have only ever watched as a light in the sky. They move in formation, the first leading down the street, two flanking on each sidewalk. They are the ship’s captain, the ship’s engineer, and a cultural historian.

Where do they come from? They come from the world beneath their feet and above their heads, from the fringe societies built on the oceans and in the bunkers in orbit, that have survived the end of history, and waited for everything to become safe again. They had left Earth for the dream of a good life. They are coming back for the same.

They keep their radiation suits, cobbled together memories of the uniforms of early space explorers, sealed tight. They are waiting for their ship’s close-range sensors to confirm or deny that the world around them is safe once more to breathe, to touch. Their computer is not like the one that’s waiting ahead for them. Their computer understands.

They already know how long the radiation check will take. They already know the details of each other’s work and research. They all know Engineer’s grandfather came from Toronto before the fallout. They all know this is the Captain’s twenty-second exploration into regions that were deemed uninhabitable. They know the world is always silent to the Historian, whose visor subtitles the words of her companions, just as the other two’s visors translate the signs her hands make in soft, quick movements that are almost dancing.

They speak just to fill the silence that has lingered over most major cities for over two hundred years.

There’s a scream when Jack appears – muted by the speakers of the radiation suit, audible as only a trembling. To the Historian, it registers as closed captions in her visors reader.

“Welcome to Futures!” says America’s 35th President, his smile just as composed and knowing as it was in film reels of black and white, long since lost.

The Engineer, close enough to the doors of the diner to activate its sensors, steps back. She’s still screaming. The Captain holds up a long, thin silver instrument, that curves through the air out in front of her, she presses a trigger on the top, and a hot, orange beam of light erupts from the tip. She fires her weapon out of fear. She fires out of surprise. If Jack had been real, he would have been killed all over again. But the beam passes through, harming nothing. It cuts through the wall beyond, and is no more.

The Historian does nothing. She doesn’t understand. All she saw was a person, and she saw them smiling, and breathing without pain. She doesn’t realise her mistake, the unreality of Jack, until after her visor has slid up, and exposed her face to the quiet evening. But she can breathe anyway. The world has made itself ready for more than cockroaches again.

“Welcome to the Future!” Jack says again. “A table for three?”

What can they say? Slowly, with hesitation and confusion, they are brought inside, where the shadows are waiting.


Their helmets are set on an empty table, their heavy white suits draped over crooked chairs. There’s no need to wait for the all-clear anymore. Movement upsets the dust. Movement brings the world back to life. Is there music playing somewhere? It’s hard to tell. The computer has scanned its new patrons. They are unhappy. They are confused. It is trying to create a better world for them. Speakers have long since rusted over. Old songs are long forgotten. Nothing comes.

A voice asks if they are ready to place their orders. Nothing happens. A timer is set. They will be asked again, after having time to think. The three explorers sit in their undersuits, breathing in air that had long ago been damned away from them. The Captain speaks first.

“How is this place still here?” she asks.

“Just luck,” says the Engineer. She’s looking at something only she can see. Her eyes are full of lights. Her own computers are trying to understand. “The initial structure must have survived the blasts by pure luck. As to how it’s still running…” She tilts her head downwards, looking deep into the floor. “God. The generators are geothermal. This building, this whole city, has enough power to go on forever.”

Geothermal? signs the Historian.

“Directly from the core of the Earth, though it’s hard to imagine how that was achieved. Some glitch, or malfunction has left this place on, while the rest of the city has depowered.”

The Historian looks like she wants to throw up. The Captain is perturbed. The shadows on the walls are waving, unseen. Three glasses of water are poured into the only remaining red glasses, and sent along to the table, deposited by a conveyor. The Engineer stares into the glasses. The captain doesn’t wait. She picks one up. She sips before she can be stopped.

“It’s just water,” she says.

The Engineer drinks. Systems inside of her run diagnostics and display contents.

“There are no traces of radiation,” The Engineer says. Her voice trembles. “It’s clean.”

The Captain begins to shake. In the beginning, she cries. In the end, she laughs. “We did it,” she says over, and over again.

“We did it, we did it. We can come home.”

The Historian has picked up a menu. Her eyes wander down the list of items long since gone. The computer waits and waits. Eager to help, not knowing its fridges are empty.

The Historian shakes her head. She looks unwell. They ask. She signs I’m not sure.

The Captain and the Engineer are arm in arm. This is their celebration. They are pioneers. They have rediscovered the world. They sit facing the window, looking onto the grassy, messy street. At one point, the Captain begins singing. It isn’t a song the others know.

The Historian sits facing the inside of the restaurant. She observes the cracked glass of the still clock. She watches the play in movement put on by the digital fire in the fireplace. She watches the shadows on the walls. One of them is waving at her, arms raised high. Her companions are formulating a plan. They want to contact the colony. They want to tell people to come home again. Very slowly, humanity could begin to spill out from the few pockets in which they have survived for the long years, and return to the world they left behind.

No, she signs to them. I want to wait.

They look at her, their lips wet, their mouths curled into frowns. They don’t understand. She hides her face from them a moment. She replaces it with a mask of her face. The mask is like the computer, with its mask of President Jack. The masks smile, meaning nothing.

I want to learn more, she signs, and there’s no tremble or change in the fluttering of her hands as they speak for her. Before we leave, and others come. Please.

The Engineer and the Captain, comfortably numbed revelries, lean back, satisfied. They believe that they know all they need to. They believe the Historian is in it for the money, for the esteem of her research, for the exaltation and praise of her peers.

The three pioneers, flesh bodies in the land of shadows, agree to stay the night. The Historian is going to learn what she can from the computer restaurant. Perhaps together, they can understand.

Two are lying down to sleep. They’d spent a long night awake in the ship. One is sitting in the kitchen. Two are closing their eyes, safe and happy as heroes. One is considering the computer’s history, and finding videos, and finding information. Two are being watched by the shadows, and still, they have not seen them. One is learning who the shadows on the walls once were. She’s learning about the world that once was.

She is crying.


It’s just after two in the morning. The late hour does not bother the old diner. It doesn’t ask its unexpected guests to leave. Closing time has not yet come.

There’s the short, brutal hum of a weapon’s discharge, then an explosion, its source only eleven minutes’ walk from the always open front doors. The two occupants of Future’s Bistro are ripped into waking by the nightmare of fire and poison. Neither scream. Their hair and clothes press against them. The sprinklers, still working, go off in fright. The water washed away the dust.

The two explorers stumble outside to look at the sky. Low hanging clouds glow in orange and red hues of a sunset; the blackness of a moonless night has come to life with the light vapours of fuel cells, now vanishing into the air, leaving only smoke. The two triumphant pioneers watch as their ship burns on the blackening horizon. Inside, the waters finally cease. Water drips a quiet rhythm to the floor.

The Captain runs towards the smoke. The Engineer calls for her to wait, a voice unheard, their communications still disconnected, sitting uselessly on empty tables, pooling cool water. She’s left standing with President Jack. President Jack apologises to the Engineer for the unexpected rain, and offers her a choice of drinks, on the house. The Engineer doesn’t hear.

She hears a scream. She hears a second hum of plasma fire. In the light, the Engineer watches the form of a woman burn up in in bright orange, her arms raised, and scatter. She leaves behind only ashes.

There’s silence again.

The Engineer watches as another woman emerges from the smoke of the night in the dead city. The Historian is dressed only in the undersuit that helps to separate the explorers from their protective shells, hair tied back into a tight ponytail. With one hand, she holds the Captain’s long, silver instrument of death, taken in the small hours while the Captain and the Engineer slept. The other hand moves quickly through the air.

I’m sorry, she signs, I’m sorry.  

“Why?” The Engineer asks.

Let’s go back inside, the Historian signs. We can talk.

The tracks of tears have made lines down the Historian’s cheeks, but she no longer cries.

The Engineer reenters first, turning her back on the blackness of the post-burnt streets. The Historian follows, the gun still raised. As the old sensors feel the movement once again, Jack changes shape, a new face, to greet new faces.

“Hi!” the face says. Neither women react. They don’t know who the painted face is supposed to be. “Welcome to the future!” Ziggy Stardust says, smiling through mismatched eyes.


Closing time is coming. It won’t be long now. Two women are sitting at a table. One clock has stopped. The other beats steadily forwards. The lights of the restaurant are the only lights anywhere.

“You destroyed our ship,” one says with sound.

I did, the other says with fingers. I couldn’t let us signal the colonies. We would have brought people back here.

“You killed Captain Cohen.”



She wouldn’t have understood, sir. She was the only one with a communicator implant.

“Why haven’t you killed me?”

You can’t communicate with the colonies without the ship. I’m hoping I can make you understand.

The Engineer is older than the Historian. She considers that younger face. She sees what she does not understand. The computer is watching them. It takes in the words of the Engineer as orders, not knowing what to do with them. It cannot learn the signs of the Historian. Somewhere along the way, that understanding has been lost. The shadows are watching too. They don’t see anything.

The Engineer shakes her head. She does her best not to look at the gun.

“I can’t understand murder,” she says.

If the computer could, it would start playing music. Music was always a gentle way to end the night. But a speaker has fallen into disrepair. Its two customers sit in silence.

If we allow people to return, and try to rebuild the Earth that was, we will kill millions. Maybe we’d be killing our whole species, I don’t know.

The Historian’s degree is not formal. There were no exams, no tests of her qualifications. Her knowledge is from the books of her childhood, and the mere fact she can read. Not everyone can. She did the best she could, to rediscover a past that had been burned away. She’s done her best.

I have seen the records of the kind of place this was. She signs. Do you know what happened when they automated this city?

“No,” the Engineer says. “I didn’t think about it.”

They fired four and a half million people. The signs come slowly, with caution yet confidence. Her fingers moved with the need to be understood. At the time, Toronto was home to almost six million people. Nobody found anything else for those millions to do. They found no new work, they were given no help. Those few who became rich took everything and left nothing. Nobody needed the poor anymore. There were the rich, and the homeless. There was nobody in between.

“You can’t know that,” The Engineer says.

I can. The computer remembers. It showed me everything last night, while you slept. You were lying on a graveyard, sir. Didn’t you know that? You slept on corpse-dust. If you’d looked carefully at the menus, you would have noticed that you could order long-pig. The poor became so desperate to save their families that they sold their own bodies as food, so the rich could try something new and exciting for dinner. They didn’t even see people as people any more.

“People would never be so cruel to each other again,” the Engineer says. She’s still watching the gun. “We have learned.”

We have learned nothing, the Historian signs. You don’t even see them.

She’s speaking about the shadows. They do not change when noticed. They keep their arms raised.

The Engineer says nothing. She is beginning to understand what will happen, though she doesn’t understand why.

The off-world programs are only just starting. The new, habitable planet, is seven light years away. Where there’s one, there must be more. We can’t come back to this world, and these systems. Everything will just end up the way it was before. We need to leave it behind, we need to forget all this. Already there are city-ship programs being designed that could carry people across space by the thousands. The city-ships could take us out to worlds where we could really try again.

“But the City-Ships might not be ready for hundreds of years!” the Engineer says.

News of our failure will delay another North American expedition for at least twenty, the Historian signs. Her mask is beginning to crumble. Behind the mask is death. Twenty is all I can give them to change their minds about the Earth. There’s nothing here for us but pain.

“But we don’t have any room left!” The Historian cries. “The Atlantis colony and the Lunar City are full. The city limits can’t be stretched any further, our resources are dwindling. Our people need more room to live right now. They can’t wait to get to a new world.”

They’ll have to, the Historian signs. They’ll have to.

“You’re a historian,” the Engineer reasons. “You must know, whatever broken records you’ve found here, they cannot be conclusive. The only histories we have are myths. You can’t apply that to our future.”

The Future can be just as much a myth as the past, sir.

The Computer has started its final countdown for closing. It will bring its guests a last cup of coffee. Decaf, in consideration of their nerves. It doesn’t know it can only make hot water.

The Historian moves first. The Engineer doesn’t have time to scream.

There are two low hums, and two flashes of orange light. There are no bullets fired. There are no bullets needed. Two new shadows have appeared where two women once had been. Each has their arms outstretched. They are here to stay. The silver gun lies below the hand of the fresher shadow, still smoking.


The lights go out at closing time, but nothing rests. The broken doors cannot shut. The computer cannot sleep. The computer is still straining to fulfill its orders with empty kitchen.

There’s a rustling outside. A small cat, black and white and orange, appears from the undergrowth of the broken city. It climbs into the warmth of the ancient, abandoned bistro. There’s nothing the restaurant can do about it. The cat settles down inside a white helmet that sits resting by the bar, never to be used again, and goes to sleep. It’s slow, small breaths are the only movement, and the only sound.

The computer will keep on going past closing time. It doesn’t understand what to do with the end of history. Its shadows on the walls are all waving, or covering their faces, or reaching out to each other. Two of them are blacker and newer than the rest. They do not see what the others saw. They see only each other. The others all point towards the doors.

There was a bright light there once. But no more.



Ben Berman Ghan is an author and editor from Toronto, finishing an HBA with a major in English Literature, and minors in Philosophy, and Writing and Rhetoric at The University of Toronto. His next book What We See in the Smoke occurs in the place where the ideas of classic science fiction meet the interpersonal concerns of all literature.

This story will be featured as a chapter in Ben Berman Ghan’s upcoming book What We See in the Smoke from Crowsnest Books.
Judith Skillman is interested in feelings engendered by the natural world. Her medium is oil on canvas and oil on board; her works range from representational to abstract. Her art has appeared in Minerva Rising, Cirque, The Penn Review, The Remembered Arts, and elsewhere. She has studied at the Pratt Fine Arts Center and the Seattle Artist’s League under the mentorship of Ruthie V. Shows include The Pratt and Galvanize. Visit jkpaintings.com

“Review: Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer” by Paula Ashe and Jaime Hough


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Let’s start with the fundamentals: Every single song on Dirty Computer is good.

I don’t mean good in an I-want-to-teach-it-way (although I do) or good in a contains-layers-of-nuance-and-depth way (although they do) I mean just good-good. I mean good in a I-could-listen-to-this-all-day-way and good in a I-never-get-tired-of-this-song-way and good in a I-think-this-song-is-my-favorite-but-how-can-I-really-choose-when-they-are-all-so-good kind of way.

You’ll like all of the songs on Dirty Computer, but you’ll love a few of them.

Monae’s work has always been about seeing from the perspective of the social Other. She uses the figure of the Android — a machine designed and programmed by humans to appear human and serve humans— to stand in for Othered identities whether they be woman, femme, non-white, queer, LGB, trans, or disabled. The Android in Monae’s work represents all of us who have been seen as less than human by an imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist, hetero-patriarchal system.

Each of the songs on “Dirty Computer” and the “emotion picture” or film Monae released via BET to accompany the album explores this theme of what it means to be Other in the contemporary United States. Because of that, there will be specific songs that speak to the ways in which you have been Othered and Objectified and rendered less than human that you can’t help but love.

The opening track, “Dirty Computer” is a duet of sorts with Beach Boy Brian Wilson. It may seem like a strange choice, but Monae wanted surf music to accompany the web surfing milieu of the album’s discursive context. Song, album, and concept, are very much products of this specific moment in 21st century America.

For instance, in the bridge of her song, “I Like That,” Monae croons, “You rated me a six. Damn. But even back then with tears in my eyes I always knew I was the shit.” This line harkens back to the era of Hot or Not an early 2000’s website that moved through college dorms and high school halls faster than HPV and Mono, respectively. For those who don’t remember it, users uploaded their picture and were rated on a 1 to 10 scale of hotness. Because these were the days when it was common to not have internet in your home, an analog adaptation of the game quickly spread to middle schoolers. In this version peers rated each other, sometimes anonymously and sometimes not. Indeed, “I Like That,” is an anthem for everyone who has been called weird or not hot or not worthy for staying true to their love of science-fiction, anime, natural hair (after all, it is the ‘sin’ of ‘going natural’ that elicits the aforementioned rating of a ‘six’), D20s, or whatever else. You do you, boo. You’re still the shit.

A former student of mine called the video for “Make Me Feel” a perfect visual representation of bisexuality. Musically, it is an homage to Monae’s mentor, Prince, as well as an ode to the sensual swagger of David Bowie and the fierce black girl magic of the original “Vamp,” Grace Jones.

“Crazy, Classic, Life” is the type of song you want to listen to when your brush your teeth in the morning or get ready to go out on Saturday night–essentially, any time you are psyching yourself up to have a great time. And while the music is an upbeat, poppy delight, the lyrics belie a seriousness that represents the central tension of the song: as a person (or ‘droid) constructed as Other, she can never be as carefree as those whose humanity is the default and always assumed.

“Screwed” could be an anthem for optimistic nihilism. It’s a great song to listen to when you feel, well, screwed, but pretty okay about it. For Monae, the revolution may not be televised but it will be sexualized — queerly and blatantly in the face of conservative condemnation.

“Americans,” as far as we’re concerned, should be the new national anthem. It turns conservative rallying cries such as “Don’t try to take my country” and “stand my ground” on their head. In Monae’s mouth they become the rallying cries of everyone who believes in the potential of what this country could be if justice and liberty for all really meant for all.

By far, one of the best songs on an already incredible album is “Django Jane” which is a celebration of Monae’s success and a clapback at her detractors. In many ways, “Django Jane” is the heart of Dirty Computer. It establishes Monae as fighter, visionary, and success–themes that carry through the album and emotion picture as a whole. It also unapologetically celebrates women–another theme of the album and emotion picture. With lines like:

We gave you life, we gave you birth

We gave you God, we gave you Earth

We fem the future, don’t make it worse

You want the world? Well, what’s it worth?


And n—-, down dawg

N—- move back, take a seat, you were not involved

And hit the mute button

Let the vagina have a monologue

Mansplaining, I fold em like origami


The album centers black womanhood as not just essential to America but central to the world.

This brings us to one of the most remarkable things about Dirty Computer as a whole.

It is the only instance I can think of in which the male gaze is not just dismissed but actively repudiated.

From the merkins in the music video for the song “Pynk,” which is a celebration of female anatomy and female pleasure containing the line, “Cause boy it’s cool if you got blue/ We got the pink,” to the aforementioned injunction for men to take a seat and a calling out of Hoteps in “Crazy, Classic, Life,” Dirty Computer isn’t anti-men but it is anti-patriarchy. It is anti-unearned power, including the power of the male gaze to classify the worth of feminine art.

Like all Monae albums the lyrics are smart, the songs are solid, and the videos are like little glimpses into another world.

The visual component has always been inseparable from Monae’s musical work. While her lyrics stand on their own she has always given careful attention to the nuances of meaning that images add. Monae burst on the scene with a multi-album concept starting with “ArchAndroid” which gave us a vision of a despotic world, ruled by oligarchs, served by the subhuman androids, in which magic, both symptom of and metaphor for originality, was ruthlessly pathologized and policed. In “Electric Lady” we saw a world with less of the balls-mysteriously-floating-in-the-air variety of magic and full, instead, of the subtle, persistent magic of intimate relationships between friends and lovers. “Electric Lady” also showcased a lot of what would be known as #BlackGirlMagic–something even more robustly developed and explicitly referenced in “Dirty Computer.”

When “Rolling Stone” called Monae’s Emotion Picture, released shortly after the album, a sci-fi masterpiece upon its release they overlooked the fact that Monae has been consistently worldbuilding in all her albums.

What the viewer misses between “ArchAndroid” and “Electric Lady” is that there has been a civil rights movement in the world Monae has created. Androids now move more or less freely throughout society holding jobs rather than being owned by elites. Black women attend college and belong to sororities with histories of excellence.

Just as Dirty Computer, the lyrical album, cannot be analyzed apart from “Dirty Computer,” the emotion picture, “Dirty Computer” as a body of work cannot be analyzed out of the context of Monae’s other work. In the evolution of ArchAndroid to Electric Lady we see a world that is very different from our own but has a similar social history moving from the pathologization of difference and slavery to oppressed communities creating their own sanctuaries from which to prosper in a wider world still dominated by the old biases.

In this framework, Dirty Computer can be seen as a commentary on our present and near future. So then, what is Monae’s vision?

It’s not pretty. An authoritarian force known only as the Light has taken control. People are called “computers” and are identified as dirty when they exhibit any uniqueness. dirty computers are taken to the House of the New Dawn to be cleansed of their dirt through the elimination of their memories. After being cleansed the computers are then initiates of the Light, known as torches, who are given new names and work to spread the Light.

As bleak as this is, the world of Dirty Computer is also a world with a thriving resistance full of the best and brightest from which no one is disqualified because of skin color, weight, sexuality, ability, or otherness. If Hulu’s depiction of The Handmaid’s Tale offers a vision of the United States controlled by Christian Nationalists then Dirty Computer offers a vision of the United States controlled by the violence of colorblind bureaucracy which seeks only compliance in all its citizens. There are historical examples of each, of course, but one of the things Dirty Computer does brilliantly is to display the banality of evil in a way which The Handmaid’s Tale does not.

In Dirty Computer we see bored technicians enacting the memory erasing procedures. They torture Monae and other dirty computers through the mediation of walls of glass–the one sided viewing glass and the glass computer screen–indeed, the technicians are simply entering a set of routine protocols akin to data entry and are divorced from their human subject and the human consequences of their actions. What comes across loud and clear in Dirty Computer is that, while there may be a few true believers in the cause of the light, the system itself has been built by people who want to enforce a compliant population and are not averse to using pseudo-religious jargon and outright torture to do it.

There is one moment in this tour de force that stands above the others for me (Jaime), however, and that is in the film that accompanied the album release that goes by the same title. In the film, Monae’s character, Jane57821, is undergoing a memory wiping treatment after being labeled a dirty computer. The music videos that were released before the film appear for the viewer as memories of Jane57821 that are being wiped and are interspersed with the backstory of Jane57821’s life in the months before her arrest and imprisonment by the Light. After the video for “Django Jane”, which is a beautiful representation and celebration of #BlackGirlMagic, black femme leadership and #FemmeTheFuture the agent in charge of wiping Monae’s memories says, “That’s not a memory. What is that? Is that a dream?”  

How better to critique 400 years of U.S. history then by showing a video of Black queer femme power and ask if it is a dream.

There can be no memory of such a bold vision of black queer femme leadership because it has never existed in the United States. It can’t be a memory. Is it a dream? This one sentence, in the context of the emotion picture, functions as a critique of existing U.S. social structures and an aspirational model for social organizing. How do we make that dream real?

Dirty Computer is the third act in the Monae’s carefully constructed tale of the ArchAndroid, but it is also another stunning audio visual feast joining the ranks of Beyonce’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Place At The Table. All three of these albums speak to different aspects of being black in America but, because black bodies and black lives, are the foundation, mortar, and currency which define America, they are also reflections on America and Americanicity.

At its heart Dirty Computer is more than an album, even though it’s a damn good one. Dirty Computer is a syllabus. The first access to the album for many fandroids was a special section of Monae’s website where users had to type the phrase “I am a dirty computer” to enter. Once inside Monae listed the texts that inspired every song on the album from women’s studies classics, black feminist thinkers, to comic book heros.

But Dirty Computer is more than that, too.

We’ve both made a lot of syllabi in our time. Some of them were very good syllabi.

But the role of the syllabus in the contemporary US academy is a paradoxical one. The syllabus exists to remind you of how much you have to learn before you go out and do.

Dirty Computer is, ultimately, more than the sum of its parts. It is a sacred text in a new era of Black feminist praxis. It is the next iteration of black feminist techno-ontologies.

Techno-ontology will also be a contested term because it is constantly in flux as the technologies we use evolve and, in return, evolve our understanding of ourselves. References to this process are scattered throughout Dirty Computer from the song “Take a Byte” to Monae’s formative experience of Hot or Not in “I Like That.” This reciprocal relationship defines “Dirty Computer” and Monae’s vision of the near future. The line “deep inside we’re all just pink” from “Pynk” is both a reference to female genitalia and also a statement about ontology. Humans are made of meat. Inside we are all pink–not motherboard green or silicone clear. In essence, we can never be computers and any system that depends on us being so will always find actual meat-made, pink-inside humans to be deeply flawed, or dirty.

Dirty Computer is the latest in a long history of texts in which black feminists have used various analog and digital technologies (important in itself as it repudiates popular misconceptions about black women’s involvement with technology), but have also shaped web technologies; recognizing the actualizing potential in web applications, social networking, and digital video production and release. These strategic interventions allow black women to bypass traditionally  controlled boundaries and gatekeepers and, instead, create and inhabit spaces that centralize black women’s experiences and black feminist activism. Spaces like the imagined ones in Dirty Computer which are inevitably met with a backlash like the New Dawn, vanguard of the Light, in more ways than one.

Yet, in the dystopian near future of Dirty Computer there are many reasons for hope. Throughout all of Monae’s projects the android represents the melding of technology and ontology, a combining in which both aspects are enhanced beyond their intended limits. The ArchAndroid, the Electric Ladies, and now Jane57821 are all cyborgs in Donna Haraway’s sense of the term. They all represent a different iteration of the embodiment of black feminist techno-ontologies. The world that the resistance of Dirty Computer is fighting for, and which our current resistance should be fighting for, is one which centers the comprehension of power structures which is – if not intuitive — then innate to the non-default, those non-normative identities ascribed to people of color, women, and the ‘impoverished’. The vision of techno-ontology presented in Moane’s world-building project, but particularly in Dirty Computer, is dichotomous. On one hand it represents technology turning us into our worst selves, until we lose sight of our humanity. On the other, we can use technology to center the Other, to destroy the old boundaries, and form a society constituted by the true depth and breadth of human experience in which all of us are able to be, in the words of Monae, “a free ass motherfucker.”




Paula Ashe is an educator, writer, and PhD candidate in the American Studies program at Purdue University.

Dr. Jaime Hough graduated with her PhD in American Studies from Purdue University. She founded abd2phd.com to help other graduate students avoid all the mistakes she made.


Ghost Sun

“ghost sun” by Judith Skillman

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Judith Skillman is interested in feelings engendered by the natural world. Her medium is oil on canvas and oil on board; her works range from representational to abstract. Her art has appeared in Minerva Rising, Cirque, The Penn Review, The Remembered Arts, and elsewhere. She has studied at the Pratt Fine Arts Center and the Seattle Artist’s League under the mentorship of Ruthie V. Shows include The Pratt and Galvanize. Visit jkpaintings.com

Kate is from Mammoth Lakes, California, and currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah where they are working towards a BA in English and an MA in teaching at Westminster College. Kate is a Virgo and lesbian who loves swing sets, their dog, and their girlfriend. Their work has previously been published or is forthcoming by Pressure Gauge Press, Write About Now, Rising Phoenix Press, and Rag Queen Periodical, among others. They are currently a poetry editor for Ellipsis… Literature and Art. You can send Kate photos of the ocean on Twitter at @pasta_slut.

“summer internship with the abyssal priests of v’uth’xu” by Grey Burnett


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we found god oh yes a most dangerous

thing a most dangerous hubris we gave up

ourselves to splinter the silver spaces

between worlds an ultimate sacrifice only to find

god dead this is no surprise it was foretold

but it dreams you know you must be able

to hear her dreaming no? perhaps

it is all that meat in the way it is only

in the way what good does it do you child?

it is only pain wanting to happen or currently

happening to you so fussy so attached so

nonsensical we can show you we can show

you something more just let go of your boring

body you complain about it so nonetheless

none of this divinity used to make sense to us

either you must believe us it will it will it will

we can tell you are frustrated going through this

world trying to untangle a series of shapes that

will never make sense the meaning cannot be

gleaned no not ever this world is not some art

history class there is nothing deeper it will

only end in another heartbreak we are

prepared you know the end is coming i

know you do you must have seen it we saw

something we saw it in you the spark the

future has gifted itself to you and you

know the end is coming it is it is it is the only

way you will survive is to give up now give up

that body it never fit you no it never did it is

known to us why this attachment to blood

to bones to pain to girl to breaking

you could be resplendent instead child




Grey is an ill omen currently manifesting as a flock of blackbirds in Salt Lake City, Utah. She currently serves as managing editor for ellipsis…Literature and Art and in the past has fulfilled the roles of poetry editor and productions editor. She is a judge for the 2018 IronPen competition at Utah Arts Festival. You can find her interactive poetry at https://greyb.itch.io/

“Cat’s Cradle: The Sin of Scientists and Systems” by Ben Berman Ghan


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Science Fiction (SF) is a genre often used to explore how scientists and science are a source of evil, potentially leading to the demise of civilization. Works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) have well established the trope of the mad scientist who focuses on unnatural or evil experiments. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s novel Cat’s Cradle (1963) revises the relationship between evil and science. While Vonnegut’s scientists are culpable in the process of birthing scientific advancements that are used for evil, science and scientists are not themselves a source of evil. Writing in the context of the Cold War, when fear of nuclear apocalypse was a constant in the zeitgeist of the world, Vonnegut replaces the notion of the “mad scientist” with the military industrial complex, creating a narrative in which the source of science gone awry is not the scientists themselves, but rather the fault of the monolithic systems of commerce, government, and military that corrupt science for evil ends. In Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, there is no evil “mad scientist,” only corrupt and untrustworthy organized systems.

Cat’s Cradle examines the relationship between scientists and systems, beginning with the fictional religion “Bokonism.” Vonnegut uses the tenets of Bokonism to separate the structured systems of society into two types of categories. Depicting a religion in which “humanity is organized into teams” (Vonnegut 2), Cat’s Cradle begins to emphasize systems that come into being organically, created by the cosmic circumstances of fate. These systems, called a “karass” (2), are groups of people who—intentionally or not—affect each other’s actions and lives. Members of a karass are not formally organized, nor are they even always aware of the karass they are in, ignoring “national, institutional, occupational, familial, and class boundaries” (3). These natural systems can be perverted by artificial ideas of a “false karass” (91) known as a “granfalloon” (92). The relationships that are formally created and organized by people are granfalloons, not karass. It is through the concept of granfalloons that Vonnegut proposes the types of systems that can corrupt science for evil.  

Vonnegut was a left-leaning author who later wrote extensively on his political beliefs as a liberal and a socialist. But when he was writing Cat’s Cradle during the Cold War, SF was entering what The Science Fiction Handbook classifies as the “New Wave,” of SF literature (Thomas & Booker 9).  Vonnegut was one of many New Wave authors who chose to turn their “critique of American capitalism into […] science fiction to avoid censorship” (Thomas & Booker 8). The examples of false systems in Cat’s Cradle largely take their cue from the fears that left-wing Americans like Vonnegut held at the time, such as “The Communist Party […], the General Electric Company, […] – and any nation, anytime, anywhere.” (Vonnegut, 92). This reflected a more global trend against nationalism, and the resistance against the bourgeoning military industrial complex. It is through these granfalloon systems of politics and corporations that the role played by the mad scientist shifts away from the individual. The fear is no longer of scientists, but of how powerful collectives might utilize new forms of science.

The New Wave of SF to which Cat’s Cradle belongs was dominated by character-driven stories and was “more concerned with the social and political ramifications of technological developments than with the technologies themselves” (Thomas & Booker 9). According to Ginger Strand’s biography The Brother’s Vonnegut, when the earliest draft of Cat’s Cradle was submitted for publication as “Ice-9” (236), SF editors were attempting “to make SF more sophisticated in terms of literary style as well as content” (Thomas & Booker 9). As later drafts of Cat’s Cradle became less interested in the details or believability of its science and more interested in the characters behind the science, a more complex type of individual than previous eras of SF could develop.

The character chosen to represent Vonnegut’s deviation from the mad scientist trope is Dr. Felix Hoenikker. Hoenikker is a fictional addition to the Manhattan Project, “one of the so-called ‘fathers’ of the first atomic bomb” (Vonnegut 6). Through the guise of doing research for a book on the creators of the atomic bomb called “The Day the World Ended” (1), Vonnegut’s narrator creates a long sketch of Felix Hoenikker as the antithesis to the traditional “mad scientist” focused on creating evil out of science. His character was inspired by “versions of stories about Irving Langmuir” (Strand 236), a Nobel Prize winning chemist who did research at the General Electric Company (GE), where both Kurt and his older brother Bernard worked while Cat’s Cradle was written. While the real Irving Langmuir was “GE’s celebrity scientist” (Strand 24), Vonnegut’s fictional Dr. Hoenikker fills a similar position at the “Research Laboratory of the General Forge and Foundry Company” (Vonnegut 21), where different granfalloons would “suggest projects” (42) to change the nature of the scientists’ work. Specifically, “[a]dmirals and generals” (42) came to try and corrupt the work of the research laboratory. This reflects Vonnegut scholar P.L. Thomas’ argument in Case for SF and Speculative Fiction: an introductory consideration, that Cat’s Cradle “suggests that less danger exists in science than in who pursues that science and why” (Thomas 17).

The traditional mad scientist acts with agency and purpose. Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein actively seeks out dangerous and unnatural experiments. He feels “an enthusiasm which elevates [him] to heaven, for nothing contributes so much to tranquillize the mind as a steady purpose” (Shelley 22). The mad scientist is often focused, or obsessed with their work: the pursuit of harmful or unethical inventions. The idea of ‘madness’ in the traditional mad scientist is this reckless abandon when it comes to doing harm on the part of the individual. The traditional mad scientist exemplified in Dr. Frankenstein doesn’t need to be encouraged or manipulated by any public or private system to pursue evil, as they are driven by “the determined heart and resolved will of man” (Shelley 27). But Shelley’s Frankenstein presents a mad scientist working alone, to have his work opposed by the mob, or granfalloon, which fears what he has done.

In contrast, Vonnegut presents an alternative to the trope of “mad scientist” in having Hoenikker pursue science only for the sake of discovery, with no thought to application or power. Vonnegut removes the classic desire for power—more specifically, the desire to change the natural order that drives the traditional mad scientist. Instead, “the main thing with Dr Hoenikker was truth” (Vonnegut 54). In his innocent curiosity, Hoenikker is presented as the antithesis of the traditional mad scientist. He is not evil or insane, only a man who does not understand “human responsibilities” (Vonnegut 225), and is manipulated by systems which intend to use his science for destructive ends.

Hoenikker has no evil intentions with his research. Without the influence of the granfalloons around him, Vonnegut’s scientist would have been left to simply “wonder about turtles” (15). As opposed to a scientist’s single-minded drive towards a goal, it is the work of the granfalloons that force Hoenikker to research destructive fields.  

If Hoenikker attempted to research anything but what the systems needed from him, then the systems would redirect him. When Hoenikker stopped working on the Manhattan Project, the military went “into his laboratory and stole his turtles” (Vonnegut 16). Hoenikker, with his childlike mind, “came to work the next day and looked for things to play with and think about, and everything there was to play with and think about had something to do with the bomb” (16). The responsibility and the fear of science tampering with the “recesses of nature” in a quest for “unlimited power” (Shelley 51), is shifted from the scientist to the military. In Vonnegut’s novel, it has become the systems that want to use science as a tool to violate the laws of nature, while the individual who is merely on a quest for knowledge can be abused and manipulated by those around them.

When Cat’s Cradle inserts Dr. Hoenikker into the history of the atom bomb, it illustrates the extent of his naiveté. Vonnegut allows Hoenikker to respond to Robert Oppenheimer’s acknowledgement of his own responsibility in the deaths caused by the atom bomb. As Oppenheimer proclaims “science has now known sin” (Vonnegut 17), Hoenikker can only ask “What is sin?” (17). Vonnegut presents a scientist who is incapable of understanding how his work has contributed to the evil of the systems that use it. Hoenikker cannot be the active agent of evil or the willful creator of monsters as the classic trope requires. Hoenikker is a man of science, at the mercy of “who is governing that science” (Thomas 18).

Though Felix Hoenikker is already dead at the beginning of Cat’s Cradle, much of the novel serves as a biography of the fictional scientist. The novel details how Hoenikker’s scientific creations are manipulated by industrial and military systems. Ultimately these systems, or granfalloons, use Hoenikker’s invention “ice-nine” (Vonnegut 46)—originally created to help “get Marines out of the mud” (44)—to destroy the world. Inspired by Vonnegut’s older brother Bernard’s experiments with weather manipulation, ice-nine is “the last gift Felix Hoenikker created for mankind” (Vonnegut 50), a substance capable of freezing all liquid on earth permanently. Even members of the granfalloon at the General Forge and Foundry acknowledged that if ice-nine was ever unleashed “that would be the end of the world!” (50). As science fiction in the new wave, Cat’s Cradle exists in what P.L. Thomas identifies as “the context of the threat of nuclear holocaust or disaster” (Thomas 18). A key difference between The Manhattan Project—into which Felix Hoenikker was fictionally inserted—and the use of ice-nine, is that the creators of the atomic bomb understood what they were undertaking. Hoenikker neither has any inclination towards using his creation for violence, nor is he alive to give consent to those who use ice-nine to destroy the world, in a parable to the effects of nuclear winter.

After Felix Hoenikker dies, his three children take possession of ice-nine and split it between them. While the siblings should all be considered a proper Karras, it is through them that ice-nine falls into the hands of the granfalloons of government and military. The oldest child, Frank Hoenikker, is given a position of power in trade for giving the government of San Lorenzo “something more powerful than the atom bomb” (Vonnegut 241). The other two children give up their thirds of ice-nine to the granfalloons of “the United States of America, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” (244). It is not the scientist, but the systems which stole his work—albeit from his children—that take his science into the realm of evil. Papa Monzano, the military dictator of the Island Nation San Lorenzo and the head of a granfalloon system that gains ice-nine, destroys the world with science.

Vonnegut portrays scientists as individuals interested in theory, who believe that what they are doing is about discovery. The scientists of General Forge and Foundry believe that science is “the exact opposite of magic” (Vonnegut 36). Science is not a tool to pervert nature, but a way to understand it. The granfalloon of San Lorenzo and other nations that receive ice-nine think “science is magic that works” (218). With this notion, Vonnegut’s granfalloons are willing to do what his scientists are not, to pervert nature for destructive ends. Felix Hoenikker did not understand how his creations could be used for violence. Hoenikker was simply trying to learn. When the leader of San Lorenzo commits suicide by swallowing ice-nine and freezing the planet, he says, “Now I shall destroy the whole world” (238). In effect, the president of San Lorenzo is the mad scientist that Felix Hoenikker could never be, who exists as the result of the military-government—the granfalloon that has sustained him. He pursues science because he wants to challenge the laws of nature for selfish reasons, and uses science for unnatural destructive ends. The role of the mad scientist has moved from the individual who pursues science to the systems that will abuse science for harm.

Felix Hoenikker is not entirely blameless. He is still culpable in the creation of the atomic bomb and ice-nine, even if he did not fully comprehend the consequences of his actions. Hoenikker is guilty of ignorance, and of failing to think of the potential for harm that his creations possessed. But Vonnegut has shifted tropes of “evil science” from a mad scientist who is responsible for the misuse and abuse of science, to individual scientists who pursue science for its own sake within systems that corrupt science for violent ends. Vonnegut has reached a point in history where it is no longer believed that companies who employ people are benevolent, nor that governments who run society have the populace’s best interests at heart. Cat’s Cradle is set in a world that has become too large and interconnected to fear the work of mere individuals. Living in the shadow of the nuclear bomb—which was the product of many systems working together—no individual’s actions can be enough to elicit such fear. Vonnegut has refocused the fear of a scientist creating evil to the evil that can be done by a monolith. In a society where scientific progress is steered by the interests of granfalloons such as industry and military, the mob of people in Shelley’s Frankenstein no longer fear the monster, they control it. It is no longer Doctor Frankenstein or Felix Hoenikker’s inventions which threaten the wellbeing of the world, but the granfalloons that control them.




Works Cited

Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. Dial Press Trade Paperback ed., New York, Random House Publishing Group, Sept. 1998.

Vonnegut, Kurt. A Man Without A Country. 1st ed. [London]: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014. Print.

Booker, Keith M., and Anne-Marie Thomas. The Science Fiction Handbook. Malden, MA, Wiley-Blackwell (an imprint of John Wiley & Sons Ltd), 31 Mar. 2009.

“Irving Langmuir – Biographical”. Nobelprize.org. N. p., 2017. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.

Joravsky, David. “Sin and The Scientist”. The New York Review of Books. N. p., 1980. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

Thomas, P. L. “A Case for SF and Speculative Fiction: An Introductory Consideration.” Science fiction and speculative fiction: Challenging Genres. Ed. P L Thomas. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 12 July 2013. 15–27. Print.

“Military-Industrial Complex Speech, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961”. Coursesa.matrix.msu.edu. N. p., 2017. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

Strand, Ginger. The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic. First ed., United States, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 17 Nov. 2015.

Shelley, Mary, and Diane Johnson. Frankenstein, Or, the Modern Prometheus. New York, Random House Publishing Group, 1 May 1984.



Ben Berman Ghan is an author and editor from Toronto, finishing an HBA with a major in English Literature, and minors in Philosophy, and Writing and Rhetoric at The University of Toronto. His next book What We See in the Smoke occurs in the place where the ideas of classic science fiction meet the interpersonal concerns of all literature.