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Human in Death
Morality and Mortality in J. D. Robb's Novels
By Kecia Ali
Kecia Ali’s Human in Death explores the best-selling futuristic suspense series In Death, written by romance legend Nora Roberts under the pseudonym J. D. Robb. Centering on troubled NYPSD Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her billionaire tycoon husband Roarke, the novels explore vital questions about human flourishing.
Through close readings of more than fifty novels and novellas published over two decades, Ali analyzes the ethical world of Robb’s New York circa 2060. Robb compellingly depicts egalitarian relationships, satisfying work, friendships built on trust, and an array of models of femininity and family. At the same time, the series’ imagined future replicates some of the least admirable aspects of contemporary society. Sexual violence, police brutality, structural poverty and racism, and government surveillance persist in Robb’s fictional universe, raising urgent moral challenges. So do ordinary ethical quandaries around trust, intimacy, and interdependence in marriage, family, and friendship.
Ali celebrates the series’ ethical successes, while questioning its critical moral omissions. She probes the limits of Robb’s imagined world and tests its possibilities for fostering identity, meaning, and mattering of human relationships across social difference. Ali capitalizes on Robb’s futuristic fiction to reveal how careful and critical reading is an ethical act.
"Human in Death offers a sustained and subtle inquiry into J. D. Robb’s In Death books as novels of ideas—texts which invite their readers to think about love, desire, and romantic relationships. Kecia Ali demonstrates that these are thoughtful books, part of a genre that deserves and rewards our serious attention. This is a groundbreaking contribution to the study of mass-market fiction, the ethics of reading, and the emerging field of popular romance studies."
—Eric Murphy Selinger, President, International Association for the Study of Popular Romance
"A deeply engaging critical reflection, Ali deftly explores how fiction both shapes and reflects our complex lived realities, how fictional utopias can reiterate and justify the prejudices of the present. Under Ali's prescient analysis, J.D Robb's popular novels become a venue for an exploration of American culture, what scares and what satisfies is revealed by Ali as saying so much more."
—Rafia Zakaria, author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan
"Writing in an accessible idiom, Kecia Ali displays an expansive familiarity with the popular but understudied In Death series by Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb. Human in Death contains an evenhanded examination of the ethical stances visible in protagonist Eve Dallas’ world, especially in relation to gender and sexuality, economic and bodily inequality, and personal and systemic violence. Ali’s book is at heart a concordance replete with references to incidents, dialogue, and turns of phrase that bear out Ali’s evaluation of what it means to recognize or repudiate someone’s humanity in popular fiction."
—Jayashree Kamblé, Assistant Professor of English, LaGuardia Community College
"Ali's fascinating forensic account of the sociological importance of the stories where we both escape and imagine ourselves into the future is a thought-provoking and accessible read for sociologists and laypeople alike."
—Tressie McMillan Cottom, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Virginia Commonwealth University
Kecia Ali is Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University. Her website is http://www.keciaali.com/.