Kathryn Allan's Blog

In addition to running Academic Editing Canada, I'm an Independent Scholar of disability studies and science fiction (specializing in cyberpunk and feminist SF). I'm the proud co-editor (with Djibril al-Ayad) of Accessing the Future, a disability-themed SF anthology; editor of Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure; and the inaugural recipient of the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship. My PhD thesis is awesome: Bleeding Chrome: Technology and the Vulnerable Body in Feminist Post-Cyberpunk SF [pdf].

Accounting for Happiness

Friday, 12 January 2018 16:53

Sometime in September 2017, I had a bad CFS crash. Throughout the summer, I had been doing really well in terms of energy—the best I had felt since I first became sick. So when this particular crash hit in the fall, I was completely surprised. I tried to ride it out, reducing my already light workload for a few weeks, but I wasn’t feeling any better. As it were, my energy levels became worse as whole host of attending health problems sprung up. It felt like I had lost several years’ worth of careful progress. I couldn’t keep working and so I organized a leave from work from October to at least mid-January (the time of this post).

I’m still not well enough to return to my normal editing work routine and won’t be for at least a few more months. This is frustrating, of course, but I’m also finding it hard to get properly upset about my health situation as I would have in the past. Because other than doing what I’m doing—which is getting a lot of rest while very, very slowly increasing my activity—I cannot change it. If anything, I’m more content with my life than I can ever remember. There is so much I want to do in terms of work, writing, and general life stuff, but I have made peace with the fact my timeline for achieving my goals is inherently uncertain and will require many long extensions. I never anticipated that I’d be feeling this exhausted and this fortunate at the same time. In many ways, this current state of overall contentment is a bigger surprise that the September health crash.

Originally, when I first thought about what I’d do during my “time off,” it was finally writing the book on disability and science fiction that I’ve been researching for the past six years. After all, the vast majority of my scholarly writing and editorial work has happened during the times I was too unwell to edit for paying clients. As it turns out, after prioritizing what energy I have had for dealing with my daily basic needs, there has been nearly nothing left over for luxuries like writing (this essay is a notable exception requiring several weeks in the planning and a day's worth of energy). The snail’s pace of my writing during the past year means a lack of publishable material for this one, which was a situation causing me stress.

Since the publishing of my edited collection, Disability in Science Fiction, I became attached to the idea that my only worthwhile accomplishments were those indexed by internet searches. Basically, if other people could read it and it had my name attached, then I could count it as an achievement. Now I’m pretty sure that this is just the independent scholar’s version of the academy’s “publish or perish” mindset. So what happens after a year, like 2017, where my publishing credits were few, or like the one I am facing now, where I might not have anything published—scholarly or creative—at all? I’m confident that I won’t suddenly wink out of existence. More importantly, as I have come to deeply realize during these past months of illness and recuperation, I have been doing my accounting all wrong.

After a day when my CFS and generalized anxiety were particularly bad, I wrote of list of all of the good things that happened in my life during 2017. The number of things I had published made up only a tiny fraction of the list, which was dominated by much more meaningful self-care work (ranging from successfully completing physiotherapy to re-learning what a proper meal size looks like) and social activities (such as going for long car drives with my partner and keeping in better contact with friends). I put in all of this positive effort into living my best life possible, and while I still crashed hard and long, I am actually happier. Not because of how many words I wrote or what I published, but because of the connections I have fostered and nurtured, with myself and with others, throughout the year. All of this self-realization discussion might come across as trite and plainly obvious but it still feels like a watershed moment for me.

I spend a lot of time alone and I’m inside my head a lot. I have a lot of childhood trauma to unpack, and I’m still figuring out how to live well with the constant companions of CFS and anxiety. For all of my adult life, whenever I’ve felt happy, I was also waiting for inevitable fall. Crisis was always around the corner so I best be prepared. Well, the crisis has come (and will come again), and I’m still chugging along, making the best of the hand I’ve been dealt (which is pretty damn good all things considered). I’ve low energy and I can’t do everything I want to do. I have had to reconceptualise my daily efforts from what “I want” to what “I need,” and then I ask for help to fill in the gap between what I can do and what I cannot. And that is exactly where the source of my happiness lies: in the space that requires me to seek assistance. Because I know that help is there when I need it (such fortune!) and I’m finally learning how to ask for it without shame or guilt.

Even though I am still finding it difficult to get through a regular day without having to lie down and rest every few hours, I am getting through. I’m letting my partner help me more. I’m finding moments to send an email or write a postcard to a friend. I’m still writing when I can. It is all enough for now and for the future too if that’s how things play out. I still don’t feel comfortable with uncertainty and bad habits and routines are hard to break but I’m feeling optimistic today. 2018 is going to be good year as long as I remember to practice patience and gratitude. I am shifting my measures of productive efforts and valued achievements to fit the reality of my lived experience: slow progress to create a deep accounting of care, love, and happiness.

ICFA--my favourite conference (and the only one I now attend)--is coming up next month. This year I have a full slate: in addition to participating on an archival research panel, I will be moderating a discussion panel I organized on "Fantasizing Disability," and presenting a paper on the character Ripley from the Alien franchise. Despite my apprehension around the current US political climate, I'm looking forward to being at ICFA and continuing important conversations about disability representation in genre (because facism is antithetical to disability rights). My abstracts follow:

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Fantasizing Disability

Genres of the fantastic present opportunities to explore worlds fundamentally different than our own, where bodily norms are questioned and disrupted. Fantasy in particular has the potential to create novel relationships to and characterizations of disability. While fantastic worlds frequently imagine diverse bodies (from elvish to gigantic to alien) interacting with each other, the genre often reduces disability to a symbolic medium and disabled characters to one-dimensional stereotypes. Fantasy (as well as science fiction and horror and all of their subgenres) abounds with disability tropes such as the curse of disability, the magical cure as a reward, the disabled villain, the disabled guru who helps the hero, the triumph narrative, and the trope of the “supercrip” (a person who gains compensatory powers for their disability). Given the necessity of integrating inclusive and realistic depictions of human diversity in genre narratives, this panel will address the representation of disabled people and disability in the field of the fantastic. How has disability representation changed since the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales of Rumpelstiltskin and wicked stepmothers? Why has disability become a mark of a character’s evil-doing or, alternatively, pure innocence (and how can we challenge these readings)? In what ways do disabled bodies act as sites of identification for the audience? What opportunities do various fantastic subgenres—from steampunk to fairy tale re-tellings—offer authors and readers in depicting and understanding disability? Located in an intersectional disability studies perspective, this panel will explore both the reductive tropes and transformative potentials of disability representation in the field of the fantastic.

Panelists: Sara Cleto, Derek Newman-Stille, Nisi Shawl, Fran Wilde Moderator: Kathryn Allan

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Beautiful on the Inside: The Alien Perfection of Ripley

Science fiction film has long explored medical science’s quest for perfection of the human physical form. Released in 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien launched one of the genres most successful franchises (spawning four other films) and created the iconic feminist action hero, Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver). Drawing on feminist disability studies, my analysis of the Alien films will focus on the character of Ripley and trace the ways her narrative revolves around the anxiety of what lies unseen within the (imperfect) human body and how to achieve an ideal form. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, in her foundational work, Extraordinary Bodies, coins the term normate, which refers to “the social figure through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings” (8) (often in antithesis to the disabled or the “freak”). I argue that Ripley, at first, is this social figure, but by the end of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 1997 installment, Alien: Resurrection, her body has simultaneously become more ideal and more horrible as she transcends normate humanity (from the inside out) to achieve an alien perfection.

Garland-Thomson further writes that: “When our embodied ways of being in the world come to be understood as disabilities or when we understand our way as disabled, we then enter the category” (“The Story of My Work”). Applying this framing to my reading, I am particularly interested in such moments of recognition in the Alien films: when, and in what ways, does Ripley see herself in the alien, as being something other than “normal”? In my discussion, I will address how Ripley relates to the non-normate bodies of the androids (as represented by Ash, Bishop, and Call) and of the aliens—each body offers a possible design for human physical perfection but differs in their interior authenticity (e.g., blood) and organic function (e.g., reproduction). In a universe where the alien body is declared perfect (as repeated throughout the films by various agents of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation), what then constitutes the ideal human? Through my analysis of Ripley, I hope to continue demonstrating the generative potentials of bringing a disability studies framework to science fiction in exploring the social and medical definitions of humanity, as well as in expanding the future possibilities of disability identity.

Speculative Vegetation: Plants in Science Fiction


Call for Papers (Edited Collection)

Plants have played key roles in some of the most notable science fiction, from prose to graphic novels and film: John Wyndham’s triffids, the sentient and telepathic flora in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” the gene-hacked crops of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, the agricultural experiments of Andy Weir’s The Martian, the invasive trees and mechaflowers of Warren Ellis’s Trees, and the galactic greenhouses of Silent Running represent just a few. Plants surround us, sustain us, pique our imaginations, and inhabit our metaphors — and yet in some ways they remain opaque. As Randy Laist writes in Plants and Literature (2013): “Plants seem to inhabit a time-sense, a life cycle, a desire structure, and a morphology that is so utterly alien that it is easy and even tempting to deny their status as animate organisms” (12). The scope of their alienation is as broad as their biodiversity. And yet, literary reflections of plant-life are driven, as are many threads of science fictional inquiry, by the concerns of today.

Throughout human history, plants have supported as well as controlled populations; influenced and revised how we think about ourselves, nature, temporality, and history; fostered technological innovation; and raised new legal issues, such as biomatter copyrights and the borders of non-human personhood. Even though speculations about terrestrial and extraterrestrial plant-life have ever abounded in science fiction, we are only just beginning to understand plant communication, kinship systems, and intelligence. Following the rise of fields such as ethnobotany, agricultural phonobiology, and phytophenomenology; the embrasure of ecology, environmental philosophy, and ecocriticism; and the concomitant increase in concern regarding our fragile and endangered planetary ecosystem, this edited collection is timely, if not overdue.

Science fiction allows us to speculate further on what — or who — plant life may be while exploring how we understand ourselves in relation to the mute (?) sentient (?) world of flora. Thinking about plants differently changes not just our understanding of plants themselves, but also transforms our attitudes toward morality, politics, economics, and cultural life at large. How do the parameters of good and evil, villainy, heroism, and responsibility shift when plant-based life comes into play? How do plant-based characters or foci shift our understandings of institutions, nations, borders, and boundaries? What roles do plants play in our visions of utopian and dystopian futures? How do botanical subjectivities impact our empathic reactions? Our understandings of sentience and agency? How does the inclusion (or exclusion) of plant-based life impact the genre of science fiction?

This volume will be the first to investigate the importance of plants in science fiction. We encourage contributions contending with diverse works from any and all global, national, extranational, or regional positions and all periods. In particular, we welcome essays which consider genre with broader ethical, political, aesthetic, and historical concerns tied to the representation of botanical subjects and subjectivities in science fiction across all media.

Authors are encouraged to consider, but are not constrained to, the following topics and subjects:

Authorship/readership: plant-based authors/readers

Ecocriticism/Green studies: ecology, human/animal/plant interaction and interdependence; anthropomorphism vs. plant subjectivity and agency

Empire: postcolonialism, colonialism, anti-imperialism, pastoral, anti-pastoral

Ethics: individual responsibility, corporate responsibility, global responsibility; carbon trading

Green activism: ‘eco-terrorism’; indigenous lands; environmental legislation; non-human personhood

Habitats: space exploration and colonization; extraplanetary agrarian systems; diasporas, migration, borderlands; heterotopias, utopias, New Edens, dystopias; wilderness vs domesticated

Hybridity: botanical technology; plant-animal / plant-human hybrids; arcologies

Medicine: drugs, poisons, health, ability/disability

Monstrosity: plant-animal / plant-human hybrids; dehumanization; zombification

Narratology: plant perspectives, subjectivities, narrators and/or focalizers

Sentience: consciousness, collective intelligence, ontology, posthumanism

Symbolism: plants as symbols, metaphors, metonymies

Time: alternate time scales; histories; chronologies (“tree rings”)

Value: capitalism, plants and finance; weeds, crops, ornamental

War and peace: weapons, agents of destruction; agents of salvation

Prospective contributors to this edited collection should send an abstract (300-500 words) and brief CV or short biographical statement to Katherine Bishop (kbishop[at]sky.miyazaki-mic.ac.jp), Jerry Määttä (Jerry.Maatta[at]littvet.uu.se), and David Higgins (dmhiggin[at]gmail.com).

For full consideration, abstracts are due by 30 April 2017. Completed essays of between 4,000 and 8,000 words will be due by 30 November 2017 for a projected publication date in 2018.

Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Special issue: The Intersections of Disability and Science Fiction

Guest editors: Ria Cheyne (Disability and Education, Liverpool Hope University) and Kathryn Allan (Independent Scholar, Canada)

“No other literary genre comes close to articulating the anxieties and preoccupations of the present day as clearly and critically as SF, making it a vital source of understanding advances in technology and its impact on newly emerging embodiments and subjectivities, particularly for people with disabilities.”

--Kathryn Allan, Disability in Science Fiction

Reflecting the status of science fiction as a genre that spans multiple mediums and audiences, this special issue of JLCDS seeks articles that explore the intersection(s) of science fiction, disability, and disability studies. What possibilities might science fiction or science fiction theory offer to disability activists and the field of disability studies? How might disability theory, or a disability-informed approach, enrich or transform our understanding of science fiction as a genre or as a mode of thought?

Topics might include, but are not limited to:

Representations of disability in science fiction literature, comics/graphic novels, film, art, music, video games, or television, and their implications for our understanding of genre and/or disability.

Science fiction fan culture (including conventions, fanfic and other forms of fan production).

Science fiction and prosthesis.

Science fiction and eugenics/genetic engineering.

Science fiction and the posthuman.

Accessibility and science fiction environments.

The political and ethical consequences of imagining future worlds with or without disability.

The figure of the alien or cyborg in science fiction and/or disability theory.

Disability and queerness in science fiction.

Disability and indigenous futures in science fiction.

Science fiction, disability, and medical humanities.

The influence of disability activism on professional or fan-based science fiction production.

Submissions that consider how disability intersects with other identity categories are particularly encouraged. The guest editors welcome contributions from independent scholars.

Please email a 500 word proposal to cheyner[at]hope[dot]ac[dot]uk and kathryn[at]academiceditingcanada[dot]ca by March 15, 2017. Contributors can expect to be notified by April 26, 2017. Full drafts of the selected articles will be due by December 6, 2017. Please direct any questions to either guest editor.

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