My edited collection, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, is available for sale August 14th (Google for your choice of internet bookseller)!
I received my author copies late last week and the book looks beautiful. I love the cover (thanks to Andrew Holden and Tom Pepper)--I think it perfectly reflects the critical analysis going on inside. When I was brainstorming ideas for the cover, I wanted an abstract image of a person being dissected, or broken down into their physical parts. The shearing away of the mid-section stands in for the ways in which the disabled body is often medicalized into its "problem" parts (instead being viewed as a functioning whole). I also wanted to express the impact of technology on the body--the "+" and "Ø" signs represent binary code (1s and 0s). And since there is an emphasis on prostheses in book, the arm in red both marks the simultaneous absence/addition of such technology to the body.
The image can be read in a number of interesting ways, relevant to both science fiction and disability. In the design, there is a sense of transcendence from the fleshy body that I didn't anticipate coming through. I like that the figure appears to continue off the left side--no arm is visible there but the person nevertheless feels complete. Overall, I think the cover nails the focus of the content of the collection.
I hope that people enjoy Disability in Science Fiction and decide to take up their own responses to the ways in which disability and people with disabilities are represented in science fiction (and fantasy, horror, romance, mystery, and all the other understudied genres). There is a lot of critical ground to cover, images to unpack, and new stories to be written. Disability in SF is only one piece of a larger, on-going conversation and I'm excited to be part of it!
What does it mean to be “well-read?” This is a question that I have spent a good deal time thinking about the past several months. For most of my life, “well-read” has meant someone who had read the entire English literary canon and can throw off opinions on writers from Homer to Shakespeare to Faulkner. I vividly remember preparing myself for my undergraduate education by going to the public library to read “the Classics.” What I didn’t anticipate at the time, however, was how boring I would find them. Now I appreciate the value in reading “foundational Western literature,” but few canonical tomes have ever really excited me or made me think, “Wow, I want to read more of that!” Accompanying my lack of interest in these must-read texts was a sense of guilt and worry – I should enjoy Dickens, but I just don’t. Do I not understand the appeal? Everybody else in my first year English class seemed to love carrying around their Norton Anthology of Literature, but I simply performed the work I was tasked with little joy.
Since I had a lack of interest in the canon, I pursued courses in other genres of literature throughout my undergrad when I could: environmental writing, regional-Western Canadian poetry, Russian literature of the 20th century (Bulgakov, not Tolstoy). The result of my careful picking and choosing around the core-required courses is that I had read a little bit of everything from everywhere. If there were gaps in my knowledge of the canon, surely this would not be held against me when I entered into my Master’s degree.
During grad school, unfortunately, any confidence I had gained from undergrad was quickly stamped out. I almost consistently felt – and was made to feel by many of my peers – like I was embarrassingly “under-read.” I can’t even count the number of time where a (usually male) colleague said to me, “Oh! You haven’t read that?” Regardless of how they framed their derision, their meaning was clear: I was not as well-read as them and therefore somehow less intelligent/undeserving of graduate education/an idiot. I now know that much of this kind of combative conversation and literary peacockery is tied into gendered and classed ways of discourse, and academia encourages the assessment of one’s intelligence based on who/what they have read.
Of course, being well-read is important when you are an academic. Clearly, if you are researching and writing about a particular topic, it is best that you know as much about it as possible. But the distinction between what you need to read and what you should read is complicated and always changing. What you “should read” is often politically driven, based on which academic celebrity is in vogue this year, which splinter discipline is grabbing all the funding, etc. In my experience, peers who came from well-to-do homes were much “better read” than myself. By belittling my literary experience, these people were also reminding me, perhaps unintentionally, that I was outside of the norm. I was not, for all intensive purposes, “well-read” (which is too close to “well-bred” for my comfort).
One of the ways in which people (in academia, or really anyplace where there are pretentious jerks) maintain the illusion of their being “well-read” is to dismiss the knowledge of others. When I said, “I’m working with feminist SF writers,” snobbish colleagues would retort, “Have you read [insert whatever SF writer that they have read]?” Even if the conversation got to the point where I told them about the writers that I was working with, writers unfamiliar to them, these privileged peers would still insist in eliding my interests with theirs, which, by default, were better, smarter, more important and worthy of study. It sucked to be continually intellectually marginalized, but I kept on reading what I enjoyed despite my sense of genre-induced isolation.
When I first started involving myself with SF fandom, I brought all of my grad school insecurities with me. At the first con I attended (WorldCon in Montreal), I was overwhelmed at how well-read the other fans were that I was meeting. I only knew the little corner of feminist SF that I had studied for my dissertation. There was just so much SF out there that I hadn’t even heard of, never mind read. But, unlike my grad school peers, most of the fans I talked with weren’t condescending when I said, “I haven’t read that yet.” It really hit home to me that I was in a different world of reading when I explained my interest in feminist SF … and people not only asked me who my favourites were, but they wanted my recommendations! Up until that con, no one I talked to about my work asked me what they should read. Reciprocal interest AND respect? I hardly knew how to respond!
Instead of a verbal game of one-up-manship or a pure info-dump, the majority of people I talk to at cons are interested in sharing resources with me. I’m not saying that there aren’t still politics and power issues at play at cons when it comes to “the books that you should read” (because there most certainly are problems), but that there is a greater general openness to a variety of engagements with genre which is simply not as present within academe.
My experience with fandom, then, is a mixed bag when it comes to people using the phrase “well-read.” Since SF has so many subgenres, and many that bleed into the larger genres of fantasy and horror, very few people can claim to be well-read in all of it. Going to SF cons has helped me appreciate what it means to be truly well-read. If I’m sitting next to someone in their late-50’s who has been reading SF since they were a teenager, there is no way that my five years of directed scholarly SF readership will match their experience. And chances are good that they haven’t read the disgusting amounts of academic theory that I have, which help me frame my SF readings in, I hope, unique and productive ways.
I feel increasingly more comfortable in telling people, “I have not read that! I’ll put it on my list.” I have turned my lack of knowledge into opportunities to connect and learn from other fans. It’s impossible to read everything and I’ve finally stopped trying – and caring – to do so. By being amongst a diverse group of fannish people, I better understand the inherent unfairness of the phrase “well-read.” The amount and kind of books that I have read are dependent on the time, money, education, and health that are available to me at any given moment. These are factors with which we all must contend, but few acknowledge in their evaluation of what it means to be “well-read.”
I am happy with my little corner of books, but I still I want to read more and I want read widely. I am, however, constrained by finances, time, and ability. I would rather sit down with a person who has read a few novels well, than with somebody who has read a lot of books just for the sake of having read them. I’m sure that I will continue to encounter people who have read everything and think that they are better for it. But I don’t give them my time or attention anymore. I’m interested in learning about people’s passions – why did a certain book grab them, what do they recommend? To me, to be “well-read,” then, has come to mean “to love-what-you’re-reading.” More sharing, less judgement. Let's throw out the literary yard sticks!
Now help me decide on what book I should read next …
Sometimes, good things take time and you never know what the future holds. That pretty much sums up my experience with M.J. Locke’s Up Against It (2011). Not taking time now, I want state right away that Locke’s book is not a slow book – in fact, the reader is immediately thrown into the distant future world of the asteroid colony Phocaea. Locke’s world-building is detailed, but not overwhelming, as she manages to balance the unknown with the familiar. Up Against It is hard SF – and it is marketed as such – but it also contains many elements of the lesser appreciated and read (in the popular genre market) feminist SF. The central character, Jane Navio, is a strong, three-dimensional figure; she isn’t perfect, but she tries to do right by herself and by the community she serves. From the novel’s outset, there is a dance between the old and the new, what should be kept and what can be lost. A most fitting theme for both science fiction as a genre and for the place of the writer and critic within it.
I probably would never have read Up Against It if I had not met Locke herself at the last WorldCon in Reno, where she kindly gave me a signed copy. You see, I didn’t know that M. J. Locke existed. I only knew of Laura J. Mixon, writer of such great feminist SF books like Glass Houses (1992), Proxies (1998), and Burning the Ice (2002). Proxies was one of the four texts that analyzed in my dissertation and I was presenting on it at WorldCon where Laura surprised me by attending my talk (a new PhD’s worst/best nightmare scenario). I was apprehensive at having her there at first – since I was critically reading her use of gender and race – but her presence in the room was distinctly positive, leading to one of the best discussions I’ve had about the representation of race in SF at any con. When she told me that she had a new book out, I was excited. I truly enjoyed Laura’s earlier work and wanted to get my hands on this latest novel (as it had been nine years since the Burning the Ice). Laura kindly gifted me a hard cover copy and I promised to read it right away (I didn’t, but I’ll come back to that).
When I read the promo line on the cover, George R. R. Martin proclaiming, “Fans of hard SF will eat this up and shout for more,” my first reaction, in all honesty, was one of disappointment. After a few unfortunate encounters with hard SF that was overly masculine and pedantic, I don’t normally read the subgenre and even avoid it. I like SF that questions and challenges the “whys” and “ifs” of technology, not the SF that describes worm holes and lasers in mind-numbing accurate detail. Putting aside my prejudice – this was a book by the writer of Proxies after all! – I began reading and by the time I was done the first twenty-pages, I recognized the feminist SF writer that I admired from her earlier works. Laura J. Mixon wasn’t entirely transformed into this strange new hard SF writer, M. J. Locke, she was presenting herself differently. I am totally fine with that choice.
On her website, Feral Sapient, Locke writes about her decision to change her byline and the effect it had on some of her long-time readers (read the essay, “Hidden Bouquet”). She worried that readers would feel that: “by choosing a gender-neutral byline, I prioritized my own success [as a writer] over my commitment to my fellow women in SFF and science.” She then goes on to say that: “We face a headwind, we women in technology and science. I tried to meet it head-on, on my first go-round. I got knocked back on my heels. Hard. This time I decided to try a different tack. Quite literally, I’m tacking against that headwind. It’s a gamble. We’ll have to see.” As a fan of the work of Laura J. Mixon, I was a bit sad to see her distance herself from that byline. But as a fellow feminist and human being who has also faced challenging times and reinvented myself, I can empathize with Locke and, in fact, applaud her for defining herself as she sees fit. She dared to step away from the comfort of the familiar and make herself anew in an uncertain future.
And this is very much the journey that plays out in Up Against It. I am not comparing the writer with the character, as those kinds of assessments are misleading and inaccurate, but I cannot help but read the same kinds of human stresses and gambles being played out in the novel. This is the feminist heart of Up Against It. Yes, there are impressive nanotechnologies, asteroid mines, space scooters, and AIs, but those technological elements do not rule the narrative. Instead, it is the struggles of the people within this future society that capture the reader’s attention. When Jane Navio faces the ethical dilemma of how to deal with an emergent life form – the feral sapient – I too wondered, “What would I do? What do I value as life?” Locke provides no easy answers or solutions, but offers us ways in which we can cope with life-alter(nat)ing change. We can, like Jane, return to our communities and redefine our place within them, or we can, like the feral sapient, emerge brand new and unfettered by what has gone before.
I realize that, for a book review, I haven’t really talked that much about the actual book. Well, it’s because I’m still thinking over the narrative and working out its successes and frustrations. I read Up Against It over 8 long months. I was slow, not because I found the book lacking in anyway, but because its very existence came into my awareness during my own transformative moment of leaving academia and becoming an independent scholar. When I went to WorldCon last year, I was scared. I felt like an outsider. And suddenly, I connected with one of the writers whose novels helped me get through some of my darkest times. Accepting M. J. Locke meant accepting that everything that had come before is indeed passed and gone. That people change. That I change. Science fiction is about the present world and where it may lead us. Up Against It reminds the reader, “This too shall pass.” Yes, it’s a gamble. We’ll have to see.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been asked by a number of people for book recommendations. Seeing as that I studied feminist post-cyberpunk and tend to enjoy texts that deal with issues related to technology and the (raced, dis/abled, gendered, sexed) body, most of the books I own reflect those themes. I should note that even though I love reading, I am not a bibliophile in the least. For someone with a literature PhD, I am definitely an aberration from the norm. There is only *one* bookcase in my house! I lend out/give away my books once I am done reading them - of all the books I have ever owned, I have retained less than 5%. Part of the reason for my relatively low-book ownership is that I have a family history of hoarding and I intend not to go down that road. Additionally, I have always believed that books should be read and shared. It has never made sense to me to hold on to books just for the sake of looking at them. I also use the public library since I can’t afford to a buy everything I want to read. The books that I own and hold on to, then, are the stories that I truly love or find engaging in some lasting way.
The below list contains my SF/F-related titles only (I’ll leave my other favourite non-SF books for a future post). If you see a book on the list that you want to learn more about, leave a comment and I’ll write up a review!
SF/F Books on my shelf that I’ve read (and recommend):
Feed. M. T. Anderson
Weaving the Web. Tim Berners-Lee (2000)
Kindred. Octavia Butler (1979)
Lilith’s Brood series (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, & Imago). Octavia Butler (1987/2000)
Seed to Harvest series (Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, & Patternmaster). Octavia Butler (1976/2007)
Synners. Pat Cadigan (1991)
Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep. Philip K. Dick (1968)
The House of the Scorpion. Nancy Farmer (2002)
Reload: Rethinking Women and Cyberculture. Eds. Mary Flanagan & Austin Booth (2002)
Burning Chrome. William Gibson (1986)
Count Zero. William Gibson (1986)
Neuromancer. William Gibson (1984)
Mona Lisa Overdrive. William Gibson (1988)
Virtual Light. William Gibson (1994)
The Haraway Reader. Donna Haraway (2004)
Skin Folk. Nalo Hopkinson (2001)
Brown Girl in the Ring. Nalo Hopkinson (1998)
Midnight Robber. Nalo Hopkinson (2000)
So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial SF & F. Eds. Nalo Hopkinson & Uppinder Mehan (2004)
Beggars in Spain. Nancy Kress (1993)
Salt Fish Girl. Larissa Lai (2002)
When Fox is a Thousand. Larissa Lai (2004)
A Wrinkle in Time. Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
The Dispossessed. Ursual Le Guin (1974)
Earthsea series (The Wizard of Earthsea, The Farthest Shore, The Tombs of Atuan, Tales from Earthsea, & The Other Wind).Ursual Le Guin (1968-2001)
The Left Hand of Darkness. Ursula Le Guin (1969)
Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology. Eds. James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel (2007)
Storming the Reality Studio. Ed. Larry McCaffery (1991)
Red Spider, White Web. Misha (1990)
47. Walter Mosley (2005)
Woman on the Edge of Time. Marge Piercy (1976)
He, She And It. Marge Piercy (1991)
Glass Houses. Laura J. Mixon (1992)
Proxies. Laura J. Mixon (1998)
The Female Man. Joanna Russ (1975
WWW series (Wake, Watch, Wonder). Robert J. Sawyer (2009-2011)
Snow Crash. Neal Stephenson (1992)
Dreaming in Smoke. Tricia Sullivan (1998)
Maul. Tricia Sullivan (2003)
Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Priscilla Wald (2008)
Uglies. Scott Westerfeld (2006)
SF/F Books on my shelf that I still need to read:
The Wind Up Girl. Pablo Bacigalupi (2009)
Nova. Samuel Delany (1968)
Spook Country. William Gibson (2007)
The New Moon’s Arms. Nalo Hopkinson (2007)
Up Against It. M.J. Locke (2011) *currently reading*
Fractions (The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal). Ken Macleod (1995/2008)
The City & The City. China Mieville (2009)
Running with the Pack. Ed. Ekatrina Sedia (2010)
Far Horizons. Ed. Robert Silverberg (2005)
Revolution World. Katy Stauber (2011)
Mechanique. Genevieve Valentine (2011)