Slowly but surely, people are discovering Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure. So far, the edited collection has received four positive reviews. I couldn't be happier. I really didn't know what to expect when the book was published. Would anyone read it? How would non-academic fans react? The response to date, after 10 months on the market, has been excellent. See for yourself (links listed in order of most recent to oldest):
"In her introduction to the collection, Kathryn Allan writes that she intends this book to be an opening round in the only just beginning conversation between SF studies and critical dis/ability studies. But I would argue that she has quite surpassed that humble goal, giving us instead an anthology that will remain a critical work for scholars and fans in both fields for years to come." - Sarah Sackville-McLauchlan, Canadian Journal of Disability Studies
"Disability in Science Fiction seems to present a selection of possibilities rather than an overarching argument (a sort of critical buffet) - though these possibilities can feed off each other in exciting ways. Other works and collections will hopefully build on some of what is here; Allan's collection is a good beginning." - Aishwarya Subramanian, Strange Horizons
"It is hard to say enough good about Disability in Science Fiction. It is, quite simply, the single best resource for those interested in the intersection of SF and disability. Not only does it provide seed stock for future research in disability studies, but in the rich example of nexuses between disability and SF that it provides, it makes the case that no course in science fiction literature can afford to ignore a discussion of disability . . . While it may not be true that every reader is a science fiction fan, it would take someone with a great poverty of imagination to come away from Disability in Science Fiction without becoming excited by some idea it sparked." - Michael Northen, Editor of Wordgathering
"Disability in Science Fiction is an unusual collection of academic articles: it combines interesting scholarship with an remarkable degree of accessibility to the general reader . . . It is a very thought-provoking collection, and one I'm glad to have read." - Liz Bourke, Tor.com
I haven't been posting lately due to a combination of steady client work (yay!) and painful health issues (boo!). Now that I've cleared off my schedule of editing and coaching work until the New Year, I'm taking some much needed down time to rest and heal. I have several blog posts on the go--as I still want to share more about my Le Guin Feminist SF Fellowship--but they will have to wait until January. In order to get back to fighting form, I'm limiting my screen time for the rest of December.
I do want to share these two great reviews of Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure. I was beginning to worry about the book's reception, but these reviews have totally comforted my mind. Big thanks to the reviewers (and to everyone else who has purchased a copy, requested their local/uni libraries buy it, and/or has given the book much appreciated signal boosts).
"Kathryn Allan, an independent scholar whose work focuses on the connections between technology and the body, has put together a rare beast. Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure is an unusual collection of academic articles: it combines interesting scholarship with an remarkable degree of accessibility to the general reader." Read the rest of the review here.
"It is hard to say enough good about Disability in Science Fiction. It is, quite simply, the single best resource for those interested in the intersection of SF and disability. Not only does it provide seed stock for future research in disability studies, but in the rich example of nexuses between disability and SF that it provides, it makes the case that no course in science fiction literature can afford to ignore a discussion of disability." Read the rest of the review here.
All in all, 2012 was a great year for me. While I suffered through a string of chronic-pain flares and developed carpal tunnel syndrome in late November, I am learning, slowly, how to better take of myself (so those kind of problems don’t happen with such regularity). Overall, I am far healthier – both physically and mentally – than I ever was in graduate school. Part of this improvement is due to my decision to pursue independent scholarship. While I definitely went through bouts of self-doubt and uncertainty, I kept pushing myself to take risks. I went to cons (both academic and fan), I sent out proposals to journals, and I took on the task of editing a collection of essays.
Since I had no idea how to be an Independent Scholar, I had no expectation of reward. I figured that if I was successful in least one of my attempted academic endeavors, then good on me. I did not expect to land every proposal (except one) that I wrote up. As an Independent Scholar, I found the success –and joy, and intellectual freedom, and peer acceptance – that I never did as a graduate student. Perhaps the only thing that changed has been my attitude to the work, but I do believe I have finally discovered the path of scholarship that best suits me. Since I am honestly researching and writing for the love of it (and not for a tenure-track worthy CV), the parameters of what constitute my success and failure are broad and always flexible. Independent scholarship won’t put money in my back account, but, as clichéd as it sounds, my life feels richer for it.
It is actually quite difficult to write this post without weeping over my keyboard (and not just because my wrist still hurts). How can I properly express the depth of my surprise – and satisfaction – that I am doing well at the very thing I love? I feel incredibly blessed to be in this position. Without the support of my partner, Andrew, I am unsure if I would have taken the risk to start this unusual and uncertain career path. I have an academic coaching and editing business that I thoroughly enjoy each day, and a self-determined work schedule that allows me the space and time to follow my scholarly interests.
Here is what I accomplished as an Independent Scholar in 2012:
- Wrote the Afterword for Outlaw Bodies, Edited by Lori Selke and Djibril al-Ayad
- Presented papers/was a panelist at ICFA, WisCon, WorldCon/ChiCon7, SFContario3, and attended the World Fantasy Convention.
- Confirmation of publication in the forthcoming WisCon Chronicles 7 (paper: “Theorizing Vulnerability in Feminist SF) and a book review in JFA.
- Two articles are in the peer-review process (one for a journal, another for a collected works).
- And, saving best for last, I landed a contract with Palgrave Macmillan for my edited book, Technology as Cure? Representations of Disability in Science Fiction! I’m beyond thrilled about this news – the subject matter is important and timely, and my contributors deserve to see their interdisciplinary work in print.
Just writing all of these things out makes me giddy/proud/scared/teary. Seriously. I’m feeling all the emotions. I was so used to getting the “we regret to inform you” rejection letter that I really didn’t fully believe that I had all the skills necessary to make it as a scholar. Even though I would say –and sincerely mean – that I could make it in academia if I wanted to, there was a nagging little voice deep inside that whispered “that’s a lie.” I think defeating that voice, or, perhaps more truthfully, pushing forward despite it, has been my greatest accomplishment this past year. I don’t want to let such (old) shadows of self-doubt and fear keep me from challenging myself and exploring new and unfamiliar ways of working (either paid or unpaid).
I don’t have an exact idea of what 2013 will look like for me, but I know that it is going be an interesting year. I’m going to fulfill my long-held nerd dream of having a room full of people listen to me talk about Star Trek – I will be presenting two (!) papers on disability in the Star Trek universe (one at ICFA in March and the other at Eaton/SFRA in April). I haven’t committed to any non-regional SF cons yet, as finances will only allow for so much travel. Still, now that I have built up a network within the SF community, I don’t feel so isolated and am already looking forward to participating in SFContario 4 (held November in Toronto).
I want to thank everyone who has helped me achieve my goals this past year – my old friends from grad school and my new ones from cons, my diverse editing and coaching clients (whose business keeps me in food and books), and the many wonderful and supportive people I talk to online (I’m looking at you Twitter peeps). It is easy to laugh at Independent Scholarship – to load it up with pejorative labels and preconceived ideas of some sort of intellectual inadequacy – but I have been so heartened to find an open-minded community of people who have taken my work seriously. Thank you all. Your presences in my life, no matter how small or passing, have helped drown out that whispering voice of doubt. I wish a happy, healthy, and brave New Year to you all!
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.
While my reading list is heavily science fiction these days, I haven’t always read exclusively in the genre. I have posted before about my relatively small home SF/F library – if I have a book on my shelf, it’s because I really, really, love it. As I am about to embark on a SF-only research and reading binge for the foreseeable future, I thought it would be fun to write up a quick post about my non-SF favourite reads. Looking at the list of titles now, I can already see that I had an interest in stories about other worlds and other times. Transitioning into SF was a natural progression of my reading tastes. Here are some of my all-time favourite novels:
The Master and Margarita (1966) by Mikhail Bulgakov
In my undergrad days, I took a few Russian Literature courses – reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita was among one of my first transcendent reading experiences. Not only does he perform a crushing satire of Stalin’s regime, but his use of magic realism, historical revision, and grotesque and enigmatic characters, still captures my imagination today even though it’s been nearly a decade since I last read it. A novel I will return to throughout my life.
Doctor Zhivago (1958) by Boris Pasternak
The divided heart of poet. The Russian Revolution. That damn Lara. I’m not usually one for reading romances, but Pasternak’s story of love, morality, faith, art, and the human spirit will tear at the heartstrings of even the most hardened of us. Plus, there’s a really great film adaptation to watch once you’re done reading the book.
Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys
A minimalist novel – there is a story that Rhys felt that only one or two words were superfluous in the entire text – that made me say, “yes, I am a feminist and I want to read more books like this” (I was about 18, 19). Inspired by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Rhys tells the story of Antoinette Cosway, a “Creole heiress” in 1830s Jamaica. A favourite novel to use in undergrad classes about postcolonialism and feminism, I highly recommend Wide Sargasso Sea to anyone who enjoys reading (feminist) revisions of classic texts.
The Passion (1987) by Jeanette Winterson
Admission: I own every Winterson book, except her latest two. As an undergrad, I was kinda Winterson crazy. And that’s okay. I ended up writing my Master’s thesis on her work. While my love affair with her has dimmed substantially over the past decade, I still love The Passion. The narrative is somewhere between fairy-tale, historical revision, and magic realism, but really it is Winterson’s ability to express the turmoil of unrequited love that makes this book a winner for me. If you like The Passion, try Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry (1989) as a follow up.
Wild Geese (1925) by Martha Ostenso
An early Canadian masterpiece of modern realist fiction – it has all the dreariness and weight of Wuthering Heights, but set in the wild prairies and with a kickass heroine (Judith Gare). Never have I hated a character so thoroughly and purely as much as the tyrant father, Caleb Gare (that bastard!). Wild Geese is a truly remarkable – and readable – piece of Canadian literature. If you can find it, read it.
You Just Can’t Win (1926/reprint 1988, 2000) by Jack Black
A truly wonderful and rich autobiography of Jack Black, a yegg (criminal) scratching out survival in the hobo underworld in early America. A narrative of a forgotten part of American history, filled with real life characters who have names like Salt Chunk Mary and Foot-and-a-half George, make this the best damn autobiography I have ever read. Seriously. Someone needs to make a movie of You Just Can’t Win. I have sworn that if no one else will do it in the next 5 years, I will start writing the screen play adaptation myself.
There are other favs on my list, but these 6 titles are definitely at the top of the pile. I am not one for re-reading novels, but I have read all of these at least twice and intend to go back to them in the future. Happy reading everyone!
If there was a novel that I regretted not taking up during my time in graduate school, it is Misha's Red Spider White Web. It is a book that has haunted me since I read it two summers ago. Not only is the cover art amazing, the narrative itself is just chock-full of thought-provoking material. I was really happy to come across the new SF Mistressworks blog that aims to gather together reviews of feminist SF in order to better advertise the fact that, yes, women write awesome SF. Seeing an open call for submissions, I finally had my chance to write about Red Spider White Web. My review follows:
There is something profoundly disturbing – and, as equally, compelling – about Misha’s post-apocalyptic vision of the world in Red Spider White Web (1990). The novel is unrelenting in its bleak characterization of future humanity, but fascinating in its direct interrogation of race, technology, and the value of art. Whereas non-white characters are often assigned the supporting roles in conventional cyberpunk, Misha places her Aboriginal-others at the centre of the narrative. Red Spider White Web is a tale of the future told from the point of view of people whose history lives only in museums and on genetically-engineered farming colonies.
In his “Pseudo-Introduction” to the 1999 reprint of Red Spider White Web, John Shirley argues that Misha’s name should appear next to his on any list of seminal cyberpunk writers. He writes: “Misha’s particular interfacing of the artist-character with the streetscene with the cyborgian meat-transcendence revelation, her operatic evocation, her bold juxtapositions, her strangely feminine toughness, her barbed-wire poetic content, and most of the all the sense of an underlying metaphysical reality in Red Spider White Web – well shit, it was just plain ahead of its time.” The novel draws on the sub-genres of horror, cyberpunk, and feminist SF, but it is more frenetic, more darkly prophetic, and stranger than any clear-cut genre designation allows.
Two intertwining narratives in Red Spider White Web tell a story of desperate survival in a world fallen apart and the longing for beauty and real human contact. The primary character in the novel is Kumo, a holo-artist who scrapes out a living working in the artists’ market, waiting among the other discarded people for a “rich suit” to buy her work. The other narrative is that of Tommy, a mad ex-agent/preacher/junk collector, whose disjointed musings open the book and set up its dark visual imagery: “His circuit is a skull juggler. He’s a factory guard who stalks the silent chemical night. Eye guard transluscent aquariums of red agar. This. This is rehabrehabrehab ilit tation. Watch out!” From the book’s first sentences, Misha’s writing warns the reader that this is no breezy Sunday reading. While the prose verges on being poetically unintelligible at times – a reflection of the disarray and insanity of the world it describes – the majority of Red Spider White Web is captivating slang-thrown dialogue and keen images of a rotting city and its disenfranchised citizens.
The plot revolves around Kumo, as she navigates a cityscape full of gangs, cannibals, “zombies,” and groups of well-armed rich kids who prey on the poor and vulnerable for fun. Someone is killing the artists in her community, but with dogged determination, Kumo survives her surroundings and keeps making her holo-art. Misha’s world-building does not leave much room for hope: people must shield themselves from UV radiation, they eat synthetic food, contract 15-minute viruses, slap on drug patches, and wallow in perversion. Misha does not give into transhumanist nostalgia or the typical cyberpunk trope of transcendence. Kumo and Tommy are ultimately alone and all too human beneath their masks of metal and cloned-leather.
While Red Spider White Web might not make for ideal bedtime-reading, it is a novel worth attention from anyone who reads SF and understands the inherently critical nature of the genre. Misha’s savage world speaks to fears of those already left behind – the rich get richer and the poor get eaten. It is a vision of a world that must not come to be. I’ve wanted to write about Red Spider White Web for a long time. It has taken two years for me to revisit it. A good story stays with you and Misha’s Red Spider White Web refuses to leave easily.