Greg Egan, Luminous (1998)

“the only freedom lies in being this machine, and not another”, Mr Volition.

A sinister genetically-engineered jungle; a super-computer made out of light; a piece of software that could reveal the true nature of consciousness; a religious icon from Chernobyl; a mysterious, deadly new disease; a barrier to protect the foetus in the womb; radical brain surgery that might allow you to choose your own happiness. These are some of the delights and terrors contained within the stories of Greg Egan.

Greg Egan writes hard science fiction. His stories are concerned with the ways in which people respond to scientific advances and, just as importantly, how science shapes the possibilities of human existence.  These are stories about the politics and the ethics of science and its interactions with economics, culture and belief.

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2013 in Science/ Speculative Fiction

Top 5 Novels

I can’t pick an overall favourite because I loved them all for different reasons.

Connie Willis, Doomsday Book (1992)
Despite the objections of her supervisor, Mr Dunworthy, a postgraduate history student called  Kivrin insists on travelling back in time to the fourteenth century. I don’t know how a Medievalist would respond to Willis’s depiction of the period, but not being a Medievalist myself I just enjoyed it as a great story about death which managed to be entertaining and profound at the same time.

Nancy Kress, Steal across the Sky (2009)
Aliens set up a base on the moon and state their intention to atone for a crime committed against humanity by their ancestors.  This is a lovely little novel which takes the question of belief in the afterlife as its starting point. If we could prove the existence of an afterlife, how would this knowledge change us and our world?  I enjoyed it enough to forgive the ‘dead gay best-friend’, even though that’s a trope I particularly loathe.

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog (1999)
More time-travelling historians in this charming, delightful, fluffy romance. I would definitely recommend reading Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) beforehand and you’ll have to leave your feminism at the front cover if you want to enjoy it fully.

Nicola Griffiths, Ammonite (1993)
But if you do want some feminist science fiction, look no further than Ammonite. A researcher travels to the mysterious planet called Jeep where a virus wiped out all the male colonists hundreds of years ago.  Somehow the remaining women have found a way to survive and reproduce. This is an intense and profound book about self-discovery.

Kage Baker, In the Garden of Iden (1997)
This is the first in Baker’s popular ‘Company’ series about cyborgs who are employed by a mysterious company to manipulate the past. It’s very funny and deadly serious at the same time.  I can’t wait to read the next one.

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5 Things (Twilight Zone, wine, Frankenweenie, naps, an octopus chandelier)

I’ve been looking for a way to ease myself back into blogging after the summer hiatus and then Sapphire Street gave me the idea of posting a weekly list of 5 things that have interested me, so here we go:

The Twilight Zone (1959)

Andy bought us the first season of Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone on DVD and I finally understand why this magnificent series has become such a cultural touchstone.  Each episode is like a mini-movie, beautifully produced, acted and directed. We’re on episode 9 and so far themes of isolation, alienation and war have dominated, which is not too surprising for a show that emerged from the 1950s. I absolutely loved ‘The Lonely’, in which a man convicted to serve out his sentence alone on an asteroid gains possession of a robot woman companion only to find himself faced with a terrible choice. ‘The Sixteen Millemetre Shrine’ introduced to me the work of the rather awesome Ida Lupino who both directed and starred in the episode. The best episode I’ve seen so far is one of the most famous: ‘Time Enough at Last’.  In this haunting story, a harassed man finally finds himself alone with plenty of time to read his beloved books, but of course nothing ever goes according to plan in “The Twilight Zone”.  The ending is unforgettable. We’ve also been watching 1980s reboot, The New Twilight Zone, on The Horror Channel and it isn’t bad, though no patch on the original.

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A SF and Pop Culture Round-up

Everyone’s been tweeting this article, I Hate Strong Female Characters. Sophia Mcdougall seems to have articulated something that a lot of people have been feeling.

On a related note, Anne Billson posted about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the scarcity of female role models

This is an interesting post from NPR’s blog, At the Movies: The Women are Gone. It makes the important point that the lack of women in the movies has nothing to do with the popularity or income-generating potential of women-centred movies:

They put up Bridesmaids, we went. They put up Pitch Perfect, we went. They put up The Devil Wears Prada, which was in two-thousand-meryl-streeping-oh-six, and we went (and by “we,” I do not just mean women; I mean we, the humans), and all of it has led right here, right to this place. Right to the land of zippedy-doo-dah. You can apparently make an endless collection of high-priced action flops and everybody says “win some, lose some” and nobody decides that They Are Poison, but it feels like every “surprise success” about women is an anomaly and every failure is an abject lesson about how we really ought to just leave it all to The Rock.

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The 10 short stories that got me into reading science fiction

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the sofa with my Mum watching re-runs of Dr Who, Blake’s 7 and the original Star Trek.  I’m not sure if she knew I was paying attention, what with Blake’s 7 hardly being suitable viewing for a five year-old.  A few years later I was into Star Trek: The Next Generation and Quantum Leap and would try and get away with staying up late to watch The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits reboots. Then it was The X-Files, Babylon 5 and all the rest of those nineties SF shows.

Considering how much science fiction I watched on television, I was surprisingly slow to start reading the genre.  When I did eventually come to the literature of science fiction, it was through reading short stories and this is a list of the ones that have stayed with me.

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The adventures of Crystal Barbie and other stories

I was at my mother’s house yesterday sorting through the stuff I’ve stored there over the years. Being reunited with so many past selves was an enjoyable, if slightly unsettling, experience and the contents of one dusty box were particularly poignant.  When I opened it I found, to my surprise, my favourite Barbie and Sindy dolls from choldhood carefully packed away in there, most of them wearing their now rather tatty original outfits.  I’d assumed they’d all been given away years ago.

My Barbies and Sindys were very important to me and extravagantly loved.  I would pick out the one I wanted months in advance of Christmas or my birthday. My mother would then buy it with her Brian Mills home shopping catalogue credits and hide it on top of the wardrobe until the date came around.   My parents were the sort of back-to-the-land hippies who probably didn’t approve of Barbie at all, but having both experienced neglect in their own childhoods, they wanted to try and give us the toys we asked for and didn’t interfere very much.

Left to choose for myself,  I did not pick the more sensible looking models, such as astronaut or vet Barbie.  No, I always asked for the most fabulous Barbies available, the high femmes with with the biggest, shiniest dresses. I even had the glow-in-the-dark Barbie.  You might not  believe it to look at me now, but I’ve always had an interest in glamour and a liking for shiny things and the Barbies and the Sindys of the 1980s more than satisfied this desire.  As I opened each new doll and carefully removed her from her box, I would swear to myself that I’d keep this one in pristine condition, a resolution that never lasted more than a couple of weeks.

My only noticeable break with convention was my insistence that the dolls lived in a woman-only commune to which Ken dolls were refused admittance (someone did eventually buy me one, of which more in a moment).  We had friends who lived in communes and there was womens’ land in existence near to where I grew up, which may have been the inspiration.  I remember that the womens’ land was viewed with much suspicion in the local community. I didn’t understand the reasons for this suspicion at the time, but it gave it a thrilling whiff of transgression.

The all-time favourite – Crystal Barbie (1983)

Crystal Barbie
Crystal Barbie

Her stoll is in quite good condition, but the dress is sadly worn. It should be shiny all over. I’ve lost her jewelry, which I thought one of the most special things about her. Imaginatively renamed ‘Christina’, Crystal Barbie went on to become one of the leaders of my doll commune, along with ballet dancer Sindy (who later died tragically in a dog attack).  I gave Christina a “daughter” (an appropriately sized Pippa doll), which made her into a single mum because she never had a husband or a boyfriend.  I think this was quite daring.

The second favourite – Masquerade Sindy (1984)

Masquerade Sindy
Masquerade Sindy (1984)

Words cannot describe just how much I wanted this Sindy doll.  I got her for Christmas and wouldn’t put her down for days. I’m sorry I didn’t photograph her with her opera mask because I do still have it.  The hairdo has collapsed and that red and white flower thing is not exactly original (This is how she’s supposed to look).  Her outfit was apparently designed by the Emmanuels (remember them, 80s kids?), the same people who did Lady Di’s wedding dress. I found that very impressive.  Masquerade was renamed ‘Elizabeth’ and was always a bit full of herself.

Jewel Secrets Barbie (1986)

Jewel Secrets Barbie
Jewel Secrets Barbie

Another extremely fabulous Barbie, Jewel Secrets came with a weird skirt that could double as a bag – for jewelry, I presume.  I now think it makes her look a bit like one of those dolls my Nan used to cover up spare toilet rolls in the bathroom.  She did have a second outfit underneath the bag, as demonstrated here.  I was very pleased with Jewel Secrets because she had extra long hair, which I was obviously having fun styling right up until the day she went into the box.  Jewel Secrets did however lead to someone giving me ‘Jewel Secrets Ken’, who was a slightly creepy looking individual.  My mother insists that I asked for this Ken, but I have a feeling it was more the case that someone in my family, concerned about the obvious lack of Ken dolls, persuaded me to accept him.  We ended up making him into someone’s brother and, eventually, the on-again-off-again boyfriend of one of my sister’s Barbies.

Mystery Sindy! 

Sindy doll
Mystery Sindy

If anyone can identify this Sindy doll, please let me know in the comments.  I can’t remember what she was called, but I can see why I wanted her – great fishtail dress, feather boa and diamante necklace.  I think she may have been created to compete with Barbie and the fact that she’s still wearing her necklace shows her treasured she was.

Day to Night Barbie – 1984

"Samantha"
“Samantha”

Day to Night Barbie is the only one of my dolls to make the Muse’s approved feminist Barbie list.  She may have spent all night partying, but she at least appeared to have a job in the daytime.  I called her Samantha (very Sex in the City, eh?) and loved her so much that her original outfits have completely disintegrated.  I obviously still cared about her enough to dress her in what looks like one of Jewel Secrets’s spare outfits (it has one of the weird bag skirts and that’s the sort of necklace Jewel would sport). My partner is jealous because she wanted this Barbie and never got it.

I’m not attempting to defend what these toys represent because it’s reprehensible.  Their existence is symptomatic of sexism, capitalism, consumerism and racism, and that’s just for starters. But finding my old dolls did make me pause and think about the ways in which children will work with what they’ve got, attach meaning to toys and create narratives around them that make sense in the context of their own lives – hence my Barbie woman-only commune.  

Nobody plays with Barbie in a cultural vacuum and I’m troubled by the unacknowledged classism that often crops up in feminist discussions about these toys (“I didn’t play with Barbie because I was too busy out in the back garden building a telescope out of old lolly pop sticks with my Dad etc.”).  You can also end up playing not very helpful games of “more-feminist-than-thou” or “not-like-the-other-girls” which don’t really get to the root of why children like these toys, or indeed why they might be problematic.

Did my Barbie habit do me any harm?  She’s often blamed for causing body-image problems and, while I think my own issues with food had far more obvious causes, I’m sure these dolls did give me bad messages about femininity, sexuality and value of women: in the world of 1980s Barbie, “beauty” equals whiteness, wealth and a completely unachievable body type.  I think children should have access to toys that help them explore adult femaleness and femininity, but it would have been better for me to have had dolls that represent adult female bodies more realistically and with more diversity.

Why was I so fixated on these fabulous dolls?  I think they were so enticing, partly because their appearance was so different to anything I experienced in my daily life.  We lived in a poor rural area and the women I knew impressed me as sensible, hardworking types who always seemed to be digging up swedes or plucking chickens.  People had to be very thrifty and makeup and dresses were strictly for special occasions, if ever.  I admired these women and identified with them far more than I did with my dolls, but I also wanted the fantasy escape offered by Barbie.  So my Barbies did their farm work and them came home and sat around drinking tea in their ball gowns.

I think were was another more profound and uncomfortable reason.  My world often seemed chaotic and frightening and I experienced the regular gift of the Christmas or birthday Barbie doll as extremely reassuring.  No matter how bad things got, the dolls appeared reliably every year.  They meant that my stressed out parents still cared for me.  This reminds me of a little girl who was friends with my sister.  She lived with her mum in a tiny house in the village.  Her father had been killed in a freak accident and they had very little money.  I’ll never forget how proudly she showed us her My Little Pony collection and how she treasured those toys.  The ponies are comforting because they are a group of friends, but for this little girl I think they were also a sign of love, because her mother must have really struggled to buy them for her.  Even as my parents were going bankrupt, my mother continued to save up her catalogue credits to buy us those dolls.

More food for thought:  Gabriel Galimberti, Toy Stories, photographs of children from around the world with their favourite toys  (thanks @infamy_infamy)

Gardner Dozois (ed.), The Mammoth Book of Best New Science Fiction 21 (2008)

This is my first encounter with the acclaimed Mammoth Book of Best New SF and I can see why its editor has won so many awards over the years. The stories selected here are of consistently high quality and offer a balanced collection of new and established writers.

On the downside, the content of issue 21 is dominated by white, male authors (25 men to 8 women) and you can see that in 2008, women writers and writers of colour were not getting the same level of attention as white, male writers. As far as I could tell (without looking everyone up) there are only two writers of colour included in this anthology! On a somewhat more positive note, the stories do feature a lot of female protagonists (16 of the 25 stories) which does at least suggest that male writers are starting to consider women as being worth writing about, which is something.

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From Isaac Asimov to Iain M Banks: A Science Fiction reading round-up

Here, in chronological order of publication, is a round-up of science fiction books that I’ve read over the last few months.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation (1951)

This book contains almost no female characters and consists mainly of scenes set in rooms with egotistical male characters out-manoeuvring one another in psychological power games.  That doesn’t sound like something I’d enjoy does it? But, you know what? I really did, even though I can’t say exactly why.  The Galactic Empire is crumbling and a Psychohistorian called Seldon proposes to limit the oncoming dark ages before civilization returns by creating an encyclopaedia of human knowledge.   A courageous group of humans are dispatched to a remote planet called Terminus where, as the empire declines, they find themselves in conflict with other local planets. There is something compellingly amoral about Foundation in the way it cheerfully promotes the control of other planets through a combination of threat and psychological manipulation, all of which is based on the Foundation’s possession of superior technology.  It’s part of a long series and I probably will attempt at least the next couple of books. Read it for its immense influence and a sense of new ground being broken in science fiction, but don’t read it for emotional depth or decent female characters.

Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man (1951)

My first Ray Bradbury book, although I’d read the odd story in anthologies here and there.  Two things I gleaned from the stories in The Illustrated Man: Ray Bradbury was highly ambivalent about technology and he didn’t like children very much – check out ‘The Vedlt’ for some seriously nasty children.  These are the kind of stories that tend to feature in old episodes of The Twilight Zone: evocative, allegorical and often containing some kind of sting in the tail.  The concerns are very much the concerns of the 1950s: the threat of nuclear war, the role of religion, the implication of enormous technological advances and social changes. There’s one well-intentioned story about racism in which Mars has been colonised by African Americans, but it’s based almost entirely on racist stereotypes.  The gender politics are also those of the 1950s so forget about complex female characters.  Read it for well-written, haunting, stories, but not for its representation of women or characters of colour, or if you just really hate The Twilight Zone.

Roger Zelazny, The Dream Master (1966)

I read this because the short story it was based on, ‘He Who Shapes’, comes recommended by Ursula K Le Guin as one of the finest science fiction short stories she’s ever read. I wish I’d sought out the short story rather than read this post- Nebula win extended version, because to me it felt padded and I’m not convinced the additions benefited the story.  A “neuroparticipant” psychotherapist called Charles Render, who treats patients by working within their simulated dreams, is approached by Eileen Shallot, a blind woman who wants to become a neuroparticipant therapist herself, but who needs first to learn to ‘see’ and control a visual environment. This is another story about the possible dangers of advancing technology as well as the dangers of psychotherapy itself, questioning the role of the therapist as a puppet master who manipulates reality. It is very unsettling. The representation of Eileen now comes across as both disablist and sexist – very much a story about a disabled person desperate for a cure at any cost and unable to live a satisfying life with her impairment.  Read it for beautiful writing and imaginative power, but don’t read if you’re not in the mood to feel unsettled, or if you dislike weird endings.

C. J, Cherryh, The Pride of Chanur (1981)

My partner wrote about this book recently and I don’t have much to add to her response.  Feminist cat people in space! What more do you need to know really?  This is a bit of a straight-up space western and it’s a lot of fun to read about the arrival of humanity in space from the point of view of the aliens.  The feel of it, with its focus on interstellar commerce and ships that jump through hyper-space reminded me of Babylon 5.  This is also the first in a series of novels.  Read it for good characters and a fast-paced entertaining story, but not for psychological nuance or emotional depth.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars (1992)

Red Mars is a serious, and I mean a serious, attempt to imagine the colonization of Mars. I found the book interesting, especially in the ecological issues it raises and the ethics of planetary colonisation and terraforming, as mentioned by Godard’s Letterboxes here.  It has some passable female characters and I think I most enjoyed the sections that were told from the point of view of Russian engineer Nadia, who is a rare example of a female character whose main love in life is her work.  I really struggled with the very long section in which John Boone drives around Mars (which felt almost as long as the three-year sandstorm they were stuck in) because I couldn’t give a toss about John.  The book is weak on characters of colour, none of whom get to be point-of-view characters and who tend to be quite stereotyped. There’s a “magical negro” called “the Coyote” and a Japanese woman called Hiroko who is all spiritual and closer to nature, and has a special relationship with Mars.  I don’t know if this improves in the next two books though I can see from Wikipedia that “the Coyote” does at least get a name and that a lot of the next generation of characters are of mixed ethnicity.  I don’t think I’ll be reading  them though because while I quite enjoyed it, I feel I’ve had my fill of the world Robinson created here.  Read it you like plenty of science and politics in your science fiction, oh and detail, lots of detail.

Ursula K Le Guin, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994)

I would normally give a book by Ursula an entire post, but I don’t have much to add to this review over at Randomly yours, Alex so you might as well just go and read that. It’s a nice little collection of stories, not her best and not one for readers new to her work, but to be enjoyed by fans of her Hainish Universe.

Liz Williams, Banner of Souls (2004)

“Dreams of War was hunting the remnants of men on the slopes of the Martian Olympus when she came across the herd of ghosts”.  Any book that opens with a line like that gets my attention. I wonder if Liz Williams got pissed off with 1970s utopian, feminist, science fiction because in this novel we’re presented with a dystopian matriarchy in which men have degenerated into vicious, animalistic creatures, but in which no utopia has resulted from their demise; the world Williams presents is relentlessly bleak.  If you like Gothic fiction and science fiction, it’s well worth a look because it’s very gothic indeed – check out the haunt tech, a technology that harnesses the power of the realm of the dead. Banner of Souls is readable, fantastically strange and imaginative, but low on emotional engagement and I can’t say I cared about any of the characters.  Read it for the gothic excess and interesting world-building, but not for character development.

Iain M. Banks, The Algebraist (2004)

I have a feeling this isn’t the best place to start with Iain M Banks’s science fiction and I probably would have been better off with one of the Culture novels, but although I found The Algebraist quite a challenge in places, I also really enjoyed it.  The story is set in the Ulubis system, part of a galactic civilisation ruled over by the  hierarchal, artificial intelligence-hating, society of the Mercatoria. Ulubis is cut off from the rest of galactic civilisation by an act of terrorism that destroys its artificial wormhole.  A Mercatorial star ship sets out to bring a new one, but also on his way with a fleet of ships is the psychopathic leader of a dangerous cult that seeks to take over star systems. The main character Fassin Taak is an anthropologist who studies the ancient, and notoriously touchy, Dwellers, a “slow” species who live in the clouds of gas giants.  Fassin is given the mission of finding out the truth behind a myth that the Dwellers hold the key to a secret system of wormholes that could break the control of the Mercatoria. The Algebraist is a rambling, intelligent space opera and for me felt something like what might happen if Charles Dickens had written science fiction –  exuberant, over-the-top, full of larger-than-life and grotesque characters, lots of digressions, a narrative that jumps around all over the place, and an underlying political allegory. Fassin is rather bland, but I think he’s supposed to be that kind of “everyman” and the Dwellers are the real joy in terms of characterization in the novel.  On the downside, no interesting characters of colour in here, and while there were a couple of intriguing female characters, they didn’t get much of the story. Read it if you like big, meaty, complex science fiction novels, but don’t pick it up expecting an easy, quick read.

Soundtrack to January

I got Kristin Hersh’s live album Cats and Mice for Christmas.  Recorded in San Francisco in 2009, it has a generous 19 tracks drawn mostly from Learn to Sing Like a Star and Crooked, and an excellent production.  I gave the Throwing Muses’s 1996 album Limbo an outing, although I have to say this is the one album of their’s that I don’t entirely get.  I also listened to Star (1993) from Tanya Donnelly’s post-throwing Muses band Belly, an indie-pop album that stills sounds really fresh.

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Gender Calamity/Gender Possibility: Calamity Jane (1953)

The 1953 musical western Calamity Jane follows an ostensibly heteronormative narrative trajectory in which we see two rebellious young women being tamed and made ready for heterosexual marriage. Wild tomboy and stagecoach guard, “Calam” (Doris Day), gets a makeover and learns how to be a woman, while aspiring burlesque performer, Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), gives up on her dreams of being on stage for the love of a man. But this surface narrative is in constant tension and conflict with the film’s high camp celebration of queer rebellion and non-normative desire which conveys an alternative story that, as Eric Savoy argues, questions “the possibility, or even the desirability of a coherent gender role” (151) or, for that matter, the very existence of “true”, or fixed identities.

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Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945)

Spoiler alert

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and produced by David O. Selznick

In Spellbound Ingrid Bergman plays Dr Constance Peterson, a brilliant psychiatrist, and the only female member of staff at the psychiatric hospital where she works.  The film begins with the Director, Dr Murchison, being forced to retire following a mental breakdown.  Constance immediately falls in love with his replacement, Dr Edwardes, but within a few days discovers that her lover is not Dr Edwardes at all, but a paranoid amnesiac who has stolen his identity and may actually be guilty of Edwardes’s murder.

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Ursula K Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of my favourite books and this must be at least the fourth time I’ve read it.  On its publication The Left Hand of Darkness was received as a groundbreaking piece of science fiction, winning the Nebula Award in 1969 and the Hugo Award in 1970.  Compelling, atmospheric, sometimes frightening, it offers the reader some exquisite world-building and a story with profound meaning.

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Kate Wilhelm, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976)

Finding themselves faced with economic and environmental collapse on a global scale, a wealthy extended family seeks refuge in the mountains, where they hope to survive and build a new community.  When they realise that radiation and pollution have lead to high levels of infertility, they resort to using their DNA to create clones, who they intend to raise as their own children with the hope that they will be able to reproduce sexually again at some point in the future. However, as the clones grow up, it becomes apparent that they represent a different species of human and have their own ideas about how the community should develop. As you may have already guessed, it doesn’t involve returning to the old ways.

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Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (1996)

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows, Matthew 10:29-31

In 2019 a SETI programme picks up a radio transmission from near Alpha Centauri containing the sound of exquisite alien songs.   The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) decides to fund and lead an independent, scientific mission to that part of the galaxy to try and find the planet of origin.  After a few months, the Jesuits  lose contact with the expedition and the UN sends a second mission to Rakhat.   The information that they send back  threatens to bring the Jesuit order to its knees. Only one member of the first mission, Father Emilio Sandoz, has been found alive.  He has been discovered living in a state of degradation in what appears to be a brothel, and worse still, has been accused of murdering a child.  Decades later in 2059 (thanks to the speed of light) Sandoz finally arrives back on Earth, a broken man, sexually brutalised, with his hands horrifically maimed.  Under huge international and media pressure, as well as UN condemnation for taking matters into their own hands without approval, the Jesuit order decides to hold an investigation into what happened on the planet of Rakhat.

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Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (1995)

To get along with God,

Consider the consequences of your behaviour

Parable of the Sower is one of the most harrowing, intense novels I’ve ever read.  I had a feeling that I shouldn’t read it while in a raw emotional state, but I picked it up one afternoon, started it and couldn’t stop.  Butler has a deceptively simple writing style that hooks you quickly and then grabs you round the throat and shakes you to your core.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across another writer who has less pity on her readers.

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A Babylon 5 Drinking Game

Andy and I have been rewatching Babylon 5 and have found ourselves shouting “drink” at certain moments in the show.  Thus, we discovered that a drinking game had naturally evolved from our B5 rewatch.

Take a drink when:

1. Someone says “a 1,000 years ago”.

2. Twice if it’s Delenn

3. Someone explains the Minbari caste system

4. Someone name checks Valen

5. The Minbari overeact and have a needlessly extreme/violent response to a problem

6. Twice if it’s Delenn

7. Someone says “Minbari do not lie”

8. Twice if a Minbari lies or deliberately deceives someone

9. Someone says “Minbari do not kill Minbari”

10.  Twice if a Minbari tries to kill another Minbari

11.  Lenier acts kind of stalkerish around Delenn

12.  Ambassador Kosh anwers “yes” or “no” to a question that doesn’t have a “yes” or “no” answer

13.  Ambassador Kosh is outside of his encounter suit

14. Commander Sinclair hardly blinks throughout a scene

15. Commander Sinclair blinks way too much during a scene

16. Someone uses the word “Hell”

17. Twice if they anthropomorphise hell, e.g. “Hell is coming right behind me”.

18. Three times it’s Mr Garibaldi

19. Mr Bester goads Mr Garibaldi

20. Mr Bester is prevented from telepathically scanning people

21. Someone threatens violence towards Mr Bester

22. Ivanova threatens someone with violence

23.  Twice if it’s Mr Bester

24. Someone tries to hit on Ivanova

25. Twice if it’s Talia Winters

26. Lyta Alexander’s eyes turn black … or gold

27. Someone has a really baaaaad telepathic experience

28. Marcus offers to sacrifice himself

29. Twice if Marcus succeeds in sacrificing himself

30. John Sheridan quotes his Dad

31. John Sheridan uses his quick thinking to save everyone from almost certain death

32. The League of Non-aligned Worlds are being unreasonable and difficult

33. Members of the League of Non Aligned Worlds are easily manipulated into taking a course of action

34. Londo is drunk

35. Somebody makes a joke about Spoo

36. Vir fails to dissuade Londo from a course of action

37. Mr Morden smiles ominously

38. G’Kar tries to kill Londo

39. G’Kar saves Londo’s ass

40. G’Kar makes a moving speech

41. Someone asks Stephen a simple question and he gives them far more information than they bargained for

42. Someone tells us about their religious beliefs

43. Twice if they actually have a go at defining the nature of God

44. Zack doesn’t understand something

45. Zathras says “Nobody listens to Zathras”

46. Nobody listens to Zathras

47. Wayne Alexander guest stars

48. Somebody almost gets laid

49. Somebody manages to get laid

50. A seriously disturbed human veteran of the Minbari war causes trouble on the station (e.g. tries to blow it up, attempts to assassinate someone, turns up dressed as King Arthur)

51. A down-below villain attempts to do a Cockney accent

52. There is a huge punch-up in the Zocalo

53. The station is almost destroyed

54.  The set is largely comprised of empty cardboard boxes covered with plastic wrap

55. The set is largely comprised of curtains

56. Space jazz is playing in the background

57. The same extras walk around in the background more than once

58. There are monks in the background

59. There is a Pak’ma’ra in the background

60. There is an obvious info dump that makes you cringe a little

That’s what we’ve come up with so far, but feel free to add more to the list.

Carl Sagan, Contact (1985)

The film version of Carl Sagan’s science fiction novel, Contact (1997), seems to divide people into “love it” and “hate it” camps.  Personally, I love it: it’s elegant, has an imaginative story and, of course, stars Jodie Foster as Dr Eleanor Arroway, so I was looking forward to reading the novel on which it was based.

Continue reading

In Praise of Fright Night (well, sort of)

The forthcoming remake of Fright Night (1985) has spurred me on to write a post about the original film, which was a favourite of mine when I was a teenager.  I’m aware that this post may largely consist of me rationalising my attachment to a homophobic and sexist film, but what can I say? I loved Fright Night when I was a kid and, when I sat down and watched it again recently, I found that I still loved it almost as much.

For me, as a teenager, Fright Night appeared extremely queer.  It presented a hero who was more interested in spying on the handsome man next door than in consummating his relationship with his girlfriend.  Meanwhile, the handsome man next door lived with another man who appeared to be devoted to him.   The hero’s best friend, ‘Evil Ed’, could be read as the kind of gay kid who protects himself from attack by becoming the class clown (fun fact: Stephen Geoffreys, the actor who played Ed, stars in gay porn films), as could the washed-up, horror film actor, Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell), who is represented, at least initially, as the nervous, fussy, effeminate gay male stereotype.

Fright Night reinforces homophobic discourses most strongly in the representation of the vampire, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), as the predatory, older gay or (perhaps more accurately) bisexual man and, in 1985 when so many gay men were dying of AIDS, the homophobic metaphor of infection that he carries as a vampire can’t be ignored.  The film also has little to offer feminism.  Charley’s mother is a silly woman (bad single Mum!) who endangers her son, and Charley’s girlfriend, Amy, who is generally submissive to men, ends up as the object of exchange in a classic homosocial triangle through which Charley and Jerry channel their relationship with each other (another fun fact: Amanda Bearse, the actress who played Amy, is a lesbian).  Also, as soon as she’s vamped Amy manifests the monstrous female sexuality that vampire fiction by male authors has traditionally assumed to lurk in all women, and also treats us to some rather exciting vagina dentata imagery.

So far, so homophobic and sexist, but Fright Night is just so clever, so witty, and winks at its audience so outrageously, that I can’t completely condemn it.  It does something interesting is in its presentation of two gay role models for the boys – “evil” Jerry Dandridge versus “good” Peter Vincent.  It’s very unusual to see the effeminate gay man (as Vincent seems to be portrayed) being represented as heroic at all on film, and rather than simply saying that gayness is bad, the film suggests that there are good and bad ways to be gay.  Poor Ed makes the fatal mistake of identifying with Jerry (but you can understand why he does), while Charley is wise enough to hook up with Peter Vincent instead.  Of course this opposition between “good” and “bad” gayness is in itself homophobic, but it’s a little more interesting than a lot of other horror films.  I also feel that Fright Night is, on another level, sort of about homosexuality and homophobia in horror film, insofar as it acknowledges and plays with the gay subtext that is such a longstanding feature of the genre. In particular, it seems to be saying something about the role that the gothic and horror genres have played in telling coded stories about queerness that have been especially attractive to young people trying to sort out their feelings about sexuality.

At the end of the film, Charley still hasn’t managed to consummate his relationship with Amy and still gets distracted by looking out of the window.  You never know, he might manage it after the credits roll, but you can decide that his options are still open.

This week’s culture round-up

I didn’t do a round-up last Sunday because I didn’t think I had enough links, so now I probably have too many.

He’s Here! The Phantom of the Opera!

“The queer is the taboo-breaker, the monstrous, the uncanny.  Like the Phantom of the Opera, the queer dwells underground, below the operatic overtones of the dominant; frightening to look at, desiring, as it plays its own organ, producing its own music“, Sue Ellen Case, ‘Tracking the Vampire’ in Differences (1991) (p. 3).

The other day, an online conversation reminded me of my teenage love of musicals, in particular, my obsession, between the ages of nine and thirdteen, with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.  My cooler friends were into Les Miserables, which even I had to acknowledge had a better score than Phantom, but I’ve always had a taste for glamour,  the gothic and, of course, the queer, and on all those fronts, Phantom won hands down.

My early love of Phantom is an example of how queer kids often cultivate interests that appear acceptable on the surface  of things, but privately rewrite their meaning to meet their own emotional and erotic needs. No one objected to my love of Phantom because an interest in musicals is considered acceptable for white, middle-class teenage girls and because they assumed that I identified with Christine and her romance with Raoul.

In fact I identified passionately with the Phantom himself, the queer figure who lurks underground (and outside heteronormativity) and who exerts a mesmerising power over beautiful women, a figure who isn’t what he appears to be and who hides a terrible secret under his mask where he bears the mark of his ‘queerness’. The Phantom/Angel of Music/Erik allows us to face our fears of being literally unmasked and seen for what we really are.  I even had my own Phantom of the Opera mask and hat.

In attempting to drop a chandelier on Christine’s bland boyfriend, Raoul (see video below), the Phantom in his role as return of the repressed, acts out a queer rage against the dominant discourse.  From a feminist perspective, (and I’m sure there must be cultural critics out there who’ve talked about this), the Phantom can also be seen as an avatar of Christine herself, since the death of Raoul would save her from the fate of a dull marriage to a painfully boring man that awaits her and will undoubtedly end her singing career.  The Phantom may be creepy, but at least he wants to unleash Christine’s creativity and show her what she can achieve.  In gothic and horror fiction, the queer monster often allows women to dally with possibilities beyond heterosexual marriage, but only within the context of a parasitical or vampiric relationship that threatens to destroy them.  For the monstrous queer figure, the attempt to express him/herself through the woman ultimately it leaves him/her voiceless.  If you’re interested, Rhona J. Bernstein’s book, Attack of the Leading Ladies is very good on this special relationship between the monster and the ‘leading lady’.

When I was thirdteen, the Phantom got dumped for Madonna, and when I was fourteen I took up with the Rocky Horror Show, but that’s a whole other post.  For now, here’s the original video starring an unblinking Sarah Brightman as Christine, a rather stiff and awkward Steve Harley as the Phantom, and the most amazing mullet on the guy playing Raoul.  It now looks like a particularly bad Meatloaf video, but I loved it at the time.

George R.R Martin & Lisa Tuttle, Windhaven (1981)

Written by two highly regarded authors working in genre fiction, Windhaven is a science fiction/fantasy novel of the kind that appeals to both young adults and regular adults.

The story is set on a planet predominantly covered by a vast, dangerous ocean, where the only land consists of a few scattered islands.  Some generations previously, a spaceship from Earth crashed on this planet.  The crew hoped to be rescued, but when their children grew up they rebelled against their parents, dismantled the space ship and used the material from which it was constructed to create wings that could be used by flyers to facilitate communication between the islands. These wings are passed down from parent to child. Thus the society of Windhaven becomes divided between the land-bound majority and a high-status flyer elite who serve the land-bound communities, but also remain above the law.

Windhaven is the story of large-scale social change seen through the eyes of one individual, Maris, the liminal figure who stands between the flyers and the land-bound.  Maris is the adopted daughter of a hereditary flyer who, despite her obvious skill in the sky, is ordered to give up the wings to his biological child, her younger brother who has no desire to fly.  Maris refuses to comply, steals the wings and calls a council of flyers to debate the issue.

The first part of the novel covers Maris’s upbringing and the council at which she succeeds in making a fundamental change to society, namely, that flyers must now compete with land-bound for the right to use the wings.  The second part of the story takes place a few years later as the effects of the changes really start to be felt and Maris, now a respected flyer, must deal with the consequences of her actions in the form of Val, a land-bound boy with no respect for flyer traditions whose actions attract the hatred of the hereditary flyers.  Val is one of the most vivid characters in the book, infuriating, utterly unsympathetic, but not necessarily wrong in principle; he challenges Maris to think about where her loyalties lie.  The third part of the book tells the story of Maris’s later years when she is yet again called to deal with a crisis that stems from the changes she caused in her society and this time it might claim her life.

It’s refreshing to read a book set in a society that’s not divided along the lines of gender – in Windhaven social life is divided by status as flyer or land-bound – and the authors make efforts to embed this throughout the narrative. Maris has lovers, but sex is no big deal.  It’s also refreshing to have a well-rounded, brave, female protagonist who is represented as having agency and being capable of bringing about social change, as well as taking responsibility for her actions.

The novel features the strong characters and detailed world-building that you would expect from Tuttle and Martin and, for a book written by two people the narrative is pretty seamless.  If I have any complaints, I think it could have been a little longer, with more time given to the stories of the minor characters – I would love to have heard more about Val’s later life from his perspective, but he diminishes in the third section of the book.  I found the ending told in epilogue a little abrupt and again, would have liked an ending which told me something more about how the society has developed since we last saw Maris and her friends.

Still, it’s a good read if you’re looking for some intelligent, easy-to-read, science fiction and fantasy that isn’t going to inflict any nasty surprises on the reader.  I think it would make a nice gift for teenage girls in particular.

SF is Love

Recently, I’ve been feeling the science fiction urge, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to read some of the classics and catch up on newer stuff.   With the help of the NPR’s Top 100 science fiction and fantasy books, I’ve compiled a reading list and, thanks to the library and local secondhand bookshop, made a start on working my way through it.  I’m currently reading Iain M. Banks’s Nebula nominated The Algebraist (2004) and Isaac Asimov’s classic, The Foundation Trilogy (1951). I also  got Roger Zelzany’s The Dream Master (1965) which won a Nebula and comes highly recommended by Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kate Wilheld’s Hugo winning Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing (1977).  From the more recent books, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1994) has been on my shelf for a while, and I got Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996), which picked up a clutch of awards, plus Liz Williams’s Banner of Souls (2004) which looks like good dystopian fun.

And, just because it’s awesome, here’s a link to an article about the kind of discovery that inspires science fiction, a strange, black planet. Anyone want to have a go at a story about this?

This week’s culture round-up

Ursula K Le Guin, ‘The Wind’s Twelve Quarters’ (1975)

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is Le Guin’s most famous collection, bringing together short stories published between 1962 and 1974 in various magazines.  It’s a wide-ranging collection that really showcases Le Guin’s talents and each story is prefaced with an  illuminating and humerous short commentary from the author.

For fans, such as me, it’s lovely to read stories that engage with her other works.  The opening story, ‘Semeley’s Necklace’, is recognisable as the prologue to one her of first novels, Rocannon’s World.  ‘April in Paris’ (the first story she got paid for) is a sweet, funny little piece about an accident of time travel bringing together a bunch of misfits, and also seems to be set in the Hainish Universe.  ‘The Word of Unbinding’ and ‘The Rule of Names’ are set in early versions of Earthsea, the first of which has trolls in it, and the second features a wizard  who isn’t quite what he appears to be. ‘Winter’s King’ revisits the world of The Left Hand of Darkness and in this story Le Guin (partly in response to critiques from feminists) changes the pronouns used to describe her androgynous Gethenians from the masculine to the feminine. This has an interesting effect on the way their society comes across to the reader. The Nebula Award winning ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ tells of the final days of Leia Odo, the woman whose political theories made possible the anarchist colony of Anarres in The Dispossessed.

There are two powerful allegories about science, ‘The Masters’ which is set on a future Earth where the study of mathematics and physics is forbidden, and ‘The Stars Below’ in which an astronomer pursued by some kind of inquisition is forced to hide out in a mine.

There are also some classic stand-alone science fiction stories which involve space ships and missions to other planets and, which like the best science fiction, also ask big questions.  ‘Nine Lives’ is ostensibly about cloning, but reaches into philosophical territory, asking questions about identity and the nature of interpersonal relationships.  ‘Vaster than Empires and more Slow’ tells the story of a mismatched crew of people on a mission to a planet far out on the edge of the galaxy where they find themselves at the mercy of a vast empathic life form that does nothing but transmit its terror at their arrival back to them. It’s a story about facing the fear of the other.  ‘The Field of Vision’ is a story that takes on the nature of God.

Then there are some that are kind of unclassifiable.  ‘The Direction of the Road’ is a story about relativity told from the perspective of a tree – have you ever thought about how people and cars must appear to a tree standing by the side of the road?  ‘Things’ is one of Le Guin’s psychomyths, a dark tale set in an apparently dying world looking at how people face death and the giving up of ‘things’.  ‘The ones who walk away from Omelas’ is a haunting allegory about the ways in which we rationalise the horrific abuses that underpin our society. It deservedly won the Hugo Award for best short story in 1973.

This is essential reading for fans of Le Guin’s writing, but probably isn’t the best place to start for new readers – for that I’d recommend one of the novels.

Women of SF: Private Elizabeth (Dodger) Durman

I like to think of Babylon 5’s  Dodger as one the best female science fiction TV characters that never was.  She appears in exactly two episodes of Babylon 5 and in the second one she’s dead.  Private Elizabeth Durman, or ‘Dodger’, makes her entrance in the Season 2 episode, ‘GROPOS’, which stands for ‘Ground Pounders’ – B5 slang for the twenty-second century ground troops who briefly stop over at Babylon 5, much to the consternation of the more decorous Earth Force Officers who staff the station.

While at the station, Dodger takes a fancy to Security Chief Michael Garibaldi, but when he mistakes her as looking for a relationship and implicitly accuses her of complicating his life, Dodger takes him down with a great speech that demolishes his assumptions about what she wanted from him.  They patch it up before the end of the episode, but Dodger is sadly killed in action along with most of the other Ground Pounders.  The episode feels designed to make a point about the tragedy and waste of war, and is a lesson in the importance of seizing the day, because you never know how long you’re going to be around to enjoy it.  But Dodger is such a strong character that Neil Gaiman resurrects her in the episode he wrote for Season 5, ‘Day of Dead’, when an alien ritual gives some of the characters the chance to talk with dead people from their past.  Garibaldi’s encounter is with Dodger, who remains just as awesome post-mortem.

Despite her character’s short life-span, I think Dodger deserves recognition for her role in the development of female characters in science fiction TV.  She’s not unlike Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck, only without the neuroses and self-loathing.  There’s nothing apologetic or self-pitying about Dodger: she’s totally herself, at ease with her sexuality, has a great sense of humour and is full of life, even after death.

“I didn’t come here expecting to set up housekeeping. I’m a Ground Pounder.  I’m cleaning latrines one day, the next I might be up to my hips in blood hoping that I don’t hear the round that takes me out. You got it? In between I like to see what I can get to remind myself that I’m alive.  Right, it’s not romance, but it’s all I got time for.  I’m so sorry it’s not enough for you”.

Soundtrack to our (Feminist) Lives

Last week we got together with some women friends to talk about the music that’s influenced our relationships with feminism.  We put together a playlist, listened to each track in turn, and then discussed the reasons why it had made the list.

Talking through the tracks, I was reminded of just how powerfully music becomes associated with particular moments in our lives.  After we listened to L7’s ‘Shove’, the women of around my age talked about  Donita Sparks’s legendary tampon throwing moment at Reading Festival in 1992.   I’ll also never forget Donita blowing my poor little repressed mind on British youth television show, The Word, when she pulled down her pants during a performance to reveal a serious lack of underwear.  These may not have been the most helpful feminist acts ever taken (or maybe you think they were), but we agreed that they made us feel that something was changing and it was exciting.   For similar reasons, but from a few years later, Andy talked about No Doubt’s song ‘Just a Girl’ which threw stark light on her suburban upbringing, a childhood of bedrooms being painted pink by parents and an adolescence of being told not to drive at night.

Andy also nominated Lesley’s Gore’s proto-feminist 1964 hit ‘You Don’t Own Me’ which was part of the soundtrack to her childhood because her parents love all of that 60s pop, but which took on new meaning as she came to appreciate the lyrics and discovered that Gore later came out as a lesbian, a piece of queer knowledge that gives an added twist to the song’s meaning.   When we first started dating she put the song on a mix CD for me, as a bit of homage to the way that music has become a method of communication between lesbians.  I think the song still sounds fresh and relevant.

Speaking of leshian music, I was quite glad to find that I wasn’t the only one who thought Kathleen Hanna was singing ‘She’s got the hottest dyke in town’ on ‘Rebel Girl’ rather than ‘She’s got the hottest trike in town’.  And the oldest woman in the group brought along a vinyl copy of Alix Dobkin’s Lavender Jane Loves Women, the very first album made by and for lesbians, released in 1973.  We didn’t get round to listening to it, but maybe next time we will, even if it is, as she says, “a bit scratched”.

The politics of Kate Bush’s ‘Army Dreamers’ surprised us when we stopped just listening to the pretty production, actually read the lyrics, and found that they address the way that poor kids are sent off to die in war.  Kate Bush is very important to me; I spent a lot of time in my childhood dancing in the kitchen to her album The Dreaming.

Andy recommended Ani DiFranco’s ‘Talk to me Now’ from her first album released when she was 19 years old, which features the great line,  “I was blessed with a birth and a death and I guess I just want some say in between”.  There was a general agreement that DiFranco is particularly good at drawing the political implications out of personal experience.

Patti Smith’s extraordinary ‘Gloria’ was universally loved and still has the power to make me blush.  I actually bought her album Horses because of her photograph on the cover, not because I knew anything about the music.  There was a lot of discussion about Smith’s self-presentation and although I hate the word ’empowering’, right now I can’t think of another one to describe the effect people said she continues to have on them.

It was interesting that the Throwing Muses’s song ‘Hate my Way’ was liked and disliked by different people for the same reason – because it’s so raw and angry.  I think those of us who like it do so because it represents a woman completely owning her negative thoughts and feelings.  The part when Hersh lets rip with ‘My pillow screams too/But so does my kitchen/And water/ And my shoes/And the road’ still raises the hairs on the back of my neck.  It’s not the line itself so much as the way she delivers it.  Incidentally, I had a nightmare the other night in which I found out that the Throwing Muses were playing in my town and I couldn’t find a computer with internet access to book tickets.

Someone put Sonic Youth’s song ‘Swimsuit Issue’ on the list, causing me to reappraise a band I’d always rather resented because when I was a teenager, only the coolest kids at my school were allowed to listen to Sonic Youth.  I would never have dared to listen to them because it would have just looked like I was trying too hard.

I’d never really been convinced by Le Tigre before, but had to admit to enjoying ‘Decaptacon’ and ‘What’s your take on Casevetes?’  I am now persuaded to give them another chance.   The same goes for Chicks on Speed and even Peaches.   The list introduced me to some new artists to explore, M.I.A who sounds amazing and Fever Ray.  Other people were introduced to new music too, and some were espeically bowled over by the gorgeous mystery of Nina Nastasia’s ‘Dear Rose’ from her album Dogs.

Possibly the most important track for me on the list was P J Harvey’s ‘Dress’ from her first album Dry, which a friend put on a mix tape for me way back around 1996 and which started the ongoing love affair with Harvey that has brought me so much joy and pain.  I don’t think I’ll try and articulate my feelings; I’ll just post a video of her performing the song live.

We realise that we’ve hardly scratched the surface and that the list had many limitations, so we’ve decided to keep adding to our collaborative playlist and do it all again in a few months time.

This week’s culture round-up

From The Lesbrary, Have you ever thought to yourself, “Is there any way I can be more lesbian?” This post showed me how the ownership of certain books could possibly make me feel even more lesbian than I do already.

From Flavorwire,  Robert Maplethorpe’s portraits of cultural icons . I particularly like his portraits of Patti Smith and Debbie Harry –  I think the naked woman holding the gigantic snake looks a little tense though.

From Tor.com, Don your tights, glitter and goblin horns, it’s Labyrinth day. I loved Labyrinth when I was a kid.  It’s actually playing at a local cinema next month and we are so going to see it.

Jess McCabe has started writing a series called Murder, She Blogged on the representation of detectives, police and crime in pop culture from a feminist perspective.  That sounds awesome to me.  The first post is on the ill-fated series Mrs Columbo, which I never watched but which stared Kate Mulgrew who I later came to love in her role as Star Trek: Voyager’s Captain Janeway.

From Womanist Musings, The Problem with Urban Fantasy Fandom (and why we need to critique Buffy the Vampire Slayer).   Much as I love Buffy, and have been watching it addictively recently, I do think this show can stand to be critiqued on many levels.

From Flavorwire, Great parties in literature we wish we could have attended.  I wouldn’t actually want to attend many of these parties (especially not the one in Brett Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero).  Just for the record, I like riotous parties which involve lots of food, music and, if at all possible, dancing.

From Den of Geek, Terminator 2 is 20 years old.  No way!  That dates me.  My best friend and I went to see this film at least twice when it came out.  Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor was a hero of mine.

From A Piece of Monologue, one for the theory geeks, What is Hauntology? On a recent trend in Critical Theory.

Occasionally I see something that makes me feel sorry that I left academia.  This may be one of those things.

From 3am Magazine, Everybody is Writing a Novel.  I can assure you that I’m not writing a novel.  Ok, I might be lying about that, but this article about Roland Barthes is another one for the theory fans.