Bisexuality in Science Fiction

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Bisexual Pride Flag

I recently attended a talk on bisexuality in 1970s science fiction. You might be thinking, “Wow what a niche subject, who would even turn up to this?” And I must admit it is a niche subject. The talk was presented by an MA student, Oli Lipski, studying a very specific course on gender and sexuality looking through the lens of SF, was set up and attended by the University of York LGBTQA society, and me, a bisexual science-fiction nerd, who before this talk had made zero connections between SF and her own sexuality. I won’t lie when I tried to think of any examples of bisexuality in SF I could only really come up with one that I wasn’t even sure counted: The Left Hand of Darkness.

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Read this, seriously

Yes my friends, I am back to the grand Ursula K Le Guin, because she is always relevant. For those of you who don’t know the aliens (well to us at least, Gethen is their home planet so I guess we’re the aliens) are entirely genderless until they come to “kemmer” the mating of their reproductive cycle, when their bodies can revert to either gender based on what the dominant partner kemmer’s into. So if someones kemmer comes on strongly female, their partner will become male in response. It really is an amazing books, it should be required reading for every gender studies module across the globe, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I was unsure if The Left Hand of Darkness could be classed as bisexual for a couple of reasons, firstly because it doesn’t present a gender binary, only a binary of biological sex, they have no concept of gender performance, which – if we insist on labelling sexuality – comes into play massively with these labels. But also because the inhabitants of Gethen are descended from humanity their sexual activity is predominantly heterosexual and they have no choice or preference about this, it is a biological reaction akin to a sneeze, no idea of personal identity really comes into play.

821ffbdf53dafe6de8cc9ccc64bc0f6aBut that’s way more than I originally intended to say on The Left Hand of Darkness itself, so let’s bring it back to the discussions of the evening. Why this text was included became apparent as the evening went on and Lipski moved onto the idea of reading your own sexuality in the text. This pretty much blew me away. Like I just did with Le Guin I’ll read my sexuality in a text then come up with reasons why it’s wrong and I can’t have any claim on said text, but if more critics were to explore this, were to read bisexuality (or any sort of under-represented minority) will there be a flux of writers portraying these minorities? Just a little food for thought there. But the idea of reading your sexuality in a text really got me thinking about how SF can be used as a tool to explore sexuality as we know it. But that still isn’t what I’m going to talk about next.

What I really want to think about is that phrase “as we know it” which is used an obscene amount in both SF and actual science. There are probes and satellites circling our solar system looking for life “as we know it”  and I think this is a concept that holds back the imaginations of SF writers and scientists alike, we always try to create something or look for something the mirrors just us. Psychologically speaking it’s probably a complete impossibility for us to consider forms of life that are entirely different than our own, the human race is intrinsically egotistical, but maybe there is an alien race out there that isn’t and has zero concept of self or individual. Much like the humble bumble bee. That I just mirrored in this blog post. Because I cannot conceive of anything beyond my own awareness.

itslifejimbutnotasweknowitI have deviated quite massively from the original point of this post, but really I’m just extremely (platonically) excited about aliens and their sexuality. And speaking of aliens and sexuality… STAR TREK! Here we go, I recently read an interesting article called ‘ A friendship that will define you both: Star Trek and the Devolution of American Masculinity by Bridget Kies, and it is definitely worth a read. It’s an extremely interesting paper, and towards the end it casually proposes the idea that Spock is asexual and Kirk is pansexual, and I was like WHAT? SURELY WE NEED TO EXPLORE THIS MORE?! But no, it had a short paragraph and then Kies left me starving for more queer theory in Star Trek that wasn’t just erotic Spirk (or McSpirk for a dash of polyamory) fanfiction. It’s easy to see how the logical, calculated Spock who only displays any concern with sex when his pon farr forces him to. But Kirk? Really? How can the overtly heteronormative, ladies-man Kirk be pansexual? Simply by the fact that he has clearly been sexually attracted to aliens (but who wasn’t sexually confused at a young age by green Orion slave girls?) and therefore can’t adhere to the constraints of gender attraction shaped by life on Earth.

I really want to get into gender right now (the talk inevitably ended up discussing how robots in SF are gendered) but I don’t want to blow anyone’s mind! So I’ll leave gender performance and robots for next time and wrap up sexuality. I know I’ve spoken pretty much solely about bisexuality and pansexuality and even asexuality. And I know that heterosexuals and homosexuals must feel a bit left out. Oh how the tables have turned.

“Am I Smart Enough For Sci-Fi?” – The Threat of Fandom Culture

About a week ago now I read a short story by Ursula K Le Guin called The Shobies’ Story. Set in the Hainish cycle – the same world as The Left Hand of Darkness – I was excited to get to it (I was reading a collection of her works) and expected great things. And it was great, but I found myself having to re-read the story for a reason I’m not proud to admit; I was really, very confused.

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Some cool art from The Shobies’ Story
The story follows a spaceship crew who are testing a new kind of spaceship that travels faster than light, and their experiences of the journey. And that’s where it gets weird. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the story basically calls space-time into question and I began to lose my sense of what it was I was reading. And I’m sure this was something Le Guin did on purpose to replicate the confusion of the characters for the reader (I hope) but it threw me a little and brought up a common question I’m sure a lot of first time SF readers have:

Am I smart enough for SF?

Ironically Le Guin discusses this in the essay that introduces the book: On Not Reading Science Fiction. Specifically she said:

People who don’t read it, and even some of those who write it, like to assume or pretend that the ideas used in science fiction all rise from intimate familiarity with celestial mechanics and quantum theory, and are comprehensible only to readers who work for NASA and know how to program their VCR.

And this is something I disagree with. To read fantasy we don’t need an in depth knowledge of dragons or magic, and arguably we don’t need this knowledge because the author provides it. Each writer has a different concept of magic and how it works and where it comes from JK’s magic is different from Tolkien’s magic is different from George RR Martin’s magic, and no one has ever asked, “am I smart enough to read fantasy?” At least not that I know of.

So what is it about SF that intimidates people, and makes them feel they need vast amounts of knowledge to enjoy the genre? Why don’t readers trust that SF writers will explain their science to them the way JK explains magic? Personally, I think there’s two main reasons for this intimidation.

First of all, the word “science.” It sounds stupid, but that’s all it is. Some people recoil from science in general the way I recoil from (ugh) maths. It’s one of those subjects at school that was attributed to (mostly male) gifted kids who seemed to have a secret language made from the fabric of the universe. If there was a genre called Mathematical Fiction I would not read it.

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Tatooine or Jakku? Who the hell knows?! (In case you were wondering it’s Earth)
And second, I think there is an idea of fandom that really intimidates people. The way SF fandoms are represented in popular culture is massively questionable; it’s always a group of tight-knit uptight friends who have an in depth knowledge of the Star Trek canon and think anyone who doesn’t know the difference between Tatooine and Jakku (even though they really basically the same, let’s be honest) is a brainless idiot who must conform to the social hierarchy they so despise and wish to be separate from (whilst also desperately vying for the attention of the popular girls, but that’s a whole other blog post right there). And though these representations are massively stereotypical, they are based on a sad reality that fandoms often appear as an impenetrable community, unwilling to accept outsiders or casual fans.

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I mean has anyone read this?
This idea of an impenetrable community is seen throughout many other fandoms and genres, the LOTR fandom makes a big deal of no one understanding why the eagles don’t just carry Frodo to Mordor. Even though Tolkien basically stated in a letter that they were a “dangerous machine” sparking distant memories of deus ex machina that really should just be destroyed. But it’s not just literature this ever happens in, I’ve seen people say they like football and immediately have a bunch of football fans demand they explain the offside rule to prove their love.

Really I think it just comes down to people being protective over something they love, and only wanting to share it with people they think are worthy. In individual scenario this would never happen, part of what is intimidating about fandom culture is that it’s scarily similar to mob mentality. Just log into Tumblr and look up “SuperWhoLock” and you’ll see exactly what I’m saying.

The OA

8f0d10ac-c1c5-11e6-88a7-6a72017c5d0fThe OA is one of the ‘it’ shows on Netflix that I brushed off as a boring, run of the mill thriller and didn’t glance at until I was told it was good and I had to watch it. Now I get told this a lot: “You’ll love this” “You should read this” “It’s totally your thing!” usually they’re wrong. They were not wrong about The OA.

Okay, so, the story starts when a young woman who has been missing for seven years turns up with strange scars on her back and her sight restored after having been blind when she went missing. Like I said, it sounds like a run of the mill thriller type crime show that my mom watches with a bag of popcorn and wide eyes.

There is nothing boring about this show! Any theories you have scrap them all because it’s you’re wrong. You have no idea what’s happening, you have no idea why it’s happening, you’re strapped in for the ride with nowhere to go, there is no escape and you don’t want to escape!

The story is framed by the missing girl, OA, formerly Prairie, telling her story to an audience of five, and it places the actual audience right in the centre of the show. We are watching OA tell her story with them. It’s a beautifully told tale, and a beautiful show. I finished the last series feeling lighter, and happier, which is rare considering the depressing content I usually go for.

The one thing about this show is you can’t really recommend it to people without spoiling some aspect of it you’ll never be able to explain quite right. It’s blurs the boundaries of genre, not fitting quite into SF or fantasy or thriller, and I really cannot praise how it does it enough. Even though it’s outlandish and wild with its ideas, you end up believing every word. I watched this show over three days, and it would have been one had I not had uni and those damned adult responsibilities. But seriously, the OA is a gift, if you need some escapism (and I think almost everyone does around about now) it will whisk you away on an amazing adventure.

I wish I could say more than just “watch it” but honestly, you should watch it.

“Kill All Humans”- Robots and Ethics

We all remember our first. Mine was called Robby, I met him on Altair IV, he was my very first robot. I say he was mine, I’ve never owned a toy of Robby (he’s a vintage collector’s item, I have expensive tastes but no money) and I never saw him outside any kind of screen. And to be honest, I wasn’t fascinated by him either. I grew up with my dad periodically making us watch Forbidden Planet every couple of weeks, hailing it as the best SF movie of all time. Robby was basically family.

robbie_the_robot_san_diego_comic_con_2006And not once did we, as a family question his place in the film, or what his place would be in wider society. For those who don’t know me, I recently got very into robots. I wrote a short script on robots being used in long-distance relationships and began doing a lot of research into robots. At my university a fellow student set up a ‘Robots Discussion Group’ for a few nerdy (mostly literature) students to meet and talk robots. And of course, we ended up getting into the moral and ethical complications of robots.

Two ethical conundrums came up that I really want to talk about, they’re probably the two most common arguments against robots and AI of any kind, but I like them.

  1. If a Google car is driving along and has to hit either a young child or an elderly woman how can we programme it to choose who to hit?
  2. And if we create a realistic SexBot with personality, should it be able to withhold consent?

google_driverless_car_at_intersection-gkSo first of all the Google car: How exactly do we as human drivers decide who to swerve to kill. Ignoring the fact that this Google car really should have breaks, does it matter which choice the car or programmer makes if both are wrong? Most people say the car should kill the old lady, let the child live, but then the same old problems came up: what if the kid grows up to destroy humanity/cure cancer? What if the old woman is the Queen/a former Nazi? Either way, there are too many issues and too much knowledge that could change the feelings to the outcome of the accident. Should robots make accidents? Can they eradicate accidents if the people programming them can’t?

I know I’m just throwing out a bunch of questions and not really giving any answers, but how cool is this to think about? We need to create a cold, calculating AI that has no problem killing people, but it also has to decide to kill the right people and do so ethically. This is wild.

helen_oloy_astounding_fiction_1938But onto the next problem: Consent. And to me I don’t think this is really a problem. It came up in the discussion that consent for a robot is a falsehood as they’ll have been programmed to give or withhold consent. But that raises the question of why would we allow what is essentially an object to ask for consent. We don’t give sex toys the option of consent, so why give it to robots? The purpose of a sex robot is really that you can’t be turned down. But then of course how does encouraging this kind of behaviour amongst humans? If we teach people that you don’t ask consent of robots, does that bleed over into not asking a real human for consent? Is this just further objectifying sexual partners rather than a healthy outlet for sexual frustrations?

I think the only way to really create any tangible answers to these questions is to just do it, we can’t understand something that hasn’t really happened, right? At this point it’s all just guesswork, and it’s usually guesswork and fear mongering that holds back progress and I think that’s the real issue here.

Breaking the Glass Slipper Podcast

For those of you who haven’t heard of the podcast Breaking the Glass Slipper you are honestly missing out. Excuse me if this review pretty much ends up sounding like an advert but it’s only a testament to how much I adore this podcast.

img_1037-1The podcast is hosted by Megan Leigh, Charlotte Bond, and Lucy Hounsom and has new episodes every other Thursday, and discusses women in genre fiction, specifically in science fiction, fantasy, and horror (my top three!) as well as interviewing authors. The podcasts are always extremely fun and sensitive in their topics, and has brought to light so many aspects of women in SFFH that I hadn’t previously considered. It’s changed the way I read and, possibly more importantly, the way I write.

One of my favourite episodes of the podcast looks at the movie Labyrinth and the cultural weight this classic film carries, as well as the use of femininity, sexuality, and the human treasure that is David Bowie. Though it opened up some terrifying themes that quite effectively destroyed a beloved film of my childhood, I was quite happy to have my childhood ruined. Another of my favourite episodes was the episode on portal fantasy, which interviews author Foz Meadows, and branched way out from fantasy and feminism and actually has a massively interesting discussion about language and culture in fantasy stories that cross between worlds (but not fear, it does return to the passionate feminism the podcast was made for).

Every episode is an absolute delight, they cover so many brilliant topics, including a great two-parter looking at the virgins and villainess tropes of fantasy fiction. I can’t even explain how great these podcasts are, they explore so many themes that for some scary reason never even occurred to me. I don’t want to in any way imply that this podcast is solely about female representation, it covers a wide spectrum of diversity in literature with admittedly a stronger focus on feminism but it is massively inclusive.

This is a real eye-opener of a podcast and every lover of genre fiction should subscribe to this right away.

‘Trouble with Lichen’ by John Wyndham

Let me start  this blog post by saying I’m so obsessed with John Wyndham that I just ordered a second copy of The Day of the Triffids because it’s a pretty penguin clothbound edition. This review will not be unbiased in any way, I am not sorry.

img_1036This book was a drastic change from the Wyndham I’ve already read. Prior to this I had only read The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes which are both considered to be more Wyndham’s ‘cosy catastrophes’ as Brian Aldiss called them. The cosy catastrophe was a very typical post-apocalyptic 50s SF plot, that basically followed one group of people (The Walking Dead style) and the group manage to prosper and begin life anew (not The Walking Dead style). Trouble with Lichen is not a cosy catastrophe.

The narrative follows both Diana and her boss Francis, both biochemists who discover a lichen that can be used to slow the ageing process and essentially bring longer life. Whilst Francis is unsure what to do so hides the lichen, Diana has a very interesting use for the lichen (that I won’t spoil) but she definitely doesn’t want to hide it. This takes the book into a whole ethical conundrum of how scientific discoveries can have a knock on effect on the community.

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This is lichen! I had to google it.

This dynamic wasn’t nearly the most impressive part of the book. The book was so feminist. It blew my mind. One of my pet peeves with Wyndham (the only peeve really) was that he embodies all the typical casual sexiam and casual racism of his time. But this really redeemed a lot of those feelings, obviously due to the time he was writing the feminism is severely dated and massively problematic, but it was pretty mind blowing considering the time period it came out of! I absolutely loved it, it was so refreshing to see one of my favourite male authors address feminism in such a positive way.

The one thing I would say about this text was, because of the ethical subject matter, most of the books was just talking and conversation. There were a few brief flashes of action but nowhere near as much as his other books, a lot of this read like a political drama, but even if that’s not your thing it’s still such an excellent and thoughtful read. It only made me love John Wyndham more!

Why Magneto Hates Trump

Those of you who do nothing but watch The Big Bang Theory reruns on E4 all day, will know that last night they screened the 2000 film X-Men my personal introduction to the world of superheroes and more importantly, the Holocaust. The film opens with a young Magneto in a concentration camp being separated from his mother, the trauma of which ignites his mutant gene and gives him his powers. And considering the current political climate this is more important than ever.

The reason this scene resonated with me more today than it ever has is that I have recently seen this image:

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Art by Stephen Byrne

I have several huge problems with this piece, well drawn though it is. I can accept the attendance of Daleks and Redskull given both their desires for all out destruction, but Magneto could only ever be in this picture to assassinate Trump, or to turn him into a mutant with his large spinning machine.(Side note: What is Hannibal Lecter doing here? Trump is much too rude for him)

But this image aside, there is no way to deny that Magneto is a Jewish Holocaust survivor who is a radical activist with only one agenda: to never have him or his people in a death camp again. As a child I saw Magneto as a villain, dedicating yourself entirely to a cause at the expense of all your comfort and the comfort of your friends and relatives was alien to a four year old me. Magneto could never prosper, the X-Men were the pinnacle of human evolution and decency.

After re-watching X-Men last night it occurred to me that it was human decency and prioritising comfort that led to Magneto being persecuted for his religious heritage. Suddenly, in light of Trump’s Muslim Ban amongst a host of other anti-humanitarian legislation, the X-Men seemed almost weak in comparison.

The X-Men wanted to do things by the book, but Magneto knows fascists wrote the book.

‘Uprooted’ by Naomi Novik

Uprooted by Naomi Novik was my first read of 2017, and I’m so glad it was. Novik built a fantasy world that was both comfortable and familiar to read (thankfully as I was very ill at the start of the year) whilst also exploring the world in a deep way through a wonderfully relateable character. I really don’t even know where to begin with this book I enjoyed it so much.

At first I admittedly had some difficulty getting into this book. Novik’s style wasn’t really one that encouraged suspense or a strong desire in me, so though I found the book interesting whenever I put it down I felt no real call to pick it back up again. However, the book worked a different kind of magic (excuse the pun) and I found that when I did find the time to pick it up I was unable to put it back down for hours at a time. And even now, weeks after having finished it, I don’t feel I’ve really put it down, I think about this book almost daily. I’m afraid it’s set the bar for this years fantasy reads very high.

I don’t want to make this review too long but I have so much to say about this book, so please bear with me.

15624611_1056189431158414_7132287562923638784_nThe book takes place in a small town, next to a dark, magical wood, where a dragon takes a young girl every ten years, pretty standard right? Except the dragon is really a man, a wizard, and there is so much more going on than you think. As much as I’d love to spoil this book and tell you everything about it I’ll try not to spoil it and tell only a few things that were of interest to me.

First of all, I really loved the main character; Agnieszka. She wasn’t a beautiful princess in disguise, she wasn’t a chosen one with a destiny, she was the daughter of a woodcutter who got mixed up in some things and had to do some stuff. She was clumsy, imperfect, angry, and overall a truly relateable and well rounded female character. Novik’s use of Agnieszka is what made her even more impressive, she had a strong sense of friendship and loyalty, she wasn’t played off against any other female characters and expressly made sure to love and care for them, she had an excellent approach to sex (in case you were wondering this is a refreshing rape-free fantasy), and surprisingly had her own motives for being heroic other than just having her moral compass pointing firmly north. Essentially, I loved this character.

15877514_607824916090905_5410255378036293632_nSecondly, I really enjoyed how Novik used magic and described how it was used. She clearly drew a lot of inspiration from Baba Yaga, one of my favourite witches in the history of witches, and made the magic so interesting and believable. I won’t go too much into this but there was a distinction between wizards and witches that had been trained and were rather upper-class, and wizards and witches who were distinctly lower-class and had a much stronger connection to the forest driven hedge-witchery of Baba Yaga. Which brings me onto my next point…

…Environment!!!

Yes ladies and gentleman and non-binary folk, my favourite subject. I won’t say much about this because spoilers, but the book has a magical wood and a pretty strong distinction between the city-folk magic and the rural-folk magic, so keep an eye out for that if you are hoping to give it a read.

All in all this book was pretty impressive, though I found it slow to start it was a beautifully written book, and it was quite firmly in my comfort zone… my comfort zone being witches.

My 2017 Must-Reads

Admittedly this post is coming a bit late, but these things are difficult to choose! I’ve been rifling through all my SFF trying to find what to read this year, so here goes.

 

Three Dark Crowns – Kendare Blake

This looks amazing. From what I’ve heard the story follows three sisters all at war for their nations crown, engaged in a fight to the death. Not only am I excited about reading some great women in fantasy, I’m loving that they’re the ones after the throne, fingers crossed for no love interests though (if it happens I won’t be too sad, but at this point it’s becoming lazy writing).

The Dispossessed  – Ursula K Le Guin 

51ufzuy12bl-_sy344_bo1204203200_This is self-explanatory really, Le Guin is a titan amongst SF writers and must be read at all costs. At this point I have only read one of Le Guin’s books, but it has stuck with me and I can ignore the siren song of the Hainish Cycle no longer. Given that Le Guin herself said there wasn’t much order to the books I figured I would read the bigger titles first (just to brag) then move into the less well known books, even though the less well known titles are still drowning in awards.

A Gathering of Shadows – V.E. Schwab

The first book in this series, A Darker Shade of Magic just blew my mind, so here we are, I’m hooked! My only regret is that I only recently managed to buy it and still have yet to read it. Hopefully it lives up to the last book, and hopefully I’ve guessed everything right because I love it when that happens.

Illuminae – Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff 

23395680From what I can tell this book is the story of two people communicating after being forced to evacuate their home planet on different ships. The form of this is what really drew me to it, the idea of the transmissions between them making up the bulk of the text is essentially what I am writing in my dissertation so I really need to give this one a read before the assignment is due! Hopefully I’ll have a new SF YA series to latch onto because since the end of The Lunar Chronicles I have been desperate!

Dawn – Octavia Butler

51klo3pcd-l-_sx311_bo1204203200_The first book in the Xenogenesis series has cropped up in a lot of my studies of SF and considering I need significantly more female SF authors (especially non-white female SF authors) Butler seemed to cry out to me to be read. Hopefully I’ll be able to find the trilogy separately though as all of the covers of the compendium seem a bit suggestive, which I am much too shy for.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers 

I bought this a while ago because I was seeing it absolutely everywhere, and once again, my need for more female authors took me over. This book has received some great reviews and even though my knowledge of classic SF needs some serious work I want to keep up with more modern reads as well, lest I slip into writing the overly masculine stuff from the 50s and 60s.

51hys6odagl-_sx323_bo1204203200_The Shepherd’s Crown – Terry Pratchett

This one will be a hard one for me to read. Pratchett is really the reason I’m here now writing about SFF and reading so much of it, and more specifically his character Tiffany Aching is what began a life-long obsession with witches and his works. I’m not entirely sure if I will manage to read this one this year, since it was released I have been making attempts but I am a little scared for this wonderful adventure to end. But this year I will definitely try.

 

Hopefully these will have all been reviewed on here by this time next year.

 

To Boldly Go

Hi, my name is Jess and I’m going to use this blog to record my budding obsession with science fiction mostly in literature, but also in film and tv. So I suppose I’ll tell you a little about myself and what I like about science fiction (hereafter to be referred to as SF because I am all about typing fast) and why.

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I suppose you could say – though I probably shouldn’t – that my father has always been a bit of a nerd when it comes to things like Star Trek and Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, basically anything with the word star in it. And as much as I resisted it did eventually rub off on me, and by time I got to university (studying literature and creative writing) it was enough to convince me to take the SF module for literature. And it was there, in those hallowed half of learning, that I found two big names I previously wasn’t that into: Ursula K Le Guin, and John Wyndham.

The Day of the Triffids and The Left Hand of Darkness opened me up to a whole host of wonderful SF that I am still trying to work my way through. My collections of both authors have expanded but I have also collected quite a bit of Asimov, Wells, and become a great fan of Philip K Dick. Most of what I post here will be my thoughts on these SF books, probably with a little fantasy mixed in.

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Urula K Le Guin

Considering this is what I study there won’t always only be reviews, I have a lot of thoughts about science fiction and fantasy (SFF) that I want to discuss in general, most recently I’ve been reading up on environment and food in SFF as it is relevant to my dissertation, but if that doesn’t interest you I’ll be sure to tag the critical stuff and the review stuff separately so that no one learns anything by accident, not that I assume anyone will really be reading. This won’t exactly be a professional blog, more a way to keep my thoughts in order and generally rant because I am virtually friendless! (That’s not true but not many of my friends are as into SF as me so I am forced to annoy the internet with my thoughts and woes.)

Welcome to my awful blog!

Live Long and Prosper!