Academic relevance, Academic research, science fiction

Academic research that matters: women’s bodies and speculative fiction

51Lc7FlfDPL._AA300_Many times I find myself justifying the validity of a doctorate not only in Creative Writing, but also my chosen research area – speculative fiction.

I am reminded by many critics that I’m not doing something heroic like researching a cure for cancer or launching a satellite into space. And yet my research exploring animal and women’s rights in the creation of hybrids in science fiction has never seemed so relevant.

The critically acclaimed TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1980s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a chilling world where women are reduced to their basic biology as childbearing machines.

Women’s reproductive rights are denied in the face of a ‘greater good’ – a widespread decline in female fertility which results in fertile women being hunted down, captured, traded and forced to bear children for the elite via sanctioned imprisonment and rape. Women’s wombs and fertility are seen as such a socially and economically valuable commodity that these actions are justified and enshrined in law.

As Naomi Alderman argued in The Guardian what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so terrifying is that everything that happens in it is plausible. The politics of fear, she writes, are always the same. “They are easily recognisable in retrospect. They are easy to acquiesce in at the time. On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, one popular placard read “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again”. There’s no gain the women’s movement has made that can’t be taken away – a fact that will sound terrifying to some and a gleeful plan of action to others.”

“We let them [women] forget their real purpose,” is a chilling quote from TV series, and one that resonates with many women who fear the draconian rules and backlash under the Trump administration when it comes to women’s rights. Kaylie Hanson Long, the national communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, says President Trump has laid bare the real motive behind the war on reproductive rights waged by antichoice politicians and extremist groups. ‘It has very little to do with abortion and everything to do with keeping women in our place by limiting our options and freedom.’

There is more truth to Atwood’s fiction than we care to admit. And more reason than ever to be proud of how speculative fiction we are writing and researching can test the future for us by critically exploring what is happening now and asking – and then?

Alderman argues: “feminist science fiction does tend to feel fresh – its authors have a habit of looking beyond their particular historical moment, analysing the root causes, suggesting how they might be, if not solved, then at least changed.”

Let us explore the many ways that women’s wombs are contested spaces both during the reproductive years and beyond.

Just as in Gilead, women’s fertility is privileged. As standard practice, the media has an ongoing fetishization of pregnant celebrities.

The spectre of Gilead is one all women live under. In Australia there is currently an HRT shortage that has been dragging on for months and affecting many women in midlife. Yet there has been no media outcry over this. We can view the lack of interest in the HRT shortage as a disregard for women’s health now that their reproductive days are over. Atwood argues that under Trump, women have been put on notice that hard-won rights may be only provisional. “It’s the return to patriarchy,” she said, warning that whenever tyranny is exercised, “it is wise to ask, “Cui bono? Who profits by it?”

This obsessive and misogynistic link between female worth and reproduction is also at the heart of the medical profession’s patronising conspiracy of silence about the long term health risks associated with vaginal birth.

Mavis King breaks this taboo, writing about ‘the things that can last a lifetime after a vaginal delivery, such as a weak bladder, reduced feeling or even pain during sex, a heavy feeling in the vagina where your insides feel like they are falling out (and quite literally can be)…If I had been presented with some clear and simple possibilities, which every obstetrician would know, then I feel I could have made a more informed decision and been better prepared for the recovery.’

Cui bono? In the UK, there are claims that women are being pressured not to have caesareans as part of an NHS culture of ‘policing pregnancy’ – this is because it costs the government money. The surgical procedure costs the NHS more than double a vaginal delivery. No wonder the alarm at the rise in caesareans worldwide. Of course, there are very good medical reasons for having a caesarean birth, and good reasons for not, but it is interesting, and not widely publicised, that there is a financial incentive on the part of governments in the worldwide campaign to stop women accessing this option. Women are pressured into vaginal delivery even when they will end up with life changing consequences.

In September 2017, Australian recipients of vaginal mesh implants gave personal accounts of their suffering to a Senate committee in Sydney. The women received the mesh in a bid to correct urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse as a result of damage to their pelvic floor after childbirth. The hearings come as 800 women fight in a class action lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, claiming their vaginal mesh implants have left them in pain.

Throughout their lives, women are silenced about speaking about their embodied experiences as women. We are shamed about frank and open discussion regarding birth trauma, the long term impact of vaginal birth, and caesarean birth (I was accused of being ‘too posh to push’ after Handle With Care my book on high risk pregnancy came out).

Once the reproductive years are behind us, we find that the taboo shifts to silencing, dismissing or trivialising women about the menopause.Research has found women find it hard to talk about experiences of menopause at work because they fear aged-based discrimination.

UK broadcaster Lorraine Kelly who went public with her struggle with menopause said that it is still the last taboo. “We still don’t talk about it, even with our own girlfriends…. It’s natural! As a woman you get periods, you have your child-bearing years, and then you have the menopause.”

Indeed, we haven’t come that far in the past 70 years when it comes to discussing menopause in the media. In 1948, when obstetrician Dame Josephine Barnes gave a series of talks on women’s health on BBC radio covering bleeding, hot flushes and hormonal changes, there was uproar.

Earlier this year the Australian Health Department confirmed a shortage in the Estradot oestrogen patch, along with Estalis, which combines progesterone.

Endocrinologist Dr Roisin Worsley said the shortage wasn’t being taken seriously by authorities and that this was because it’s a female issue.

The manufacturer Novartis advised in April that they were working to ‘resolve fluctuations in supply’ and estimated this would be resolved by mid 2017.

Yet the shortage of the commonly used transdermal patches continues, forcing women to seek alternative forms of HRT which can have increased side effects.

The Health Department has updated its advice that the transdermal patch shortage will continue until November 2017.

This means that if the shortage does indeed end before the year does, women will have been without adequate and consistent supply of the drugs for 12 months.

Imagine if Viagra manufacturing was disrupted for an entire year.

The trouble with all this silence about women’s bodies is that the many varied narratives and nuances around the different stages of women’s reproductive lives are lost. Only the most ‘sensational’ and ‘news worthy’ see the light of day. But just as not all women experience life changing birth trauma after vaginal delivery, not all women suffer from debilitating menopause symptoms. Just as not all men after a certain age need chemical assistance from the little blue pill to maintain their sex lives.

Let’s flip it around to see what applying a women-centric narrative to men’s health issues looks like. If menopausal women’s need for HRT to resolve complaints like hot flushes and insomnia isn’t considered important enough for the government to put pressure on the manufactures to come through with reliable drug production, then it seems only fair that impotent men’s desire for erections should be deemed similarly inconsequential.

Something however tells me that the reliable supply of Viagra will never dry up.

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Academic conferences, conferences, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Early Career Reseacher, Frankenstein, networking, science fiction

Academic conferences: Performing for the crowd

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There comes a time when you have to share your research with the world. Or at least, your world – your academic world. Yes, you have to take the pigs to market. The academic community is your audience, and the pigs you are taking to the market are your research and ideas. Are they fat enough to pass muster?

You might think they are just little runts not ready for public scrutiny, but those pigs have to be put up for public display and be judged. The time comes in every emerging academic’s professional life when one must walk the walk and talk the talk.

I am putting the finishing touches to a paper I am presenting at the Affective Habitus:  New Environmental Histories of Botany, Zoology and Emotions conference in Canberra this week.

Affective Habitus conference at The Australian National University, Canberra (19-21 June 2014) will provide a forum for a new collaborative approach between environmental humanities and ecocriticism; two exciting new academic fields forming part of the conversation.

Even though I have been presenting at conferences every year since I started my Masters degree, this one is different.

For a start, it’s the first conference I am presenting at where I am no longer a post grad student. I have now earned the title Doctor and I am firmly in that stage of having burst through the cocoon and am sitting on the branch, gently fluttering my wings. A little hesitant!

Secondly, this is the first conference for which I have proposed a panel – a practitioner-led response in the creative arts to issues of climate change. I invited  visual artist Dr Debbie Symons and scientific photographer, doctoral student and writer Justine Philip to participate with me. It was even more nerve wracking waiting to see if the abstracts were accepted, as I was pushing others along with me.

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Image: >2 degrees of separation <2028: Akira and <2 degrees of separation <2028: Akira. 2012. Copyright: Josh Wodak. Used With Permission from the Artist for promotion of the Affective Habitus Conference.

I will be speaking about the new field of “Cli-Fi” which is a new genre of climate fiction – I’ll be referring to eco-catastrophe films such as I am Legend, Noah, Splice and others that have ecological disaster at the heart of the extinction of humanity as we know it.

In her introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment  (2014), editor Louise Westling says Kate Rigby, in her chapter ‘Confronting catastrophe: eco-criticism in a warming world’ surveys ecological disaster texts and suggests that confronting catastrophe might open a path to ecosocial transformation and a vision of transpecies justice. It is this vision of transpecies justice that I explore in my doctoral novel.

I’ll be reading some of my novel to the conference audience, and wonder what the reaction will be – the first time I tried an early piece of writing from the manuscript, at an Animal Studies conference, I was met with looks of utter shock. Let’s just say sex, violence and transpecies cannibalism is a lot to stomach for a vegan audience. However, I’ll say it now – no one is simply eaten gratuitously in my novel.

I am somewhat pleased our panel is on the first day, as being the postgraduate representative for ASLEC-ANZ I am one of two people in charge of live tweeting (follow us at #ecohab14) so I will be kept very busy – as well as listening to other papers for my own interest.  I expect to have my brain filled and expanded by the papers at Affective Habitus – with confirmed keynotes (a stellar cast in eco criticism) including: Tim Collins, Tom Griffiths, Eileen Joy, Michael Marder (remotely), John Plotz, Elspeth Probyn, Ariel Salleh, Will Steffen (remotely), Wendy Wheeler, Linda Williams and Gillen D’Arcy Wood.

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I found when doing my doctorate in creative writing that I would have two computer files (or paper notebooks) going at once – one for the academic research and the other for the creative ideas that flowed from that. The idea for my novel came when I was listening to a paper at a bioethics conference.

My first conference as a Masters student was terrifying. I stepped into the big league with my fledgling research into the scientifically created human in fiction and pitched to a major bioethics conference. My paper was accepted and I was given the prime spot of last paper on the last day.

“Don’t worry,” assured one of my supervisors. “All the academics will be hung over from the conference dinner or going to the airport early, no one will come, just view it as a test run in front of the three other post grads you become friendly with.”

Well, I spent the conference chatting over coffee with those academics about my research – a rather sexy topic amongst the philosophical and scientific analysis of end of life procedures and transplantation. I was writing gothic horror, and using Mary Shelley and Jodi Picoult in my work on the place of the creative arts in bioethical debates.

At that time, every second presenter was reading Picolt’s novel “My Sister’s Keeper” on the plane trip to the conference and discussing “savior siblings” created to hopefully save the life of a dying child. And mention Frankenstein at a bioethics conference and everyone turns to you as they munch their biscuits and drink coffee. One academic said to me “when I die they can take whatever they like from my body – but not my eyes!”

 

The punch line of my first conference is that I had a full house for my presentation. All those professors I had sat in awe in front of for the past few days were now sitting in front of me (okay, with their suitcases next to their feet ready to dash for the airport), and I will never forget that moment of sheer terror realizing I had to speak in front of them.

But – they were engaged and supportive and I have to say, made me feel like I had a place taking my first steps in the academy. Thank you to all of them.

So, as I finish my paper for the Affective Habitus paper, I try and think back to how terrified I was of that first step onto the public academic stage, and how far I have come since then. From a first year Masters student at an academic conference, feeling like it was my first day at school, to taking my first steps as an emerging academic.

Back then, I was swimming in a vast sea of knowledge, looking around for where I might find land, seeing only a far horizon. Now, with most of my thesis already presented and published, I am claiming to be something more than a student stumbling into the light of knowledge – I am trying to claim a place of my own in the academy.

 

 

 

 

 

Academic conferences, Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues, Publishing academic research, science fiction, Time management, University life

Far from the normal crowd: when your doctorate sets you apart

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This week, an academic turned to me in a meeting for my opinion on a survey he wanted to conduct with the general public. “As a normal person, how would you answer this question?” he asked. Quick as a flash, everyone else around the table responded with “but she’s not a normal person!”

When your upcoming holiday plans involve presenting a conference paper in Oxford on the erotic and the non human, as I am doing in September, this is widely regarded as placing you in the “not normal” category.

Indeed, if there is one thing that doctoral study does it is to set you apart from the ‘normal’ people. This of course can be a problem if your friends and family belong to that ‘normal’ group and you have moved away from them because of what you are studying.There are many advantages to coming from a family with several PhDs.

For instance, in my family, we speak the same language – the language of happiness deferral; of long tail gratification; of holidaying in conference zones, unreasonable academic hurdles, and so on.  This is a good thing, as no one feels alienated. My kin understand and appreciate the hard work, sacrifices and the emotional exhaustion at the end of the doctorate. And they also have shown me that there is a life post-PhD, even beyond coveted academic tenure.

It’s just as well, because as Rita says in “Educating Rita” once you have gone down the path of academic – the old you has gone – and this is who has taken your place. Maybe not everyone likes this new you. Even if you do.

The scene where Rita interrupts Dr. Frank Bryant – the middle-aged university lecturer – to tell him about seeing her first play – Macbeth – and her excitement “I just had to tell somebody!” – is a wonderful example of how finding people who can speak your language becomes so important when you are surrounded by ‘normal people’ – who perhaps don’t share your enthusiasms.

I love the shorthand I have with those who share my academic interests. For instance, I was recently sent a link to an article in New Scientist about growing human organs inside pigs by someone who just knew I would find it fascinating (thanks Emma!) – and perhaps my predilection for the macabre aspects of biotechnology are the very reason others think I am ‘not normal’.

I can’t help it. As part of my doctorate in creative writing, I have been researching the human animal hybrid in science fiction for the past four years, and I love it when life imitates art.

For instance, what I find fascinating about the recent turmoil in Australian politics is that our newly returned Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who disposed Prime Minister Julia Gillard in rather Shakespearean circumstances in the lead up to our upcoming election, has a bovine heart valve.  Now, considering that our first female Prime Minister had to endure endless comments about her childlessness, her figure, her unmarried status and her basic femaleness, I find it interesting that this animal fact goes unremarked.

Rudd even said he promised not to ‘moo’ in public. I however, seem to be the only one who remembers this, or is interested.

As a science fiction writer, I speculate on the following – if Natalie Cole feels a connection with Hispanic culture since receiving a kidney four years ago from Salvadorian donor, and claims this cultural transplant link has given her the strength to record her first post-operation album — totally in Spanish – then does Kevin Rudd have a similar connection to animals? Is he or has he become a vegan since receiving the bovine heart value? This could have implications in many areas of policy relating to the treatment of animals farmed for food.

This speculation of course, has nothing to do with the serious matter of politics. Just as the abuse “vitriol and bullying, often of a sexual nature” that Julia Gillard received as first female Prime Minister of Australia had nothing to do with politics, but rather, as many feminists such as Anne Summers claim, everything to do with gender. And also, perhaps, that I have strayed far from the pack into that zone where my research seems real, but life seems just plain weird. I mean, why lambast the then Prime Minister Gillard with questions about whether her partner is gay because he is a hairdresser, and then have the more excitable sections of the media silent on whether the now Prime Minister Rudd will moo in public or not?

Of course, the intensity and – shall we dare say – absurdity – of the doctoral journey means none of us come out unscathed. I am an Australian creative writing PhD student, not an American science PhD student – but even I howled with the laughter of recognition at this trailer for The PhD Movie. 

I mean, what PhD student doesn’t know that “jump to attention and do the impossible right NOW” – demands from supervisors and administrative staff? I remember just two weeks out from handing in receiving an email to say I had to do my completion seminar within weeks. The first thing I did was look at my diary and figure out how I could organise this. It was – seriously – only after a bewildered email to my supervisor wondering if this was a second completion seminar on top of the one I had done six months before that it was revealed to be an administrative error. But there I was, like a little lab rat, ready to keep running around that wheel.

One of the reasons so many agony posts on the Internet warn about not doing a doctorate is the slim chance these days of finding a job in the area you have committed four years of your life. I have spent years understanding this reality through dinner table conversations with my relatives – and it didn’t stop me doing a doctorate.

I know many people with doctorates who have gone back and done a vocational Masters degree to make them more employable. A recent Australian radio report investigated the current situation many PhD graduates find themselves in of having made the long journey and found there isn’t the job they want at the end.

I guess it comes back to what we consider normal. What are your expectations, anyway? And after all, I am a fiction writer, in Australia, a country with a small population – it goes without saying that I always knew I would have to get a paid job that wasn’t the same as my passion job.

I was told bluntly six months ago (by a fellow traveller in academia) that I was a fool to have done a doctorate in creative writing and in fact should have opted for public relations instead. My response was – maybe that is the more sensible, employable option, but I am a writer, and as the Indigo Girls sang in “Virginia Woolf” – a ‘woman of the page’ – carving words and stories that I hope touch people now and in years to come. I am part of a long tradition of writers through history who write and be damned.

Writers don’t do it for fame, fortune or anything other than the desire to tell stories and communicate with an audience. What if Virginia Woolf had pursued a ‘sensible option’ such as public relations instead of writing? Think of all who have been touched and moved and inspired by her work. Think of all that would be lost if Virginia had played it safe. If she’d been one of the ‘normal’ people – the world would be poorer.

So then, with no rewards in sight, no possibility of an academic job, and the certainty that you will end up distancing yourself from the pack of ‘normal’ people – why do a doctorate?

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Testing your boundaries is always a leap of faith and there are plenty of people who feel cheated by the time, effort and money they spent pursuing a doctorate. And let it be said there are plenty of people who regret other major decisions they have made – opting out of the workforce to raise children; buying a house; putting their savings in shares; getting married; not pursuing love; travelling instead of settling down and vice versa.

Life is risk and in living comes the possibility of regret and failure. Whatever the outcome of your doctorate, it is only absolute passion that will make the commitment worth the effort. Normal be dammed.

Academic conferences, Academic Study, Chimeras, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, horror, science fiction, Splice the Movie, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

Doctoral companion species? The Creative Writing project and exegesis

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Just as I have spent the past four years exploring the hybrid in science fiction – a character that exists outside binaries – so I realized that the actualized Creative Writing doctorate also existed outside the binaries. 

Throughout the exegesis I have come to realize the hybrid stands slightly outside the human, never properly human or animal, never allowed to fully participate in the human community – or the animal pack. Never human enough, never animal enough. Actually, that’s how I felt growing up – never Greek enough, never Australian enough. A hybrid.

Although they spend the days fighting, at least my cat and dog can play together as well. And the cat can always run away. Take one good swipe at the dog. Or both can retreat and bury their differences. Not so the human-animal hybrid in science fiction. There is nowhere to go.

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It’s the same with the Creative Writing doctorate. The novel and the exegesis have to get along, play nice, and find some common ground. I can hear myself getting increasingly frustrated, saying – “for goodness sake, the damn exegesis has to let me spend some time with the novel – enough already!” And still it demands! Doesn’t it realize it is a hybrid – unable to exist without its other half?

Yes, I am at that “I am so sick of it, I can’t read another word” stage of my research. I have even begun footnoting in my dreams – and worrying about whether I am getting the damn referencing system correct.

In my exegesis, I argue that the hybrid exists in both human and animal categories simultaneously, challenging but never destroying either category. The great fear for the human characters is that the animal within the hybrid will harm them. The good news is, this happens in my novel as well. Or it would. If I ever get time to do the final edit. And, as I have discovered this is the fear writers have when they start the Creative Writing doctorate.

A relatively new higher degree, this doctorate isn’t taken seriously by those who have decided that a/ writers should never undertake a higher degree, and b/  it isn’t like it’s a “real” doctorate anyway as it is “just writing”. Add the fact that I am doing mine on beings that don’t actually exist…well. You get the picture!

That actually fits with my research. By the 21st Century, in science fiction the hybrid’s danger is acknowledged to be its human side. As illustrated in this scene from the 2009 movie Splice, where the scientists examine scans of the newborn hybrid Dren and ponder her potential threat:

Elsa: Not all animals have predatory elements.

Clive: There’s the human element.

That brings me to Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto. Here, Haraway argues that dogs are not about oneself. They are dogs – not a projection, nor the realization of an intention, not the telos of anything.  (The Companion Species Manifesto: Dog, People, and Significant Otherness. 2003. Prickly Paradigm Press – p 11).

This makes more sense to me now I actually have a dog. I small, joyful, mess creating, life enhancing puppy. Finally asleep in his basket at my desk. He likes to keep an eye on me long into the night.

A friend told me when I got the puppy that things I never expected to get destroyed would. I could batten down the hatches as much as I liked, but things would happen I couldn’t control.

A metaphor for academic research if ever I heard one.

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So, what’s that got to do with the Creative Writing doctorate?

Maybe sometimes we need to look at it for what it just is. Just a dog. Just a thing in its own right and not an end to anything. I think those of us in the thick of it know this, and are too caught up in it and too darn tired working on it to fight the popular opinion that challenges us as to why we are doing it. After all, no one asks why anyone does a doctorate in a science related subject, do they? But somehow, many people do not think it is valid to study – and write – fiction in higher education. But I didn’t start this doctorate to learn how to write – I can do that, thanks. I did it because I wasn’t about to do one in architecture, philosophy or bioethics. Writing is what I do, and that was the dog I was going to study, so to speak. I wanted to push that writing boundary as far as I could, challenge myself and stretch myself in my area. And I don’t feel I have to justify this.

I do argue, however, that many creative writers embarking on a doctorate in Creative Writing fear the “other half” of the work required. They imagine they are “either” a creative writer “or” a researcher, and often feel they do not have the academic language or research skills required to merge the two together. Even those in the media have queried whether this doctorate should be allowed to exist – much the same way that creation of scientific hybrids are debated. 

Will they be good for the community? Or destroy humanity as we know it? Yes – by that I mean both the Creative Writing doctorate, and scientific chimeras. And, while we are at it – fictional hybrids.

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The fear many writers have is that their academic research will harm them, make them less creative, and take away their spontaneity. This is one side of the hybrid dominating the other. Yet it is interesting that unlike, for instance, the skills needed to be a professional tennis player that are seen to need coaching and training, writing is viewed as a gift from God – (quite mythological) a skill that can’t be taught. If you don’t have it, you can’t learn it. But those in higher degrees in creative writing would argue otherwise.

The research, while pulling you away from the creative, deepens your involvement with it. The images in this blog were taken from a tapestry at the Ashmolean Museum last year when I was in Oxford to take part in two conferences related to my doctorate. I think they perfectly illustrate the doctoral battle for creative writers – one part trying to dominate the other, the exegesis trumping the novel, and vice versa. Yet while I went to Oxford to present my academic research, it caused me to explore new areas in my creative project. The impact of that trip is still resonating in my work, in the exegesis and the novel and other interesting ways. I am going back in September 2013, to present the final chapter of my exegesis, on the erotic nature of the hybrid at the Exploring The Erotic conference.   I see this as an invaluable experience. Getting feedback on your ideas and research from your peers – indeed defending your ideas and research to them – pushes forward your work and gets you used to taking your work into the public sphere. 

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My creative project came into being as a hybrid. It was based on a short story I started writing several years ago at a bioethics conference in Queensland, where I was presenting a paper for my MA in Creative Writing. I was listening to a paper about the perils of xeno transplantation – the use of animal parts in humans – when the voice of my protagonist Ariadne came to me. It was one of those creative moments when you realize that something has clicked. As a science fiction/crime writer – itself a hybrid genre, I felt a deep resonance with the idea of xeno transplantation and hybridity.

The short story that resulted was Xenos, a “hard boiled” speculative crime thriller (this is itself a hybrid of cross disciplinary genre) that won the Dorothy Porter Innovation Prize in the 2007 Sisters In Crime Scarlet Stiletto Awards and has become a middle chapter of my doctoral creative project. The short story has been published in Scarlet Stiletto – The Second Cut, available in ebook.

So there you have it – my doctoral creative project sprung to life like a mythological character, plucked from the centre of my Masters research, a hybrid from the start. A direct result of my academic research. Which part of the hybrid dominated?

A metaphor for academic research if ever I heard one.

Academic Study, Chimeras, creative writing, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, horror, PhD completion, science fiction, Writing strategies

Chimera or hybrid? The pain of naming the monster

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There is a flip side to having a hottie research topic that I hadn’t really considered until now. When you research monsters in SF, it’s such a fascinating subject that everyone wants in.

I am investigating the scientifically created animal-human chimera in science fiction and while that is a mouthful, it is necessary to state my parameters even in casual conversation. Because, believe me, everyone has an opinion on what I am doing, and how I should be doing it.

For a start – is it a chimera, or a hybrid?

I spent this weekend at a writing masterclass and needed to justify my decision to call the “manufactured monster” – the human-animal created by science -– a hybrid, rather than a chimera.

In my creative writing exegesis, I justified the term “hybrid” to describe the creature resulting from the scientific fusion of human and animal, rather than “chimera”. Why?

Chimera refers in popular language to mythical creatures and monsters, and in Greek mythology chimeras were fire-breathing creatures composed of the parts of multiple animals.

In scientific practice, there is no universal definition of a chimera. There are many groups in different countries involved in producing definitions for these new human-animal mixtures in science and the terms are debated (Hinterberger 2011).

So, I opted for the term “hybrid” to rule out any allusion to mythology that may be caused by the word “chimera”.

Hybridity is also a term used in literature and cultural studies and is understood to contest hierarchical binaries of nature/culture, self/other, male/female, human/nonhuman. (Heffernan, 2003) Also, Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1985), that I am using as methodology, challenges such binaries.

But it got me thinking.

Not the least because the person questioning me was a very experienced author with a formidable track record and extensive background working in the scientific area in just this field.

At lunchtime, over a salad, she told me about what goes on inside an Animal House and the scientific labs, because she’d been in them. She’d helped design them. And she said, “I’m telling you, the correct term is chimera, not hybrid.”

Sigh. I had just written several paragraphs in my exegesis introduction as to why I had chosen to call the creature a hybrid. Not to mention the four years of drafts and hundreds of thousands of words that described my research into the human animal hybrid in SF.

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I should be pleased that those I meet are even remotely interested in a research area that has consumed me for nearly five years. I mean, I can (understandably) see people’s eyes glaze over as I speak about my research. But just as it is impossible to read every journal article and every book on a subject, it is also impossible to keep up with everyone’s suggestions.

And by everyone, I mean everyone. This colleague’s point was valid, and had me hit the search and change function on all my files. From now on – it’s chimera, bot hybrid!

But what do you do with all the other comments? From the other school mum in the supermarket checkout, to my hairdresser, the guy who fixes my car, my kid’s friend’s parents – even my kid’s teenage friends – they all want in.

And just like being pregnant, and having to put up with advice from strangers, it becomes harder to hear the closer you are to your due date.

I am now 7 weeks from handing in my PhD. At this teary stage, I am fragile and sleep deprived. I guess I am gestating an exegesis and novel. That’s like – well, carrying twins!

If I was doing what many consider “serious” research – by that I mean something in engineering, science or computing that few have any understanding of let alone the vocabulary to speak about it – then I guarantee I wouldn’t be getting all these well meaning comments and advice. Even from a lot of academics.

However, I work in the humanities, and everyone feels free to wade in with an opinion. Especially as I work in SF and popular culture and you can’t swing a cat without coming into contact with images of the post human. All around us are films, computer games, television series and books that feature the augmented human, human hybrids/chimeras, and enhanced humans. From the most recent version of Total Recall, to covert operatives, chemically enhanced and physically and mentally uplifted in the latest installment of The Bourne Legacy, not to mention the cool and sexy Swedish drama Real Humans, depictions of humans changed by science are all around us.

I suppose over the years I have also become more confident in speaking about my research, and like a woman in love, I can’t stop dropping my beloved’s name every opportunity I get. Human-animal hybrids! Um, Chimeras! Monster Theory! My enthusiasm must be contagious, because it seems that everyone now feels an expert in my area. Some recent comments:

  • “Surely you mean chimera, not hybrid?”
  • “Have you watched The Blob?”
  • “What about Beauty and the Beast?”
  • “Why Frankenstein? He wasn’t an animal hybrid, was he?”
  • “Why not mythological creatures?”

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  • “What’s your opinion on The Centipede, anyway?”
  • “Aren’t you disgusted researching bestiality?”
  • “Is zoonosis about – zoos?”
  •  “How as a feminist can you include a misogynistic movie like Splice in your exegesis?”
  • “Why haven’t you considered aliens in your research?”
  • “What about Cordwainer Smith’s works?”
  • “I’d steer clear of Lacan if I was you.”
  • “Have you considered another expert in narratology?”
  • “I would really be looking at Deleuze and Guattari at this point.”

Of course, I get more and more paranoid that I haven’t considered all the above, and why not? With only 7 weeks to go before I hand in my PhD, how could I have missed any vital areas in my research?

I am not sure what the answer is. Learn to ignore everyone? Say, actually, Frankenstein’s creature was created from parts of the dead and animals? “The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of  my materials…” (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.) My bold.

All I know is there is more pain ahead before I complete.

Oh, and it is chimera now – not hybrid!

Academic Study, creative writing, Doctoral misery, horror, science fiction, Splice the Movie, The Island Of Doctor Moreau

The Horror, the horror: When your research gives you nightmares

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I don’t want to analyze my nightmares as they can be so horrible. No surprise, really, considering the steady diet of horror fiction I am consuming. Then again, at least I can take comfort in the thought that the bleakness I envelop myself in isn’t real – yet.

That’s the thing about science fiction and horror. It’s as damn well close to real as the long shadows of the past lapping at our memories, or stark reminders of the suffering all around us.

I have just written a blog “The lust that dare not speak its name” for the website Online Opinion about the German parliament’s decision to criminalize “using an animal for personal sexual activities” and to punish offenders with fines up to $34,000. My research took me into Zoophilia’s surprisingly long history and cultural representation – especially in science fiction. This is quite confronting.

Studying the past, and its particularly horrific events, can give doctoral students nightmares. An author told me that spending years working on a doctoral dissertation of WG Sebald’s Austerlitz (described as “a dreamlike meditation on memory and the Holocaust” ) wasn’t the best thing he could have done for his mental health. It made him depressed. In fact, if he had his time again, he’d choose something else. Maybe comedy.

No one who has studied Austerlitz comes away unchanged.  It tells the story of a Jewish man sent to England as a child through the Kindertransporte in 1939. In war, so much is lost, erased, forgotten, displaced. Of course, it’s not a happy book.

Examining the near future can be equally as bleak, at least if you take my extensive SF DVD and fiction collection as a starting point. It’s dystopia all the way. Even Danny Boyle’s SF movie Sunshine, while offering a ray of hope for the planet’s future, comes at the price of sacrifice. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

A case in point is Kazuo Ishiguro’s book Never Let Me Go. Here there is no such thing as a free life. The clones – humans born and raised to be live organ donors – accept their fate. They must die so that others may live. They have no agency, and as the story unfolds, the reader sees their entire lives are based on the lies they have been fed to keep them pliable and acquiescent.

The clones are human “monsters” created by science (despite the fact that it is society that is the collective monster in breeding clones for this unspeakable fate). The clones are a reverse version if you like of Frankenstein’s creature; a constructed living body that will be carved up until death. The creature was brought to life from the scraps of flesh from charnel houses; it’s to the mortuary the clones will go when they “complete”. This is Ishiguro’s chilling euphemism for giving everything to the greater power.

The one very liberating thing about studying the human-animal hybrid’s lifecycle is that this monster really does like to take its revenge. There is no clone acceptance of destiny for the snake woman of Jennifer Lynch’s incredible 2009 horror film Hisss 

Ditto the biotech monster Dren’s act of defiance in killing her father and raping her mother after she changes gender at the end of the 2009 movie Splice

Even Edward Prendick had to escape from HG Wells’ The Island Of Doctor Moreau, “for fear of the Beast Monsters”.

In some ways, it’s hard not to cheer the hybrid on, because they are treated so badly. Ever since Frankenstein’s creature was run out of town by the peasants unable to accept his abject monstrosity the hybrid in science fiction has been reviled and hunted.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the agony of the monster’s journey. And that’s what makes the research difficult. I discovered there’s a good reason I feel this way, and why my supervisor felt so depressed at the end of his marathon run. It’s also why people have been blogging about how depressed they feel after watching the movie Les Misérables.

There is actually a good reason for this misery – with Les Mis and the monsters I have been studying. In “Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective Assimilation Hypothesis”, published in the 2011 journal Psychological Science, authors Shira Gabriel, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo,, and Ariana Young, a UB graduate student working in the field of social psychology, found that by absorbing narratives, we can psychologically become a member of the group of characters described therein, a process that makes us feel connected to those characters and their social world.

Too bad if that world is one horrible, dystopian cesspit.

Narratives help us learn life lessons we couldn’t possibly acquire from experience. Hence the importance of story-telling in cultures. Yet while there is hope and humor in Dr Who and Star Trek, the same can’t be said for the books and films I am studying. Nothing, except the oblivion of death, awaits the hybrid.  For these scientifically created human monsters, it’s a short, brutal time filled with alienation, pain and misery. A bit like sitting through nearly three hours of Les Mis.

Sometimes, carrying around a fictional character’s pain and isolation is too much. That’s why I am becoming a bit concerned about my teenage son’s interest in my DVD collection

As part of my doctoral research, I have acquired a vast research library that he finds fascinating – as do his mates. He’s very popular when friends come for a sleep over. A tentative knock on my study door as I am writing away on a Saturday night will reveal a group of boys and the question, “Mum, can we borrow some of your research material?”

For, as well as the usual amount of books, photocopied parts of books, downloaded journal papers and print outs from every draft of my research, I have a vast selection of truly horrible, compelling, horror and science fiction films.

Research can be lonely, so it’s nice to get feedback from my avid teen audience. “That Japanese version of The Eye –  where the woman gets the transplanted eyes of a murder victim – it’s just – OMG! Revolting. I mean, really revolting.”

Or “My mate says that The Fly is the most disgusting film he’s seen, especially where the scientist totally likes turns into a fly and his jaw drops off and he like puts all the bits of himself that are still human into jars into the bathroom cabinet…”

I have yet to receive angry calls from parents about corrupting their children with Gothic horror, but I am waiting (I don’t allow them to watch my R rated horror). I can at least say I have fostered the idea that academia is really cool. Whether university will live up to expectations is another matter.

I guess that depends on whether they can come up with some hottie research topic of their own.