Articles, Science

Strigops habroptilus

I have a new article out! “Strigops habroptilus – Kākāpō” is in Becoming Feral, a bestiary project from Object-a Creative Studio, supported by The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and the University of California, Santa Cruz. If you’ve ever met me and been foolish enough to enter into the topic of academic publishing, you’ll know that I have opinions, so when I saw this project, which is a strange (but hopefully accessible) attempt at producing specifically creative research, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it.

Becoming Feral is an exploration of ferality as it relates to the interactions between humans and nonhuman animals. Participants had to pick an animal and create a bestiary entry for them that fulfilled that brief. A lot of those entries – including mine – are primarily written, but there are also some multimedia entries that you can take a look at for free online.

I chose to write a short article on the kākāpō, a flightless parrot endemic to Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s very endangered here; at the time I wrote this post there were only 201 left alive. Unfortunately, in 2019 (the year before COVID-19 came to NZ) the kākāpō had their own pandemic. Nearly five percent of the entire kākāpō population died; many had to be isolated from the disease in order to survive. Some had to undergo nebuliser treatment to support their respiration, as contagious spores were attacking their lungs, and the only nebulisers small enough were ones designed for kids. The crossover in pandemic experience, then, was something I found really interesting – what was the feral organism here? The kākāpō, who by the end were helping to weigh themselves in the quarantine facilities provided for them, or the spores that were killing them?

Papers, Science, SFF

Tardigrades and Star Trek

I have a new paper out! “Ethics, Experimentalism, and Hybrid Purpose: Navigating Science and the Military in Star Trek: Discovery” is out in the latest issue of Interdisciplinary Literary Studies. Sometime last year I saw their call for papers for a special issue on hybridity in Star Trek, and as I’m on a mission to eventually write papers on all my beloved books and media, I knew I had to submit to it. And the I remembered the tardigrade storyline of Discovery’s first season. I remembered, as well, the Manhattan Project, a period of science history that I find endlessly fascinating, and I knew how I could lump the two together.

The Manhattan Project had an interesting organisational structure, with two effective heads: General Groves, who represented the military, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who represented the scientists. This structure was something that could be clearly mapped onto the tardigrade storyline, hence the following abstract:

In “Context Is for Kings,” “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry,” and “Choose Your Pain,” three season one episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, the hybrid nature of Starfleet becomes apparent when its scientists come into conflict with its soldiers. The order to treat a potentially sentient tardigrade-like creature as a military resource, subject to what is essentially slavery and vivisection, makes scientific ethics subject to strategic value. In each episode, a separate pairing between scientist and soldier develops, which both critiques the competing philosophies and acts as a metaphor for historical conflicts of this kind.

Poetry, Science

Radioactivity

I have a new poem out! To be perfectly honest it came out a couple of months ago, but I’m behind on updating the website, so I suppose if you haven’t come across said poem yet it’s new to you. Anyway, “Radioactivity” is free to read in the wonderful Uncanny Magazine. I’ve sold to Uncanny before, but never a poem, so it’s lovely to be in there again, and in a different form.

“Radioactivity” is a poem about Marie Curie. She’s a scientist I have always admired, and let’s face it, when you think of the history of women in science she’s at the very top, or close to it. My favourite story about her is referenced briefly in the poem. It’s about her cookbook. Now, when Marie was researching radiation, it was the big new thing in science and no-one really understood that it wasn’t the best idea to shove highly radioactive material in your pockets and handle it with bare hands and so on. But Marie had her hands and her pockets, and when she finished working in the lab for the day she’d go home and cook her family dinner, and when she did the radioactive material that was smeared all over her fingers transferred to the pages of her cookbook, as she flipped through it looking for recipes. That cookbook still exists. It’s in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and to this day it’s so radioactive that it needs to be kept in a lead-lined box.

I love that story. It makes Curie seem so utterly human… as does, I hope, the rest of the poem.

Horror, Papers, Science, SFF

Inoculation and Contagion

I have a new paper out! Something very appropriate for the times, too, in that it deals with infection and disease. The paper’s called “Inoculation and Contagion: The Absence of Vaccination in Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and it’s free to read at Supernatural Studies. If you go to the table of contents for the issue you can also download a free pdf of the paper, which is great.

I love Dracula. I really do. It’s one of the great horror stories of all time, and yet when I reread it again a couple of years back, I began to wonder. Why is there no mention of vaccination in it? Two of the main characters are doctors. They treat vampirism as a contagious disease, and vaccination was, at the time of Stoker’s writing (and at the time the novel was set) an accepted medical practice. It was even a compulsory practice when it came to smallpox. And yet… nary a mention. Not even to say that it wouldn’t work so no use trying. Now, Stoker is long dead and so can’t be asked, but still… can a bit of research find a reason for this curious omission? It just might, I thought, and it has. Without verification from Stoker we can’t be sure if it’s the right reason, of course, but it’s certainly a plausible one.

And honestly, for me, plausibility is enough. My curiosity is satisfied. I would say, however, that just because you can’t vaccinate yourself against vampirism doesn’t mean you can’t vaccinate yourself against a number of other diseases. You can, and you should.

Papers, Science, SFF

Microbiology and Microcosms

I have a new paper out! It’s in Surreal Entanglements: Essays on Jeff VanderMeer’s Fiction, edited by Louise Economides and Laura Shackelford, published by Routledge. The paper’s called “Microbiology and Microcosms: Ecosystem and the Body in Shriek: An Afterword.” Which is a fancy way of saying that I’m talking about the human microbiome, the plethora of different species that live in and on the human body. Most of my academic work seems to sit in the intersection between science and speculative fiction, and this is another example of that.

Shriek: An Afterword is one of the Ambergris books; a series in which VanderMeer explores the city of Ambergris, which is the home of both humans and a fungal species called the gray caps. Fungus contaminates in Ambergris, and Duncan Shriek, one of the primary characters of the book, is slowly turning to fungus himself. Which made me think of the human microbiome, and how we are already host to fungal organisms – you and I and everyone have fungi living inside us as a matter of course, and so Shriek’s transformation is a sort of speculative extension of existing biology. It causes him – and everyone around him – to reassess his identity, and that reassessment is something that the human microbiome is prompting as well. We so often think of a human as being a singular organism, when we really are not. In reality, that apparently singular organism is more of a colony than anything else! How this impacts on the way that we think about ourselves is something I find just fascinating, and it’s that which prompted the essay.