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.

Articles, Science

Milk Teeth

I have a new essay out! Most of what I put up on this blog is short stories or academic papers or books, and it’s only very rarely that I write a nonfiction, non-academic piece. But I’d like to start doing more of them, so this is one of the first.

It’s also the first piece I’ve ever managed to sell to Uncanny Magazine, which is one thing crossed off my writing bucket list. It’s an amazing magazine, and I’m so pleased to finally be in it. My essay, “Milk Teeth,” is free to read at the link.

It’s about New Zealand ecology. Mostly the moa (a giant and sadly extinct bird) and the horoeka (a plant which is happily still very much alive). The horoeka’s an odd-looking plant, and one of the theories as to why it looks and grows the way that it does is because the moa used to graze on it, and the plant adapted accordingly.

If this is true – and it seems a reasonable explanation – then this plant is still growing away, doing it’s odd spiky thing, completely oblivious to the fact that the reason for said spikiness is long dead and likely won’t be coming back. (I say “likely” because I live in hope that the thing can be resurrected, like a big feathery Jurassic Park creature that is rather less violently carnivorous. The probability of this resurrection is not high.)

And to me, that’s such an interesting relationship… one built, now, entirely around absence, and one that’s very much worth exploring.

Articles, Horror, Science, SFF, Short stories

The Past and Future Lives of Test Subjects

I have a new story out! And it’s fucking terrible. I don’t say that lightly. The story itself is well-written and decently constructed, don’t get me wrong. I’m not fishing for affirmation of my writing ability. But the subject is monstrous. It’s also, unfortunately, drawn entirely from fact. “The Past and Future Lives of Test Subjects”, available in issue 1 of Dark Matter Magazine, is about the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments.

Those experiments, should you be so fortunate to have never heard of them, comprised a 40 year study in which the United States Public Health Service oversaw the “treatment” of syphilis in a study group of Black men. I say “treatment,” because although these men were told they were receiving medical care they really weren’t. The purpose of the study was to monitor the progression of untreated syphilis in the human body, and of course there’s no-one alive who would volunteer to the be the subject of that experiment, but the Public Health Service decided to go ahead and experiment anyway and not bother with any of those nasty consent issues.

This is the darkest story I’ve ever written. The people who ran this study were deeply, violently racist, and they clearly had absolutely no ethics at all, so be warned if you choose to read. You may prefer the accompanying essay, which I’m pleased to say Dark Matter also chose to publish in the same issue. “The Past and Future Lives of Scientists” goes into greater detail of the experiments in question, and places them within the ethical context of past failure and future necessity.

Science, SFF

Artist in Residence

I’m currently the Square Edge/Massey University artist in residence! It’s a three month position, with a visual artist coming in after me. I’ve just completed my first week, and things are very exciting but also a little surreal. The residency is based in Palmerston North, a place I’ve only ever passed through before, and while it appears to be a lovely city the truth is I’m seeing very little of it right now as New Zealand is in lockdown due to COVID-19, so no sightseeing for me.

On the bright side, this gives me lots of time to work on my residency project. I applied to come here a year or two back, with a project called The Stone Wētā, but that particular book was completed some time ago (I was offered the 2020 residency instead of the 2019 one) so I had to come up with something new. That new project, and what I’ll be working on for the next three months, is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, exploring the ways in which science, nature, extinction, and experimentation come together in unusual ways.

I’m looking forward to it!