Thoughts on life after the PhD
I let something happen in 2017 that I swore I wouldn’t let happen—I got numb to all the horrible stuff that was happening in the world. And I realize I’m super, super lucky to be ABLE to get numb, because I’m not one of the people who’s losing their health insurance or being denied entry into the country or losing their job or being led out of a hospital in handcuffs because of the fucking dystopian nightmare that is the current U.S. political landscape.
I still tried to engage—I gave money, I made phone calls, I signed petitions, I sent emails, I went to demonstrations near the U.S. Embassy in Japan. But somewhere between the latest mass shooting and otherwise rational people defending one of the endless list of men accused of sexual assault and harassment, I ended up spending a lot of time in the refuge of fluffy, pulpy art.
And I’m not gonna call it a guilty pleasure, because fluff and pulp kept me (and a lot of people, I’m guessing) out of some really dark places last year.
With that in mind, here’s a list of things that helped me get through 2017, starting with:
Books and Comics with Lots of Fucking
Iron Circus Comics: My Monster Boyfriend and the Smut Peddler series
If you like comics and you haven’t checked out any of the amazing work that C. Spike Trotman puts out over at ICC, you need to remedy that right away. As she put it in a great interview with NPR’s Code Switch, as a comic artist she was tired of having her stories labeled as “niche,” and so she set out to publish the kind of work that she hadn’t seen enough of in mainstream comic publishing: queer stories, stories featuring people of color, stories created by and for female / queer / POC audiences. ICC funds most of its collections via Kickstarter and has an amazing success rate. Some of Spike’s own works include Yes, Roya, about a 1960s-era kinky-polyamorous threesome, and on the non-porny side, Poorcraft, a comic about “living well on less.”
Smut Peddler and My Monster Boyfriend are two ICC collections of super X-rated erotic stories that, in addition to being really hot, are also compelling reads (a lot of MMB is sci-fi or fantasy-flavored). Pairings are all over the place—gay, bi, (occasionally) straight, people + genderless space aliens, with a refreshing focus on larger and natural-looking bodies. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but mine might be Megan Rose Gedris’ The Witch, a hilarious female-female story about a town where people think that spontaneous orgies are the only way to keep witches away.
Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk series
Some people like steampunk + vampires + werewolves + boning, and some people don’t. Sometimes I do, and this series was a lot of fun.
Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series
Hoo boy. This gothic romance / quasi-retelling of Beauty and the Beast / Hades & Persephone got its hooks into me like nothing else has in a very, very long time, taking me back to some very primal teen angsty place where emotions were running wild and everything was a matter of life and death. I read the first two books twice.
Admittedly this series Has Its Problems. It’s way too white and it’s way too straight. I’ll give the author credit for doing a lot to remedy that in the third book, though her introduction of the queer elements felt a little forced. Still, kudos to any author who (I’m guessing) listened to some of the legitimate criticism about representation in the first books and did something to fix it.
What the series does really well, though, is depict the very messy, complicated nature of trauma and its aftermath, as well as unpacking the romance novel trope of relationships with a power imbalance (usually dominant male / submissive female). ACoTaR recognizes that power imbalances can be a turn-on and can be appealing to people at a certain point in their lives…but then very importantly acknowledges that this same dynamic can be harmful if left unquestioned. It also, thankfully, follows the trend of more recent romance novels in having a heroine who’s sexually assertive, making consent very clear, and not leaning on graphic depictions of sexual violence or the threat of sexual violence as a shortcut for character development.
The sex is really hot, too.
Books and Comics without Lots of Fucking That Were Nonetheless Great
Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
I wish I could say that it was, but “written entirely in verse” is generally not an endorsement for me, as it conjures up images of lugubrious and metaphor-heavy reading. But Brown Girl Dreaming is utterly engrossing from start to finish, using poetry to create a vivid portrait of a black family in small-town Ohio, South Carolina, and later New York. It’s a book you can practically taste and smell, told in child-Jacqueline’s sharp and observant voice.
Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give
It’s unfortunate that The Hate U Give initially got a lot of attention because of the insane Lani Sarem controversy, which saw a con artist try to game the NYT bestseller list and briefly knock the rightful winner out of the top spot. On its own, though, The Hate U Give is a primal scream of righteous anger for the Black Lives Matter era, centering around the aftermath of a police shooting that leaves a friend of the teenage narrator dead. Beyond the fact that it’s exactly the type of YA story that we need to be seeing a lot more of, it’s also just a beautifully structured story with meaty, flawed-but-lovable characters who grow, change, and occasionally do stupid things and learn from them.
Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples, Saga
I really hope Saga never ends, because I will happily keep reading it until I’m wrinkled and old. I finally got my husband to read the first volume and I think he at last understood why I wouldn’t shut up about it.
(Incidentally, Saga also has lots of hot sex between characters of all species, colors, and orientations, it just isn’t really the main event.)
N.K. Jemison, The Stone Sky and The Dreamblood Duology
N.K. Jemison’s Broken Earth trilogy, which ended last year with The Stone Sky, took some staples of dystopian fiction (the aftermath of an apocalypse, a group of people with exceptional powers who are feared and shunned by others, the possibility of finally upending a totalitarian system) and reshaped them into something wondrously vivid and new. In the midst of ridiculously detailed world-building and edge-of-your-seat tension, she also makes almost all of her central characters queer, trans, older, or black (or all of the above), putting characters who’ve usually been relegated to the sidelines of sci-fi front and center. All three books broke my heart in the best way possible. The Dreamblood Duology posed similarly prickly questions about the ethics of dealing with people who have the capacity for great healing and great destruction, while also creating rich characters and wildly entertaining plots.
Pika-la-Cynique’s Girls Next Door webcomic
I discovered this webcomic, which imagines Labyrinth’s Sarah and Phantom of the Opera’s Christine as roommates, sometime in July and it quickly became an obsession. It’s been going for ten years and somewhere along the way it evolved from an endless parade of very funny innuendos and jokes to a multilayered conversation about healthy relationships and the paradoxes of modern fandom (while still bringing the funny). Characters from dozens of fictional universes make appearances—various Neil Gaiman creations, the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth, Frank N. Furter, Blind Mag, Jessica Jones. It’s also amazing to see how the artist’s skills have developed over ten years. New pages go up every few weeks or so, and it always makes my morning when they do.
(Note: if you’ve never spent time on Deviant Art it can be a little tricky to figure out how to read the comic. Click this link and scroll down for a very, very long time until you get to page #1. When you click on that one you’ll see the first page, which you can then magnify. After that, click “Previous” to move on to the next page.)
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