books

Feminist Fantasy

I’ve just finished reading Game of Thrones, the first book of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series. I really enjoyed the HBO series, but I didn’t feel like waiting years to learn the rest of the plot. The same thing happened with Lord of the Rings – I saw the first movie, then quickly gobbled up the trilogy, the Hobbit, and even the Silmarillion. And I’m pretty sure I don’t have to point out that I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. I enjoy fantasy novels.

But it’s always a little weird reading fantasy as a feminist. I know other feminists lament the lack of strong female characters in traditional fantasy novels. I mean, does Arwen serve any purpose other than marrying Aragorn? Eowyn is badass as she slays the Lord of the Nazgul, but then she loses all her fighting spirit to marry Faramir and have babies.

Harry Potter left me similarly disappointed in the end. Hermione was such a strong female character throughout the series, but ultimately the end is all about getting married and having babies.  Rowling discusses her accomplishments in the Ministry in interviews, but in the book her future is represented only as a mother. And really, when you think about the series, it’s all about dudes. Harry, Voldemort, Dumbledore, Snape. I love Hermione, but sometimes I can’t help but see her as a useful plot device, the clever one who will serendipitously figure out all the puzzles and advances the plot.

So far, I’m enjoying Game of Thrones. There are many strong female characters. But more importantly to me, they’re not The Strong Female Character. I hate when a book or movie is so obviously trying to introduce a strong woman to the plot, that she ends up a flat caricature without flaws or weaknesses. It makes the viewer feel like there really are no such thing as strong women in the real world – otherwise why would they be so hard to write?

And that’s why I like this series (so far, at least). The strong women still aren’t perfect. Daenerys takes a terrible situation (which is an understatement) and uses it to grow into a powerful, confident woman. I think she’s one of the most compassionate characters in the series, yet that compassion is also her undoing. Cersei Lannister is powerful and recognizes how unfair it is that her power is curtailed by her bad luck of being born female – but she’s also tremendously evil. Catelyn Stark takes matters into her own hands when her family is threatened, but the same emotions that drive her also cause her to make mistakes. And do I even have to say anything about Arya? She’s stubborn and hot headed, but she’s as much as a feminist as I’ve ever seen.

But I also like the series because there are some terrible women. Lysa Arryn is… a little off her rocker. Sansa fills me with a rage that’s only surpassed by how much I hate Joffrey (or as I like to call him, Malfoy 2.0). If there are supremely flawed male characters, I want supremely flawed female ones. Women aren’t perfect.

I’ve heard some argue that the series isn’t feminist because the women, in their culture, are basically seen as second class citizens. But when you have a series that’s basically medieval Europe placed on an imaginary map, I’m not sure what you expect. It’s inspired by history, where woman were treated that poorly. I find it refreshing that the plot doesn’t accept that (like in Lord of the Rings), but rather multiple woman try to overcome it.

But I see the point. How many more fantasy novels do we need that perfectly mirror medieval Europe, with women having the roles of wives and nothing more? If it’s fiction, why not make them equal? Or why not make them the ones in charge? It would be refreshing to see that occasionally.

I’m sure it’s out there, but I’m not as prolific of a reader. What fantasy novels do you think have feminist ideals? Who are your favorite strong female characters? What do you think about the women of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones? Does one do a better job than the others? Am I totally full of it with my opinions of these characters?

Skepticism & fiction

A reader asks,

How can you be ok with all the shiny-afterlife-awaits-you and stuff in Harry Potter?

…Because it’s fiction? Seriously, it’s a fantasy novel that’s full of magic, dragons, unicorns, giants, goblins, ghosts, elves, pixies, potions, charms, hexes, teleportation, and soul splitting… and you’re worried about the concept of the afterlife? You could suspend disbelief for all of that, but not one vaguely religious concept?

Dude. Come on.

Sorry, but it’s a pet peeve of mine when skeptics are so skeptical that they can’t even enjoy fiction. Okay, maybe you just don’t like fiction. But how do you not understand that lots and lots of people do enjoy fiction without eliminating their skepticism? We can watch a movie while still knowing it’s just actors and special effects. Humans love telling and hearing stories – that doesn’t mean we have to literally believe everything within them.

And I wouldn’t talk about this if it was a one off question. I hear this view quite frequently. Heck, at TAM8 Richard Dawkins spent a good portion of his interview talking about how he didn’t like fiction because he thought reading fantasy novels as a child contributed to irrational thinking.

Bah humbug. In my case, it was the complete opposite. I knew that The Witches, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or Harry Potter, or Greek mythology were all just stories. That’s exactly why when I heard about the Bible, I immediately recognized it as just another story. Fiction doesn’t erode at skepticism – it can enforce it!

So, boo hiss. Let me enjoy Harry Potter in peace without overanalyzing the religious aspects. I don’t give a damn if they celebrate Christmas when people are able to magically turn into cats.

This is post 25 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Is God disappearing from literature?

Google Books has scanned over 15 million books so far, and a team at Harvard University has been crunching the numbers. They’re looking for various trends that can highlight the evolution of language, and their results are fascinating. Ed Yong has a wonderful review that you should check out, with everything from grammar to Nazis (but no Grammar Nazis).

But I wanted to point out one trend they’ve been seeing in the books over the years:
In the lead researcher’s own words, “‘God’ is not dead; but needs a new publicist.”

And just because I’m a biologist who wants to rub it in…
Woooo! But more than just bragging about it’s growing popularity compared to God*, this graph is still pretty awesome. Not only does it show approximately when these discoveries were made, but look at evolution in the 1940s. Looks like people were a little scared to be talking about it, maybe thanks to Nazis? That would be fascinating to look into more.

This is only the first report from the project, and I can’t wait for the rest to come out! Mmmmm, data and literary nerdiness combined!

*Remember, it’s comparatively. Look at the magnitudes on the y axes. The atheist horde still has some work to do. But at least science is on the upswing, while God isn’t looking too hot if this trend continues!

Anyone doing NaNoWriMo?

Every year as October comes to an end, I get excited for three things:

1. Halloween! It’s my favorite holiday. What’s not to love about dressing up in silly costumes?
2. The day after Halloween. Fuck yeah, half priced candy!
3. My birthday, wooo!

But there’s one thing that I simultaneously look forward to and fear:

National Novel Writing Month.

It’s just how it sounds. During the month of November, you’re challenged to write a 50,000 word novel. It’s the one time where quantity matters more than quality, because it’s an exercise in creativity, not editing.

Then why do I dread it? Because I fail every year.

I probably won’t attempt it this year, since I’m busy enough blogging while doing this little thing called “getting my PhD.” I haven’t quite decided yet, but I may be a “Nano rebel” and try to finish my in-progress manuscript. I’m suddenly more motivated to get it done when I have an editor who’s happy to read it.

But are any of you participating? Do you know what your plot’s going to be? Have any of you actually succeeded before?

My copy of Atheist's Guide to Christmas just arrived!

Nothing is going to wipe the grin off my face today – I’m published.:D

My drawing of Atheist Barbie looks pretty snazzy too. Yes, technically my art has been published as well!

Don’t forget you can enter my contest to win a free copy! Or if you’re feeling less creative, you can preorder here.

Win a free copy of The Atheist's Guide to Christmas!

Usually I have a rule about No Christmas Stuff Before Thanksgiving, but I’m breaking it for this special occasion – the American edition of The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is coming out next Tuesday, on November 2nd! It’s not just any godless book; I’m one of the 42* contributors! There will be a (hopefully) humorous chapter by yours truly called “Gifts for the Godless.” This is my first time having a creative piece published, so needless to say, I’m super exited. Not only will I be alongside people I look up to like Richard Dawkins, Phil Plait, and Simon Singh, but it’s for a good cause – all author advances and royalties go to the Terrence Higgins Trust.

November 2nd also happens to be my 23rd birthday. Since I can think of no better present for myself, how about I give a present to you? …And by that I mean “My editor is hooking me up with a couple free copies to give away at my discretion, how about I distribute them in a fun way?”

So, time for a contest!

Write new lyrics for an old Christmas carol that have a godless or scientific theme.

Rules:

  1. Post your entries in the comments. If you’re one of those people who’s still having trouble commenting, feel free to email your entry to me.
  2. Make sure to include an email address when you log in or in the body of your post. If you win, I need to contact you about a mailing address.
  3. Arbitrary bonus points will be awarded for things like humor, Blag Hag inside jokes, and singing your song or making a video.
  4. And really, my rules are lax – if you want to remake a famous Christmas-themed story or poem, or do godless lyrics for the dreidel song, I don’t care. Really, just make something in the spirit of the contest that you think I’d like, since I get to pick the winners.

Entries are due Monday, Nov 1st at 5pm PST. I’ll announce the winners the morning of the 2nd!

And remember, the American edition is different than the version that came out in the UK last year. There are a bunch of new authors, like me. So even if you have that version, you may want to check out the new one!

*Yes, that choice of number is intentional. Don’t you want to win it even more?

New horror novel, complete with a crisis of faith!

No, the crisis of faith isn’t supposed to be the horrifying part. It’s a murder mystery called The Faithful that’s coming out October 1:
About the book:

Conflicted with his faith in God and the hypocrisy of the church, Aidan, an assistant pastor, is already a spiritual battleground. When he learns that his ex-fiancee was murdered in a possibly demonic ritual, he finds himself catapulted into an even deeper fight. Tormented by demonic threats and haunted spirits in the afterlife, Aidan becomes a medium that will hold the key to solving this murder mystery. As Catholic priests, paranormal investigators and rogue law enforcement seek Aidan out, readers both secular and religious will find that the Faithful tears at the emotions and doubts of humankind.

About the author:

Jonathan Weyer is a campus minister at Ohio State University and is ordained in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. He is the founder of The Thomas Society, a student-led ministry dedicated to answering questions from skeptics, doubters, agnostics, and atheists. Jonathan is also the only Christian minister to have been added to the Secular Student Alliance speaker’s bureau. During the transition from church to campus ministry, Jonathan wrote the Faithful, combining his love of scary stories and his experience with doubters. He lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife Wendy, three kids, and a crazy cat.

For the sake of full disclosure, you should know that Jon and I are friends. Jen friends with a minister?! Shocking, I know. I haven’t read the book yet, but if it’s half as engaging as Jon is in person, it’ll be wonderful. I’m sure his constant exposure to us crazy atheists will help him handle the “crisis of faith” in a non-cheesy way… though I have a sneaking suspicion the pastor will see the light. ;)

And hell, if you can’t plug your friend’s book on your own blog, what’s a blog good for?

Jon was nice enough to share a more religious focused passage with us. Blag Hag exclusive material, woo!

I shrugged, “Yeah, you’re right. Natural, I guess. But, first, let me ask you a question.”

She raised her eyebrow at me as took a sip of her ginger ale. “Ask away, preacher.”

“What do you believe?”

“About God? I guess I believe there is one.”

“What does that mean?” I asked, folding my arms across my body, taking my “I’m going to teach” position.

“Well, I guess I’m not sure. I mean, I was raised Catholic, but I don’t go to Mass much anymore. I don’t hold to most of what the church teaches.”

Doesn’t that usually go with being an American Catholic?” I asked, smirking a bit.

“True,” Jennifer said. “I guess I have my own religion. You know, I believe in God and spirituality. I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

“Okay, let me stop you there. What does that mean, spiritual but not religious?”

She stared out the window, watching the Gallery Hop crowd pass by our table.

“You know, I have never really thought about it. I guess it means acknowledging God, being thankful, nice to people, helping in the community and all that. I guess a little praying gets thrown in there too, especially on some of the cases I have to investigate.”

“Okay, so this God you pray to, what is He or She like? Can you describe this entity?”

“Well, no, I guess it’s more of a feeling.”

“Exactly. Why do you need God to be a good person, to be nice and all that? You don’t.”

She folded her arms across her chest.

“So, who says what’s nice? Someone has to enforce the law.”

“So, God is a universal cop? That’s comforting.” I tried to keep the scorn out of my voice.

“No, I mean, laws come from somewhere right?”

“Sure. Society. It’s in the best interests of society for laws to be made.”

She slowly nodded her head. “I see what you’re saying, but I don’t buy it.”

“But what do you buy? This God you can’t define other than good feelings or ‘facts’ that you can’t prove?” I had leaned in close, far enough that our faces were almost touching.

Jennifer backed away, slowly nodding her head. “I guess, but I have hard time believing there isn’t something out there.”

“Like what? It could be anything, as Dawkins says. It could be a flying spaghetti monster. You don’t know.”

“True, I guess.”

“I suppose I don’t believe in God anymore because I see no other alternative,” I said. “I think the whole vague, spirituality thing is a crock, excuse me. Either believe in God, do what he says, or don’t. Why try to have both? It’s just hypocritical holding on to the notion of God without any of the responsibilities.”

You can pre-order a copy of The Faithful here.

Jane Austen's Fight Club

No other words are necessary. Just watch.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2PM0om2El8&hl=en_US&fs=1]

This is post 47 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Spit, Swallow, or Soufflé?

Friends send me strange sex-related articles all the time. I probably should be concerned what this says about my interests and personality, but I’m more intrigued by the articles themselves. I always think to myself, “Wow, nothing can be stranger than this.” I’m usually wrong.

Latest example: The cutting edge in cookbooks, Natural Harvest: A collection of semen-based recipes.

“Semen is not only nutritious, but it also has a wonderful texture and amazing cooking properties. Like fine wine and cheeses, the taste of semen is complex and dynamic. Semen is inexpensive to produce and is commonly available in many, if not most, homes and restaurants. Despite all of these positive qualities, semen remains neglected as a food. This book hopes to change that. Once you overcome any initial hesitation, you will be surprised to learn how wonderful semen is in the kitchen. Semen is an exciting ingredient that can give every dish you make an interesting twist. If you are a passionate cook and are not afraid to experiment with new ingredients – you will love this cook book!”

Uhhh…what a delicious looking…glaze?

…I think I suddenly became a vegetarian.

(Via Living the Scientific Life)

I’m going to be published!!!

Yes, that warrants three exclamation marks.

You may or may not have heard of the book The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas. It was released in the UK last year to raise money for the Terrence Higgins Trust, a UK HIV charity. Here’s a little summary of the book from Amazon:

42 atheist celebrities, comedians, scientists and writers give their funny and serious tips for enjoying the Christmas season. Last year, Guardian journalist Ariane Sherine launched the Atheist Bus Campaign and ended up raising over GBP150,000, enough to place the advert ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’ on 800 UK buses in January 2009. Now Ariane and dozens of other atheist writers, comedians and scientists are joining together to raise money for a very different cause. The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is a funny, thoughtful handbook all about enjoying Christmas, from 42 of the world’s most entertaining atheists. It features everything from an atheist Christmas miracle to a guide to the best Christmas pop hits.

Well, it turns out HarperCollins is developing a US edition, and they wanted to add a couple American authors to make it more appealing to this side of the pond. And because of all the boobquake media attention, one of their editors stumbled upon my blog and said they loved my writing and sense of humor. I was asked to do a longer humor piece on atheist toys, based off of my Atheist Barbie joke! Excuse the caps lock, but:

I AM SO FREAKING HAPPY!

It’s been a goal of mine to get my creative work published ever since I was a little kid. I’ve been writing fiction stories since second grade, have a novel fairly far in progress (and other ideas that are less developed), have taken creative writing classes whenever I can, and absolutely love writing (which hopefully you can tell from my blog). I always said I wanted to be published before I graduated college, and there was that nagging cynical voice in the back of my head that said it wouldn’t happen. But now due to the bizarre circumstances of an offhanded joke becoming internationally popular, my dream is literally coming true.

I can’t believe I’m going to be published in the same book as fabulous writers that I deeply respect, like Richard Dawkins, Simon Singh, AC Grayling, Phil Plait, and Ariane Sherine. And not only that, but the editor reacted so positively to my piece (which is the top secret project I’ve been working on the last week), that this will probably open a lot of doors for me.

The US edition will be released on November 2, 2010 (my birthday! What are the odds?). The Amazon page for it is a little sparse now, but you can preorder it here. If you order the editions of it that are already released, they won’t have me in it.

I didn’t think anything could top the Colbert Report…but fulfilling this dream at age 22 kind of wins.
YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!

How this kid became a scientist – Part 1: Books

As graduation approaches, I find myself reflecting more and more about the past and the future. It seems somewhat unbelievable that in less than four months I’ll be graduating with degrees in Genetics and Evolution (with a minor in Psychology!). That surreal feeling is even stronger when I tell people that I’ll soon be striving towards my PhD studying Human Genetics & Evolution at…well, university soon to be decided.

I’ll be the first Dr. McCreight in my family, and the only scientist. That makes me wonder how I ended up this way. How did a daughter of an art teacher and history teacher become such a big science geek? And more importantly, what can I learn from my upbringing to better encourage kids to be interested in science?

Books

The importance of reading is so well known, but I need to mention it. I never was given explicitly pro-science books that are targeted towards kids. In fact, the only real nonfiction science book I enjoyed was the first book I ever read, in preschool, and was about dinosaurs. I’m still baffled how you can have a book with complex dinosaur names that a 3 year old can understand, but I loved that thing.

That’s the one exception, because it was fiction books that really got me pumped about science. They sort of tricked me into thinking like a scientist, rather than ramming it down my throat. For example, I still vividly remember reading a passage from A Wrinkle in Time where a character is explaining the different dimensions, and they accidentally travel through a 2-D world and experience what it would be like to be squished flat:

She tried to gasp, but a paper doll can’t gasp. She thought she was trying to think, but her flattened-out mind was as unable to function as her lungs; her thoughts were squashed along with the rest of her. Her heart tried to beat; it gave a knifelike, sidewise movement, but it could not expand.

But then she seemed to hear a voice, or if not a voice, at least words, words flattened out like printed words on paper, “Oh, no! We can’t stop here! This is a two-dimensional planet and the children can’t manage here!”

I read that book over a decade ago, but that passage still stuck with me – in fact, it’s one of two scenes I remember from the entire book. I understood the concept of dimensions because it was humanized, regardless if we could really do the magical sort of traveling they do in the book. If someone had tried to my ten year old self down and explain dimensions scientifically, I’m not sure if I would have understood it or wanted to pay attention, no matter how passionate the teacher was.

But books don’t just have to teach scientific concepts. In 5th grade we read The Westing Game, a Clue-like murder mystery. It was full of puzzles and red herrings, and trying to solve them was pretty much the most amazing thing ever. We were living the Da Vinci Code (well, it wasn’t written yet, but you know what I mean). Every time we’d read a new chapter as a class, we would collect all of our new clues, add them to a giant bulletin board, and try to figure it out. We weren’t just reading a story – we were actively participating, gathering evidence, working as detectives, forming hypotheses, and using logic to solve the problem. It was teaching us to think like scientists and have fun while doing so.

Sci-fi and murder mysteries are all well in good, but it was naturalistic books that really got me interested in biology. I was a shy, indoors sort of kid; I loved painting, drawing, reading, and playing videogames. My parents aren’t outdoors people, so we never went hiking or camping – the only time we spent with nature involved sitting on a golf cart.

So when I was assigned books like Where the Red Fern Grows and My Side of the Mountain, it was a type of escapism. The idea of interacting with animals and living off the land was as spectacular and amazing as zipping through dimensions and traveling through space. It wasn’t just novel – the books were great, and I started to eat that genre up. I looked for more books by Jean Craighead George, and found Julie of the Wolves. I absolutely loved it, and it was the first time I ever thought about animal behavior and ecosystems. I wanted to gobble up anything about wolves, so my dad bought me The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London.

But again, things don’t necessarily need to be realistic fiction. My sudden curiosity for animals was also filled by Animorphs – and aliens giving people abilities to turn into animals isn’t exactly scientific. But it made me think about what it would be like to be certain animals – how their behaviors differ, how they’re similar, how they’re like us. I even loved the evolution-like covers, long before I had ever learned what evolution was. Aliens giving people abilities to turn into animals isn’t exactly scientific, but it ultimately increased my interest in nature, and that’s what matters.

This isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia – trust me, it makes me feel suddenly old, not a feeling I enjoy. But reading matters when it comes to getting kids interested in science. The books don’t need to be non-fiction or have the goal of teaching science in mind – they just need to inspire. They need to plant that spark of interest that kids can choose to follow if they wish. This is especially important for kids like me who didn’t get any real life experience with nature – sometimes a book is all we have, and sometimes a book is all it takes.

Actually getting a child to read is a totally different problem, one I don’t have a good answer to. I was a little bookworm, so you never had to encourage me. But one thing to notice is that nearly all of these books were assigned to me in school. Left to my own devices, I would probably still be rereading Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein to this day, and never have picked up something new. Did I love every book I was assigned in elementary school? God no. I didn’t even get halfway through the Secret Garden (still got a B on the essay – developed my BSing skills early). Not everyone is going to love everything, but inspiring some children down the road to science is worth it.

More parts to How this kid became a scientist will be forthcoming soonish. Hey, scientists are busy people!

The joys of parents learning science

We’re always hearing stories about kids making skeptical insights or getting interested in science. They’re exciting because these kids are our future, and maybe we see a bit of our nerdy selves in them. I don’t have kids, but I still get excited about something similar – parents learning science.

My parents have always been very pro-science. They always encouraged me in my science classes and Science Olympiad, and were elated when I decided to major in genetics. However, they’re not particularly science oriented. My dad was a history and special ed teacher, and my mom was an art teacher. My dad is into politics and sports, and my mom is obsessed with decorating and traveling. They treat science how rational people should – scientists are experts in a certain area, and even though my parents don’t personally understand the topics, they put their faith in scientists. It’s no different than putting faith in a mechanic or a pilot – everyone has their specialty, and we can’t know everything. They don’t believe that evolution and global warming are just giant conspiracies precisely orchestrated by hundreds and hundreds of evil scientists. Just because they personally don’t have the background to interpret the data doesn’t render it false (if only creationists could understand this simple concept).

We’re all intelligent, but in different areas – and sometimes that causes problems. The more I study biology, the less in common we have to talk about when I come home. Usually conversations consist of my dad rambling about some history book he’s reading and me trying to keep my eyes from glazing over. But this time I had a plan. I brought home Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne (who also has an excellent blog). My dad will read science books if given them (he loved Guns, Germs, and Steel and Hot, Flat, and Crowded), and I figured this time I can kill two birds with one stone: Get my dad to learn more about my interests, and get him to ramble about something I’m actually interested in.

Success!

It’s only been a day and he’s halfway done. He says he loves it and that it does a great job of explaining concepts to a non-scientist. He’s keeping a little notepad nearby so he can write down especially awesome facts to share with me, or questions to ask me so I can clarify. There’s just something really cool about my dad running up and ranting, suddenly realizing the frustrating creationist logic I have to constantly deal with.

Dad: How do people deal with the fact that 99% of all species that have existed are extinct? Why would God design things to all die? That doesn’t seem very intelligent to me.
Me: God works in mysterious ways *wink*

Dad: We have fossils! What more proof do they need?
Me: Satan buried them there to test your faith. That or the scientists made it all up.

Dad: Now he’s talking about examples of unintelligent design. Did you know women have painful childbirth because we evolved from four legged ancestors?
Me: I thought it was because God was punishing Eve.

Playing the devil’s advocate is fun. My dad knows I’m an atheist, and he’s not religious at all either, so it’s all for laughs. But it’s great seeing him react to all the religious “arguments” that I have heard people seriously make. Not only that, but it mirrors how my dad instilled good skeptical thinking in me. I’d often ask questions (How did they get the squirrels to talk in that commercial? It has to be a computer) and he would reply with a ridiculous answer (Squirrels just talk when you’re not looking). I would then go about explaining why that was silly, and logical thinking was developed!

I look forward to his future comments and questions as he finishes the book. Then my mom is going to take a crack at it! Soon the whole family will be well-read evolutionists, mwahaha!