Tired of Planet Earth? Now You Can Become a Citizen of the First Ever ‘Space Nation,’ Asgardia

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James T. Kirk was right: space really is the final frontier. We may have conquered the highest peaks and furthest reaches of our world, but it’s fair to say that the universe beyond Earth’s atmosphere has remained firmly outside our reach, a territory to which no man has ever been able to make a claim… until now.

At a Parisian press conference on October 12, 2016, Igor Ashurbeyli (Chairman of UNESCO’s Science of Space Committee and founder of the Aerospace International Research Centre in Vienna) announced that mankind is now set to establish a sovereign nation amongst the stars. The first ever ‘space nation’ – dubbed ‘Asgardia’ by the project leaders in reference to 1 of the 9 Worlds of Ancient Gods found in Norse mythology – will use an orbiting space station as a base through which to promote peaceful space exploration and prevent the conflicts on Earth making their way into the cosmos.

The project’s 3 primary goals are defined as follows:

  1. To ensure the peaceful use of space
  2. To protect the Earth from space threats
  3. To create a de-militarised and free scientific base of knowledge in space

With this emphasis upon peace, access and protection for all in mind, Asgardia’s founders have opened citizenship up to the entire globe (including under 18s), with the only requirement for entry being the possession of an email address which is needed to complete the sign-up process on their website. However, the website also claims that the first 100,000 people to claim citizenship will be given “special preference” over the rest; to put this in context, almost 500,000 people have already claimed citizenship in the few days that the site has been up and running. Although this makes the whole thing sound a bit gimmicky, the intentions for this project are far from that: indeed, Ashurbeyli claims that his team is determined to build nothing less than a “fully-fledged and independent nation” with the same status as UN-recognised states, complete with its own government, embassies, national anthem and flag.

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You may be wondering how exactly the nation of Asgardia will be able to manifest itself given that its citizens will all be remaining firmly on the ground (well, for the time being at least). Well, it appears that the wheels are already turning in this respect. According to the website, the initial stages of Asgardia’s nationhood will be put into action as early as October 2017 – fittingly enough, on the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik – when they aim to launch the Asgardian nation’s first satellite into orbit. The project leaders also have future plans for the design and implementation of a “protective shield” around the Earth to protect us from asteroids, solar winds and space debris (although the specifics of this are left entirely unexplained) and build a fully-functional space station that will facilitate the conduction of “independent, private and unrestricted research” in orbit.

Is this just the stuff of sci-fi dreams? The bombastic claims being made by Ashurbeyli and his team seem at best rather premature, especially given that the competitions to design the nation’s flag and insignia and compose its national anthem are still pending. The idea that Asgardia can offer an “independent platform free from the constraint of a land-based country’s laws” has a certain appeal, but it is not clear how exactly this would be achieved given that claims of sovereignty in space are prohibited by international law. As director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law, Professor Sa’id Mosteshar, stated in an interview with the BBC: “the Outer Space Treaty… accepted by everybody says very clearly that no part of outer space can be appropriated by any state.” Although its arguable that the current UN laws and treaties that govern operations in space are in need of revisions to ensure they can account for technological advances in the near future, this does not justify an outright dismissal of the existing framework – especially when a cohesive vision of the new legal system has not been outlined at all. Little is known about the individuals who have already been assigned a position in government (a fact that is worrying in itself), and so it is difficult to gauge their intentions for this brave new world.

The claim that all research will be “independent, unrestricted and private” is also potentially cause for concern, as if Asgardian sovereignty was recognised and Earth law therefore rendered inapplicable, this would create an ethical loophole of sorts that scientists could use to conduct experiments which would never be permitted on Earth. As part of the website’s description of the concept of Asgardia, explicit complaints are made about the fact that “economic and political considerations often take precedence over purely scientific ones” and “ethical boundaries are considered necessary to sustain safety.” Are Ashurbeyli and his team suggesting, then, that these ethical boundaries and economic/political considerations should be removed entirely? Will any Asgardian be free to conduct whatever research they want, so long as they can fund it? History has taught us again and again that the pursuit of pure knowledge can have dangerous and unforeseen consequences. Could history repeat itself in space?

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It the founders of Asgardia have pure intentions, this could be the start of something wonderful that could benefit the whole of mankind… but it’s also possible that it could become a platform for the rich to get richer (farming asteroids for precious metals, perhaps, or developing military-grade technologies?) while the rest of us wait in line for our passports. We will all just have to wait and see…

If you’d like to become a citizen of Asgardia, click here to complete the sign-up process.

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(Images: Asgardia)

5 Reasons to Support Your Local Independent Bookstore

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It’s no secret that in the age of super-fast broadband when every store is online and you can find what you need at the click of a button, online superstores like Amazon are increasingly monopolising the booksellers’ market to the detriment of SME providers. Fewer and fewer of us are actually stepping outside and into our local bookstore to find something new to read, and if we’re not careful, there might not be a lot of places left to do so if the economy continues its downward trend.

In Nottingham (UK) where I live, we are lucky enough to have some really great bookstores, including our very own indie outlet Five Leaves, which follows in the footsteps of Nottingham’s radical bookshop tradition – the very first being opened in 1826 by Susannah Wright – by offering local readers alternative, political, weird, wonderful and often controversial texts they won’t find in mainstream outlets.

 

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Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham City Centre

 

 

As a recipient of the Five Leaves Prize for creative writing in my Uni days, I admit I may be somewhat biased on the subject, but I fiercely believe that we need our local independent bookstores just as much as they need us: it’s important that we offer them both our patronage and our coverage to make sure that these treasure troves of creativity, diversity and inclusivity survive.

That’s why I’ve put together a list of five reasons you should be doing all you can (if you’re not already!) to support your local bookstore.

 

 1. Supporting Local, Diverse and/or Upcoming Writers

Most of the big names in publishing prioritise selling potential and profits above all else, which is understandable, but it also means they’re less likely to take a chance with a new author or text if they’re not ‘mainstream’ enough to guarantee big sales for the company. That can only be bad for readers and writers everywhere. Literature needs diversity, but the only way to ensure that it can thrive is to give all sorts of people a voice.

That’s where independent publishers and bookstores come in. Not only do they publish and sell great texts that would be turned down by big publishers that are used to playing it safe, they are also far more likely to champion home-grown writers and help them build their fanbase at a grassroots level.

I happen to live in a city that has long since proven its literary pedigree – Nottingham has strong links to prestigious authors such as D.H. Lawrence, Lord Byron, and Allan Sillitoe, amongst others – but the truth is that every region has something unique to offer its readers, and it’s well worth visiting your local indie bookstore to find out what writers from your locality and/or culture have to say about life, love and everything in between.

 

 2. They Might Be Stocking Your Book Someday

There are many people out there who, like me, would love to be published but know the chances of getting in with a well-known publisher like Random House or Faber & Faber are pretty darn low, no matter how good the writing.

The other side of supporting new and upcoming writers is that one day you might be the one selling the books instead of buying them, in which case you will find that small independent bookshops are quite literally a godsend (or some other sort of lifeline not granted by a religious deity, depending on your preferences).

They’re far more likely to agree to stock smaller numbers of your book and give you a chance to prove yourself, whereas the big names will have millions of writers jostling for space (most of them with agents to fight their corner) and don’t have any real incentive to give you a shot. Fact is, without independent bookstores, there are far fewer chances for writers to get the leg-up they need to make it big. If you foster hopes of seeing your name in print one day, supporting indie outlets is a wise move.

 

3. Finding Gems the Big Publishers May Have Missed

This might sound counter-intuitive, but you’re actually far more likely to discover your new favourite book or writer by shopping independently than you are relying on Amazon’s automated recommendations and lists of top sellers in each genre.

Why? It’s simple – small, curated bookstores are usually staffed by well-read and enthusiastic booksellers who are far more likely to want to engage with you and help you find something perfectly suited to your taste.

Yes, the big bookshops usually have titled and organised sections, but their employees cannot be expected to have knowledge of every book stocked, nor are they necessarily going to have the time or energy to offer you their expertise. Recommendation cards can only go so far, and are only usually provided for big sellers, which means you could easily walk past the perfect book without ever knowing it was there. Plus, let’s face it, talking about books with someone who can ask questions, knows the stock well and will easily be able to tailor choices to your personal preferences is a lot more rewarding and likely to succeed than defaulting to “customers who bought items in your recent history also bought… [x, y and z].”

The likelihood that you’ll find the right book without hassle increases exponentially if you visit an independent bookstore that specialises in your areas of interest and employs people who have actually read and care about the subject matter. Five Leaves, for example, have particular interests in lesbian/gay counterculture, alternative politics and regional fiction/poetry (amongst other areas), which is why their staff are well-versed in these topics and can offer friendly advice on what to read next based on likes and dislikes, favourite authors, and niche subjects.

In fact, their store has become a local hub for writers, artists, left-wingers and misfits to come together, share experiences and recommendations, and generally have a good ol’ literary-themed chinwag… which brings me to my next point rather nicely.

4. Meeting Interesting and Likeminded People

I once heard a joke that went something along the lines of “I’d be far more likely to consider a date with someone who bought me a book in a bookshop than someone who bought me a drink in a bar.” I’m missing the punchline, but you get the general idea: book choices tell you an awful lot more about a person than their ability to guess what kind of drink you like, and establishing shared interests makes for good, long-lasting relationships.

Not that you have to be on the look-out for love to benefit from the social aspect of a bookstore. Bookshops, particularly small and/or quirky independent ones, are a great place to start a conversation with someone new, because there’s a pretty good chance that the person standing next to you either shares some of your likes/dislikes or can offer you an interesting new opinion on a topic you can both approach with genuine interest.

Indie bookshops tend to attract certain subcultural groups, thus bringing together people with shared experiences and interests that extend beyond a love of all things paperback. This excerpt from the Five Leaves website is an excellent example of what I mean:

“If there was any doubt that Five Leaves is a radical bookshop it was dispelled the day after the General Election when a stream of Labour voters, Greens and assorted lefties drifted into the shop seeking comfort after the storm. We found ourselves providing an open therapy group for the forlorn (as we were ourselves). We printed up some badges – ‘Don’t Blame Me, I Voted Labour/Green/I’m an Anarchist’, as well as a set carrying the Joe Hill slogan, ‘Don’t Mourn, Organise’…

All in all, it’s fair to say that your new best friend/boyfriend/girlfriend/ranting partner/book club invitee could be browsing the next shelf over from you!

 

5. Promoting the Local and National Economy

Most people are aware by now (as it’s been all over the news in recent years) that many of the big name booksellers like Amazon actually pay either little to no tax at all, despite making billions in profits from their annual sales. This hurts the local and national economy in two main ways.

Firstly, tax avoidance tactics allow Amazon and their ilk to offer books at prices which smaller retailers can’t match, meaning many smaller outlets are either having to sell exclusively online to reduce overhead costs and/or shut down completely because they cannot maintain sufficient profits. Sure, you might have an extra £3 in your pocket, but at what cost?

The small, independent booksellers are paying taxes which the government uses to pay for education, infrastructure, healthcare services, and all the other things we pretty much rely on to live our lives. So spend £10 on a new book in an indie bookstore, and you know a significant proportion of that money is going to be fed back into keeping the country running. As such, you can bask in the warm glow of knowing you’ve made the ethical choice.

Secondly, having a quirky little bookstore in your local area has benefits for the entire community. They almost always hire local people, which means an increase in jobs (always a good thing). ‘Destination’ shops like this are proven to help maintain local property prices by giving the impression it’s a rather nice place to live (and why wouldn’t it be, with books on the doorstep?). They hold regular events such as poetry readings, book clubs, discussion groups, and even the occasional afternoon tea to promote local writers and engage more fully with the people who buy, read and have things to say about the books being sold. All this means they are far better placed to cater to local interests and cultures than your big-brand bookstore.

Plus, as places to read are becoming fewer and farther between as libraries are forced to close, not everyone wants to spend £4 on a sticky-swishy-latte-chino in Starbucks and waste time finding a good seat only to have some idiot with a mobile phone stuck to his face sit down somewhere close by and ruin the ambience. Many indie bookstores actively encourage in-store reading and will even provide comfy seating fit for purpose.

In short: indie bookshops can actually make your city, and your country, a better place to be.

(Image: Five Leaves Books)

Arundhati Roy’s Back with a New Novel, 20 Years After The God of Small Things

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The literary world rejoiced this week as Arundhati Roy, winner of the 1997 Booker Prize for her debut novel The God of Small Things, announced she will publish a new piece of fiction in 2017 entitled The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Speaking in a Hamish Hamilton UK and Penguin India press release, Arundhati expressed her joy that “the mad souls (even the wicked ones) in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness have found a way into the world, and that I have found my publishers.”

Although little is known about the novel as of yet, its editors Simon Prosser (Hamish Hamilton) and Meru Gokhale (Penguin India) have been generous with their praise, calling their association with the book “both a pleasure and an honour” and stating the text is “one of the finest we have read in recent times.” David Godwin, the agent managing the acquisition of rights to the book, added that “only Arundhati could have written this novel. Utterly original. It has been 20 years in the making, and [is] well worth the wait.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Arundhati Roy’s work, then The God of Small Things is well worth a read. It tells the story of Rahel and Esthappen, fraternal twins full of secrets whose varying experiences of the laws of Love – that is, “who should be loved, and how… and how much” – have left them damaged and traumatised, with one sibling living in silence and the other being left in a state of insatiable emptiness. The end result is somewhat difficult to describe: the novel functions as both political fable and psychological family drama, yet its overall effect is more akin to that of a fairytale, or perhaps a half-forgotten dream.

Time is splintered and disordered meaning Roy’s text constantly meanders, but these tangents and side-steps can be easily forgiven as readers are kept well-entertained along the way. Revelations are staggered between sentences that are repeated like mantras, giving the narrative a sure and steady rhythm not unlike poetry, and although there are times at which the author’s rich and evocative language can become somewhat overwhelming, one cannot help but become completely immersed in the sights, sounds, smells and sensations that Roy so adeptly describes.

If this doesn’t really sound like your cup of tea, it’s worth noting that Roy is also a prolific political and cultural writer – her non-fiction works, tackling everything from Gandhi’s racism and freedom of the press to femininity and India’s nuclear program, are available in most good bookstores.

(Image: Penguin Random House UK)

13 Creepy Reads for Halloween

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With only three weeks to go before spooky celebrations get underway, I’ve got Halloween on the brain. I love the idea of Halloween, because I love scary stories… and let’s face it, All Hallows Eve is the perfect backdrop for them. Think about it: the wind’s howling like it’s being beaten, there are autumn leaves strewn everywhere, the streets are lost to shadows, and there’s that ever-present chance that just around the corner, something awful is going reach out and touch you…

Yes, okay, that ‘something awful’ is most likely to be a small child in an elaborate costume who wants sweets, but that’s not the point. Halloween, for me, is all about embracing the deliciousness of fear – it’s a night when anything can happen, and you think twice about ignoring that strange bump in the night.

In honour of the occasion, I’ve put together a list of thirteen scary stories that are well worth a read this Halloween. If, like me, you love a fright, why not give one of these a try and spook yourself silly?

#1 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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If you’re looking for a story to give you the chills, then look no further… Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic for a reason. Inspired by a challenge to write a short ghost story by the great Lord Byron, Shelley claims to have subsequently dreamt of a scientist who galvanises life from the bones he has collected in charnel houses. Enter Viktor Frankenstein.

Shelley’s story follows the long and tragic chain of events that are set into motion by the ‘birth’ of the scientist’s monster, after which Frankenstein must watch his creation destroy everything he loves, bringing him to the brink of madness. This is a tale of friendship, hubris and horror – an oldie, but most definitely a ‘goodie.’ Shelley is credited by many as the producer of one of the first great works of science fiction and, after reading her debut, I am sure you will be inclined to agree.

#2 The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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Ah, another classic. Jackson’s archetypal story of the creepy, old haunted house on the hill might sound cliché, but you should let her off given that this story is the original that inspired oh so many copies and adaptations! Jackson is a master of tension and suspense, and certainly knows how to tell a good ghost story – there are quite a few moments reading this book where every hair on the back of my neck stood on end.

The novel follows four characters in search of a paranormal experience wherein, at first, all seems to be well. However, soon enough, strange things start to happen. Due to the unreliability of the characters and the unwavering presence of the place, Hill House (the setting for the novel) becomes practically a character in itself, and it is perhaps here that Jackson really works her magic – whilst you’re reading it, the quirks of your own surroundings suddenly become a lot harder to ignore… is that really rain on the window, or the gentle tapping of fingernails? Is the house creaking because its old, or is there really someone up there? Anyone who can get me thinking like that is a genius in my book… I don’t scare easily.

#3 The Collector by John Fowles

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Fowles weaves a sinister tale of obsession and abduction, told from the perspective of loner and butterfly collector, Frederick Clegg. Clegg develops an obsession with a beautiful Art student called Miranda and, not wanting to be lonely anymore, one day decides to “collect” her. You probably think you can guess the rest, more or less, but Fowles still has a few plot twists up his sleeve…

What is so impressive about this book is the way in which Fowles portrays his central character – even Miranda, as his captive, views him with both scorn and pity, although she is unable to love him in any kind of real way. Miranda, too, is far from perfect – Fowles himself declares that she is an “arrogant… liberal-humanist slob”. Subsequently, what follows is a story wherein the lines between victim and attacker become blurred, and where nothing is quite what it seems. If you’re in the mood for a horror story that is simultaneously tense, frightening and sad, then this book is well worth a read.

#4 The Thing on the Doorstep, and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft

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‘The Thing on the Doorstep’ is Lovecraft at his finest, and it’s a great place to start if you’re unfamiliar with his work. The protagonist, Daniel Upton, narrates the woeful tale of how he came to murder his best friend… or did he? Lovecraft has been credited as the godfather of horror, and modern writers like King and Barker offer Lovecraft’s work much acclaim, even going so far as to say that horror as we know it would never have existed without him.

After reading a few of Lovecraft’s stories, I would challenge anyone not to look twice at that funny-looking shadow in the periphery of your vision…. then again, I’m one of those people that would never run upstairs if a killer was after me. That is partly because I live on the ground floor, but mostly because I learn from these stories. So, just remember this Halloween: if it walks like your friend and talks like your friend, it’s probably a demon occupying your friend’s skin and you should get out of there, quick, before you suffer the same fate!! *ahem* Better safe than sorry.

#5 The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

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Forget ghosts; forget werewolves; forget vampires – Shakespeare figured out early on that the demons are all here, because the real demons are us. That’s a lesson not lost on Banks. Frank, his central character, is isolated from the world, fearing how it sent his brother mad, and resenting them because he is impotent (after what he believes was a childhood castration in a vicious dog attack).

Frank occupies his time undertaking a series of sadistic rituals, one of which involves the ‘Wasp Factory’ referred to in the title, which is a huge clock face encased in a glass box. Behind each of the twelve numerals is a trap which leads to a different ritual death (such burning, crushing, or drowning in Frank’s urine). Frank believes the death ‘chosen’ by the wasp predicts something about the future.

The horror is his novel is not created by something that goes bump in the night – that, perhaps, is what is most unsettling about it. If you’re unfamiliar with Banks’ work, I would thoroughly recommend this book. If, however, you prefer science fiction, he also writes in this genre under the name Iain M. Banks, and his stories are just as unsettling.

#6 Dracula by Bram Stoker

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Well, you can’t really have a Halloween reading list without Dracula on it, can you? Don’t let a few dodgy films and Stephanie Meyer novels put you off the vampire genre – vampirism taps into an almost instinctual fear we possess (the fear of being neither living nor dead – something unnatural and limitless, like a God), and no work of fiction has explored that better than Stoker’s work.

Is it dated? Yes, of course it is, it was written in 1897! Does that matter? I really don’t think so. The approach taken to the storytelling – a combination of diary entries, prose, and newspaper cuttings – remains to this day novel and intriguing. Although the format has been copied several times (King, for instance, attempted something similar in ‘Salem’s Lot and openly acknowledges Dracula as his inspiration), no one does it better than Stoker. This novel has plenty to offer, and it’s a perfect choice for a good read this Halloween. What more do I need to say?

#7 The Shining by Stephen King

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No list of horror stories is complete without at least one offering from the reigning king of horror, Stephen King. Forget the Kubrick film adaptation: this is the real thing. There’s no “here’s Johnny!”, or “all work and no play…”, no silly garden maze or childish voices groaning “REDRUUUUUUUM!”. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kubrick; but the frights he offers are nothing compared to the chills Stephen King can give you.

The Shining follows the story of Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a position as an off-season caretaker in the Overlook Hotel. Then, after a winter storm leaves he and his family snowbound, the supernatural forces inhabiting the hotel gain enough power to be able to influence Jack’s sanity, leaving his wife and son in incredible danger. This is a story of a battle with the supernatural.

In this novel, King shows how easily the mind can play tricks on us, how we cannot trust even those closest to us when darkness falls, and how vulnerable we all are to sinister forces that lurk in bad places… and make no mistake, the Overlook is a bad place. Perhaps most importantly, though, The Shining shows us why we should never, ever trust topiary animals. Seriously. Don’t believe me? Read the book.

#8 Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

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I warn you, this one is not for the squeamish. Trumbo’s acclaimed anti-war novel explores the horrific fate of Joe Bonham, a young soldier who, after serving in World War I, awakens in a hospital to learn he has lost his arms, legs, and all of his face (including his eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue). However, his mind functions perfectly, effectively rendering him a prisoner in his own body.

This is, effectively, my worst nightmare: he human body becomes a cage for someone’s consciousness, and there is no way out.  In excruciating detail, the novel explains Joe’s failures to commit suicide and to raise awareness of the horrors of war. It remains highly read despite being published as early as 1939 and, once read, is impossible to forget. The book became a rally point for the political left that had opposed involvement in World War II during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and serves to this day a powerful reminder of the human casualties of war. If you’ve got the stomach for it, it is well worth a read.

#9 House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

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Step up, step up, all those who like a challenge: of all the novels highlighted in this series of recommendations, easily the most sophisticated offering is Danielewski’s debut novel, House of Leaves. In terms of format and structure, the book is intriguingly unconventional, containing copious footnotes (many of which contain footnotes themselves) including references to fictional books, films and/or articles. Some pages contain only a few words or lines of text, arranged in strange ways to mirror the events in the story, often creating both an agoraphobic and a claustrophobic effect. The novel is also distinctive for its multiple narrators, who interact with each other throughout the story in elaborate and disorienting ways. It is, truly, a work of art as much as it is a work of fiction.

Here’s the thing about House of Leaves: you could simply enjoy it as a horrifying story that could possibly be true, or as a love story on a number of different levels, or as a whole bunch of puzzles and codes and ciphers, or as a satirical critique of academic criticism, or as a unique reading experience that will make you fall back in love with actual paper books… all of these readings stand alone in their validity. However you choose to enjoy it, though, you’ve got to commit to it if you really want to unlock its magic. You have to let the book take hold of you; believe in the world it creates… and when you’re done, you have to know that Danielewski’s novel will probably embed itself deep inside your mind, in some dark, neglected corner, and will stay with you… and if that’s not the recipe for a cracking Halloween novel, I really don’t know what is!

#10 ‘The Midnight Meat Train’, from Books of Blood by Clive Barker

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Of all the stories in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ is by far the goriest and most sinister. The protagonist is a down-and-out man, Leon Kaufman, who falls asleep on a New York City Subway train, later waking at a secret station beyond the end of the line. Worse, the train carriages contain the carcasses of murdered people, who have been hung up on hooks to drain the way cattle are hung in a slaughterhouse. Who is this mysterious butcher, and who does he work for? The answer is enough to make even the strongest of stomachs turn…

All of Clive Barker’s stories are decidedly dark, and so if you like a good horror story but haven’t encountered his work before, I’d recommend investing in all six volumes of the Books of Blood: they are packed full of gruesome tales of hauntings, demons, the undead, and the worst kind of the living. He has a way to getting under your skin; making you look right into the eye of the beast. As with many of these recommendations, though, these stories are not for the faint-hearted!

#11 Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

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Heart-Shaped Box tells the story of aging rock star, Judas Coyne, who spends his retirement collecting morbid memorabilia such as a witch’s confession, a real snuff film and, after being sent an e-mail directly about the item online, a dead man’s suit. He is told by the seller that the old man’s spirit is attached to this funeral suit, and that the ghost will go wherever it does. Thus, buying this suit would effectively be buying a poltergeist – and this is an opportunity Judas simply cannot pass up. Cue scary music.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a straight-up ghost story, though: the narrative offers by Hill here is full of darkness, anger and the desire for revenge. It is subsequently a story about consequences, rather than simply of supernatural spirits. If you’re a Stephen King fan, then I’d heartily recommend that you see what his son has to offer. There might be a new King of horror in the family…

#12 The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

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Beukes’ novel, set in Depression-era Chicago, follows the story of a drifter named Harper Curtis, who finds a key to a house that grants him access to other points in time. Cool, right? Wrong. Accessing the house comes at great cost: Harper is now tasked with killing all of the ‘Shining Girls’: bright young women throughout history who are burning with potential. Harper thus becomes a time-travelling stalker, following women in different eras and taking their lives.

The turning point comes when, in 1989, one of his victims – Kirby Mazrachi – survives. Being a fiercely bright young woman, Kirby decides to track down her attempted killer, and thus starts to hunt him back. What follows is a fascinating game of cat and mouse, in which the hunter becomes the hunted and the victim becomes the one with all the power. Beukes shows us all why you should never mess with a girl with potential – it’s too hard to get the best of her. There’s a moral we can all get behind!

#13 Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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Don’t let the film adaptation of this novel put you off: Lindqvist’s novel is deliciously creepy and sinister, and deals with such hard-hitting issues such as existential anxiety, fatherlessness, alcoholism, school bullying, paedophilia, child transgenderism, and murder. The story centres on the relationship between a 12-year-old boy called Oskar and his friend, a centuries-old vampire child called Eli who was turned as a child and is therefore stuck forever in a young body and mind. Oskar and Eli develop a close relationship, and Eli helps Oskar fight back against his tormentors. However, if you think this is a simple undead friendship story, think again….

Throughout the book their relationship gradually becomes closer, and they reveal more of themselves and in particular fragments of Eli’s human life, where we learn that the most dangerous desires cannot even be eradicated by death. This is deeply unsettling stuff, but makes for compelling reading. If you love a good Swedish horror story, why not give Lindqvist’s novel a try this Halloween?

(Images: Amazon UK)

HP Fan Theories: Is Dumbledore Really Death?

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Let me be clear from the outset: I have thoroughly and gleefully surrendered myself to the Harry Potter fandom. I can, for example, pronounce myself a proud Ravenclaw and brag about the rarity of my 10 ¾ inch Vine and Phoenix Feather wand to a room of fully-grown adults without shame, and I actually squealed and clapped my hands like a 5-year-old when stepping aboard the Hogwarts Express at Warner Bros. Studios in London for the first time. I have never been able to resist the urge to try and pick J.K. Rowling’s story apart and take a good look at the threads that hold her narratives together.

If you’re anything like me, you will no doubt be familiar with many of the fan theories that have emerged online since the first instalment’s publication in June 1997 – proclamations that Draco’s a werewolf, Sirius is gay, and Ginny only managed to bag herself the Boy Who Lived through trickery and love potions (to name but a few) have been coming thick and fast, particularly after the seventh book was published in 2007 and those of us who were completely addicted to the HP Universe had to try and fill the void created by the end of the series (although Rowling has helped significantly in this respect, creating new content for Pottermore and bringing out textual accompaniments to the main narrative such as Hogwarts: A Incomplete and Unreliable Guide, Quidditch Through the Ages, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard).

Some of these fan theories are more credible than others, but one of the most impressive IMO has to be the assertion that Beedle the Bard’s ‘The Tale of the Three Brothers’ actually mirrors the narrative arc of Rowling’s story, and that the characters of Harry Potter, Severus Snape, and Lord Voldemort each share characteristics with three brothers of the story, who are in turn based on Antioch, Cadmus, and Ignotus Peverell – the creators of the Deathly Hallows… and Dumbledore? Oh, yeah, he’s Death.

J.K. Rowling has actually given this fan theory her personal seal of approval on Twitter, commenting that ‘it’s a beautiful theory and it fits.’ As if you need any more convincing!

So, how does this theory fit together, you ask? Read on to find out!

 The First Brother: Voldemort

The first and eldest brother – Antioch Peverell – is widely believed to have created the Elder Wand, an immensely powerful wand with a bloody history, although in Beedle’s story this is gifted to him by Death himself (more on that later). Antioch is described as “a combative man” who wishes to be “more powerful than any[one] in existence.” Remind you of anyone? Yup, that’s right, Lord Voldemort fits this description more closely than any other character is Rowling’s novels.

Lord Voldemort’s obsession with becoming powerful is the very reason that he creates Horcruxes, generally terrorises the wizarding world, and seeks to kill Harry before he can become a sufficient threat. Lord Voldemort prioritises personal gain and glory above all else – for instance, killing Hepzibah Smith to gain possession of her treasures despite this drawing unwanted attention to him, turning his resurrection into a bizarre ritual where he is glorified by his Death Eaters (robe-kissing much?), and creating a Horcrux with the specific purpose of proving he is the rightful successor to Salazaar Slytherin. More importantly, he is constantly expressing his determination to prove his worth in combat. I mean, why else would he re-arm Harry in the graveyard in Goblet of Fire, or forbid anyone else to kill him during the Battle of Hogwarts, if not to show that he could finish him off without help?

He receives his most deadly weapon, as the first brother does in Beedle’s tale, from Death (who is the wise, clever and ancient stranger who the brothers believe they have tricked, aka Dumbledore). Voldemort literally takes the Elder Wand from Dumbledore’s dead hands after he breaks into his tomb, cementing the metaphor of Dumbledore as Death, and far from being able to use it to take out his deadly enemy and become invincible – the same aim expressed by the first brother in the story – he actually ends up being killed and passing the Elder Wand onto his rival. Bummer. Should have paid more attention to the children’s section in the Hogwarts library, Voldy. #sorrynotsorry

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The Second Brother: Snape

The second brother, thought to be based on Cadmus Peverell, is thought to be the original possessor of the Resurrection Stone, although as we know, it passes through the hands of many characters including Marvolo and Morfin Gaunt, Voldemort, Dumbledore and, of course, Harry. One character who does not actually lay hands on the precious little stone, but whose desires and misfortunes closely mirror those of the second brother, is poor old Severus Snape. Snape is a complex character who is the literary equivalent of Marmite – you either think he’s a sadistic loner whose infatuation with a dead teenager and dalliance as a spy doesn’t justify years of child abuse and general nastiness, or you sobbed uncontrollably at the end of Snape’s last chapter and can’t hear the word ‘always’ without becoming a gibbering wreck – and so many might quibble my choice of Snape as the second brother.

I mean, sure, he’s not the only one to desperately miss the dead, but unlike other characters such as Sirius and Harry, Snape is well and truly stuck in the past. Just like the second brother, he is consumed by his grief and longing for the ‘girl he had hoped to marry before her untimely death.’ His entire existence since Lily’s death has been dedicated to bringing about the downfall of the wizard who killed her. Although he has already failed to save her, he carries on with his dangerous task because he is reminded by Dumbledore that Lily ‘lives on in Harry.’ Ergo, by protecting Harry, he is desperately trying to bring Lily back to life. Dumbledore’s role as Death is significant here again as it is he who orders Snape to become a spy, using his love and grief for Lily as leverage, thus placing him at Voldemort’s mercy (or lack thereof). He is also the one who puts him directly in the line of fire – after all, Voldemort never would have killed him, if not for the fact Snape killed Dumbledore.

Of course, we all know that Snape despises Harry, which makes this life decision all the more interesting – unlike Hagrid, Sirius, Lupin and Slughorn, whose interactions with Harry help them move past the pain of losing James and Lily and become a source of positivity and hope, Harry’s hybrid appearance is a constant reminder to Snape that Lily loved his enemy and therefore cannot bring about any positive feelings. Much like the second brother gains no satisfaction from resurrecting the object of his affections, Snape is driven mad by hopeless longing (as we see in his replication of her Patronus, a symbol of his infatuation) and eventually dies as a result. True, Snape’s death is not a suicide per se, but I would argue that agreeing to go undercover as a Death Eater is a suicide mission and by undertaking it, Snape reveals his self-destructive (if rather noble) tendencies.

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The Third Brother: Harry 

The third brother corresponds, of course, to Harry. This is the simplest connection, given that Harry’s confirmed to be a descendant of Ignotus Peverell and subsequent inherits the Invisibility Cloak in The Philosopher’s Stone (passed onto him by Dumbledore, as Death does in Beedle’s story), but it goes deeper than that. Firstly, the third brother is described as ‘the most humble and wise’ of the three brothers – the admirable nature of Harry’s character is referred to repeatedly throughout the books, from his ability to look past immortality and riches in the Mirror of Erised in The Philosopher’s Stone to his gaining the trust of unlikely allies such as Griphook and the Grey Lady in The Deathly Hallows due to his humility and lack of personal agenda. In the final book, Dumbledore claims he is the only one in the book ‘worthy’ of uniting the Deathly Hallows, and this again reinforces the idea that Harry is wiser, humbler and generally better than everyone else.  

Perhaps most interesting, though, is that Harry does indeed remove his Invisibility Cloak in order to meet his death at a time of his choosing, and who is he presented with in the strange, King’s Cross limbo Rowling imagines? Why, it’s your friendly neighbourhood Death, Dumbledore himself. They meet ‘as old friends’ and as ‘equals’, just like in the story, and although Harry does return from his make-believe reunion, he has nevertheless shown that he does not fear Death and will meet him willingly when the time comes.

Another point to consider is that the Cloak’s greatest strength is that it can shield others, and by meeting his death, this is exactly what Harry manages to do – shield everyone from Voldemort, so that his magic cannot keep him silent, or bound, or really do anything evil to them for more than a few seconds.

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All in all, I think it is fair to say that this HP fan theory is pretty convincing… but what do you think? Let me know in the comments!

(Images: Warner Bros Studios)

Modern Heroes: Why Confirmation of Wonder Woman’s Bisexuality is a Win for the LGBTQ+ Community 

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Greg Rucka caused a stir in the comic book community this week after revealing that Diana of Themyscira, aka everyone’s favourite corset-wearing, truth-lassoing superhero Wonder Woman, is in fact queer.

Speaking to Comicosity’s Matt Santori-Griffith, Rucka confirmed that as part of the Year One narrative arc currently unfolding in Wonder Woman: Rebirth, Diana will be shown to be romantically and/or sexually attracted to members of the same gender as well as those of the opposite sex. Speaking plainly on the subject for the first time, Rucka says, “Are we saying Diana has been in love and had relationships with other women? As Nicola [Scott] and I approach it, the answer is obviously yes.”

Rucka’s affirmation of the status of Diana’s sexuality simply confirms what many of those already familiar with canon have long since reasoned: that the Amazonian society in which Diana grows up is exclusively composed of women, and so it naturally follows that the vast majority of the romantic and/or sexual feelings Diana and her fellow Amazonian women experience will be about other women. “When you start to think about giving the concept of Themyscira its due,” Rucka states, “the answer is, ‘how can they not all be in same sex relationships?’ Right? It makes no logical sense otherwise.”

As Rucka notes in his interview, the concepts of gender and gender-specific behaviour are “very different” in Themyscira, a society exclusively composed of one gender in which hunting, fighting and strategy are taught from a young age and women are raised to be warriors and philosophers (all of which your garden-variety misogynist would argue are ‘male’ pursuits).

However, rather than falling into the trap of inverted heteronormativity – making gay the new straight, and female the new male – Rucka and Scott have thus far managed not to turn Wonder Woman’s sexual identity into her defining narrative quality; instead, her queerness is not treated as any bigger a deal than a heteronormative character’s inclinations would be. In fact, it’s arguably even less of a deal, as homosexuality and polygamy are so normalised that the Amazonians don’t even have words to describe them! As Rucka puts it, “an Amazon doesn’t look at another Amazon and say, ‘You’re gay.’ They don’t. The concept doesn’t exist.”

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So why is it so important to point out something which was already pretty obvious, and which has little impact on the story itself? Firstly, in the canonical sea of superheroes and villains, it is far more difficult than it should be to pick out characters which represent marginalised groups within our society. Sure, there are a fair number of female superheroes/villains, but very few occupy the spotlight and so are often reduced to attractive sidekicks, dangerous but well-dressed distractions, or straight-up booty calls for the white cis males of DC and Marvel. When was the last time we had a disabled superhero, or a Muslim one, or someone identifying as transgender take the lead?

It’s been 10 years since Batwoman’s alter-ego, Kate Kane, came out of the bat-closet, and apart from Sara Lance (Arrow/Legends of Tomorrow), there aren’t really any other LGBTQ+ superheroes out there at the moment. Even where fan followings plead for greater diversity, these calls are often ignored – the recent debacle with Captain America becoming a Nazi rather than admitting to his Bucky crush left shippers wondering just how far writers are willing to go to avoid the obvious.

That’s why Rucka and Scott’s reimagining of Diana’s origin story is a breath of fresh air. Not only does it clear up the ambiguity surrounding Wonder Woman’s sexuality once and for all, it also takes steps towards normalising her same-sex relationships and manages to complicate a few gender binaries, something which the LGBTQ+ community sorely needs right now.

Furthermore, by creating a dynamic in which Diana is not motivated by heterosexual desire, her decision to leave with Steve Trevor cannot be reduced to a longing to initiate a romantic relationship with him. As Rucka rightly says in his interview, this would only “hurt the character and take away her heroism.” Her romantic relationship with Steve is thus portrayed as merely a consequence of, rather than the motivation for, leaving paradise – a move I thoroughly applaud.

So what does this mean for the DCEU? We already know that the Wonder Woman movie scheduled for released sometime in 2017 will feature Steve Trevor as Diana’s love interest, but it is unclear as of yet whether or not her bisexuality will be referenced.

It’s likely the writers will pillage Diana’s new origin story (if only to avoid the whole bizarre virgin-birth, made-of-clay-and-then-magically-brought-to-life-by-Athena thing), but they may avoid explicit references to her queerness for fear of provoking the trolls. Worse still, her sexuality could just as easily be reduced to a few half-hearted one-liners about her past experience with women -which is the last thing anyone needs. I for one will be keeping my fingers, toes and other extremities crossed in the hope that this doesn’t happen (and, of course, listening at least once a day to that badass theme song).

So that are your thoughts on the Year One narrative arc of Rucka and Scott’s Rebirth series? Do you agree that it’s high time that the wielder of the Lasso of Truth finally came clean about her sexuality, or did you prefer it when Diana’s sexuality was still a bit of a mystery? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

(Images: Comic Alliance)

We Need to Talk About Lionel Shriver

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On 8th September 2016 the American author Lionel Shriver, best known for fictionalising a school massacre in her 2003 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, took to the stage at the Brisbane Writers Festival to give a speech about “fiction and identity politics.”

Anyone familiar with the previous controversy surrounding Shriver’s works (particularly The Mandibles, which was accused by numerous critics of depicting Latino and African-American characters in a manner that was both racist and critically misguided) would feel somewhat anxious about the author speaking on this subject, particularly given that she approached the microphone with her face set like a warrior contemplating battle, wearing a sombrero in an act of childish defiance (see image below). It could not have been clearer from the moment she opened her mouth that Shriver was not there to make amends for past misdeeds. She was, in fact, gearing up for a no-holds-barred attack.

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Shriver began her speech with the bombastic claim that concepts such as cultural appropriation and identity politics “challenge our right to write fiction at all,” and that telling people which types of fiction they are and are not “allowed to write,” when followed to its natural conclusion, can only lead to the death of fiction writing itself, or at least would make the art “so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.”

Right, let’s get one thing straight from the outset. As a budding fiction writer who often feels frustrated by the lack of non-Westernised, non-white, non-cis characters, particularly in male-dominated genres such as science-fiction, I can – to a degree – understand Shriver’s point and would argue that restricting one’s creative process to only include personal identities and experiences would make for dull fiction. Part of creating a feasible new reality in a novel is creating a society populated by a range of characters, and in many cases, it may be entirely appropriate to assign different genders, races, nationalities, etc. to those characters in order to make them more believable and, frankly, more interesting. In fact, I would openly welcome more female, black, queer, transgender and/or disabled characters onto the fictional stage and would celebrate their inclusion in fiction of all genres.

There is, however, an almighty but which needs to be inserted into the above proclamation – in fact, there are several, and so I will try and address each of them in turn.

Firstly, it’s important to really understand who Shriver is referring to when she says “our right to write fiction [is being challenged].” She is, of course, referring to her own right to play around with whatever identity she likes in her fiction, but not only that, she is defending the right of all white, cis, hetero mainstream writers to pick and choose who they want their characters to be today. This is, she reasons, no less shameful than a child playing dress-up with a sombrero, or someone who doesn’t share her “genetic pedigree” deciding to don “a Tyrolean hat, pull on some leiderhosen, pour themselves a weisbier, and belt out the Hoffbrauhaus Song.”

The problem with such an assertion is so glaringly obvious that it seems bizarre that in the 21st Century, this great era of information and sociocultural awareness, someone still needs to point it out. Put simply, not everyone benefits from occupying the same position of privilege that Shriver does. ‘Playing’ Mexican is not the same as being Mexican, because those with a Mexican heritage cannot remove their skin colour and culture once they’ve had their fun and ‘play at’ being, say, a white female American author with an inflated sense of purpose. Most people with any sort of cultural sensitivity would agree that putting on a pair of lederhosen for the local Oktoberfest for a bit of fun is very different to donning black-face to openly mock the #blacklivesmatter movement (a recent college incident which Shriver resolutely ignores when ranting about tequila parties being investigated for potential racist behaviour).

The reason? The Germans are not a marginalised group of people whose entire history was once (and still is to an extent) narrated for them by people who do not understand what they have been through, and are not prepared to make any efforts to learn. The cultural exchange is therefore reasonably equal. However, the idea that Mexicans and BME groups are on an equal footing with white Americans such as Shriver is laughable… or it would be, if it weren’t so heart-breakingly and infuriatingly misinformed.

Just pick up a random newspaper and you’ll find pictures of Presidential candidate Donald Trump being greeted at full rallies and having his hateful plans to build a wall of ever-increasing height to stop Mexicans crossing the border cheered and applauded, or reports of yet another police officer shooting a black man for no reason (there have been more than 173 fatalities so far in America this year), or reports of another senseless attack motivated by the victim’s religion, or race, or sexual orientation. For these people, race and culture is not a costume – it is an unavoidable element of themselves which is under constant attack, something which they must constantly justify and defend.

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A white person playing around with these cultures does not suffer from the same oppressions: they can put on a sombrero, or dreadlock their hair, or emulate the appearance of their favourite rapper. Thus, when people talk about ‘cultural appropriation,’ what they are really referring to is an unequal exchange: one in which the privileged pick and choose the elements they like from other cultures and use them for their own personal profit/benefit, without acknowledgement or appreciation of where these concepts and ideas originally came from.

Shriver might like to pretend that cultural appropriation is little more than harmless borrowing, but the primary thread of her argument – that accusations of racism are tantamount to censorship, and that all writers ought to be entitled to write from any perspective, race, gender or background that they wish – is one that can only really be made from a position of privilege. It reveals Shriver’s underlying assumption that her rights to use other cultures as inspiration (and a source of personal profit, as her eventual goal is book sales) being threatened is a more important issue than the fact that many other writers may not be getting a fair chance at self-representation. Such an argument is positively dripping with arrogance, running a similar ethical gauntlet as other privileged protests such as #alllivesmatter.

It all comes down to this: no one is saying that white writers cannot write about black characters, or that heterosexual writers cannot write about LGBTQ+ characters, or that able-bodied writers cannot write about the disabled, and so on, and so on, ad infinitum. In fact, there are readers who would greatly appreciate the chance to read about people like themselves, even if the author of said book is not writing from personal experience. However, that doesn’t mean that a writer wanting to take on a topic or culture that they are not personally familiar with does not have a responsibility to make their representations as authentic as possible. Shriver’s main failing is her inability to recognise that her “genetic pedigree” does not give her an Access All Areas pass to browse and pillage the experiences of others without reactions or consequences.

If you want to write about another person’s struggles, at least have the decency to take the time to try and understand them. Respect that they understand themselves better than you ever will. Be a good ally; get involved in the causes of the culture you wish to represent… and most of all, don’t mistake a demand for authenticity and due diligence for the cultures of others as a personal affront. Despite what you’ve been led to believe, the world does not revolve around you and your kind.

Shriver’s keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival can be viewed in full here.

(Images: The Guardian, and The Influence)

Harry Potter and the Semiotic Analysis: A Few Observations of the Harry Potter Series (Part 4)

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Those who know me personally are already aware that I, like many, have been sucked well and truly into Harry Potter fandom (I have my sister to blame/thank for this). Although many people have disregarded it as “just a kid’s story”, like I once did, I’ve found that the more I read these books, the more intricate details I have noticed about them. From a critical perspective, it’s interesting to note how Rowling relies upon duality and opposition, and upon parallels and foreshadowing, to construct the narrative of her series. In this series of posts, I will briefly discuss a few of these, referring to relevant volumes from Rowling’s text where necessary. I’m not going to get all technical; I just thought this would be fun. I’ll dabble in semiotics and structural analysis, undertake a few explorations of certain themes, and unite a few fan theories along the way if I can.

So, in case it wasn’t already obvious, this post is full of ***spoilers*** (although I doubt there’s many people left in the world who don’t have a basic working knowledge of the plot by now!)

Part 4: Foreshadowing, Prophecy, and a Few Heart-Breaking Red Herrings

J.K. Rowling, like many great authors before her, appreciates the importance of foreshadowing in fiction – the art of dropping hints for the reader about events to come. All of the books in the series contain some form of foreshadowing, although some examples are more significant than others.

Take, for example, Ron’s jest in Book 2 that Tom Riddle might have been given an award for ‘Special Services to the School’ because he killed Moaning Myrtle. At first glance, it appears to be a throwaway comment, but those re-reading the books will be all too aware that Tom Riddle, the young Voldemort, was indeed responsible for Moaning Myrtle’s death (as the Basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets was unleashed by him, and the award conceals the truth that he actually framed Hagrid by claiming Aragog was the monster).

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The presence of the locket in Sirius’ old house (12 Grimmauld Place) that no one could open in Book 5 is another example of the use of foreshadowing. This object is understood to be evil but nothing else is really said about it initially. It is, of course, a Horcrux, but the reader does not realise this until Book 7, once the hunt for R.A.B. (who turns out to be none other than Regulus Articulus Black, Sirius’ little brother) has begun. Rowling demonstrates an uncanny ability to hide clues like this in plain sight.

Another one of these ‘clues in plain sight’ has to be the Vanishing Cabinet. Harry encounters this as early as Book 2, in Borgin & Burkes, and in Book 5, it is confirmed that the cabinet allows passage to somewhere beyond the castle when Montague (a member of the Slytherin Quidditch team) is trapped in the broken Hogwarts cabinet. All the hints are there that it could be used to enter the castle from outside – a feat which Hermione stresses repeatedly is difficult to achieve. Now, when Harry walks past the Vanishing Cabinet in Book 6 to hide his Potions book, I actually can’t help but groan, because it seems so damn obvious.

However, the most effective and direct examples of Rowling foreshadowing significant plot points come in the form of Trelawney’s prophecies and predictions. In an earlier post, I have already mentioned that her first prophecy – that “neither can live while the other survives” – does hint that they both have to die, and that Harry must die to extinguish the ‘Other’ part of Voldemort that lives in within him, but all this is cleverly disguised in ambiguous wording.

Her comments regarding the “servant” who will return to his “master” in Book 3 also predict Pettigrew’s return to Voldemort, and Voldemort’s resurrection, before the reader is aware that Pettigrew is still alive and that Sirius did not kill him after all. These comments also, to some extent, help foreshadow the events at the end of Book 4 – the prophecy states that Pettigrew will help Voldemort return to power, and Harry’s dreams repeatedly stress that the two are together and plotting.

However, Trelawney’s ability to predict the future does not end there, despite her character being portrayed as an old fraud. I’m not talking about Neville dropping his teacup or Hermione leaving the class at Easter – the first is little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the latter a coincidental alignment (Trelawney most likely meant “leaving” as “dying”, and was referring to Harry not Hermione).

She makes another prediction in Book 3, as she prepares to join the table for the Christmas feast, and hesitates and states that “when thirteen people dine together, the first to rise is the first to die”.  This is an accurate prediction. Of course, Trelawney is not aware when speaking that there are already thirteen people dining at the table, as Pettigrew is in Ron’s pocket. Dumbledore is therefore the first to rise from the table, to greet her as she arrives. Dumbledore is also the first of the thirteen gathered there to die, in Book 6.

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However, not all the comments made by characters and their behaviour actually hint at what is to come. Some of them are red herrings which make what actually happens all the more heart-breaking. Harry making Dobby promise never to try and save his life again, and then Dobby doing just that, leading to the little elf’s death (still not quite over that). Fred talking about how it’ll be when he gets married at Bill and Fleur’s wedding, then dying at the Battle of Hogwarts, young and single, never to grow old (definitely not over that). And Snape… perhaps the most heart-breaking red herring of all. He’s portrayed as the villain until his very last moments, and now I know he’s really one of the good guys, I can’t read his final words (“look at me”) without tears in my eyes.

All in all, I think it’s fair to say that Rowling is pretty damn skilled at her craft. I can’t remember the last time a twist in the plot surprised me more than Moody turning out to be Barty Crouch Jnr., and although it seems so obvious now, I don’t know a single Potterhead who expected Rowling to ‘kill’ Harry in the final book of the series.

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More to come in further posts in this series!

(Images: Warner Bros. Studios)

Harry Potter and the Semiotic Analysis: A Few Observations of the Harry Potter Series (Part 3)

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HPSemiotic

Those who know me personally are already aware that I, like many, have been sucked well and truly into Harry Potter fandom (I have my sister to blame/thank for this). Although many people have disregarded it as “just a kid’s story”, like I once did, I’ve found that the more I read these books, the more intricate details I have noticed about them. From a critical perspective, it’s interesting to note how Rowling relies upon duality and opposition, and upon parallels and foreshadowing, to construct the narrative of her series. In this series of posts, I will briefly discuss a few of these, referring to relevant volumes from Rowling’s text where necessary. I’m not going to get all technical; I just thought this would be fun. I’ll dabble in semiotics and structural analysis, undertake a few explorations of certain themes, and unite a few fan theories along the way if I can.

So, in case it wasn’t already obvious, this post is full of ***spoilers*** (although I doubt there’s many people left in the world who don’t have a basic working knowledge of the plot by now!)

Part 3: The Hidden Magic of Rowling’s Etymology

Right then. Let’s get one thing clear right from the outset – J.K. Rowling is a full-on language nerd. Every element of the wizarding world she has constructed in her books is deliberately and cleverly named. Although the dualities she creates in her invented words are mostly rooted in her etymological knowledge of French and Latin, others are simply wordplays or nods to certain concepts, places and/or ideas. The more you look, the more you find!

In this post, I aim to point out just a few of the marvellous word games that Rowling has been playing with her readers. The consideration will be split into the following categories: place names, species names, character names, spells, and magical objects.

Place Names

Many of the place names in Harry Potter are invocative of the atmosphere, character and/or inhabitants of the location they describe. It’s no mistake that 24 Privet Drive, home of the Dursleys, takes its name from a particularly rigid form of hedge, or that Sirius’ house, 12 Grimmauld Place, is, indeed, a very grim and very old place. For me, The Burrow invokes a mental image of rabbits (although a ‘burrow’ can refer to the underground home of many different creatures), which fits well with the description of the Weasleys, who have “more children can they can afford”, and whose home has been repeatedly enlarged and extended to create more space for the growing family.

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Another interesting couple of street names are those of Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley. Knockturn Alley, a place you would not want to be seen and where ‘dark’ magical artefacts are sold, becomes ‘nocturnally’ when you say it quickly (i.e. ‘by night’). Diagon Alley becomes ‘diagonally’, or possibly ‘diagonal ley’ (perhaps a reference to ley lines, which some believe connect ancient sites of Britain and have magical powers). Diagon Alley is, of course, a magical street, hidden from the Muggle population, but running straight through a highly urbanised and well-populated area of London.

Other references are more subtle. For instance, the wizard prison Azkaban, which is meant to be inescapable but is subject to a number of breakouts, shares similarities with Alcatraz (a high security prison from which a number of inmates broke out in June 1962 – later the subject of a book by J. Campbell Bruce and a film directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood).

 

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Species Names

Obviously, many of the creatures which Rowling refers to already exist in mythology (trolls, centaurs, merpeople, and so on). However, in the cases where Rowling is responsible for naming a species or subspecies for herself, she often uses clever little etymological references designed to make geeks like me smile!

Take, for instance, the term ‘Squib’. In the Harry Potter series, this refers to a child with no magical powers born to magical parents. This term originates from the colloquial phrase ‘damp squib’, which denotes a firework or explosive that has failed to go off due to a fault.

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The term ‘Muggle’ is also based on a colloquialism – ‘mug’, an English slang term for fool or idiot – as confirmed by the writer herself in an interview last year.

Another interesting term that Rowling uses is ‘Animagus’ – referring, of course, to a wizard who is able to transform at will into an animal. ‘Magus’ is another word for wizard, and so by combining this with the prefix ‘ani-‘ (with ‘anima’ being a clear reference to the change to animal form), she manages to give this process a name which aptly and succinctly describes it in its entirety.

Character Names

OK, in terms of character names, I could do this all day, as there are so many which are significant. I’ve just chosen a few of my favourites here though. The first and foremost name to be considered has to be Lord Voldemort’s. It’s important to note that, just like English, there are a number of homonyms in French (words that sound identical when pronounced but have different meanings depending on the context of use). ‘Vol’ is one of them. It can mean either ‘flight’ or ‘theft’, and so ‘vol de mort’ can be translated as either ‘flight from death’ or ‘theft of death’ – both of which are rather appropriate to describe his character’s main goal and motivation.

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Sirius Black also has a rather significant name. Sirius is a star linked with the star system Canus (canine, of course, being another way to describe the species of dogs like the one he transforms into). When he transforms into Padfoot, he is black, just like his name. The name Sirius can be translated from the Ancient Greek as “scorching” or “glowing”, referring to the fact that it is the brightest star in the sky. Sirius’ character is known for being popular, charismatic and talented (before the turn of events which lead to his incarceration).

Another interesting name is that assigned to Ludo Bagman, the head of the Ministry’s Department of Magical Games and Sports who cheats the Weasley twins out of their winnings for betting on the Quidditch World Cup. ‘Ludo’ is Latin, and can be used to describe ‘play’ and ‘sport’, but also refers to deluding or deceiving someone when used in certain contexts. This impression of deceptiveness is emphasised by the surname ‘Bagman’, as ‘bagman’ was the term used to describe early US mobsters who collected money from illegal gambling and for protection rackets. Interestingly, his name may be an abbreviated form of another Latin phrase – ‘victor ludorum’ – which means ‘winner of the games’ (as he was a highly successful Quidditch player).

I rather like Olympe Maxime’s name, too. ‘Olympe’ is invocative of both ‘Olympians’ (i.e. those who surpass all others in scope) and of Mt. Olympus (the largest mountain in Greece). This first part of her name could refer to both her physical size and her magical abilities (which Hagrid notes are impressive).  ‘Maxime’ is French for ‘principle’, and Madame Maxime is the ‘principal’ of Beauxbatons School. Combined, she is the ‘giant principal’ – which is a pretty apt description!

The examples go on and on. Arabella Figg, who is mentioned in passing as a harmless, cat-loving, “batty” old lady in the first four novels but reveals herself in Book 5 to be a Squib who has been surreptitiously keeping a watchful eye on Harry for years on Dumbledore’s behalf, also has a rather appropriate name. ‘Figg’ symbolises the fig leaf (that which keeps certain things secret and covered up – for instance, in the Bible, it is used to hide Adam and Eve’s nakedness).

Broderick Bode – member of the Ministry’s Department of Mysteries – does, too. A ‘bode’ is a warning or omen. His mental impairments do, indeed, serve as a warning of what Voldemort is trying to do in Department of Mysteries in Book 5.

Fawkes – Dumbledore’s loyal pet phoenix – could be named for Guy Fawkes, the English conspirator whose failed attempt to blow up Parliament on November 5th 1605 is still celebrated every year on Bonfire Night… bonfires and fireworks seem like a fitting celebration for a phoenix, don’t you think?

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Seriously, I could do this all day. I mean, have you noticed, for instance, that if you switch the first letters of Crabbe and Goyle, you get ‘Grabbe’ and ‘Coyle’ (‘grab’ and ‘coil’), which is exactly what a snake does to its prey. Both boys are in Slytherin House (represented by a serpent), and are in the grips of Lord Voldemort’s dark magic.

 

Objects

A number of objects in the Harry Potter series also have etymologically significant names. For example, the name ‘Horcrux’ is formulated from two French words: ‘hors’ (meaning ‘outside’) and ‘crux’ (meaning ‘cross’). As the cross could be understood to be a cultural symbol of death (e.g. Jesus’ crucifixion, and the multiple instances where decorative crosses adorn grave sites), the phrase ‘Horcrux’ could suggest being outside of, and beyond the reach of, death. As Jesus’ crucifixion is inevitably related to his resurrection, the cross can also be a symbol of life or rebirth, and so ‘Horcrux’ also could suggest life or regeneration outside of the physical body.  This, of course, is its purpose – to make it impossible for Voldemort to be killed, and to allow him to resurrect his physical body.

Another object with an intriguing name is the ‘Pensieve’. The word ‘pensive’ refers to a deep, serious, and often brooding, thought process, and is derived from the French word (same spelling), which signifies thought itself. This is significant, given that the purpose of this object is to allow the user to siphon off, and sort through, their own thoughts and memories. This process of sifting through thoughts is further reinforced in the etymology by the suffix ‘-sieve’, as a sieve is a device used for exactly this (albeit in cooking or such like, rather than magic).

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The potion ‘Veritaserum’ gets its name from the Latin ‘veritas’ (meaning ‘truth’), with ‘serum’ being another word for ‘potion’. Again, there are a multitude of examples, and I’m just covering a few here.

 

Spells

I could dedicate an entire post exclusively to looking the names of spells in Harry Potter, but again, I’ve highlighted just a few of my favourites here. Pretty much all of the spells in Rowling’s series have solid reasoning behind them, and so if you look closely, you’ll start to notice more and more just how apt the spell names are.

I think the most important one to discuss first off is ‘Avada Kedavra’. This is the spell to perform the killing curse – one of the three Unforgiveable Curses. There are arguably two translations which could be offered for this. The first, ‘abra kadabra’ (yes, that magical phrase all magicians say before making something disappear) is Arabic, and translates as ‘let the things be destroyed’. Another interesting similarity noted is to an Aramaic phrase, ‘abhadda kedhabhra’, which means ‘disappear like this word’. Both phrases essentially refer to destruction of some kind, and Rowling’s spell appears to be a combination of the two.

‘Patronus’ means ‘protector’ in Latin, so the spell ‘expecto patronum’ (to summon a Patronus, which is a protective being that can drive away Dementors) can be translated as ‘expect a protector’. Apparation – the magical ability to disappear and reappear at any location – is also taken from the Latin ‘appareo’ (meaning ‘to become visible’).

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‘Nox’ – the spell to extinguish light from the tip of the user’s wand – is Latin for ‘darkness’ for ‘night’. ‘Accio’ – the summoning charm – is also Latin, meaning ‘to call to or summon’. Expelliarmus – the disarming charm – is a combination of the Latin ‘expel’ (to force or drive out; eject forcefully) and ‘arma’ (weapons). Impedimenta – used for obstructing pursuers – is based on ‘impedio’ in Latin (meaning ‘to hinder’).

I’m probably missing hundreds of great ones – why not suggest  a few in the comments below?

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More to come in further posts in this series!

(Images: Warner Bros. Studios)

Harry Potter and the Semiotic Analysis: A Few Observations on the Harry Potter Series (Part 2)

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Those who know me personally are already aware that I, like many, have been sucked well and truly into Harry Potter fandom (I have my sister to blame/thank for this). Although many people have disregarded it as “just a kid’s story”, like I once did, I’ve found that the more I read these books, the more intricate details I have noticed about them. From a critical perspective, it’s interesting to note how Rowling relies upon duality and opposition, and upon parallels and foreshadowing, to construct the narrative of her series. In this series of posts, I will briefly discuss a few of these, referring to relevant volumes from Rowling’s text where necessary. I’m not going to get all technical; I just thought this would be fun. I’ll dabble in semiotics and structural analysis, undertake a few explorations of certain themes, and unite a few fan theories along the way if I can.

So, in case it wasn’t already obvious, this post is full of ***spoilers*** (although I doubt there’s many people left in the world who don’t have a basic working knowledge of the plot by now!)

Part 2: Dual Cores, Dual Characters

The battle raging between Harry and Voldemort is the main event, the primary narrative arc of the entire series. It’s unsurprising, then, that the complex duality Rowling creates between these two characters resonates throughout each of the books in a number of different ways. Two of the main structural mechanisms used throughout are that of symmetry and opposition. This post intends to explore Rowling’s usage of both in the construction of the relationship between Harry and his nemesis.

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Firstly, it is important to note that the similarities between Harry and Voldemort are striking. They are both half-blood wizards (although their parentage is inverted, with Harry having a Muggle-born mother and wizard father, and Voldemort having a witch mother and Muggle father), who grew up without their parents, only discovering their wizarding heritage at age 11.

Both are similar in appearance, with their dark hair and slim physique. The wands they select (or, in fact, are selected by) both contain feathers taken from the same phoenix, Fawkes. Both are known readily to the public, and often by a title other than their name – Harry is The Chosen One, or the Boy Who Lived, and Tom Riddle disregards his Muggle father’s name in favour of the title Lord Voldemort. His Death Eater followers know him as the Dark Lord, and to the wizarding public, he is You-Know-Who or He Who Must Not Be Named.

Harry has a gang of followers, like Voldemort – firstly, he assembles the DA, and he is followed by the Order of the Phoenix as their leader and rallying point after Dumbledore’s death. Like Voldemort, he is able to summon and instruct them (using the Galleons with the protean charm cast on them – Voldemort, of course, uses the Dark Mark).

Harry and Voldemort are both charming enough to retrieve information from highly unwilling people, such as the Grey Lady and Horace Slughorn.  Both can speak to snakes. Both discovered all of the secrets of Hogwarts Castle, where others had not. They share each other’s minds. They share the same blood. Rowling has deliberately created clear symmetry between her protagonist and antagonist, and draws attention to it repeatedly throughout her books.

However, Harry is, of course, presented as Voldemort’s absolute opposite, in that he has chosen the side of good rather than evil. They are thus presented in continual opposition. This is, I think, symbolised quite nicely by the seven Potters and seven Horcruxes in the seventh book. Hermione asserts, when explaining Horcruxes, that a Horcrux is the “complete opposite” of a human being.

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So, whereas Voldemort occupies the inside of his seven Horcruxes, Harry is present externally in seven forms (as several characters transform into him using Polyjuice potion). This inside/outside opposition is one of many dichotomies created by Rowling to symbolise the battle between good and evil. Another is the opposition between love/hate, with love being Harry’s greatest weapon, according to Dumbledore, and Voldemort’s greatest weapons (the unforgivable curses) being fuelled by hatred – Bellatrix Lestrange says as much in the fifth book.

Perhaps the most prolific, though, in terms of a semiotic analysis, is the contrast formed in the text between the colours red and green – red symbolising anything Harry-related, and green symbolising anything Voldemort-related. These are, of course, the colours of Gryffindor and Slytherin Houses respectively, and this distinction between Harry as red and Voldemort as green is underlined continually.

Note how Harry’s signature spell – ‘expelliarmus’ – emits red light from his wand, whereas the ‘avada kedavra’ curse used so often by Voldemort creates a burst of green light. Fawkes, a red phoenix, is Harry’s defender in the Chamber of Secrets against the Basilisk, a green snake. When Harry seeks a way to destroy Voldemort in the cave with the Inferi, he takes what he needs from a basin containing Voldemort’s green potion. When Voldemort desires the protection of Harry’s mother’s sacrifice as a means to destroy Harry, he seeks what he needs within the red blood of Harry’s arm.

Godric Gryffindor’s sword – the magical artefact symbolising Gryffindor House, the only House-related relic Voldemort never succeeded in obtaining and transforming into a Horcrux, the object used by Harry to destroy both of Voldemort’s snake-related Horcruxes and the Basilisk – is inlaid with red rubies. The relation between Harry and the sword is reinforced further by the fact that the sword, like Harry, only imbibes that which makes him/it stronger. Just like the sword takes venom from the Basilisk but resists dirt and dark magic, Harry, too, takes what he needs from Voldemort’s mind/soul without ever being corrupted by evil. Yes, he can see what Voldemort is doing and knows what he is thinking, but unlike Voldemort, he is not encouraged towards undertaking a mission to avoid his own death – he decides not to pursue the Hallows as a way to become the ‘master of death’, and instead dies to protect his friends.

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In doing so, he actually does become the master of all three Hallows and ensures his survival, and his enemy’s demise. In complete opposition, it is Voldemort’s pursuit of immortality that means he is no longer properly alive, and that he cannot kill his enemy.

The prophecy regarding Voldemort and Harry – specifically the phrase “neither can live while the other survives” – is particularly significant, I think, in this regard. The most obvious translation is the one that Harry asserts – that one of them will have to kill each other in the end, as Voldemort will continue to pursue him until one of them ends the battle.

However, it would also be accurate to say that neither can die while the other survives, as Harry acts as a Horcrux for Voldemort, tying him to life, whereas Harry’s blood runs in Voldemort’s veins after his resurrection, and this ties Harry to life, too (note how, again, Harry resides in the flesh, on the outside, whereas Voldemort is hidden deep within Harry, on the inside, as a fragment attached to his soul).

It perhaps makes more sense, then, to read this part of the prophecy as being more subtle… “neither can live” (i.e. they both have to die) “while the other survives” (i.e. whilst that piece of the other lives on within them). To truly kill Harry, Voldemort would have to discard his living body (and therefore ‘kill’ the blood keeping Harry alive), and as we know, to kill Voldemort, Harry has to let himself be killed (to destroy the bit of Voldemort’s soul living within him).

Their rises and falls in power and influence are inextricably linked in inversion, too. The destruction of Voldemort’s body coincides with – indeed, it actually causes – Harry’s gaining of additional powers. Voldemort’s rise to power corresponds with Harry’s loss of the powerful and helpful figures in his life (Sirius and Dumbledore in particular).

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The resistance gain momentum as Harry diminishes Voldemort’s power through his destroying of Horcruxes, but as Harry dies, they are weak and mourning their dead (again, the love/hate dichotomy arises – Rowling often uses the concepts of love and grief as if they were synonymous… perhaps they are, but that’s a question for another day).  Harry’s revival coincides with their defiance and resistance – as they are now protected by his sacrifice – and they are able as a singular force to reduce Voldemort to his weakest state… that of Tom Riddle. Harry’s final triumph is, of course, Voldemort’s defeat.

So, as this deconstruction has shown, certain ideas and dichotomies echo throughout Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and all this adds to the overall enjoyment and experience of the books.

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Ok, more to come on this in further posts – as ever, please feel free to share your thoughts below!

(Images: Warner Bros. Studios)