Over the 2020 lockdown, a lot of people learned how to bake sourdough bread. Some took up knitting. Others got very into gardening, or puzzles, or reorganizing their closets. I, on the other hand, got very into 1990s’ sci-fi TV and, specifically, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. These far off worlds were my escape. My world had become so small. I really wanted to go BIG in my imagination. Space operas felt perfect.
I had started watching Star Trek during my PhD, a few years back, and it had become a comforting escape for me during stressful periods. But Deep Space Nine hit differently somehow. I’ve heard people say that it’s the ‘grittiest’ Star Trek series and, from what I’ve seen, that’s definitely true. During the lockdown, it particularly resonated with me because of its themes of grief, loss and people trying to pick up the pieces after dark and difficult things.
I’ve been meaning to write about ‘I May Destroy You’ for a long time. Actually, it was one of the reasons that I wanted to start this ‘Friday Finds’ series at all. When I watched it last year, based on the recommendation of a good friend, I really wanted to write about it on my blog. But at the time I was writing almost exclusively ‘Madeira Mondays’/historical focused content, so it didn’t feel like I could. But even after I introduced ‘Friday Finds’, it slipped my mind for a while, only to renter it when I was reading about all of the drama surrounding the Golden Globes, and how shows like Emily in Paris received recognition when I May Destroy You (a critical darling, at least in the UK) did not, back in 2020. Anyways: let me tell you about I May Destroy You, which, if you’ve not seen it already, is a really excellent and thought provoking show!
During lockdown last year, a lot of people started developing new hobbies. Some of my friends got on board with the baking sourdough bread trend, some got really into watching make-up tutorials on YouTube, or working out, or revamping their gardens. Some bought pets. My ‘lockdown thing’ (which honestly started a bit before lockdown) was Star Trek. I got really, really into Star Trek. Not just watching the TV series (The Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine…) but also reading some of the companion NOVELS and even experimenting with writing sci fi myself (which I’ll tell you more about later, I hope!). I honestly never thought of myself as much of a sci fi person, but Star Trek really opened my eyes. It’s gently idealistic (what if in the future there’s no money, no wars, and humans are part of a ‘federation’ of other species who explore the galaxy together…), it’s an ensemble show with lots of colorful characters with their own unique stories, it’s cozy and fun, it’s been running forever so it has built this rich and complex world, and, at its best, it’s intellectually engaging and even profound. The best science fiction in general, I think, engages with the most interesting questions of all: what is time? what makes a person? what else is out there? what does it mean to be a part of this universe?
I’ve since branched out into other sci fi shows and books. A friend of mine (who also loves Star Trek) recommended The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, which is the first book in Chambers’ Wayfarers series. It’s a very popular science fiction series, and this first book was published in 2014 (interestingly, Chambers self-published it and it was later picked up by a traditional publisher). I found it a very enjoyable and ‘cozy’ read (more on that in a second). If you are like me and enjoy Star Trek, then I’d say skip the rest of this review and just read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet because there’s a lot of similarities and I imagine you’ll like it too!
This is a book about ordinary people in space, specifically a group of basically construction workers traveling around trying to ‘punch’ holes in spacetime to make wormholes (fast interstellar highways). It features a motley crew of people aboard this one starship – similar to Star Trek – and it’s quite episodic. They encounter little difficulties here and there on their ‘long way’ to complete a big job, but it’s not about big explosions or major political events. There are long scenes of people eating dinner and chatting. It switches perspectives from all of the characters on the ship, and sometimes intersperses this with documents/letters or pages from the galactic equivalent of Wikipedia, which work well to add texture to the world and feed us info in a not-too-obvious way. Chambers’ focus on the small moments between people made me think of what Natalie Goldberg has to say in Writing down the Bones, on the importance of the everyday:
‘We are important and our lives are important…their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think…Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter…A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter’
I love this focus on small quiet moments and small things in The Long Way. It suggests to me that these ordinary people’s lives do matter (which of course they do). And the writing itself was smooth and solid. I don’t think her primary interest is in the prose, it wasn’t particularly lyrical or poetic or inventive on that front, but it was much better written than most of the Star Trek novels I’ve read thus far and the dialogue especially was lively and fun. There was a lot of attention to detail in terms of the setting and how things worked mechanically which I appreciated (it was never boring or dry, but I just felt she’d done a lot of thinking about these things and the science behind them). And overall it was just a rather nice story about people being friends and hanging out in space.
So I’d definitely recommend it if you’re looking to dabble in a bit of sci fi but want something character driven with a big heart, or if you know you like sci fi and you want a gentle story where people are generally decent and tolerant and mean well. At first I wanted this book to be a little edgier or darker than it was, but in the end it was kind of refreshing that it stayed pretty light. (As a side note, I’m halfway through the second book in this series – A Closed and Common Orbit – and it’s very different and definitely darker. And I think I actually like it MORE than The Long Way. I’d recommend it too! It’s about Artificial Intelligence). I plan to read all the books in the series: this is my version of a ‘beach read’! It’s engaging but not stressful and is like a big warm hug (from a giant lizard or a robot).
Have you heard of this series? Do you enjoy sci fi generally? I’d be curious to know your favorites! I’ve just started The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, recommended by many, so I’ll let you know my thoughts once I’m done with the book which seemingly everyone describes as their ‘favorite sci fi’!
Thanks as always for reading, and hope you have a great weekend!
PS the super cool featured image for this blog is a celestial map from 1670 by Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit, accessed via Wikimedia. It’s not directly relevant to this book, but it’s got stars and also funky animals and interesting creatures, so I see some overlap.
And here’s an interview with Becky Chambers where she introduces the book and a wee bit more about it if you’re curious!
‘Most of us began our love of history from something we saw on TV, in movies or other pop media.’
This was one of the opening remarks at Trinity History Con 2019, a two day long conference in Dublin at Trinity College, all about the intersections of pop culture and history. And that remark really stood out to me because I think it’s so true! Often the first time that we encounter history is through historical fiction – be that books, TV, films etc. For me it was reading books like Johnny Tremain about the Revolutionary War that ignited my curiosity in that whole time period. I know from speaking to other historical fiction writers, historians, and lovers of history that pop culture media often sparks a love or curiosity in a period that leads to academic research or just a lifelong fascination with a particular place and time.
In one panel at the conference, ‘How We Remember Her’, featuring actress Lotte Verbeek (from TV shows like Outlander and The Borgias), she discussed some of the different reasons someone might watch a historical fiction TV show like The Borgias: to get a sense of the past, to understand a bit, but also (perhaps primarily) to be entertained. Yet a show like that can also ‘open up a world for people’ who might otherwise know nothing at all about the time period and might now be encouraged to seek out further information.
The Borgias was one of dozens of pieces of pop media that were discussed at HistoryCon. While I was there, I saw talks on (to name a few!): Star Wars, Games of Thrones, Star Trek, and the Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life. There were presentations on Kate Bush’s song ‘Wuthering Heights’ and its relationship to the novel, as well as discussions on Charles Manson and American film. There was even a presentation from two St Andrews researchers, Christin Simons and Elena Romero-Passerin, who research 18th century mercantilism and botany respectively, on the history-inspired board game they have designed based on their research called ‘Mer-plant-ilism’. Basically, this conference was a dream event for a history nerd (and all around nerd, let’s be honest!) like me.
Conference organizer and presenter Dawn Seymour Klos giving her talk on Leia Organa and 13th century English Women
But in addition to academic talks from researchers from all over the world there was also a brilliant sword fighting demonstration in a college square and a costume contest!
Sword fight demonstration from Medieval Armoured Combat of Ireland in Fellows’ Square, Trinity College
I was encouraged to enter the costume contest and actually won third place for my John Adams costume. What do you think of the outfit? (We actually had to walk down an aisle and pose in front of a panel of judges and I imagined RuPaul there and calling out, ‘Category is: Revolutionary Realness’).
My John Adams costume for Trinity HistoryCon
And what I loved in particular about the concept of HistoryCon was that it was free, fun and open to the public. We were told to structure our talks more like Ted Talks, so that the general public (and several people did just wander in on the day) could engage with the material and have something to take away. Academic researchers are often encouraged to do public engagement and to disseminate their research with the wider community, and that is built in to the whole ethos of this event. Breaking down those barriers between the academy and the general public, and hopefully sparking curiosity about the past and the various ways to study and interact with it, was the name of the game.
I, for one, had a brilliant time presenting on representations of John Adams in pop culture. I delivered my talk ‘Obnoxious and Disliked’: John Adams’ Legacy in Popular Media, from 1776 to Hamilton, dressed as Adams and I’m not sure when I’ll ever have the opportunity to do that again!
I learned a lot throughout the busy two days and made so many new nerdy, academic friends. So I’d like to thank the organizers at Trinity College for creating such a fun and accessible conference and for inviting us all to Dublin. Thank you! Live long and prosper.
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday!