In “Annihilation,” the film adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, a biologist (played by Natalie Portman) embarks on an expedition with a physicist, a psychologist, a paramedic, and a geologist — all women. The only thing truly unusual about this is that anyone might consider it unusual; after all, women have contributed to every imaginable science, and yet their presence in significant numbers still strikes us as a radical departure, a truly science-fictional element – even in 2018.
This bias extends from the sciences themselves to the tech and literary worlds, where women still struggle for adequate representation. Just look at quote-compiler Goodreads, where you can search the “science” tag for pages and pages without finding an entry by a woman (you may actually run across passages from the Bible first).
We’ve cut through the chaff to offer the following: quotes from women writing about science, whether from within their respective fields or from the sideline as observers of scientific culture. To all the young women considering scientific careers: never let anyone convince you that your interest or contribution is without precedent. You just may have to do a little extra digging to provide the proper citation.
Marie Curie, from a letter to her brother, 1894
“One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”
Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, 1962
“A straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.”
Jane Goodall, The Bonobo in All of Us, 2007
“Imagine that we didn’t know the chimpanzee, that all we knew were those bonobos who have sex all the time and are peaceful and female-dominated and that people would say that this is our only close relative. I think we would have totally different theories about ourselves and our background. But, of course, it didn’t happen that way.”
Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, 2010
“Many scientists believed that since patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment. And as Howard Jones once wrote, ‘Hopkins, with its large indigent black population, had no dearth of clinical material.’”
Ann Druyan, from an interview with Skeptical Inquirer, 2003
“I think the roots of this antagonism to science run very deep. They’re ancient. We see them in Genesis, this first story, this founding myth of ours, in which the first humans are doomed and cursed eternally for asking a question, for partaking of the fruit of the “Tree of Knowledge”. It’s puzzling that Eden is synonymous with paradise when, if you think about it at all, it’s more like a maximum-security prison with twenty-four hour surveillance. It’s a horrible place. Adam and Eve have no childhood. They awaken full-grown. What is a human being without a childhood?”
Rachel Carson, John Burroughs Medal acceptance speech, 1952
“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.”
Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science, 1985
“To know the history of science is to recognize the mortality of any claim to universal truth.”
Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1999
“Faith is a fine invention
When gentlemen can see,
But microscopes are prudent
In an emergency.”
Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, 2003
“We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.”
Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior, 2012
“For scientists, reality is not optional.”
Netflix and chill with these certified fresh (according to Rotten Tomatoes) book-to-film adaptations.
THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY (2018)
Five years after the end of World War II, a young London-based writer travels to the Island of Guernsey to interview residents for a book she plans to write about their experiences during the war. Once there, she learns about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the harrowing trials its members went through during the war.
In 1958 Germany, a teenage boy named Michael Berg has an affair with an older woman named Hanna Schmitz, who then mysteriously disappears. Decades later, Michael, now a lawyer, encounters Hanna in court. She is on trial for war crimes committed when she was a guard at a Nazi concentration camp.
Based On:The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Starring: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (2008)
April and Frank Wheeler’s troubled marriage crumbles under the social constraints of their mid-1950s suburban existence.
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Kristen Stewart, Vince Vaughn, Zach Galifianakis
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)
Father, widower, and small-town lawyer Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in 1932 Alabama. Meanwhile, his two children, Jem and Scout, become intrigued by their mysterious shut-in neighbor, Boo Radley.
Starring: Michelle Williams, Matthias Schoenaerts, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Riley, Margot Robbie, Ruth Wilson
THE IMITATION GAME (2014)
British mathematical genius Alan Turing and a team of gifted mathematicians try to crack the German Enigma code to turn the tide of World War II. But when Alan is outed as a gay man, he is faced with imprisonment or chemical castration.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, Allen Leech, Rory Kinnear
THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CARING (2016)
A retired writer named Ben takes a six-week course to become a caregiver, then takes a job caring for Trevor, an eighteen-year-old with muscular dystrophy. Ben takes Trevor on a road trip to see the world’s deepest pit. Along the way, Trevor meets Dot, a kind girl he develops a crush on.
Longtime neighbors Addie Moore and Louis Waters have hardly spoken to each other the whole time they’ve lived side-by-side. But that changes when Addie reaches out and tries to make a connection, sparking a beautiful late-life romance.
Starring: Marco Leonardi, Lumi Cavazos, Regina Torné, Mario Iván Martínez
COLD MOUNTAIN (2003)
During the final days of the Civil War, Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier, embarks on a dangerous journey back to Cold Mountain, North Carolina to reunite with his love, Ada. Meanwhile, Ada struggles to survive after her father dies, leaving her destitute.
Starring: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Charlie Hunnam, Eileen Atkins, Brendan Gleeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Donald Sutherland
OUT OF SIGHT (1998)
Career bank robber Jack Foley and U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco share a steamy moment of mutual attraction while stowed away in a trunk during Foley’s escape from a Florida prison. After the getaway, Sisco chases Foley and his pals to Detroit where they plan to steal a cache of uncut diamonds.
Starring: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles, Gale Hansen
RED DRAGON (2002)
Will Graham, a retired FBI agent with a gift for understanding disturbed minds, tracks down a brutal serial killer known as “The Tooth Fairy” with the help of imprisoned forensic psychiatrist—and world’s greatest human flesh cook—Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Embeth Davidtz
JURASSIC PARK (1993)
Billionaire philanthropist John Hammond and a team of genetic scientists have created a wildlife park full of cloned dinosaurs. When a power failure knocks out the park’s security system, a small group of visitors there to preview the exhibits before opening day are faced with a hoard of toothy reptiles and one very pissed-off t-rex.
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard S. Castellano, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)
A hodgepodge fellowship comprised of four hobbits, two humans, a dwarf, an elf, and a wizard embark on an epic quest to destroy the Ring of Power in the fires of Mount Doom in order to stop the Dark Lord Sauron from taking over Middle-earth with his force of evil orcs.
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellan, Viggo Mortensen, Liv Tyler, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis, Sala Baker
THE LITTLE PRINCE (2015)
A little girl whose mother has a strict plan for her life that includes no time for leisure befriends her elderly retired aviator neighbor who tells her the story of a little prince he once met from a faraway planet.
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, James Franco, Marion Cotillard, Benicio Del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Paul Giamatti
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)
A shallow and self-centered prince is cursed by a witch to transform into a beast for the rest of his life unless he can make a woman love him before the last petal falls from an enchanted rose. Belle, a bookish girl ahead of her time, saves her father from the clutches of the beast by offering to remain a prisoner in his stead.
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald, Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan
A young anthropomorphic bear with an unusual affinity for marmalade migrates from the wild Peruvian jungle to modern-day London. Lost and alone at Paddington Station, he meets the Brown family, who kindly offer to let him stay with them.
Based On:Paddington by Michael Bond, illustrated by R. W. Alley
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Peter Capaldi, Nicole Kidman
TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE (2018)
Sixteen-year-old Lara Jean Song Covey keeps love letters she’s written to all the boys she’s ever loved in a hatbox gifted to her by her late mother. One day, Lara finds her hatbox missing and it quickly becomes apparent that someone has mailed the letters to their not-so-intended recipients.
Starring: Mark Williams, Sorcha Cusack, Nancy Carroll, Alex Price
ALIAS GRACE (2017)
Grace Marks is a convicted murderess, having participated in the gruesome slaying of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Fifteen years into serving a life sentence in Kingston Penitentiary, an alienist named Simon Jordan takes an interest in Grace’s case and begins a series of interviews intended to suss out the motivation behind her crime. But Dr. Jordan’s interest soon grows beyond the detached professional persona he tries so desperately to maintain and it becomes clear that the facts of the case may not align with what truly happened.
Starring: Sarah Gadon, Edward Holcroft, Kerr Logan, Anna Paquin, Paul Gross
ANNE WITH AN “E” (2017- )
Anne Shirley, an eleven-year-old orphan girl, is adopted by brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert and goes to live with them on picturesque Prince Edward Island. There she meets an eclectic cast of characters, including the rambunctious Gilbert Blythe, busybody neighbor Mrs. Rachel Lynde, and kindred spirit Diana Barry. Facing prejudice because of her parentless status, Anne struggles to be accepted and chases her dreams.
Starring: Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Warburton, Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, Presley Smith, K. Todd Freeman
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (2013- )
Middle-class WASP Piper Kerman is sentenced to eighteen months in Litchfield Penitentiary after being convicted of smuggling drugs for her ex-girlfriend, Alex Vause. There she copes with the daily hardships and injustices of prison life and meets an eclectic cast of fellow inmates. Things take an interesting turn when Alex is also sent to Litchfield.
Starring: Robert Taylor, Katee Sackhoff, Lou Diamond Phillips, Cassidy Freeman, Adam Barley, Louanne Stephens, Bailey Chase, A Martinez, Zahn McClarnon
BATES MOTEL (2013-2017)
Norma Bates and her teenage son, Norman, buy a motel after Norman’s father dies. Shortly thereafter, the former owner of the motel breaks in and sexually assaults Norma. Norman knocks him unconscious and Norma stabs him to death. From this point, the series traces Norman’s complicated relationship with his mother and the unraveling of his fragile psyche.
Starring: Jenny Agutter, Laura Main, Venessa Redgrave, Stephen McGann, Judy Parfitt, Helen George, Cliff Parisi
NORTH & SOUTH (2004)
A young middle-class southerner named Margaret Hale comes face-to-face with the brutality of poverty and the industrial revolution when her family moves to the Northern cotton mill town of Milton in the mid-18th century. There she meets John Thornton, a brusque mill owner whose manners and seeming indifference to his worker’s suffering offends her finer sensibilities.
September* is National Library Card Sign-Up Month! Now that we have waited long enough to make you last minute dash to sign up look suitably dramatic and heroic, we’re here to remind you to come into the Moline Public Library (or your home library if you don’t live in Moline) and get your library card.
All you need is an ID and proof of address and you will be able to check out thousands of books, movies, music CDs and more in addition to gaining access to several online resources and e-material collections. You can learn more about applying on our website.
* You can sign up for a card any other month too, of course, there’s just something special about doing it in September.
We all have bad days. That’s an unfortunate, if inescapable, fact of life. Life is stressful, that’s part of the deal and we all need ways to let off a little steam to perhaps gain a modicum of perspective. Fortunately, the wondrous concept of schadenfreude exists, and while it may seem a tad callous to derive enjoyment from the misfortune of others, literature can give you all the vicarious joy and none of the existential guilt.
So, just remember: as bad as your day may seem, someone in the wide literary world is having a markedly worse one than you.
The Drawing of the Three
Stephen King Roland Deschain
Roland Deschain’s arch-nemesis has just escaped his grasp. He just dropped a kid to his apparent death. Literally everyone he knows is dead. And now he wakes on some random beach and large lobster-like creatures have gnawed off a couple of his fingers on his shooting hand and his big toe. That’s a bad day, folks.
A Storm of Swords
George R. R. Martin The Stark Family
In the world of A Song of Ice and Fire just having the surname “Stark” is an indication that you’re in for a string of really, really terrible days. The Red Wedding is pretty hard to top, though. Robb Stark thought he was bringing allies to his side, but instead sees his men massacred and is murdered himself. Catelyn, after watching her son die, has her throat slit. Arya Stark loses yet another chance at reuniting with her family. At least she got to add more names to her list?
At the Mountains of Madness
H. P. Lovecraft Danforth
Imagine you’re a grad student with an interest in the occult, what better place to be than good old Miskatonic University? What better experience than accompanying a geology professor to the Antarctica? There is the small issue of that expedition finding an ancient, evil civilization, a formless monstrosity and a terror so great the mere sight of breaks your sanity. Hopefully, Danforth got a ton of extra credit.
Franz Kafka Gregor Samsa
Gregor Samsa, a salesman suffering an existential crisis, turns into a giant insect. A giant insect. That is a worse day than yours.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Junot Díaz Oscar de Leon
There are bad days and then there is The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Oscar de Leon suffers through two suicide attempts, a beating-induced coma, the unrequited love of a Dominican prostitute, and his eventual death at the hands of corrupt Dominican cops. Oh, and his family is probably cursed.
The Princess Bride
William Goldman Westley
You may be having a bad day, but have you ever lost the love of your life to a pompous prince and been rendered mostly dead by a life-sucking torture device?
George Orwell Winston Smith
I’m certain that most days in a dystopian surveillance state would be fairly bad, but being betrayed by the kindly old guy you and your lady love are renting from and turned over to the thought police? That just really sucks. Throw in the torture, the rats, and the existential collapse and you’re looking down the barrel of Winston Smith’s truly bad day.
Cormac McCarthy The Kid
No one really ever has a particularly good day in a Cormac McCarthy novel. There really all just varying degrees of bleak. Imagine being the Kid from Blood Meridian, though. After years of brutality, you think you’re out from under the sway of the Judge. Then you head to the outhouse after an evening with a prostitute and open the to door to be greeted by the massive, naked figure of the Judge who “gather [you] in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh.” There’s no way that ends well.
Neil Gaiman Shadow Moon
Being released from prison early should be a good day, right? Shadow Moon likely thought so. That is until he found he was being released to attend his wife’s funeral – his wife who was having an affair with his best friend.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood Offred
Just pick a day. Literally any day of Offred’s life in Gilead is probably worse than yours.
Imogen Hermes Gowar’s debut novel The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is an enchanting tale about a merchant, a prostitute, and mythical creatures set in Georgian London. Her novel is among a new trend of mermaid novels, so we asked Gowar to examine why readers are suddenly hearing the siren call of these half-human protagonists.
One summer when I was eight or nine, my parents took me to a castle in Antibes, the Chateau Grimaldi. It sat high above the sea, sheer walls giving way to sheer cliffs. I leant over the battlements staring down at the roiling sea, and felt a vertiginous longing; a terrible fear of the muscular, pulverising waves below combined with an intense desire to leap into them. I understood that this was not the kind of thought I should have, but it revisited me every time I was by the sea (brown crags off the east coast of England, usually, on drizzly days with rattling pebbles rolling underfoot). I became interested in mermaids not as candy-colored waifs, but as agents of vastness, power, destruction.
I was excited by the idea of girls who could withstand the chill and the salt and the stone-crushing belligerence of the ocean; that the longing and terror I felt came not from the water but from the women within it.
This year has seen an extraordinary glut of mermaid novels by women writers, no two the same. We, the Splash generation, shared our bathtubs with red-haired Ariel dolls: Mermaids were presented to us early, and perhaps we spent our growing years disassembling them, and remodeling them as more faithful reflections of femaleness as we found it.
When we write about mermaids, we write about women: As we peel back the veneer of prettiness, dig through the strata of storytelling, we find a thousand shards of ourselves to reject or reclaim. Mermaids, being between states, have many states, which is sometimes dangerous— as Louise O’Neill points out in The Surface Breaks, her blistering take on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, a woman out of place must be put back in it— but also presents a freedom to question convention, and to be frank about feelings we might otherwise suppress. To write about mermaids is also to write about escape.
“What would be the point of a mermaid who looked like any other girl?” asks Pearl, a professional mermaid performer with a screen-printed tail and a collection of wigs “the color of childhood” in Kirsty Logan’s The Gloaming. Not for her punters a “sinister, shifting fish-girl”: They want escapism. The mundane tricks of the trade—the effort, the discomfort—are, like all beauty regimes, hidden away. “No amount of sequins or pink hair will help you” if you haven’t the strength to swim in a heavy tail, or to maintain the air in your lungs until you reach a discreet breathing tube. The Surface Breaks makes horrifyingly explicit the suffering a mermaid on land must undergo. Her hard-won legs “end in two open wounds, stringy flesh falling off exposed bone”; she starves herself to please first the Sea King, then her human paramour. Encountering a beautiful fat woman, she is shocked: “I did not know that such a body was even allowed to exist.”
Illusion, obfuscation, artifice are every mermaid’s stock-in-trade. Researching my own novel, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, I was struck by the cognitive dissonance of eighteenth-century collectors. Their “mermaid” specimens—grotesque mummified creatures, often made from monkeys’ torsos stitched to salmon tails—looked nothing like those in their imagination, and yet one served as evidence that the other might just exist. The high-class brothel where Hancock’s mermaid is displayed is decked in gorgeous pearls and corals—so are the prostitutes—and it’s a collective triumph of will to ignore the fact that the specimen at the centre of this masquerade is repellent. In the “amphibious” society of 1780s London, country girls hope to transform themselves into duchesses, and merchants to make their fortune in novelties. When my main character, Angelica Neal, swims naked in a fountain singing a sea-shanty, she is a purveyor of erotic wish-fulfillment, no more presenting a real mermaid than she is her real self.
These contemporary novels share a suspicion of mermaids’ fabled beauty, which rarely exists for their own benefit. The great deceit of the mermaid myth—and the woman myth—is that they owe their power to mere sexual allure: Whether the mermaid is real or fake, her looks are a skimming over of her physical or psychic strength.
Even Heinrich Heine’s Lorelei, from his 1824 poem, is “the fairest of maidens,” although it’s her voice that’s dangerous. The boatman lured to his death is not inflamed by passion but “seized with a savage woe.” It isn’t sex that hooks you; it’s sadness.
In The Surface Breaks there is another race of mermaid, the Rusalkas: “the jilted, the victims, the orphans, and the abused,” drowning and devouring men as retribution for their crimes. They are embodiments of every dreadful wrong women swallow, and therefore shunned by their gorgeous cousins until late in the book when their rage becomes a positive force.
This is the deepest escape of all. Sylvia Plath’s poem, also Lorelei, is a seduction to death or oblivion: Her mermaids “sing/ Of a world more full and clear /Than can be”—the ache of the sea’s vastness is a sensation that must be dulled and suppressed and forgotten: the void is sharp as a diamond, painful in its purity; it is indifferent to us, and we are drawn to it because we long to be lost.
Near the beginning of Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, its main character Lucy is “scared of [the ocean’s] wild ambivalence, so powerful and amorphous, like the depression itself. It didn’t give a fuck about me.” Running from life’s disappointments (a break-up; pulled PhD funding; fading youth), Lucy is torn between feeling nothing, and losing herself in feeling. The death sirens offer seems, “the greatest love…to die intoxicated by love and lust,” and as it turns out Theo, the merman she meets on the beach, is a creature of sexual fantasy not so different from his traditional female counterparts.
On land, he is physically dependent on Lucy. Hiding from the rest of the world, his eye cannot wander; he offers her mindblowing sex and a relationship that is in effect her personal sandbox in which to work out how deeply she wishes to touch the void, and how devotedly she can bear to love and be loved. Men treat women this way all the time, but some mer-magic is required to subvert the roles.
A mermaid is a prism, which scatters a million visions of womanhood to pick and close from. When we write about mermaids, we have options. How many layers of artifice are there between ourselves and our feelings? What bonds would we like to slip, if we could?
We can choose vengefulness, sexual autonomy, beauty, delicacy, pounding grief. The gorgeous swirling-haired mermaid of fairytale is available to us, but so is the siren calling the exhausted to oblivion. There are many ways to be, and many ways to escape.