5 Books #1- Science Fiction for People Who Don’t Think They Like Science Fiction

Alright, so, I’ll admit that sometimes trans-related issues get the majority of my writing efforts here, which wasn’t (and really still isn’t) my goal with this project. My interests are wide and varied, and dammit, I’m going to work harder on actually talking about them! One of the things I’m absolutely crazy about (as I think I’ve mentioned before) is books and literature. I’m particularly fond of the wide range that makes up science fiction, but my reading certainly isn’t limited to just sci-fi. So in the vein, I’m starting a new column series about books, with the goal of posting one a month (on the the first day of the month). Sometimes it might be a list of five book suggestions on a particular theme, sometimes it might be a book review, and if I’m tenacious enough to corner an author at a convention, it might even be an interview! So, on that note, let’s get to our inaugural post in this series: 5 Science Fiction Books for People Who Don’t Think They Like Science Fiction.

Sci-fi gets an awfully bad rap from a lot of people- one that I feel is rather undeserved! A common perception is that science fiction is written for men, and that it mostly involves space ships, ray guns, and aliens. Unfortunately, the science fiction world doesn’t do enough to shed itself of that kind of image. The Sci-Fi Channel (sorry, SyFy…*eye roll*) is dominated by space-and-alien kinds of movies and show, and portions of the convention scene (particularly WorldCon) are still dominated by the writing of white men talking about spaceships. Heck, even the two biggest awards for science-fiction writing- the Nebula and the Hugo- have trophies with space themes. Don’t get me wrong, all of that certainly IS science fiction. But the world of sci-fi is so much broader than that. And I’m not talking about fantasy bodice-rippers, and Twilight-esque teen vampire lit (because that’s fantasy, which I will continue to insist is a separate (though still worthwhile) genre, no matter how much book retailers want to cram them together in the same shelves.) Fortunately, many publishers and lots of conventions are embracing the diversity of science-fiction, and bringing lots of new fans into the sci-fi community.

So, let’s talk about sci-fi ACTUALLY is. On its face, science fiction is simply speculative fiction (set in the future- either near or distant), where there is some form of driving premise involving science. This can range from the sweeping cultural space epics of Iain M Bank and Isaac Asimov, to the mind-bending cyberpunk works from Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, to dystopian literature by the likes of Ray Bradbury and Margaret Atwood, to imaginative biopunk works from Paulo Bacigalupi and China Mieville. Often, science fiction leverages this speculation to make subtle (or sometimes quite overt) commentary on modern social and political situations including capitalism, race, sexism, and religion. And while there’s a certainly an abundance of white male authors, people like Ursula K LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Connie Willis, and Lois Bujold have been prominent writers in the science-fiction realm for decades, several of whom are recognized Grand Masters of the Science Fiction Writers Association.


In crafting this list, I strove to entirely avoid anything that’s space-related, so it leans heavily on the dystopian types of stories. I tried to include a variety of writing styles and themes, and did my best balance out the heavily serious entries with some more light-hearted fare. I also wanted to demonstrate some of the diversity in authors, so only 2 of 5 are white guys. Lastly, I shied away from anything from the “hard” science fiction realm, it can put off people who are new to the sci-fi world. In any case, if you’re the sort of person who has previously thought of sci-fi as nothing more than a lot of permutations of Star Wars and Star Trek, I highly suggest you give at least one of the following a try and see if I can’t change your perspective:

1. “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro – This one is sneaky. You’ll be halfway through the book (at least) before you realize it’s anything but a touching coming-of-age story. It’s a beautiful example of the subtle premise reveal, and it makes the realization of what’s really going on that much more impactful. Ishiguro’s writing here is too good to spoil by sharing details, but the broad points he makes about the nature of what it is to be human are powerful.

2. “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut – I’ll be the first to admit that I’d look to sneak Vonnegut into almost any book list. But “Cat’s Cradle” is beautiful in its absolute absurdity, and manages to take pokes at both religion and the arms race. It’s perhaps one of the best pieces of satirical dystopian fiction that’s ever been published. And if you’ve never read Vonnegut (shame on you), it’s a really good entry piece to his work.

3. “A Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood – This is perhaps my favorite book on the list. Despite being written nearly 30 years ago, its stark warning about the dangers of viewing women’s bodies as little more than incubators for fetuses remains just as relevant now as it was in 1985. It stands as one of the pillar works of feminist science-fiction. It’s also another fantastic example of the slow-reveal, and Atwood’s use of flashback is brilliant.  

4. “The Children of Men” by PD James – Yes, you might have seen the movie. But, while the film adaptation is quite good, it’s a significant departure from the even-better novel. It’s a bleak look at potential consequences of a world where nearly everyone has become completely disillusioned and uninterested in the politics and government, as well as the prospect of human extinction. It also explores the dangers of power dynamics, and implications of a generation of spoiled, entitled children.

5. “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” by Michael Chabon – If you happen to be love detective stories with lots of word humor, this last book is the one for you. Set in a hypothetical future where the Jewish State has been relocated to Alaska with an wonderfully intricate alternate history, it’s mostly a murder mystery, but with subtle commentary on our actual history and on the Zionist movement in Israel. Chabon’s writing is actually laugh-out-loud funny at times, and his word-play is masterful.


Honorable Mentions:

“A Canticle for Liebowitz” By Walter M Miller, Jr

“The Giver” by Lois Lowry

“Wild Seed” by Octavia Butler.  

Next month on 5 Books: 5 Essential Reads for Young Feminists

No Longer Blogger Anonymous , or “Hi, my name is Mari, and I’m a blogger.”

So, as I promised in the last post, here’s where I tell you all who I am.

My name is (legally) Amara, but pretty much everyone calls me Mari (which is pronounced Mar-EE, not MAIR-ee, or muh-REE). My middle name is Brighe (pronounced Bree). I’m 31, and I live in southeast Michigan. I’m a 1st year PhD student at a local university medical school, studying Molecular Biology and Genetics. Before that I spend 5 years working as a medical laboratory professional, and I’m board-certified by the American Society of Clinical Pathology. I studied biochemistry and film history/theory as undergraduate. I’ve (kind of disappointingly) lived in Michigan my entire life. I own a little house of my own that I share with a very needy jerk of a cat named after a famous female scientist, whom i love to pieces.  I’m in a relationship with someone who makes me very happy.

I’m tallish for a girl, chubby, with a mess of frizzy/curly hair dyed purple with bangs that are constantly in my face, and I wear nerdy hipster glasses. I’m fairly extensively tattooed and constantly adding more. I’m not overly caught up in butch/femme labels or rigid limits on how I present. My hair is pretty much always up in a ponytail/pigtails/bun/braid, and I’m usually in jeans and a t-shirt. But, I have my goth girl moments, my punk rock hard-femme moments, my sexy librarian moments, and every so often, I even put on a dress (but I need a damn good reason for it).  Oh, and I have a minor obsession with Doc Martens (and by obsession, I mean I own at least a dozen pairs).

I’m very openly queer, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in the blog. I tend to simplify to “lesbian” or “gay” when talking to straight folks who don’t much experience with queer issues, but I think both words have a lot of political baggage associated with them, so “queer” is my preferred term. I’m also a neurodiverse person- in particular, a high-functioning autistic/Aspergerian- and I do put effort into educating/advocating for the understanding and acceptance of neurodiversity (and gods help you if you mention Autism Speaks in front of me).

I consider myself to be an intersectional feminist; I’m a firm believer in the importance of diversity and inclusiveness in the feminist movement, and in examining/understanding how other forms of oppression and privilege interact with sexism and patriarchal control, particularly racism, classism, heterosexism, and cissexism.  I’m most active in advocating for abortion rights/body autonomy, economic justice, and fighting human trafficking.

I keep a pretty busy life. I’m a full-time PhD student and Graduate Research Assistant, and I do some contract consulting work on the side. I’m also a professional DJ and electronic music performer, and I sit on the Board of Directors of an educational non-profit. I’m also a very active member of the Midwest science-fiction convention community- I generally attend 5-7 conventions a year or more and I consider the convention community to be my family. And of course, I’m an active trans, queer, and feminist advocate. I also read prolifically, dabble in photography, and love to travel when I get the opportunity.

And because I promised, here’s a photo (taken today, even!):


This feels like it’s just about the most boring post I’ve ever written, and I apologize for that. I’m not actually very good at talking about myself, and I think it shows here. But, there you have it…I’m officially de-anonymized!

[For safety sake, I’ve chosen to not share the city I live in, or the school I attend. I’m choosing not to post my last name to the blog because quite frankly, it’s ugly, and because I respect the privacy of the rest of my family who’d prefer I not call attention to them via my writings.]

Happy Holidays, or “I’m not quite dead!”

So, my hiatus from blogging lasted considerably longer than I had hoped. In the first few weeks of my first semester of graduate school, I had sincerely hoped that I’d find a comparatively normal work-life balance. Sadly, that turned out to just not be the case, and I needed to remain completely focused on classwork and research for the entirety of the semester. But, now that hoops have been jumped through (which I’ll talk about in a later post), I’m looking forward to making time for regular posts once again. I already have several new pieces underway, plus a year-end review!

In the mean time, I just wanted to share send wishings of Happy Holidays to everyone, and particularly to those who are either forced to spend time with unaccepting family, or simply have no one at all because of their choice to live genuinely (in whatever way that might be relevant to you). I’m having a bit of a challenging holiday myself, and I just wanted everyone to know that they’re not forgotten, and that there’s more love in the world than just the kind that comes from blood family.

So Happy Holidays to my trans sisters and brothers, my LGBTQIA+ compatriots, my fellow feminist warriors, all the allies of the world, nerds everywhere, my chosen family, and the members of my blood family who DO support and accept me me.

Remember always that you are loved, and worthy of love.


SciFi Author Calls Out Troll, or “John Scalzi absolutely evisertes an idiot anti-feminist.”

To The Dudebro Who Thinks He’s Insulting Me by Calling Me a Feminist | Whatever.

This is one of those moments where I feel oh-so-proud to consider myself a member of the science fiction community. John Scalzi is an incredibly talented and quite successful science-fiction author, and he maintains one of the oldest (and most entertaining) individual blogs on the Internet. Having had the privilege of meeting him at a few conventions, I can also say that’s a pretty cool guy. He earned a huge extra chunk of respect and admiration from when when he posted about his support for trans people back in December of last year. (I mean, there’s a reason he’s on my blogroll!) Today, it appears Scalzi is on a roll again as he absolutely tears apart an idiot troll being snide about feminism.

For a little background, a while back, John challenged his twitter followers to raise $500 in a day for the Clarion Foundation. For this, John would post on his blog a photo of himself in a very lovely period Regency dress. His followers came through, and boom, we have John in a dress. End of story, for the time being.

Fast forward a bit, and some idiot decides to take said picture and caption with the words “This is what a feminist looks like” in a very sad, feeble attempt to insult either feminists or Mr Scalzi. In either case, John does a fantastic job publicly shaming and ridiculing said person in a way that only someone of Scalzi’s particular brand of snark can manage. I very much suggest you head over to his blog and read it for yourself.

Now, loyal readers, you might say “But what was John doing in that dress to begin with? Wasn’t he denigrating femininity by putting on a dress for money?” I’m going to go with no. If you go back and read the post, it’s done with utter respect. It was actually done in response to a request a Twitter user who challenged him to wear the dress. Feeling no challenge to his masculinity nor his heterosexuality, he seized upon the moment to raise for money for a favorite charity, and cheerfully complied. He indicated absolutely zero discomfort or humiliation with the experience. I think he handled the situation with appropriately and with dignity.

I do wish he had seized a little more on the point that the creator of the captioned image may have been looking to insult the entire of the feminist cause by ascribing the term to a picture of a man in a dress (in order words HURR HURR, FEMINISTS ARE SCARY BUTCH LESBIANS WHO LOOK LIKE DUDES). But then again, that’s such a tired cliche that it’s barely even worth mentioning, other than for the requisite eye-roll and sigh of derision.

In any case, I applaud Mr Scalzi for his publicly provided tongue lashing, and his very public proclamation of his feminist beliefs. I’ll definitely have to be sure to give him a hug for it the next time I see him at a convention. :

Neil Gaiman Reading and Signing or “I met one of my very favorite authors and squeed so hard I nearly burst!”

Get ready to see gap in the thick armor that is my personality. Last night I got to see and meet an author who I have admired for a very very long time, the one and only Neil Gaiman. I’ve been geeked up for this event since I bought the tickets months ago, remember? Anyway, I think Neil is one of the most incredibly talented writers working in fiction today, particularly in fantasy, and I’ve been dreaming of getting to meet him for years, but his few appearances always seemed to be just out of reach for one reason or another. This time he was on what he purports to be his final book tour, in support of his new adult novel, The Ocean at the End of The Lane. Clearly, this was not something I could miss!

I was a little nervous that the event would end up cancelled. Neil’s flight was delayed significantly by the tragic crash at the San Francisco Airport, and didn’t touch down in Detroit until after the event was supposed to have started. Luckily, as Neil is an avid Twitter user, we were all kept updated of his progress, and he eventually arrived and made it to the stage. We were treated to a wonderful reading from the new novel first. I’ve heard recordings, both audio and video of Neil reading from his novels and short stories before, of course. But to hear him read his words to us -in person- was just…magic. It’s not often than I can be enraptured by someone reading a book (I actually very much dislike audio books for this reason), but I could have listened to him read for hours, and I would have hung on every word. He did a brief Q&A from submitted index cards, and shared some wonderful anecdotes about the origins of some of his story ideas, his childhood, his relationship with his wife (the lovely Amanda Palmer), and his children. Again, every answer was witty and entertaining, and his awkward charm shone. I wanted him to just talk all night. I think I was literally bouncing in my seat, and I know I was grinning like I was 12. At the end, he had a bit of a surprise…he gave us a reading from his not-yet-released all-ages/children’s book that’s due out this fall. It’s a fantastically absurd and adventurous tale of all of the things that happen to an otherwise ordinary father when trying to bring back milk from the market for his children’s cereal. It was just delightful, and I’m looking forward to reading to rest of it in a few months when it’s available. But, all too soon, Neil’s time on stage was over, and it was time to proceed to the book-signing.

The trouble with a book-signing is that it takes a REALLY long time. And there were over 1000 people in that theater, and even at only 15 seconds each, that’s 4+ hours of signing. The organizers did their best to keep it orderly and such, but that many people throw off a lot of heat, and the seating really wasn’t comfortable enough to be seated for many hours. I think we were fairly lucky, as we were the 3rd of 10 sections called, and even that was an almost unbearable wait. We made it through the line by about 11:15pm, and I got my copy of the new novel signed (personalized!!) and I got to squeak out an embarrassed “thank you” as I scurried away. I, who am never at a loss for words, was struck nearly mute at that moment. Yes, even I have my moments of fangirl silliness. Anyway, I got a few treasured pictures up-close as he signed, and I also got my ticket signed, which will soon be framed in my new office. I’m a little sad that the time constraints were such that I couldn’t get a picture with him, but seeing my name with his short inscription and signature on the title page, along with the brief flash of smile were enough. I have to applaud Neil’s commitment to his fans. He was signing until after 3:00am and I’m sure absolutely exhausted, but he made sure everyone who wanted something signed got their chance.

Despite being terribly hot, sweaty, tired, and hungry, I pretty much floated all the way to my car and smiled my whole way home. I might have even popped a signal tear of joy…you know, just for dramatic effect.

While I’m SO very sure that Neil won’t even come across this trifle of a blog, I’m going to be annoying anyway:

Thank you, Neil, from the bottom of my heart for making me feel like there might be a bit of magic in our world, hiding just out of sight. And thank you for temporarily melting my generally fierce exterior so I could a be an excited little girl, full of wide-eyed wonder, for just a few hours. It was a first for me.

The Geek World Has Lost a Great, or “The most important computer inventor you’ve never heard of has passed.”

Doug Engelbart, inventor of computer mouse, dies at 88 | Technology | guardian.co.uk.

Even if you’re a mega-nerd, you may not have ever heard of Doug Engelbart. He wasn’t a Silicon Valley billionaire like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, or Bill Gates. But his work is partially responsible for my ability to sit here and write this blog.

Engelbart’s most famous invention is the computer mouse, which he patented in 1979- nearly 15 years before it would become commercially available. It went on, of course, to become one of the most important input devices for computer technology for decades. He was also one of the earliest pioneers to consider the graphical user interface, and was an active researcher for the ARAPANET project that would later become the Internet as we know it.

Engelbart’s personal research philosophy was both simple and admirable. He desires to harness technology to solve complex problems and improve the lives of others. He spent most of his career working to improve the ways that people interact with machines. Because he was such a modest man, he spent much of his life in obscurity, despite his significant contributions to the world of modern computing. It wasn’t until the late 1990’s that he began to receive recognition for his work, which include a Lemelson-MIT prize, the Turing Award, the National Medal of Technology, and Lovelace Medal.

Dr Engelbart was 88 when he passed. The geek world has lost one its humblest stars today.

Game of Thrones- Explained, or “The best way I’ve heard for far to get people to understand one of the shows I’m obsessed with.”

Basic Instructions – Basic Instructions – How to Explain Game of Thrones.

I feel like things on T.N.F have been a little overly seriously lately, and maybe I need to lighten the mood a little. And really, I’ve been reglecting the “nerd” part of very title of this blog! So here’s a little gem from Scott Meyer over at Basic Instructions that has had me laughing my butt off.

I, myself, have found difficulty in explaining GoT to people who aren’t “in the know”, and I think Meyer really nailed it. Check out the rest of his stuff, too. It’s pretty amazing.

Geeks vs Nerds, or “Perhaps an end to this debate once and for all?”

The Difference Between A Geek And A Nerd [Infographic] | Popular Science.

So I have the word “nerd” right in the title of my blog, and that’s always been the term that I’ve preferred for my part of this nifty little subculture I inhabit. But I’ve never objected to be referred to as a geek, either. I just always felt like “nerd” fit me a lot better, and I’m not sure I can rightly tell you why.

The differences between nerds and geeks a topic of relatively frequent debate, and I think PopSci has given us a really good take on the matter (really, who better to trust on this subject than PopSci?). The basic idea is that “nerds” are more interested in ideas and geeks are more interested in tangible stuff. If a a career analogy helps, nerds appear to be more of the scientist/mathematician type, whereas geeks are more the IT/Coder/Computer people. I suppose that fits, as we tend to call people computer geeks more so than computer nerds.

For what it’s worth, I think I really fall easily into both catagories. I’m a published scientist, and actively pursing my PhD. And I like to write and talk about ideas about feminism, queer life, and all kinds of other stuff here on TNF. But I also love my gadgets, which is attested to by the piles of gear in my studio and the multitude of apple devices you’d find in my messenger bag. I still I think I lean a little more to the nerd end, but I suppose this blog could have just as reasonably been TransGeekFeminist (but that just doesn’t sound as good anyway!).

I don’t think this little post from PopSci is going be the final battleground in defining what it is to be a geek vs a nerd,  but it ranks among the best and most sensical ways to give clear identity to each term I’ve heard yet, if you’re into the that kind of thing. But geek or nerd, we’re still all the same community, and I think it’d do us all some good to remember that.

TheTNF Reviews “Man of Steel” or “So much promise squandered for a lot of throwing people through buildings.” (SPOILERS!)

I’ll disclose that Superman is not exactly in the upper-echelons of my fandom preferences. I find the mythos to be rather interesting, but the tales of his heroic life on Earth often feel dated and unimaginative. After the trailers I was optimistic that perhaps an updated, engaging version of the story of Kal-El was possible, even probable. It’s been a very long time since anyone has managed to pretty much anything good with the Superman franchise. The latest attempt brings together writer David Goyer (whose credits include the latest Batman trilogy and the Blade films) and director Zach Snyder (300, Watchmen, Suckerpunch), with a little help from Chris Nolan. With these guys at the helm, I was definitely expecting a grittier, darker take on Superman mythos. What we got was a bleak, grim film full of gratuitous CGI fight sequences that drag on for what feels like hours that ultimately fails its canon, the characters and the audience. Even more frustrating is the suburb casting and the fleeting moments where the nuance from Goyer and Nolan show through, and hammer home just how good this film could have been.

From a nerd point of view, the movie often feels like one long “oh, SO close moment.” At a few points throughout the film, it’s almost painfully close to exactly what I wanted, but then screws it all up. The opening of the film is chief among these. We’re treated to a lengthy introduction showing how and why Jor-El and Lana are so adamant about sending their only son to Earth, as Krypton faces destruction. I was very impressed with the overall look of Krypton itself; the production designs did a fantastic job of portraying a world both futuristic and entirely alien. The story managed to get some good traction as you watch Jor-El and his wife Lana scramble to save their son from the destruction of their planet. But then it all starts to fall apart, the questions start, and so many good things are squandered for an action moment. Why is Jor-El, supposedly a man of peace and a respected scientist, able to match guns with the elite of the Krypton military? What exactly is the point of Zod’s coup, when the planet is doomed in just weeks? And why send Zod to the Phantom Zone and spare him from the destruction of the planet?

We then jump forward and see the now-named Clark Kent doing the anonymous good-guy thing, wandering from city to city saving people and slipping out before anyone can say “who was that guy?” These random acts of heroism are interspersed with flashbacks to Clark’s formative years on Earth with his adoptive parents, leading to his eventual discovery of his origin via an ancient bit of Krypton technology, along with the chance to save the life of Lois Lane. I think this part of the film is where all the possibility really shines through. It does a surprisingly good job of establishing an emotional core to the film, and a reason for Kal to feel an attachment to the people of Earth. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are picture-perfect as Jonathan and Martha Kent, and their acting is superb. Unfortunately, the writers (I believe) altered the critical life lessons that Jon shares with young Clark, going from the canonical “Always Do Good Things” to “It’s Ok to Let People Die If You Can Keep Your Secret.” While I can see how this later sets up the gamble of Clark trusting the people of Earth, I think it detracts for one of the Superman series’ most core thoughts..the idea that doing the right thing is paramount. As well, Jon Kent’s death is changed from a heart-attack (something Clark is powerless to stop) to a tragic death by tornado that Kal chooses to allow (at his father’s insistence) in order to avoid revealing his abilities. But overall, this portion of the movie works better than almost any other, and it left me hopeful for the prospects of the rest of the film.

Sadly, soon my hope were dashed. Not long after the intrepid Lois Lane manages to discover the identity of her mystery savior, Zod arrives at Earth with his demand for custody of Kal-El. Again, the set-up here is very good, and Michael Shannon is believable and disturbing as the single-minded military despot. However, what ensues following this is an hour of trite action footage filmed at camera angles that move at a migraine inducing space. Kal fights the Zod and his soldiers all over the damn place, always with the same city-wrecking results. And the fight sequences pointless drag out far longer than is necessary, to the point where they actually become so boring that I lost any interest in who might win…I just wanted to be able to look at the screen without getting motion sickness. (And I saw the film in 2D…I can’t even imagine how 3D audiences felt!) Almost all storytelling is lost, and Clark’s lines (and Henry Cavill’s acting) go right down the tubes, with Zod and Lois right behind him. What makes the whole thing especially depressing is the beautiful cruelty of Zod’s plan (to terraform the Earth into a Krypon-like replica and save his race at the expense every human life), and how perfect it fits the mindset of his character, both in the film and in the canon. It also sets up what could have been a perfect tipping point moment for Kal-El…how to manage to save both his own people and the people of Earth. Sadly, the writing takes a nosedive here and Superman essentially commits the complete genocide of his own people (for reasons that aren’t entirely clear). For me, this was where the tone of the film reached its nadir. There was nothing in the way of even a little dark humor, let alone any real comic relief, up to this point and the sheer grimness of the entire affair settled on me. More excessively long action sequences follow this, and we reach another point where there was SO much squandered potential. Zod has been defeated, but he is able to engage his heat vision long enough to endanger a nearby family, forcing Clark to kill him to save them. Had Clark not committed genocide not a few hours prior, this moment could have been far more impactful, even more so if the canon lessons of Papa Kent been left in place. So instead of a Superman torn apart by having to take a life so brutally, it becomes just one more death in an already bloody, depressing (and bloody depressing) movie. The denouement again shines with a sense of possibility for the film as we see Clark taking his new job at the Daily Planet and slyly flirting with Lois, along with an incredibly moving flashback sequence of young Clark Kent with a red towel for a cape as his parents look on and hope aloud for his future. This short moment is by the best in the film, and it leaves me wondering how Man of Steel could have turned out if the same care used in this small sequences had been used throughout the film.

Despite the numerous failings of the film, there are a few other positive pieces worth mentioning. The film does manage to use a few wonderfully subtle moments to remind us of the details from the earlier incarnations of the franchise. A very short but purposeful shot of the water tower over Clark’s hometown reads “Smallville” without any other mention of the town’s name. Weather maps and images from the military radar are clearly labeled “Metropolis” without much other mention of the name of city that plays host to much of the story. The name “Superman” is said only twice in the entirety of movie, giving subtle homage to the eponym of the franchise without being cheesy and cliche. Unfortunately, they do little to save this disappointing entry in the Superman legacy.

From a feminist point of view, there’s a lot to like about Man of Steel, particularly early on. Lana, wife of Jor-El and mother of Kal, bravely faces the possibility to death to save her son, stands defiantly to see justice served to the man to killed her husband, and fearlessly awaits the end of her planet. Sadly, she’s marred slightly in the strange need to have her fight with Jor-El to send Kal to Earth…after all, no one is going to survive the destruction of Krypton. I love Amy Adams’ portrayal of the fearless Lois Lane (even if I object to her hair color) as she berates her way past military commanders in search the story she’s seeking. Almost as good is the moments she’s her boss at the Daily Planet to print a story she thinks is important, even if it risks her career, and then finding a way to get it printed after she loses the argument. Unfortunately, after Zod’s arrival on Earth, she seems to be reduced to doing very little other than staring at the sky while her hair blows artfully in the wind. Martha Kent provides a strong anchor point for Kal, especially after the death of Jonathon. She handles the destruction of her house in a manner befitting her unflappable resilience in the face of all she’s encountered over the years. Diane Lane’s performance is one of the biggest highpoints of the entire film. Finally, one of Zod’s most trusted and able soldiers is a woman (who isn’t named in the film, but is identified as Faora in the credits), and she’s pretty much a bad-ass. All in all, against the backdrop of superhero films, I can’t complain too much about the depiction of women in this movie. A little more plot-critical action for Lois would have been nice, but it’s overall much better than I expected.

I could absolutely write another 1000 words on the horrific abuses of all things physics in this film, but I think I’ll just sum it up briefly: physics do not appear to apply to anyone or anything in this film in any consistent or reasonable way. (If Superman is able to fly mostly because he’s jumping REALLY hard, how can he change direction or HOVER?!!?!) Beyond that,  I’ll leave those gripes to the physics bloggers.

I don’t think that Man of Steel has killed the Superman franchise…after all, the film pulled in almost $150 million. I just really hope that if they decide to build a sequel, they put someone else at the helm. Zach Snyder should stick to films about naked Greeks killing lots of people in very stylish ways.

AMP v. Myriad Decision, or “Hey, our genes belong to us again…sort of.”

U.S. Supreme Court Rules On Gene Patents | Popular Science.

I held off on posting a full-length article yesterday, as I knew this decision was being handed down today, and I like being topical!

[Disclosure: I am a member of the Association for Molecular Pathology]

Being a scientist, I can’t NOT talk about one of the most important Supreme Court cases involving my field..well..ever. Today, the AMP v Myriad Genetics ruling was handed down,  and it’s earth-shattering for those of us who work in the areas of genetic and molecular biology. For me, I think there’s a lot of good, but it’s far from what I was hoping for.

I’ll start with some background. I’m not going to teach a whole intro genetics or molecular biology courses here…if you aren’t familiar with the basics of genetics or DNA, you want to spend some time reading through the material here first. Important for this discussion is to understand that genomic DNA or gDNA is the raw, unchanged strands of DNA isolated from cells. cDNA is a form of “synthetic” DNA that does precisely match the sequence in the genome (most frequently it has had the introns cut out, but I’ll get to this in a minute). Years ago, Myriad Genetics discovered the existence of two genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) that have a significant impact of breast cancer risk. The applied for and were awarded patents covering everything having to do with these genes. From there on out, they required licensing fees from anyone who wanted to do ANYTHING with BRCA1 and BRCA2, from screening tests to research and more. Many other whole-gene patents have been granted since, effectively giving a number of companies exclusive domain to test people for changes in the genes they hold patents for. It’s been a practice fraught with controversy for many years. Some have argued that not allowing patents removes incentives for investment in genetic research, as the patent allows the firm that discovered it to recoup its costs through direct testing sales and/or licensing fees (not unlike the model for the pharmaceutical industry.) Opponents have argued that US law specifically excludes “unaltered products of nature” from being patented, and that allowing these patents to continue restricts research progress and hampers medical advancements. A few years back, a major professional organization in genetics- The Association for Molecular Pathology (AMP)- sued Myriad to challenge the validity of their patents. The case wound its way through the Federal court system, and eventually was taken up by the Supreme Court earlier this year. Today, the SCOTUS handed down their ruling. The very basic interpretation of what the court held is that genes themselves cannot be patented, however cDNA sequences can. Most people who have been following this case for a while expected a ruling along these lines. This invalidates a large portion of Myriad’s patent control of BRCA1 and BRCA2 and seriously weakens the patent positions of a number of companies with important gene patents.

I have long argued against the idea of gene patenting. Like many other in my field, I have never been comfortable with a number of the implications, the largest being the idea that a company someone holds control over my ability to learn information about the one of the most basic parts of my body, my genome. Please don’t misunderstand, as a scientist, I full understand the importance of intellectual property protections. However, my DNA belongs to me, and I hold strongly that I’m the one who should have ultimate control over its analysis. Furthermore, I feel that gene patents fail another crucial test: you cannot invent “around” them. A hallmark of the concept of the patent is the idea that whatever is patented can still be improved upon. If you’re intelligent enough to design a way to get to the same endpoint by different methods, then you’re in the clear (and can even be granted a patent of your own). However, granting complete patent control over the gene itself removes that “invent around” possibility, which (to me) is a violation of the basic tenants of patent law and patentability.

The decision has some pretty important implications as genetic and genomic technology race forward. So called next-generation sequencing technology is rapidly bringing down the costs of large scale sequencing of the human genome (as well as exome and transcriptome, which again, we’ll cover shortly), and whole gene sequencing is staged to move from an extremely complex, expensive, and time-consuming test to something relatively routine within just the next year or so. This technology will allow us to sequence entire genes (and soon entire genomes) of large numbers of individuals and give us insights into genetic function and variability beyond out wildest dreams, as well as significant advancements in personalized medicine. If gene patents had been allowed to stand, it would have created a nightmare of licensing complications for interpreting complete genome sequences. Companies wishing to offer complete genome testing would have been required to negotiate licenses (and fees) with every single holder of a patent on a human gene. Not only would this have been an administrative nightmare and a constant risk of litigation, it would have almost certainly made this kind of testing prohibitively expensive to all but the richest of patients, turning a potentially paradigm-shifting medical advancement into a niche sector.

The decision isn’t perfect however. The upholding of cDNA patents leaves a number of complex issues in place. The largest among these (at least from my reading of the case law) is transcriptome research. One of the most common places where cDNA is made is from messenger RNA (mRNA). mRNA’s function within the cell is to provide instructions to produce proteins. mRNA is isolated from cells to study the changes in these signals (generally known as gene expression). The sum of all these mRNAs from a cell is known as the transcriptome. Current technology allows us to examine large portions of the transcriptome to monitor gene expression in cells, tissue, and ultimately organisms, and it has wide-ranging applications in medical research, particularly in complex situations like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.  Again, as the technology in molecular biology advances, we are able to examine much larger portions of the transcriptome and gain a much deeper understanding of the mechanisms at place in many processes, both cellular and throughout an organism and the potential for major advancements in human health is huge. However, if the cDNA made from the mRNA of a particular gene remains under patent, we again run into the issues of licensing for this kind of work. It seems to me that it’s more the wording of explanation of what cDNA is that skirts the “natural products” restriction, not any significant difference in fact. cDNA is essentially a copy of a natural product (mRNA); it just so happens that the particular method in which nucleic acids replicate (through complimentary sequences) gives it appearance of something novel. It’s still essentially a patent on something innate to my body (the genes it’s expressing, rather than the basic instruction set). It still fails at the “invent around” test, and I believe these patents should have (at least as they apply to mRNA) been overturned as well. I believe the repercussions of allowing these patents to remain will significantly stifle research in gene expression and the transcriptome for years to come.

I think the AMP v Myriad ruling is an important step forward, and a correction to a major standing error in US intellectual property law. I believe it will open to door for major advances in many areas of medicine and basic science, and it maintains an individual’s absolute control over the content of their genetic code. However, the upholding of cDNA patents is a sticking point for me, and I’m anxious to see how this plays out in research community and in IP litigation.