Content Warning: This event and book contains discussions of sexuality, profanity, and sexual activity.
Last Thursday was the debut event for Dr. Bethany Jacobs’s novel, These Burning Stars. The event was a part of the “University Worth Fighting For” public event series hosted by the Futures Initiative and cosponsored by Lambda Literary, The Graduate Center CUNY (CLAGS and the Department of English), and The New School (School of Media Studies and Creative Writing MFA Program, School of Public Engagement). Our event happened in a hybrid format, being both in person at the Graduate Center and also online via Zoom.
A dangerous cat-and-mouse quest for revenge. An empire that spans star systems, built on the bones of a genocide. A carefully hidden secret that could collapse worlds, hunted by three women with secrets of their own. All collide in this explosive space opera debut from a powerful new voice in sci-fi.
On a dusty backwater planet, occasional thief Jun Ironway has gotten her hands on the score of a lifetime: a secret that could raze the Kindom, the ruling power of the galaxy.
A star system away, preternaturally stoic Chono and brilliant hothead Esek— the two most brutal clerics of the Kindom—are tasked with hunting Jun down.
And tracking all three across the stars is a ghost from their shared past known only as Six. But what Six wants is anyone’s guess. It’s a game of manipulation and betrayal that could destroy them all. And they have no choice but to see it through.
Bethany Jacobs is a former college instructor of writing and science fiction, who made the leap to education technology. When she is not writing, she enjoys reading, trying out new recipes, and snuggling in bed with a TV show she’s already watched ten times. She lives in Buffalo, New York, with her wife and her dog and her books. These Burning Stars is her debut novel.
The event kicked off with an opening statement from Director of the Futures Initiative, Dr. Adashima Oyo, who introduced both FI and our fearless founder, Cathy N. Davidson. Professor Davidson effused with praise for Bethany’s work, and revealed her own status as a Sci-Fi writer, and part of a science fiction writing group, Second Sundays, with Bethany and Margaret Rhee which has met throughout the entire pandemic – a multi-national, multi-generational, multi-racial, multi-genre, and multi-sexual cohort of glorious, loving, but tough writers and editors, reading each other’s work. And Bethany, though a former member, has remained a mythic figure for the group, a brilliant, rising star in the world of genre fiction.
And from there, we took off from the Kelly Skylight Room of the Graduate Center and headed into These Burning Stars for Bethany’s first-ever public reading, starting from the first lines of her debut novel. We touch down on the the Planet Ma’kess with Esek Nightfoot, our sharp, vicious villainess as she has a fateful observation of a brutal demonstration at the Kinschool of Principes.
Here’s a sneak peak of the wondrous world of the Treble system: “The school itself was all stone and mortar and austerity. Somber-looking effigies stared down at her from the parapet of the second-story roof: the Six Gods, assembled like jurors. She looked over her shoulder at her trio of novitiates huddled close to one another, watchful. Birds of prey in common brown. By contrast, she was quite resplendent in her red-gold coat, the ends swishing around her ankles as she started toward the open gates. She was a cleric of the Kindom, a holy woman, a member of the Righteous Hand. In this school were many students who longed to be clerics and saw her as the pinnacle of their own aspirations. But she doubted any had the potential to match her”
The reading was followed with an interview of Bethany by Margaret Rhee (The New School) which got really queer, really fast. The conversation opened on a reflection of Bethany’s writing process (she’s a plotter, not a prancer), and the intricate history she invented regarding the world of the Treble system. Margaret asked Bethany about the unique gendermark system, where children are only given a gender (and accompanying humanity) after a certain age, which are a literal removable marking on the characters. Then, the conversation pivoted to the erotic, as Margaret and Bethany discussed a steamy, sapphic sex-scene utilising a strap-on and cybernetic prosthetics. Margaret read a quick snippet of the scene – “she moves faster, Liis’s hand grabbed her hips, then her ass, urging her on…” – and they were not kidding about how electrifying that moment was to read.
Following up from Margaret’s excellent interview, the conversation was opened up to the audience in person, and we had an exciting docket of questions: some focused on the parallels of the Jeveni Genocide and the parallels to the situation in Palestine and the Sudan, discussing how Sci-Fi has historically allowed space to think about how oppression and power intersect, and how intersectional feminism allow us to see the difficult ways working within a system with oppressors can “fuck” with us. “fuck” become quite the flexible term as well, as FI Co-Chair Shelly Eversley asked about the fluidity of “fuck” – leading Bethany to explain how central profanity is to These Burning Stars, where the oppressive system of the Kindom is not only attacked, but also “fucking with” and “fucked by our protagonists, reframing the expletive as an ethos in itself. And of course we returned to that titillating strap-on scene, this time to praise it for its use of disability as empowering and erotic, allowing for a very real but rarely seen libido to take center stage.
All in all, it was a wonderful evening where we discussed raunchy romances and high-stakes adventures birthed from the brilliant mind of Bethany Jacobs. The event served as a reminder to how much community matters – that the walls between the academy and popular fiction are only as thick as we allow them to be. These Burning Stars reminds us all that we need to see ourselves reflected in our fantasy worlds, laughing, gasping, and pondering about the different possibilities for the way our world could work.