Mon
Dec 1 2008 9:12am
Knights Who Say “Fuck”: Swearing in Genre Fiction

A little while ago the Mighty God King posted a marvellous collection of doctored book covers, with the titles he felt the books he’d loved as a teenager should have had. The genius of this was the way he used the exact right fonts every time, so that Mercedes Lackey’s My Little Pony Goes to War had just the font you were expecting to see on that cover. One of them that made me laugh out loud was his cover for George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. (I love those books.) His new title was Knights Who Say Fuck,” which amused me not only because of the clever Python reference but because it’s true, they do, and that’s one of the things that makes it different from traditional high fantasy. He’s not the only person whose knights are saying “Fuck” these days—Sarah Monette’s charmingly foulmouthed Mildmay leaps to mind—but it is something you never used to see. It didn’t fit the register of fantasy. The register has broadened. Interesting.

I’m reading Cherryh’s Downbelow Station which was published in 1981. I started it immediately after finishing Hellburner, which is set earlier but was published in 1992. I noticed immediately that in Downbelow Station the troopers “breath an obscenity into com,” “swore quietly,” “swore at length,” “adding an obscenity.” In Hellburner in equivalent situations they’re saying “Shit, shit, shit!” and "Fuck!”

Now I read both of these books pretty much when they came out, and I didn’t notice anything odd about the level of permitted swearing in them. Yet something definitely changed, between 1981 and 1992, and it wasn’t C.J. Cherryh. The number of times someone breathes an oath, an obscenity, or swears viciously in Downbelow Station, you can tell she knows the words the troopers are saying. In fact it reminds me of the coy dashes you get in Trollope, where the fact that a husband called a wife a “-------” in He Knew He Was Right, is plot-rocking, and no, you never find out what the word is. The footnotes think “harlot”. As I’m not even faintly shocked by “harlot” I’ve decided to fill in that blank, and all Trollope’s blanks, with the worst words I know.

So, was Cherryh being effectively censored by what you were allowed to say?

The thing that surprises me about that is the date. I thought it was the sixties when people in books were allowed to use actual oaths, rather than just mighty ones. Did genre fiction lag behind? Certainly it was the New Wave that started talking about sex, but how careful were the words? I noticed when reading W.E.B. Griffin that you can say “shit” all you like in his books as long as you’re not talking about “human excrement” and similarly “fuck” unless you’re talking about “sexual intercourse.” Obscenities are different from description, and use of the words can vary in either direction. These words are charged, and they have very specific registers, they’re significant markers.

You used to see fake “futuristic” swearing. (Who can forget Larry Niven’s “tanj”?) When did that stop? Drinking Sapphire Wine has it, and that’s 1976.

So, things clearly changed in the eighties. Why? Was there a specific change, a specific book or date that it changed, within genre fiction? Or was it a general cultural change of what was acceptable slowly bleeding through into genre? Did it get to SF first and seep into fantasy later? Game of Thrones is 1996.

And when did it stop being daring for people to swear “like a trooper” and become normal? My memory is that in South Wales when I was a child adults swore in Welsh, and what they said, translated, meant “God” or “The Devil,” and “bloody” was pretty strong swearing in English. But my memory of being a young adult in Britain in the early and mid-eighties didn’t include other young women casually saying “fuck” the way they do now. I think there has been an actual change, and it isn’t just that literature was coy about recording what people said, as that what people say has changed. I’m sure this is also a difference between Britain and North America, and maybe between different areas too.

And in the future? Well, there are fashions in these things. Perhaps our texts with their liberal scatterings of “fuck” will eventually look as quaint as Trollope’s dashes.

33 comments
Drew Shiel
1. Drew Shiel
Language has certainly changed here in Ireland, and we were never a nation noted for holding our tongues. It's gone from a state where you could go days without hearing even a muffled "fuck!" from anyone, and it was a signal that something was very wrong, to a state where it's used as punctuation, and is a lot milder than many other words.
brightening glance
2. brightglance
I think that in both Ireland and the UK, that there was a section of society, or a context, where _men_ swore like that all the time. Farmers and cattle dealers at the mart, or working men at the factory. However men didn't swear like that in front of women and respectable women didn't use that language at all. The controversy over e.g. Charlie Haughey being quoted saying "fuck" was that in previous decades the journalist would have automatically edited it out.

You have to have a fairly rigid society both class and gender-wise to keep that divide. Cf. Bujold's description of Cordelia figuring out the way in which the pretence can be maintained on Barrayar as to what certain people do and do not know and/or do as regards sex.

Our generation always used more swearwords than the previous one seemed to - if my mother said "Jesus" once a year under extreme provocation she would nearly flagellate herself for it. My own language really went to the dogs one summer in 1989, when I was working in a hotel in Germany with a mixed bag of English speakers from England (mainly Northern England), Scotland, Ireland North & South and 1 Welsh person. The two girls from Belfast (1 Protestant & 1 Catholic, fwiw) swore the most but we almost all ended up the same in the end. I came back from that with a far fouler mouth than my father, not to mind my mother.

Interestingly I think the older generation are a bit more lax themselves now than they were when I was growing up.
Elio García
3. Egarcia
It's not literature, but the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica features "frak" for "fuck", to get it by the censors I suppose. Similarly, a little earlier Farscape introduced to SF television fans to "frell", with the same sense. I think they had a substitute for "shit", too.

But turning to fantasy literature cursing... hrm. Before A Game of Thrones, the person who comes to mind is Katherine Kerr and Daggerspell, her first Deverry book, published in 1986. "Shit" is used as a matter of course. "Fuck" is also mentioned, although in that book it's strictly describing intercourse.

Jordan's Wheel of Time uses very mild fantasy curses, "Blood and ashes!", "Light!", and so on, and of course Thomas Covenant has "Hellfire and damnation!" for that old Biblical feel.
Bruce Cohen
4. SpeakerToManagers
In the sixties (in the US, anyway), I think we tended to use "shit" and "fuck" in public and in mixed company with a sort of self-aware smile, as if to say, "look how liberal we are". Being in the military was eye-opening: there the forbidden words were punctuation, adjective, and pronoun all rolled into one, and it was almost a requirement that you use them frequently. Coming out of the service and trying to fit into "polite" society was difficult then.

The number of women in military service in the 60's was very small; there were nurses (as foul-mouthed as soldiers), and a few others in uniform. Since then, the number of women has increased considerably, and I wonder if that has something to do with the public acceptance. Certainly the taboo against using "fuck" in mixed (gender) company has evaporated in that time.

And in part I expect it's because a couple of generations have grown up with successively more real swearing allowed in the media they see and read, each generation adding its own increase as a rebellion against their parents. As a generation grows to the age of having power in the media, they impose their own standards, first in an "edgy" manner in the fringes of a genre, and then moving toward the central, more conservative areas.

Yes, high fantasy is a conservative genre. It has fairly rigid rules about how plots evolve, and what kinds of characters can fill which roles. Its tropes have remained clearly outlined by the initial work of Tolkien, Eddison, and carried on by those who followed them. So what became urban fantasy, a more recent genre, started cursing realistically before high fantasy, but eventually editors could be convinced that even high fantasy deserved a good "fuck".
James Nicoll
5. James Davis Nicoll
I think my mother swore by some Hispano-Irishman named Jesus Murphy.

I can spot one thing that changed between 1981 and 1992 but it's publisher-specific: Donald Wollheim retired. When I was doing the DAW reviews

-

I'd like to point out that although I have what I think is a complete list of Timescape books someone else has dibs on those reviews and while I would be willing to tackle reviewing everything Tor has ever published, at least in the way of F&SF, I have thus far failed to put together a list

-

I did notice that Wollheim's choices differed somewhat from those of Elizabeth R. Wollheim and Sheila E. Gilbert and that while I want in no way to suggest that SEG and ERW were making the wrong decisions, the books they published were less likely to interest me than the ones Wollheim published.

They were 100% right to dump Norman, though. Make room for more A. Bertram Chandler, Edward Llewellyn and David Lake books, I say. Yes, yes, by that point two of them were dead and one was Australian. New MSes might have turned up.
Tzut Tzut
6. WillieMcBride
The language finally became normal again, after a century of prudery and "respectability." People always swore: the next time you're in Rome visit the Basilica of San Clemente: there's a fresco from the beginning of the 11th century who is the first example of "comics", that is, the words spoken by the characters are written near their mouths; it is also one of the earliest example of the Italian language, distinct from the Latin language.

My middle school books had to include a picture of the fresco because it was historically important, but didn't translate the sentences, because one of the characters actually said "traite, fili de le pute", that is "pull, you sons of whores".
Drew Shiel
7. DKT
I'm always amused by the way China Mieville will twist in our profanity with his invented cursing. So much so, that I occasionally find myself thinking Jabberfuck or Godspit.
Drew Shiel
8. affreca
Egarcia -
Thanks for mentioning Kerr's Daggerspell. Her phrase "withered testicle of a sterile donkey" is still one of my favorites.
Drew Shiel
9. Bill Tozier
Somebody should probably point out how effective and beautiful Deadwood (admittedly also "genre" fiction) turned out. Not because it overturned assumptions and stereotypes of the language of the "Old West", but because it mingled cursing like a miner with ubiquitous education in the Classics so well.
marcusine alexander
10. marcie
It's a tough one. If you read it and the story keeps flowing, some kind of need for it exists or is assumed within the world and the characters doing the swearing.

If it jars you out of the story..........?

Sometimes it's meant to I suppose. A good writer can carry it off.

I love the older books though. It would be out of place to see swearing like that in those stories. I am thinking of some wonderful rereads lately of E. E. doc Smiths lensmen series, among others.

I've stopped watching television because I have to pace the profanity. Too much and I feel sick of it all. Within the show if it's warranted I can deal. Again good writing can move you through it almost without noticing.

Good discussion. I'm thinking it's time I read my first Kerr. My tbr pile grows ever larger. :)
Marissa Lingen
11. Mris
My grandmother will go way out of her way to avoid saying "fuck" if she is quoting someone who is saying it. She talks around it. She is clearly unhappy to even have to do that.

I feel similarly about certain ethnic/racial slurs. I once referred (in my journal) to a four-letter k-word as The Word I Won't Quote, and a friend of mine wrote to say she didn't know any four-letter k-words that might be objectionable to me, and when I clarified that it was an anti-Semitic slur, she was even more clear that she didn't have any idea what I meant. (I told her. She's a fantasy writer; the last thing she needs is to come up with it as a made-up word, although editors I've talked to assure me that they can tell the difference between ignorance and racism in that sort of context fairly readily.)

So I don't think the shift is one way towards foul language. My grandmother has great distaste for white people who call black people the n-word, but she will quote it with her mouth all sour if she has to, to demonstrate what horrible thing was said, and I find myself shying away from doing so if I can possibly avoid it.

I know what you mean about putting the worst words you can think of in Trollope. When I was reading early John D. MacDonald, he would write, "she called him a ten-letter epithet," and I would stop reading and sit there running through the epithets I could think of, seeing how many had ten letters, or how many compound ones I could construct with ten letters. It got a lot filthier than if he'd just written what he meant and had done with it.

I have a set of stories (two so far in On Spec, with another coming out) in the first-person voice of a contemporary man in his early 20s who plays hockey. If Carter said "gosh darn" and "golly gee," that would tell you something about his character. He doesn't, and that tells you something, too. But I've made the conscious decision to leave out casually homophobic references that would be fairly realistic in a minor league men's hockey team, because they would bore the heck out of me if I had to write them constantly, and taking the time to specifically deplore and/or undermine them is not what I want to do with these stories, but leaving them undeplored/unundermined will also not really do. So out they go. So far no complaints.
April Sadowski
12. aibrean
I think what irks me more is when it's written it just to be there. There are some movies that similarly have swearing in every other word. While in some parts of the world I can see that, realistically it's overkill. I personally don't put swearing into my writing just because I personally rarely swear. If there is good reason behind it then it makes sense to do so, otherwise it's just a way to get some attention.
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Note: Rimrunners, 1989, uses "shit", "bastard" and "bitch" but otherwise "effing", "frigging" (which I believe isn't considered rude in the US?) and "mof".

This is in the mouth of a trooper. So troopers still couldn't quite swear like themselves in 1989, but things had moved on a lot since 1981.

Interesting.
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
Aibrean: What sort of attention do you think people use it for, in fiction? What sort of attention does it get?

I agree with you in the general sense -- people shouldn't use any words but the words that there's a reason to have on the page. Cuss words are no different from anything else. If there's a reason to use "fuck" it's the same as if there's a reason to use "nacreous" or anything else. Writing is very much a matter of writing down the word that comes next, whatever that word might be.

I don't naturally cuss either. Swearing is pretty much an affectation for me. If I say "sheesh", or "what the heck" I'm not using it as a euphemism for anything, I am not suppressing my own desire to say something "worse" but just speaking naturally. I similarly try to make my characters speak as is natural to them... and they're different from me, from different contexts. I don't use it to get an effect from the reader -- except in Tooth and Claw where I use dashes with unlikely consonants v----- and g----- purely for effect.

I think it gets more attention and feels more unnatural in context for Cherryh's troopers to be saying "effing" or "breathing an obscenity" than for them to be saying "fucking".
steve heise
15. steveheise@live.com
We search for a way to personally connect with someone beyond what we present to the greater world. Profanity allows us to bypass conventional discourse and cut straight to a one-on-one "i know you and you know me and we don't have to be fake with one-another" facade. Then again, maybe I just have a potty-mouth and a bunch of potty-mouth friends.....hee hee.
Sandi Kallas
16. Sandikal
Personally, I think that the use of current profanities works best in certain kinds of literature. I think it comes across as anachronistic in far-future science fiction or fantasies in pseudo-medieval settings. In literature in general, I think it works best if it isn't over-used. It needs to fit the characters and setting.

Last year, I read "The Algebraist" by Iain Banks. It had an interesting premise and was highly rated. But, I was completely turned off by the liberal use of the f-word. It just seemed completely out of place in a story set 20,000 years in the future. Surely, they would have come up with different profanities in that amount of time.

I really don't consider myself to be a prude on this issue either. I love the character of Ari on the HBO series "Entourage". He spews an f-word every sentence, but that's his character. I thought "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" was excellent and there's an immeasurable amount of profanity in it.

I just think profanities need to fit the characters and the stories. Too many times, they seem awkward and self-conscious. To be honest, I see profanity in the same light as sex in literature; it shouldn't be there unless it moves the story forward or provides some dimension to a character. If the author is uncomfortable with the language, he/she should not be using it. Just because the use of profanity is so common doesn't mean it has to be used.
Drew Shiel
17. butcherbaby
i was in high school in the 80s, and both myself and every female i knew swore regularly. so did both my parents, my mom, and my aunt. to give you an idea of what generations they were from, my grandma was a flapper, my dad fought in WW2, and january would have been my mom's 80th birthday. i don't know if it's because they all grew up in rather rugged areas in the midwest or what but as far as potty-mouth (love that term) in my family it was definitely not confined to the modern generation only!
Jordan Bell
18. jordanroberts
For me, swearing has moved from something that I never did, to being something I did all the time (after being exposed to people who swore regularly at university) to something I made a conscious decision to cut down on when I felt it was reducing the variability and originality of my written and spoken expression.
Oh, I also became a primary school teacher there for a while - there was some kind of fabulous mental filter that clicked in to place as soon as I walked through the classroom door that made swearing impossible - I think I had been in the job for three years before I breathed a pained "shit" when I dropped a table on my toe in an empty classroom - quite a different reaction to one I might have had in the privacy of my own home.
In novels and on TV it doesn't bother me, but it's something I tried to prune out of my own speech when I noted I was over-using it to the detriment of quality communication.

And, in other news - China Mieville is a "he"? I always assumed the author was female!
Jo Walton
19. bluejo
Jordan:

China Mieville definitely is male, I've met him. I have heard that his name comes from the Cockney rhyming slang "me old china" meaning "friend" from "china plate" rhyming with "mate", but that sounds almost too good to be true.
zaphod beetlebrox
20. platypus rising
Well,that particular cockney expression is alive and well-a Norn Ironish friend of mine uses it often.
Nicholas Alcock
21. NullNix
Sandikal, you have to assume that the swearing is translated --- but then, for something set as far in the future as _The Algebraist_, you have to assume that *everything* is translated. Nobody actually *does* the translation, of course, with the possible exception of JRRT, but you have to pretend it nonetheless, or you'd have to start wondering how come the language hadn't evolved at all in the umpty-thousand years between now and then. And then you start wondering why one character in _Feersum Endjinn_ speaks phonetic Scottish rather than phonetic Texan and eventually are forced to conclude that, well, the author is Scottish, and your WSOD implodes.

So it's best to leave it be.
Sandi Kallas
22. Sandikal
NullNix, my point was that it sounded wrong and it didn't fit. Of course, nobody 20,000 years from now is going to be speaking 21st Century English. I think it's a gross assumption to think that average people, especially upper-class people, will be cursing the way they've been the last 30 years even a hundred years from now. I would find it just as annoying and distracting in historical fiction too. It wouldn't fit a story set 200 years ago any more than it fit a story set 20,000 years from now.

In my opinion, the books that have real staying power avoid using slang and colloquialisms, unless it's literature that's aimed at capturing a slice of contemporary life. I think the current prevalence of the f-word and other profanities fits into the category of slang and colloquialism.
A. L.
23. Rymenhild
I just read Tooth and Claw, as it happens, and I had the same experience as Mris reading Trollope. I stopped mid-page to wonder what "v----" and "g----" could possibly stand for. "V----" is clearly the dragon equivalent of "whore", went my thought processes, "but-but-but-I really want to know what the dragon equivalent of 'whore' is and why!" That speaks to the quality of the worldbuilding, that I both knew what the word's vague equivalents were and knew that it absolutely had to be a different word to account for the dragon version of female sexuality.

---

The construct, " swore," especially in YA fantasy, always confused me as a child reader. I knew most of the common American English curse words, but I couldn't imagine the high fantasy characters saying them, and I didn't know what else they might be saying.
Drew Shiel
24. annafdd
Yes, China's name comes from the rhyming slang, I heard it from him.
I have to say that sometimes I prefer the "breathed an obscenity" to the actual words, because as an Italian I am regularly disappointed by English language cussing. At least Deadwood used something else apart from "fuck" and "shit". Even so, English cursing is uniformly sexual and so lacks the possibility for obscenity given by religion. In Italian, "shit" is a very mild swearword and "cock" (Cazzo!) is taboo, but never so much as swearing about the attributes, parental relations and behaviour of the Trinity and the Virgin Mary. So much so that I have heard independently from my father and a friend of mine, born and raised apart and who never met, the expression "Cazzo di Buddha!" as reinforcement of a simple "Cazzo!". Because without religion what kind of a swearword is it? (Buddhist friends to which I explained my particular unease with cursing other people's religious icons have told me that they actually find it very amusing and endearing).

One of my friends from Tuscany told me that her favourite swear was "Madonna botte, con tutti i santi dentro e Dio per tappo", which loosely translates as "Virgin's barrel, with all the saints in it and God as a cork". Doesn't really work, does it? But it gives the idea of what an art and craft swearing is in Tuscany.

Even my favourite cuss, of which I am particularly proud because I invented it, "Porca Polpetta" doesn't really translate. "Damned meatball?" "Filthy meatball" as somebody suggested? And what about "Porca polpetta in sugo di calamaretti con patatine di contorno?"

Which brings me to the whole issue of the sliding and resliding of swearwords. For example the reason we say "Porca Eva" is because it used to be "Porca Madonna". Just as we say "porco cane" because it used to be "porco Dio". But the original meaning starts to leak through so it becomes "Orco cane", and then it fuses with "Dio boia" to become "orco boia", with all traces of the original deity removed. My Porca Polpetta arises from the fact that I didn't like saying "Porca Puttana", because I started to feel uneasy with this undue stigmatization of prostitution.

But the sad thing is that while in Italian "Who's the bastard son of a filthy whore who did this?" sounds elaborate and unlikely, "Fuck" to my ears sounds irredeemably lame.
Jo Walton
25. bluejo
Anna: I remember Susana on rasseff once posting translations of some awesome Portugese fishwife curses. It's a pity English doesn't go in for that kind of thing.
Drew Shiel
26. Katarina
Touching on what annafdd said, I'm actually jealous of the English language's sexual curses, because Swedish swearing is almost uniformly religious and thus very hard to fit into fantasy of any kind. Our most common curses translate to "devil" (devils, devilish etc), "hell", "Lord God", "Jesus" and so on. There are sex-related dirty words, but they're mostly used as a crass way to speak about sex, not as general exclamations. (Although there are exceptions, like an incident where a bunch of women were called a "fittstim" = a shoal of cunts. It got a lot of media attention and there was eventually a feminist book of that title. But I digress.)

Writing fantasy with any kind of swearing in Swedish becomes quite a task. The frell route is a bit silly. Using sexual slurs sounds like influence from English-language fantasy. More general curses like "skitstövel" (shitbooth) or "himmel" (heavens) are a bit weak - this is also true of one of my favourites in my own life, "Gudars skymning" (dusk of gods). "He cursed" becomes the easiest option.
Drew Shiel
27. David G. Hartwell
I do like this discussion, but not much has been said about cultural changes and transgression, or about certain practical considerations.

Strong language is strong often because it is both apt and unusual. And it is also characterization, as has been mentioned by other above. But I agree with the uncomfortable feelings about Banks use of sexual slang in a far future culture, which I suspect will not use it but something else. And I think it is up to the writer to indicate that "something else."

The use of fuck or shit or other such in SF used to be transgressive and a marker for adult readers that this text was going to cut out both prudes and younger readers (it didn't, much, but that's obvious). What it did in addition was alert marketers that these texts were not for kids and not for whole geographic areas where distribution of such works could be challenged locally. And so the mainstream distribution of fantasy and SF was somewhat limited. That was not a good thing, in that it lost us all some money, but it did recede into insignificance in the mid 90s when the whole mass distribution system condensed and a majority of SF and fantasy books got limited distribution. So now we have more freedom and a smaller audience and a more adult audience. And strong language has mostly lost it's transgressive power and is just there.

I do remember, with great nostalgia, the years when we could distribute 50 or 75 thousand copies of a science fiction paperback and expect them to be everywhere in the US and Canada. I am sort of sorry that the increasing prevalence of fuck contributed in any way to the loss of that.
S Barlow
28. Lizzibabe
annafdd : "But the sad thing is that while in Italian "Who's the bastard son of a filthy whore who did this?" sounds elaborate and unlikely, "Fuck" to my ears sounds irredeemably lame."

I don't know about that. "Where's that miserable sack of shit?!" is pretty fun and descriptive.
Jo Walton
29. bluejo
David: What's the time frame on that? When did SF start to have words unacceptable for certain markets and be rejected by distributors?

Because assuming Cherryh's desire to have troopers use the words is constant and she's using words deemed acceptable by editors at the time, I'm seeing a pattern of "breathed a curse" 1981, "shit, effing, mof" 1989, "fuck" 2002. Which suggests the change happened in the nineties when the distributors were melting down anyway?

As I said in the main post, the timing surprised me because I thought it was in the sixties and seventies that things changed.

Also, isn't it the case that you were sending out 50,000 copies each of a much smaller number of novels?
mm Season
30. mmSeason
Surely it's not just what publishers/distributors will accept, but what society is saying? 'Fuck' is ordinary in the playground even at infant level (aged four and up) now, whereas when i was in playgrounds, in the 1970s, you never heard it. It is indeed a milder swearword than it used to be. That's just one example. 'Bugger' used to be nearly as strong as 'fuck' but it's now closer to the level of 'dammit'.

Apologies if someone else has made this point but there are SO many comments to look through, and i need to prise myself off the computer now to deal with the IE7 security problem.

I'd agree that the prevalence of words weakens them, and society will always have taboos - it only seems that we have fewer taboos cos we're counting the ones we call taboo. There are new ones replacing the ones we identify as such.

'We' being 'people with my upbringing', of course! ;0)
Jo Walton
31. bluejo
mmSeason: Kipling could say n-- but not f-- and for us it's the other way around. I also think we've swapped taboos with the Victorians, who were obsessed with death and pretended sex didn't exist. The number of times I hear euphemisms for death from North Americans astounds me -- "passed away" and "passed" instead of died, among adults seems very peculiar.
Joseph Blaidd
32. SteelBlaidd
The changing impact of profanity is one of the reasons I prefer works that use it asspareingly as possible.

Additionally I found that books and Movies that make liberal use of long strings of expletives are generally indicators that the particular milieu to be depicted is not one I'm going to enjoy spending time in. I like my escapism more on the possitive side:)
Drew Shiel
33. coyotelibrarian
Kurt Vonnegut's story, "The Big Space Fuck," appeared in 1972's "Again Dangerous Visions" anthology.

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