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Artist, Heather Oliver             

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The Fabric of the World

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018

I flew from Boston to Salonika for a conference in early October 2001 (one of the very first international flights allowed), feeling dazed and numb but determined to do my part in re-weaving the fabric of the world. Manhattan had been briefly home, my first glimpse of the US…and in its messy, raucous, kaleidoscopic vim and vigor, the incarnation of some of the best aspects of my adopted culture. The harnessing of this wound to cynical powermongering was a second tragedy that’s still affecting the world today and has led to many of the travesties we’ve endured ever since.

Spirits above and behind me,
Faces gone black, eyes burnin’ bright,
May their precious blood bind me,
Lord, as I stand before your fiery light.
— Bruce Springsteen, The Rising

Image: One World Trade Center by Ryan Emond

To Shape the Dark: Liner Notes, Part 2

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

To Shape the Dark, the younger sibling of The Other Half of the Sky, focusing on women scientists doing science not-as-usual, has become as widely acclaimed as its illustrious predecessor: among other recognitions, it won a starred review in Publishers Weekly, two of its stories have been selected by Gardner Dozois for his Year’s Best SF 2016 (Melissa Scott’s “Firstborn, Lastborn” and Shariann Lewitt’s “Fieldwork”) and two by Allan Kaster for The Year’s Top Hard Sci-Fi Stories (Shariann Lewitt’s “Fieldwork” and Gwyneth Jones’ “The Seventh Gamer”).

To deepen the readers’ enjoyment of the antho stories, I asked the contributing authors to share thoughts about their works. Part 1 of their musings appeared just before the new year. Below is Part 2.

 

Gwyneth Jones: The Seventh Gamer

I’ve been writing about autonomous self-conscious AI for a while, in various contexts, and eventually you want to write the origin story. How did this new species of conscious being emerge from the number-crunching and the robotics? How could it evade being spotted, until it was truly free? I had my ideas about the huge digital power that runs a complex video game (getting so much input from humans, and learning to behave so humanly, just for the players’ convenience, with no experimental control), and then I went along to an Anthropology Department conference at the University of Kent, by the kind invitation of Paul March Russell. Two absolutely fascinating papers I heard there gave me the background for the story called “The Seventh Gamer”.

The most obviously significant was from Susannah Crockford, London School of Economics. She’d been spending time with a group of New Age believers in Arizona, and reported the story of one of them, a retired lawyer, who had decided to leap from a sacred rock formation (anciently sacred, NB), on a certain day, convinced that by doing this he would open a portal into another dimension, and pass through it. (In a sense he was absolutely right, as the drop was huge and the fall was certain to kill him). His plan generated huge excitement, locally and globally, online and in all forms of correspondence, among people who shared the (modified) Native American sacred beliefs of this group.

The other paper was from Dr Daniela Peluso, University of Kent: who got sick while doing field work in the rainforest with a little-contacted South American tribal people. The tribal doctor treated her as best he could, but he told her she had two malign spirits in her chest, and whatever he did by day, with fires lit under her cot, infusions she was to inhale, herbal drinks she was to swallow, warm compresses, massages, appeals to the spirits, etc ( kind of Victorian level of medicine); it was no good. Every night, something undid his good work. Dr Daniela’s paper was not, however, about this very decent doctor’s failure to cure double pneumonia, without antibiotics, and with the patient sleeping in a damp tent. It was about her own growing fascination with the situation, a fascination enhanced by high fever and the strange coincidence that somebody had given her Bram Stoker’s Dracula to read on her trip. So every day, the wise doctor battled with the evil forces that were preying on her, but every night, mysteriously, she grew weaker . . . She got so drawn into it all, and so keen to find out how things turned out, she was lucky they prevailed on her to get airlifted out in time.

Anthropologists are a strange bunch!

 

Kristin Landon: From the Depths

When Athena invited me to submit a story for To Shape the Dark, the requirements she listed intrigued me immediately: to write about a woman who is a scientist, and part of a family, in a society that sees science as a natural, necessary, even joyful endeavor. I set “From the Depths” on a world that is completely covered by deep ocean, aboard a large seagoing research vessel that is also the new permanent home of a few thousand people: scientists, the ship’s crew, and their children. Rinna is an ecologist who delights in her work and her small family. Then her daughter disappears from the ship—a crisis that leads to the discovery of intelligent life in the vast ocean around them. The story is the seed of a novel, but only the seed. Rinna and I have a long way to go!

 

Jack McDevitt: The Pegasus Project

There is probably no cosmic issue confronting us more fascinating than whether there is life beyond our world. And maybe none that is more apt to irritate an audience if a speaker comes down on the wrong side. If he tells a group of listeners that he does not believe in UFO’s, they are invariably disappointed. You of all people?

Go a step further and argue that we are probably alone in the universe, and they wonder how you can be so narrow-minded? The lone argument so far that favors life elsewhere is the sheer size of everything. Billions of stars in the Milky Way. Billions of galaxies across the cosmos. How could there not be life out there somewhere?

The reality is that, as yet, we have no idea how life began. What was the first step in the process? It may well be that wherever there is water and a stable climate, life will appear. Which would certainly support the position that it will evolve, as it has here, into intelligent beings. The reality however is that we’ve been watching for indications of intelligent life for a long time, and aside from UFO accounts, we have nothing. Not even an artificial radio signal, despite the fact that we’ve been listening since the beginning of the 20th century.

It’s possible that the process that produces life has an extremely unlikely component, perhaps something with only one chance in trillions of appearing in the mix, even when the bulk of the chemistry is present. We won’t really know about that until somebody figures it out. Life can’t be something with even a reasonable likelihood of occurring or we’d see it happening occasionally on our world. Or somebody would have figured it out and demonstrated how life happens. So maybe we are alone.

Where will we be if we continue our search for centuries to come? If we develop FTL vehicles and find nothing out there but empty planets? That’s the world of the Pegasus Project. The world Ronda and Emily live in. What would it be like when, after thousands of years, the first signal comes in? And they are closest to the point of origin?

 

Anil Menon: Building for Shah Jehan

As a college student in India, I had several close friends, male and female, who were all going to do great things. Somehow it didn’t turn out that way. Once they were going to build starships. Now they delouse code, say, for some smiling American tyrant. But they are content nonetheless. Or mostly content. Or not particularly discontent. It is hard to tell the difference between words these days. Thing is, I had already met this genre of friends in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. They appear in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. I suppose Eliana Ferrente’s My Brilliant Friend is also about this shouldn’t-be-sad-but-is encounter between two childhood friends who are no longer really friends. I can’t do anything to change the past and writing the story didn’t make me feel any better, but I am glad I wrote the story.

 

Melissa Scott: Firstborn, Lastborn

“Firstborn, Lastborn” was a story I didn’t expect to write. I’d been delighted to see that Athena Andreadis was taking submissions for a second anthology, and was batting around a number of ideas, but my mother was ill that spring, and I ended up having to tell Athena — with great regret! — that I probably wasn’t going to have anything for her this round. She was kind enough to assure me that I could have every minute of the deadline, and to leave me on the mailing list, which kept the anthology in the forefront of my mind.

And then, three weeks before the submissions window was to close, I had an idea. It arrived almost whole, a synthesis of several different stories that hadn’t yet gelled. I had the characters, Anketil and Irtholin, their situation, their conflict; I could see how to shape the resolution, bitter though it had to be. By the time I had hammered out a draft, though, I’d lost the shape of the story. I finished it four days before the deadline, read it over, and very nearly gave it up entirely. I’d had to drop so many things, nothing made sense, it was all a disaster — I went to bed planning to email Athena an apology rather than a story.

The next morning, I read it again, and thought maybe it hung together better than I’d originally thought. I put in a call to a set of friends who will read rough drafts on short notice, and got both reassurance and a practical list of things that were unclear. (These are the best friends any writer can have, and deserve more chocolate than I can provide.) I sweated through a final draft, and sent the story in two days before the absolute deadline, unsure if it even met the parameters of the anthology. I’ve never been happier to get an acceptance!

 

Vandana Singh: Of Wind and Fire

During a crisis-laden, sleep-deprived period of my life that seemed to go on for months, I remember being so tired that I would keep tripping and half-falling around the house. Being a physicist means you can’t divorce the everyday from the physics, so naturally all this falling about made me think incessantly about gravity. Such a familiar force in our lives, and we’re hardly aware of it. During frequent wakings in the night, my over-tired brain would come up with strange scenarios, including one of perpetual falling. What would it be like to live an entire life where one is falling?

For the longest time I’d also wanted to write a story about a world where magnetism is a dominant force, on the scale, locally at least, of gravity itself. But when I started to write the first paragraph of what would eventually become “Of Wind and Fire,” I had no idea that magnetism would come in also. All I had in my imagination was a woman who lived her entire life falling, and I had to write the story to find out more about her.

I decided in this story to stick with the most familiar and mundane physics, Newtonian physics. So we have falling objects, and the effects of air resistance, and magnetism, nothing that would be unfamiliar to anyone who has taken a basic physics course. Unlike many of my stories, where I extend familiar physics or invent something entirely new, this story is set firmly in our universe. But despite the constraints of physics, there is still room for a wildly different world – consider how variegated are the four-thousand-odd extra-solar planets that have been discovered!

The margins within which classical physics allows us to build worlds are broad and generous. What I wanted to explore here was Vayusha’s gradual realization of patterns in the world, regularities that hint of order, of economy of principle underlying the bewildering diversity of the phenomena she experiences. I wanted to experience with her the wonder that even good old Newtonian physics reveals as inherent in the universe. And I wanted to see what would happen to her when her realizations led her to think forbidden thoughts, to go against her social conditioning. Her thoughts and actions are the seed of a paradigm shift, something that will potentially change the way her people think about the world, and how they live in the world.

Of course Newtonian physics arises in our world in a particular historical and cultural context. Vayusha’s explorations will likely lead her to a different framing of the same phenomena. If I write a sequel, it will involve her constructing such an alternative formulation or framing. But that is another story!

The Moment of Change

Friday, April 6th, 2012

Last fall I mentioned that my two Bull Spec poems (Spacetime Geodesics and Night Patrol) and one of my dear friend and blog contributor Calvin Johnson (Towards a Feminist Algebra, in Stone Telling) will appear in The Moment of Change, a reprint anthology of speculative feminist poetry, edited by Rose Lemberg and published by Aqueduct Press. The collection will be released in May at Wiscon, with a cover by Terri Windling (shown).

I find it strange that I got four poems published in rapid succession: I consider myself essentially a prose writer.

The Mysterious Story: A Theory of Fiction, with Exercises (Part 2)

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire. Because the essay is slightly longer than usual blog length, it appears in two parts.

The Mysterious Story, Part 1

The Mysterious Story, Part 2

Opening questions are how a story starts the seduction of our minds. To keep us reading, a story must carry out a balancing act, like a good joke, between logic and surprise.

If, for example, Tolkien had never answered the question of “what is a hobbit,” but instead zoomed off to examine the lives of Russian serfs, we might well feel cheated of the logic of the story. If, by contrast, Tolkien had written, “A hobbit is another name for a rabbit, the end,” we might feel the story lacks enough surprise as a reward.

Understanding that a story balances logic and surprises gives underlying support for many so-called “rules” of writing that seem irritatingly arbitrary to novice writers. Deus ex machina endings, where a sudden character or event out of nowhere “solves” the problem, violate the principle of logic. Chekov’s dictum, that a pistol on the mantle in the first act must be fired in the third act, also feeds on the principle of logic, as well as what I call the “reverse-Chekov dictum,” that if you are going to fire a pistol in the third act, better introduce it in the first.

Classes and books on fiction writing often advise one to write stories wherein the main character, or a main character, changes; e.g. Rick in Casablanca, who evolves from an aloof, uninvolved man to a freedom fighter. In truth, such character evolution isn’t formally necessary at all, but character arcs do provide a powerful and logical pattern for our minds to tease out. Rick’s story is made all the more logical, and more compelling, by the fact that he had previously been a freedom fighter.

# # #

Logic alone is not enough. There must be surprises as well.

But surprise is a tricky thing. One method of introduce surprise is introducing a random event.  While common, it is a weak structure, because randomness is the opposite of logic.  A random event–such as a cyclone ripping through the fields of Kansas, or an old flame walking into your gin-joint–can kick off a story, but the response must be rigorously logical and one cannot rely upon too many random events. It doesn’t matter that real life is full of randomness; our minds demand patterns and rebel when the patterns don’t make sense.

Another strategy is through concealing information.  The logic is there, but only apparent in hindsight.  Again, this is a tricky strategy.  Simply withholding information from the reader so you can spring a surprise on them can tread dangerously upon logic.  Too many weak plots, especially those built on mistaken identity, rely upon characters making assumptions that few normal people would make.  Concealment can work, however, if the character concealing the information has good reason to.

A third and stronger strategy is misdirection.  One give a logical alternative while dropping clues to the real solution. This is a favorite strategy of J. K. Rowling, making Snape, or Lupin, or Sirus Black appear to be a villain, while quietly laying the groundwork so that when the true villain is revealed, you say, Ah! That makes sense after all. (Rowling is not above using heavy-handed concealment when it suits her, though.) Alternately, one can frame an situation to imply a wrong assumption, which is how the joke about the grasshopper works.

Surprise doesn’t have be just in plot. It can be in character as well.  My two favorite pieces of advice for constructing characters are, one, work against cliché and convention (i.e. instead of making the female love interest pale, thin, and helpless, make her dark, large, and kick-ass), and two, in addition to a primary character trait, add a secondary, seemingly contradictory character trait. A globe-trotting archaeologist who is afraid of snakes. A gangster who shoots his rivals yet gives money to the poor. A wizard powerfully skilled in dark magic who still worships the memory of his one true love.

Exercise: read a story carefully, taking note of the surprises, especially those beyond the initial hooks. What mechanism is used for those surprises? Going further, is the response to the stories logical?

And, for you writers out there, here is your final exercise: write a marvelous story, full to the brim with surprise and logic, that delights us with the patterns they weave in our brains.

For further reading: Samuel R. Delany, “About 5,750 Words,” which can be found in his book, The Jewel-hinged Jaw:  Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (Dragon Press, 1977; revised 2009). An excellent essay on how we read, and especially how we read science fiction.

Images: 1st, Anton Chekhov, who grew increasingly more sophisticated in the use of loaded guns in his plays (painter: Osip Braz, 1898); 2nd, Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (illustrator: Richard Powers).

Why I Won’t Be Taking the Joanna Russ Pledge

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

A Geology Lesson

Here, the sea strains to climb up on the land
and the wind blows dust in a single direction.
The trees bend themselves all one way
and volcanoes explode often.
Why is this? Many years back
a woman of strong purpose
passed through this section
and everything else tried to follow.

— Judy Grahn, from She Who

Between the physical death of Joanna Russ and the latest endless lists and discussions about women’s visibility and recognition in SF/F, well-meaning people have come up with the Russ Pledge. Namely, a pledge to acknowledge and promote women’s work.

As recent history has shown, Twitter notices don’t start revolutions, let alone sustain them. Even if they did, I won’t be taking the Russ pledge for the simplest of reasons. I have been implementing it for the last forty-plus years. It’s not a cute button on my lapel. It’s not a talking point in my public persona. I cannot take it off when I take off my clothes. It’s not an option. It’s an integral component of my bone marrow that has shaped my personal and professional life.

Long before her death, Russ had been marginalized for being too prickly, a prominent target of the “tone” argument. Even many women found her uncomfortable — she might annoy the Powers that Be and compromise paltry gains. As if good behavior brought acceptance to boys’ treehouses. As if she didn’t threaten the status quo by her mere existence, let alone her uncompromising stories, essays and reviews. Most people know of The Female Man and How to Suppress Women’s Writing, if only by rumor, but the rest of her opus is just as radical. If you want to have your preconceptions soothed by feel-good feminism, Russ is not your woman.

It’s not surprising that eventually she burned out (“chronic fatigue syndrome”), like most people in equivalent circumstances. She kept showcasing true aliens — women as autonomous beings with agency! — and asking questions outside the box. She kept pointing out that even if you have been “promoted” from field hand to house servant you can still be sold down the river. An uncomfortable reminder for those who keep clinging to the hope of “change from within”, the illusion that being abjectly nice to the ensconced gatekeepers and kicking the more disenfranchised below will ensure decent treatment, or even survival.

Joanna Russ paved the way for all who walk the path of real change not merely with words, but with her body. Like the women in folk ballads who got buried alive so that bridges would stand, she deserves more than pious twitterings now that she’s safely dead. I recognize the good intentions of those who promote this pledge in her name. But enough already with “mistress lists” and their ilk. If people want to really do something, I suggest (and mind you, this is a suggestion, not the forcible penectomy some obviously consider it to be) that they read women’s books. Publish them for real money, as in pro-rate presses – pathetic as pro rates are, these days. Review them in major outlets. Nominate them for prestigious awards. Hire them as editors, columnists and reviewers (not slush readers or gofers) in major venues, in more than token numbers.  Teach them in courses.

Unconscious bias is a well-documented phenomenon and is alive and thriving even (especially) in self-labeled “progressive” communities. Women have shown up the arguments for intrinsic inferiority by winning open chairs in orchestras when performing behind curtains and winning major literary awards when hiding behind pseudonyms. But this does not change the dominant culture. And it does not make up for the oceans of creative talent that got lost — suppressed or squandered in anger or hopelessness.

I will let Russ herself have the last word. It’s striking how ageless she remains:

“Leaning her silly, beautiful, drunken head on my shoulder, she said, “Oh, Esther, I don’t want to be a feminist. I don’t enjoy it. It’s no fun.”

“I know,” I said. “I don’t either.” People think you decide to be a “radical,” for God’s sake, like deciding to be a librarian or a ship’s chandler. You “make up your mind,” you “commit yourself” (sounds like a mental hospital, doesn’t it?).

I said Don’t worry, we could be buried together and have engraved on our tombstone the awful truth, which some day somebody will understand:

WE WUZ PUSHED.”

from On Strike Against God

“I Like a Little Science in My Fiction”

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

Some people walk on water //
Some just keep falling down.

— from Ramon, by Laurie Anderson

Whenever the imminent death of SF from lack of scientific knowledge and/or mindset comes up, some people wring hands and point fingers at YA fantasy or the “feminization” of the domain, some spring to action:  Kay Holt and Bart Leib, the founders/editors of Crossed Genres, just launched a blog titled Science in My Fiction.  As Kay says, both in words and in the playful image she created to celebrate the launch (right):

“The purpose of the Science in My Fiction blog is to get science fiction and fantasy writers and fans thinking ahead of science again. Playful bloggers will take a look at recent scientific developments and extrapolate potential futures from them. // This is a fight for survival of the fiction. It’s time to seize culture and do science to it!”

Visitors to Astrogator’s Logs will recognize some SiMF contributors: Peggy Kolm, Calvin Johnson and yours truly.  The first post is Extrapolative Fiction for Sapient Earthlings by Kay Holt.  Posts will initially appear twice weekly and may increase to thrice weekly once the contributors find their rhythm.

Go take a look!