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The Middle Narrative: Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings

Sunday, July 19th, 2015

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Into Darkness and Interstellar. Additionally, this forms part of a series that discusses works of the contributors to The Other Half of the Sky.  Links to other entries in the series appear at the end of each discussion.

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Grace of KingsHere is my Grand Theory of the Arts: humans are pattern-seekers extraordinaire, and the arts not only feed and feed upon that thirst for patterns, they also explore its limits. The visual arts, such as painting and sculpture, are not just about beauty or “accurate” representation but probe how in a few lines or a couple of dabs of paint we see images that cause us to rings with emotion. It’s true that much of recent and modern visual art challenges the casual viewer–but that’s the point. Just how abstract can a painting be and still “be” art?

While Jackson Pollack’s splatters of paint or Mark Rothko’s luminous squares of color can sell for millions of dollars (and they are art, for they ask of us difficult questions), it is harder in the written arts, poetry and fiction and essayism, to dance on the edge of randomness. Even writers who experiment with grammar and spelling and language do not completely abandon it; the burbling prose of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, while not light reading, still drinks from the well of formal grammar. There is no serious literary equivalent of atonalism.

Macronarratives–plot and story–have more leeway. In traditional storytelling, the protagonist faces a challenge and either overcomes it or fails. Odysseus comes home. King Arthur’s dream of peace breaks apart. But as in the visual and auditory arts, traditional structures of narratives have been broken apart and reshaped. And though we are pattern seekers, and enjoy neat, tight stories of good folk winning and bad people being defeated, as far back as the book of Job people noticed the world doesn’t always work like that.

This tug of war exists even in the literature of the fantastic. That Ur-document of anglophone fantasy, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, depicts the battle between ultimate, depraved evil and noble and humble good. George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, a.k.a., Game of Thrones (and Brothels), takes the opposite tack. History is random, and petty resentments can shift the course of history as much as “good” and “evil.” Martin kills off his ersatz protagonists so frequently it’s not clear anyone will survive to the end. In fact, Martin is so intent on being the anti-Tolkien that his world is gritty and dark to an extreme degree. There is no sex in Tolkien, helped by the lack of women and boy’s boarding schools, but there is almost no consensual sex in Martin–the biggest exception being an incestuous relationship. (In a world with few economic opportunities for women, considering prostitution as “consensual” is problematic.)

Much as Martin rebelled against Tolkien, Ken Liu’s first novel, The Grace of Kings, strikes out against both Tolkien and Martin. Liu’s society, set on an isolated archipelago, eschews the Europhilia of Tolkien and Martin but also avoids the jury-rigged society of Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series (which I wanted to like, but failed to). Liu’s carefully constructed society echoes China during the Warring States period, with echoes of Polynesian and Mesoamerican mythology and culture. The plot revolves around two friends who become rivals: one a minor criminal and trickster who nonetheless brims with empathy and compassion, the other the gigantic scion of a deposed family whose devotion to honor and bravery devolves into tyranny and slaughter. Both men struggle with the question of how best to govern and how best to deal with one’s opponents.

While two men are the central characters, women do play prominent roles in the novel. Liu’s society downgrades women–this is no social justice fantasy–but nonetheless they have agency beyond the victim-and-vengeance themes relegated to women by Martin (the tiny handful of prominent women in Tolkien are variants of the Virgin Mary; the exception of course is Eowyn, who is a different virgin, Joan of Arc sans hallucinations). While the sex is discreet, especially the few hints of non-heteronormitivity, it is mostly consensual and joyful. As all artists aspire to do, Liu for the most part manages to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of those who wrote before him.

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Ken LiuKen Liu had a couple of stories published in the early 2000s, but burst out in 2010, quickly snatching up Nebulas and Hugos and other awards almost as fast as he could e-mail out his quiet, introspective stories dealing with issues of displacement and generational conflict. In contrast, The Grace of Kings has little time for introspection. The narrative is nearly all narrative, and swiftly moving narrative at that, with barely any adornment. Tolkien’s characters are given to stilted speeches, while Martin believes in revealing character conflict through talky and often obscenity-strewn dialog. Liu frequently summarizes conversations and entire battles, and covers in a single if thick volume what would take his predecessors three. In his short stories Liu’s prose is spare, but they are not plot heavy, so the occasionally breakneck pace of events in the novel surprised and, frankly, disappointed me at first.

But classical Chinese novels such as The Dream of Red Mansions and Journey to the West, which Liu explicitly referenced in his story “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King,” are meandering, picaresque tales whose plain (in translation, at least) prose and burlesque events veil their underlying confrontation with moral issues. In particular Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, is a trickster powerful enough to challenge Heaven and sentenced to serve a Buddhist missionary. As they travel from China to India over mountains and across rivers, Monkey bashes hordes of demons with his magic cudgel and wonders aloud why it is wrong to slaughter robbers–after all, it keeps them from coming back and bothering you again. With its rapid-fire plot and its own internal debates about what truly defines a monarch, The Grace of Kings follows in this tradition, and I suspect Liu owes as much to them as to his western predecessors.

In the same series:

The Hard Underbelly of the Future: Sue Lange’s Uncategorized
Shimmering Kaleidoscopes: Cat Rambo’s Near + Far
Ancestors Watch Over Her: Aliette de Bodard’s Space Operas

Mad Max : Feral Orphans and Chosen Families

Saturday, July 11th, 2015

“Tell me who you loved, the rest is dross.”
— Oysterband, “The Boy’s Still Running”

Vuvalini

Note: I will not revisit important points raised by other reviewers (links at the end of the article). Instead this article will focus on the larger context of the Mad Max universe.

———

I’ve seen all four Mad Max films. In my view, they don’t constitute a series but variations on themes beloved by storytellers (and listeners) since we acquired language: the reluctant loner hero; the creation of kinship by choice; plus, of course, derring-do with fast chariots.

The first draft, Mad Max, is essentially throat-clearing on George Miller’s part. Mel Gibson still carries baby fat. So does the film, a by-the-numbers Bronson-style revenge fantasy fueled by the standard family-fridging event. It’s really a prelude to the sand-blasted hellscape of the successors in which society has regressed to least common denominators: young men as expendable weapons, fertile women and their children as owned assets.

The second take, The Road Warrior, is widely acknowledged as one of the apexes of action B-movies and one of the cornerstones of the post-apocalyptic film subgenre. Everything is pared down to bare essentials: dialogue, scenery, plot, Gibson. The only flamboyant notes are the outré costumes of Max’s opponents, a blend of cyberpunk and faux-tribal. There’s a half-hearted concession to the value of forging kinship bonds, but Miller opts for the Damnation Alley alternative: the potential new kin are slaughtered like Leonidas’ Spartans, an inevitable outcome of the decision to act as sacrificial decoys. This includes the woman who may be too “feisty” to pass on her genes or attitudes. The sole named survivors are the Gyro Captain – Sanzo Pancha to Max’s Quixote – and the Feral Kid, of whom more anon.

The third pass on the by-now-mythic franchise, Beyond Thunderdome, split reviewers – no surprise, as it’s two films. One continues the depiction of Max as a cross between Shane and Moses. This culminates with his descent upon a tribe of lost children stranded in a pocket Eden, whom he reluctantly must lead back to what’s left of urban civilization. There are again attempts at kinship, but Max remains outside the cooperation circle: as with Achilles, whatever he does is entirely from/for his own sense of amour-propre.

But there’s a second strand: Bartertown, struggling to make do in a desert empty of father gods. Crucially, Bartertown is shown as viable (if riddled with inequities), not dependent on gasoline… and ruled by a older woman king. Tina Turner’s formidable poise as Entity and her Pharaoh-like hairdo accentuate these points – plus she delivers a Parthian shot to would-be messiahs: “Today cock of the walk, tomorrow a feather duster.” It’s indicative of the direction Miller’s thoughts were taking that he allows Entity to survive and continue leading Bartertown, even if she’s stranded in the wilderness like Lilith. Not for her the glow of resurgent cities “when they sees the distant light, and they’ll be comin’ home.” It’s this strand that becomes dominant in the fourth variation, car chase ecstasies aside.

Max Women

When Fury Road appeared to near-universal acclaim, its subversive slant was duly noted by endorsers and detractors alike. Max is a secondary player in this round, he essentially acts as a witness. The pivotal hero – as is made explicit by the male form of her signifier adjective – is Imperator Furiosa. Much has been made of her central placement; but she doesn’t merely incorporate most of the stoic loner protector attributes hitherto allotted to Max. In fact, she’s a younger, more palatable version of Entity – because her dreams are not of hifalutin honor but of community and of survival beyond brutal coercion.

Underneath the heroism (and notwithstanding the unsubtle discussion of “redemption”), Furiosa is a competent pragmatist with a strong humane streak – an engineer, if you will. Like Entity, she probably did a lot of amoral or immoral things to get where she is. In many ways, she’s an alt-universe Anakin complete with the Cain mark of the prosthetic arm.

Whereas Entity is the proverbial lone Smurfette in Thunderdome (as is Savannah Nix among the lost children), in Fury Road Miller reverses the usual gender ratio – and focus – of action films. Immortans Joe’s War Boy horde consists of undifferentiated bobbing blurs punctuated by grotesques calculated to arouse limbic responses. In marked contrast, the women surrounding Furiosa are not only many and foregrounded; they’re also sharply delineated and inhabit a wide gamut of individual personalities, each with full agency.

The matriarchal foundation of Fury Road goes beyond just the demonstration that Joe’s rescued wives are more than mere pretty bodies. When Furiosa establishes her bona fides, she recites her matrilines — and crucially, she lists both biological and cultural mothers. And of course the sine qua non is the appearance of the Vuvalini, the eternally invisible old(er) women, the wise crones who fight without fanfare while keeping songs and seeds alive, the socializers of humanity. The name clearly derives from vulva but there’s an additional possible cognate root: “ox” – vouvalos, buffalo, denoting stubborn strength.

What of the two male co-protagonists, Max and Nux? Nux, who resembles the tentative, forlorn kodama of Mononoke Hime, is both literally and metaphorically an embryo: someone who must be (re)born among mothers and fully socialized by grandmothers before he can be accepted into a family. Max, beyond being played by someone other than Gibson, is clearly not the original person/a. My theory is that the character played by Tom Hardy in Fury Road is the Feral Kid of The Road Warrior, now grown up and at a decision fork about who he will become long-term.

There’s a major signifier of this unique provenance: the Max of the first three films had a now-dead son; the guardian spirit of the Fury Road Max is a daughter – one whom he may have, who’s leading him, Ariáthne-like, out of the labyrinth of isolation and away from Minotaurs like Immortans Joe. But she’s not just a helpmeet: she’s an assertive figure who will fit right in as Entity and Furiosa’s descendant, apprentice and successor.

Miller may choose to revert to conventional tropes in the inevitable next film in the cycle. However, if characters remain true to themselves, Furiosa and Entity will not fight like queen bees when they meet. They will trade: Bartertown fuel for Citadel water and food… and civilization may rise in the desert, aided by the many mothers and grandmothers willing and able to weave kinship tapestries. And the strands separated by the one-father – the Polynesians used as milch-cows, the Aboriginals used as miners, the European-descended used as enforcers and missiles – will reblend. It will not be a pyramid but a web, sets of intercalated wheels of equals. But first among equals will be Furiosa, with Entity and the Keeper of the Seeds smiling behind her – and around her, the co-parents of the once-feral kids who will no longer be either kindling or property.

Mad Kids

Related Articles:

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations
The Iron Madonna or: Kicking Ass While Female
Where Are the Wise Crones in SF?
“We Must Love One Another or Die”: A Critique of Star Wars
Mystique: The True Leader of the X-Men
The (Warrior) Women Men Don’t See

Other Fury Road Reviews:

Tansy R. Roberts
Laurie Penny
Jacobin Magazine
Leah Schnelbach

Images: 1st, the Vuvalini; 2nd, the women kings: Entity (Tina Turner), Furiosa (Charlize Theron); 3rd, the past and the future: Glory Child (Coco Jack Gillies), Feral Kid (Emil Minty)

To Shape the Dark: Table of Contents

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Comet-Hale-Bopp“…they see women as radiant and merciless as the dawn…” — Semíra Ouranákis, captain of starship Reckless at planetfall (Planetfall).

As before, I decided to whet appetites. Below is not only the TOC of the anthology, but also the opening bars of each movement that’s part of this symphony.

All the protagonists are scientists who transcend the usual SF clichés about that vocation, especially when undertaken by women. I won’t say more, the snippets speak for themselves.  For those eager for more, the projected launch is early spring 2016.

To Shape the Dark

Athena Andreadis – Introduction: Astrogators Never Sleep

Constance Cooper – Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home
M. Fenn – Chlorophyll is Thicker than Water
Jacqueline Koyanagi – Sensorium
Kristin Landon – From the Depths
Shariann Lewitt – Fieldwork
Vandana Singh – Of Wind and Fire: Descent
Aliette de Bodard – Crossing the Midday Gate
Melissa Scott – Firstborn, Lastborn
Anil Menon – Building for Shah Jehan
C. W. Johnson – The Age of Discovery
Terry Boren – Recursive Ice
Susan Lanigan – Ward 7
Kiini Ibura Salaam – Two Become One
Jack McDevitt – The Pegasus Project
Gwyneth Jones – The Seventh Gamer

Let the storytelling begin:

Constance Cooper – Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home

After all our weeks of travel, those final few miles in a wagon drawn by ox beetle seemed the longest of all. The wagon reeked of peat, and the ox beetle periodically dug its claws into the mud and surged forward to free up the wheels. McMurrin, our dour driver, actually managed a chuckle as his insect’s motions flung me and Gwen back and forth. Gwen kept her pet project, a custom high-eye, cradled protectively in her arms.

Every moment I knew that we were getting closer and closer to haunted, hated Can’t-Go-Home Bog, right on the southern fringe of settlement, where no other botanist had ever set foot.

M. Fenn – Chlorophyll is Thicker than Water

“Afternoon, Dr. Yamamoto.” The old woman looked up from the flower seed display she had been studying while waiting.

“Afternoon, Billy. How’s your mother?”

“Good! She told me to thank your partner for the lotion, if I saw you. Her hands are much better.”

“I’ll tell Hina you said so. And how’s your skin doing?”

The boy blushed. “Fine.”

She smiled kindly. “Good. I’ll tell her that, too. Did my order come in?”

She trundled her round frame closer to a display of wind chimes. Hina would like one of these new copper ones, she thought, brushing her calloused hand against the metal pipes. A ceramic frog mounted on the top remained stoic as the chimes tinkled.

Jacqueline Koyanagi – Sensorium

Yora spends her first night in cultural realignment training thinking about the isolation of a life lived between stars.

The Tagli came to Ila, her planet, ten years ago, having crossed unthinkably vast distances in slow increments, bodies and vacuum separated by a mere skin’s breadth of material. Full generations had passed with no knowledge of ground and sky. And then they came, a bombardment of unfamiliar life on Yora’s planet, their twisting ships suspended over fourteen cities like itinerant gods.

Kristin Landon – From the Depths

“Rinna!”

Rinna Heinonen turned, one hand on the hatchway that would let her out of the family quarters, and suppressed a groan. Her fifteen-year-old daughter stood across the small common room from her—in her iso suit, fluorescent orange, its hood and mask dangling around her shoulders.

Rinna sighed. “Just where do you think you’re going?” Sealed in, Petra would be ready to leave Hokule’a with a minimal chance of contaminating the air and sea with her human DNA and microflora.

Petra’s long mass of tight braids was tied back in a ponytail, and she carried her backpack. She smiled tentatively at her mother. “I thought you might need a hand today.”

Shariann Lewitt – Fieldwork

“Grandma, do you think Ada Lovelace baked cookies?” We were in her kitchen and the scent of the cookies in the oven had nearly overwhelmed my childhood sensibilities.

“I don’t think so sweetie,” Grandma Fritzie replied. “She was English.”

“Oh. Mama doesn’t bake either.”

Grandma Fritzie shook her head. “There wasn’t any good food when she was young.”

“Did her Mama bake?”

“Maybe. But not after they left Earth. They only had packaged food on Europa, and no ovens or hot cookies or anything good. That’s why your Mama is so tiny. We’re going to make sure you get plenty of good things to eat so you grow up big and strong.”

Vandana Singh – Of Wind and Fire: Descent

I have been falling for most of my life. I see my village in dreamtime: an enormous basket, a woven contraption of virrum leaves and sailtrees, vines and balloonworts, that drifts and floats on the wind. On the wind are borne the fruits from the abyss, the winged lahua seeds that always float upward, and the trailing green vines of the delicious amala — windborne wonders that give us sustenance. But the village is always falling. Slowly, because of the sails and balloonworts, but falling nevertheless. We hang on the webbing, the children and babies tethered, shrieking in joy — and we tell stories about what might lie below.

Aliette de Bodard – Crossing the Midday Gate

Dan Linh had walked out of the Purple Forbidden City not expecting to return to it – thankful that the Empress had seen fit to spare her life; that she wasn’t walking to her execution for threefold treason. Twenty years later – after the nightmares had faded, after she was finally used to the diminished, eventless life on the Sixty-First Planet – she did come back, to find it unchanged: the Midday Gate towering over the moat; the sleek ballet of spaceships between the pagodas and the orbitals; the ambient sound of zithers and declaimed poetry slowly replacing the bustle of the city at their backs.

Melissa Scott – Firstborn, Lastborn

It has been more than a decade since I first set foot in Anketil’s tower, and three years since she gave me its key. It lies warm in my hand, a clear glass ovoid not much larger than my thumb, a triple twist of iridescence at its heart: that knot is made from the trace certain plasmas leave in a bed of metal salts, fragile as the fused track of lightning in sand. Anketil makes the shapes for lovers and the occasional friend when work is slow at the tokamak, preserving an instant in threads of glittering color sealed in crystal, each one unique and beautiful, though lacking innate function. It’s only the design that matters. I hold it where the sensors can recognize it, and in the back of my mind Sister stirs.

Anil Menon – Building for Shah Jehan

“Thermoplastic,” said Kavi, working her mouth as she considered our architectural model, “is not sand.”

I relaxed. If that was her biggest grief, then we were in good shape for tomorrow. It was almost one-thirty in the morning, which meant that only eight hours remained before our final projects were due.

Knock on the door. Then Zeenat popped her head in, her round sleepy face indicating what she was about to ask. “Chai, guys?”

“Yes,” said Kavi.

“I’d like to look over the drawings one more time,” I said. “Make sure it’s habitable. The design is only—”

“She’s trying to say no,” Kavi explained to Zeenat. “You go ahead.”

“So let Velli look over whatever needs to be looked over, we can go have chai.” And then Zeenat added, “My treat.”

C. W. Johnson – The Age of Discovery

It was a milestone, no matter what, and so the lab celebrated. Roberto looked abashed as they toasted him. “Hey, guys,” he said, fidgeting, “I should get back to work.” Everyone laughed. Their supervisor Ms. Thalivar called out, “How fast can you do the next thousand?” and Roberto said, “Well, now that I’ve finally got the hang of it…”

Luo Xiaoxing, the publicist sent over from Shanghai, went around taking images and videos. She squeezed past a couple of technicians and stopped at Edith’s station with her all-in-one raised. “Do you mind?”

Edith shrugged. “The company sent you. But shouldn’t you…?” She pointed with her chin to Roberto.

Terry Boren – Recursive Ice

1. Heuristic

The afternoon wind, cool and rain scented, lifted Bret’s hair away from her neck as she gazed down at the Isar where it slid green and quick beneath the bridge. Her vision was blurred and distorted one moment, absolutely clear the next. Her palms rested gently on the pitted granite of the railing. It was familiar, safe. But though she had done her graduate work at the Planck Institute in Germany, years before, she still could not remembered what she was doing in Old Munich. Something to do with her work? She touched her face, probing gently at the swollen cheek. The eye itself seemed undamaged, though the area around the left socket and the left side of her face were bruised. The cheekbone probably had been cracked. Her cheek was wet, and pain made the eye tear again, distorting the green park along the green river. The wind was picking up. Hoping to reach shelter before the storm broke, she continued across the bridge toward Mariahilfplatz and the frozen spire of its church.

Susan Lanigan – Ward 7

The man from HR was speaking. She could not recall his name, even though it glinted from the bronze-coloured badge he wore below his left lapel. That was because the badge always seemed to catch the intense sunlight coming in through the south-facing glass wall, to which the HR man himself seemed immune, even though it was hitting the back of Vera’s neck so precisely that she felt as if the rays were burning a line on her skin above her collar. Both room and man were unfamiliar to her. Employees from the medicinal chemistry division of Gleich Enterprises rarely got summoned here. But her presence was “imperative”, she had been told, her offence too severe to be overlooked this time.

Kiini Ibura Salaam – Two Become One

Aversion:

Meherenmet glared across the room as she watched an attendant feed Amagasat dates and tiny sips of beer from a serving tray. Disgust spiked through her body. She looks like an aging child, Meherenmet thought.

Morning light filtered into the eye-shaped antechamber, bathing Amagasat in a soft glow. She shimmered in her iridescent blue robe and golden collar and wrist cuffs—all intentionally worn, Meherenmet thought, to boast of her success. But Amagasat’s tremors—that fierce trembling of her hands—overshadowed her finery. Meherenmet doubted that Amagasat could still dress herself, or even attend to her own elimination.

Jack McDevitt – The Pegasus Project

I was sitting on the porch of the End Times Hotel with Abe Willis when the message from Harlow came in: Ronda, we might have aliens. Seriously. We picked up a radio transmission yesterday from the Sigmund Cluster. It tracks to ISKR221/722. A yellow dwarf, 7,000 light-years out. We haven’t been able to break it down, but it’s clearly artificial. You’re closer to the Cluster than anybody else by a considerable distance. Please take a look. If it turns out to be what we’re hoping, try not to let them know you’re there. Good luck. And by the way, keep this to yourself.

“What is it?” asked Abe.

“Aliens.”

Gwyneth Jones – The Seventh Gamer

The Anthropologist Returns To Eden

She introduced herself by firelight, while the calm breakers on the shore kept up a background music – like the purring breath of a great sleepy animal. It was warm, the air felt damp; the night sky was thick with cloud. The group inspected her silently. Seven pairs of eyes, gleaming out of shadowed faces. Seven adult strangers, armed and dangerous; to whom she appeared a helpless, ignorant infant. Chloe tried not to look at the belongings that had been taken from her, and now lay at the feet of a woman with long black hair, who was dressed in an oiled leather tunic and tight, broken-kneed jeans; a state-of-the-art crossbow slung at her back, a long knife in a sheath at her belt.

Image: Comet Hale-Bopp (NASA, JPL).

Tanith Lee, 1947-2015

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Lee, Silver

SFF has lost a major talent; I’ve lost one of my lodestars.

Tanith Lee died yesterday, only 67. I loved her stories — the unobtrusive but deep knowledge of myth, the subtlety and lyricism, the originality, the nuanced understanding of humans (and non-humans), the fluid roaming over arbitrary boundaries.  Her retold folktales etched themselves in my memory and her love of liminals jibed with mine.

Farewell, fellow windwalker. May Silver sing in your sleep.

To Shape the Dark, Protagonist Vocations

Monday, May 18th, 2015

As people know, I’ve been working on the successor of The Other Half of the Sky.  It focuses on women scientists doing science not-as-usual and is titled To Shape the Dark — because that’s what scientists (should) do.

I spent this past weekend doing final passes on about half the stories that will appear on the anthology.  If things continue at this rate we’ll have a finalized TOC by the first week of June.  Until then, here are the occupations of the stories’ protagonists, to whet people’s appetites. People took my injunction not to flood me with computer programmers and psychologists seriously!

Other Half 160

Molecular biologist/virologist
Plant biochemists/engineers
Biochemist/magician
Protein chemist
Tissue/neural engineer
Brain scientist/engineer
Exo-botanist
Exo-ecologist
Cultural anthropologist
Materials scientist/architect
Geologist/volcanologist
Proto-physicist/engineer
Planetary physicist
Quantum physicist
Hyperspatial mathematician and plasma smith

Up the Walls of the Worlds

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

(after James Tiptree’s novel)

JPL life-on-europa

[Click to embiggen image]

The flood of data from the solar system probes has led to tectonic shifts in our understanding of our neighbors. High on that list has been the discovery of liquid water in the large moons of the gas giants: Jupiter’s Europa and Ganymede, Saturn’s Enceladus. By many strands of evidence – which include geysers – all three have large subsurface salt-water seas below their icy surfaces (Saturn’s Titan has surface oceans but they’re made of methane and ethane, liquid at Titan’s ambient temperature). In Europa and Enceladus this water may be in contact with a complex silicate core that could supply both directional scaffolding and building blocks; and the orbital friction between the moons and their primaries generates heat dynamos that could give rise to deep hydrothermal vents.

Salt water with a steady supply of dissolved nutrients; an energy source; complex silicates that – according to Cairns-Smith’s clay hypothesis – could act as anchors and template propagators for chiral organic molecules. The simultaneous presence of all these components is a recipe for the development of life.

Life as we know it is based on carbon and uses water as its solvent. Both are unique within their respective categories. Carbon is the best foundational element for complex chemistry by several orders of magnitude: the number and variety of organic compounds exceeds that of all the rest combined. Like its fellow occupants of the fourth column of the periodic table, carbon has an outermost electron orbital that is exactly half-occupied. So the fourth column elements are equally good as electron donors or acceptors, and as a result they can form compounds with just about every other element.

Carbon has an additional almost-unique characteristic: its unoccupied orbital is at such a distance from the nucleus that it can form bonds of the exactly correct strength to create very large and complex compounds. In particular, carbon bonds with itself more or less with the same proclivity that it bonds with anything else. Whatever can be imagined, of any size, shape, taste or smell, can be found among organic compounds, from diamonds to nucleic acids, from limonenes to fullerenes. If a carbon atom’s four available positions have distinct occupants, the resulting compounds are chiral (“handed”), another apparent prerequisite for biomolecules – certainly a decisive attribute of all terrestrial ones.

Silicon, the next foundational candidate after carbon, is a distinctly inferior also-ran. The radius of its outer electron shell is larger, which means that it forms weaker bonds, especially with itself. Generally compounds with more than three silicon atoms in a row are very unstable, unless they are forced into a crystal lattice. And if oxygen is anywhere near it, all available silicon funnels itself into silicates, precluding all other combinations.

Water

In turn, water has several properties that make it the most potent and versatile solvent. This includes its tetrahedral structure (due to its two free electron pairs, which make it a polar compound), phenomenal heat capacity (which makes it a stabilizer), high heat conductivity and surface tension (vital for many cellular structures and processes), transparency to visible light (crucial for photosynthesis) and the anomalous property of becoming less dense when it solidifies into ice (hence a reservoir and refuge). The runner-up, ammonia, shares some of these attributes (including the tetrahedral structure) and might be the solvent of choice at the lower temperatures of Titan’s hydrocarbon seas. Such a configuration is fully deployed in Joan Vinge’s justly famous Eyes of Amber.

If we encounter life elsewhere, it’s a foregone conclusion that its details will differ significantly from ours – and that its differences will dwarf what SF has come up with. Non-terrestrial life may not use DNA or RNA as its basis of genetic transmission; it may use a different kit of starting blocks for energy, scaffolding and catalysis. It will have a totally different repertoire of body plans, sensoria, mental processes, reproductive modes, ecosystems. But it will be based on carbon and will almost certainly use water as its solvent. And just from current percentages, it’s possible that most planetary life may have developed in “roofed ocean” worlds like Europa, instead of the open atmosphere of Earth.

Walking rightward (as is customary) in the Drake equation, the question is: if they emerge, would roofed-ocean lifeforms evolve to complexity? To sentience? To use of technology, whereby they might send the unambiguously civilizational signals still eagerly awaited by SETI? Of course, our horizons are limited by our own intrinsic parochialisms. We cannot easily visualize technology that’s not based on metals and fire. We cannot easily imagine how sentients that never see the stars might nevertheless deduce their existence.

Many of these perceived hurdles are in fact easily overcome. In Forerunner Foray, André Norton postulated a species that directed the building activity of coral polyps. The solution of water-dwelling lifeforms would be direct-to-biotech, bypassing metal forges. Terrestrial cephalopods are remarkably intelligent and are known to use technology (cetaceans are revenants to water, so their intelligence springs from the same foundation as ours). As for guessing the existence of the stars, a species with sensors in the right bracket of the EM spectrum would rapidly become aware of the overwhelming nearby presence of Jupiter or Saturn. Such species might eventually build starships from tissue, like Farscape’s Moya. Beyond that, the specifics of such species might go a long way towards explaining the over-invoked Fermi Paradox: if they sent signals, they would automatically choose their own waterhole frequency.

So far, we’ve seen the exteriors of roofed-ocean worlds. Missions have been planned for investigations of interiors, though their launch dates keep slipping further into the future. In the end, our own vaunted ability to see the stars may not avail us if we choose to turn inward, eventually running out of the metals and fuels that keep our window to the universe open. If we do send out exploratory vessels, we have to be extra careful not to mar the worlds we touch, that may harbor their own tinkerers and dreamers. But it’s my fond fantasy that, before my own life sets, we get to hear of filigree manta rays swirling under Europa’s ice to the radio pulse beats of the giant overhead.

Giant Manta Getty

Images: Top, the Europa system (NASA/JPL); middle, water, the marvelous solvent; bottom, a manta ray pirouetting in its element (Getty Images).

Genome Editing: Slippery Slope or Humane Choice?

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

gattaca09

Science fiction is awash with engineered humans, from the now-classic GATTACA to the demi-gods of Banks’ Culture; the concept is linked to that of cloning and carries similar strains of hubris and double-edged consequences. As with cloning, gene engineering is no longer science fiction. Protein and Cell just published the results of a Chinese research team that used a DNA editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9 to alter early trinuclear (triploid) IVF embryos.  This technique has been used in many organisms, including mice, to successfully change specific genes. It’s a variation of gene therapy; the major difference is that in this study the repair was done at the low-number cell stage instead of postnatally.

[Parenthesis for the detail-oriented: CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat, a common configuration in gene editing methods derived from bacterial defense systems. Cas stands for CRISPR-associated system – a CRISPR and its associated nuclease, which recognizes and clips the palindrome. The technique puts a target sequence with a desired nucleotide change in the CRISPR construct and introduces it plus a modified Cas enzyme into a cell or organism; the introduced system replaces the endogenous target sequence with the engineered one].

Triploid embryos, ova fertilized by two sperm, are mostly miscarried during the first trimester. The extremely few fully triploid infants that survive till birth have severe defects and without exception die a few days after delivery. The experimental triploid embryos additionally carried a thalassemia mutation in the HBB (beta-hemoglobin) gene. Thalassemic heterozygotes can lead a quasi-normal life with occasional blood transfusions, provided they are monitored. Homozygotes live a life of gruesome suffering and die before age 20 unless they undergo bone marrow transplantation.

The study documented several serious stumbling blocks, though none were unexpected: primarily low efficiency and low fidelity. Dependable introduction into cells is not trivial and the difficulty increases the more specialized the cells are, which is one reason why germline or embyronic editing is easier than its adult counterpart. Also, techniques of this type, which include RNAi, are prone to off-target effects (changes of quasi-homologous non-target sequences) and mosaicism due to expression variation – particularly with gene families, of which hemoglobins are one. As the study’s authors explicitly state, the technical issues must be competely resolved before such methods can go into clinical mode. Which leaves us with the other part: the eternal battleground between “can” and “should”.

Given the embryos’ triploidy and homozygous thalassemia, the primary ethical dilemma of tinkering with potentially viable entities did not arise in this study. Even so, Science and Nature rejected the paper summarily citing ethics concerns, and the usual people were interviewed saying the same things they said about IVF and cloning (briefly: unnatural hence unethical, slippery slopes, designer babies). Beyond the original furor over IVF babies, recall that a few months ago the UK allowed the generation of triparental embryos for people who carry mitochondrial mutations that would result in disease. And although many diseases are multigenic, others, equally devastating, would yield to such therapy.

Not surprisingly, many scientists and ethicists have called for a temporary moratorium on such experiments until consensus guidelines are developed. This happened at least once before, with recombinant DNA (the famous Asilomar conference of 1975). The original fears around gene splicing proved baseless, the grandstanding of Cambridge mayor Alfred Vellucci notwithstanding. The same is true of IVF, which has resulted in millions of perfectly normal humans, though the wars around gene therapy and GMOs are still raging, partly driven by issues other than feasibility or outcomes.

In my opinion, the meaninful dividing line is not between humans and all other animals. The real dividing line is between repair and enhancement (and what the latter really means). It’s almost certain that such methods will be tried on the less privileged first and, once perfected, will be preferentially accessible to the well-off – possibly indefinitely, if the current re-stratification of humanity by wealth persists. At the same time, it’s equally clear that the CRISPR technique has passed the proof of concept test and will eventually be used. I, for one, cannot imagine many future parents who will opt for no intervention if they are told that their child will develop Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia or Huntington’s disease.

The burning question, of course, is if attributes deemed socially desirable will also be on the table with CRISPR. Thankfully, almost all suchlike attributes are polygenic and/or strongly susceptible to environmental input. Closer to the bone, a condition like monogenic deafness carries the dilemmas now associated with cochlear implants (I will not discuss “IQ” or autism, since these are not defined by single genes or, in some aspects, at the gene level and therefore don’t fall into this conversation). There is also the issue of consent, which means that adults are likelier to be eventually allowed to try exotic changes – with far greater risks attached, because of the intrinsic difficulties I discussed earlier.

At one end of this lurk the specters of eugenics and coercion – and, if financial and power stratifications escalate, the fear that humans may eventually split into Eloi and Morlocks. However, speciation requires total isolation of founder populations… and masters rarely withstand the temptation to mate with their slaves and servants, whether it’s an act of love or lust. Another fear is that the editing of an “undesirable” gene variant into extinction will have unforeseen consequences, since germline or embryonic editing is heritable. Many disease alleles have persisted because they confer advantages to heterozygotes: sickle cell to malaria, cystic fibrosis to cholera. As I never tire of repeating, “optimal” status is context-dependent. But if we fine-tune the editing techniques to the point that they become safe for routine use, re-introducing known alleles will be equally easy (creating new ones is definitely terra incognita, though these could, and should, be pre-tested in non-human systems).

On this, as with recombinant DNA, I’m a cautious optimist and venture to hope that the perfected CRISPR technique will be used with awareness and care for good – to ensure that monogenic diseases don’t lead to shortened or stunted lives. We may end up with a mosaic of guidelines, but eventually familiarity will dispel our wired fear of the new. We’ll still have to struggle with diseases that are less tractable, like dementia. And if CRISPR gives rise to a few more blue-eyed babies, I think we can live with that.

Blue Eyes

Related articles:

Equalizer or Terminator?

Blastocysts Feel No Pain

The Quantum Choice: You Can Have Either Sex or Immortality

Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

The Price of Threescore Years and Ten

The Smurfettes Discover Ayn Rand

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

“The simple lives of heroes,
The twisted lives of saints,
They just confuse the sunny calendar
With their red and golden paints.”

— Leonard Cohen, Priests

Preamble: if I were prone to using (avaunt!) mood indicators, this essay would sport one with the “annoyed” designation. But even Cincinnatus had to leave his farm. So I’m taking time out of writing my stories, articulating my thoughts on roofed ocean worlds and editing To Shape the Dark to discuss a few genre-related items, including a troublesome trend among young(er) women in the quarters I frequent. Since I’m solidly in the ice floe age bracket, feel free to ascribe what follows to me being a temperamental oldster. Comments are once again disabled.

LONELY HOUSE, Valentin2007

I have a bad habit – well, more than one, but we’ll leave the rest for future conversations. I seldom engage in fashionable internet controversies. This is partly because many are of the “first as tragedy, then as farce” type and at this point in my life I’ve seen too many unwitting parodies – what I call “discovering black holes… once again!” Also, by inclination and training I prefer to research things rather than jump with both feet (and no upper head) into a scrum. Practically speaking, this means that by the time I’m prepared to say something the internet magpies are pecking at the next scrap of shiny tinfoil. Finally, if I bestir myself enough to do a peroration it’s the end of the conversation for me: once I’ve fielded an issue, I’m unlikely to revisit it.

This year’s Hugo implosion was loud enough to be heard outside the genre ghetto. The fact that the Whiny Puppies (SFF’s Teabaggers) invited the GamerGaters to the bash guaranteed page clicks and Klout score increases for all who opined. Everyone said something. Some said better things than others. The tangible outcome is that the Hugos (eminently gameable, riddled with cracks and a poor fit to SFF’s current protean sprawl) are now definitively broken, sea lion dronings about the perfection of current Hugo rules notwithstanding.

I won’t discuss either the aptly-acronymed VD, aka Theodore Beale, or the equally unspeakable John C. Wright. Their own words grunt for themselves and I’ve already discussed the general pathology of knuckledraggers. I will also not discuss Abigail Nussbaum’s screed, as Joshua Herring (whom I don’t know) did an excellent dissection. Clearly, wisdom is not about to strike Nussbaum [ETA: or, for that matter, Shaun Duke]. But it’s time to say that lack of rudimentary empathy and presentation of slanted “facts” calculated for retaining insider status make for lousy content, especially when one tries to pass the result as olympian objectivity or high principles.

I’ve been eligible for Fan Writer and Related Work Hugos since 2008. I’ve never been nominated but don’t feel slighted thereby (unlike Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen who apparently do despite ample visibility and professional success, from publications in ever-predictable Analog to repeated award nominations). Nor have I jettisoned my ethics in the forlorn hope I’d be nominated if I kowtowed to the right clique (à la Deirdre Saoirse Moen). For the sake of completeness – because I clearly thirst for popularity – I’ll add that I find at least two perennial hoverers on recent SFF award lists (Charles Stross and John Scalzi) unreadable and as a space opera aficionada I deemed Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice good but not particularly original. However, subjective tastes, pseudo-democratic voting, etc.

Among this year’s Hugo nominees is one whose qualifying work contains some of my own bone marrow. Laura Mixon is in the Best Fan Writer category for her report on the damage wrought to fandoms and professional SFF by RequiresHate/Sriduangkaew/etc and RH/BS acolytes and enablers. This damage was all the more insidious because it a) largely targeted the marginalized and b) was slotted into the “acceptable because dressed in social justice accoutrements” category.

I already discussed (obliquely) why I think Mixon deserves the award in the larger context of today’s SFF. I will note that many of the camel-swallowers and gnat-splitters who are complaining that Mixon was nominated for a single work are the same people who gave the Best Fan Writer award last year to Kameron Hurley for a single work as well (and a hot mess, at that, even if it sorta kinda lunged in the right direction). I will also note that by writing her report Mixon took considerable personal and professional risks with zero expectations of reward, only for the sake of trying to make SFF an open-door house rather than a mud-churned battlefield.

The Mixon report touches upon what I call the Macha Smurfette syndrome: the tendency of some young(er) women who label themselves progressive to re-create hierarchical value systems that disdain scapegoat/displacement attributes coded “female”. I think such women are seeking male approval as abjectly as the non-feminists they excoriate, essentially saying “Look, pa, I’m not like those emo girls! I’m alpha stuff!” Invariably, they become tokens used by reactionaries to bludgeon true subversives and/or purity policers of their peers. Ayn Rand, Ann Coulter, Camille Paglia. Badass wannabes who disparage women that express any fear and who use Dawkins-type “Dear Muslimah” false comparisons to gain attention and brownie points. It’s no surprise that stories written by women who hold such views resemble soggy cement and the societies they come up with, “edgy” veneers aside, are as essentialist as those in Leaden Era SFF. Lack of empathy and powermongering tend to flatten vision. [NB: This applies to men as well; one difference is that smurfettes get discarded as soon as the conveyor belt delivers younger ones.]

Because of my personality, primary occupation and cultural background, I default to the Strong Silent™ type myself. I don’t use my own health, personal history and relationships as anecdata in public arguments. There’s a practical reason for this: experience has taught me that anything I say about myself will eventually be used as ammunition by people eager to humiliate or discredit me, even while I’m aware that my reticence robs me of support networks. But the deeper reason for this stance is that I do deem myself a failure if I don’t remain standing at all times. I believe public forums are the wrong venues for private unburdenings and I use the word “spoons” exclusively for matters related to cooking. However, I consider this a valid modus vivendi solely for me. It’s a matter of persona, not morality; of conditioning, not values.

Being a liaison between cultures and disciplines granted me the decidedly mixed blessing of across-the-spectrum vision. The lifelong wandering has turned me into a cat, a badger, a soliton, unmoved (if not untouched) by either carrots or sticks. I will eventually fall silent, when my body abandons me. Until then, I will continue to walk between worlds, telling stories. I’ll welcome those who journey to my distant campfire to sing with me, to enlist my help with planting and building. Tradition decrees that astrogators remain sleepless at the helm; but all kinds of hands and minds are needed to send starships to Tau Ceti.

Sea Gate full

Images: 1st, Lonely House by Per Valentin; 2nd, Sea Gate by Peter Cassidy.

Leonard Nimoy, 1931-2015

Friday, February 27th, 2015

Spock's Farewell

Leonard Nimoy was much more than Spock, though that alone left an enormous cultural footprint beyond just SFF.

By now, the figure of Spock is solidly embedded in contemporary mythology. Because of the multi-leveled conflicts and dilemmas intersecting on Spock and my own interests and experiences, the character, his backstory and his culture have been an integral part of my mental map. They served as a mirror that allowed playful, hopeful imaginative extrapolations in a universe that recognized individual and collective good.

Farewell, astrogator, supporter of tikkun olam and shekhinah. The light in our courtyard has grown dimmer by your departure.

Let This One Abide

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

As anyone not in a nuclear submarine running silent must know, the movie version of 50 Shades of Grey (avaunt!) is about to descend upon us. As a counterweight, I’ll offer to those interested a subject-relevant vignette of a telepathic trio in a polyandrous matrilocal, matrilineal society. It’s part of my large Planetfall/Wind Harp universe (those who have seen Spider Silk and Shoals in Time have seen this vignette, titled Let This One Abide). Email me, curious minds!

Albrigtsen-Aurora

Image: Aurora, Tromsø, Norway (photo by Harald Albrigtsen)

How Many Swallows Bring Real Spring?

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

“Being nice to the harmful is equivalent of being harmful to the nice.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Black Swan

Karyatidhes

The Karyátidhes, Erechtheíon, Akrópolis, Athens

———-

In the wake of Laura Mixon’s November 2014 report on Winterfox/Requires Hate/Benjanun Sriduangkaew/etc (RH/BS), the SFF community had discussion marathons about forgiveness and healing, diversity and inclusion, speaking up and being heard. The predations of RH/BS and her lieutenants, horrific in themselves, are nevertheless a symptom of larger systemic problems. It is becoming increasingly pressing for the inhabitants of SFF, fan and pro, to go past talking and take actions that could eventually move the domain out of perpetual parochialism and childishness. Below are some of my thoughts on the larger context; at the end of the post are links to thoughts of other RH/BS targets. As in my previous contribution to the dissection of this pathology, comments to this post are disabled.

———-

Idealistic members of the SFF community envision the genre as tolerant and genuinely inclusive. I find this vision a worthwhile one to aspire to, even though it’s mostly honored in the breach. Being human, we will never really bridge the fault lines that divide the SFF community. What we can do is try to be constructive and productive despite them, and treat each other as professionals, adults and fellow humans.

That said, I will not ask RH/BS, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Tori Truslow or anyone else in RH’s orbit to promise me anything for the simplest of reasons: their behavior after RH/BS issued disjunct “apologies” when she ran out of dodges make it crystal clear they have no intent to change. Their attempts to discredit and silence critics continue unabated (once again, I refer everyone to the fable of the scorpion and the frog). They’ve also redoubled their efforts to reconstitute the BS construct as a talented ingénue beset by jealous rivals and to deep-six the fact that they’ve systematically engaged in trade suppression, blackmail and intimidation.

RH/BS and her acolytes have set back true progressives in SFF by at least a decade and have turned “social justice” into a term of derision even among supporters of change and an apotropaic invocation for those agog to have SFF revert to the circa-fifties Leaden Era. However, of greater concern are those who are so eager to exhibit ideological purity or (belated) art-for-art’s-sake “objectivity” that they’re effectively contributing to the relentless onslaught on real diversity in SFF. Their actions have helped turn the SFF ecosphere into rigid, brittle monocultures clustered at extreme end-nodes of the political/identitarian spectrum.

I continue to see disingenuous arguments that “talent” (however it’s defined in today’s tinsel-grabbing market) trumps blatant professional misconduct and utter lack of ethics; that spouting pseudo-edgy fashionable jargon excuses sustained, de facto criminal attempts to blight lives and demolish careers and reputations. I see no real move to give voices to those who have been silenced by malice, no matter how vital their voices are pronounced to be or how talented they are (and many are visibly more talented than BS). Instead, I see cynical promotion of gaudy baubles, lip service to quality notwithstanding; self-satisfied endorsement of tokens and Pathetic Puppies, the more “provocative” boxes they tick, the better; annoyance at targets of smearing and bullying campaigns who will not obligingly remain mute or leave the arena – and who will never recover the time, energy, income and professional ground they lost; and continued erasure of mavericks who don’t fit the agendas of self-appointed correct thought supervisors or of instant-cred seekers from SFF publications and conventions.

I once said I would not take the Joanna Russ pledge because I had been at the barricades all my life. Likewise, once again I won’t utter sonorous noises about showcasing the loners and outliers, the neglected and forgotten, because I’ve been doing it all along and will continue to do it as long as I can. Whether I and other memory keepers remain cymbals echoing in the wilderness or end up with acid thrown at our writings and faces is up to the SFF community.

 

Recent thoughts from other targets of RH/BS and her acolytes

Jean Bergmann, Statement Regarding Alex Dally MacFarlane

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Writer’s Journey: Doing the Work

Rachel Manija Brown, Requires Hate/Requires Love

Liz Williams, Requires Comment

 

Selected related articles

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

A Plague on Both Your Houses

The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

Ain’t Evolvin’: The Cookie Cutter Self-Discovery Quest

Caesars and Caesar Salads

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

“My God, it’s Full of Physics!*” The Sciency Science of Interstellar

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Into Darkness and The People in the Trees.

*apologies to Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick

Captain-NemoLet’s get something out there right away: most science in science fiction is wrong. That’s okay, because most science fiction isn’t actually about science, anyway, but about our relationship with science, exploring how science and technology intersects with our lives.   Frankenstein is about the quest for knowledge, no matter the cost. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea chronicles how one man’s rejection of the violent machinery of war and power leads him to be the ultimate, terrible instrument of that same violence. The movie Gattaca warns us of the dangers of using a single technological lens for measuring humanity.

Interstellar had Kip Thorne, a prominent Caltech theorist and expert in gravity, as a scientific advisor. But in the end it was the sci-fi equivalent of Peter Pan: if you clap your hands and believe, everything will turn out all right.

As I’ve written elsewhere, a good narrative should be much a good joke: surprising yet ultimately logical. In the original version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the Nautilus is trapped in a mighty maelstrom; in the movie version the crew are ambushed by a naval blockade. Both outcomes arise naturally from a central character’s underestimate of the forces arrayed against them: in the book, Nemo underestimates the power of nature; in the movie, Ned Land underestimates the cold brutality and hatred of the military. Both are surprising, but make sense in the context of the story-so-far.

By contrast, the plot of Interstellar basically boils down to this: a magical plague nearly extinguishes humanity. Then more magic saves it.

A blight which wipes out an entire food crop is completely believable, especially given our increasing tendency to monoculture. We’ve even seen that in bananas: most bananas in US stores are the Cavendish variety, cultivated by clonal cuttings. Sixty years ago you would have found the Gros Michel variety, but it was all but obliterated by Panama disease, and it is not impossible that the Cavendish may suffer a similar fate.

A single blight which annihilates crop after crop after crop is less believable, if only because: if it hasn’t happened in half a billion years of terrestrial plants, why suddenly now? Worse Michael Caine mumbles something about nitrogen, and people suffocating, which I could not follow; did the blight fix nitrogen, or oxygen? How could it possibly fix enough of either one to shift the atmospheric composition by more than a percent or two–especially given it would have to also draw upon the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is only a fraction of a percent.

This by itself is not an unforgivable scientific (or I should say sciencey) sin. I’m willing to accept a monstrous if highly unlikely plague in order to set the plot in motion.

After some more improbabilities, the accidental heroes launch into space. I’m glad Kip Thorne was able to talk Nolan out of his desire for faster-than-light drive, and the journey to Saturn takes a long time. Limitations, when consistent, provide a good verisimilitude of actual technology. I’m not sure why no one explained to Coop, the talented pilot, what a wormhole was until they were ten minutes from entering it, but, again, for the sake of the narrative I gritted my teeth and accepted it. They were surely some pretty CG effects.

But then we get to the planets. Including a planet orbiting a massive black hole.

Actually, even this I could accept. It is science fiction, after all, and I myself wrote and sold a story (“Icarus Beach”) involving characters surfing the neutrino burst from a supernova. I’m sure Kip Thorne patiently explained that to have a planet deep enough inside a gravity well for a time dilation ratio of 7 years to 1 hour but not be torn apart from tidal forces, it would have to be a really really massive black hole. Hence the name Gargantua. Thorne may have even explained to Nolan that such black holes are only found in the centers of galaxies, which are full of stars and radiation and really not that hospitable to life.

But even that I would accept–part of the joy of science fiction is the sense of wonder and the awe of extreme environments and situations. And the gravitational time dilation, although unrealistically large, fits well into the theme of constrained situations.

I never did get a good sense of the system. Are there twelve planets (like twelve disciples, get it, get it?) and a sun orbiting a sun, or what? The planet of ice clouds seemed, again, unlikely but cool.

But then we get to the mind-numbingly stupid stuff.

Chastain & Thorne

Not the falling into a black hole; I rather liked that bit. But Coop communicates with his daughter in the past, and eventually gets to meet her in the future, and it’s apparently all to do with five dimensions. Five dimensions, in Nolan-world, is a get-out-of-jail-free card.

It’s not so much bad science, because the science in the movie is, beyond phrases like “five-dimensional beings,” nonexistent. It’s bad plotting because Nolan is saying And then a miracle occurs. A miracle we expect the audience to swallow, because, science!

Let me remind you: a good narrative should be like a good joke: surprising, but logical.

It’s not logical if you invoke incomprehensible magic. If the audience doesn’t have a fair chance of understanding it, it’s poor narrative.

Even the one part that, superficially, sounded believable doesn’t make much sense if you understand the deep workings of physics. Michael Caine’s character desperately wants to crack the riddle of quantum gravity in order to, I guess, make antigravity and thus easy mass space travel. Another miracle. But they need data, ideally from passing through the event horizon of a black hole, to get it to work.

Physics is fundamentally an experimental science, so superficially this is good. But I could not figure out what kind of data would make a difference. Presumably Caine has narrowed down the range of models–what sort of gauge groups or diffeomorphisms may be involved. But if there is a possibility that a working theory of quantum gravity could lead to antigravity, you could just build the damn things–here’s one device assuming SU(10) supergravity, here’s another assuming conformally invariant diffeomorphisms, here’s another assuming Lorentz-violation at ultraviolet scales (and, for you readers out there, those are all real phrases, not shit I just made up)–and see which one produces antigravity and allows you to build colonies around Saturn. After all, Thomas Edison tried 10,000 different substances for the filament of an electric light bulb before finding one that worked. No need for a suicide mission down a black hole.*

Let me emphasize that the problem is not the bad science–it is that the narrative leans heavily upon incomprehensible science. That’s bad storytelling. And in the end, that’s the worst sin possible in a movie.

 

*I actually liked the trip down the black hole. And if the movie had ended, right there, I would have liked it a lot more, since up to that point the movie was pretty convincing about how dangerous and indifferent the universe is.

Thomas-Edison-Quotes

Images: 1st, James Mason as Captain Nemo; 2nd, Jessica Chastain with Kip Thorne; 3rd, the relevant Thomas Edison quote.

Love, Tantrums and the Critical Reviewer

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

Scorpion Laughs

In the last few months there have been spikes of the age-old arguments about the interactions of authors, reviewers and fans. When the three overlap, as is increasingly the case in several genres, it’s no wonder that the injunctions are for discussions to be as uncritically gushing as they’re in fanfic.

It should be no secret by now that I don’t care if people dislike my re/views. Furthermore, my attributes and experiences make it unlikely that I’ll hold a majority view very often even within communities like SFF, futurists, space aficionados, etc. Not that I’m prone to hermetic hermeneutics: after fifty-plus years of avid reading, film watching and gaming, I remain firmly in favor of art being accessible. I like plenty of scifi and fantasy films, even Hollywood ones, even ones that are glaringly imperfect – as long as they’re not in-your-face insulting; as long as they show a scintilla of originality and love of craft.

Recently, people used terms like “curmudgeonly” and “jaundiced” to characterize my dislike of Interstellar of which I briefly said the following, as I deemed it too crappy (in all “five dimensions”) for a full-length review: “Having now seen Interstellar — a loss of three hours I bitterly regret — I’ve concluded that the praise I’ve seen must refer to a film located at the end of a distant wormhole. The clichés, clunkiness, regressive triumphalism and sanctimony are sickening. So is the misuse of Hathaway and Chastain. Interstellar wants to be Contact if/when it grows up. Even McConaughey was more bearable in the latter.” [Though I think Contact would be vastly improved if he was excised from it altogether.]

There have been similar tantrums whenever I’ve disliked a fave-du-jour, although nobody (yet) has called me “a harlot” as someone called Stephanie Zacharek for daring not to have orgasms over Guardians of the Galaxy. But you know what? Even something as smarmy as love standardized for US audience palatability can be done right in SFF films. Love is not McConaughey chewing the scenery, his neck veins throbbing like harp strings. This is love — across several dimensions yet, but without self-satisfied trumpeting:

Mal: It ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flying is? Well, I suppose you do, since you already know what I’m about to say.

River: I do. But I like to hear you say it.

Mal: Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.

This makes my eyes sting, even while I know it’s meant to tug at my heartstrings. And if you cannot tell why this is light years ahead of Interstellar‘s “love transcends space and time” pretentious blather, don’t bother reading my (unabashedly unibrow) reviews.

Image: The Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson) who knew how to deal with tantrums.

Curmudgeonly Reviews of Other SFF Films by Yours Truly

The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade (Samurai Champloo, Mononoke Hime)

Set Transporter Coordinates to… (the Star Trek reboot)

I Prefer My Prawns Well-Seasoned (District 9)

Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art (Avatar versus The Secret of Kells)

The Multi-Chambered Nautilus (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)

“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?” (the Planet of the Apes reboot)

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings? (The Piano, Whale Rider)

Fresh Breezes from Unexpected Quarters (The Dark Knight Rises, The Bourne Legacy)

Hagiography in the SFX Age: Jackson’s Hobbit

“We Must Love One Another or Die”: A Critique of Star Wars

Mystique: The True Leader of the X-Men

Authentic Ethnics (all films about Greek mythology)

Annals of the Starship Reckless

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

“But out there in the wind-swept dark, untamed and unbowed, still roams the feral loner who haunts the dreams and can foil the plans of the self-satisfied.”

— The closing of Mystique, the True Leader of the X-Men

adversity_by_amphirion

For a while now, people have been saying they’d like see my science- and/or SFF-relevant articles gathered in a collection.  Because of its unique viewpoint and perspectives, such a tome will almost certainly be self-published. Might as well keep frustration and amateurishness to a minimum!

As a trial balloon, I’m asking here, in Facebook and Twitter for a show of hands: how many would be interested in such a work?  The tally will close 5 pm EST, Friday. If numbers don’t reach triple digits, I’m unlikely to attempt it.

Image: Adversity by Amphirion

The Hue (and Cry) of Stormtroopers

Saturday, November 29th, 2014

Temuera Morrison

Well, this is amusing, if only because it highlights the parochialism that reigns supreme in SFF. The first trailer of Star Wars 7 just appeared, and a character in it (played by actor John Boyega, who’s black) is shown wearing a stormtrooper uniform; the rumor is that he is in fact a stormtrooper who defects to the Good Guys. People pointed out that stormtroopers are clones and the person who served as the template was Jango Fett — played by well-known Maori actor Temuera Morrison.

Cue the cries of racism, because people are saying that a stormtrooper cannot be black unless the bioengineers developed multiple lines from independent templates. Never mind that Morrison is rather obviously non-white.

Now everyone in THIS galaxy knows I detested Star Wars for reasons explained in We Must Love One Another or Die. So I don’t much care about the logic of a plot that will undoubtedly be as well thought-out as that of the rest of the franchise. However, I must state for the record that people who argue that stormtroopers (as Fett clones) cannot be black aren’t racists. They just, you know, watched Star Wars 1 through 6 and know enough science to be aware that clones usually look like their prototype (although that has the usual nuances if one wants to inject real biology into the equation, something also unknown in Star Wars).

Even more importantly, people should consider the question of why stormtroopers, who are disposable fighting machines bred for obedience, are non-white. The human characters of Star Wars were actually racially diverse; nevertheless, all the primary heroic roles still went to the customary demographic group — though at least the lone female figure in each trilogy was a brunette (we’ll take whatever we can get, even pathetic crumbs).

ETA: A commenter brought up the fact that Star Wars hews to the traditional dark/light split (and value assignment) of many mythologies and religions. Currently, such dualisms may feed into racist assumptions. However, I think the original division arose because humans are diurnal, whereas their predators were almost entirely nocturnal until technology made this issue irrelevant. Before the advent of electric lighting, humans feared and respected the Night. But like almost everything, Star Wars deploys this ancient behavioral mode with zero nuance — a huge waste, because the best stories and characters develop in the ever-shifting shadowy realms between Light and Dark.

Image: Temuera Morrison

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Wrecker

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

Introductory note: This is an inside-baseball article. For a quick recap of the issue, this report is the best source. For older history, consult this link. For recent history, here’s Laura Mixon’s report, with an extensive analysis and many documented cases of abuse. I will not respond to messages on this issue and have disabled comments here. Readers can comment at Laura’s site (strictly moderated). Additional pertinent posts: Robert N. Lee, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Rachel Manija Brown, Paul Weimer, Elizabeth Bear, Sunita P, Peter Schmitt, Alis Franklin, The Daily Dot, Peter Watts, Laura Mixon’s update, my larger-context discussion (I will add these as they appear).

—————-

Science fiction and fantasy (SFF) is an unusual domain. Distinctions between fans and pros are blurry, and its intrinsics attract loners, misfits, exiles and orphans. That fluidity also makes it attractive to predators who can use the domain’s tolerance to wreak havoc. Also, SFF’s self-defensive isolation from other parts of literature allows extreme pathological manifestations that would rarely survive, let alone flourish, in less parochial contexts.

About three years ago, I noticed the appearance of a shock-jock blogger mantled with the flag of social justice called Requires Hate (henceforth RH). She would sometimes say interesting things about matters that I had engaged in for a long time. So I’d occasionally comment on her blog. I also started exchanging emails with her. I was wary in our interactions – partly because her rhetoric was so extreme that I wondered if this was a put-on by someone wanting to troll the ultra-PC contingent; partly because I gradually became aware that RH was Winterfox/Pyrofennec (and another half-dozen handles) who had left a legacy of scorched earth in online communities since at least 2003: hazing, sexual and racial slurs and threats, sockpuppets, cyberstalking… with women (especially women of color and/or vulnerable) as primary targets. I also noticed that RH employed the typical grooming technique of gangs and cults for member recruitment: a mental equivalent of the Milgram experiment, in which people were pushed to deliver what they thought were ever-increasing (up to lethal) electric shocks to someone in the next room.

In one of our exchanges, RH described a story she planned to write. Such a story appeared under the moniker Benjanun Sriduangkaew (henceforth, fittingly enough, BS). This was coupled with the emergence of a treacly-ingenue persona with no prior online footprint. At that point, and once again when a BS story appeared in Clarkesworld, I recommended that she own up to the RH identity to head off any unpleasantness, including people feeling betrayed if they were blindsided about her two very different personae. It was also clear from our second exchange that BS was not her real name but yet another handle. BS/RH didn’t like my advice and, realizing I wouldn’t become one of her acolytes, eventually stopped interacting with me.

Portions of SFF swooned over BS’s veritable gush of stories, in which she used the edgiest identity-politics toolkit swathed in ethereal-purplish prose. She was nominated for awards (as RH had been, by a different SFF demographic slice) and hailed as the brightest new nova in SFF. People started swarming around her, clamoring to be part of the charmed circle. That included people who had been savaged by the RH persona, which was now mothballed. Initially I decided to say nothing, though it weighed on me. I knew nobody would believe me: they’d ascribe it to jealousy, pettiness and worse. I also knew that such a disclosure would tear the progressives in SFF apart (as it has). I kept hoping that perhaps all this adulation would assuage her raging need for attention. More importantly, I was focused on my own project: The Other Half of the Sky, an anthology of original space opera stories with women protagonists that went on to win unprecedented accolades of its own.

Then I started getting odd reactions from an increasing number of people: whispers, insults, cold shoulders, abrupt unfriendings. Some of this came from writers whom I had invited to my anthology and paid pro rates, such as Alex Dally MacFarlane (a staunch RH lieutenant, who now had some clout as the editor of a Prime Books reprint anthology and a Tor columnist). Readercon, the only gathering my health allows me to attend without strain, notified me in 2013 they had “received complaints” about my panel proposal. MacFarlane, who had originally clamored to join my panel, attempted to disrupt it. My request for a reading slot for my brand-new anthology was denied and in 2014 I was not invited to Readercon.

As more people whom I knew befriended the BS persona, I told Nick Mamatas, who had become a buddy of sorts. A few months ago, I also told three others I deemed vulnerable, all in strict confidence. One of them was enticed into breaking my confidence. She informed me that BS “was upset” and “asked what she’d ever done to you that you’d say that about her” (i.e. that she was RH). The signs were clear that BS/RH had targeted me for isolation and expulsion from the SFF community: having proved unherdable, I was a potentially dangerous loose end.

I knew that it was a matter of time before BS/RH moved to sweep the domain clear of competition – talented young progressive women authors, judging from her past rounds. When Tricia Sullivan’s “Toxicity and me” post appeared, I instantly recognized the pattern and the two principals involved, even though she didn’t use names: BS/RH and MacFarlane. Some of those they had co-opted broke ranks and confirmed what I knew or had already surmised: that BS is yet another handle; and of the active plans of BS/RH and her chief apostles to eliminate perceived obstacles (me among them) by smear and blackballing campaigns.

When I told the story to Nick Mamatas, he mentioned that BS/RH had indeed sent him a note about me “spreading unfounded rumors” and “having it in for her”; I suspect she sent similar notes to all her editors and publishers as a pre-emptive strike. Nick also let me know that bad people can be good writers, whereas BS/RH’s adversaries were jealous “has-beens”. He didn’t answer when I asked if he deemed me disposable as well. Soon afterwards, he publicly stated that BS was RH, arguing that this would stop her predation while sparing her career. Many of the people who knew but did not see fit to tell me I had been targeted for slaughter have been beneficiaries of my personal and/or professional support.

Although it was obvious at that point that the BS=RH equation had been an open secret, Nick’s airy prediction that confirmation of this fact would stop her shenanigans proved spectacularly wrong. BS/RH rallied her supporters with the perennial cries of the cornered sociopath: jealous rivals were “harassing” a gifted, vulnerable young writer; a stalker had located her due to the “outing”, etc. The defenses of the BS/RH paladins were that she was young (although she had been doing this for more than ten years) and brilliant (a.k.a. the Polanski defense); that the hate rhetoric was just flourishes – or sophisticated satire (a particularly corrosive type of special pleading); and that white men who did the same were not punished (patently untrue – see Beale’s SFWA expulsion). People who came forward to tell their stories of being abused by BS/RH in the past (most anonymously, for fear of further reprisals and trauma) were mocked or shouted down by her defenders.

The actions of BS/RH go far past the easy excuse of personality conflicts and cannot in any way be construed as the behavior of a rational professional acquainted with even rudimentary ethics. Furthermore, BS/RH repeats the same pattern in every group she enters and has never shown any substantive remorse. On the contrary, her arsons and auto-da-fés have become increasingly ambitious – and better rewarded.

As someone who headed a research lab for twenty years and who hired, evaluated, trained and mentored scads of people, this is my assessment: BS/RH is a long-term repeat abuser. Her efforts to erase or obfuscate evidence have been systematic and are ongoing. The two last-ditch Hugo-Schwyzer-style apologies posted on the RH and BS blogs and tailored to each persona’s audience (I won’t link, my stomach is cast-iron but not neutronium) are simply feints to buy time and cover until allies and colleagues have invested too heavily in the BS construct to back out. Those who insist BS/RH has reformed should read the tale of the scorpion and the frog. In her past iterations, she ravaged communities and treated people like chew-toys. That’s horrible enough in itself. However, SFF is also a professional concern. So beyond emotional damage, we’re also looking at concrete effects on careers and reputations, especially of the less established. We’re looking at crude but serious attempts to disparage contemporaries’ enterprises, eliminate competition and suppress trade.

To those who are still trying to gaslight, discredit and silence BS/RH’s victims, I can only say, as Joseph Welch did: “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

To those who were led into the trap of complicity, I say: come back to us. We all make errors of judgment. Humans are tribal, we want to be liked and to associate with success.

To those who were targeted and hurt, I say: you are not alone. Others know about the bullying and lies that almost broke you.

To those who stood in front of this wrecker, despite fear and real consequences, I say: you are the pillars who hold up the world.

I have no illusions about the repercussions of the BS/RH affair on me, personally or professionally. However, any human group that wants to remain human cannot allow people to be treated as prey for sport and profit – or because some people are deemed more important than others.

Repairing the fabric of the world is neither glamorous nor rewarding. It’s ceaseless toil – not jargon-laden purer-than-thou trumpetings.

We have work to do.

Athena Andreadis, PhD

Athena Andreadis Sitting smAndreadis Brief Bio

Athena Andreadis was born in Greece to parents who were part of the WWII resistance, spent her adolescence under the military junta and was lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She spent her adult life doing basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia. She has also given many invited talks (that included NASA venues and the 100-Year Starship Symposium) on the biological and cultural issues of space/planetary exploration. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. She conceived of and edited the widely acclaimed feminist space opera anthology The Other Half of the Sky (2013, Candlemark and Gleam). Her work can be found in Scientific American, Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.

Authentic Ethnics

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

Fiennes Hades
Stratospheric talent and charisma – but is he authentic?!

In the latest iteration of multiculturalism as salad rather than melting pot, there has been constant discussion in social media about authenticity and representation. A recurring topic is whether roles should be assigned to actors who match the race (however defined) and even ethnicity of the characters.

Several threads make up this tangled knot: the poor representation and lack of opportunities for non-defaults in media and just about everywhere else; the industry’s stated need for face recognition (and hence bankability) of the principals; the conspicuous whitewashing of several signature works upon translation to the screen, Le Guin’s Earthsea among them; the hooha over whether there can be gender slippage in roles that “should be” cast in stone (Helen Mirren as Prospero in The Tempest); the stereotyping and category-lumping by physical appearance (tall and fair – Elf; short and dark – Orc or Southron; tall and dark – Uruk Hai; and poor Cliff Curtis keeps getting cast as an Arab or Latin American despite his long Maori lineage).

Over this hovers the flammable balloon of xenophobia which grows heavy during times of economic dislocations and tends to burst in bouts of “cleansing” whether that comes via restrictive immigration policies or outright slaughter. A “swarthy” woman with a petrified legacy accent myself, often pigeonholed on sight as Indian, Latin American or Arab except for the swagger, I’ve had customs and immigration employees yell “Speaka English? Huh?” an inch from my face. My name has been mangled throughout my adult life, I’ve suffered through “interpretations” of my mythology and history that would make cavemen cringe, and I strongly suspect that my grant, book and story proposals might have met different fates if I had submitted them under a more generic (or, ironically, more exotic) pseudonym.

At the same time, as I wrote in Caesars and Caesar Salads, the demand for total verisimilitude can be as parochial as its opposite. For one, race definitions vary significantly by culture and the current tendency of justice warriors to call anyone who’s not Anglo and blond “a person of color” hovers perilously close to definitions of traditional bigots. Also, some people identify with more than a single demographic slice, although most people of widely separate ancestries tend to choose one of their strands and cleave to it tenaciously. Finally, actors are meant to pretend to be someone else by definition. So it should be possible, with sufficient talent and training, to embody a persona beyond the narrow box of completely shared experience (ditto for writing, hobbled by the “Write what you know!” Hack101 exhortation).

Jackman Descendant
Isídhoros Bélas would be proud of his great-grandson.

Which brings us to the latest complaint during this tense moment in US history when the culture wars are raging with no resolution in sight – namely, that Welsh-born Catherine Zeta-Jones has been chosen to play the Colombian narcotrafficanta pioneer Griselda Blanco. Zeta-Jones has the right allure and fame, plus she already played an equivalent role in Traffic. But, say the purists, she’s not Latina. And it’s an undisputable fact that there are plenty of Latina thespians, famous ones at that, who could embody Blanco.

At that point, it occurred to me that I haven’t yet seen a single film or TV show about Greece or Greeks (whether myth or history, ancient or contemporary) produced outside Greece that uses even secondaries who are Greek – let alone protagonists. However, I haven’t heard a single voice raised in protest over Sam Worthington (groan) as Perséus, Brad Pitt as Ahilléus, Gerard Butler as Leonídhas, Colin Farrell as Aléxandhros… though I can live with Angelina Jolie as Olympiás and Ralph Fiennes as Ploúton.

Some will argue that, well, Greeks are white. Except of course when we’re not, to fit a different agenda (an SFF darling recently stated on Twitter that “Plato was not white”, making me wonder if he’ll say the same when the topic of The Suffocating Influence of Dead White Males comes up). Or maybe our privilege is that we, too, are Europeans… except when we’re not (the Euro Northerners, whether in 1941 or 2008, seem to agree on this). Or that we, too, have had a colonial past… except ours, such as it was, ended way before that of the Mughals, Ottomans and Russians, let alone the more customarily excoriated oppressors. Or that the “Greco-Roman” legacy is one of the foundations of Western civilization… except that what Western Europeans call the “Greco” part of this chimera is as authentic as Burton’s retelling of Shahrazad’s stories.

So as a tiny corrective, I did a recasting of Troy with Greek or Greek-descent actors. While checking out faces that could launch or stop a thousand ships, I discovered that Hugh Jackman, of Wolverine fame and nova-bright charisma, has enough Greek in him to be a card-carrying enrollee with nary a hitch (1/8, for those burning to know). The paternal side of his family once bore the surname Bélas. I was sorely tempted to cast him as Éctor, but decided on less-lionized faces. So below is my “authentic” Troy cast, with the non-diaspora names phonetically as close to correct as I can get them (click once or twice to embiggen accordingly). All are well-known in my country but, like its real mythology, history and literature, unknown beyond it except for Cliff-note versions.

Troy Cast

Related Articles:

And Ain’t I a Human?
The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!
Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry
Escaping Self-Imposed Monochromatic Cages
The House of Many Doors (or: At the Caucasus, Hang a Right!)
The Multi-Chambered Nautilus
Caesars and Caesar Salads
Hidden Histories or: Yes, Virginia, Romioi Are Eastern European (And More Than That)

Images: 1st, Ralph Fiennes as Hades (Ploúton) in Clash of the Titans; 2nd, Hugh Jackman; 3rd, my idiosyncratic (and tribal) recasting of Troy.

The (Warrior) Women Men Don’t See

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

“A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is finished, no matter how brave its warriors or how strong their weapons.” – Cheyenne saying

Cretan AntartissesWhen asked who the Greek god of war was, most people will answer “Ares” but that’s incorrect. The Hellenes had two gods of war and made a distinction between what type of conflict each oversaw. For wars of conquest in which armies invaded someone else’s home territory, the deity in charge was indeed Ares. For wars of defense, the presiding presence was Athena (as always in those palimpsest myths, the rule’s not absolute: in the Iliad, Athena’s intense liking of Odysseus overrode her formal duties).

This is directly relevant to the endless natterings in SFF about whether it’s problematic to prominently feature women warriors, especially in the self-labeled “realistic” grittygrotty mode encouraged by the success of George Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire. One standard defense to this question is to quote names of warrior queens (Boudicca of the Iceni, the Truong sisters, Lakshmi Bai, Laskarina Bouboulina, Nzinga Mbandi, Jeanne d’ Arc), mention women who fought disguised as men and women warrior groups across eras. Frankly, the issue is irrelevant to whether women warriors existed in history and should also be irrelevant to a genre that freely postulates magic and mythical beasts.

What’s relevant is the fundamental truth that underlies the Athena/Ares split: women have fought in equal numbers to men in the defense of home territory. That’s why resistance movements always have a healthy percentage of women all the way up the ranks, including executive officers. In fact, if someone looks at the names I listed in the previous paragraph their uniting attribute is that they were all home defenders.

Many attempt to argue that the term “warrior” implies special training, implements, ethos, etc. However, Toussaint l’ Ouverture is universally deemed a warrior regardless of his relevant formal credentials. The definition of warrior includes one non-negotiable item: bravery in fighting. Women can be summarily dismissed from this equation only if one limits the definition of “warrior” to an elite caste whose entire vocation and raison d’ être is war. But most women – and, incidentally, most men – who fought in resistance movements or defensive wars against invaders and occupiers were not professionals. They were teachers, doctors, craftspeople, factory workers, farmers. Those who were still standing when the fight ended went back to their real occupations with scars and stories handed down the years.

Mountain AntartissesPeople who become warriors because they must usually lack the aura of the strutters arraigned in the finery of moran and samurai, Jedi and Rohirrim. At the same time, neither do they present society with the intransingent problems of reintegration, polarization, power differentials. And societies that are not fatally fixated on machismo recognize such bravery. In my own culture, the last stand of Dhéspo is as celebrated as that of Leonídhas. The term of my tongue for someone truly brave, pallikári, is neuter and used for everyone whose behavior fits the definition.

Both my parents were such fighters. It’s well past time for SFF to absorb the fact that bravery is a universal not particularly high in the Maslow scale nor confined to a chosen few.

Related articles:

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

A Plague on Both Your Houses

“As Weak as Women’s Magic”

Ain’t Evolvin’: The Cookie Cutter Self-Discovery Quest

Those Who Never Got to Fly

Caesars and Caesar Salads

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

We Must Love One Another or Die: A Critique of Star Wars

Images: Adártisses (women guerillas) in WWII Hellás. Top, Cretan grandmother and granddaughter; bottom, Mountain Fighters, from the Rizospástis archive.

The Successor to The Other Half of the Sky

Friday, July 11th, 2014

Other Half 160Those who have followed my tangled trajectories know that two years ago I dreamt of literary mythic space opera with women protagonists in universes where they’re fully human. The anthology that resulted from this dream, The Other Half of the Sky, appeared in April 2013 on my dad’s nameday.

The anthology received unanimously rave reviews
in venues ranging from Library Journal to Analog, was in the Locus recommended list, four of its sixteen stories were selected for “Best of” compilations, and one of its stories won the Nebula for best novelette and is a Hugo finalist. A slew of like-minded anthologies followed in its wake, several from larger presses who felt that in these circumstances a plunge into “uncharted” territory was less risky than they thought (of course, when the time for big-noise interviews came, they were invited; I was not).

Altogether not bad, for the first genre outing of an editor with a tiny (though swashbuckling) press. But that was the past; and we restless wanderers are always scanning the horizon ahead. The foray whetted my appetite for more exploration. And since one of my other hats is that of research scientist, my thoughts bent in that direction — especially because science in SF (the process and mindset, not its accuracy) is in dire need of refurbishing.

So I just finished gathering potential contributors for the next anthology. My other collaborators — publisher, co-editor, cover artist — have also declared their willingness to share this journey. The provisional name of the starship under construction is To Shape the Dark. Here are the narrative parameters:

1. Protagonists: women scientists, mathematicians or engineers who live in universes where they don’t have to choose between work and family; most emphatically not Susan Calvin clones (my interpretation of science is broad, but computer engineers and psychologists have been heavily overused in SF);

2. Strong preference for societies/cultures where science is fully integrated as a holistic, humanistic endeavor – neither hubris nor triumphalism, the nearly ubiquitous SF tropes;

3. Science fiction (cross-genre fusion is fine, mythic echoes even finer, but no straight fantasy); no “big ideas” Leaden Age SF or near-future cyber/steampunk/dystopia unless it’s truly original;

4. Content and style for adult readers; protagonists fully exercising faculties and vocations, not young adult “finding one’s self” nor the sufferings of messiahs-to-be in the hands of inscrutable mentors.

We set the bar high with The Other Half of the Sky. I intend to raise it even higher with To Shape the Dark. Wish me luck and strength to make planetfall, though the stars I see through the astrogator’s port will be wondrous.

Mythic Space

The Misogyny We Inhale with Each Breath

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

“She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.”

The original opening for the obituary of Yvonne Brill, pioneer rocket and propulsion engineer, in The New York Times, March 2013. The revised opening was barely better.

—-

Ann LeckieImagine you’ve landed on an earth-like planet. You can live there without erecting domes, but there’s a gas dissolved in the atmosphere that makes you slightly ill. You rarely feel fully yourself. You have some difficulty gathering your thoughts, you have to take time to parse your every action. You spend excessive amounts of effort trying to get basics done.

If you’re a woman, you don’t have to imagine this. It’s called living on earth and the toxic gas dissolved in the atmosphere is called misogyny. It leads to several outcomes:

— Women do not form schools, lineages or dynasties and exceptional women are extolled (or, more frequently, demonized) as isolated one-of-a-kind anomalies;

— Women who are extolled are always presented as acceptably feminine and/or maternal first, before their contributions and vocations are discussed – and the latter as adjunct to the prestige of the patriarchal group that absorbed them;

— Women neglect daughters (who vanish one way or another) and invest in sons, their primary conduit to proxy authority; occasionally they exert indirect power and are validated through “indulgent” fathers and/or husbands.

Every single one of these patterns is endemic in the science fiction community despite all lip service to “changes” and they were among the visible foundations of a recent article at the St. Louis River Front Times titled “Is Ann Leckie the Next Big Thing in Science Fiction?” For those who live in nuclear submarines running silent, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is the first installment of a space opera projected trilogy that won two prestigious genre awards so far, the Nebula and the Clarke. The irony is that the article was clearly written with the best of intentions – unwitting proof of the toxic-gas analogy.

The first sentence of the article (under the front photo) is: “St. Louis mother and first-time novelist Ann Leckie…” and it spends its first half-page lovingly detailing how many rejections Leckie’s novel received – a tradition when discussing women’s works. It expresses surprise that Leckie doesn’t conform to the phenotype of “a typical suburban mother of two” – especially her glittery orange toenails. The article also mentions Leckie’s doubts about finding a man who would marry a brainy nerd, and her husband’s support of Leckie’s Big Decision to attend the Clarion workshop. In short, the interviewer is at pains to prove to his readers that Leckie is “just like the girl next door” because women creators are automatically considered freaks.

Despite its title, only half of the article is about Leckie; the other half is devoted to the sorry saga of the SFWA Bulletin. About a third of the portion that deals with Leckie’s achievements consists of quotes by John Scalzi. Granted, having Scalzi’s imprimatur ranks high on some people’s radars, especially journalists who want to establish instant insider cred. Scalzi (heaped with accolades for writing sanctioned fanfic, inter alia) has made himself a conspicuous ally of righteous causes within the genre. As with many others of his demographic slice, this stance has left him thigh-deep in acolytes and worshippers while non-default forerunners who expressed similar views received ostracism and abuse.

The article contains soundbites by other contemporary SF authors, most of them part of the SFWA administrative structure during the time that Leckie was that organization’s vice president. Conspicuously absent in the River Front article is any commentary by still-living foremothers: Cherryh, Friedman, Jones, Le Guin, McIntyre, Vinge, Yolen, all of whom have written space opera that shifted perimeters and parameters, if only against mountains of passive and active resistance. In stark contrast, Le Guin did a large-context review — actually a lengthy, fulsome endorsement — of Miéville’s Embassytown when it appeared, highlighting that only investment in sons (especially pre-confirmed successes) is deemed worthwhile and pragmatic. Remember, daughters are not part of any lineage. So Leckie is once again depicted as a singleton meteor, rather than as part of a solar system whose planets have nurtured complex life for millennia.

Perhaps these foremothers read Ancillary Justice and didn’t like it. I count myself among those who had mixed reactions to it; I fall into the group that Leckie names at the end of the article: “…what I really hope is that a bunch of writers look at my book and say, ‘She didn’t go far enough.’” and also into the group that has read enough to recognize it as a (worthy) successor, not a new origin. The possibility that famous SF women writers may have been asked to comment on Ancillary Justice but chose not to do so to avoid dilemmas highlights the no-win choices we have: we can remain silent, making ourselves irrelevant; we can pull our punches, undermining ourselves and cheapening the works we evaluate; or we can state our view and be labeled regressive (or be called cunts… though the British contingent continues to insist that the latter is a non-gendered term of endearment).

Also typically, the River Front article took time to note that Leckie received her Nebula award in a shimmering red gown. For me, the annoyance at this inclusion was mitigated by the accompanying factoid that the person who handed her the award was Stan Schmidt of Analog, who listed heavily toward didactic upbeat stories with young male protagonists and who had sent her a rejection addressed to “Mr. Leckie”. But tiny revanches are not the same thing as winning wars or even battles. And terraforming a planet, especially one where we can muddle along even as it subtly poisons us, is hard, thankless work.

Related articles:

Prime-minister-julia-gillardIs It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

Why I Won’t Be Taking the Joanna Russ Pledge

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

The Iron Madonna or: Kicking Ass While Female

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

Images: 1st, Ann Leckie; 2nd, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard during her famous misogyny speech, October 2012