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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.

Dawkins and Saul: Dudebros Under the Skin

Saturday, September 20th, 2014

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” – Audre Lorde

The-Four-Horsemen
Meet the new boss-prophets, same as the old boss-prophets

I’ve been an atheist ever since I could reason and a scientist (in outlook, even before I acquired the necessary tools to practice it) ever since I read Jules Verne at the impressionable age of five. Whether atheists and scientists are mud-bound clods incapable of epiphanies and a sense of awe is not my focus here; I cover that in The Double Helix. Because these two streams had a major role in shaping me, it will come as no surprise that I’ve been tracking Richard Dawkins ever since The Selfish Gene crossed my radar. Given other formative influences, it may also come as no surprise that I wrote him off as a serious thinker in either domain a long time before his knuckle-dragger clunkings on social media. I hold the same view of Dennett, Harris and Hitchens for overlapping reasons.

People have expressed surprise that Dawkins’ PR-unscrubbed utterances are as primitive and juvenile as those from Duck Dynasty, especially his EvoPsycho101 sexism and white-man’s-burden pronouncements that cannot be justified by the standard dodge of “he’s a product of his context” (male, white, Anglo, upperclass, tenured, rich, lionized). However, if you read Dawkins carefully, it’s perfectly congruent that he sounds like Saul-turned-Paul in his injunctions to women and other second-class humans to be obedient and silent: a powerful streak of patriarchal authority worship colors not just his stances but also his science, with its relentless banging on the natural dominance of ruthless alleles. It’s equally congruent that his empathy-devoid “logic” sounds like Spock at his most pompous ill-informed reductionism – because, judging from his cumulative opus, that’s how Dawkins thinks across all departments.

Supporters of Dawkins will point out that he was an articulate spokesperson for evolution and against creationism and pseudoscience before he became a full-time nurturer of his own celebrity. Yet all scientists worthy of the title have borne witness for bona fide science to the best of their abilities, most with far less fanfare and job security – and far lower fees. Before discussing the atheism part, I want to take a detour into science. As a molecular biologist who worked for more than three decades on brain gene regulation, I’ve encountered few concepts as harmful as Dawkins’ selfish gene. I’ve dubbed it I-got-mine-bitches biology and it wreaks at least two major damages, one proximal, one distal.

The proximal damage is that the concept is simply inaccurate: genes and gene products never work in isolation but as coordinated ensembles. So do organisms and ecosystems, though the strong (conscious) Gaia hypothesis is definitely wrong. A broken wheel (allele, gene) can disable a car (cell, organism) but it cannot make it function on its lonesome: cars are not a collection of wheels bent on having the shiniest possible rims (“selfish”). The name for unchecked-growth cells is cancer; too-virulent viruses and too-greedy predators become extinct if they obliterate their hosts and prey, respectively; and rape is neither hard-wired nor evolutionarily adaptive. Also, no matter at what level(s) evolution makes its selection, the process is context-sensitive. There is no optimized allele, cell, genome, organism, species or ecosystem that’s independent of time and place. “Harmful” alleles persist because they confer desirable resistances, usually to heterozygotes (sickle hemoglobin is the poster child for this) and even temporarily neutral alleles within populations allow organisms to be responsive to future changes.

On top of the factual inaccuracy, Dawkins’ view reeks of teleological anthropomorphizing: he presents genes as god-like overlords jerking will-less “meat cages” around and he approvingly notes the brutality of nature in weeding out imperfections and weaklings. However, as I discussed in Miranda Wrongs, genes do not dictate higher order behavior which is an complex if knowable emergent phenomenon. Also, nature is indifferent to human desires and convenience – or those of any lifeform, for that matter. So contra Dawkins, the universe doesn’t lurk awaiting its chance to pounce on hapless non-alphas, nor does it have an insecure ego that derives pleasure and validation from disasters.

tantrumThe distal damage is that Dawkins’ selfish gene concept has been adopted wholesale and then shoehorned into every conceivable niche by all regressive groups that like to label themselves progressive and/or “edgy”: libertarians, transhumanists, evopsychos, MRAs, one-percenters, “creatively disruptive” MBAs, grittygrotty SFF writers. The core characteristic of these groups, protestations of visionary thinking notwithstanding, is that they’re actually obsessed with auto-perks for the “worthy” and with perfectibility narratives beloved by fundamentalist clerics.

Which brings us to atheism. I was raised in a culture where orthodox christianity was imposed not just by custom but also by law. My experiences and subsequent investigations stripped all illusion of whether any organized religion is benign, an illusion often nursed by those who embrace religions eclectically and/or by choice. I do recognize that religion can be a major part of someone’s cultural identity – it was part of mine, even as I figured out its corrosive toxicity. [Meta note: This is not a 101 debate; attempts to argue that some religions are good for women/non-defaults, that you cannot have morality without fear of punishment, that religion inspired amazing art or humane politics or that many current religious leaders are “progressive” will be met with the summary ejection they deserve.  The same treatment, incidentally, will be meted out to anyone who tries to tell me that my unsophisticated brain does not grasp the subtle rigors (if only!) of Dawkins' theories.]

My atheism is that of Camus and any temptation (or likelihood) of me becoming a prophet is additionally precluded by my attributes, both innate and chosen. The atheism promoted by Dawkins is a counter-reformation cum younger-son rebellion: he and those like him don’t really want to bring a fundamental shift in society. They simply would like to establish or maintain an alternative authority pyramid with themselves at the apex, with all the entitlements of such a configuration. It is no coincidence that the views of Dawkins and the other so-called “horsemen” seamlessly align with the classic hierarchical dualisms (female/sentiment/instinct/nurture vs male/logic/science/conquest) that have wrought such havoc on our species and our planet. Nor is it a coincidence that when crossed, Dawkins drops the enlightened façade to reveal the raw nastiness underneath, which includes the annihilation of “apostates” routinely practiced by cult leaders.

self-promotionWhat Dawkins advocates is essentially a variant of authoritarian patriarchy, with its rigid rankings and selective privileges. He may have been a promising scientist once. However, his own agendas and unquestioned assumptions (which he keeps trying to pass as objective universals) combined with the expectation for sycophancy brought by his aggrandizement have repercussions beyond basic science. Elevation of people like Dawkins has led to such outcomes as the uniform expanse of white male faces at the 100 Year Starship Symposium. We aren’t going to build or board starships or even take care of our planet if we award the mantle of thought leader to blinkered, petty self-promoters like Dawkins.

Related articles:

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
If They Come, It Might Get Built
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle
The Charlatan-Haunted World
So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?
The Misogyny We Inhale with Each Breath

Images: 1st, “The Four Horsemen of Atheism” (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett); 2nd, “Tantrum” bronze sculpture: Gustav Vigeland; 3rd, Self-Promotion (creator unknown)

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 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

The Scientist in the Forest

Friday, June 20th, 2014

 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 and Star Trek: Into Darkness.

People TreesScience is about truth. At least, some kinds of truth: its success lies in focusing on material, factual, reproducible truths. Science has been so astoundingly successful in that limited arena that we moderns assume it is the only kind of truth worth having. It’s an important distinction, because we try to force everything else into the same materialist mold as science, and often act as if poetry and politics, ethics and emotions are either true or not true in the same way it’s true that you and I are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and not true that the world is flat.

We value honesty in people, and probably with very few exceptions we each one of us perceive ourselves as honest. But people are complicated. Walt Whitman wisely wrote, Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes. But nearly two centuries after Whitman’s birth, we have become uncomfortable with contradictions, not only within scientific fact, but with the personal, the metaphorical. While for centuries people were mostly unfazed by contradictions in the Bible (with no small irony, the Scholastic movement of the late Middle Ages, which sought to iron out those contradictions, laid the logical foundation for modern science), today people lose their mind if a movie based upon a comic book differs in modest detail from the source material. While Whitman contained multitudes, a more recent spokesman for our braver newer age, Dr. Gregory House, bluntly stated, Everybody lies.

To some extent that’s true–we lie to our loved ones, we lie to ourselves–and yet it’s also trying to impose a rigid, science-inspired, axiomatic framework on goopy, non-axiomatic people, House being a premiere example of that attitude.

A new novel, The People in the Trees, explores the disturbing collision between scientific and personal truths. It parallels the real-life story of D. Carleton Gajdusek, who won the Nobel Prize in 1976 for his discovery of kuru, a prion-based disease. In the place of kuru, however, we get a retelling of the myth of Tithonos, a mortal whose immortal lover Eos (the Dawn) obtains for him eternal life. Alas, Eos forgets to also ask for eternal youth, and Tithonos continues to age, growing ever more enfeebled. In this version, Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel, a doctor discovers an isolated tribe on the tiny South Pacific island of Ivu’ivu who, by eating a rare turtle, live for hundreds of years. Alas, like poor Tithonos, while their bodies do not age, their minds senesce and they become drooling “dreamers” doomed to wander the forest subsisting on a diet of fruit and worms.

The doctor, Norton Perina, sneaks home some of the meat of the opa’ivu’eke turtle (the apostrophes denote glottal stops, common in Polynesian languages; Yanagihara grew up in Hawaii) and replicates the effect in mice. Yanagihara’s father was a research doctor who knew Gajdusek, and unlike many celebrated literary writers who have no idea and little interest in how science works, she describes with terrific verisimilitude the workings of experimental science, including the numbing tediousness of injecting mice, observing mice with daily logs for months, then killing the mice and performing an autopsy. (By the way, for an excellent and entertaining nonfiction book on aging and sencescence I recommend The Long and the Short of It, by Jonathon Silvertown, an ecologist at the Open University, Milton Keynes.)

Thus Perina demonstrates a scientific truth. But the truth is not always simple; and truth has consequences, as do lies. Perina holds back the information on mental decay, even though he observes it in his mice. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies descend upon Ivu’ivu like carrion crows. While neither Yanagihara nor her protagonist Perina fall for the myth of the noble savage living in simple harmony with nature, they are clear-eyed about the plagues the industrialized world brings: alcoholism, obesity, material envy and despair. When it becomes clear there is no elixir of immortality, the turtles having been hunted to extinction and unwilling to breed in captivity, the industrialized world abandons the island. Then plagues orphan children, and like his inspiration, Gadjusek, Perina adopts dozens of them.

And–in a turn foretold by the introduction, but nonetheless gut-wrenching when it happens–Perina, also like Gadjusek, is accused of molesting one of his children. He is tried, convincted, and sent to prison. None of the above are spoilers, by the way, as they are all outlined in the first few pages in a clunky and mostly unwarranted framing device, a still-loyal friend and colleague editing Perina’s text. (This had the effect of draining some tension from the book, but the timing of revelations is a tricky thing. Karen Joy Fowler, in this year’s PEN/Faulkner-winning novel We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves–also about flawed scientists–withholds a key bit of information for more than a third of the book; but that withholding doesn’t really add tension, not least because most reviews and the book jacket itself revealed that the “sister” was a chimpanzee.)

Was the accusation true? Perina, who is the narrator for most of the book, dances around the answer. He’s not the only one: the anthropologists he accompanies leave out of their published work any mention of the Ivu’ivuan rite of ritual sodomization of young boys on the edge of puberty. Furthermore, the novel’s framing supernarrator first removes and then, on the last pages restores, a key piece of evidence.

Great men and women often have feet of clay. The prophet of liberty and logic Thomas Jefferson held slaves and fathered children on one. Nobel prizewinner Richard Feynman, whose graphical techniques revolutionized physics, became after the early death of his first wife a womanizer who seduced the wives and girlfriends of colleagues and students. And so on. In science we seek simple, clear truths. But the truth about people, whether living in huts in a forest or working in a lab in the U.S., is seldom simple. Even to say Everybody lies oversimplifies. Whitman is right. We are large. We contain multitudes, such multitude that even beautifully written novels such as The People in the Trees cannot fully contain them.

YanagiharaAthena’s notes:  An exploration of immortality that starts similar to Yanagihara’s but goes in a totally different direction is Le Guin’s “The Island of the Immortals”.  This essay is particularly timely as the SFF community reflects on idols with feet of clay (and worse).  Last but not least, on page 2 of Yanagihara’s book, it is stated that the turtle meat brings on immortality by inactivating telomerase, which degrades telomeres.  In fact, the enzyme does exactly the opposite, and for this reason has featured prominently on tranhumorist immortality recipes (of course, keeping cells immortal is the definition of cancer).  This ground-level error irritated me enormously, but I suspect I will read nevertheless read the book.

Images: 1st, People in the Trees, paperback; 2nd, Hanya Yanagihara (credit: Scott Levy)

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

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

A slightly modified version of this article appeared in Strange Horizons on October 3, 2005. I’m reprinting it because the cast of Star Wars VII was just announced — and people expressed surprise that only a single woman is among the main characters.

Defiant

The second day that Revenge of the Sith opened, I left work early and like someone sneaking off to an illegal tryst, I went to see it.

I went hopefully but reluctantly, at the last possible moment. I’d enjoyed the brio of A New Hope and had been captivated by the darker hues of The Empire Strikes Back – though being Greek, I knew what “the surprise” was the moment I heard there was one. However, I had heartily disliked Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace and was highly ambivalent about Attack of the Clones. I’m not bewitched by the endless battle scenes or the lightsaber pas-de-deux that eventually blur into sameness. I have immovable reservations about a universe geared to eleven-year old boys and their values – which exclude significant chunks of human experience but include the core belief that girls are icky and if a Jedi gets too close to them his lightsaber won’t ignite. Yet here I was, a scientist, a reader of Sophocles in the original and a woman nearing fifty, going to a matinee so that the room would be reasonably empty.

And in the darkness of the theater, I felt my eyelids prickle with anger and grief when young Anakin Skywalker, his mouth contorted with anguish, fell to his knees before the Emperor.

The ache persisted after I left the theater, so I started worrying it like a sore tooth. The plot, script and characters of the film flip-flop between the 10th and 30th centuries, between frothy action and portentous message, awash in hip-bruising clunkiness and jarring contradictions. But these shortcomings bedevil all Star Wars films, so that wasn’t the root cause. There’s the annoying Campbellian mishmash of iconic characters stripped of their specifics and reduced to facile shorthand (Anakin morphs into Icarus, Sampson, Achilles, Oedipus, Christ, Lucifer, Tristan, Othello, Faust… I’m sure I’ll find more if I put my mind to it). The degeneration of Padmé from Amazon to Puddle on the Floor was unbearable but I had sort of expected that from Mr. Lucas, who clearly feels comfortable only with virgins of both genders.

For a while, I thought that the ache came from my sense that Mr. Lucas, with his unlimited resources, could have woven a gripping story if only he’d move beyond his love of gizmos and lunchbox profits. We desperately need compelling stories. Anakin Skywalker’s fall, if told well, can hook right into the solar plexus because our culture has primed us for it: the fall of a great hero through pride, fear, rage or loss is a major theme (and, some argue, a definitive metaphor) of Western civilization.

Thinking over the constant mantra from both the Jedi and Sith Boys’ Treehouses (“Trust your feelings!”) I finally isolated what disturbed me so strongly that I started this essay on the eve of a grant deadline. I’d ignored similar twinges while watching the original Star Wars trilogy, because those films were lighthearted, lightweight romps. I cannot ignore it in Episode 3, which unfolds with Wagnerian solemnity and aspires to the mantle of Greek tragedy. There is a punitive spirit in the Star Wars prequels, as manipulative and controlling as the Dark Side it professes to abhor. Essentially, we are told that Anakin falls because… he loves his mate and so cannot gain the detachment required to become the Supreme Jedi Enforcer, a Buddhist Robocop.

To put it succinctly, Mr. Lucas advocates that only hierarchical interactions are legitimate and that partnerships between equals are toxic. Those between women and men are destructive and doomed. Those between men are acceptable only if based on the religious/military model of abject submission, in which alpha males apportion rewards at whim (there are no interactions between women in Mr. Lucas’ opus, as there is a single girl in each trilogy). In Star Wars, old men rule joylessly over a wasteland; girls die before they become those dreaded aliens, women; young men are left bereft and isolated – in Anakin’s case, literally walled off from all humanizing contact in his final incarnation as a demon in a can.

The presentation of such a universe as desirable even in fantasy by someone with Mr. Lucas’ influence is dangerous, at a time when people throughout the world are being turned into terrified cubicle drones and the US is hurtling towards government by a fusion of military, church and industry. We need different myths that topple this monolith, which combines gigantism born of industrial consolidation and institutional fusion with rampant social atomization. We have to reassert the virtues of thoughtful disobedience and wholesome self-will. To put it in Lucas-speak, guys who want their hugs should not be portrayed as weak or evil for wanting them.

The meta-thesis of Sith essentially asserts that submitting to the normal biological and social instincts catalyzes one’s destruction and ultimately makes one subject to depthless evil. It’s just a movie, I know. Still, it’s a vehicle for the shared stories that orient our thinking and help us imagine the possible. Today, facing a post-9/11 three-headed monolith that would have make Eisenhower’s military industrial complex look benign, we really need archetypes in our shared narratives who are rewarded for their capacity to bind people in assertion of wholesome common interest. Anakin’s story wants to teach us that a fate much worse than death awaits the fool who accepts love or tries to find an equitable community.

The boys in the bubble

I once saw an eerie picture taken at a Hasidic wedding. Separating the foreground from the background was the long curtain that keeps the genders apart. On the curtain fell the shadow of a young girl dancing, her braids (still her own, not yet a lifeless wig) swinging. At the front of the curtain, a boy was stretching his hand, trying to touch her shadow. Whenever I contemplate Star Wars, I’m reminded of that picture.

The human universe of the Star War prequels is a cold, airless locker. There are no families, no civic life beyond power politics, no artists or scientists, no (pre)occupation except endless wars which make as much sense as the Aztec campaigns to capture more victims for their altars. There is no song, no laughter, no tears until they spill like blood from hapless Anakin when his short tether is jerked once too often. There is no intimacy, no friendship beyond schoolboy camaraderie, no sex for either love or pleasure – though dismemberments abound, so it’s not the PG rating that caused this elision.

The only ones shown to raise children in Star Wars are the Jedi and the crèches that hatch the cloned boys bred for docility, who will become stormtroopers. Harry Harlow showed definitively what happens to primate babies when they’re deprived of caresses, something that the Jedi seem not to have registered during their long communion with the Force. Several power hierarchies in human history used the Jedi recruitment methods (removal from family, celibacy, forbidding of attachments) – most notably the Ottoman sultans. Not surprisingly, this created the janissary shock troops, not the samurai rangers Mr. Lucas wants us to believe naturally arise from such an upbringing.

The Jedi mumble Taoist-derived platitudes to prove that they’re on the side of Light but they are really a fusion of a rupture cult and a multinational corporation. To become “worthy”, prospective Jedi must suspend their own judgment and unquestioningly obey an authority whose teachings consist of silly psychobabble, endless hazing rituals and the sense of entitlement that comes from carrying arms. In the Jedi order, all normal mental or emotional responses are met either with the galactic version of the Amish Shunning (“You’ll be expelled!” screams Obi-Wan when Anakin tries to rescue Padmé during a battle) or with instructions to take cold baths (“Mourn do not!” intones Yoda when Anakin comes to him twisted with anxiety from having nightmares about Padmé dying). Anakin is supposedly not just the most powerful wielder of the Force but also a pivot, yet the Jedi treat him like a passive asset or an unruly horse. At least the Sith are frank about what they want and how they go about getting it.

And to what great purpose is Anakin’s “high midichlorian count” harnessed? He is turned into a fighting machine for the status quo, just as Wolverine of the X-Men is made into a weapon even though his gift is for healing. The powerful realized long ago that the most reliable way to produce killer automatons is to separate young boys from the other gender and from the part of themselves that questions, does not split thinking from feeling – and fights from inner conviction, not thwarted affection and vaporous promises of glory. Anakin does not need to carry destructive genes. The Jedi have implanted in him such abject fear of natural reactions and processes that he is bound to detonate a landmine in any direction he steps.

The Jedi philosophy does not lead to swashbuckling exploits, but to Wounded Knee and Buchenwald, to young men flying airplanes into buildings. People are systematically dehumanized in Star Wars, treated as interchangeable ciphers. We never see what happens to the civilians. The cloned soldiers never take off their helmets, making it convenient to forget that they are still human inside those plastic uniforms. Hacking off body parts appears the sole legitimate response to disagreement in Star Wars: there is no visible price for it, if committed by a Jedi – and by virtue of the lightsaber it’s always neatly bloodless.

Yet there is an interesting exception to this coyness: Obi-Wan – the embodiment of all Jedi virtues – first mutilates his apprentice, his adopted younger brother, the comrade who repeatedly saved his life, then leaves him burning alive. Granted, the plot dictates that this charred stump must survive to menace his children as a cardboard villain in the sequels. However, Mr. Lucas could have achieved story continuity without making a snuff scene about what must happen to those who question authority.

All this desolation springs from the glorification of infantile dualism and the mistrust of complex human interactions. “Be afraid! Desire will make you betray duty!” pronounce the Jedi in their quest for tractability – and Anakin rips himself to shreds over the false conflict. In Dune, Paul Atreides becomes a genuine Prometheus, because he wrenches control of his strings from the Bene Gesserit and assumes full responsibility for the jihad he unleashes. Anakin, on the other hand – ardent, naïve, frantic for approval – never attains free will or the charisma and seductive grandeur of a true Lucifer, despite his off-the-charts Force readings. Callously treated by all his surrogate fathers, that torn boy is not a failed Messiah but a pawn. In the end, he follows the Jedi teachings to their logical conclusion, and creates a universe of total order by systematic slaughter. It would have been better for him and for the galaxy if he’d been Iroquois: the women of that nation could forbid their men from taking part in unjust wars.

Catching girl cooties

If men of the Star Wars universe are held in cages of rage and fear, its lone girls are ignored until the boys need an Angel in the House (Jango Fett at least is honest, bypassing women altogether). The token girl in the Lucas universe faces a lose-lose proposition. She cannot do anything by and for herself; her sole function is to act as an impotent hand-wringing conscience for the men. However, this function is worthless since non-warriors in Star Wars are treated as subhuman, despite the lip service to justice and compassion. As Éowyn says to Aragorn: “All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more.”

Just as the boys in Star Wars are given the false choice between glory or love, the girls are given the thankless task of being feisty but unthreatening, without any guarantee of clemency for good behavior. Worse yet, since there is only one female per Star Wars trilogy, she has to be mother, sister, lover all rolled into one. That, of course, is a no-no because it blurs the sacrosanct divisions between virgin and whore – and also because it implies dominance (to underline the transgression, Padmé is explicitly older and of higher rank than her tercel boy husband). The girl is a threat to the boy’s purity of purpose, an Eve in the making; when she crosses the sexual and emotional boundary, she is speedily dispatched, Ophelia-style, abandoning her defenseless children – the girl condemned to be left untrained in her power, the boy slated to undergo the brutalization already meted out to his father. Once again, Mr. Lucas is swift to punish those who partake of the fruit of knowledge and threaten to become independent moral agents.

There is something almost prurient in this punitive puritanism, but it also points to a tremendous failure of the imagination. In a universe with advanced prosthetics, sentient AIs, cloned armies and faster-than-light travel, women have no access to contraception and still stand to lose their jobs when they get pregnant, like Japanese office girls. Mr. Lucas not only cleaves to the tenets of the nuclear family, but explicitly to its fifties version. Yet even within Mr. Lucas’ tiny menu of female choices there is one compelling alternative. Predictably, he toys with it but eventually lets it lie fallow, as it would subvert his emphasis on the dangers of loving women and the need to choose the disembodied rewards of monastic male bonding.

In Renault’s The King Must Die (hardly a feminist anthem), the Amazon Hippolyta agrees to a parley with Theseus, “one king to another”. You are a queen, he corrects her. No, she replies, I’m a king like you… a woman king. Hippolyta becomes the irreplaceable center of Theseus’ life because she is his equal. Would that Mr. Lucas had been “radical” enough to make Padmé as powerful as Buffy, the slayer and lover of vampires, or as resourceful as Guinevere in the recent revisionist remake of King Arthur. It might even have helped his anemic storyline.

If a girl cannot have adventures of her own, she can at least be the boy’s partner in his. This allows a non-hierarchical interaction in which real stakes are involved, with room for both intimacy and camaraderie, both vulnerability and heroics. For a brief moment in Attack of the Clones there is hope for such an alliance, in the arena confrontation. There, Padmé becomes Anakin’s charioteer (a position reserved for the hero’s male lover in the sagas) and she proves formidable in battle despite her lack of a lightsaber. It is telling that this segment contains the sole believable kiss that the two exchange.

Such partnerships cut right through the hoary male bonding of the Jedi and their ilk and are truly subversive. Love that spurs people into action is rightly feared by power hierarchies, because it strides across boundaries considered immovable. Anakin’s original hothouse infatuation in Attack of the Clones is not really dangerous to the status quo – in fact, it acts as a convenient pressure release valve. At the end of that episode, though, Anakin makes a conscious covenant with Padmé unlike his agreement to enter into the Jedi order, for which he was too young to give informed consent.

The stories of André Norton and the wuxia films of Yimou Zhang and Ang Lee explore this mode by making the genders often conflicted allies but always equal in prowess. In contrast to the passivity and distance of pedestals, partners guarding each other’s back are fully engaged with each other and with the task at hand. The private and public duties fuse into a seamless whole, reinforcing rather than weakening each other. However, even second-hand heroism for women is not an option in the Lucas universe.

Revenge of the beta males

I once saw a cartoon of a bunch of cave men, throwing spears at a saber tooth tiger that has already mauled several. One of them is saying to another, “I can’t imagine how stupid the beta males must be feeling, left behind with the women.” This encapsulates the attitude of the Jedi and Mr. Lucas, and also serves as the goad used in boot camps. It’s a neat trick, of course, because forswearing the love of women as polluting does not turn boys into superheroes or rebel leaders, it merely makes them angry and needy enough to unquestioningly become cannon fodder. Even doofy Peter Parker figures this one out in Spiderman 2.

If the Jedi teachings are inadequate even during times of strife, they are even worse recipes for living when the exploits must come to an end (maybe that explains the need for constant upheavals in the series). Men and women who are fully grown humans can pick up weapons during rebellion or defensive war and then can lay them down and go back to being bards, healers, explorers, craftspeople, parents. The American revolution was all about yeomen standing up to elite troops — as was the Vietnam war. When the din of battle ceases, people can think and start asking questions. The Jedi need to retain their privileges as a self-appointed elite caste and the clones, solely bred for killing, cannot stand down. So if one war ends, a new one must be started. Integration of professional soldiers has always been a major problem in human societies. In Star Wars, the slow pace and hard labors of peace appear as glamorous as doing laundry when juxtaposed to the duels and battles, no matter how pointless these are. But those who have seen real war and its aftermath know how far removed it is from the balletic, antiseptic melees featured in Star Wars.

The original Star Wars trilogy was a gentler, kinder place than the prequels in part because the workings of love or peace did not rear their ugly heads. But Anakin wants affection as well as a purpose worthy of his powers. When the abuse keeps falling on him like Chinese water torture despite his heroic efforts, he grows mutinous – so he and his Jocasta must be made into examples. By making Anakin the focus of the sextet, Mr. Lucas invalidates the lightheartedness, verve and hopefulness of the original trilogy. We are meant to judge the boy weak in resolve, open to temptation because he’s concerned for his mother and his wife, in need of redemption by the son who achieves the state of holy eunuch that eluded his sire.

But the dilemma that breaks Anakin is a decoy, to distract him from realizing that he’s being used. His real fall comes when, goaded past endurance, he attains the detachment so dear to the Jedi and stops seeing people as individuals. His tragic error is not that “he loveth too well” (as Mr. Lucas posits) but, on the contrary, that he doesn’t trust his lover enough to heed her counsel. His primary loyalty is always to his masters, not to his partner – and he still gets seared to ash for not saying “Yes, Master!” often enough. Nor is he truly forgiven: in the end he isn’t reunited with Padmé, but sentenced to spend eternity with Yoda. As for Padmé, there is little left to grieve over. Except as an incubator, she really dies at the end of Episode 2.

In The Matrix, Neo and Trinity go down together in battle, bonded partners to the bitter end. A sludgeful of mystic bombast bubbles through that trilogy, but at least Trinity is never reduced to Mary Magdalene. Perhaps the difference is that the Oracle issuing the portents in The Matrix is a confident, rebellious, ornery old woman, rather than a chorus of frightened, rule-bound, prissy old men. Ursula LeGuin’s Roke wizards start out in a configuration almost identical to that of the Jedi in her early Earthsea novels – but by the end of the cycle, braver and wiser than the Jedi, they decide to open their doors to the world, Their choice guarantees that they remain forces of renewal, rather than oppression.

Anakin should have listened to his mate, and opted out of the brutal, pointless competition for teacher’s pet. He could still have become the hero and savior he so craved to be: he could have gone with her to free the slaves on Tatooine (even if that meant giving up his nifty lightsaber). They’d probably have failed and he might go through the agony of watching her die – but, as King Théoden says, that would be an end worthy of remembrance. Or, if she could not sway him from his ruinous path, she should be the one to fight him, Galadriel to his Fëanor, instead of fading away like a Victorian consumptive.

There is a man in Star Wars who gets it all and he is the one who follows Padmé’s injunction to step out of the imprisoning box. That is Han Solo, not a Jedi but a commoner, a freelance mercenary who does not care about belonging to boys’ clubs. In The Lord of the Rings, too, it is not the hero Boromir but his younger brother Faramir, the reluctant warrior, the scholar scorned by his father, who survives and wins Éowyn. Tolkien, despite his unabashedly Manichean view of the world, is more nuanced, progressive and humane than Mr. Lucas.

After Revenge of the Sith, I for one cannot look at the praying mantis mask of Vader without superimposing on it the haunted eyes of the boy entombed within that carapace, still smoking with need and loss. I cannot watch the films without recalling how his mentors tormented and betrayed him, turned his humanity against him, leading him to wreak terrible ruin in his turn. Of the girl I can only see a pale ineffectual ghost. Episodes 2 and 3 of the Star Wars prequels are a cautionary tale about the dangers of wanting to be fully human, tracts on the need for unquestioning submission to authority. Armies, fundamentalist churches and corporations should add them to their teaching manuals. The rest of us should go and create subversive tales of universes not threatened by complexity, wholesome tribal affiliations or plain garden-variety affection.

Daggers Lovers

Related articles:

Reflections on the New Star Trek
Cameron’s Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas
The Multi-Chambered Nautilus
“As Weak as Women’s Magic”
A Plague on Both Your Houses“Are we Not (as Good as) Men?”
The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction
Ain’t Evolvin’: The Cookie Cutter Self-Discovery Quest
Fresh Breezes from Unexpected Quarters
Hagiography in the SFX Age: Jackson’s Hobbit
Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

Images: 1st, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) in Revenge of the Sith; 2nd, Mei (Zhang Ziyi) and Jin (Kaneshiro Takeshi) in House of Flying Daggers

For a Breath I Tarry

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

(Shropshire Lad XXXII, A. E. Houseman)

Kahlo Hummingbird

The readers of my blog may have noticed I’m posting far less frequently than I used to.

Some of it is watching the same old endlessly repeat. More discouraging shenanigans in [fill in country/community name]. More Republithug tantrums about “entitlements” except for those of millionaire donors. More breathless pseudoscience from futurists, transhumorists, spiritualists. More concessions demanded by/for fundamentalists of all stripes. More mediocre fiction touted as “fresh” and “groundbreaking” by people who haven’t read beyond Internet freebies.

Some of it is my transition into the infrastructure-free sphere of self-employment. This included taking leave of what was and taking stock of what might yet be. Prominent in the latter is a successor to The Other Half of the Sky, as well as writing and publishing more of my own fiction. Not that I foresee the latter becoming any easier: my fiction stubbornly remains middlebrow genre fusion with non-standard mythic/cultural references. The pile of unpublished work clogs the creative pipes, making it hard for me to write new stories.

Some of it is my fibromyalgia, acquired as the aftermath to the shock of a cancer operation that went awry. The surgeon hit an artery and I nearly died of blood loss. It’s also possible that I suffered a minor stroke, because I had a two-month period of profound loss of both memory and fine motor control. I, the bookworm with Velcro recall, couldn’t remember my parents’ phone number or the contents of a book page I had just struggled through. After a black hole of panic, my memory and coordination more or less returned carrying fibromyalgia along with them. That was a bit more than six years ago. I’ve dragged the relentless pain with me since, a jagged iron ball that slams into me with each step I take.

Fibromyalgia is a misnomer that attempts to describe the fact that FM sufferers feel like they’ve being hit non-stop all over with a meat tenderizing hammer. In fact the disarray is entirely in the head: something mis-sensitizes the sensory processing apparatus, so that normal input is interpreted as pain; for some reason this sets up a positive feedback loop that increases the amplitude of the incorrect response. People get FM after a car accident, after a difficult childbirth – generally after a shock. It’s the whole-body equivalent of phantom limb pain. But whereas the latter can be ameliorated by using a low-tech yet often effective technique called Ramachandran’s mirror, there’s no similar solution for FM.

As a result, FM sufferers hurt even when they don’t move, even when they sleep – which means they don’t get the length and quality of sleep needed for full restoration. They become stiff, clumsy, lethargic, forgetful, slow-witted; they often gain enormous amounts of weight because it’s hard to move, which brings its own raft of troubles: heart problems, diabetes, certain types of cancer. And since sensitized neurons are not visible, FM diagnosis is solely by exclusion after batteries upon batteries of metabolic and neurological tests. Most often and unless they persist, FM sufferers are dismissed as hysterical (sic) hypochondriacs, a conclusion made even more convenient and acceptable by the statistical fact that most are women.

The “treatments” for FM – if they can be called that – are drugs that tamp down the nervous system (anti-epileptics, benzodiazepines, SSRI/SNRI antidepressants) or that decrease pain perception; one of the latter is tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, the primary active component of marijuana. The casual off-label use of the first group at the drop of a hat has turned people into obese zombies, the placebo-vs-real-effect issues of the SSRIs have never been resolved (let alone the suicidal tendencies they facilitate) and long-term use of benzodiazepines is known to cause irreversible cognitive damage. THC appears to have far fewer and milder side effects, low addictiveness and no withdrawal issues. Unfortunately, it has run into the savage prudery of many societies, including the US.

Several US states have legalized medical marijuana but the federal government has zealously prosecuted any attempts to follow through (on the other hand, the NRA continues untrammeled and unopposed after each mass shooting). One recent state to legalize medical marijuana was Massachusetts – but the dogged refusal of the federal government to countenance legalization of a substance that causes zero violence means that the doctors in Massachusetts have no idea how to prescribe effective doses and are very resistant to the concept. Like abortion, this legalization will most likely remain just a gesture on paper.

I was given benzodiazepines and anti-epileptics briefly when I had an acute episode of neuralgia after a dental procedure. That eventually subsided. Their effects on me made me decide to never use them again – and my reading on the effects of SSRIs/SNRIs made me determined to never let them anywhere near my neurons. So I’m ignoring my FM as much as it will let me. However, if medical marijuana goes past the stage of in-name-only, I may well argue one of my doctors into letting me have a try. I have no illusions it will placate the shadow twin that has taken ownership of my neurons much, or for long. But it will be good to remember for fleeting moments what it’s like not to feel pain.

lewis-queenRelated Posts:

It’s All in Your Head

The Hunter

Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears

On Being a Ghost

Images: Frida Kahlo (who knew pain intimately), Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird; one of the Lewis chess set queens.

History, Legitimacy and Belonging, or: Who’s We, Kemo Sabe?

Friday, March 14th, 2014

Girl-stars-anime

There have been recent conversations in the science outreach and SFF communities about what level of background knowledge makes someone worthy enough to “belong”. The former centered on the original Cosmos series as part of the reaction to the just-launched reboot helmed by Neil deGrasse Tyson (unfortunately housed in FOX, several of whose subsidiaries already deleted a snippet in the pilot episode that dared to mention evolution). The latter partly continues the “old white dudes” discussion but received fresh fuel from an article by the publisher of Baen that’s the equivalent of a decapitated chicken running in circles.

Briefly, side A says you cannot be a legitimate member of X unless you are intimately familiar with its sacred texts: in the case of popsci, you must have watched the original Cosmos and worshipped Sagan as a nonpareil inspirational figure; in the case of SFF, you must have read the Leaden Age gospels with special emphasis on the holy trinity of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein (plus a heaping side of Joseph Campbell, especially if we go anywhere near Star Wars or fantasy epics). Side B points out that this exudes strong whiffs of parochialism by making legitimate membership contingent on the exclusive canonization of a narrow set of works — and people.

This discussion inevitably brings up two other items: class/wealth and history. The “But… but… Cosmos inspired so many to enter science!” mantra contains the implication that people can’t possibly become interested in exploring the universe unless they have the wherewithal to be “entertained” into it by high-end means: by having a TV, preferably color; by fancy school labs; and nowadays, by access to fast-WiFi Internet and its associated gizmology. Both Cosmos series heavily promote the trope of the heroic, visionary (male) individual who can radically change a large-scale outcome. People conveniently forget that Giordano Bruno wasn’t a lone sprout in a wilderness, or that Sagan’s Cosmos was embedded in a favorable context when it first aired in 1980: a culture that was still friendly to exploration and science, just before Ronald Reagan’s tenure started the US descent into rampant inequality and fundamentalist fearmongering. To non-US eyes it was patently obvious that the original Cosmos was American to the core despite its well-intentioned feints towards internationality (at least Vangelis – full name Vangélis Odhysséas Papathanassíou, trimmed in deference to Anglo sensibilities – supplied the rousing score,  far more memorable than the reboot’s generic swellings so far, though it’s early for a final verdict).

There can be no question that it’s important to know the history of whatever you delve into. If nothing else, such knowledge tempers the effusions of “First time EVAH that X has been tackled in science/SFF/whathaveyou” from gender bending to “duons” in DNA encoding (for which I plan a separate post: it has taken me the enormous length of two months – an aeon on the Internet – to stop being seriously pissed about it). At the same time, the purists don’t do themselves favors by quoting Sagan chapter and verse but blithely asking “Who?” when such names as Hrdy or Margulis come up – or by preaching the gospel of Saint Heinlein while looking blank at the mention of Tiptree or Norton (who wrote SF, not just fantasy; some even aimed at adults, not adolescents of any age). Historical literacy doesn’t mean learning only whatever is “common knowledge”, congruent with one’s agenda or hot-du-jour.

This blinkering becomes overwhelming when we leave the US frame and delve into other cultures or eras. To give one example from the other side of the traditional divide, there has been deafening silence in SFF from those professing to be on the Side of Good on medieval/renaissance imperialism south and east of Italy – because it would oblige people to contemplate the doings of the Ottoman Empire which, inter alia, employed the lovely custom of devshirme (child-gathering) equally beloved of those paragons of virtue and nerd-coolness, the Jedi. Along related lines, those who say that science or SFF should not “meddle in politics” don’t really deserve an extended rebuttal because they’re not even being disingenuous.

I personally think the purists employ lax criteria and low standards. Nobody should be considered a real science fan until they’ve read the pre-Socratics or a real SFF fan unless they’ve read The Iliad or Gilgamesh – in the original. I kid, but only just. My point is that SFF existed throughout the world long before the US Leaden Era and that such concepts as atoms and multiverses were discussed (as philosophy, since technology to attempt proof was lacking) way before Giordano Bruno – who, incidentally, argued exclusively from theology, not from evidence-based research. To put it another way, I burned to become a scientist before my country had TV or my school had computers and I became enamored of SFF (as in: the folklore of many cultures, including mine, and Jules Verne’s Nautilus) when I was anklebiter height and spoke zero English. Leaden Era SF was so excruciating to read at so many levels that I continued delving into the genre despite it, not because of it. I could only read it as alien anthropology – and the aliens weren’t from Rigel IV. I think that recommending these works as blanket entry points into SF is a self-defeating tactic.

People become inspired to enter science (or at least become permanently interested in its doings) and become immersed in SFF by countless paths, some straightforward, some less so. I don’t expect the Cosmos reboot to give rise to a surge in the ranks of science researchers: that would require a receptive cultural milieu that is currently simply not present, as the science funding levels abundantly demonstrate. Nor do I expect the SFF fandom (which is actually a system of interlocking ponds) to come to any substantial agreement over major issues. I won’t prescribe but here’s a thought: sci/SFF nerds might want to consider that young-earth creationists are dictating what parts of Cosmos get shown – something far more worrisome than the fact that some science communicators and scientists (real or potential) haven’t seen the original Cosmos nor considered it, well, earthshaking when they did.

universe through the canyon

Related Posts:

SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise

Junk DNA, Junky PR

Caesars and Caesar Salads

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

Images: 1st, animé-inspired wallpaper; 2nd, unknown artist, Plato’s cave

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

“The childishness noticeable in medieval behavior, with its marked inability to restrain any kind of impulse, may have been simply due to the fact that so large a proportion of active society was actually very young in years.” — Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

old-woman-smoking-sandy-powers

Until recently, women died on the average younger than men, primarily in childbirth – though they also died from overwork, undernourishment and beatings, like the beasts of burden they often resembled, or were killed in infancy for having the wrong hardware between their legs. However, this changed in the last few decades. UN records indicate that most of the world’s aged are now women (ignoring the “girl gap” of China, India and other cultures that deem sons a sine qua non). Concurrently, biology is (reluctantly) coming to the conclusion that grandmothers, particularly maternal ones, may have made humans who they are.

Literature, whether mainstream or genre, has apportioned a good deal of its content to formidable crones, matriarchs and dowagers, both benign and malign. There is one genre, however, which if read exclusively conveys the impression that men live for ever (and get ever more potent and interesting as they do so) but a disease fells women the moment they go past the “peak attractiveness” so beloved of evopsychos. This genre is science fiction (SF). In an unusual reversal, it’s worse in books than in film/TV, of which more anon.

The age skewing may have to do with the simple fact that, conscientious efforts to the contrary, SF remains quintessentially American in all its parochial glory – and Americans are obsessed with youth (especially that of women) and terrified of aging, which they try to stave off or mask at all costs: from the Viagra craze, lethal side effects be damned, to the cracked-glaze look of older celebs to the transhumanist fact-free ravings about uploading into perfect, indestructible silicon bodies. In SF this is exacerbated by the genre’s adoration of unfettered individualism (for those who have the Right Alpha Stuff, naturally) and the finding-one’s-self quest motif, which devalues narratives that view people as parts of kinship webs and/or absorbed in multiple demanding vocations; if you identified the latter items as primarily “women’s” domains, go to the top of the class.

Golda Meir

Two items have prompted me to revisit this literally hoary topic. One is the constant much-heat-little-light argument about representation and diversity in SF, from which discussions about age are conspicuously absent and primitive in the rare instances they occur. The other is the recent “PC censorship panels” petition to the SFWA – a crude intimidation attempt disguised by its originator as a fight for freedom of speech, with responses to it mostly (though not exclusively) split across age lines. The young(er) hopefuls on the Side of Good opined en masse that all “isms” will disappear from SF “when the old dinosaurs die”.

If only. You have much to learn, grasshoppahs. Take this paragraph and the next as free advice from a lifelong outsider who doesn’t gender-conform in either culture she’s lived in, is in the last third of her life, and has been in the “ism” trenches in all three thirds of it (though perhaps I should attach an invoice to this post: the more expensive the advice, the likelier to be heeded). The real determinant is not age, but entrenched power hierarchies and the sense of entitlement they foster. Age, particularly in the US context, rarely translates to power – especially for women, who are still considered disposable beyond decoration, un/underpaid labor and reproduction. Age may bring hardening of the arteries and softening of the upper and lower heads, but closed minds correlate far more tightly with automatically vested authority and membership in dominant groups. Clinging to power, rather than an attribute of age, is in fact a refusal to really grow up: even kids eventually learn to share their toys.

In most cultures, women never accrete authority or power no matter what their age and are rarely insiders in power networks even in dynasties. There are exceptions: some cultures treat older women as honorary almost-men when the “taint” of menstruation recedes. Also, in cultures that practice gender segregation and uproot women from their homes and blood kin, older women can wield proxy power over younger ones but solely in women-only spaces and aspects. As a net result, women often remain rebels till they die: they really have no other option if they don’t want to be pushed onto that permanently reserved ice floe – though they still get bypassed, ignored, belittled, ridiculed (along many axes, if they happen to have additional “defects” as defined by Faux News)… and plenty of them still get stoned or burned even before age makes them annoying and/or burdensome.

ursula-burns-motoya

When the issue of age became too pronounced to ignore in the SF community, the usual reactions occurred. The primary response was the obligatory ritual of list compilations. This proved demoralizing, because even the most conscientious couldn’t come up with more than a dozen older women in SF novels and stories, even when counting secondary characters and women in their forties as “old” (in inadvertent harmony with prevailing US norms). Numbers were better in film and TV, which exposes a wrinkle brought further home to me in a wonderful review of The Other Half of the Sky by a discerning reviewer: she mentioned that the anthology contains only one old/er woman. My count had been different, but I went back anyway, counted again and came up with four or five aged protagonists in sixteen stories – more if you fold in characters in their forties, as SF apparently does.

This made me realize that SF readers ratchet down the age of women characters automatically and significantly, unless the writer employs in-your-face signaling techniques – something that can’t happen in visual media, no matter how “natural” the face lifts or hair dyes. Which brings us full circle to social norms. There’s a reason why SF readers don’t see old women, even when the author has explicitly imagined them as such: because it’s accepted and acceptable in the genre that women never attain the authority that accrues to men of equivalent age, experience and expertise – even though history shows otherwise, making much speculative fiction duller than fact.

The near-total excision (at both first and second remove) of old/er women in SF is a sign of timidity and conformism in a genre that proudly dubs itself visionary. Mainstream literature and other genres are literally a-swim with such protagonists. Without looking anything up or thinking hard, in mysteries there’s Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Lynda La Plante’s Jane Tennison. In fantasy/alt-history: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Laura Willowes (The Loving Huntsman), Isak Dinesen’s Pellegrina Leoni (“The Dreamers”, “Echoes”), Joanna Russ’ Abbess Radegunde (Extra(ordinary) People); in historical fiction: Sarah Dunant’s Alessandra Cecchi (The Birth of Venus), Susan Fraser King’s Gruadh Inghean Bodhe (Lady Macbeth), Kate Horsley’s Gwynneve (Confessions of a Pagan Nun); in mainstream literature: Rita Sackville-West’s Lady Slane (All Passion Spent), Colette’s Renée Néré (La Vagabonde), Bertold Brecht’s unnamed grandmother (Die Unwürdige Greisin), Penelope Lively’s Claudia Hampton (Moon Tiger), Stratis Tsirkas’ Ariághne (Drifting Cities), Margaret Laurence’s Hagar Currie Shipley (The Stone Angel).

In stark contrast, women in SF are almost never shown as revered sages/mentors, seasoned leaders, knowledge propagators, memory keepers, inveterate hell-raisers, respected eccentrics – incarnations routinely available to older men that have the added perk of creating positive feedback power loops. As an additional handicap, older women don’t fit the finding-one’s-self quest pattern. They know who they are, what they’re doing and why.  Their tragedies originate from other types of friction: opposing ideas of good from friends and allies; the realization that they will never get the credit or recognition their work merits; and larger brutal if inevitable losses, including the unraveling of painstakingly knit webs and the relentless diminution of one’s powers till the final journey to the dark.

As an exercise, I’m appending a story of mine that appeared in After Hours (#24, 1994). Ask yourself how old the hero looks in your mind’s eye, and whom you envision playing her in a film version. If the answer to either is a perky lacquer-skinned ingenue, ask yourself why.

jill_tarter

Night Travels

The wanderer was not yet old, but she felt so — old and scarred and bitter. She had seen years of peace, when she was content to stay in libraries and dream within book covers… or find someone who sweetened her hours and stole a little of her stamina, a little of her self-sufficiency. She had seen years of war, when fires bloomed out of what had been cities and the finer shadings of peacetime faded into black. She had ridden in all weathers, sometimes the horse knowing more about where they were going, bloodstains mingling with rain or snow on her clothing. One great love she had had, and loved a little too long and too hard, more the glimpsed potential than what had been truly there. She was well-known, although an exile from her own land; people sought her advice, valued her friendship, desired her good opinion. She had been counsellor to powerful people and sometimes had led her own band of warriors.

But now she was weary.

She had just left the relative comfort of a manor behind her, having discovered that her patience with people was seriously eroded. For someone who had helped put almost all the present princes of the western provinces on their seats, losing lovers and children in the process, daily concerns had paled somewhat. Her ever-increasing courtliness had become a shield, a distancing device.

She had left in the late morning of a calm winter day, and was slowly guiding her horse over the downs. Here and there, a tuft of trees or a clump of rocks embroidered the eggshell-colored sky. A few whiffs of smoke from the widely separated human habitations dispersed lazily in the crisp air.

She was making her way down a dried riverbed, when she discerned another rider at the mouth of the valley. She approached unhurriedly — friend or foe, there was time.

He was perhaps in his late youth, with very long braided hair of the palest gold — just like the sun that came hazily through the cloud cover. His face was angular and weathered, with piercing storm grey eyes, matching his worn but clean garments. But the horse was enormous and black, and the weapons rivalled her own in quality and length of use.

“No one should have to travel in winter,” he said as she drew up.

“All seasons are the same for wanderers,” she replied.

“If you are going westward, I would be glad of company.”

She examined him. He withstood the scrutiny motionless; when she nodded, he led his horse beside hers without any more words of explanation. Her own mount became restive; she laid a restraining hand upon him, but said nothing. If the traveller had treachery in mind, she could match him.

They headed downhill, following the sun’s path; their shadows went before them, bluish and long. The day passed into afternoon, and eventually, in front of them, the sun engaged in battle. The blood lingered long on the clear horizon.

The stars were distinct when they stopped for the night. A small fire was all their concession to the season; both had often slept on bare ground. She was weary and would have been glad to have slipped into dreaming, but he stayed crosslegged, gazing at the heart of the flame; both manners and common sense required that she keep him company.

“I am a hunter,” he said after a long silence, “and a very good one. But my prey tonight is fey and deadly; what would you advise?” And as he raised his eyes to hers, she saw that they were now empty and reflecting the sky, and knew him.

“Well met, Lord,” she replied. “I should have known, when my horse shied. Why such excessive courtesy? You could have taken me any moment, in any way.”

“And insult your dignity?”

“I wish you hadn’t given me the choice… for I am very tired and would fain decline challenge.”

She stood up; he followed her. With a small sigh, she donned her weapons. They faced each other at a nearby oval stone plateau, which the glaciers had worn smooth. They bowed deeply, and engaged.

She was the best, even past her prime. But the other’s arm was of iron and each of his blows left blood behind, and merciless cold. Under the sliver of the late-rising moon she fought on, and her sword grew blunt; she threw it away and uncoiled her whip, holding the dagger in reserve.

He lowered his own weapon.

“You can stop now; I would be slain were I mortal. Surely honor is fully satisfied.”

She smiled and tried her whip against the wind; it was rising, heralding the sunrise.

They continued circling until the stars paled and a band of many colors appeared on the eastern horizon. Her whole body grew numb and her whip fell from her hand. As he raised his sword for the final thrust, she sank her own dagger to the hilt below her rib.

“I lived to see another dawn,” she whispered. “It is good that no stone will burden me. I will be able to stargaze; perhaps a tree will grow out of me… and the passing cranes will bring me tidings of the world.”

thetempest

Related posts:

“As Weak as Women’s Magic”

Why I Won’t Be Taking the Joanna Russ Pledge

The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

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

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

Images: Lady Lisa (Sandy Powers); Golda Meir, fourth prime minister of Israel (Associated Press); Ursula Burns, engineer, CEO of Xerox (Motoya Nakamura); Dr. Jill Tarter, astronomer, SETI pioneer (SETI Archive); Helen Mirren as Prosper@ in Julie Taymor’s The Tempest (Miramax)

Anticipated in 2014

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

“She headed back east, into the gates of dawn.”
— Athena Andreadis, ending of Contra Mundum

Athena and Castle at Dennis cpIt has become almost obligatory for bloggers to do “last year’s best and worst/next year’s resolutions” in late December or early January. Never much a fan of such lists, I will instead share with you what I look forward to in 2014. Mind you, these are concrete items – I won’t bother with “less misogyny/more equitable structures” or equivalents.

1. Greek bookstores and publishers are starting to offer e-books: water in the desert to the parched exile, book addict that is me. I will finally make a dent in the lengthy list I compiled with a longing I thought would remain unrequited. Also, I intend to renew my forays into contemporary non-US literature, with Susan Lanigan’s White Feathers high on the list.

In mystery, I have a guilty jones for the next Provincetown tale by Jon Loomis, as long as he doesn’t shear any of the black sheep milling around the goody-two-shoes Frank Coffin. In SF, much as I dislike sequelitis, I’m curious for the continuation of Up Against It by Laura Mixon (Morgan Locke), which I briefly discussed in Space Operas and Gender Shoals. It’s my fervent hope that in the sequel we’ll see much less of Geoff and much more of the troubadour troublemaker Vivian/Thondu wa Macharia na Briggs – a walking seal of approval for advanced gene splicing and a shapeshifter across all phenotypes, including gender.

ETA: And how could I forget — the conclusion of Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona comic, the only pastiche I have ever not just liked but grown attached to (though I have a bad feeling about the fate of its protagonists).

2. The final installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. This may come as another surprise, since I made it plain how much I detested the opus in Hagiography in the SFX Age. The sole reason I’m eager for part 3 is that I’m curious if my hunch about Tauriel is correct.

I predict that Tauriel will die alongside Kili in the Battle of the Five Armies. Women are dispatched casually in (space) operas and sagas but they’re dispatched with particular glee and sadism when they dare to mate with men who are shorter, younger, poorer or more marginal than they (see: Brunnhilde, Padmé Amidala). Mind you, Kili is a Dwarf prince (though from the inferior maternal line) whereas Tauriel is as low-ranking as an Elf can be – she would be working class if Elves had such a group. But since Tolkien made Dwarves literally the children of a lesser god, you get the gist. Plus it will make the canon purists happy.

3. On the other hand, I look forward to seasons 2 to N of Elementary. The series has only gone up in my initial high estimation: Jonny Lee Miller is still a white-hot Holmes, Lucy Liu’s Watson is now an equal partner and the acerbity between the two stings like good balsamic vinegar. I could use a bit less of the pious recovery platitudes and quite a lot more of both Rhys Ifans’ Mycroft and Natalie Dormer’s Moriarty (who was far more interesting in her most recent appearance than the monochromatic and rather dim villain of the season 1 ending).

4. The concluding game of the retro-RPG Eschalon series (*taps foot*). Yes, Virginia: though of the female persuasion, I’m an avid gamer — strictly solo, multigaming leaves me colder than Olympus Mons in Mars. This finale has been long in the making, but the care put in its older siblings and the preliminary preview noises suggest strongly it will reward the wait.

5. More of the perfumes conjured by Grand Magistra Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. Dawn dedicated two evenings of sampling and measuring to make personal perfumes for me and the Copper Yeti way back when the world was much younger and Newbury Street was the abode of real art and artists. My scent is The Long Shadow, a dark elixir of opium, amber and sandalwood grounded by petitgrain; his is The Cuddly Crusader, a sandalwood/musk sharpened by bay rum, cedar and juniper berries. Dawn has since become justly famous, and I never tire of sampling the fruits from her meticulously cultivated scent orchard.

6. Sarma, the appetizer-oriented restaurant just opened by fusion wonder Ana Sortun whose departure from Casablanca was a cause for universal lamentation. The iconic Casablanca itself is now closed, another blow from which Harvard Square will not recover after the loss of Wordsworth, HMV, and all non-chain small stores that gave it distinction and taste. Sortun’s first solo venture, Oleana, ushers you into paradise (literally, since she explored and reinterpreted less-frequented nooks of Armenian, Persian and Turkish cuisine) but it’s a bit too formal. The new place promises a looser atmosphere – so my QC squad is donning bibs even as we speak.

7. The new-new wing of the Museum of Fine Arts (I can hardly wait to see Fired Earth, Woven Bamboo) and the sui generis explorations of the Peabody Essex. The latter has mounted truly unforgettable boutique exhibits – from a comprehensive collection of Joseph Cornell’s haunting box assemblages to an in-depth retrospective on Maori ta moko.

8. Delve more deeply into composers I like – from Sofia Gubaidulina to Zoë Keating (who, I just found out, has composed music for Elementary. Purr, purr). And continue picking new likes from hearing snatches of music in unlikely places, which is how I bumped into Gorecki… Radio Tarifa… Fleet Foxes…

9. A possible brief sojourn in Aotearoa. I’d like to stand on some of the beaches, glens and glacial meadows I first saw in Xena and Mr. Snacho’s photos, later in The Piano and LotR. There’s a danger associated with this: the Copper Yeti criss-crossed both North and South Island for six months in another life and is threatening to lose our passports once we’re there.

10. Reading submissions for the successor to The Other Half of the Sky. Tentatively titled Dreaming the Dark, it will focus on women scientists from cultures and futures past the “girls don’t/shouldn’t do science” knuckledragging stage, and on worlds where science is more nuanced than the standard SF binary of either hubris or triumphalism. I already have my gaze fixed on writers whose work I want to see in this compilation. You know who you are.

11. Writing a necklace of linked stories for a Spider Silk universe collection. Readers have caught glimpses of this world in Dry Rivers, Planetfall, The Wind Harp and The Stone Lyre – but these are foam flecks on a Hokusai-height wave.

12. And, of course, more interviews with cryptids, having started on a high note with a saber tooth tiger.

Dawn Jetty Park

Images: top, scaling — yet more — castle walls (photo by Peter Cassidy); bottom, a Delta 2 launch.

Ever-Receding Mirage: Non-Default Legitimacy

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

“…Breathe deep! No hurt, no pardon
out here in the cold with you
you with your back to the wall.”

— Adrienne Rich, the ending of “Orion”

LoughEske Alexander crop

Nature (once a single magazine, now a constellation of suffixed clones collectively called NPG) is part of the scientific holy trinity in terms of prestige. Of course, neither Nature nor Science are above publishing (and hyping) sloppy articles they deem “hot” – as exemplified by the “arsenic” bacteria jawdropper and the ENCODE non-news. To get anything accepted in Nature, whether a peer-reviewed article, a fiction piece or even a letter is a Big Deal and the gatekeeping and power politics are geared to emphasize this core fact. I know whereof I speak first-hand: I have one (mid-author) paper in Nature, reviewed manuscripts for them, and made the short-short list for an NPG senior editor position a few years ago.

Nature and Science do the periodic “women/minorities in science” recap, though their own percentages of non-defaults remain dismal across categories (in fairness, that simply reflects larger academia). Two recent events at Nature highlight the issues of navigating life while not in the auto-approved NPG list.

The first was the decision to republish a comment in their correspondence section. What did this comment say that was so worthwhile that a Nature editor singled it out, assigned it a doi number and reprinted it? In the impeccable tradition of Larry Summers and essentialist evopsycho, it stated that bias has nothing to do with women’s lesser status in science – it’s all about the fact that they have kids. What are the author’s credentials? An internet search reveals he just graduated with a hazy B. A. from a small Texas college and his LinkedIn profile lists his occupation as accounting.

Right on the heels of this, the senior biology editor of Nature (who also handles their Science Futures where “hard” SF gets published) decided to name an outspoken pseudonymous science blogger; the two had been feuding since 2009. The blogger is a non-Anglo woman in the early stages of her faculty career, although her pseudonym was unusually transparent. The NPG editor called her “an inconsequential sports physio”.

I know neither combatant personally. I’ve dipped occasionally into the posts of the now-named blogger and also have occasionally read the uneven Science Futures short stories curated by the Nature editor (several SF authors I know had stories published there but the less said of Ed Rybicki’s “Womanspace”, the better). From parallel experiences of my own, I think the naming was the act of a settled insider who considers in-your-face criticism an affront to his self-definition – but “inconsequential” was even more corrosive. Such terms always aim to raise doubts in those of us whose legitimacy is always on trial, no matter how lengthy or weighty our credentials and achievements.

When I started publishing books, stories, poems and essays, I made a conscious decision to do so under my real name, aware of the risks and penalties of this choice (many of which promptly materialized, with significant repercussions). There is no question that pseudonymity is crucial for those at the lower end of power differentials and that real harm can come to those deemed to be “too vocal” (especially if they’re women, non-white, poor, queer or a combination thereof). I also hear the argument that knowledge should count, rather than appeals to authority – although that slides fairly often towards disdain of bona fide expertise. On the other side, there is equally no question that pseudonymity can be used to snipe without consequences and occasionally hides an impostor: recall the “endangered Syrian lesbian” who turned out to be a straight American man?

I decided to do everything under my real name because I wanted to plant a flag, so to speak. I wanted to make it clear that someone like me – an unfeminine, dark, “uppity” woman with an accent, a zero-generation immigrant who doesn’t conform to cultural gender in either her native or adopted culture – can get scholarships and degrees from Harvard and MIT, can be the PI of an NIH funded lab, can run a department, can write a popular science book, can conceive of and execute a paradigm-shifting SF anthology. All done cold turkey, without any dynasty cushioning or insider connnections. And I wanted to be able to do all my various activities without the fear of blackmail dangling over my head. I got my share of rape, etc threats with “We know your home address” notes appended to them. But I had lived six formative years in a real military dictatorship, where people, including first-degree relatives, got tortured and disappeared. Internet trolls are drooling babies compared to real secret police.

Did use of my real name restrict me? Well, I could not be a shock jock (mind you, I prefer less lazy ways of denoting disagreement than profanity). Neither could I spend much time detailing my serious health issues for extra pittypats – I find dwelling on such matters boring anyway. Did it cost me gigs and tenure? Probably, despite the lip service of both academia and the “progressive” blogosphere to the importance/desirability of diversity and outreach. Would I have done it differently, knowing what I know now? Unlikely. I don’t have the stamina or patience for creating more than one persona/lity.

In short, I wanted to live an undistracted, integrated life, where my personal could indeed be political and vice versa. By a combination of attributes and circumstances, I was able to do so, more or less. It helped that I eventually realized I would never be deemed legitimate, even if I won Nobels, Pulitzers, Hugos, you name it. My “otherness” suffices to make me Johnson’s dog walking on her hind legs. Along the same lines, the fact that an entitled insider named a non-Anglo woman scientist with intent to intimidate was vile but almost secondary: she was classified as “lesser” the moment she made it clear she was non-default.

Non-defaults are never treated as fully human. All else springs from that.

Athena Andreadis Sitting smRelated articles

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

Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Those Who Never Got to Fly

So, Where Are All the Outstanding Women in X?

Images: Top, Lough Eske by Brendan Alexander; bottom, yours truly by Peter Cassidy – just so there is no doubt about the identity of the author of this post.

Paired Particles: Space Operas and Gender Shoals

Saturday, January 4th, 2014

2012 Pair

In 2011/2012, two SF works formed a conceptual pair: Morgan Locke’s Up Against It and Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier.  Both are ambitious space operas that take place on belaguered space habitats.  Both brim with originality and bravura, field a host of complex issues, portray fluid/non-binary genders, use non-Anglo settings and are as hard SF as can be (provided you don’t count orbital mechanics as the sole hard science, as genre fundies do; Locke is a chemist, Slonczewski a biologist and their first-hand expertise shows).  Both obey marketing directives: they are parts of projected trilogies and have adolescent protagonists.  In Up Against It, a sharply etched adult woman thankfully shares center stage.  The Highest Frontier is more Harry-Potter-in-space but the quirks and gender of its protagonist mostly redeem the YA concession.  The Highest Frontier got a lot of recognition, including the Campbell award.  Up Against It went by almost unnoticed.

I gamma-read these two, so I already reviewed them extensively, if privately.  This was not the case for the paired set of 2013: Deborah Wheeler’s Collaborators (a standalone) and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (first volume of the now-obligatory trilogy).  Like their 2012 counterparts, these are ambitious space operas that tackle many issues.  Whereas the 2012 two focus on can-do survival and are relatively small-scale (no galactic empires), the 2013 ones focus on colonialism and gender in Le Guin and Cherryh’s wake, but their scientific concepts are more SF-traditional.  Both use multiple narrative viewpoints – condemned as “romance cooties” in SF circles, though the technique is routine in literary fiction – and have made conscious decisions about pronoun use, of which more anon.  Like the divergent fates of the 2012 pair, Ancillary Justice got a rousing reception whereas I count formal reviews of Collaborators on the fingers of one hand.

Collaborators is obviously descended from Le Guin kernels but carves its own unique path.  Following The Left Hand of Darkness it posits the Bandari, single-gendered humanoid aliens who polarize slightly when in estrus and a bit more during gestation.  Like Le Guin (who defended her choice until she retrenched in short stories that featured Gethenians), Wheeler uses exclusively male pronouns for the species.  And similar to the settings of Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest and Cherryh’s Downbelow Station, Collaborators shows how a non-terrestrial culture interacts with a stranded human starship whose crew, bolstered by its formidable technology, forgets that they are not gods and interfere heavily in the politics of two adversarial nations.  The major conflict is nuanced by ambiguities and dilemmas on all sides and at many levels.

Wheeler’s Quaker beliefs are visible (including the refusal to indulge in charismatic saviors) and the parallels to the havoc wrought by imperial-nation interventions on earth are clear.  The alien biology and first-contact dynamics are handled unusually deftly; the narrative polyphony weaves complex melodies and harmonies.  Wheeler’s world is effortlessly immersive and teems with fully realized characters.  At the same time, the human side is conveyed almost exclusively by male characters and the Bandari occasionally leave behind them a Wraeththu-like whiff.

Ancillary Justice posits the Radchaai, a galaxy-wide dominant polity that is rather obviously modeled on imperial Rome futurized by the customary space opera panoply (nanotech, up/downloading, FTL) and replete with cultural-specific quirks to quickly individualize the groups within it – including the author’s own unabashed love of tea.  The Radchaai, the obverse side of Banks’ Culture (with ship Minds to match), share the Romans’ casual, pragmatic cruelty including the citizen privilege boundary.  Their resources permit them to animate corpses from uprisings against the Radchaai with AI “consciousness”.  The resulting constructs are used as starship crews and planetary enforcers.  These ancillaries are descendants of Cherryh’s Union/Alliance azi and of the Star Wars stormtrooper clones: essentially cheap disposable zombi.

The protagonist Breq (a now-isolate ancillary who harbors a portion of the AI consciousness of a once-mighty starship) sets out to assassinate a powerful Lucifer/Palpatine figure for reasons of personal loyalty.  So the scaffolding is a traditional revenge quest, garnished with Breq’s fraught dealings with an ambiguous ally of once high status – very similar to the currents between Ai and Estraven in The Left Hand of Darkness.  Like Collaborators, Ancillary Justice shows several worlds and the complex interactions between them.  However, the characters in Ancillary Justice are far less sharply drawn than those in Collaborators to the point of blurriness and the novel contains many lumpy passages.  Also like Collaborators, Ancillary Justice switches between viewpoints, finessed by the conceit that the ship’s AI is tallying ancillary inputs in situ – a clever dodge though its execution is not entirely smooth, augmenting the murkiness (it would do better in film).

Last but decidedly not least, and a point highlighted in all the reviews of Ancillary Justice, Breq designates everyone with female pronouns.  The rationale is that Radchaai make no gender distinctions: their technology allows them biological fluidity, so that familial/client status has now become the primary hierarchy marker.  Hence Breq either cannot comprehend or chooses not to master such distinctions in non-Radch cultures that have them.

The 3.5 people who have read my writings know my views on colonialism, gender and their intersection.  It’s good to see the ubiquitous pseudo-inclusive “he” subsumed for once and it’s fun to hazard guesses at the genderings that are left truly ambiguous.  However, I think that the conflation of grammatical, cultural and biological gender blunts the story.  The former is arbitrary and would be unavoidable in many languages (it’s an acid test for true fluency).  The middle is a battleground frought with both promise and peril – but it’s unlikely that the status-conscious Radchaai would not have other distinctions.  The latter, whether one chooses traditional or novel terms, whether one adheres to gender binaries or not, is one that an advanced AI would sense, even when diminished.

One could argue that we’re seeing a carryover of Radch arrogance by a multiply unreliable narrator.  However, the fact that Breq’s inability/unwillingness to distinguish gender (which type?) is constantly mentioned, explained and defended puts it in the “protesting too much” category: it punctures the immersive membrane of the narrative, turning the device into a  self-conscious flag rather than a fully integrated (and hence submerged) core context.  It doesn’t help that the primary antagonist is given many trappings of a male/masculine terrestrial, which shows how hard it is to write truly gender-blind narratives.

Caveats aside, both the 2012 and 2013 space opera tangled pairs are intriguing; it will be interesting to see where their sequels go.  The pronoun issue is vexed, though Anglophone SF is lucky to only have to worry about third-person singular pronouns.  Melissa Scott, always a forerunner, put down five sets of pronouns in The Shadow Man way before this became the burning issue in SF that it has become.  Other writers did without pronouns or expanded their vocabulary: neologisms aside, why not press the neutral option or the third-person plural into service?  Female- or male-only are clumsy instruments to designate either mono/multi/fluidly-gendered species or cultural gender blindness.  We need different mindsets, and different words, for such horizons.

2013 Pair

Floating Brains and Invasive Minds

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Note: this article first appeared as a guest blog post in Scientific American with only the top accompanying image.

ghost shell MRecently, two studies surfaced almost simultaneously that led to exclamations of “Vulcan mind meld!”, “Zombie armies!” and “Brains in jars!” One is the announcement by Rajesh Rao and Andrea Stocco of Washington U. that they “achieved the first human-to-human brain interface”. The other is the Nature paper by Madeline Lancaster et al about stem-cell-derived “organoids” that mimic early developmental aspects of the human cortex. My condensed evaluation: the latter is far more interesting and promising than the former, which doesn’t quite do what people (want to) think it’s doing.

The purported result of brain interfacing hit many hot buttons that have been staples of science fiction and Stephen King novels: primarily telepathy, with its fictional potential for non-consensual control. Essentially, the sender’s EEG (electroencephalogram) output was linked to the receiver’s TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) input. What the experiment actually did is not send a thought but induce a muscle twitch; nothing novel, given the known properties of the two technologies. The conditions were severely constrained to produce the desired result and I suspect the outcome was independent of the stimulus details: the EEG simply recorded that a signal had been produced and the TMS apparatus was positioned so that a signal would elicit a movement of the right hand. Since both sender and receiver were poised over a keyboard operating a video game, the twitch was sufficient to press the space bar, programmed by the game to fire a cannon.

Here’s a partial list of problems with the wide-bore conclusion of “Mind meld!”: 1) The space bar is by far the largest keyboard item, as well as the one closest to the user’s fingers. I bet that if the desired move had been programmed by, say, one of the tiny F keys, the results would be negative. 2) It’s unclear that input specifics mattered. The obvious control is to see if any EEG signal (or a computer simulation of an EEG signal without a human at its end) gives the same result with an identical TMS setup. If yes, we’re back to square zero. If no, further experiments would be interesting and useful, though still extremely limited for applications. 3) The response was a reflex action, not a thought-induced one. This makes the setup an inefficient and Pentagon-expensive on/off switch, not a method to elicit fine-tuned actions.

The overall result, complicated input/output paraphernalia notwithstanding, is par with having frog legs twitch when they receive an electric current, or with people’s legs jerking when hit at the knee with a doctor’s hammer. To his credit, Rao pointed out that this is not a technique for thought transfer. Such technology may well end up enabling people who are paralyzed by either accident or disease to exert some control over basic commands, if the setup can be made less cumbersome. Most certainly it’s not a preamble to “passengers landing planes when the pilot is incapacitated”, as touted by Stocco. Passengers in such jeopardy would do better to stick with the traditional frantically shouted instructions shown in all those Airport movies. And the zombie army plans will have to be put on hold.

So what about disembodied masterminds that could control these zombie armies? Lancaster et al developed experimental conditions under which either embryonic (ESC) or induced pluripotent (iPS) stem cells differentiate into small balls that exhibit several of the properties of embryonic cortex. These include migration of the proto-neuronal cells to form laminar structures (which in real brains go on to become such compartments as the hippocampus) and bursts of electrical activity that are sensitive to cognate neurotoxins. The organoid attributes resemble those of a bona fide brain but aren’t the same. Additionally, they are limited in size and further development/self-organization by the intrinsic absence of the micro- and macro-contexts of native brains during their formation.

The fundamental premise of this research is not novel: it extends the trial-and-error attempts of cell biology to induce desired cellular properties and structures in culture. It is an interesting stroke of random luck that ESCs and iPSs are (relatively!) easy to turn into proto-neurons. Given the experimental parameters, such structures will almost certainly never recapitulate a full-size, fully functional brain even if they’re given 3-D scaffolds and circulating nutrients that mimic blood supplies. However, brain organoids derived from iPS cells of humans suffering from brain disorders are tremendous assets for figuring out what goes awry in specific contexts. Lancaster et al already did a neat (and directly relevant) proof of principle: they demonstrated phenotype-congruent differences in organoids cultivated from the skin of a microcephaly case caused by a mutation in CDK5RAP2. Among its functions, this protein regulates the mitotic spindle and hence the crucial balance between cell proliferation and differentiation – vital not only for cancer, but also for correct brain development.

This new tool in our kit promises to bypass two major bottlenecks in basic and applied biomedical research: work with “equivalence” models in non-humans is strewn with species-specific artifacts and limitations, whereas research on humans is fraught with moral dilemmas. In other words, it will allow us to identify human-specific details that make the difference in truly understanding and eventually short-circuiting diseases that are unique and critical to us – brain malformation and deterioration most prominently among them. Furthermore, it will do so without destroying embryos, making its funding less of a political football than usual.

So the outcome of this type of research will not be masterminds in silicon jars, but better maintained brains in carbon bodies. This is modest, prosaic – but real and concrete, unlike the overhyped “mind melds” which will have a hard time catching up with (let alone overtaking) our fine-tuned, sophisticated tool for such endeavors: language.

Meld

Sources and further explanations:

Direct Brain-to-Brain Communication in Humans: A Pilot Study

Lancaster MA, Renner M, Martin C-A, Wenzel D, Bicknell LS, Hurles ME, Homfray T, Penninger JM, Jackson AP, Knoblich JA (2013). Cerebral organoids model human brain development and microcephaly. Nature doi:10.1038/nature12517.

Cloning Brains with Science. PZ Myers, Pharyngula, Aug. 29, 2013

Images: Top, Ghost in the Shell showcases both “brains in jars” and “mind melds”; bottom, Spock mind-rapes Valeris in The Undiscovered Country.

The Iron Madonna or: Kicking Ass While Female

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

Note: this article first appeared as a guest blog post in Scientific American.

Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) in HaywireI reluctantly acquired a Twitter account as a necessary accoutrement to my Scientific American posts.  The people I track there fall mostly into two streams: scientists and SFF writers.  This week, the two intersected, resulting in a minor epiphany.  The tributaries were Upsides of Women in Science? by neuroscientist SciTriGrrl at Tenure, She Wrote; and I Hate Strong Female Characters by author Sophia McDougall in the New Statesman.

For those eager to rejoin Twitter lest they miss a hot link, here’s the kernel: the characteristics that McDougall deplores are requirements for the survival of women in science (actually in all endeavors that aren’t explicitly coded “feminine”).  And the permission – nay, requirement – to be a strong silent kick-ass may be one of the few upsides of being a non(whiteAnglo)male in a STEM field, though it comes with a heavy load of baggage.

McDougall follows in the steps of several forerunners (she mis/names Carina Chocano, but these debates have been going on for a while) and hews to a meaning of the term “strong female character” as narrow as Margaret Atwood’s definition of science fiction.  Within her defined parameters, McDougall argues eloquently that “strong” female characters in books, movies and comics are pernicious because they devalue all non-heroic behavior (which of course depends on one’s definition of heroism) and limit the range of attributes, actions and interactions available to the character herself.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most SFF works contain a single woman bereft of female kin and friends.  To retain her trap-strewn status, such a construct is obliged to be a perfect kick-ass while remaining “womanly” and focused on the men and their needs: not for her the quirks and angst of a Sherlock Holmes or an Edward Rochester; not for her the loyalty and unquestioned support of sworn brothers.  There are the inevitable partial exceptions, the most prominent one being Lara Croft before she got stuffed into normalization corsets.

By consensus of both supporters and detractors, the standard kick-ass heroine is an extreme manifestation of the strong silent type: Shane with breasts – and, furthermore, breasts that please and/or nourish without any demand for a quid pro quo.  I call such characters Iron Madonnas: a ratcheted-up variation of the Iron Maiden that requires women to be maternal while remaining asexual and literally selfless, like the Christian prototype.  To give just a few highly visible SFF examples, Arwen, Cordelia Vorkosigan, Sarah Connor, the reboot Uhura and Padmé Amidala (until she turns into a floor puddle) are obvious Iron Madonnas; so are most of Miyazaki’s heroines, which is why Mononoke Hime is such a landmark work: just the centrality of more than one woman (Mononoke and Eboshi) breaks the mold – to say nothing of their attributes.

SciTriGrrl’s article posits that, customary gloom to the contrary, there ARE some upsides to being a woman in STEM.  However, most of the pluses she and her commenters list are non-specific to either gender or discipline: following a consuming vocation; flexible if long hours; lack of a dress code.   The rest, frankly, are a wishlist.  Worse yet, they arise from tokenism (“As the single woman in X you stand out!” – which means you get to serve and be ignored in tons more committees than a male counterpart, to say nothing of the micro- to mega-aggressions that rain on you as a stand-in for all non-men) or from gender-coded behavior along the lines of “Women have more personal/ized interactions and less horn locking!” (as in: being warm and understanding and reaping benefits therefrom).

To which my retort is, if only.  Contrary to SciTriGrrl’s hopeful assertions, women in STEM, regardless of where they are in their career path, have a narrower permitted response spectrum than men.  Not only is weeping instant career demolition; so is anger, sarcasm, moodiness, flamboyance, charisma.  All, incidentally, are deemed leadership attributes in men and add depth and piquancy to male heroes – and are also reflected on what’s acceptable in corresponding outerwear.  A male mentor is never expected to waste valuable time and gray matter to even hear, let alone tolerate, tales of personal woe.  A male faculty member can show up in sweatpants or with hair combed by touching an electric socket, no problemo; and unless he’s non-white or has “odd vowels” in his name, he’s never chosen for draining service duties with the reasoning “We need ‘diversity’ so we can check off that box in our reports to funding agencies.”  Women are called to lead a department or company only when it’s in deep doodoo: not only are their careers deemed more disposable but “as women” they’re considered magically (or genetically) equipped to clean up messes while the men forge ahead with advantageous exit strategies.

What I just described is the narrowly defined kick-ass heroine excoriated by McDougall et al.  The Iron Madonna has been, and remains, the sole viable behavior mode for women in STEM – in part because we’re still asked to prove non-stop that “We’re as good as boys.”  The stance does not guarantee success or happiness, far from it; it only gives people who do science while non-male the chance to pursue their vocation without handicaps of Harrison Bergeron size.  It’s a persona, an armored exoskeleton that must be worn on a planet where toxic molecules are inhaled with each and every breath.

Which is where the tiny sliver of “advantage” comes in, if it can be called that: women in this configuration can sometimes dodge the automatic expectation of standard “feminine” responses.  They will never achieve a fraction of the fame, success and authority of male counterparts with a fraction of their dedication and talent; but they may be left alone to dream and shape the dark in small, meagerly funded labs without demands to be den mothers, wear floppy bow ties or make soothing noises (though they still get summarily slapped down if they deviate from the spacetime local academic norms).  The real solution, of course, is to make others more multifaceted and human(e) rather than women less so.  But that’s still “a consummation devoutly to be wished” even in first-world academia.

Related articles:

Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears
A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise
The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction
Those Who Never Got to Fly
Bridge Struts in Pink Pantalets
So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

Image: Gina Carano as Mallory Kane in Haywire (Photo: Associated Press)

Women’s Bodies, Women’s Powers

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

Note: this is a variant of the talk I delivered as the opening of the Readercon panel of the same title in July. The other participants were Alex Dally MacFarlane, Kate Nepveu, Vandana Singh and Sabrina Vourvoulias.

The issues contained in the title of this panel are many and complex; we’ll only scratch the surface today but I hope they may lead to further thinking. One large context is the perceived need to categorize everything, including gender signs/signals, and assign relative value to the resulting categories, which in SFF can be posited as “objective reality” (see Scott Bakker’s work for a textbook example). Another large context is that SFF still follows the long-outmoded concept that genes/chromosomes/specific body functions completely dictate higher order behavior. The third major issue is to whom non-male bodies belong. Anyone following global politics (or even Texan ones… or Twitter, for that matter) will know the answer remains surprisingly non-obvious.

Biologically, we are a feedback loop between our brains/bodies and the external world. There are real limitations dictated, for example, by the fact that we’re mammals with everything the term implies, from metabolism to reproductive investment at the biological level. At the same time, human brains are plastic and remarkably capable of bypassing default settings, biological as well as cultural.

To some extent, much of what I want to discuss today is contained in The Scorpion King, a pulp fantasy movie that adheres to traditional binary gender assumptions while slyly subverting them. In it, Mathayus (the protagonist) learns that Memnon, his adversary, enjoys the services of a powerful sorcerer. Mathayus duly sets out to assassinate the sorcerer, only to discover that the sorcerer is a woman, Cassandra, whose magical powers will reportedly evaporate if her hymen is ruptured –- specifically by a man; not, say, by a woman or from riding horses. Memnon plans to deflower Cassandra once he’s in power, lest she turn against him. Instead, she chooses Mathayus as a lover, then returns to distract Memnon while Mathayus gathers the rebel groups. Memnon tells Cassandra, “I sense a change in you. You seem, somehow, (significant pause) diminished.” She replies, “I assure you, I am myself.” – and proceeds to prove it by her subsequent actions (it is also indicative of the movie’s subversive streak that the visions of this Cassandra, unlike those of her Homeric namesake, compel instant belief).

So: women’s bodies and their powers. We have two paths here, in the real world as well as in SFF. One is the “separate but equal” route which has been taken too easily and too often; the other argues that human bodies and powers cover all the letters of the magical alphabet (not just the alpha and the omega, with the usual culprits assuming the alpha position), and that most magic need not depend on functions traditionally assigned to gender.

What is often overlooked is how similar humans are across scales. We are, however, mammals; that means that there are a few functions that are specific to biological women: namely, ovulation/menstruation, pregnancy and lactation. Interestingly, until the development of pastoralism and agriculture beyond the subsistence level, which eventually led women to accumulate body fat past a critical threshold, periods and pregnancies were infrequent events that occupied a very small portion of women’s lives – although lengthy lactation was used as a fertility regulator.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the taboos surrounding these functions have placed major restrictions on women’s status as full humans, while simultaneously often being their sole path to any semblance of social power. They have also given rise to the concept that these functions define what a woman is while simultaneously deeming such a construct intrinsically inferior – from the concept of menstrual blood as a potent pollutant to the idea that estrogen and progesterone fluctuations make people unstable to the penalties levied to women who are inconveniently in/fertile or produce daughters. Of course, this is ironic given several facts: spermatogonia are as fragile as ova, biological gender is defined by the paternal chromosomal contribution and the number of hormones and their targets vastly exceeds the two glorified in pop sci and pulp lit.

In other eras, these views and their resulting binary splits were enforced by religious dictates: laws that equated cross-dressing with abomination (that’s how Jeanne d’ Arc ended at the stake); menstruation huts and iron beds; after-birth churching and mikvehs; forbidding women to touch weapons or enter the sanctum sanctorums of various faiths; nowadays, we can count on evolutionary psychology, that hasn’t encountered a parochial separate-and-unequal assumption it didn’t like and wouldn’t like to turn into a primary and universal human attribute. Here the irony is that each culture has had very different concepts of what is “properly” male and female; the overriding commonality is that whatever is defined as non-male along any axis is automatically of lesser value.

This outlook has migrated pretty much wholesale into speculative literature. It’s still standard fare in fantasy to postulate male and female magic, with men usually having the fun or heroic bits while women are given the equivalent of housecleaning (that is, preservation). It’s equally standard for women to lose (or be thought to lose) any extranormal powers they possess when they have penetrative sex, menstruate or become pregnant – from André Norton’s Witch World adepts to the shapeshifter Zamia in Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Men in fantasy, whether in heterosexual or homosexual sex, whether casual or committed, never lose any powers they have, though celibacy is considered a good way not to waste one’s “juice” in several religions and fantasy cycles – including the male wizards in Le Guin’s Earthsea, who undergo formal training denied to women. There are of course the rare inevitable exceptions: Samson, whose power resides in his hair; Angel reverting to full bore vampire when Buffy finally beds him; the Celtic sacred kings, who had to be intact to rule (hence Llew Llaw Gyffes’ golden arm).

Magic is also gendered in SF: empaths are almost always women, again in line with the essentialist binary split, whereas telepathy as forcible mental penetration is employed often, even by those quintessences of probity, Spock of Star Trek and Professor Xavier of X-Men. The other perennial surprise is how prevalent traditional pregnancy is in SF, even when advanced technology is clearly present otherwise – almost like a filter for the moral fiber of female characters, from Padmé Amidala to Cordelia Vorkosigan (née Naismith). Of course, the question of what might happen to women if artificial wombs became common and reliable is a major question in itself.

Now, mind you, if separate were truly equal, we should have stories in which some of these parlous female functions give rise to a whirlwind or firestorm of power. I mean, if a spike of estrogen supposedly can drive a woman insane it could equally well pack a psychic wallop as powerful as the shattering rages of Achilles or CúChulainn. I can think of a sole case where this happens: in The Dark Crystal, when Kira unfurls a pair of wings Jen complains, “I don’t have wings!” To which Kira replies, “Of course not. You’re a boy.”

I could provide many more genre examples, but we all have our long lists. What real life and speculative literature need to come in terms with and incorporate is that humans occupy several continuous spectrums and that the traditional attributes of binary gender are a very small part of what defines a person — and that women are far more than their menstrual cycles. In fact, if the grandomother theory proves correct, it’s post-menopausal women (who in wicca are said to possess “wise blood” stored within) who made humans who we are.

Related entries:

Equalizer or Terminator?
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
“As Weak as Women’s Magic”
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle
Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Witchworld

Images: Cassandra (Kelly Hu) and Mathayus (Dwayne Johnson) in The Scorpion King; covers for André Norton’s Witch World novels, some good (Dan Dos Santos, left) some less so (Jeff Jones, right) [click on the image to see larger version]

The Readercon Constellations Align Again

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

Gift of a Second Life (Full)

Spending the Gift of a Second Life — the three major characters of “The Wind Harp”, visualized as beautifully as is her wont by Heather D. Oliver. [Click on the image to see larger version.]

—————————————————————————————

Last year, the stars aligned in such a way that during Readercon I was able to announce the partnership with Kate Sullivan of Candlemark & Gleam, who did such a tremendous job of publishing The Other Half of the Sky.

This year, I will have a different announcement to make at Readercon, in addition to proudly displaying the anthology (which, incidentally, just received yet another glowing review). Because of other urgent, immovable commitments, I will be doing only two events. As described in the Readercon program:

Saturday, July 13, 7 pm.

Women’s Bodies, Women’s Power. Athena Andreadis (leader), Alex Dally MacFarlane, Kate Nepveu, Vandana Singh, Sabrina Vourvoulias. In many times and places, cisgender girls and women have been evaluated by their bodies, including their choice of dress, sexual behavior, virginity, and fertility. Juxtaposed with this are the mystification and taboos surrounding menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause. This outlook has migrated wholesale into speculative literature. It’s still standard fare in fantasy for women to lose (or be thought to lose) any extranormal powers they possess when they first have penetrative sex, menstruate, or become pregnant, from André Norton’s Witchworld adepts to Zamia in Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Athena Andreadis will explore the tropes and assumptions around this issue, including variants applied to trans* and non-binary characters.

Sunday, July 14, 12:30 pm.

Reading: Athena Andreadis. Athena Andreadis. Athena Andreadis reads excerpts from “Planetfall” and “The Wind Harp”.

Which is where my announcement comes in.  “Planetfall” was published in Crossed Genres, reprinted in World SF and Nowa Fantastyka, and will be included in the Apex World SF 4 collection.  And… yesterday I received news that Crossed Genres accepted “The Wind Harp” for their issue themed “Deadlines”.  This is my first pro rate fiction sale; because of that, the magazine will also spotlight me with an interview when the story appears (September 2013).

Gender’s Giving Sci-Fi and Fantasy the COOTIES!

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

by Kay Holt

Athena’s note: This entry first appeared at Science in My Fiction (SiMF). Like its author, it wears many hats. Kay Holt is the co-founder and editor of Crossed Genres and the founder of SiMF; neither venue needs lengthy introductions.  She was also my co-editor for The First Half of the Sky (a collaboration I intend to renew whenever the opportunity arises), so the article is part of the ongoing series in which I showcase the contributors to the anthology.  It’s also one more reaction to recent SFWA events that I, among many others, discussed in my previous entry — and equally so to the persistent stone-age level of gender discussions in self-labeled progressive/visionary communities.

Kay Holt

When I was a kid, dresses weren’t the problem. I was. Of all the sticks and stones lobbed in my direction, ‘tomboy’ was one of the kindest. I didn’t help my circumstances by refusing to wear pink or pigtails or shoes that went ‘click’ on the sidewalk.

I wasn’t just a no-frills kind of girl. On school picture day, I rocked a pair of  boys’ Transformers sandals. There was more to me than met the eye. True, I was born with certain genitals and I wore my hair very, very long until I was an adult. But no matter how hard people tried – and sometimes they tried with fists and guns – nobody was able to convince me that my crotch defined my self.

Girl or boy, gender was an imposition as far as I was concerned. I took to it like I took to a beating: With my guard up and my head down. That is, until I grew up enough to ‘fight like a man’. After that, I started hearing a lot of, “Babe, you have to let the boys win.” Why? “Because if you don’t, some guy’s gonna kill you.”

Those were the stakes. Be a proper girly-girl. Accept your role. Take it. Or else.

Pardon me while I carry on answering that threat of violence with a rude gesture of my own.

Ordinary people say a lot of daft things:

  • Gender and sex are the same thing.
  • Gender is innate and never changes (or should never change).
  • Gender determines sexuality (and it should).
  • I’m/she’s a girl, so I/she naturally [fills in the blank like a girl].
  • I’m/he’s a boy, so I/he naturally [fills in the blank like a boy].

When called out for telling lies and otherwise embarrassing themselves, they raise the usual defenses:

  • I can’t help it; I was brought up this way.
  • God says [whatever I say].
  • Science says—

GOTCHA! Science says that all humans are far more alike than we are different from each other, regardless of gender, sex, sexuality, race, or [you-name-it]. In unbiased experiments, the binary sexes (female/male) are effectively indistinguishable from each other. There isn’t a lot of research done which includes the entire plurality of gender (or the many sexes), but given that most people fail to even recognize more than two genders, my educated guess is that science wouldn’t be able to find a significant difference between straight, white, cis-gendered men and asexual, multi-racial, intersex androgynous people. Because there is nothing to find except IDIC.

Writers are human, though, so they sometimes make this noise:

  • My story’s not about that.
  • My characters just formed [white/straight/]cis-gendered.
  • I write for kids, and this ‘subject matter’ is too mature.
  • This is historical fiction, and gender wasn’t a ‘thing’ in the past.

To which I must answer:

  • Maybe not, but while opportunity is leaning on the doorbell, you’re hiding under the bed.
  • Who’s in charge, here? You, or the figments of your imagination?
  • Bullshit. Kids are swimming in this ‘subject matter’ while you’re refusing to write them something potentially life-saving.
  • BWAHAHAHAHA! (Do better research.)

These are usually met with hand-wringing and sham-sincerity: “I’m afraid of screwing it up. I don’t want to offend anyone.”

Tough luck, Pinocchio, because, first of all, there is such a thing as offense by omission. Secondly, you’re better off telling the truth: You can’t handle critique, and you don’t want to learn. Finally, if your writing never challenges convention or tradition, it’s probably not important. Deal with that.

This sort of careless writing and non-thinking is why science fiction and fantasy fans can’t have nice things, like a woman Doctor Who. And why the first book in a certain bestselling series wasn’t a stand-alone titled Hermione Granger Kills The Dark Lord With Her Brain. And why writers are still falling over themselves trying to write the next Twilight, of all crap.

Because when we reach for a hero, we keep reaching until we find a dude, and when we need a victim or a dummy, we grab a chick (and put her in the fridge). Those characters who don’t fit the cis-gender binary are ignored completely… Until somebody needs a truly sinister villain. Or a corpse. Then it’s like a pride parade breaks out on the page.

Fortunately, there are some quick and easy shortcuts to avoid being a gender jerk in fiction:

I lied; there are no shortcuts. Educate yourself. Read stories you’re too timid to write. Read blog posts and articles by people whose very identities challenge your notions about what is ‘normal’ and ‘right’. Get uncomfortable. Spend some quality time with a mirror and a microscope. If you examine yourself honestly and find nothing about who you are that’s unconventional, please cast your likeness as the villain in your next story.

You might win an award for giving everybody the creeps.

Recommended reading:

Baggage Check” by Shay Darrach
FINE a comic by Rhea Ewing
Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency

The Other Half of the Sky contributor series:

The Hard Underbelly of the Future: Sue Lange’s Uncategorized
Shimmering Kaleidoscopes: Cat Rambo’s Near + Far [reprinted in SF Signal]
Ancestors Watch Over Her: Aliette de Bodard’s Space Operas [reprinted in World SF]
Bloodchildren, an Anthology of the Octavia Butler Scholars, edited by Nisi Shawl

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

Virginia Woolf

When Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, she extolled the virtues of the androgynous mind: the mind that sails on serenely, undistracted by circumstances, like Shakespeare, Emily Brontë and Jane Austen (of whom more anon). As an example to avoid, she chose Charlotte Brontë, who “had more genius in her than Jane Austen,” but whose rage makes her books “deformed and twisted.” Woolf continued:

“She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance.  She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience. // One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism. // She was thinking of something other than the thing itself.”

About twenty years later, Virginia Woolf dared to express direct gender anger herself in her Three Guineas, her last non-fiction work before she committed suicide and her most political one.  In it, she systematically deconstructs the patriarchal system one of whose apexes at that time was the Nazi regime.  That book is universally deemed by male Woolf aficionados as “her sole major failure” because, well, it’s not up to the standards of detached “reason” they expect.

Women have only recently (and only in small pockets of the world) managed to attain quasi-human status.  They managed to excel before that in dire contexts, even with Harrison Bergeron ankle weights and brain-noisemakers piled on them, if they had a modicum of free time, money or other niche privileges.  So it’s really silly at best (and usually malicious) to ask “So, where are the outstanding women in X?” where X is any sphere that seems threatened by major girl cooties, from paradigm-shifting science to politics to “hard” SF.  For one, there are always outstanding women in every X.  For another, every X is mostly inhabited by mediocre and below-average men with nary an outcry.

Those who deem themselves extra clever in the Gotcha! department say that, according to statistics, women try less or get more easily discouraged, hence their lower status, fewer awards and thinner wallets.  However, there is one aspect of this that’s valid, and related to Woolf’s observation.  Women indeed have fewer chances to do earthshaking “olympian” stuff for three reasons, even in places where they don’t have acid thrown in their faces for daring to attend school: they often need to defend their legitimacy before they can proceed to primary non-reactive creative work; they are invariably asked to clean up the literal and metaphorical messes of their male relatives, whether blood or chosen; and to show that they’re worthy citizens of X (and of the human species) they do so routinely as unpaid labor, with zero acknowledgment or support, in the vain hope of not being called by their body parts.

stylish-hatA textbook example of this were the last four issues of the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) Bulletin, the organization’s official publication.  The content of these issues included a pornokitsch cover showing a barely clad woman “warrior” with the standard spine-shattering pose required to push breasts and genitals simultaneously forward; an article advising women to emulate Barbie’s “quiet dignity”; and two lengthy dialogues that, inter alia, called objections to blatantly sexist remarks “censorship” and Stalinist “thought policing”.  As the saying goes, Feminazis: because asking to be treated as a human being is the same as destroying most of Europe.  If race had been treated the same way as gender was in these four issues, the “controversial” items would never have landed on the editor’s desk, let alone cleared it.  Yet in today’s self-labeled “progressive” circles, which include SFF, blatant –isms are generally not permitted (or have consequences) except one: unapologetic misogyny.  We still have gender discussions that should have ended in 1973, at the latest.

For those like me who are in the last third of their lives and lived in real dictatorships bolstered by fundamentalisms, this is being bitten to death by ducks.  The same whiny infantilism, the same smug lip-smacking prurience, the same blathering of long-discredited pseudoscience.  After a while it becomes boring, even as it remains debilitating.  And, of course, the reflex reaction I described earlier recurred in the SFWA incident like clockwork: women dropped whatever they were doing and rushed into the breach to once again explain 101 concepts and to clean up (for free) the PR mess for which the perpetrators got paid pro rates; and the advocates for “reasoned discourse” who eventually condescended to behave like proto-humans were showered with flowers, kisses and bravery medals for essentially not (or no longer) slapping women in the face – while the volunteers are expected to clean up these Augean stables with zero kudos, infrastructural support or funding.

So here are stories that won’t get written or, if written, will carry the same dislocations that Woolf discerned in Brontë.  Here are stories that won’t get awards or pro rates because they were sandwiched between stints of soul-withering labor that nurtures the infantilism it tries to cure – because we share this world and cannot afford to have it turned to shit, and because, unlike other marginalized groups, we cannot sequester ourselves or stop loving our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons.  Here are hours, days, weeks, months, years, lifetimes that could have been spent, if not in creative fever, at least in pleasure rather than bitterness and fatigue.  There is no way to win this, as activists learn.  It’s a Sisyphean labor.  If we do nothing, we lose; if we do something, we still lose – blood and bone marrow, time robbed and effort wasted, the luxury (yes, for us a luxury) of considering ourselves, for fleeting moments, human beings rather than battered furniture.

Even the olympian composure of Jane Austen cracked at the end of her short life.  In her last novel, Persuasion, her stand-in, Anne Elliott, finally cries out in anguish and protest.  But Jane Austen still had to put her work aside to attend to the needs of her male relatives, as did the three Brontë sisters.  Women who are geniuses or charismatic and insist on showing it get treated like Camille Claudel or Rosalind Franklin, or… the litany is endless.

I’ve said this before, and will repeat it now: I personally believe that our intractable problems will persist as long as women are not treated as fully human.  Women are not better than men, nor are they different in any way that truly matters; they are as eager to soar, and as entitled.  If we cannot solve this thorny and persistent problem, we’ll still survive — we have thus far.  However, I doubt that we’ll ever truly thrive, no matter what technological levels we achieve.

Related articles:

Is 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?
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle
Those Who Never Got to Fly
Steering the Craft – Reprise

anti-feminist-bingo

Images: 1st, Virginia Woolf late in life; 2nd: Aubrey Beardsley, drawing for Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (The Lacedaemonian Ambassadors, detail); 3rd, a hefty subcategory of the responses (many verbatim) that greeted women’s protests at the SFWA.

Steering the Craft – Reprise

Friday, May 24th, 2013

Preamble: In October of 2010, I wrote an essay for the blog of Apex Magazine in response to a then-regular columnist’s whinings about  “quality compromised by diversity and PC zombies” in life as well as speculative literature.  Later on the Apex site was hacked, and Jason Sizemore decided not to go through the laborious work of restoring its archive.  In view of the recent discussions about women in SF (again… still…) and as a coda to The Other Half of the Sky, I’m reprinting the essay here, slightly modified.

varo-birds.jpg
Remedios Varo, The Creation of the Birds (1957)

In honor of:
the Mercury 13 astronauts, who never got past the gravity well;
Rosalind Franklin, who never got her Nobel;
Shamsia and Atifa Husseini, who still go to school after the Taliban threw acid on their faces.

Cultural standards of politeness vary widely.  In the societies I’m familiar with, it’s considered polite (indeed, humane) to avert one’s eyes from someone who has pissed himself in public, especially if he persists in collaring everyone within reach to point out the interesting shape of the stain on his trousers.  At the same time, if he also splattered on my great-grandmother’s hand-embroidered jacket to demonstrate how he – alone among humans – can direct his stream, I’m likely to ensure that he never comes near me and mine again in any guise.

Yet I must still put time and effort into removing the stain from that jacket, which I spent long hours restoring and further embroidering myself.  It’s not the only stain the garment carries.  Nor are all of them effluents from those who used it and its wearers as vessels into which to pour their insecurity, their frantic need to show themselves echt members of the master caste du jour.

The jacket also carries blood and sweat from those who made it and wore it to feasts and battles long before I was born.  Unless it’s charred to ashes in a time of savagery, probably with me in it, many will wear it after me or carry its pieces.  Whenever they add their own embroidery to cover the stains, the gashes, the burns, they won’t remember the names of the despoilers.  And when my great-grandniece takes that jacket with her on the starship heading to Gliese 581, her crewmates will admire the creativity and skill that went into its making.

So gather round, friends who can hoist a goblet of Romulan ale or Elvish mead without losing control of your sphincter muscles, and let’s talk a bit more about this jacket and its wearers.

If you insist that only sackcloth is proper attire or that embroidery should be reserved only for those with, say, large thumbs, we don’t have a common basis for a discussion.  But I’ll let you in on a couple of secrets.  I’ve glimpsed my nephews wearing that jacket, sometimes furtively, often openly.  They even add embroidery patches themselves.  And strangely enough, after a few cyclings I cannot guess the location of past embroiderers’ body bulges from the style of the patches or the quality of the stitches.  I like some much more than others.  Even so, I don’t mind the mixing and matching, as long as I can tell (and I can very easily tell) that they had passion and flair for the craft.

In one of the jacket’s deep pockets lies my great-grandmother’s equally carefully repaired handmade dagger, with its enamel-inlaid handle and its blade of much-folded steel.  When I see someone practicing with it, on closer inspection it often turns out to be a girl or a woman whose hair is as grey as the dagger’s steel.  They weave patterns with that dagger, on stone threshing floors or under skeins of faraway moons.  Because daggers are used in dance – and in planting and harvesting as well, not just in slaughter.  And they are beautiful no matter what color of light glints off them.

But before we dance under strange skies, we must first get there.  Starships require a lot of work to build, launch and keep going.  None of that is heroic, especially the journey.  Almost all of it is the grinding toil of preservation: scrubbing fungus off surfaces; keeping engines and hydroponic tanks functional; plugging meteor holes; healing radiation sickness and ensuring the atmosphere stays breathable; raising the children who will make it to planetfall; preserving knowledge, experience, memory while the ship rides the wind between the stars; and making the starship lovely – because it’s our home and people may need bread, but they also need roses.

As astrogators scan starmaps and engineers unfurl light sails while rocking children on their knees, the stories that keep us going will start to blend and form new patterns, like the embroidery patches on my great-grandmother’s jacket. Was it Lilith, Lakshmi Bai or Anzha lyu Mitethe who defied the ruler of a powerful empire?  Amaterasu, Raven or Barohna Khira who brought back sunlight to the people after the long winter sleep?  Was it to Pireus or Pell that Signy Mallory brought her ship loaded with desperate refugees?  Who crossed the great glacier harnessed to a sled, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, or Genly Ai and Therem harth rem ir Estraven?

Our curiosity and inventiveness are endless and our enlarged frontal cortex allows dizzying permutations.  We shape the dark by dreaming it, in science as much as in art; at the same time, we constantly peer outside our portholes to see how close the constructs in our heads come to reflecting the real world.  Sometimes, our approximations are good enough to carry us along; sometimes, it becomes obvious we need to “dream other dreams, and better.”  In storytelling we imagine, remember, invent and reinvent, and each story is an echo-filled song faceted by the kaleidoscope of our context.  To confine ourselves to single notes is to condemn ourselves to prison, to sensory and mental deprivation.  Endless looping of a single tune is not pleasure but a recognized method of torture.  It’s certainly not a viable way to keep up the morale of people sharing a fragile starship.

In the long vigils between launch and planetfall, people have to spell each other, stand back to back in times of peril.  They have to watch out for the dangerous fatigue, the apathy that signals the onset of despair, the unfocused anger that can result in the smashing of the delicate machinery that maintains the ship’s structure and ecosphere.  People who piss wantonly inside that starship could short a fuel line or poison cultivars of essential plants.  The worst damage they can inflict, however, is to stop people from telling stories.  If that happens, the starship won’t make it far past the launchpad.  And if by some miracle it does make planetfall, those who emerge from it will have lost the capacity that enabled them to embroider jackets – and build starships.

We cannot weave stories worth remembering if we willingly give ourselves tunnel vision, if we devalue awareness and empathy, if we’re content with what is.  Without the desire to explore that enables us to put ourselves in other frames, other contexts, the urge to decipher the universe’s intricate patterns atrophies.  Once that gets combined with the wish to stop others from dreaming, imagining, exploring, we become hobnail-booted destroyers that piss on everything, not just on my great-grandmother’s laboriously, lovingly embroidered jacket.

The mindset that sighs nostalgically for “simpler times” (when were those, incidentally, ever since we acquired a corpus collosum?), that glibly erases women who come up with radical scientific concepts or write rousing space operas is qualitatively the same mindset that goes along with stonings and burnings.  And whereas it takes many people’s lifetimes to build a starship, it takes just one person with a match and a can of gasoline to destroy it.

It’s customary to wish feisty daughters on people who still believe that half of humanity is not fully human.  I, however, wish upon them sons who will be so different from their sires that they’ll be eager to dream and shape the dark with me.

…like amnesiacs
in a ward on fire, we must
find words
or burn.

Olga Broumas, “Artemis” (from Beginning with O)

SusanSeddonBouletSpiderWoman
Susan Seddon Boulet, Shaman Spider Woman (1986)

Related blog posts:

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
SF Goes McDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle
The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art
Standing at Thermopylae
To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club
The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

The “Language” Gene and Women’s Wagging Tongues

Monday, February 25th, 2013

 Aka, How to Twist Science to Reinforce Gender Stereotypes

Note: this article first appeared as a guest blog post in Scientific American. Not surprisingly, some were dissatisfied: primarily, those who still like to think that genes determine higher-order behavior and that “gender” differences are hardwired and extensive. Excerpt of an interminable pseudo-learned comment at the SciAm blog: “In fact, it can be argued that the differences between genders is far more distinct and pervasive than the differences between species.”  Satoshi Kanazawa, is that you?

FOXP2 on DNA

Stylized rendering of FOXP2 attached to DNA (Wikipedia, CCL)

Genes are subject to multiple layers of regulation.  An early regulatory point is transcription.  During this process, regulatory proteins bind to DNA regions (promoters and enhancers) that direct gene expression.  These DNA/protein complexes attract the transcription apparatus, which docks next to the complex and proceeds linearly downstream, producing the heteronuclear (hn) RNA that is encoded by the gene linked to the promoter.  The hnRNA is then spliced and either becomes structural/regulatory RNA or is translated into protein.

Transcription factors are members of large clans that arose from ancestral genes that went through successive duplications and then diverged to fit specific niches.  One such family of about fifty members is called FOX.  Their DNA binding portion is shaped like a butterfly, which has given this particular motif the monikers of forkhead box or winged helix.  The activities of the FOX proteins extend widely in time and region.  One of the FOX family members is FOXP2, as notorious as Fox News – except for different reasons: FOXP2 has become entrenched in popular consciousness as “the language gene”.  As is the case with all such folklore, there is some truth in this; but as is the case with everything in biology, reality is far more complex.

FOXP2, the first gene found to “affect language” (more on this anon), was discovered in 2001 by several converging observations and techniques.  The clincher was a large family (code name KE), some of whose members had severe articulation and grammatical deficits with no accompanying sensory or cognitive impairment.  The inheritance is autosomal dominant: one copy of the mutated gene is sufficient to confer the trait.  When the researchers definitively identified the FOXP2 gene, they found that the version of FOXP2 carried by the KE affected members has a single point mutation that alters an invariant residue in its forkhead domain, thereby influencing the protein’s binding to its DNA targets.

Like all transcription factors, FOXP2 regulates many promoters.  The primary domains of FOXP2 influence are brain and lung development.  Some of its downstream targets are themselves regulators of brain function (most prominently neurexin CNTNAP2).  Not surprisingly, deleting or mutating both FOXP2 copies in mice results in early death, whereas doing so to one copy leads to decreased vocalization and slightly impaired motor learning.  FOXP2 is broadly conserved across vertebrates, but its critical functional regions have tiny but telling differences even between humans and their closest ape relatives.  Like other genes that influence human-specific attributes, human FOXP2 seems to have undergone positive selection during the broad intervals of crucial speciation events.  Along related lines, Neanderthals and Denisovans apparently had the same FOXP2 allele as contemporary humans, and by this criterion were fully capable of the articulation that makes language possible.

Which brings us to the nub of the issue.  What does FOXP2 do in brain?  Genes don’t encode higher-order functions, let alone behavior.  Also recall that the KE family members have a very circumscribed defect, despite its dramatic manifestation.  Finally, keep firmly in mind that language in humans includes a complex genetic component that involves many loci and just as many environmental interactions.  FOXP2 does not encode inherent language ability.  Instead, the time and place of its expression as well as studies in cell systems and other organisms (zebra finches, rodents) indicate that FOXP2 may be involved in neuronal plasticity, which in turn modulates capacity for learning by forming new synaptic connections.  FOXP2 may also be involved in regulation of motor neuron control in certain brain regions (cortical motor areas, cerebellum, striatum) that affect the ability to vocalize, sing and, in humans, form the complex sounds of language.

Given its connection, however over-interpreted, to “what makes a human” as well as its chromosomal location (in 7q31, which also harbors candidates for autism and dementia), it’s not surprising that FOXP2 has acquired quasi-mythic dimensions in the lay imagination.  However, careful studies have shown that the genes on 7q31 responsible for autism and dementia are distinct from FOXP2.  Also, as I said earlier, FOXP2 does not code for language ability – and even less for its culturally determined manifestations (many of which are a minefield of confirmation biases, unquestioned assumptions and simply sloppy work).

Gender WordsThe latest round in the misrepresentation of FOXP2 is the gone-viral variation of “there’s more of this ‘language protein’ in the left hemisphere of 4-year girls and that’s why women are three times as talkative as men”.  This came from the PR pitch of a research team who did a study primarily on rats (which confirmed the link between FOXP2 levels and vocalization) and then, perhaps attempting to latch onto a catchy soundbite, extended the gender link to humans based on… a single PCR amplification of ten Broca’s area cortices (from postmortem brains of 4-year olds, five from each sex; Broca’s area is involved in language processing).

To begin with, all studies conducted so far definitively show that women and men utter the same number of words by any metric chosen – and that in fact men talk more than women in mixed-gender conversations (to say nothing of the gender-linked ratio of interruptions).  And whereas it’s true that girls develop vocal competence slightly earlier than boys and show higher linguistic skills during the early acquisition window, this difference is transient.  Furthermore, the FOXP1 control that the authors of the study argue does not show a gender-correlated change (unlike FOXP2) in fact is on the verge of doing so, and the relative statistical significances might well change if a larger number of samples were tested.  Finally, whereas decrease of FOXP2 reduces vocalization and increases pitch in male rat pups, it has the opposite effect in female rat pups.  In other words, the correlation between FOXP2 levels and vocalization/pitch is not straightforward even in rats.

In the larger context of expression and reception of vocalizations, the difference is not how much women talk, but how welcome and/or valued their input is.  Even trivial zomboid blathering is given higher value if it’s culturally coded as masculine (examples: sport newscasters; most congressmen).  In fairness to the researchers of the study that caused all this rehashing of kneejerk stereotypes and evopsycho Tarzanism, here is the concluding paragraph of their paper.  It states something both measured and, frankly, obvious:

“Gender is a purely human construct consisting of both self and others’ perception of one’s sex and is arguably the first and most salient of all phenotypic variables. Sex differences in how language is received and processed and how speech is produced has the potential to influence gender both within and external to an individual. Whether human sex differences in FOXP2, and possibly FOXP1 as well, contribute to gender variation in language is a question for future research.”

Relevant publications and links:

Lai CS, Fisher SE, Hurst JA, Vargha-Khadem F, Monaco AP (2001).  A forkhead-domain gene is mutated in a severe speech and language disorder.  Nature 413(6855):519-23.

White SA, Fisher SE, Geschwind DH, Scharff C, Holy TE (2006).  Singing mice, songbirds, and more: models for FOXP2 function and dysfunction in human speech and language.  J. Neurosci. 26(41):10376-9.

Bowers JM, Perez-Pouchoulen M, Edwards NS, McCarthy MM (2013).  FOXP2 mediates sex differences in ultrasonic vocalization by rat pups and directs order of maternal retrieval.  J. Neurosci. 33(8):3276-83.

Mark Liberman.  Gabby Guys: The Effect size (Language Log, Sept. 23, 2006)

Mark Liberman.  An Invented Statistic Returns (Language Log, Feb. 22, 2013)

Athena Andreadis.  Eldorado Desperadoes: Of Mice and Men (Starship Reckless, July 18, 2009)

Athena Andreadis.  Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome (Starship Reckless, June 10, 2011)