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Artist, Heather Oliver             

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Ayn Rand: Dreams that Become Dungeons

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” — John Rogers, Ephemera 2009

Ayn Rand, Cornell Cappa

From time to time items appear in news or social media that remind me I’ve long wanted to discuss Ayn Rand. The latest is the Sad Puppies’ Hugo awards campaign, whose leaders announced that next time the charge of the Lightweight Brigade will be led by women who are not like the rest of us unworthy hysterics. Prominent among the vessels chosen to carry the yellowish fluid of “pure” SF is one who parrots Ayn Rand. In this era of voided social contracts and vanishing safety nets, several of the current Republican presidential candidates name themselves Rand adherents – except that the coin she minted has proved counterfeit not only for societies, but also for the individuals she purported to champion.

Born Alyssa Rosenbaum to a middle-class Russian-Jewish family, multiply displaced by Soviet policies, possessing immense drive and the type of intelligence that made her a poor fit to any homogeneous group ruled by implicit traditions, Rand managed to emigrate to the US. Once there, she strove – with enormous success – to reinvent herself far beyond the usual name change and veneer assimilation of zero- and first-generation immigrants. She also attempted to reshape, Procrustes-like, all within her reach to fit her fantasy of perfection, including her personal past, her hapless low-key husband and eventually her acolytes.

Countless critics have dissected Rand’s juvenile “philosophy” (who seriously lists Aristotle as a decisive influence?), cartoonish characters and clunky dialogue, humorless didacticism, worship of Aryan-phenotype übermenschen and their Nietzschean prerogatives, cult-leader behavior. Equally countless admirers have cleaved to Rand’s powerful message of purpose and self-esteem, which she eventually distorted into suffocating diktats. Less discussed is a fundamental contradiction: despite her trumpetings that she stood solitary and independent as a sui generis entirely self-made construct, Rand not only had far more help than she acknowledged, but she also abjectly desired to belong to clubs perceived to occupy the top of intellectual and/or political hierarchies. This is common for many with backstories similar to Rand’s: Dinesh D’Souza, Cathy Young (Ekaterina Jung), Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, Camille Paglia, Marco Rubio, Sarah Hoyt (Alice Maria da Silva Marques de Almeida), Martin Shkreli.

Rand and the others I listed decided that the path to first-class citizenship in their adoptive US culture was to become mouthpieces for its most reactionary substreams. They’re born-again Spencerians, staunch promoters of libertarian bootstrapping myths, and as obsessed with purge-enforced purity as their ideological opponents. However, their intrinsics mean they can never be more than court jesters or spear carriers of the masters they choose; they end up becoming collaborators, cudgels against fellow disadvantaged who are trying different ways of becoming acknowledged as fully human. For the women, it additionally means they invariably become more kyriarchal than MRAs, since they must be be seen as different than the rest of their weak-minded hormone-driven gender. Before I go further, I want to make it clear that I regard both extreme identity politics and total isolationism (that is, complete refusal to interact with one’s adoptive culuture) as dysfunctional and sterile as the appeasing mimic mode that I discuss here.

Fountainhead - Cooper, NealAyn Rand is a beguiling beacon for bright, self-motivated social isolates who have no obvious tribe and decide to make a defiant virtue of aloneness. When I was fourteen and a student in one of Greece’s elite exam-entry schools during the junta, one of my teachers handed me The Fountainhead remarking it had been written with me in mind. On the surface, I was the ideal audience for its message: an overachieving loner proud of her otherness, neither feminine nor pretty; a fledgling contrarian who disliked unexamined majority views and was already being treated as “an honorary man”; the member of a family chronically persecuted for its political beliefs and actions; a believer in principles, meritocracy and perfectibility like most adolescents.

For reasons partly mentioned in Snachismo, I left my native culture for the world-dominant US polity. Though I’m not “of color” (unless it becomes convenient to someone’s agenda) as defined by the crudely reductive US criteria, I’m one of the borderline ethnics designated as “sneaky swarthons” across Anglosaxon cultures. If you believe this is no longer applicable, re-read the presentations of the recent Greek economic debacle in European media. I came to the US younger than Rand and without any family whatsoever; she, despite her later disavowals, lived with her first-degree relatives until she went to California using their money. What I had instead was a full scholarship and the buffers a well-endowed university could provide.

As I continued living in the US, I kept piling up all kinds of credentials and accomplishments. Nevertheless, I was still olive-skinned and still had an unpronounceable name and a legacy accent – with the result that I was often treated as mud (or worse) on a shoe. I later found out that I shared all these attributes and equivalent experiences with Rand herself. By all counts, I should have become a fervent lifelong Objectivist.

What saved me from such a fate? Perhaps that I had an empathy organ, which Rand (like other transmit-only narcissists) notoriously lacked. Or that I never repudiated my heritage, warts and all – even as I selectively chose what to retain from it, and what to adopt from the more cosmopolitan milieus I found myself in. Or that unlike Rand’s proud announcement that she was “a male chauvinist”, I was a feminist even before I knew the term (or movement) existed. Or that I wanted to become a scientist from the moment I could think clearly, and during my training for that vocation it got pressed into me with diamond-tipped drills that theories must fit facts, not the other way around. Or that I could never identify with Rand’s Aryan blonds, modeled on those who had tortured and exterminated my people and other “inferiors” like vermin. Or that the thought of becoming someone’s Joan the Baptist or Mary Magdalene, no matter how remarkable they might be, made me break into hives.

Yet I was still fascinated by the “there but for fortune go I” aspect. So after The Fountainhead I went on to read Atlas Shrugged, We the Living, and the Barbara Branden and Ann Heller biographies. And so I found out the desolation and insoluble conflicts behind Rand’s bravado. Like many of that personality type, her strengths gave her a strong sense of entitlement that she assumed should, and would, automatically translate to privilege. People far less intelligent than Rand rose to prominence through membership in a dominant group, so it was not surprising she felt short-changed. Deprived of the desired recognition from the alpha club (loner pretensions notwithstanding), she ended up becoming the “there can only be one” tai-tai of designated lesser beings: like her, all her inner circle were smart, ambitious Jews in a society that still imposed racial and ethnic group segregations and quotas. She considered her followers, and they considered themselves, second-best – especially the women whom she turned into typists and gofers. This resulted in shattered, stunted lives. And like all people in this no-win position, anger and depression stalked Rand throughout her life.

Atlas Rockefeller Ctr Lee LawrieI know this anger only too well. I have to keep a tight rein on it, lest it consume me. I’ve come to realize that the siren call of self-made climbing is meant to keep people like me trying solo for brass rings: box-ticking tokens at best. But unlike Rand, I figured this out early enough to choose a different path. This won’t make me beloved, influential, famous or rich. But neither will it make me mutilate my feet to fit stiletto-heeled glass slippers. For exiled wanderers like me, perhaps the only viable option is to keep our double vision intact and acknowledge the value of uncoerced cooperation and shared visions, even as we recognize that all alliances are fleeting. We will always sail on half-familiar seas, Flying Hollanders with the albatross of loneliness around our necks. Even so, we can try to become links between our natal and adopted cultures, branches tapping on windows, gravity ripples between stars.

Related Essays

And Ain’t I a Human?
Snachismo, or: What Do Women Want?
Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
Only Kowtowers Need Apply
“As Weak as Women’s Magic”
A Plague on Both Your Houses
Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
Caesars and Caesar Salads
History, Legitimacy and Belonging; or: Who’s We, Kemo Sabe?
The Smurfettes Discover Ayn Rand

Images: 1st, Ayn Rand, photo by Cornell Cappa; 2nd, Patricia Neal (as Dominique Francon) shows the proper Randian woman-worship for Gary Cooper (as Howard Roark) in the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead; 3rd, Atlas, statue by Lee Lawrie that is often identified with Objectivism and has been used as a cover for Atlas Shrugged.

Evghenia Fakinou: The Unknown Archmage of Magic Realism

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

Note:  There has been intermittent discussion in SFF about the relative invisibility of non-Anglophone works.  These rumblings have once again gained volume following the awarding of a Hugo to a novel translated from Chinese (Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu).  Below is an essay about another major unrecognized talent handicapped by writing in a language other than English.  The essay first appeared, with minor variations, in SFF Portal.


FakinouA while ago, I wrote an essay about the fact that writers feel free to use Hellenic contexts (myths, history, location), blithely assuming they know my culture well enough to do so convincingly. I mentioned that contemporary Hellenic literature is virtually unknown in the Anglophone world beyond Elytis, Seféris, Kaváfis and Kazantzákis – all of whom belong to the thirties. In effect, it is fashionable to pronounce Hellenic paradigms passé along with all other ‘Eurocentric’ sources, without ever having read Hellenic literature of any era. Lest you think I’m indulging in special pleading, this lacuna has been noticed and discussed by many non-Hellenes including Roderick Beaton, a formidable literary presence with a truly deep knowledge of my history and culture.

In my essay I also stated that Hellás may be home to the best magic realist alive right now: Evghenía Fakínou. In my estimation, she’s better than Salman Rushdie, Louis de Bernières, Laura Esquivel, Alice Hoffman or Orhan Pamuk. Her work does not suffer from the defects that occasionally mar their often outstanding work – Rushdie’s and Pamuk’s self-congratulatory longueurs and cardboard characters (their women especially), de Bernières’ lapses into the generic, Esquivel’s by-the-numbers sentimentality, Hoffman’s arch quirkiness. However, Fakínou’s original language and culture are heavy strikes against her. Only two of her novels have been translated, into indifferent English (a common fate, because the two languages are as different as two Indo-European cousins can be).

Fakínou was born in Alexandria in 1945, to working class migrant parents who hailed from the Dodecanesean island of Symi (a beautiful but stark place, whose cosmopolitan wandering people earned their living by fishing, sponge diving and with a formidable merchant marine fleet that played a significant part in the 1821 War of Independence). Her family returned to Athens when she was a child. She studied graphic arts and worked for several years as a graphic artist, illustrator and tourist guide. In 1976, she launched a children’s puppet theater show, Tin Town, which became very successful. Think politicized and stylistically circumscribed Sesame Street and you get the picture. She started writing children’s books first, then novels starting in 1982 – about twenty so far, plus  collections of linked stories.

AstradeniFakínou’s books have won several awards and are wildly popular in Hellás: none has ever gone out of print, aided by the Hellenic publishers’ sane policy of small runs. Her writing combines three attributes, each of which would make her work addictive by itself: compelling plots, vivid characters and atmospheric settings. She is a mistress of creating sustained polyphony, a skillful puppeteer whose strings never become visible. Each of her characters jumps from the page, fully alive. Each of her books is distinct; she never resorts to clichés or cookie-cutter tactics, never repeats a successful recipe. In some cases she sticks to one narrator, first or third person; in others she switches between viewpoints – all with the illusion of effortlessness that distinguishes great dancers.

To top this, Fakínou has what for me is the quintessential gift of the rare true storyteller: her novels are full of echoes. She seamlessly interweaves history and (usually revisionist) mythology as she roams through six millennia of my people’s ghost-inhabited, monument-strewn cultural landscape. Yet there is no infodumping, no slowing of the plot momentum to flaunt her knowledge. If her readers are not aware of the background she evokes, the stories are still absorbing. But if they are, her stories are simply unforgettable: they etch themselves on one’s long-term memory and never fade.

To give you a sense of Fakínou, I will briefly outline the two of her novels that have been translated in English, fully aware that neither my descriptions nor the translations convey the potent magic she weaves.

Astradhení (Fakínou’s first novel; the word is a rare first name that means ‘starbinder’) starts deceptively as YA. We get carried along on the matter-of-fact, stripped-down voice of its narrator, a young girl whose family has been ripped off their island home by misfortune: her little brother’s death devastated them both emotionally and financially. The transplantation to Athens brings the woes that always beset immigrants: the ridiculing of accents and customs, the loneliness and alienation, the forced homogenization into marginal/ized urban living.

So far, so common, if beautifully rendered. But a deep river runs underneath the main narrative: Astradhení has visions of the young priestesses of pre-Olympian Ártemis who danced around the open-air altar of the goddess wearing bear pelts. To shake us out of the easy YA classification, the visions don’t bring her insight, solace or strength. At the close of the story, an acquaintance of her father starts to rape Astradhení. The final words are her anguished protestations, girl and priestess fused into one.

Astradhení’s visions are rips in the fabric of time, vouchsafing us glimpses of a (real or half-dreamt) past when women had power, a place as beguiling as – and far less sugarcoated than – Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon. In that world, Astradhení would have been a seer. Rape, embedded in the overt misogynism of both Hellenic and Byzantine traditions, is a bleeding wound in my culture and the book was notable just for bringing it up (a visual parallel happens in Angelópoulos’ film Landscape in the Mist).

Seventh GarmentTo Évdhomo Roúho (The Seventh Garment) tells how women carry history on their shoulders, like the Karyatids or the wives of folk ballads, buried alive so that bridges would stand. Three generations of women – Maiden, Mother, Crone – gather to perform an ancient ritual over the death of the last man in the family: the belief is that for his spirit to cross safely to the Otherworld, the women must line up the garments of the family’s seven firstborn sons, one from each generation (underlining the so far unquestioned requirement for sons). The last garment is missing, which triggers the story’s crisis.

Through the conversations and first-person narrations of the three women, we get strobelight views of several epochs of Hellenic history: the War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire; the 1922 catastrophic defeat of the Greek army by its Turkish counterpart that uprooted the Hellenes from Asia Minor, an integral part of their homeland for four millennia; the trials of the refugees, who met a mixed welcome on the mainland; the resistance in World War II, callously betrayed by its ostensible allies; and contemporary globalization, with its atomizing effects. The men these women remember and mourn were mostly loved (though rape figures prominently again) but mostly absent: killed, imprisoned, exiled, forced to emigrate. Several myths are woven into this tapestry: Démetra’s tormented search for Persephóne and also the wanderings of Odysséus, fused with folk stories of sea-gods, both pagan and Christian.

Though Fakínou made up the details of the ritual, it is grounded in the mourning customs of the Aegean islands. The women in her story, unsung singers, maintain the traditions while subverting them at the same time. In the end, the grandmother quietly pierces herself and bleeds to death so that her drenched tunic can serve as the missing garment. The chthonic powers accept it. By doing this she becomes an ancestor, a lofty position previously forbidden to women, and heals several rifts at once, though probably briefly.

Fakínou’s books are full of vision quests, awakenings, boundary crossings. All have open endings, with their protagonists poised at thresholds on the last page. At the same time, they make their readers whole by reclaiming a past that might have led to an alternative future. Fakínou is a windwalker, a weaver of spider silk. I’m sorry she is not world-famous, but even sorrier for the dreamers who will never get a chance to lose – and find – themselves in her work.

References and Related Essays

Roderick Beaton, Introduction to Modern Greek Literature Oxford University Press, Revised and Expanded Edition 1999

Iskander, Khan Tengri

The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade

The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization

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

Yes, Virginia, Hellenes Have Christmas Traditions

The Multi-Chambered Nautilus

Safe Exoticism, Part 2: Culture

Herald, Poet, Auteur: Theódhoros Angelópoulos (1935-2012)

The Doric Column: Dhómna Samíou (1928-2012)

Close Your Eyes and Think of Apóllon

Hidden Histories or: Yes, Virginia, Romioi Are Eastern European (And More Than That)

The Blackbird Singing: Sapfó of Lésvos

If I Forget Thee, O My Grandmother’s Lost Home


Evgenía Fakínou
Astradhení, first edition
The Seventh Garment, first edition

Note to Alien Watchers: Octopuses are Marvelous, but Still Terrestrial

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

octopus_flask_(new_palace)_minoanEveryone agrees that cephalopods are fascinating, octopuses in particular. Apex marine predators, they hunt primarily by ambush and escape foes by water-jet swimming, mimicry, ink ejection and tentacle shedding (which they can regenerate, like lizard tails). Their niche dominance is buttressed by their ability to rapidly color-merge with their surroundings, squeeze through small openings (no bones or even the cartilage of cephalopod cousins) – and intelligence. They possess keen eyesight (their eyes evolved independently from those of vertebrates, as did those of insects) and chemoreceptors on their suckers allow them to taste what they touch, though their sense of shape is poor (more of that anon). Octopuses use tools, are known to play, may be capable of observational learning and are deemed so intelligent that they’re the only invertebrates almost universally protected from pain in research experiments.

Recently, the sequence of the octopus genome was published. This is an ongoing effort of gathering as many terrestrial genomes as possible, with the goal of figuring out the many black boxes still surrounding intelligence and emergence. The consensus of the genomes sequenced so far is that terrestrial life forms are as unique at the level of their genomic structure as at any other scale – yet the underlying common ancestry is also plainly visible. Of course, the PR departments of the teams doing the octopus sequencing had to figure out something to make that particular study stand out. Result: the numerous lay reports carried titles like “Don’t freak out, but scientists think octopuses might be aliens.”

I held my peace and tongue until I read the original paper itself. My verdict from reading it – which, incidentally, coincides with that of its authors – is that the octopus genome is as marvelous as its owners, and as unique as that of any other organism. However, it falls squarely within parameters in terms of structure and the organism it helps produce is therefore as terrestrial as anything else that moves on earth. So what allowed the churnalists to indulge in the customary hype? Well, primarily ignorance of basics such as the dynamic nature of genomes and the many alternative paths by which they generate complexity.

One fact touted as “amazing” was that octopuses seem to have more genes than humans (~35K versus ~22K, respectively) and the number doesn’t arise from a wholesale duplication, as it does in some insects and plants. However, there’s an immediate solution to that seemingly Gordian knot. It’s called alternative splicing. Alternative splicing (henceforth AS) is THE primary contributor to proteomic complexity and allows production of many proteins that vary in structure and function from a single gene. Some human genes produce hundreds of final products by this method, which then get further variegated by post-translational processes like phosphorylation and glycosylation (full disclosure: I spent my entire science career researching alternative splicing in the human brain and will be unmoved by arguments that “it’s mostly non-functional junk”). The AS mechanism is nearly universal in human genes but extremely limited in octopuses which instead use an on-off gene product modulation mechanism called RNA editing (ADAR). All eukaryotic species use varying ratios of AS and ADAR. Octopuses just happen to be mostly on the ADAR end of the spectrum.

Churnalists also presented two items as independent that in fact correlate: the octopus genome is rich in transposons (elements that allow genes to move around)… and gene families that arose as a result of duplication, which are most often tandemly organized, are dispersed in octopuses. Transposons are abundant in many other species (Barbara McClintock first documented them in maize, though the groundbreaking discovery took nearly four decades to gain her the Nobel she so richly deserved) and organisms with high numbers of transposons in their genomes inevitably show significant levels of gene mobility.


The cephalopods did not evolve just eyesight by a different path than that taken by vertebrates. The same is true of their nervous system, which is one reason why they’ve long been used for comparative studies in neurobiology and intelligence. Yet another point of hype was that octopuses appear to have more neurons than mice and have vastly expanded member numbers of two gene families involved in neuronal regulation. But as with the high gene count, there’s an interesting but non-exotic explanation for these findings as well. Namely, cephalopods need to coordinate their neuronal feedback loops locally unlike vertebrates, which depend on brain coordination.

Vertebrates have fast neuronal responses in large part because the myelin sheaths that wrap sausage-like around the neuronal axons allow what is known as saltatory conduction through the Ranvier nodes (the gaps between myelin sheaths). The loss of this propagation method is what creates most of the debilitating outcomes of such hereditary diseases as Tay-Sachs and Gaucher and the adult agonies of demyelinating diseases like Multiple Sclerosis and Tabes Dorsalis. In contrast, cephalopods don’t have myelin sheaths; the propagation of their neuronal impulses is linear which means it’s relatively slow (they also require large-diameter axons, which is one reason why these species were used as models in neurobiology research). In turn, the slow conduction requires local regulation of neuronal responses if octopuses want to remain predators instead of prey. Hence the large number of neurons and quasi-unique neuron-regulatory proteins.

So in this process, vertebrates opted for speed and integration; cephalopods for numbers and local autonomy. The locality of this coordination also means that, unlike vertebrates, octopuses have no integrative brain map. So, for example, they can minutely “taste” something within their tentacles, but cannot form a view of its overall shape. Not are they aware of the position of their tentacles, though each tentacle knows what it’s doing, so to speak. An eerie but non-mystical result of this is that a severed octopus tentacle will exhibit reflex behaviors for a while after it’s severed. But again, this is nothing exotic; it’s local autonomy at work, until degradative processes neutralize it.

The other side of this coin is that octopuses will never suffer from phantom limb pain or fibromyalgia, syndromes caused by disjunctions between a body and its brain map. The lack of integrative maps puts some limits to large-scale undertakings by aspiring octopus overlords, Hokusai’s famous Tako to Ama aside. So does the fact that octopuses die after procreation like salmon – males after mating, females after their egg sac matures. Their intelligence is individually based and they have no culture transmission, each octopus reboots de novo. Undoubtedly, their thought processes are alien. But – as I discussed in “Are We Not (as Good as) Men?” – so are those of chimpanzees, uplift or not.

Nemo KrakenI fully expect to hear theories that octopuses may be like Larry Niven’s Pak: aliens trapped in axolotl-like neoteny because earth lacks a vital ingredient that would allow them to transition into adulthood (there’s also a Polynesian myth that posits octopuses as the sole survivors from a previous universe cycle). However, the octopus proclaims its terrestrial provenance at all scales. What its genes and neurons do illustrate, unequivocally, is the near-infinite variety of solutions to common problems. Or, as another “alien” (who’s actually all too human) would say, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

Related Articles:

Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry

You Only Find What You’re Looking For

Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

”Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”

Junk DNA, Junky PR

Floating Brains and Invasive Minds

The Price of Threescore Years and Ten

Images: 1st, Minoan clay jar, New Palace period (~1500 BC, Irákleion Museum); 2nd, depiction of a vertebrate neuron with its myelin sheath; 3rd, Captain Nemo and his guests contemplating a rival intelligence in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville and Éduard Riou).

To Shape the Dark: Table of Contents

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

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

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

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

To Shape the Dark

Athena Andreadis – Introduction: Astrogators Never Sleep

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

Let the storytelling begin:

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

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

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

M. Fenn – Chlorophyll is Thicker than Water

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

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

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

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

The boy blushed. “Fine.”

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

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

Jacqueline Koyanagi – Sensorium

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

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

Kristin Landon – From the Depths


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

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

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

Shariann Lewitt – Fieldwork

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

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

“Oh. Mama doesn’t bake either.”

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

“Did her Mama bake?”

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

Vandana Singh – Of Wind and Fire: Descent

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

Aliette de Bodard – Crossing the Midday Gate

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

Melissa Scott – Firstborn, Lastborn

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

Anil Menon – Building for Shah Jehan

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

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

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

“Yes,” said Kavi.

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

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

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

C. W. Johnson – The Age of Discovery

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

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

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

Terry Boren – Recursive Ice

1. Heuristic

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

Susan Lanigan – Ward 7

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

Kiini Ibura Salaam – Two Become One


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

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

Jack McDevitt – The Pegasus Project

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

“What is it?” asked Abe.


Gwyneth Jones – The Seventh Gamer

The Anthropologist Returns To Eden

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

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

To Shape the Dark, Protagonist Vocations

Monday, May 18th, 2015

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

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

Other Half 160

Molecular biologist/virologist
Plant biochemists/engineers
Protein chemist
Tissue/neural engineer
Brain scientist/engineer
Cultural anthropologist
Materials scientist/architect
Planetary physicist
Quantum physicist
Hyperspatial mathematician and plasma smith

Scalpel versus Hammer

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

“…sleazy rancid twat…” – Tom Kratman about someone daring to dissect his, um, “fiction”; at File770 on May 12, 2015. The comment has since been deleted by site moderators but Internet Rangers never sleep.


Profanity has been with humans ever since we developed language past grunts. Research indicates that it emanates from different centers than those for main language: the limbic syste in charge of the “Four Fs” rather than the cerebral cortex [Tourette syndrome, whose symptoms include out-of-context swearing, has both limbic and cortical components]. This provenance makes swearing the direct descendant of involuntary animal stress vocalizations for anger, fear and pain. It explains why otherwise aphasic stroke victims can still swear and why stutterers nevertheless swear fluently (showcased in The King’s Speech). It also jibes with the fact that swearing can alleviate pain, though only short-term – and only acute pain, not its intractable chronic counterpart.

Swearing is routinely divided into blasphemy (religion) and obscenity (body parts). Steve Pinker has fussily classified swearing into abusive, dysphemistic, idiomatic, emphatic and cathartic – but the significant category overlaps are clearly visible.

Non-reflexive swearing is word magic akin to cursing and as such registers viscerally, but only in one’s natal tongue. Swearing in languages acquired later in life doesn’t deliver this solar-plexus punch, hence the common spectacle of normally restrained or prudish people swearing freely in their non-primary tongues. As with all language, some words may be deemed insults in some contexts but not others, although the basis for the assignment is always obvious (a prime example is “cunt”, convoluted exegeses about its gender – and value – neutrality notwithstanding; even its apologists concede in private that it’s a nuclear-option term).

In most societies, constant swearing is taken as evidence of a limited vocabulary and hence a signifier of low educational and social status. Conversely, uttering obscenities without consequences is the prerogative of those dominant in their local power structures and/or beneficiaries of exceptionalism. Spontaneous swearing is always a physical reaction; on the other hand, calculated swearing is often a way to establish a persona, overcome feelings of inadequacy or claim instant–insider membership in a group. Many in/famous standup comedians are textbook examples of all three. So are rage bloggers and frothing trolls who seem to operate on the assumption that four-letter words (especially about women, especially about older and non-pretty ones) are toughness bona fides.

chaplin203Deliberate excessive swearing reminds me of an anecdote about Richard the Lionheart and Salah ad-Din (the story is apocryphal: the two never met face-to-face). Richard, to show his might, whacked a table with his two-handed sword, reducing it to splinters. Saladin removed a silk scarf from around his throat, tossed it in the air and twirled his damascene blade below it. Richard picked up the scarf, only to find out it had been neatly cut in two.

Likewise, routine heavy use of expletives in conversations obscures the points in an argument, focusing instead on the swearer’s intent to shock… though they rarely awe. A swearer’s goal is often to show “righteous” wrath; but they mostly come across as people who, to use Saxon, can’t hold their shit – or who are using a blunderbuss to obscure the weakness of their position. The polyglot occupancy of the internet (even while English remains its lingua franca) blunts the impact of such words anyway, leaving only the categorization of their user.

Bone-breaking maces have their uses but even the brawniest berserker can be brought low by a well-aimed arrow. Of course, wit can get its wielders beaten, imprisoned or killed, because its targets (usually) recognize it for the subversive instrument it is – and people pricked by sarcasm often fancy themselves alphas in one or more ways. Using a scalpel rather than a hammer in discourse doesn’t necessarily imply a winning position. Nor does it automatically signify ethical or logical superiority. But it evens the playing field, just as the bows and slingshots of Welsh and Cretan commoners obliterated the advantages of patrician heavy armor and just as guerilla warfare has always finessed brute-force frontal battles.

As someone whom many consider an annoyance or obstacle (though they’ve used different terms) I find it amusing, during breaks from important tasks, to poke pinholes in helium or lead balloons of wannabee godlings, rambots and tai tai. That said, my sense of fair play (and, to be frank, my self esteem) prohibits me from tackling the unarmed even with ping pong balls, let alone with Stinger missiles.

[Billy Bragg and Wilco, with Natalie Merchant harmonizing, perform Woody Guthrie’s Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key]

Related articles:

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

Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst

A Plague on Both Your Houses

Won’t Anyone Think of the Sexbots?!

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Free Speech: Bravehearts and Scumbags

Love, Tantrums and the Critical Reviewe

The Smurfettes Discover Ayn Rand

Images: 1st, Hergé’s Captain Haddock, who at least was inventive and articulate with his cursing; 2nd, Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp, who knew how to prick balloons.

Up the Walls of the Worlds

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

(after James Tiptree’s novel)

JPL life-on-europa

[Click to embiggen image]

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Giant Manta Getty

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

Genome Editing: Slippery Slope or Humane Choice?

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Eyes

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Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

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

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

The Price of Threescore Years and Ten

The Smurfettes Discover Ayn Rand

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

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

— Leonard Cohen, Priests

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

LONELY HOUSE, Valentin2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sea Gate full

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

The Price of Threescore Years and Ten

Friday, March 13th, 2015

“… Now his wars on God begin;
At stroke of midnight, God shall win.”
— from The Four Ages of Man, W. B. Yeats

Pier and Sea

It’s hard, even for those who believe in afterlives, to contemplate that individual organisms become biologically irrelevant in this life once they’ve succeeded in shepherding the next generation to autonomy. It insults our deep sense of teleology, of being here for a purpose beyond just reproduction and ecosystem balancing interactions.

Luckily, humans undergo a very long period of neoteny: they need to acquire the specialized physical and mental skills required for dealing with technology and social groups, including language. So in humans (and a few other species that include orcas and elephants) experienced elders remain relevant – indeed, crucial – for a long time past peak reproduction. Even so, the average human lifespan hovered around the mid-thirties (with exceptions so rare that they were noted in myths and chronicles) until clean water and antibiotics extended it to almost three times its unaided length.

But this longevity came with a price attached. Our scaffolding was not made to last that long, no matter how precious its cargo. So anyone who goes past thirty will get acquainted with at least one of the degenerative age-linked diseases; primarily cancer and dementia. It’s also true that such diseases can strike young(er) people, but that happens to those who carry gene alleles (variants) that make them susceptible to the respective dysfunctions.

Cancer and dementia are broad umbrella terms for aggregate final-outcome phenomenology. Cancer means that specialized organ-specific cells that should have stopped dividing resume the process, spawning a mound of descendants (“tumor”) that often are semi-immortal. In contrast, normal cells die and are replaced in a set timetable for each organ, except for neurons, glia, ova and testicular Sertoli cells (it’s not just eggs that get old: sperm quality also declines with age because Sertoli cells are its maintenance crew). Incorrect resumption of propagation is usually the result of mutations, genetic or sporadic (for example, induced by radiation) that jangle the carefully calibrated choreography of the activators and inhibitors that regulate gene expression. When the inappropriately dividing cells become so de-differentiated that they no longer adhere to their relatives (aka contact inhibition), they detach and start creating colonies elsewhere in the body (metastasis). There are environmental and hormonal triggers for each organ (asbestos and cigarette tar for lungs, UV light for skin, lactation status for breast) but age is the cross-sectional risk factor.

If cancer is too many cells, dementia is too few. Many people use dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) as synonyms but, in reality, dementia is a much larger and more heterogeneous category – so much so that non-AD dementias often get misdiagnosed. This conflation is plainly visible in the statements that attribute the recent, too-early death of SF author Terry Pratchett to early-onset AD; in fact, Sir Terry suffered from Posterior Cortical Atrophy, a rare non-AD type of dementia that starts out by affecting visual perception.

Who we are as persons largely resides in our brains and the human brain is amazingly plastic. That attribute is what allows us to acquire unique skills as a species and new skills as individuals. Our brain will also reroute and rewire at moments of crisis (this capacity, incidentally, is the likely root cause of fibromyalgia), though it loses plasticity with age and adult neurogenesis is negligible, limiting regeneration abilities. If, for whatever reason – from a mutation to lack of oxygen to a blow on the head – an extended portion of brain tissue dies past the brain’s capacity to effect repairs, the eventual outcome is dementia: literally, loss of mind. If the hippocampus is affected, the result is inability to form and retain memories. If the substantia nigra, Parkinson’s Disease. If the blood vessels, impaired judgment and organizational skills. If the frontal lobe, disinhibition (inappropriate behavior), aphasia (problems with speaking) and extreme mood swings. Overall, dementia means that the invisible, seamless mental coordination upon which we utterly rely stutters: brain compartments are reduced to the mere sum of their parts and eventually even localized functions fail.

A few non-brain complications can also affect cognitive function – vitamin B12 deficiency, hypothyroidism – but these are reversible. On the other hand, brain-based dementia, once it starts, is progressive and irreversible. And although we know and continue to learn a lot about the neurodegeneration process at several scales, we have made zero headway in preventing, arresting or reversing it. We don’t even know what to look for as an early warning sign; not that it would avail us much if we did. Whereas cancer treatment has made enormous strides in terms of both effectiveness and fine-tuning, whatever medications are given to dementia sufferers are really attempts to ameliorate side symptoms – the horrific anxiety of early stages, the crippling discombobulation of later ones. In fact, currently most dementia sufferers will remain lucid and functional the longest if they’re given nothing at all.

Countless theories have been proposed about how dementia starts and spreads; although several are not mutually exclusive, many events/structures that initially seemed obvious pathogenic culprits (and hence potentially fruitful targets for therapy) have now been proved to be effects rather than causes. The most prominent casualty is the amyloid hypothesis, which posits that amyloid plaques act as poison or as dominoes that nudge neighboring neurons into the downward spiral. However, it turns out that amyloid plaques are in fact neutral depositories; the truly toxic entities are soluble oligomers – and vaccines that dissolved plaques would accelerate the progression of the disease. Furthermore, several types of dementia have no plaques (the tangle-only dementias, in which fibrillar deposits of the scaffolding protein tau are the diagnostic and causative entities). This does not mean that amyloid is not involved, since several types of early-onset AD are caused by mutations in enzymes that process the amyloid precursor. What it means is that there are many tributaries that funnel into the dementia main pipe, and a change in any of them may suffice to tilt the system into initiating the degeneration loop.

People fear suffering; but even more they fear loss of self. Dementia is the ultimate specter and its shadow is lengthening in step with our lifespan. So are its burdens on individuals and groups: half of the population older than 85 develops the disease. Also, younger people who would once have died from brain injuries sustained in explosions now survive them, only to become strangers to themselves and those who love them.

We will all face the journey into the dark. But the same sense of wonder and purpose that has made us explore beyond what we can instantly grasp – from galaxies to brains to quarks – also makes us want to meet the unknown (or the end) as ourselves.

Image: Pier and Sea, by A68Stock

Related articles:

Equalizer or Terminator?

Blastocysts Feel No Pain

The Quantum Choice: You Can Have Either Sex or Immortality

Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

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

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Annals of the Starship Reckless

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

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

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


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

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

Image: Adversity by Amphirion

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Wrecker

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have work to do.

Athena Andreadis, PhD

Athena Andreadis Sitting smAndreadis Brief Bio

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

Authentic Ethnics

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Troy Cast

Related Articles:

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

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

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

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.


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


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