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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for the 'Biology & Culture' Category

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 The pile of unpublished work clogs the creative pipes, making it hard for me to write new stories.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

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

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


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

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

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

Golda Meir

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Night Travels

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

But now she was weary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And insult your dignity?”

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

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

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

He lowered his own weapon.

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

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

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

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


Related posts:

“As Weak as Women’s Magic”

Why I Won’t Be Taking the Joanna Russ Pledge

The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

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

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

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

Anticipated in 2014

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Jetty Park

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

Ever-Receding Mirage: Non-Default Legitimacy

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

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

– Adrienne Rich, the ending of “Orion”

LoughEske Alexander crop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Athena Andreadis Sitting smRelated articles

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

Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Those Who Never Got to Fly

So, Where Are All the Outstanding Women in X?

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

Paired Particles: Space Operas and Gender Shoals

Saturday, January 4th, 2014

2012 Pair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2013 Pair

Floating Brains and Invasive Minds

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sources and further explanations:

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

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

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

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

The Iron Madonna or: Kicking Ass While Female

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related articles:

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

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

Women’s Bodies, Women’s Powers

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related entries:

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


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

The Readercon Constellations Align Again

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

Gift of a Second Life (Full)

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


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

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

Saturday, July 13, 7 pm.

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

Sunday, July 14, 12:30 pm.

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

by Kay Holt

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

Kay Holt

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

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

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

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

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

Ordinary people say a lot of daft things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

To which I must answer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might win an award for giving everybody the creeps.

Recommended reading:

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

The Other Half of the Sky contributor series:

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

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

Virginia Woolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related articles:

Is it Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
Why I Won’t Be Taking the Joanna Russ Pledge
Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle
Those Who Never Got to Fly
Steering the Craft – Reprise


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

Steering the Craft – Reprise

Friday, May 24th, 2013

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

Remedios Varo, The Creation of the Birds (1957)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Seddon Boulet, Shaman Spider Woman (1986)

Related blog posts:

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

The “Language” Gene and Women’s Wagging Tongues

Monday, February 25th, 2013

 Aka, How to Twist Science to Reinforce Gender Stereotypes

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relevant publications and links:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sympathetic Magic

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

SingerWe get attached to places and things. They define us as much as what’s inside our heads. We take handfuls of earth or tile fragments from our homes when we emigrate. We hold on to items of clothing that have become part of our bodies. We keep heirlooms, with their long stories of how they got made and handed down the generations. This knowledge is a major thread in the tapestry of civilization and in the definition of one’s self in a larger context. I had reason to think of this recently, when I lost something I loved.

As long as my memory remains intact, I will remember the stories associated with objects that I’m attached to, including my artwork and jewelry: where, how and why I got a piece, who was with me at the time, the history behind each work. Like the time an artist wordlessly handed me a stunning mixed-media sculpture marked “Not for Sale” (and refused to take money for it until I grew forceful) because I uttered words that echoed her own deepest sense of the work.

The first year I became faculty, I attended a conference in San Diego. In a La Jolla gallery, I saw two lovely pieces of art that I felt were linked. One was a palm-sized wooden mask called Singer. The other was a silver/copper brooch the size of my thumb joint, called Spirit of the Seaweed. I put one on my bedroom wall, the other on my favorite black coat. At night I sometimes fancied I could hear soft harmonizing.

The coat went around the world with me, got taken off countless times for airport security, got hung up in homes, restaurants and hotels. The two singers kept murmuring in my dreams. And then, one evening this November, I looked at the lapel of my coat and found it empty.

I knew it was hopeless, but I kept my eyes on the ground whenever I re-crossed a path. The loss left an aching spot in my ribcage. I didn’t mind if someone had found the brooch and was wearing it with as much pleasure as I had. My fear was that it had been swept up as trash and destroyed – or that it was even now lying abandoned somewhere. And I felt bereft, too, at the thought that Singer was now lonely.

SingersI decided to use sympathetic magic. After a search, I found a very different brooch, an antique Zuñi sunface made of silver, turquoise, coral, abalone and onyx. I put it on and willed someone to find mine, so that they would wear it as I wore this one, with its own long history and legacy of loving care.

Last week, I was leaving work late. For some reason, my gaze veered to the cash register of a small food kiosk in the lobby, on which someone had placed two rubber action figures. One was a wizard, a biotech company mascot. I thought to myself: “Why does his wand look so odd?” I went up to it, peered closely. Pressed into his palm was my lost brooch.

I took it home and put it near the mask. I don’t believe in gods or demons. But I like to think that the Wizard summoned me and Spirit to the same place; that Singer joined forces with Sunface and sang its little companion home.

Damp Squibs: Non-News in Space Exploration

Saturday, January 5th, 2013


Biologists interested in space exploration are consistently delegated to the back of the stellar tour bus, if we’re allowed on at all. We’re Luddites who harsh everyone else’s squee, you see. We keep pointing out that radiation is not kind to living tissue, whether gametes or neurons; that uploading to silicon chassis is not possible as an alternative to carbon bodies; that human babies cannot be hatched and reared by robots at planetfall; that living on extrasolar planets poses huge problems and dilemmas even if they’re quasi-compatible. And that since FTL and warp drive are and will always remain science fiction, we need to at least tackle, if not solve, some of these issues before we launch crewed starships for long exploratory or migratory journeys. This year, there were two non-news items in the domain that brought these matters once again to the fore.

The earlier of the two was the disclosure that “NASA scientists might achieve warp drive” based on Alcubierre’s theoretical concept (by using a Jovian weight’s worth of exotic matter as likely to exist as stable wormholes). Beyond its terminally wobbly foundation, the concept also doesn’t take into account that such folding of space would destroy nearby star systems (and almost certainly also the starship) via distortion of the local spacetime and/or massive amounts of radiation. It’s also unclear how the starship could be steered from within the “negative energy” or “tachyonic matter” bubble. This means that even if fast space travel were possible using this method, it would still take lifetimes to safely reach a planet within a system because local travel would by necessity be at sublight speed.

More recently came the non-news that radiation causes… brain malfunction, as if the term “free radicals” and “radiation damage” were not in the biomedical vocabulary since before I entered the discipline in the mid-seventies (let alone the in-your-face evidence of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki holocausts or the Chernobyl meltdown). Radiation, especially the high-energy portion of the spectrum, breaks atomic bonds directly and indirectly by producing free radicals. Free radicals start chain reactions: lines of descendants, each of which can damage a biomolecule. Radiation causes mutations in the DNA, which is bad enough, but it can also result in other errors: protein misfolding, holes in cell membranes, neuron misfiring. And although cells have several repair mechanisms to counter these insults, they have evolved for the radiation burdens of earth.

All these effects at the molecular/cellular level converge into two large rivers: for dividing cells, cancer; for non-dividing cells (most prominently gametes and brain neurons), death. Kill enough cells, past the brain’s ability to rewire and reroute, and you get neurodegeneration: if the most affected region is the substantia nigra, Parkinson’s; if the cerebellum, ataxia; if the hippocampus and parts of the cortex, Alzheimer’s; if the frontal lobe, frontotemporal dementia; if the Schwann cells of the myelin sheath, multiple sclerosis. Incidentally, radiation also affects electronic devices – something to keep in mind for even short interstellar journeys.


On earth, we are subject to a good deal of radiation from natural causes (radon, solar flares) as well as human-made ones (industrial, occupational, medical, airport X-ray machines). Cosmic radiation constitutes about 5-10% of our total exposure. That will be very different in space, where bombardment by galactic cosmic rays will be both chronic and acute. And whereas cosmic radiation on earth is moderated by the solar wind, the earth’s magnetic field and the layers of atmosphere, none of these protections will be present on a starship. Shielding options are inadequate or, like warp drive, sheer fantasy – which makes this risk one of the major showstoppers to star travel. The best candidate is the most low-tech: water.

Scientific papers that discuss these outcomes, from both inside and outside NASA, have been around since at least the early nineties. So what exactly is new in this study that is making the customary rounds in various space enthusiast sites and blogs? In a word, nothing. In fact it’s a bits-and-pieces study that reaches miniscule, non-surprising conclusions. The adage “labored as if for an elephant and brought forth a mouse” is particularly apt here. As for the originality of its discoveries/conclusions, it’s like hitting someone’s head repeatedly against a cement wall and concluding that such blows eventually cause, um, skull fractures.

At the same time, the authors of the study decided to gild their tinfoil lilies. They used a double transgenic mouse strain engineered to develop amyloid plaques of the Alzheimer’s-associated variety. Despite this loading of the dice, they saw changes in plaque size and numbers and in amyloid processing only in the male irradiated mice. Even the small shifts they saw are far less important than laypeople think: for a while now, the consensus in the field is that plaques may be neutral warehouses. In particular, plaques seem to be a sidebar for sporadic Alzheimer’s which is 90-95% of the disease cases. Many people have heavy amyloid plaque loads with zero cognitive impairment. As is often the case with mice studies, they subjected them to overwhelming amounts of the perturbing parameter (in this case, iron nuclei) that nevertheless represents a simplified subset of what they’d encounter in a real journey. Finally, they saw neither inflammatory microglial activation nor changes in amyloid clearance. They did see changes in a couple of behavioral tests, although in most of them the error bars overlap, which means “not statistically significant”.

The obvious experiment that might give remotely useful results would be to do such studies with a mouse strain that is not merely wild-type but aggressively outbred. However, that would still be superfluous, even if we set aside the limited usefulness of mouse models for human brain function. We already know what would happen during long interstellar journeys, and more or less why. I propose that we use the time and funds spent on irradiating guaranteed-to-develop-disease mice to develop effective, and preferably low-key, shielding. Radical-clearing drugs are also an option, although the favorite defaults bristle with their own host of problems (teratogenicity for retinoids, tumorigenesis for mitochondrial boosting). Like most complex problems, there are no silver bullets to counteract the iron-nuclei ones of galactic radiation. It will have to be done the hard, slow way – or not at all.


Relevant papers:

H White (2012). Warp Field Mechanics 101.

JD Cherry, B Liu, JL Frost, CA Lemere, JP Williams, JA Olschowka, MK O’Banion (2012). Galactic Cosmic Radiation Leads to Cognitive Impairment and Increased A? Plaque Accumulation in a Mouse Model of Alzheimer’s Disease. PLoS One 7(12):e53275

Caesars and Caesar Salads

Friday, November 16th, 2012

Ever since SF/F came into existence as a (self-)conscious genre, it has prided itself on its imagination: far-out concepts, what-if premises, new worlds and cultures. But our experience is still, well, local. We all share the same planet, with its limiting intrinsics and dizzyingly rich but finite configurations, even among non-human species. And all humans share the same baseline brain configuration which does constrain certain aspects of our behavior. For example, we’re not true solitaries, even the attic- or cave-dwelling misanthropes and anchorites among us. So the genre’s new human(oid) worlds are inevitably mixes of ones that already exist – seamless fusions at best, staple-strewn frankenmonsters at worst. As media like the Internet give people a veneer of global knowledge, SF/F writers, willy-nilly, include in their works pieces of disciplines and cultures that are not their own, unless they are content to remain within the suffocating “write what you know” straitjacket. This, to put it mildly, has created a Gordian knot.

Language is a great bridge but an equally great barrier. At this point, SF/F is still heavily Anglophone and most of its practitioners are either Anglosaxons or live in an Anglosaxon country. As I discussed in several previous forays (relevant links are at the end of this article), this has resulted in the parochialism of unquestioned dominant-group assumptions: stories written by armchair tourists (Bacigalupi, MacDonald, Roberts) get accolades and awards while those by outsiders (whether “natives” or “immigrants”) are discounted as too alien. Many works that attempt to portray other cultures carry an unmistakable whiff of the colonial outlook with its propensity to casually exoticize/dehumanize/homogenize non-default Others: Chinese swords aren’t called katanas and Krishna’s primary weapon is a serrated disc, not a pointed missile.

At the same time, the discussions about what constitutes verisimilitude or authenticity in an SF/F work have been long and heated. One outcome, also parochial but along a different axis, is that purists of specific stripes exhaustively critique the domains that interest them while blithely ignoring the rest of the discrepancies: food descriptions must be correct but who cares about accurate depictions (or even the basics) of planetary orbits or reproduction!

Personally, I’m “between” in too many ways to avoid or count – between cultures, between languages, between gender roles, between mindsets as a practicing scientist who’s also a feminist; these attributes have made me a feral non-joiner who has no clearly defined “tribe” (a term used with great frequency and approval in SF/F workshops and conventions)… and, believe it or not, a “between” in questions of authenticity because of the ever-shifting vision that results from such an existence. Of course, I have flung plenty of books summarily into recycling bins when they cavalierly mangle contexts I know well. As is my custom, I’ll put my conclusion up first: writers walk a tightrope even when they write about their own culture. They must be explorers and scholars at the same time, use both telescopes and microscopes, build photon sails while consulting dictionaries.

If someone writes historical fiction, authenticity is easier to judge. To give but one example, stories in which wives in medieval western Europe run around with their hair floating in the breeze are simply ridiculous. On the other hand, stories of future- or alternate-X (X=India, Brazil, Hellas, Turkey, Russia, China, Thailand… plus hybrids thereof) are rooms in fiction’s mansion that bristle with potential for both achievement and disaster.

What makes a treatment “respectful” (a far better criterion would be simply beyond-surface knowledge plus quality of inspiration and execution, but we’ll let that go for now) is a combination of factors that are hard to optimize simultaneously: the author’s imagination and ability are certainly involved, but so is their willingness to absorb and apply new, often discomfiting knowledge; the distance of the new world from its original and the degree of hybridization also play significant roles. Most invented/extrapolated languages and cultures are as solid (and as attractive) as wet cement. Nevertheless, I’ve seen many that are interesting, even though all but the very best lack the complexity, arbitrariness and depth that comes from being ground and sifted over time by different peoples. And so it comes to pass that Alexander Jablokov’s Russian/Byzantine-tinged future Earth works for me and so does – with some reservations – Sherwood Smith’s Colend culture (a fusion of Renaissance Florence with Heian Kyoto), whereas nearly all steampunk alt-Europes and cyberpunk alt-Earths look like Diogenes’ plucked rooster to me.

A quick-n-easy way to fake authenticity is to drop crumbs of the relevant language/jargon. I think it’s fine to use culture-specific concepts that are hard to translate eloquently or briefly – from mono no aware to palikári (plural palikária, not palikáris, dammit!). However, subjecting readers to an eye-poking parade of tourist guide words (yes, no, and their ilk – hello, Winds of Khalakovo!) indicates near-lethal laziness on a writer’s part. In that respect travelogues are far worse, leaving aside their usual breathlessness.

While I’m on the subject, there’s no intrinsic taint to apostrophes and accents, contrary to HackWriting 101 injunctions. My own language uses/ed both for concrete functions: apostrophes were soft consonants (dhaseía represented the H in Helen, just as the French circumflex represents a silenced S: hôpital, forêt), while accents show where stress falls within a word. Default stress differs across languages (French always stresses the last syllable, English defaults to the penultimate), so I often find it necessary to use accents when I want to convey this information. It’s Athiná, not Athína, and that “th” represents a theta, not a tau, phoneme.

At the same time, the engineers are right when they say that the perfect is the enemy of the good. True, I still have to fight my instinctive reactions when I see foreigners use my culture and language in their fiction, although I will read – even like – a work if the writer has absorbed enough for the story’s purpose. However, if I were to demand that a writer should never use any Hellenic words or myths whatsoever in their alt-Alexander fantasy unless they also reproduce all the historic/cultural background that made the words and events in their story possible I’d essentially be arguing that only minutely researched historical fiction is legitimate – and, more distally, that no context-specific fiction is really legitimate at all. This does not even take into account the precipitous linguistic poverty such a stricture would impose: the endpoint of this logic is that only grunts would be acceptable and legitimate in extrapolated or imagined settings.

Although a “native” reader can instantly tell if a setting borrowed/adapted from her culture, discipline, etc is generic and can legitimately criticize the work if that’s the case, standards of absolute purity are impossible to uphold even in real life (as demonstrated by the internal language wars across cultures and eras; the demotic versus puristic and polytonic versus monotonic fires in my corner or the world have been smoldering for at least four centuries). A purity policy would erase most of the SF/F landscape, including Paul Preuss’ beautifully crafted Secret Passages and Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books that present a fascinating alternative Renaissance earth (the first trilogy, at least – I haven’t read the rest; I lost interest when Phèdre nó Delaunay became monogamous with a crashing bore and both she and Melisande Shahrizai were sidelined in favor of their shared son). Which brings me to the “native” writer’s plight.

This may come as a surprise, but all nations/cultures are heterogeneous and when people write they do so as individuals, not representatives-at-large of their “kind”. So even when “natives” write about their own culture, whether history or fantasy, they transmute it through their personal experiences and filters. How I deal with customs, relationships, historical events in my fiction will not be necessarily palatable to fellow Hellenes, just as Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death raised hackles among Nigerians. Some have read my stories Dry Rivers and Planetfall, which are part of a larger universe. My Minoans, Kushites, Sarmatians and Celts are as non-canonical as Carey’s, though in a different direction. More importantly, so are my contemporary Cretans. If I succeed in what I set out to do, non-native readers won’t be able to discern the seams between history and invention – and for those who do see them (and Hellenes definitely will, trust me) my hope is that they will like the story enough on other grounds that they’re willing to go with it.

The balance between authenticity and imagination is an intrinsic dilemma for writers. All who write walk that rope, but in contemporary SF/F it’s strung across a potentially killing gorge. If we walk that rope, we must do so fully prepared, in full knowledge of the abyss below us, and fully aware that we’ll invariably fall. That’s the risk explorers take.

Images: 1st, Scott Rolfe, Boxes of Shipwreck; 2nd, Lee Lorenz, The New Yorker; 3rd, unknown artist, SF version of Plato’s cave.

Related articles:
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!
Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears
Safe Exoticism, Part 2: Culture
Close Your Eyes and Think of Apóllon
As Weak as Women’s Magic

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Several attributes of human women are routinely posited as evolutionary enigmas because they tend to be placed in the “not really necessary” and/or “inconvenient” bins: hidden ovulation (How’s a guy to know a kid is his?? Ergo, chastity belts and purdahs!); orgasms (Who cares, as long as the kids come out?); and living past menopause (Done with heir production and no longer eye candy — discard!).

However, it turns out these attributes are not that enigmatic unless you believe that teleology drives evolution. It looks increasingly like the bright red buttocks of our primate relatives are actually a recent acquisition, and hidden ovulation is the earlier default. Some cultures have solved the kinship problem: brothers act as fathers to their sisters’ children, to whom they are unequivocally related. Orgasms are equally explicable once you accept the simple fact that the clitoris is the equivalent of the penis, including the associated excitability and sensitivity (which is why female genital mutilation is identical to a penectomy, not to foreskin circumcision). As for living longer than the contents of one’s ovaries, which is a third of women’s lifespan once they’re past the risky childbirth years, it may have to do with what made us human in the first place. So says the grandmother hypothesis, first intimated by George C. Williams of antagonistic pleiotropy fame and later elaborated by Kristen Hawkes and her colleagues in the late nineties, after observations of the Hadza people in Tanzania.

Back in the fifties and in today’s evo-psycho groves, the fashion has been to posit the nuclear family as the kernel unit of primordial humanity. If you take the crucial details of humans into account (unique birth risks, extended neoteny, unusual nutritional requirements, necessity for higher-order skill acquisition), you realize that the possibility of such a unit seeing offspring reach adulthood is close to nil. Not surprisingly, when anthropologists look carefully and past their own cultural blinders at less technologically endowed human groups, the scaffolding they see is always communal. As Sarah Blaffer Hrdy said, it really does take a village to raise a child.

Such a configuration is not problem-free: it’s vulnerable to tyranny of conformity as well as the devastation that can be wrought by charismatic sociopaths. Nevertheless, it allows distribution of infant care, overlap of skills, quasi-fair apportioning of resources and monitoring of emerging imbalances. And grandmothers, maternal ones in particular, play a crucial role in all of these.

The grandmother hypothesis postulates that the presence of grandmothers allowed more children to reach adulthood, because grandmothers not only foraged for their daughters’ older offspring but also socialized them, taught them important skills and transmitted knowledge and experience. It also postulates that older children had to develop ways to compel caretaker attention, giving rise to the enlarged frontal lobe unique to humans. So the hypothesis argues that female longevity is essentially a “quality over quantity” fitness adaptation that in turn favored descendants of women who fit this profile.

There is, of course, a competing hypothesis far more beloved of Tarzanists. The hunting hypothesis, demolished by Sally Slocum, postulates that hunting became better than foraging as a means of sustenance when resources became scarcer in Africa; and that coordinating the hunt (versus, say, figuring out which berries weren’t poisonous) led to natural selection for bigger brains as well as ushering in the female adoration of “alpha males” who brought home the only protein that supposedly counts.

Kristen Hawkes recently published the results of a mathematical simulation of the grandmother hypothesis. The algorithms did not include brain size, hunting or pair bonding. The model showed that grandmother effects alone are sufficient to double life spans in less than sixty thousand years. Not surprisingly, one requirement is natal homing: living close enough to the maternal grandparents that grandmothers can exert their humanizing effects. This fits with the observation that rigidly patrilocal and patrilineal societies which completely obliterate female kinship networks have often gone for quantity over quality, essentially reducing women to incubators that can always be exchanged for newer models – and that some of these societies used to discard infant girls and older women literally like garbage. Other societies went the opposite route, treating older women like honorary almost-men (allowing them to keep sacred objects, for example, though few were made council heads) once they were no longer “tainted” by menstruation.

Those who had grandmothers almost certainly remember the stories they told and the moderating influence they exerted on the family. I never met either of mine. Both died young; tuberculosis hollowed one, fire consumed the other. I did get to know my father’s stepmother, a gentle too-religious soul who was one of the first Greek women to become a teacher. She tried her best, but was not strong enough to counteract my mother’s fierceness, which I have internalized by now. I wonder if I would have been more adjusted to social expectations had my other grandmothers been around, wielding the authority of blood kinship. Given my other non-adaptive core attributes, I suspect the answer is no.

Selected papers:

Slocum, Sally. (1975, reissued 2012). Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology. In Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms, eds. Pp. 399-407. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hawkes, Kristen. (2003). Grandmothers and the evolution of human longevity. American Journal of Human Biology 15 (3): 380–400.

Images: 1st, Grandmother Storyteller by Ada Suina (Wheelright Museum, Santa Fe, NM); 2nd, Pakistani grandmother with her three-day-old grandchild (credit: Adek Berry, AFP).

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

(sung to the glam tune of The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys)

Last week, astronomers announced that Alpha Centauri B may have an earth-sized planet in tight orbit. Space enthusiasts were ecstatic, because the Alpha Centauri triplet (a close binary, Alpha A and Alpha B, circled by Proxima) is the closest star system to ours at a distance of 4.3 light years. The possible existence of such a planet buttresses the increasing evidence that planetary systems form around every possible configuration: in particular, binary systems had been traditionally discounted as too unstable to maintain planets. Terms like “in our back yard” and “stone’s throw” were used liberally and many expressed the hope that the discovery might spur a space exploration renaissance.

As with many such discoveries, the caveats extend from here to Proxima. The planet’s existence has been inferred by the primary’s wobble, rather than from direct observation. This means that independent confirmation will be required to pronounce it definitively real. The lifespan of such a planetary system remains an open question. The specifics of the system (including the reason that a wobble was detectable) suggest that the planet, if present, is closer to Alpha B than Mercury is to the sun – which in turn means that it would be tidally locked, awash with the primary’s radiation and too hot for liquid water. Last but decidedly not least, it would take us about eighty thousand years to get there with our current propulsion systems. Depending on one’s definition, eighty thousand years exceed the entire length of human civilization by a factor of two to ten.

So besides the fully justified calls for an immediate robotic probe mission, cue the “solutions” of FTL, warp drive and uploading in addition to those within the realm of the possible (nuclear fusion, light sails, long generation ships… I’m even willing to put Bussard ramjets in this bin). Lest you think such suggestions pop up only on places like io9 or singularitarian lists, I assure you that talk tracks examining such scenarios with totally straight faces were entertained at both last year’s and this year’s Starship Symposium. The warp drive scenario got a boost when a NASA-linked lab announced that they thought they could sorta kinda fold space… if they could get enough strange matter (as in: a few stellar masses’ worth) and manage to stabilize it beyond the usual nanosecond life length. Then again, a NASA-linked lab gave us the “arsenic bacteria” cowpat, so nothing of this kind surprises me any longer.

Science fiction has been the entry portal for many scientists and engineers. The sense of wonder and discovery that permeates much of SF makes people dream – and then makes them ask how such dreams can become real. The problem arises when science fiction is confused or conflated with real science, engineering and social policy. When that happens, our chances of ever reaching Alpha Centauri decrease steeply, for at least two reasons: the fantasies make people impatient with/contemptuous of real science and technology; and when this pseudo-edginess substitutes for real science, you get real disasters. The recent sentencing of six Italian geoscientists to years in jail for “failing to predict” an earthquake with casualties speaks to both these points. So does the story of the Haida community that allowed a “businessman” to dump tons of iron into its coastal waters, based on his assurance it would improve conditions for its salmon fisheries. The resulting potentially lethal algal bloom has become visible from space.

Propulsion systems are an obvious domain where fiction (and the understandable fond wish) is still stronger than fact, but there are others. One is using space opera terraforming paradigms for geoengineering. (“Stan Robinson did it in the Mars trilogy, why not us?”) Another is using cyberpunk novels to argue for economic solutions – think of Greenspan’s belief in Rand’s Übermenschen fantasies. More recently, Damien Walter, a Guardian columnist, earnestly urged the head of the British Labour party to bypass austerity and resource limitations by… implementing ideas from Banks, Stross and Doctorow (Walter also wrote a column about women writing hard SF and used a man as his star example; between him and Coren, it looks like elementary reasoning is not a particularly strong suit at the Guardian). Commenters added Herbert’s Dune to the list, using swooning terms about the politics and policies it portrays. (“Banks’ Culture does it, why not us?”) Just intone “3-D printing!” or “Me Messiah!” over a rock pile, with or without Harry Potter’s wand, and hey-presto: post-scarcity achieved, back to toy universes and customized sexbots! I won’t go over the semi-infinite transhumanist list (uploading, genengineering for “virtue” etc), having done so before.

A related problem that looks minor until you consider social feedback is the persistent mantra that SF has been forced willy-nilly to become inward-gazing and science-illiterate because… reality moves too fast, thereby instantly dating predictive fiction. Much of this is justification after the fact, of course – writers “must focus on maintaining their online presence” so who has time for background research? – but the basal argument itself is invalid. There’s exactly one domain that’s moving fast: technology that depends on computing speed, although it, too, is approaching a plateau due to intrinsics. To give you an example from my own field, I’ve worked on dementia for more than twenty years. During this time, although we have learned a good deal (and some of it goes against earlier “common sense” assumptions, such as the real role and toxicity of tangles and plaques) we have not made any progress towards reliable non-invasive early diagnosis of dementia, let alone preventing or curing it. The point here is not that we never will, but that doing so will require a lot more than the mouth farts of stage wizards, snake-oil salesmen or pseudo-mavens.

When faced with these facts, many people fall back to the Kennedy myth: that we went to the moon because of the vision of a single man with the charisma and will to make it reality. Ergo, the same can be done with any problem we set our sights on but for those fun-killin’ Luddites who persist on harshing squees (file this under “unclear on concepts” and “perpetual juvenility”). Messianic strains aside, there were very specific reasons that made the Apollo mission a success: it was tightly focused; it had no terrestrial repercussions; it was the equivalent of gorilla chest-beating, another way of establishing dominance vis-à-vis the USSR; and it was done in an era when US was flush with power and confidence – the sole actor involved in WWII not to have suffered enormous devastation of its home ground. The outcomes of “war on cancer”, “war on drugs” and “war on terrorism” (to just name three of many) illustrate how quickly or well such an approach works when applied to complex long-range problems with constellations of consequences.

Mind you, as a writer of space opera I’m incorrigibly partial to psionic powers and stable wormholes (in part because they’re integral to mythic SF). And the possible existence of a planet in the Alpha Centauri system is indeed a genuine cause for excitement. But I know enough to place the two in separate compartments, though they’re linked by the wish that one day we have propulsion systems that let us visit Alpha Centauri in person, rather than by proxy.

Selected related articles

The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction
SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

“Arsenic” Life, or: There is TOO a Dragon in my Garage!
The Charlatan-Haunted World

1st, Alpha Centauri A and B seen over the limb of Saturn (JPL/NASA); 2nd, the algal bloom in the NW Pacific after the iron dump (NASA/Wikimedia Commons); 3rd, real science: The Curiosity Mars rover (Maas Digital LLC/National Geographic)

Free Speech: Bravehearts and Scumbags

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

I was twelve years old in 1967, eager to start high school. One fine morning, April 21, I woke up and the radio was jammed with military band music and Hitleresque shrieks. The military junta that took over the country lasted for seven years of fear and terror. Civil liberties were suspended. Even more than before, women were denied basic rights and both arbitrary police actions and state-sponsored religion became intrusive. People were summarily arrested, tortured, exiled, killed — my uncle among them; censorship erased entire swaths of art and literature and the history we were taught in school was a parody of the truth. Informants stood ready to report any “illegal” utterance to the secret police.

So I know firsthand what it is to be deprived of free speech, and some of what goes on under the “free speech” rubric in the Internet is not it. Lest I be misconstrued, I’m not talking of suppression of media and sites by governments or government-sponsored entities, but of the concept that uninhibited “self-expression” trumps all.

Freedom of speech is one of the supporting beams of democracy. How states treat their dissidents and gadflies (which include poets, playwrights, historians, journalists – and now bloggers) is a litmus test of their political system. Definitions of what constitutes protected speech differ even in democratic regimes. Generally, there are restrictions connected to questions of harm: hate speech and slander (more so in Europe), national security and right to privacy. Superimposed on that are the behavior codes of specific communities, from organizations to religious groups within a sovereign nation. Some of these shade into de facto censorship if there is no separation of secular and religious governance or if the government is insecure: blasphemy laws in nations plagued by fundamentalist resurgence, terrorist definitions in totalitarian governments (and the US, post-9/11).

Traditionally, problems with free speech have crowded at the suppression end. However, a different type of distortion is happening in the US – ironically, at the same time that its government has significantly curbed civil liberties. The US constitution is more sweeping and absolute in its establishment of free speech privileges. As a (perhaps inevitable) result, Americans often espouse bizarre versions of the First Amendment – the Second one as well, while we’re at it. The general credo seems to be not only that people can say whatever comes into their thalamus, especially online, but also that there should be no consequences for doing so. For people who equate criticism with censorship, free speech has become a fundamentalist religion without any context of relative power, balance or accountability.

Coupled to that is the issue of pseudo/anonymity on the Internet, invoked as a sanctum sanctorum when someone’s activities may affect their professional and/or personal life. However, what is crucial safety for the oppressed can become a license to hurt others with impunity for the oppressor. Abusers of reasonable systems are notorious for turning the rules against their real purpose on technicalities, daring their rule-abiding fellows to call them on their cynical manipulations. If they’re made to stop, they commonly employ false-equivalence arguments (example: “feminazi” – because asking to be treated as a human being is equivalent to invading and devastating most of Europe).

All of these facets have been recently come to the fore in two very different cases: the heroic, consequence-fraught stand of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year old schoolgirl, against the Taliban and the colluding Pakistani government; and, in stark contrast, the trail of toxic slime left by Reddit “moderator” Michael Brutsch. I’ll deal with the latter first, so that this article doesn’t leave its readers with sewer stench in their brains.

Michael Brutsch, under the handle Violentacrez, spent all his waking hours setting up subreddit threads that specialized in violent misogyny and racism. Representative titles of his threads: creepshots, rapebait, chokeabitch, beatingwomen, picsofdeadkids, niggerjailbait, jewmerica. He and his followers posted pictures of underage girls and “upskirt/downblouse views” without their targets’ knowledge or consent and he bragged about receiving “consensual” oral sex from his teenage stepdaughter (according to him, his then-wife, the girl’s mother, “got mad, then got over it”). Reddit used Brutsch’s threads and the reactions to them to boost site traffic, gave him awards and special leeway – and met protests with the mantra “Free speech!” and the assertion that “If you step out of your house, you’re fair game.” Exactly what fundies and MRAs say about women, in harmonious patriarchal agreement.

In short, Brutsch was a inciter and enabler of predators who knew that his actions were harmful (and edging on the illegal) and who used his pseudonym as a shield to abuse at whim. However, when Adrian Chen of Gawker (itself of basement standards) unmasked him in standard investigative journalism mode, Reddit shrieked “violation of free speech rights” and “invasion of privacy” (clearly unclear on concepts). Then, this bastion of free speech banned Gawker. Brutsch himself feels that the only thing he did wrong was to get in Chen’s sights and is proud that his soon-to-be-a-Marine son is his devoted fan. I wonder how his son will behave as a soldier overseas – or as a lover and parent.

So let’s turn to a real free-speech hero: Malala Yousafzai, the namesake of the young warrior woman of Maiwand. Yousafzai lived in a world where Brutsch’s idea of women being chattels totally at the mercy of men is everyday reality: the Taliban-infested and US-drone-blanketed region of Swat in Pakistan. She was 11 when the Taliban overran her home region and established an autonomous fundamentalist theocracy essentially unopposed by the government. As is their wont, they blew up girls’ schools and suspended every right for women and girls, from going to school to receiving medical care.

Yousafzai started blogging at BBC Urdu about her experiences during this reign of terror under the handle Gul Makai (Cornflower). Her real name became known when the Pakistani military finally bestirred itself to partially clean up the Swat region, and a NY Times crew came to film her. Tellingly, her mother was “not allowed” to appear in the film and although we know exhaustive details about her father, we don’t even know her mother’s name. Yousafzai’s father supported her – if he hadn’t, she would obviously not know even how to read and write, which shows with whom the real power lies. After that, she appeared in many venues to advocate for female education and started winning national and international recognition and awards. The Taliban took notice as well, and Yousafzai started receiving death threats about her “dirty language” (see “feminazi”, above).

A week ago, several Taliban boarded Yousafzai’s school bus, asked the terrified schoolgirls to point her out and shot her three times, hitting her in the spine and head. Two classmates (like her mother, nameless) were collateral damage. Because she was well-known, the Pakistani government and media (even some imams, though not all) went into a frenzy of hand-wringing and suddenly she was in everyone’s prayers. Of course, prayers take no effort or expense; keeping schools open and ensuring that girls can attend them do. The Taliban, echoing Brutsch, said that their only regret was that Yousafzai somehow survived – and that should she recover, they’ll try again till they succeed.

The last thing Yousafzai needs is prayers, especially from the mealy-mouthed hypocrites who let this happen while they could have prevented it. What she needs is world-class medical attention and after that, a life free of fear and coercion. She is now in a UK hospital that specializes in wounds like hers, but it’s still unclear whether she will recover and to what extent. A bright light is wavering and may go out, because men who are convinced they’re entitled to treat women like cattle or furniture felt threatened.

Malala Yousafzai, like Shamsia Husseini (who continued going to school after having acid thrown at her face), happened to be noticed by the West. Countless others, especially women and girls, have done similarly brave things — and suffered similarly atrocious fates — while remaining unknown and without the (flimsy, transitory) support of global media. This is the free speech that must be protected: schoolgirls who say “We will educate ourselves. We will win. They can’t defeat us!” while in real danger of violation, torture and death.

The young girls who thirst to acquire knowledge and yearn to be treated as human are wrong, of course. They have been brutally silenced before, and they will be again – and their torturers and killers will sleep soundly and die in their beds, having lived long, full, self-satisfied lives. But it’s better to go down fighting than live a life of degraded slavery, of enforced silence. Something that conscience-free manipulative scumbags like Brutsch, who never question why they deserve their entitlements, can’t even begin to understand.

Images: 1st, Malala Yousafzai (from Wikipedia, before repeated vandalism of the article forced its removal); 2nd, Pakistani schoolgirls (Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS)