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The Psychology of Space Exploration: A Review — Part 1

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado.

Note: this is a companion piece to Those Who Never Got to Fly.

Early on the morning of February 5, 2007, several officers from the Orlando Police Department in Florida were summoned to the Orlando International Airport, where they arrested a female suspect. This woman was alleged to have attacked another woman she had been stalking while the latter sat in her car in the airport parking lot. Judging by the various items later found in the vehicle the suspect had used as transportation to the Sunshine State all the way from her home in Houston, Texas, her ultimate intent was to kidnap and possibly conduct even worse actions upon her victim.

While such a criminal incident is sadly not uncommon in modern society, what surprised and even shocked the public upon learning what happened was the occupation of the perpetrator: She was a veteran NASA astronaut, a flight engineer named Lisa Nowak who had flown on the Space Shuttle Discovery in July of 2006. As a member of the STS-121 mission, Nowak spent almost two weeks in Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station (ISS), performing among other duties the operation of the winged spacecraft’s robotic arm.

It seems that the woman who Nowak went after, a U.S. Air Force Captain named Colleen Shipman, was in a relationship with a male astronaut named William Oefelein. Nowak had also been romantically involved with Oefelein earlier, but he had gradually broken off their relationship and started a new one with Shipman. Oefelein would later state that he thought Nowak seemed fine about his ending their affair and moving on to another woman. However, by then it was painfully and very publicly obvious that Oefelein had not thoroughly consulted enough with his former companion on this matter.

NASA would eventually dismiss Nowak and Oefelein from their astronaut corps, the first American space explorers ever formally forced to leave the agency. NASA also created an official Code of Conduct for their employees in the wake of this publicity nightmare.

Now I have no documented proof of this, but I strongly suspect that the Nowak incident played a large but officially unacknowledged role in the creation of the recent offering by the NASA History Program Office book titled Psychology of Space Exploration: Contemporary Research in Historical Perspective (NASA SP-2011-4411), edited by Douglas A. Vakoch, a professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute for Integral Studies, as well as the director of Interstellar Message Composition at The SETI Institute.

Quoting from a NASA press release (11-223), which appeared about the same time as the book:

Psychology of Space Exploration is a collection of essays from leading space psychologists. They place their recent research in historical context by looking at changes in space missions and psychosocial science over the past 50 years. What makes up the “right stuff” for astronauts has changed as the early space race gave way to international cooperation.

The book itself is available online in several formats.

From the Right Stuff to All Kinds of Stuff

It may seem obvious to say that astronauts are as human as the rest of us, but in fact our culture has long viewed those who boldly go into the Final Frontier atop a controlled series of explosions otherwise known as a rocket in a much different and higher regard than most mere mortals. Even before the first person donned a silvery spacesuit and stepped inside a cramped and conical Mercury spacecraft mated to a former ICBM for a brief arcing flight over the Atlantic Ocean in 1961, NASA’s first group of human space explorers – known collectively as the Mercury Seven – were being presented from their very first press briefing in 1959 as virtual demigods who had the right skills and mental attitude to brave the unknown perils of the Universe.

Image: The Mercury Seven stand in front of a F-106 Delta Dart. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Mercury Seven astronauts were not just men: They were an elite breed of space warriors ready to conquer the Cosmos who also represented the best that the United States of America had to offer when it came to their citizens, their technology, and their science. The nation’s first space explorers may have been ultimately human and limited in various ways, even flawed, but the agency’s goal was to keep any issues in check through their missions at the least and preferably during their full tenure with NASA.

By the time of Nowak’s incident, astronauts may not have been the demigods of the days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, but they were still looked upon as highly capable people who ventured to places few others have gone and who did not give into human passions beyond a few moments of wonder at the Universe, realistic or not. This is why Nowak and Oefelein’s behaviors were so shocking to the public even four decades after the first generations of space explorers.

There are two reasons why I brought up the dramatic events of 2007 with Lisa Nowak: The first is my aforementioned hypothesis that what took place between the former astronaut and her perceived romantic rival led to NASA feeling the need to examine their policies regarding the human beings they send into space and formally documenting the resulting studies.

The second reason is that Psychology of Space Exploration needed more of these personal stories about the astronauts and cosmonauts. Now certainly there were some of these throughout the book: The Introduction to Chapter 1 relays a tale about a test pilot who was applying to be an astronaut who told an evaluating psychiatrist about the time the experimental aircraft he was flying started spinning out of control. The pilot responded to this emergency by calmly leafing through the vehicle’s operating manual to solve the immediate problem, which he obviously did.

Nevertheless, more of these kinds of stories would have not only made the book a bit less dry as it was in places, but they would have added immeasurably to the information content of this work.

As just one example, in Chapter 2 on page 26, the author mentions (from another source) that the Soviet space missions “Soyuz 21 (1976), Soyuz T-14 (1985), and Soyuz TM-2 (1987) were shortened because of mood, performance, and interpersonal issues. Brian Harvey wrote that psychological factors contributed to the early evacuation of a Salyut 7 [space station] crew.”

The problem here is that the book then moves on without going into any details about exactly what happened to curtail these missions. Knowing what took place would certainly be useful in making sure that future space ventures, especially the really long duration ones that will be of necessity as we move past our Moon, could be the difference between a secure and functioning crew and a disaster.

Incidentally, the author noted that the Soviets, who were usually reticent about giving out many technical details or goals on most space missions manned and robotic, were more open when it came to the experiences of their cosmonauts and showed more interest in their physiological situations in confined microgravity situations than NASA often did with their astronauts.

The Soviet space program also had a longer period of actual experience with humans living aboard space stations starting in 1971 with Salyut 1 (or Soyuz 9 in 1970 if you want to count that early space endurance record-holding jaunt) which NASA did not share between their three Skylab missions in 1973-1974 until their joint involvement with the Soviet Mir station in the 1990s. Having the details from that era would be of obvious benefit and interest.

Image: The MIR station hovering over Earth. It deorbited in March 21, 2001.The station was serviced by the Soyuz spacecraft, Progress spacecraft and U.S. space shuttles, and was visited by astronauts and cosmonauts from 12 different nations. It endured 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. Credit: NASA.

Granted, as with a collection of research papers such as this, there are plenty of references. Finding the stories this way is not a problem if you are doing your own research and using Psychology of Space Exploration as a reference source, but for the more casual reader it could be a bit of a disappointment when these items are not readily available.

While I think most people who want to learn more about how our space explorers are affected by and respond to and during their missions into the Final Frontier will find something of interest and value throughout this book, Psychology of Space Exploration is largely a reference work that goes into levels of certain details as befitting literature of its type while missing a number of others which I think are just as important for a comprehensive view of human expansion into space, both in the past, the present, and most vitally the future.

The ultimate goal of putting people into space is eventually to create a permanent presence of our species beyond Earth. That is the grand aim even if their initial underlying purposes were more geared towards engineering and geopolitical goals. This is similar to the history of the early navigators who crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to the New World, for they too had other plans initially in mind, although the ultimate result was the founding of the many nations that exist in the Western Hemisphere today.

Part 2

The Other Half of the Sky: Table of Contents

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

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

I decided to whet appetites. Below is not only the TOC of the anthology, but also the opening bars of each movement that’s part of this symphony. At the end of this post is a widget designed with great care and flair by Kate Sullivan, our publisher, that displays the excerpts as a beautiful mini-book.

I won’t say more, the snippets speak for themselves. [ETA: so does the cover, which eloquently embodies the anthology’s contents.]

The Other Half of the Sky

Athena Andreadis, Introduction: Dreaming the Dark

Melissa Scott, Finders
Alexander Jablokov, Bad Day on Boscobel
Nisi Shawl, In Colors Everywhere
Sue Lange, Mission of Greed
Vandana Singh, Sailing the Antarsa
Joan Slonczewski, Landfall
Terry Boren, This Alakie and the Death of Dima
Aliette de Bodard, The Waiting Stars
Ken Liu, The Shape of Thought
Alex Dally MacFarlane, Under Falna’s Mask
Martha Wells, Mimesis
Kelly Jennings, Velocity’s Ghost
C. W. Johnson, Exit, Interrupted
Cat Rambo, Dagger and Mask
Christine Lucas, Ouroboros
Jack McDevitt, Cathedral

Let the storytelling begin:

Melissa Scott, Finders

A thousand years ago the cities fell, fire and debris blasting out the Burntover Plain.  Most of the field was played out now, the handful of towns that had sprung up along the less damaged southern edge grown into three thriving and even elegant cities, dependent on trade for their technology now rather than salvage.  Cassilde Sam had been born on the eastern fringe of the easternmost city, in Glasstown below the Empty Bridge, and even after two decades of hunting better salvage in the skies beyond this and a dozen other worlds, the Burntover still drew her.

Alexander Jablokov, Bad Day on Boscobel

Dunya stopped just outside Phineus’s unit to calm herself down. Otherwise she would burst in and start screaming at him. That was no way to start a check-in meeting with one of her refugees.

That gave her a chance to realize that she looked like hell. She’d already had one fight that morning, with her daughter Bodil, and afterwards she had rushed out, unsnapped and unbrushed. It was hard enough to manage someone like Phineus, all Martian and precise, without giving him more ammunition about how lax things were here, among the asteroids.

Nisi Shawl, In Colors Everywhere

Trill walked home through the Rainshadow Mountains with Adia, her former mentor.  Not alone.

The sky had been high all day.  Now, with evening, it came low, wetting them and their surroundings with mist.  Silver beaded the fuzz beneath their feet.

Adia was tough, though an elder.  She walked steadily, without complaint.  She ought to have been tired even before they started; she and Trill had spent the week teaching a cohort of tens-to-thirteens how to weave buildings.

Sue Lange, Mission of Greed

In the third week after gagarin123 landed on an unnamed planet sweeping through a solar system claimed by ValeroCorp, First Mechanic Bertie Lai’s chance for fame slowly swirled down the shitter.

And just yesterday things had been moving along swimmingly. René Genie, the mission biologist, had not yet found sentient life; the geologist, Aadil Alzeshi, had discovered beautiful 1.4.  Specifically, he’d hit some pitchblende with enough uranium in it for ValeroCorp to recoup the cost of this mission.

Vandana Singh, Sailing the Antarsa

There are breezes, like the ocean breeze, which can set your pulse racing, dear kin, and your spirit seems to fly ahead of you as your little boat rides each swell.  But this breeze!  This breeze wafts through you and me, through planets and suns, like we are nothing.  How to catch it, know it, befriend it?  This sea, the Antarsa, is like no other sea.  It washes the whole universe, as far as we can tell, and the ordinary matter such as we are made of is transparent to it.  So how is it that I can ride the Antarsa current, as I am doing now, steering my little spacecraft so far from Dhara and its moon?

Joan Slonczewski, Landfall

Most college sophomores spent their summer running toyworlds while catching sun at air-conditioned disappearing beaches.  Jenny Ramos Kennedy spent hers at the Havana Institute for Revolutionary Botany, which students called the Botánica. At the Botánica, Jenny worked with ultraphytes, Earth’s cyanide-emitting extraterrestrial invaders. Could she discover how to engineer ultraphyte chromosomes–to control them genetically, before they poisoned the planet?

Terry Boren, This Alakie and the Death of Dima

When Dine Paloan asked this woman, Alakie, to leave before destruction arrived, she refused at first.  She had trained to be Paloan’s pilot, but this Alakie had never thought she would be leaving without Dine.  So instead of accepting the Dinela’s wishes, this Alakie helped to send Paloan’s other tokens back to Cassin, and she stayed.

Aliette de Bodard, The Waiting Stars

The derelict ship ward was in an isolated section of Outsider space, one of the numerous spots left blank on interstellar maps, no more or no less tantalising than its neighbouring quadrants.  To most people, it would be just that: a boring part of a long journey to be avoided–skipped over by Mind-ships as they cut through deep space, passed around at low speeds by Outsider ships while their passengers slept in their hibernation cradles.

Ken Liu, The Shape of Thought

Cat’s Cradle turns into Painted Handkerchief turns into Dish of Noodles turns into Manger turns into Fishing Net.  These are but the first of the Two Hundred Variations developed by bored human children on the Long Journey.

I was once one of them.

Young Ket hums as zie holds up zir hands, the string wound tight around the fingers. Zie glances at me and I wave back. Zie has the same long graceful neck and bulbous body as zir parent, Tunloji. Watching zem is like watching a younger version of my lover.

Alex Dally MacFarlane, Under Falna’s Mask

Mar-teri broke her confinement to burn alsar for her dead sisters.  Under thin moonlight she stepped out of the unmarried adults’ caravan for the first time in two months–stones crunching under her feet, chives brushing against her bare ankles–carrying the bunch of alsar she was supposed to burn in her caravan. As if honouring them from afar could be enough.

The opening lines of Falna’s song slipped into Mar-teri’s head. Such a fierce song, when the woman wearing Falna’s mask channelled generations of anger–how Mar-teri had longed to wear that mask!

Martha Wells, Mimesis

Jade spotted Sand as he circled down from the forest canopy, a grasseater clutched in his talons.  She said, “Finally.”  It would be nice to eat before dark, so they could clear the offal away from the camp without attracting the night scavengers.

It was Balm who said, “I don’t see Fair.”

Jade frowned, scanning the canopy again.  They were standing in the deep grass of the platform they had chosen to camp on, and it was late afternoon in the suspended forest and getting difficult to hunt by sight.

Kelly Jennings, Velocity’s Ghost

I hate planets.  Filthy, heavy, smelly, and this one was leaking.

“It’s rain,” Rida said.  “It’s not a leak, it’s part of their exchange.”

“It’s snow.”  Tai lurked just up corridor, close enough that I could hear him both hard and via the uplink.  “Rain is the wet one.”

“This is wet,” Rida objected.

“Can we focus?” I demanded.  “Rida?”

Braced on the rim of the rock pool by the bistro hatch, Rida flashed me a capture of his desk screen, with the vid of our target unshifted.  “She’s still talking, boss.”

C. W. Johnson, Exit, Interrupted

The Door wasn’t so much heavy as reluctant to move, as if they were carrying it, one at each end, through molasses.  “Why is it like this?” Saiyul asked as she leaned into the resistant thing.

Ashil shrugged the best he could with his hands full. “How should I know?”

A bead of perspiration slid down Saiyul’s face, right into the scar on her cheek. It had healed, mostly, but it itched where her oxygen mask rubbed against it.

Cat Rambo, Dagger and Mask

If you had asked Eduw if he loved Grania, he would have been indignant. Naturally he did. He loved all his targets.

Not at first, of course. He was put off. That scar that marred her face, it hurt to look at. It wasn’t an uncommon condition, despite what the meddies said. Some people rejected plas-flesh. It didn’t take, didn’t renew lost skin, didn’t rebuild damaged features. For some it even seemed to make things worse.

Christine Lucas, Ouroboros

The dead philosopher came out of his cavern only when both the moons of Mars were below the horizon.  Or so the legend claimed.

Under a clear sky over the Martian wilderness, Kallie focused her hearing and sought the faintest sound that might confirm his existence.  Nothing. The nanobots lining her auditory nerves redoubled their efforts. Still nothing. Yet. She turned her attention towards the base at northeast, under the shadow of Olympus Mons. No alarms, no sirens, no one on her trail. They hadn’t noticed her absence. Yet. But they would, and they’d unleash the Enforcer.

Jack McDevitt, Cathedral

Matt Sunderland gazed at the Earth, which was just edging out from behind the Moon. From the L2 platform, Luna, of course, dominated the sky, a vast gray globe half in sunlight, half in shadow, six times larger than it would have appeared from his Long Island home. Usually, it completely blocked the gauzy blue and white Earth. On the bulkhead to his left, the Mars or Bust flag still hung, its corners fastened by magnets.

Mars or Bust.

www.bookbuzzr.com

Image: Girl under the Milky Way, by Babak A. Tafreshi

The Charlatan-Haunted World

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

In the larger context of how sciency blather shapes culture, including speculative literature, it’s interesting to juxtapose two movement gurus, Ray Kurzweil and Deepak Chopra. Many consider them very different but in fact they’re extremely similar. Essentially, both are prophet-wannabes who are attempting to gain legitimacy by distorting science to fit a cynically self-aggrandizing agenda.

Chopra goes the faux grand unification route; Kurzweil belongs to the millenarian camp, including his habit of setting goals that ever recede: the year we become optimized by nanobots… the year we upload our minds to silicon frames… the year we welcome our AI overlords. The Singularity and the complete reverse-engineering of the human brain were slated for 2010; now the magic year is 2045. Sound familiar?

Both men are embodiments of Maslow’s dictum that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Chopra’s hammer is power of mind over matter; Kurzweil’s, Moore’s Law with “exponential” as its abracadabra. It’s easy to laugh at Chopra’s blatant misuse of quantum mechanics and his idea that we can destroy tumors with sheer thought power. Most of the biocentrist vaporings of Chopra, Lanza et al can be dealt with by one word: decoherence. Conversely, Kurzweil’s ignorance of basics is so obvious to a biologist that seeing him being taken seriously makes you feel you’re in a parallel universe. For the rest of this article, I will focus on transhumanism (TH) and just briefly linger on salient points many of which I’ve covered before in detail.

I’ve often said that cyberpunk is the fiction arm of TH, but upon reflection I think it would be more accurate to say TH is a branch of cyberpunk SF if not fantasy – and not a particularly original one, at that. At the same time, even its own adherents are starting to publicly admit that TH is a religion. After all, its wish list consists of the same things humans have wanted since time immemorial: immortality and eternal youth. Eternally perky breasts and even perkier penises. Those lucky enough to attain these attributes will frolic in Elysium Fields of silicon or in gated communities like today’s Dubai or tomorrow’s seasteads. Followers of other religions have to wait patiently for paradise; transhumanists can gain instant bliss by thronging to Second Life. Or as that famous Sad Children cartoon says, “In the future, being rich and white will be even more awesome.”

Transhumanists posit several items as articles of faith. All these items require technology indistinguishable from magic – and in some cases, technology that will never come to pass because of intrinsic limitations. Transhumanists call unbelievers Luddites — funny, given that many who object to the cult approach are working scientists or engineers. Among the TH tenets:

1. Perfectibility: “optimization” of humans is not only possible but also desirable.

1a. Genes determine high-order behavior: intelligence, musical talent, niceness. This has gone so far that there is a formal TH proposal by Mark Walker to implement a Genetic Virtue Program; in cyberpunk SF you see it in such laughable items as Emiko having “dog loyalty genes” in the inexplicably lauded Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Basing a genetic program on the concept that genes determine high-order behavior is like planning an expedition to Mars based on the Ptolemaic system. Genomes act as highly networked ensembles and organisms are jury-rigged. Furthermore, optimization for one function in biological systems (across scales) makes for suboptimality at all else.

1b. There’s one-to-one mapping between hormones or evolutionary specifics and behavior. Most of these generalizations  come from research on non-humans (mice for hormones; various primates for evolution) and lead to conclusions like: people can become lovesome by judicious applications of oxytocin or murderous by extra helpings of testosterone; and to the evopsycho nonsense of “alpha male rape genes” and “female wired-for-coyness brains”. This is equally endemic in what I call grittygrotty fantasy, but it seems to be at odds with TH’s willingness to entertain the concepts of gender fluidity and sculpting-at-will.

1c. Designer genetic engineering will come to pass, including nanotech that will patrol us internally. Genetic engineering is already with us, but it will take time to fine-tune it for routine “vanity” use. Of course, we already have nanites – they’re called enzymes. However, cells are not this amorphous soup into which nanoships can sail at whim. They’re highly organized semi-solid assemblages with very specific compartments and boundaries.  The danger for cell and organ damage shown in the cheesy but oddly prescient Fantastic Voyage is in fact quite real.

2. Dualism: biological processes can be uncoupled from their physical substrates.

2a. Emotions are distinct from thoughts (and the former are often equated with the non-cortical Four Fs). This aligns with such items as the TH obsession with sexbots and proxy relationships through various avatars — and the movement’s general fear and dislike of the body. Of course, our bodies are not passive appendages but an integral part of our sensor feedback network and our sense of identity.

2b. It is possible to achieve immortality and continuity of consciousness by uploading, which might as well be called by its real name: soul – as Battlestar Galumphica at least had the courage to do. It should go without saying that uploading, even if a non-destructive implementation ever became possible, would create an autonomous copy.  I still boggle at Stross’ pronouncement that “Uploading … is not obviously impossible unless you are a crude mind/body dualist. // Uploading refutes the doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul.”

3. Dogma: invalid equivalences and models for complexity.

3a. The brain is a computer. This leads to fantasies that “expansion of capabilities” (however defined) and such things as uploading or “stigmata” (that is, leakage between VR and reality) are possible. The fundamental point is that the brain is not a computer in any way that is useful to either biology or computer science, starting with the fact that a brain is never a blank chassis that passively accepts software. Also, it’s one thing to observe that the cerebellum contains four types of neurons, another to talk of stacks. The black noise on this has reached such a level that I cringe whenever I hear people discuss the brain using terms like “Kolmogorov complexity”.

3b. Sentient AI and animal uplift will not only come to pass, but will also produce entities that are remarkably similar to us. Connected to this are the messianic ravings of the extropians, who envision themselves as essentially overseers in plantations, as well as David Pearce’s “imperative” that any issues will be ironed out with such things as contraceptives for sentient rabbits and aversion therapy for sentient cats that will turn them into happy vegans. However, cat intestines are formed in such a way that they need meat to survive. If they must be medicated non-stop (let alone mangy from malnutrition), much better to design a species de novo. Crowley’s Leos and Linebarger’s Underpeople were both more realistic and more humane than the equivalent TH constructs.

Like all religions, TH has its sects and rifts, its evangelicals and reformists. Overall, however, the shiny if mostly pie-in-the-sky tech covers a regressive interior: TH hews to triumphalism, determinism and hierarchies. Interestingly, several SF authors (most notably Iain Banks) see TH applications as positive feedback loops for a terminal era of plenty: infinite resources courtesy of nanites, infinite flexibility in identities and lifestyles. However, I think that we’re likelier to see some of this technology become real in two contexts: an earth running out of resources… and people in long-generation starships and quasi-terrestrial exoplanets.

In both cases, we may have to implement radical changes not for some nebulous arbitrary perfection, or as a game of trust/hedge fund playboys, but when we’re in extremis and/or for a specific context. For example, the need to hibernate on an ice-bound planet or survive on toxic foodstuffs. Because TH is essentially a futuristic version of Manifest Destiny, it’s an unsuitable framework for exploring low-key sustainability alternatives. But TH does itself even fewer favors by harnessing stale pseudoscience to its chariots of the gods.  People like Kurzweil have the education and intelligence to know better, which makes them far more culpable than brain-dead ignorant haters like Akin.

Note: This article is an adaptation of the talk I gave to Readercon 2012 this July.  A panel discussion followed the talk; the other participants were John Edward Lawson, Anil Menon, Luc Reid and Alison Sinclair.

Related articles:

Equalizer or Terminator?
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix
“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”
Won’t Anyone Think of the Sexbots?!
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Images: 1st, Mike Myers as Maurice Pitka in The Love Guru; 2nd, flowchart from The Talking Squid, who adapted an original by Wellington Grey; 3rd, The Transhumanist by movement member Sandberg — appropriately enough, part of a Tarot card set.

Those Who Never Got to Fly

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Sally Kristen Ride, one of the iconic First Others in space flight, recently died at the relatively young age of 61: she was the first American woman to participate in missions. Her obituary revealed that she was also the first lesbian to do so. Like other iconic First Others (Mae Jemison comes to mind), Sally Ride was way overqualified – multiple degrees, better than her male peers along several axes – and she also left the astronaut program way before she needed to (more about this anon). Even so, Ride remained within the orbit of space exploration activities, including founding NASA’s Exploration Office. She was also part of the board that investigated the crashes of Challenger and Columbia; Ride was the only public figure to side with the whistleblowing engineer of Morton-Thiokol when he warned about the problems that would eventually destroy Challenger.

When Sally Ride was chosen for her first mission – by an openly sexist commander who still had to admit she was by far the most qualified for the outlined duties – the press asked her questions like “Do you weep when something goes wrong on the job?” This was 1983, mind you, not the fifties. The reporters noted that she amazed her teachers and professors by pulling effortless straight As in science and – absolutely relevant to an astronaut’s abilities – she was an “indifferent housekeeper” whose husband tolerated it (she was married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley at the time). Johny Carson joked that the shuttle launch got postponed until Ride could find a purse that matched her shoes.

Ride and Jemison had to function in this climate but at least they went to space, low-orbit though it had become by then. There were forerunners who never got to do so, even though they were also overqualified. I am referring, of course, to the Mercury 13.

This was the moniker of the early core of women astronauts who trained in parallel with the Mercury 7 and outperformed them – except, as is often the case, they did so in makeshift facilities without official support. Here’s the honor roll call of these pioneers whose wings were permanently clipped (the last names are before marriages changed them): Jane Briggs, Myrtle Cagle, Geraldyn Cobb, Janet Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Mary Wallace Funk, Sarah Gorelick, Jerrie Hamilton, Jean Hixson, Rhea Hurrie, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Stumbough, Bernice Trimble.

The Thirteen, never officially part of NASA (they were selected by William Lovelace, who designed the NASA astronaut tests, and the initiative was supported by private donations), had to have at least 1000 hours of flying experience. They underwent the same physical and psychological tests as the men and did as well or better at them: all passed phase I, several went on to phase II, and two completed the final phase III. This was not because any failed II or III, but because they didn’t have the resources to attempt them.

When the Thirteen gathered at Pensacola to show their abilities, the Navy instantly halted the demonstration, using the excuse that it was not an official NASA program. The women, some of whom had abandoned jobs and marriages for this, took their case to Congress. Several people – among them “hero” John Glenn – testified that women were not eligible to fly in space because 1) they didn’t have the exact advanced degrees specified by NASA (neither did Glenn, but he got in without a whisper) and the agency would not accept equivalents and 2) they were prohibited from flying military jets (yet women flew such jets from factories to airfields in WWII; when some of the Mercury 13 flew military jets to qualify, NASA simply ratcheted up that rule).

Space aficionados may recall that the Mercury program’s nickname was “man in a can” – the astronauts had so little control that engineers had to manufacture buttons and levers to give them the illusion of it. Nevertheless, NASA made military jet piloting experience a rule because such men, notorious cockerels, were considered to have The Right Stuff – and Congress used this crutch to summarily scuttle the Mercury 13 initiative, although there was brief consideration of adding women to space missions to “improve crew morale” (broadly interpreted).

It took twenty years for NASA to decide to accept women as astronauts. Just before it did so, hack-turned-fanboi-prophet Arthur C. Clarke sent a letter to Time crowing that he had “predicted” the “problem” brought up by astronaut Mike Collins, who opined that women could never be in the space program, because the bouncing of their breasts in zero G would distract the men. When taken to task, Clarke responded that 1) some of his best friends were women, 2) didn’t women want alpha-male astronauts to find them attractive?? and 3) libbers’ tone did nothing to help their cause. Sound familiar?

Women have become “common” in space flight – except that the total number of spacenauts who are women is still 11% of the total. Furthermore, given that the major part of today’s space effort is not going to Mars or even the Moon but scraping fungus off surfaces of the ISS or equivalent, being an astronaut now is closer to being a housecleaner than an hero. We haven’t come so far after all, and we’re not going much further.

I’m one of the few who believe that women’s rights and successful space exploration (as well as maintenance of our planet) are inextricably linked. As I wrote elsewhere:

“I personally believe that our societal 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. The various attempts to improve women’s status, ever subject to setbacks and backlashes, are our marks of successful struggle against reflexive institutionalized misogyny. 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.”

This holds doubly for space exploration – for the goals we set for it, the methods we employ to achieve it and the way we act if/when we reach our destinations.

Addendum: I did not discuss Valentina Tereshkova, who was both the first woman cosmonaut and the first civilian to fly into space. because I wanted to keep the focus of this article on NASA.  Nevertheless, I should mention her as well as Sveltana Savitskaya, the first woman to do a space walk, whose first mission preceded that of Sally Ride.

Sources and further reading

Martha Ackmann, The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight

Julie Phillips, James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (one source of the Clarke “distracting breasts” incident and also excellent in its own right)

Site dedicated to the Mercury 13: http://www.mercury13.com/

2nd Image: some of the Mercury 13, gathered to watch the launch in which Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot a space shuttle mission. Left to right: Gene Nora Stumbough, Mary Wallace Funk, Geraldyn Cobb, Jerri Hamilton, Sarah Gorelick, Myrtle Cagle, Bernice Trimble.

The Other Half of the Sky

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

I made three appearances in this year’s Readercon: I gave a talk about transhumanism, I was part of a panel that discussed time travel and — last but very decidedly not least — we officially unveiled the SF anthology I am editing. We now have a publisher, as enthusiastic about the project as we are: Candlemark and Gleam, headed by Kate Sullivan. Kay Holt of Crossed Genres, my co-editor in this venture, put together a neat flyer for which she did artwork that reminds me of black-figure Attic vases.

The anthology will bear the title The Other Half of the Sky. Here’s what I said in my outline:

“Women may hold up more than half the sky on earth, but it has been different in heaven: Science fiction still is very much a preserve of male protagonists, mostly performing by-the-numbers quests.

The Other Half of the Sky offers readers heroes who happen to be women, doing whatever they would do in universes where they’re fully human: Starship captains, planet rulers, explorers, scientists, artists, engineers, craftspeople, pirates, rogues…

As one of the women in Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” says: “We sing a lot. Adventure songs, work songs, mothering songs, mood songs, trouble songs, joke songs, love songs – everything.” Everything.

The panel flowed like a sea swell. Four of the authors invited to participate in the anthology (Sue Lange, Ken Liu, Vandana Singh and Joan Slonczewski) discussed it along with Kay and me. Alex Jablokov, another of the invited authors, was also there to lend moral support. We discussed why we embarked on the venture, why we think it covers less-trodden ground and how each author conceived their story within the framework I constructed.

Each participant brought up unique and interesting items pertinent to the larger concerns of the anthology. Among them: interactions with aliens that play out differently from the standard “colonize/annihilate” mode; the reciprocal influence of language and perceptions; the fact that you can have space opera with “regular” people as protagonists, rather than Chosen Ones; the complex requirements for space travel and their intersection with our needs on this planet.

The audience was eager to know when the anthology will appear (spring 2013, barring unexpected obstacles) and asked if we plan a series! So we seem to have struck a chord — maybe even a new melody on the old instrument. I want to thank everyone who helped create this intricate tapestry of a discussion.

Image: art for the anthology flyer for Readercon by Kay Holt.

“Arsenic” Life or: There Is TOO a Dragon in My Garage!

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

GFAJ-1 is an arsenate-resistant, phosphate-dependent organism — title of the paper by Erb et al, Science, July 2012

Everyone will recall the hype and theatrical gyrations which accompanied NASA’s announcement in December 2010 that scientists funded by NASA astrobiology grants had “discovered alien life” – later modified to “alternative terrestrial biochemistry” which somehow seemed tailor-made to prove the hypothesis of honorary co-author Paul Davies about life originating from a “shadow biosphere”.

As I discussed in The Agency that Cried “Awesome!, the major problem was not the claim per se but the manner in which it was presented by Science and NASA and the behavior of its originators. It was an astonishing case of serial failure at every single level of the process: the primary researcher, the senior supervisor, the reviewers, the journal, the agency. The putative and since disproved FTL neutrinos stand as an interesting contrast: in that case, the OPERA team announced it to the community as a puzzle, and asked everyone who was willing and able to pick their results apart and find whatever error might be lurking in their methods of observation or analysis.

Those of us who are familiar with bacteria and molecular/cellular biology techniques knew instantly upon reading the original “arsenic life” paper that it was so shoddy that it should never have been published, let alone in a top-ranking journal like Science: controls were lacking or sloppy, experiments crucial for buttressing the paper’s conclusions were missing, while other results contradicted the conclusions stated by the authors. It was plain that what the group had discovered and cultivated were extremophilic bacteria that were able to tolerate high arsenic concentrations but still needed phosphorus to grow and divide.

The paper’s authors declined to respond to any but “peer-reviewed” rebuttals. A first round of eight such rebuttals, covering the multiple deficiencies of the work, accompanied its appearance in the print version of Science (a very unusual step for a journal). Still not good enough for the original group: now only replication of the entire work would do. Of course, nobody wants to spend time and precious funds replicating what they consider worthless. Nevertheless, two groups finally got exasperated enough to do exactly that, except they also performed the crucial experiments missing in the original paper: for example, spectrometry to discover if arsenic is covalently bound to any of the bacterium’s biomolecules and rigorous quantification of the amount of phosphorus present in the feeding media. The salient results from both studies, briefly:

— The bacteria do not grow if phosphorus is rigorously excluded;
— There is no covalently bound arsenic in their DNA;
— There is a tiny amount of arsenic in their sugars, but this happens abiotically.

The totality of the results suggests that GFAJ-1 bacteria have found a way to sequester toxic arsenic (already indicated by their appearance) and to preferentially ingest and utilize the scant available phosphorus. I suspect that future work on them will show that they have specialized repair enzymes and ion pumps. This makes the strain as interesting as other exotic extremophiles – no less, but certainly no more.

What has been the response of the people directly involved? Here’s a sample:

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, first author of the “arsenic-life” paper: “There is nothing in the data of these new papers that contradicts our published data.”

Ronald Oremland, Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s supervisor for the GFAJ-1 work: “… at this point I would say it [the door of “arsenic based” life] is still just a tad ajar, with points worthy of further study before either slamming it shut or opening it further and allowing more knowledge to pass through.”

John Tainer, Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s current supervisor: “There are many reasons not to find things — I don’t find my keys some mornings. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

Michael New, astrobiologist, NASA headquarters: “Though these new papers challenge some of the conclusions of the original paper, neither paper invalidates the 2010 observations of a remarkable micro-organism.”

At least Science made a cautious stab at reality in its editorial, although it should have spared everyone — the original researchers included — by retracting the paper and marking it as retracted for future reference. The responses are so contrary to fact and correct scientific practice (though familiar to politician-watchers) that I am forced to conclude that perhaps the OPERA neutrino results were true after all, and I live in a universe in which it is possible to change the past via time travel.

Science is an asymptotic approach to truth; but to reach that truth, we must let go of hypotheses in which we may have become emotionally vested. That is probably the hardest internal obstacle to doing good science. The attachment to a hypothesis, coupled with the relentless pressure to be first, original, paradigm-shifting can lead to all kinds of dangerous practices – from cutting corners and omitting results that “don’t fit” to outright fraud. This is particularly dangerous when it happens to senior scientists with clout and reputations, who can flatten rivals and who often have direct access to pop media. The result is shoddy science and a disproportionate decrease of scientists’ credibility with the lay public.

The two latest papers have done far more than “challenge” the original findings. Sagan may have said that “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” but he also explained how persistent lack of evidence after attempts from all angles must eventually lead to the acceptance that there is no dragon in that garage, no unicorn in that secret glade, no extant alternative terrestrial biochemistry, only infinite variations at its various scales. It’s time to put “arsenic-based life” in the same attic box that holds ether, Aristotle’s homunculi, cold fusion, FTL neutrinos, tumors dissolved by prayer. The case is obviously still open for alternative biochemistry beyond our planet and for alternative early forms on earth that went extinct without leaving traces.

We scientists have a ton of real work to do without wasting our pitifully small and constantly dwindling resources and without muddying the waters with refuse. Being human, we cannot help but occasionally fall in love with our hypotheses. But we have to take that bitter reality medicine and keep on exploring; the universe doesn’t care what we like but still has wonders waiting to be discovered. I hope that Felisa Wolfe-Simon remains one of the astrogators, as long as she realizes that following a star is not the same as following a will-o’-the-wisp — and that knowingly and willfully following the latter endangers the starship and its crew.

Relevant links:

The Agency that Cried “Awesome!”

The earlier rebuttals in Science

The Erb et al paper (Julia Vorholt, senior author)

The Reaves et al paper (Rosemary Rosefield, senior author)

Images: 2nd, Denial by Bill Watterson; 3rd, The Fool (Rider-Waite tarot deck, by Pamela Cole Smith)

Uppity Women and Neo-Nazi Rabid Dogs

Saturday, June 9th, 2012

[Note: the video that shows the incident I am about to describe has gone viral. I won’t link to any of its versions, because most of the comments are literally nauseating. ]

On Wednesday, Hellenic TV station Ant1 held a discussion roundtable with parliamentary members from six of the seven major political parties. Among them were two women: 38-year old Réna Dhoúrou of SYRIZA, the leftist party that came unexpectedly a very close second in the May elections, upsetting the usual cozy arrangements; and 58-year old Liána Kanélli of KKE, the Communist party (the only one in the world that’s still staunchly Stalinist, but that’s another conversation). Kanélli is notorious – an outspoken, spirited, if arrogant firebrand, widely considered to be a lesbian (bear with me, this becomes relevant anon). As a reporter, she was the first woman in many media venues. Also invited to the talk show was 31-year-old Elías Kasidhiáris, deputy of the neo-nazi party Golden Dawn.

For those sequestered in silently running nuclear submarines, Golden Dawn got 7% of the vote in the May elections, gaining seats in the parliament – the first time such a thing has happened since World War II (not counting the junta). Its platform is the standard troglodytic garbage: ethnic purity, “natural” order – which includes the de jure disenfranchisement of women and Others – and bodily violence against those who disagree. Its members regularly assault immigrants, minorities and journalists as well as other “undesirables”, with tolerance (if not cooperation) from the police and portions of the media. Mass murderer Anders Breivik listed Golden Dawn in his diary as the likeliest group to “cleanse” Europe.

It came as no surprise that the vast majority of the half million who voted for Golden Dawn were people craving “law and order” in a country that increasingly lacks the resources to deal effectively and humanely with its flood of illegal immigrants… and policemen. Kasidhiáris himself is on trial for participating in the robbery and stabbing of an academic in 2007 (as is customary with Hellenic justice, the trial has been repeatedly postponed). Yet this did not prevent him from running and getting elected for national office.

To anyone speaking Hellenic, it becomes obvious when you watch the video that Kasidhiáris was as well-informed as Sarah Palin. The two women, Kanélli in particular, let him know this. His response was standard: first he accused them of bringing “personal matters” (namely, his impending trial) into politics. Then, after a brief exchange of verbal insults, he flung a glass of water at Dhoúrou’s face. The three male politicians present sat through this like statues while the talk host made feeble mewling noises. The only one who did something was Kanélli, who went toward Kasidhiáris brandishing a newspaper.

To show that he doesn’t take guff from uppity broads, even ones old enough to be his mother, Kasidhiáris jumped out of his seat and hit Kanélli three times. On the face. The first was a slap. The other two were left-right closed-fist punches.

He then threatened he would “return with reinforcements” and somehow managed to escape from the TV station to “parts unknown” (almost certainly the offices of Golden Dawn) to avoid the automatic arrest warrant for assault which, by a quirk of Hellenic law, expires within 48 hours of its issue. The police, not surprisingly, have been “unable to find him” – even though he issued a lengthy (and presumably traceable) statement from his ultra-secret location, in which he said that Kanélli should be the one to be arrested and face assault charges because she “attacked him first”. The head of his party stuck by him, arguing that the incident had been blown out of proportion and, in any case, the two women are really to blame because, well, they provoked him and what’s a manly man to do except respond (literally) two-fistedly?

Sound familiar? The tactics of cowardly bullies do not change across time and cultures. Yet even more mind-boggling is the enormous number of people who opined anonymously online that “the cunt had it coming” and “finally, someone put the fat ugly dyke in her place.” Kanélli infuriates many people because she won’t shut up or back down; she has been bodily attacked before as a symbol of “corrupt politics”, even though her party has never governed the country (incidentally, I disagree with many of her positions, but that’s irrelevant to this discussion).

So the obvious solution to society’s ills is to beat this outspoken woman until she stops speaking, the traditional “remedy” for termagants who do not exhibit the feminine virtues of compliance and silence. When this happens people cheer gleefully, not realizing that thugs like Kasidhiáris make no distinctions: everything around them gets smashed. Women are just the canaries in this particular mine. They are the first to become non-humans whenever fascism raises its banner, making hatred and fear steeds for its chariot. Kanélli made the point explicitly after the assault: “It happened to be my face,” she said, “but there are many faces that get hit by these people – faces of weak and scared victims that we never see.”

The only good thing about this incident, the latest of many, is that it may act as a wake-up call to all those who thought they were striking a blow against the despised political status quo by voting for Golden Dawn. Democracy has always been wobbly in the land that invented it. My parents lived through repression and persecution; I lived through the colonels’ junta. I don’t want to see my people repeat the horrific mistake of giving power to beasts who wear the skins of humans.

Images: 1st, Liána Kanélli; 2nd, Réna Dhoúrou

Related articles:

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

False Dawn or Challenge to Germanic Hegemony?

Update 1: A representative of the Cypriot equivalent of Golden Dawn was asked on TV, “Do you consider it right to hit a woman?” His response: “Do you consider Kanélli a woman?” Beyond confirming how neo-nazis define “real” women, this particular rabid dog also conveniently elided that being “womanly” has never protected women from getting beaten, raped or killed.

Update 2: The head of Golden Dawn stated that Kasidhiáris didn’t hit Kanélli, he “just kept her at a distance with his hands” — and what’s with this sudden chivalry, don’t bitches claim they want equal treatment? It would be funny if it weren’t chilling.

Update 3: Kasidhiáris, tightly surrounded by half a dozen “companions”, showed up at a police precinct as soon as the 48 hours elapsed to sue Dhoúrou, Kanélli and the TV station, and to demand that the state put taps on the phone of everyone he sued as well as on the phone of the (female) justice who issued his arrest warrant.

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

Monday, June 4th, 2012

I’ve been an addicted bookworm ever since I taught myself to read at the age of four. My parents never restricted my book access, leaving me to roam untrammeled through full-bore fiction and non-fiction from the get-go. My fairy tales and myths were unexpurgated; so was my country’s painful history, unfolding right before my eyes. Whenever I dipped into “age-appropriate” books, I detested the didacticism, the insipidity, the contrived dilemmas. Even with my limited life experience, I knew watery gruel when I tasted it.

So I hardly ever read Young Adult (YA) works, even when I was YA myself. From time to time I try again, only to confirm that my allergy appears to be permanent. This puts me in several quandaries: SF/F, one of my mainstay genres, has an enormous YA component – in fact, can be considered YA almost in its entirety in terms of its proclivities; the YA domain is a major venue for women writers and a major showcase for women protagonists. Yet I constantly run into bumps, even when authors try hard… sometimes, especially when authors try hard.

One of these bumps is magic, which I find tiresome with few and ever fewer exceptions. Most fantasy magic is paper-thin, incoherent and shifts arbitrarily to fit plot points and generate dei ex machina (two better-than-average recent fantasies, Sherwood Smith’s The Banner of the Damned and Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts would have been far better works without magic, in my opinion). Another is the persistent neoteny I discussed in a previous essay. Within that category, a near-constant irritant is the “finding one’s self” theme endemic in Anglophone YA fiction. Which brings us once again to cultural parochialism, lack of imagination, possibly market niche cynicism… plus that dreaded term: agency.

“Finding one’s self” appears as a near-default trope for a culture obsessed with youth’s trappings (Flat bellies! Hard muscles! Perky breasts and perkier penises!) that still believes in the libertarian myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps: the idea that you can become rich, famous and powerful provided you’re Chosen and that everyone has a near-infinity of choices for everything, from their breakfast cereal to their identity. So in a standard YA – and not just YA – story arc the protagonist must find himself (I use the male pronoun deliberately, since this narrative is essentially defined by masculine/masculinized parameters), usually through a conflict that ticks off the ersatz-mythic checklist points of the Campbel/lite quest.

Reading bits of contemporary YA SF/F (a few pages at a time is the most I can manage before breaking out in hives) it hit me why “personal growth” quests are omnipresent in them: most of the stories are products of cookie cutters. The characters are not individualized enough to register as fully dimensional people, so the canned conflicts are meant to give them some substance as well as move the standardized plot along (including the almost-mandatory assembly of the quest team, a direct import from RPG games). There is no personality delineation beyond occasional resort to verbal tricks for quick recognition, which is one reason why almost all the recent SF/F YA works I read form a single lumpy blur in my memory banks.

Mind you, Homer used such tricks: “gray-eyed Athena”, “horse-fighting Hector”. However, these occurred in a long oral epic in which they served as memory aids to both bard and audience. Furthermore, Homer did not confine his characterizations to these shortcuts. We know what Hector felt when he took leave of Andromache and Astyanax. We know what Achilles felt when Priam was begging him for Hector’s body. Homer (or whoever wrote the Iliad) did not have to write those passages, they’re not critical to the forward motion of the epic. But by doing so, the bard made us care – and Andromache, trying not to weep as she watches her husband’s jaunty helmet plume dwindle in the distance, brands herself in our memory.

The default setting of semi-infinite flexibility also plays a role in the boilerplate depictions of what constitutes self discovery. An occasional critique I get for my fiction is that my protagonists are usually fully formed when my stories start and don’t “evolve” to satisfy the growth-through-adversity mandate. Sort of like Antigone and Odysseus, who also appear fully formed, even though their actions are shaped by the sum of their external and internal circumstances. Yet I doubt either would be considered a dull thud: they have urgent lives to manage beyond just “growing into their full potential”.

My native culture has undergone more than its share of upheavals, and the ensuing hardship and instability make it less able to luxuriate in choices; by both tradition and necessity, it also demands that its members make many crucial life decisions early – and often the choices are constrained so strongly that they appear almost preordained. These constraints, incidentally, also hold for such domains as contemporary research science. For someone with my cultural background and professional experiences, the concept of fiction protagonists spending endless sequels rolling dice for their D&D designations appears neither organic nor compelling.

Not surprisingly, this brings us to agency – women characters’ agency in particular. Agency – aka women as more than decorative or useful furniture – has been a perennial issue in speculative fiction, especially in the grittygrotty pornokitch subgenre cave. On parallel lines, people have observed that the still-too-sparse SF/F women protagonists are deemed fully worthy only if they “kick ass” (with video game prototypes like Lara Croft leading the way). However, the problem is more systemic than that: characters of all ages get shoehorned into the Procrustean bunkbed of the teenage self-discovery quest. This is simply more obvious for women because, with the exception of the occasional magical crone, most SF/F hardly ever shows women past the age of “peak attractiveness” – which for the US has been relentlessly shifting to the younger and thinner end of the spectrum, except for the obligatory pneumatic breasts.

In almost all SF/F YA works we rarely if ever see full adults, especially women, doing the nuanced, shaded things adults do: work at things they care for and often are good at; love, hate and everything in between; create and preserve and sometimes destroy; grow old and experienced, if not always wise; but above all, go through the myriad small struggles and pleasures that constitute a full life. The artificiality and interchangeability of the standard conflicts makes most YA books as individualized (and as nutritional) as movie theater popcorn – in large part because their readers’ cortices register that nothing really crucial is at stake, no matter how many djinn or dark-magic wizards are involved.

To put it simply, heroes in both real life and non-popcorn fiction often have little choice (and to be crystal-clear, “heroes” include non-male people – once again I use the term deliberately because “heroine” has very different connotations). What makes non-messianic people heroes is when in unusual circumstances they surpass their usual selves. Heroes feel fear, doubt, guilt, grief for their actions; what they don’t do is navel-gaze, because they’re busy with far more substantive struggles. Give me an artisan with a thickened waist whose arthritis is hobbling her but who retains the passion to push against formidable obstacles while still appreciating her wine. I’ll take her over all the homogenized teenager Chosen Ones of YA SF/F.



War for the Country

By Viktoría Theodhórou – Poet, resistance fighter

A soft mat she found and sat down, upon the leaves.
A song emerges from the flute of her throat,
softly, so her dozing companions don’t awaken,
just so it accompanies their dreams.
Her hands don’t stay still, she takes up thread and needle
to darn their wool socks with the hand grenade
she always carries at her waist, with it she lies and rises.
The grenade inside the sock, round and oblivious
to its fire, thinks it’s a wooden egg,
that the country was freed and the war ended
and Katia is not a partisan in the snow-covered woods –
that she sits by the window behind the white lilacs
and sews the socks of her beloved, who came home whole.

Images: 1st, Tree of Books, by Vlad Gerasimov; 2nd, Hector and Andromache, Giorgio de Chirico; 3rd, magical crones: Fin Raziel in Willow (Patricia Hayes), The Oracle in The Matrix (Gloria Foster)

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

[Re-posted modified EvoPsycho Bingo Card — click on image for bigger version]

One of the unlovely things that has been happening in Anglophone SF/F (in line with resurgent religious fundamentalism and erosion of democratic structures in the First World, as well as economic insecurity that always prompts “back to the kitchen” social politics) is the resurrection of unapologetic – nay, triumphant – misogyny beyond the already low bar in the genre. The churners of both grittygrotty “epic” fantasy and post/cyberpunk dystopias are trying to pass rape-rife pornkitsch as daring works that swim against the tide of rampant feminism and its shrill demands.

When people explain why such works are problematic, their authors first employ the standard “Me Tarzan You Ape” dodges: mothers/wives get trotted out to vouch for their progressiveness, hysteria and censorship get mentioned. Then they get really serious: as artists of vision and integrity, they cannot but depict women solely as toilet receptacles because 1) that has been the “historical reality” across cultures and eras and 2) men have rape genes and/or rape brain modules that arose from natural selection to ensure that dominant males spread their mighty seed as widely as possible. Are we cognitively impaired functionally illiterate feminazis daring to deny (ominous pause) SCIENCE?!

Now, it’s one thing to like cocoa puffs. It’s another to insist they are either nutritional powerhouses or haute cuisine. If the hacks who write this stuff were to say “Yeah, I write wet fantasies for guys who live in their parents’ basement. I get off doing it, it pays the bills and it has given me a fan base that can drool along with me,” I’d have nothing to say against it, except to advise people above the emotional age of seven not to buy the bilge. However, when they try to argue that their stained wads are deeply philosophical, subversive literature validated by scientific “evidence”, it’s time to point out that they’re talking through their lower digestive opening. Others have done the cleaning service for the argument-from-history. Here I will deal with the argument-from-science.

It’s funny how often “science” gets brandished as a goad or magic wand to maintain the status quo – or bolster sloppy thinking and confirmation biases. When women were barred from higher education, “science” was invoked to declare that their small brains would overheat and intellectual stress would shrivel their truly useful organs, their wombs. In our times, pop evopsychos (many of them failed SF authors turned “futurists”) intone that “recent studies prove” that the natural and/or ideal human social configuration is a hybrid of a baboon troop and fifties US suburbia. However, if we followed “natural” paradigms we would not recognize paternity, have multiple sex partners, practice extensive abortion and infanticide and have powerful female alliances that determine the status of our offspring.

I must acquaint Tarzanists with the no-longer-news that there are no rape genes, rape hormones or rape brain modules. Anyone who says this has been “scientifically proved” has obviously got his science from FOX News or knuckledraggers like Kanazawa (who is an economist, by the way, and would not recognize real biological evidence if it bit him on the gonads). Here’s a variation of the 1986 Seville Statement that sums up what I will briefly outline further on. It goes without saying that most of what follows is shorthand and also not GenSci 101.

It is scientifically (not politically) incorrect to say that:
1. we have inherited a tendency to rape from our animal ancestors;
2. rape is genetically programmed into our nature;
3. in the course of our evolution there has been a positive selection for rape;
4. humans brains are wired for rape;
5. rape is caused by instinct.

Let’s get rid of the tired gene chestnut first. As I’ve discussed elsewhere at length, genes do not determine brain wiring or complex behavior (as always in biology, there are a few exceptions: most are major decisions in embryo/neurogenesis with very large outcomes like Down syndrome, aka trisomy 21). Experiments that purported to find direct links between genes and higher behavior were invariably done in mice (animals that differ decisively from humans) and the sweeping conclusions of such studies have always had to be ratcheted down or discarded altogether, although in lower-ranking journals than the original effusions.

Then we have hormones and the “male/female brain dichotomy” pushed by neo-Freudians like Baron-Cohen. They even posit a neat-o split whereby too much “masculinizing” during brain genesis leads to autism, too much “feminizing” to schizophrenia. Following eons-old dichotomies, people who theorize thusly shoehorn the two into the left and right brain compartments respectively, assigning a gender to each: females “empathize”, males “systematize” – until it comes to those intuitive leaps that make for paradigm-changing scientists or other geniuses, whereby these oh-so-radical theorists neatly reverse the tables and both creativity and schizophrenia get shifted to the masculine side of the equation.

Now although hormones play critical roles in all our functions, it so happens that the cholesterol-based ones that become estrogen, testosterone, etc are two among several hundred that affect us. What is most important is not the absolute amount of a hormone, but its ratios to others and to body weight, as well as the sensitivity of receptors to it. People generally do not behave aberrantly if they don’t have the “right” amount of a sex hormone (which varies significantly from person to person), but if there is a sudden large change to their homeostasis – whether this is crash menopause from ovariectomy, post-partum depression or heavy doses of anabolic steroids for body building.

Furthermore, as is the case with gene-behavior correlation, much work on hormones has been done in mice. When similar work is done with primates (such as testosterone or estrogen injections at various points during fetal or postnatal development), the hormones have essentially no effect on behavior. Conversely, very young human babies lack gender-specific responses before their parents start to socialize them. As well, primates show widely different “cultures” within each species in terms of gender behavior, including care of infants by high-status males. It looks increasingly like “sex” hormones do not wire rigid femininity or masculinity, and they most certainly don’t wire propensity to rape; instead, they seem to prime individuals to adopt the habits of their surrounding culture – a far more adaptive configuration than the popsci model of “women from Venus, men from Mars.”

So on to brain modularity, today’s phrenology. While it is true that there are some localized brain functions (the processing of language being a prominent example), most brain functions are diffuse, the higher executive ones particularly so – and each brain is wired slightly differently, dependent on the myriad details of its context across time and place. Last but not least, our brains are plastic (otherwise we would not form new memories, nor be able to acquire new functions), though the windows of flexibility differ across scales and in space and time.

The concept of brain modularity comes partly from the enormously overused and almost entirely incorrect equivalence of the human brain to a computer. Another problem lies in the definition of a module, which varies widely and as a result is prone to abuse by people who get their knowledge of science from new-age libertarian tracts. There is essentially zero evidence of the “strong” version of brain modules, and modular organization at the level of genes, cells or organ compartments does not guarantee a modular behavioral outcome. But even if we take it at face value, it is clear that rape does not adhere to the criteria of either the “weak” (Fodor) or “strong (Carruthers) version for such an entity: it does not fulfill the requirements of domain specificity, fast processing, fixed neural architecture, mandatoriness or central inaccessibility.

In the behavioral domain, rape is not an adaptive feature: most of it is non-reproductive, visited upon pre-pubescent girls, post-menopausal women and other men. Moreover, rape does not belong to the instinctive “can’t help myself” reflexes grouped under the Four Fs. Rape does not occur spontaneously: it is usually planned with meticulous preparation and it requires concentration and focus to initiate and complete. So rape has nothing to do with reproductive maxima for “alpha males” (who don’t exist biologically in humans) – but it may have to do with the revenge of aggrieved men who consider access to women an automatic right.

What is undeniable is that humans are extremely social and bend themselves to fit context norms. This ties to Arendt’s banality of evil and Niemöller’s trenchant observations about solidarity – and to the outcomes of Milgram and Zimbardo’s notorious experiments which have been multiply mirrored in real history, with the events in the Abu Ghraib prison prominent among them. So if rape is tolerated or used as a method for compliance, it is no surprise that it is a prominent weapon in the arsenal of keeping women “in their place” and also no surprise that its apologists aspire to give it the status of indisputably hardwired instinct.

Given the steep power asymmetry between the genders ever since the dominance of agriculture led to women losing mobility, gathering skills and control over pregnancies, it is not hard to see rape as the cultural artifact that it is. It’s not a sexual response; it’s a blunt assertion of rank in contexts where dominance is a major metric: traditional patriarchal families, whether monogamous or polygynous; religions and cults (most of which are extended patriarchal families); armies and prisons; tribal vendettas and initiations.

So if gratuitous depictions of graphic rape excite a writer, that is their prerogative. If they get paid for it, bully for them. But it doesn’t make their work “edgy” literature; it remains cheap titillation that attempts to cloak arrant failures of talent, imagination and just plain scholarship. Insofar as such work has combined sex and violence porn as its foundation, it should be classified accordingly. Mythologies, including core religious texts, show rape in all its variations: there is nothing novel or subversive about contemporary exudations. In my opinion, nobody needs to write yet another hack work that “interrogates” misogyny by positing rape and inherent, immutable female inferiority as natural givens – particularly not white Anglo men who lead comfortable lives that lack any knowledge to justify such a narrative. The fact that people with such views are over-represented in SF/F is toxic for the genre.

Further reading:

A brief overview of the modularity of the brain/mind
Athena Andreadis (2010). The Tempting Illusion of Genetic Virtue. Politics Life Sci. 29:76-80
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding
Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World
Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender
Alison Jolly, Lucy’s Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution
Rebecca Jordan-Young, Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences
Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown, Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour
Edouard Machery and Kara Cohen (2012). An Evidence-Based Study of the Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. Brit J Philos Sci 263: 177-226

The Asymptotic Approach

Monday, March 19th, 2012

The first round of the NIH budget petition that I discussed in my previous entry fell 400 signatures short by the deadline. Research scientists are nothing if not tenacious, so a second round has begun. I think this will make it, but it speaks volumes about the US public’s acceptance/understanding/appreciation of biomedical research that scientists can’t collect 25,000 signatures in a month — even a shorter one like February.

Speaking of tenacity in a more cheerful context, Chris Jones recently spoke with me on Trek.fm about life in concentric circles, starting with extremophiles on Earth, moving out to Mars, Europa, Titan, Enceladus… then onto solar systems beyond ours, whether populated by watery Neptunes or super-Earths.

“And If I Cried Out, Who Would Hear Me…?”

Monday, March 12th, 2012

— Reiner Maria Rilke, the first line of The Duino Elegies

You may recall I wrote about the condition of biomedical research a while ago: Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears.

The NIH, the sole major funding source for such research, has stagnated for the last decade. People are trying to get a measly single-digit increase this year to staunch the bleeding. To get considered, the relevant petition must gather 25,000 signatures by this Sunday, March 18. If you care about basic research or therapeutic applications, follow this White House link. You will need to create an account, but the only thing they request are your name and e-mail. You can also boost this signal, if you wish. This part of the future may still be in our hands, if we don’t sit passively by.  Thank you.

Image: Allies, Susan Seddon Boulet.

Sex by Choice: the Highest Compliment

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Anyone with a functioning cortex knew that Rush Limbaugh is a vile slug from the moment he uttered his first nasty lie. His recent comments about accomplished, brave law student Sandra Fluke are not surprising, nor is his stone-ignorant equation of contraception with frequency of intercourse: he must have confused responsible sex with his own frantic consumption of Viagra – now there’s unnaturally-induced sex on demand! However, Limbaugh is not the disease, merely its symptom. The belated, lukewarm bleatings and hedgings from the Republican “leadership” and from his advertisers are telling, as is their obfuscation of the fact that contraception is already covered by health insurance; the sole difference is the existence of a co-pay.

In the last year or so, we have seen exclusion of women from decisions that affect them almost exclusively, attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, to define miscarriage as murder, to add invasive, needless sonograms to the already enormous difficulties of getting an abortion. The freak show parade that is this year’s Republican presidential lineup is banging the tin drum of “returning to family values” — aka female poverty and powerlessness, probably because all of them have little knowledge of and interest in education, the environment, the economy, international diplomacy or anything of value to anyone beyond Ponzi-scheme millionaires who live in gated communities with private security. The US is going the way of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia – perhaps a fitting trajectory, since the country seems unwilling or unable to curb its fossil fuel consumption.

The open war on women declared by the Republican Party shows how the Teabaggers and Jesufascists have kidnapped rational, civil discourse in favor of a punitive primitivism that denies basic human decency and is steadily encroaching on hard-won women’s rights. It is no surprise that most foes of contraception are fundies of abrahamic religions, which are disasters for women in any case. However, make no mistake about it: contraception has nothing to do with freedom of religion. The kernel of this sickening backlash is the wish to deny women autonomy. Nothing changed the dynamics of gender interactions like contraception. For the first time in human history, women could reliably regulate the outcome of sexual congress. It removed the specter of unwanted pregnancy – and with that, women could enjoy sex as uninhibitedly as men, finally undoing the predator/prey equation so beloved of evo-psycho Tarzanists the world over.

Ironically, the exercise of contraception, which makes joyful sex possible, is uniquely human. The only partial exception may be our bonobo cousins, who use sex as social glue (often, note bene, initiated by the female members of the group). Contrary to the corrosive lies of benighted fundies, most animals do not choose sex. They go into heat and mate compulsively. In some cases, females exercise mate choice; in others, mating pairs form monogamous bonds. But only humans incorporate sex into their repertoire of chosen pleasures, whether they’re fertile or not. So contrary to the idiotic natterings that “sex on demand” is animal-like, exercising sexual choice is in fact the highest compliment for the activity. It transforms it from instinct, compulsion or random outcome solidly into something treasured, something freely chosen – which, again contrary to the fundies’ nonsense, makes it far more meaningful and powerful than the joyless autopilot version. It is the opposite of prostitution, which is undertaken as a profession and requires control and foregoing of spontaneous pleasure by its practitioners – not that Limbaugh et al are clear on complex concepts.

This is what contraception made possible, and what is at stake here. If people want human women to become truly animal-like, they should recall that most mammals do not recognize paternity, the most common family unit is a female with sub-adult offspring and female mammals routinely abort or kill offspring when they deem the circumstances unpropitious for raising a brood. And if they think that contraception is murder, they can return to the good old days when masturbation was in a similar category. However, all this hypocrisy and twisting of facts really attempts to cloud the core issue: women as equals. By targeting this, the Jesufascists and their ilk across all nations and religions are playing on the primitive fears of men, especially at times of instability and unrest, when it’s far easier to turn on Others than to act constructively for a better collective future. As James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) famously had a protagonist state in The Women Men Don’t See:

“Women have no rights, except what men allow us. Men // run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like—like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.”

Contrary to Freud’s notorious question, the recurrent problem of civilization, as prevalent today as in ancient Sumer, is how to define male roles which satisfy male egos without wreaking terminal havoc. Women still have essentially no power – Tiptree’s dictum still obtains, even in the First World. I personally believe that our societal problems will persist as long as women are not treated as fully human, including the right to be sexual beings by choice. The resorting to medical excuses in support of available contraception, nice as it is, diverts the attention from the central, irreducible issue of women’s basic autonomy and fundamental rights as full humans. The various attempts to improve women’s status, ever subject to setbacks and backlashes, are our marks of successful struggle to attain our full species potential. If we cannot solve this thorny and persistent problem, we may still survive — we have thus far. However, I doubt that we’ll ever truly thrive, no matter what technological levels we achieve.

Won’t ANYONE Think of the Sexbots?!

Monday, February 20th, 2012

From 2008 to 2009 I was a fellow (gratis) of the Institute for Emerging Ethics and Technology. IEET is the public face of a non-libertarian branch of transhumanism that considers itself left-leaning progressive – by US standards, that is. In 2009 I left IEET, because the willful ignorance of biology and the evopsycho blather got to me (as did the fact that there were no non-white non-males in any position of power there). A month ago, they contacted me to ask if I would like to have more of my essays reprinted on their site, and if I’d answer a questionnaire.

The quality of the comments on the IEET site made me decide not to publish there. On the other hand, the questionnaire gave rise to thoughts, especially in light of the steady erosion of women’s status across the globe. I won’t quote lengthy specifics, they’re all around us: from US congressmen trying to pass laws that classify miscarriage as murder to the resurgence of religious fundamentalism and its relentless seepage into mainstream politics. Here’s the list of questions, which I call The Ok, The Bad and the Funny:

The Future of Feminism

  1. How do you think “sex selection” is going to impact women? In China and India, millions of female fetuses have been aborted… do you think this will continue as sex selection becomes more widespread? Or will it even out – or even favor girls? I’ve read that sex selectors choose girls over boys in places like South Korea and Japan…
  2. Women are advancing quickly in political and business positions. They are now 60% of college students, even in graduate programs. Do you think this trend will continue, enabling women to become the dominant gender in many parts of the world?
  3. Getting pregnant no longer requires a male mate. Do you predict a gradual or sudden decline of marriage, for this reason? Do you predict more single mothers-by-choice? An increasingly wide variety of family groups?
  4. Will men become irrelevant, if propagation can occur between two women via parthenogenesis? Is this something that is scientifically possible in the near future?
  5. Do you think the word “feminism” is going to be dated in 40-50 years, because we’ll moving towards a genderless society? That there will be numerous possible gender options, that are easily changeable? Or will there be “women” for at least the next 100 years?
  6. How do you think social institutions will change, as nations become “feminized” due to increasing female presence in power positions? Will increasing women’s power effect education? International relations? Economies? Democracy? the environment?
  7. I have noticed that women don’t seem as interested in cryonics, or life extension. Am I right about that? Why is that? Do you think women are as intrigued by immortality as men? If not, how will progress in life extension proceed in a future where men are declining in influence?
  8. Do you think male and female sex robots will be prevalent in the future? Will they dominate sexuality? Or will only men be interested in them? Will prostitution, and the sex industry in general, be impacted, or replaced by sexbots?
  9. Men presently – generally – have greater physical size and strength than women. Will this change in the future, via various enhancements and augmentations? Will the two genders become physically equal in all aspects? If so, how will this change the dynamics between them?
  10. Genetically, it appears that men are likely to be “outliers” – to be at the far extremes in either intelligence or stupidity. Do you see this changes in the future, via genetic engineering? Do you see women eventually winning 1/2 the Nobel Prizes every year, or even more, for example?
  11. There are still cultures that practice customs like Female Genital Mutilation and Arranged Marriages and Honor Killings. Do you see those misogynistic practices ending soon? Or will they be tolerated for several more decades, because many are disinclined to assert Western ideals on traditional cultures? How will notions about “religion” change as women gain in power?
  12. Do you see other technologies looming ahead that will deeply impact women? A male birth control pill, for example – how would that change society?
  13. Finally, do you see women entering science and tech in larger numbers? Do you think they have different interests in these fields? Do you think they have goals and inventions and purposes they want to accomplish, that differ from male goals/inventions/purposes?

The attentive reader will notice several overarching attributes.  Beyond the gender essentialism, half of the questions are “But… what about the men??” including the angst about family configurations, control of reproduction and, not least, sex robots – clearly, a burning issue. Also telling is that the questionnaire is titled “The Future of Feminism” rather than “The Future of Women”. Insofar as feminism is the simple yet radical notion that women are fully human and should be treated as such, it is frankly stunning that many people, and not just Anders Breivik or the Taliban, are virulently hostile to feminism. This speaks volumes about the prevailing assumptions of the first globally linked human civilization and its likeliest future direction: women’s prospects look ever bleaker as the global economy circles the drain, since women are shoved back into chattelship, illiteracy and poverty whenever there’s a downturn or an upheaval. Variations of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale have replayed in many places within my lifetime.

“Feminizing” keeps popping up in the questionnaire as well. It looks like the IEET definition of the term is “if at least one woman is present in X” regardless of the final configuration. As far as I’m concerned, for any X to be feminized it requires more than 50% female representation — and last I looked, men still own and run just about everything on this planet. Equally importantly, “feminizing” that makes a difference also requires the high female representation to be across the board (not stuffed into the lower echelons, as research techs in science or gofers in corporations and governments); last but decidedly not least, it requires that X not be devalued in prestige, authority and compensation because it is XX-heavy (math in Japan, partly because during the shogunate merchants were classified as below peasants, and samurai did not soil themselves with money affairs: their wives handled all that, hence no prestige was attached to numbers; medicine in the USSR: most doctors were women, and the perks and pay scale of the profession were low).

Yet another characteristic of the questionnaire is conflation of cause and effect. As one example, everyone knows that many more women should have won Nobels but they were pushed aside by ambitious men with influential mentors and devoted wives. Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin, Chien-Shiung Wu, Jocelyn Bell, Lynn Margulis, Jane Goodall, Susan Berget – to name just the very tip of the iceberg. Additionally, intelligence is far more complex than the isolated genius cliché propagated by the IEET questionnaire. As for idiotic suggestions by evopsychos — as a representative example, the contention that men bequeath genes “for brain size” from the Y chromosome, thereby making men routinely more intelligent than women: beyond contributions to spermatogenesis, the next major function determined by Y-linked genes is ear hair.

Here’s another example of muddled causation:  when women see that most men who sign up for cryonic preservation share the physical and emotional attributes of the male cast in The Big Bang Theory, no wonder they’re electing not to join these men in their thermos jar dreams – or in eternal post-rupture bliss (cryonics’ current zero chance of success strictly aside).

I could go on at considerable length but I won’t beat up on the questionnaire too much: it did try to include sciency questions, basic and unfocused as they were. Some of the questions amused me in a sad way, making me conclude that the movement might best be dubbed “transhumorism”. Nevertheless, the concerns mirrored in it do not bode well for the future of humanity. In the end, we will get the fate we deserve as a species. But I’ll say this much: feminism will become irrelevant when questionnaires like this become irrelevant.

Images: 1st, the cast of The Big Bang Theory (as well as an encapsulation of the dynamics); 2nd, self-explanatory; 3rd, the sex dolls of First Androids.

The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

“Science fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything. We can’t talk about science, because our knowledge of it is limited and unofficial, and usually our fiction is dreadful.”

Philip K. Dick

When Margaret Atwood stated that she does not write science fiction (SF) but speculative literature, many SF denizens reacted with what can only be called tantrums, even though Atwood defined what she means by SF. Her definition reflects a wide-ranging writer’s wish not to be pigeonholed and herded into tight enclosures inhabited by fundies and, granted, is narrower than is common: it includes what I call Leaden Era-style SF that sacrifices complex narratives and characters to gizmology and Big Ideas.

By defining SF in this fashion, Atwood made an important point: Big Ideas are the refuge of the lazy and untalented; works that purport to be about Big Ideas are invariably a tiny step above tracts. Now before anyone starts bruising my brain with encomia of Huxley, Asimov, Stephenson or Stross, let’s parse the meaning of “a story of ideas”. Like the anthropic principle, the term has a weak and a strong version. And as with the anthropic principle, the weak version is a tautology whereas the strong version is an article of, well, religious faith.

The weak version is a tautology for the simplest of reasons: all stories are stories of ideas. Even terminally dumb, stale Hollywood movies are stories of ideas. Over there, if the filmmakers don’t bother with decent worldbuilding, dialogue or characters, the film is called high concept (high as in tinny). Other disciplines call this approach a gimmick.

The strong version is similar to supremacist religious faiths, because it turns what discerning judgment and common sense classify as deficiencies to desirable attributes (Orwell would recognize this syndrome instantly). Can’t manage a coherent plot, convincing characters, original or believable worlds, well-turned sentences? Such cheap tricks are for heretics who read books written in pagan tongues! Acolytes of the True Faith… write Novels of Ideas! This dogma is often accompanied by its traditional mate, exceptionalism – as in “My god is better than yours.” Namely, the notion that SF is intrinsically “better” than mainstream literary fiction because… it looks to the future, rather than lingering in the oh-so-prosaic present… it deals with Big Questions rather than the trivial dilemmas of ordinary humans… or equivalent arguments of similar weight.

I’ve already discussed the fact that contemporary SF no longer even pretends to deal with real science or scientific extrapolation. As I said elsewhere, I think that the real division in literature, as in all art, is not between genre and mainstream, but between craft and hackery. Any body of work that relies on recycled recipes and sequels is hackery, whether this is genre or mainstream (as just one example of the latter, try to read Updike past the middle of his career). Beyond these strictures, however, SF/F suffers from a peculiar affliction: persistent neoteny, aka superannuated childishness. Most SF/F reads like stuff written by and for teenagers – even works that are ostensibly directed towards full-fledged adults.

Now before the predictable shrieks of “Elitist!” erupt, let me clarify something. Adult is not a synonym for opaque, inaccessible or precious. The best SF is in many ways entirely middlebrow, as limpid and flowing as spring water while it still explores interesting ideas and radiates sense of wonder without showing off about either attribute. A few short story examples: Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree’s A Momentary Taste of Being; Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life; Ursula Le Guin’s A Fisherman of the Inland Sea; Joan Vinge’s Eyes of Amber. Some novel-length ones: Melissa Scott’s Dreamships; Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows; C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station; Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite. Given this list, one source of the juvenile feel of most SF becomes obvious: fear of emotions; especially love in all its guises, including the sexual kind (the real thing, in its full messiness and glory, not the emetic glop that usurps the territory in much genre writing, including romance).

SF seems to hew to the long-disproved tenet that complex emotions inhibit critical thinking and are best left to non-alpha-males, along with doing the laundry. Some of this comes from the calvinist prudery towards sex, the converse glorification of violence and the contempt for sensual richness and intellectual subtlety that is endemic in Anglo-Saxon cultures. Coupled to that is the fact that many SF readers (some of whom go on to become SF writers) can only attain “dominance” in Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft. This state of Peter-Pan-craving-comfort-food-and-comfort-porn makes many of them firm believers in girl cooties. By equating articulate emotions with femaleness, they apparently fail to understand that complex emotions are co-extensive with high level cognition.

Biologists, except for the Tarzanist branch of the evo-psycho crowd, know full well by now that in fact cortical emotions enable people to make decisions. Emotions are an inextricable part of the indivisible unit that is the body/brain/mind and humans cannot function well without the constant feedback loops of these complex circuits. We know this from the work of António Damasio and his successors in connection with people who suffer neurological insults. People with damage to that human-specific newcomer, the pre-frontal cortex, often perform at high (even genius) levels in various intelligence and language tests – but they display gross defects in planning, judgment and social behavior. To adopt such a stance by choice is not a smart strategy even for hard-core social Darwinists, who can be found in disproportionate numbers in SF conventions and presses.

To be fair, cortical emotions may indeed inhibit something: shooting reflexes, needed in arcade games and any circumstance where unthinking execution of orders is desirable. So Galactic Emperors won’t do well as either real-life rulers or fictional characters if all they can feel and express are the so-called Four Fs that pass for sophistication in much of contemporary SF and fantasy, from the latest efforts of Iain Banks to Joe Abercrombie.

Practically speaking, what can a person do besides groan when faced with another Story of Ideas? My solution is to edit an anthology of the type of SF I’d like to read: mythic space opera, written by and for full adults. If I succeed and my stamina holds, this may turn into a semi-regular event, perhaps even a small press. So keep your telescopes trained on this constellation.

Note: This is part of a lengthening series on the tangled web of interactions between science, SF and fiction. Previous rounds: Why SF needs…

…science (or at least knowledge of the scientific process): SF Goes McDonald’s — Less Taste, More Gristle
…empathy: Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst
…literacy: Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears
…storytelling: To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

Images: 1st, Bill Watterson’s Calvin, who knows all about tantrums; 2nd, Dork Vader, an exemplar of those who tantrumize at Atwood; 3rd, shorthand vision of my projected anthology.

Opining about SF and Fantasy

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Charles Tan, the Bibliophile Stalker, interviewed me for SF Signal.  The result just appeared on SFS.  Here’s an excerpt:

“Do you have a preference for SF or fantasy?

I will read anything that is not a hack job; what matters is the quality of the story telling, not the mode.  Of course, I have preferences, just as I like dark chocolate and goat cheese: I gravitate to stories that are hybrid and/or hard to categorize; I still have a soft spot for well-written space opera (with C. J. Cherryh and C. S. Friedman at the top of that list) and particular types of alternative history fantasy (for example, Jacqueline Carey’s Renaissance Europe, in which Celtic Ireland and Minoan Crete are still going strong); I tend to dislike cyberpunk, though I loved Melissa Scott; and steampunk makes me break out in hives, automata in particular – to say nothing of corsets.  At my age and exposure, I can tell from reading the first and last page if it’s worth my while to read the whole work.”

ETA: Paul Gilster of Centauri Dreams caught all the echoes of the interview in his recent entry Reflections on a Mythic Voyager.  I originally had a link to it, but removed it when his post got deluged by comments from nerdtrolls “explaining” why Paul was terribly, terribly wrong in liking the words of a dark female ethnic, no matter what objective credentials she has.

Cool Cat by Ali Spagnola

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

“I wish to be as God made me.”
— Emily Brontë

My father’s nameday happened to fall during my last visit to Hellas: Saint George, whose day often falls during Easter celebrations. His DVD player had been hit by lightning, so my sister and I bought him a replacement as a gift. To check the new gizmo, we used a DVD of Jane Campion’s The Piano.

I saw The Piano when it first appeared, twenty years ago. It made an indelible impression on me and has been in and out of my thoughts ever since. For one, it was filmed in Aotearoa, one of my three Valinors – the other two being Hellas and Alba, particularly their islands. Aotearoa became home to one of the few bona fide seafaring cultures on the planet, and I still pinch myself to ensure that The Lord of the Rings really was made in that wondrous place, rather than on Hollywood plywood sets. For another, The Piano is a witch’s brew of potent myths: part Wuthering Heights, part Demetra/Persephone, part Lilith, Lucifer and Adam – but primarily it’s a tale of what happens to an uncompromising creator who happens to be a woman.

The hero of The Piano is brought to mesmerizing life by Holly Hunter who deserved the slew of awards she got, including the Oscar. Fierce Ada McGrath, a Victorian mail order bride with a fatherless daughter, has decided to communicate with the world solely through a self-invented sign language, the occasional terse written message… and, most crucially, her piano. The two men she encounters in New Zealand, the stunning landscape she finds herself in, her precocious child (who turns from devotee to traitor, played by a young Anna Paquin at her fey best) all influence her life dramatically; but for Ada, the crux of her existence is the piano.

Unlike a “proper” lady, Ada does not merely tickle its ivories. She’s a composer and virtuoso player of immense talent and of course there is no possible place for her among either the Scots colonialists or the Maori natives. Nobody comprehends her, not even her ensorcelled child or her besotted lover, even though they love her in large part because of her uniqueness. There is no place or companion in the world, then or now, for a woman of implacable will and focus who will not compromise or yield in her determination to pursue her vocation.

If Ada were a man, she could choose the roles highlighted by the two male characters. She could embrace her own culture wholeheartedly like her husband, or attempt to “go native” like her lover. But for a woman, either choice would mean submission to a rigid, confined existence. Westerners are more familiar with Victorian women’s suffocated lives, yet Maori women fared little better in a culture as hierarchical and despotic as any of its European counterparts. In either case, Ada would have to renounce her music – an outcome equivalent to losing her life.

So there are two endings to the film, though the second one is truer: after a forcible mutilation, Ada almost joins her piano in the depths of the Pacific. On the surface of things, she decides to stay with the living – now a tamed hausfrau teaching colonial children their piano scales, a tiger pulling a plow, a queen ant who has shed her wings; but in her dreams, which are more real than her awake moments, she is underwater, swaying above her now-silent piano like a strand of kelp.

Something similar happens to another hero of an Aotearoa-based film: Paikea Apirana (Keisha Castle-Hughes) in Niki Caro’s Whale Rider, adapted from Witi Ihimaera’s book. Pai is clearly destined to be the next chief: she has the bloodlines, the talent and charisma, the stamina and will. In mythical terms, not only did her father (himself a maverick) name her after the legendary Maori ancestor who came from Hawaiki riding a whale but she also bears a second soul: that of her twin brother, dead at birth along with her mother. But… Pai has the wrong equipment between her legs. This makes her useless to her grandfather, who considers Pai’s efforts “defiling to the tradition” and tries to train anyone except his granddaughter for the position of chief.

Paikea tries every possible way to reach the core of the crusty old jerk. Finally, when he emphatically rejects her by not coming to a school presentation she has dedicated to him, Paikea in her great desolation calls to the sea. A pod of whales follows her voice, and they beach themselves to reach her. They are slowly suffocating and the rescue efforts of the community prove fruitless, until Pai straddles the pod leader and spurs it back into the water, making the rest follow.

Like The Piano, Whale Rider has two endings: in the happy one, Pai’s grandfather finally embraces his granddaughter as the next chief; her sculptor father finishes his abandoned waka and the entire community joyfully launches the canoe, with Paikea presiding over a crew of both women and men rowing warriors. But this is only possible (barely) because Paikea’s demonstration of prowess is so spectacular and so public that failure to acknowledge it would be disrespecting the ancestors. The real ending of the film comes earlier, with Pai on the whale as it slowly submerges, taking Pai with it into the depths. Her grandfather is right: like Ada, Paikea has no real place in her culture. If she cannot conform, she must die or, at best, live as a lonely outcast: the witch by the forest clearing; the madwoman in the attic; the Yorkshire parson’s three “touched” daughters, circling the kitchen table reciting passages of their novels to each other.

This is the near-universal fate of women who defy the roles set for them and demand real concessions to their talent. People may love talented women, often because of their gift; but the all-too-common aftermath consists of testing whether these women will give up their vocation as proof of love, abjure or dilute it as a way of fitting into the glass slipper or the red-hot iron shoe. There are no meet companions for women like Ada; just as Tsars interred their daughters in the terem because they had no companions of their rank, female creators must live alone and die early – or live long enough to curse the despised talent that devours them like fire consumes faggots.

Persistent, the Yorkshire parson’s daughters kept “scribbling” and paid to get their books published: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey. The one who survived long enough to bend to conventionality stopped writing after her marriage; she died soon afterwards, during a troubled pregnancy imposed by her husband to seal her surrender. As the least conventional of these three sisters intuited, only elementals can be mates to such women: the Moon; the Heath; the Wind; the Sky; the Sea.

Elizabeth Lynn reached the same conclusion in The Woman who Loved the Moon.  So did Diane Duane in Lior and the Sea. The story, part of Duane’s Middle Kingdoms universe, appeared in Moonsinger’s Friends, a collection in honor of André Norton. In it, unlike Le Guin’s Earthsea, female wizards wield rods of power without celibacy strictures and with nary a ripple in the society. Lior is a very powerful Rodmistress who has chosen to practice in a small fishing village even though she could be the equivalent of an Archmage. She has willing and happy bedmates of both genders, yet none is her equal; none comprehends her magic.

In her aloneness, Lior talks with the Sea. And just as the whales hear Paikea, the Sea hears Lior, and learns to love her. It sends avatars to woo her: first a beautiful horse; then an equally beautiful man. Lior finally has a true companion who fills the chambers of her soul. But in the end, the Sea must return to its element. Faced with her possible futures, Lior decides to join the Sea — just like Ada and Paikea in their far likelier bleak alternative endings:

“But few who say so have stood on that jeweled beach by night and heard the Sea whisper again and again, as if to another self:

“You dared…”

Images and sounds: Ada (Holly Hunter) and Flora (Anna Paquin) McGrath, The Piano; Paikea Apirana (Keisha Castle-Hughes), Whale Rider; Ada’s signature theme by Michael Nyman.

Skin Deep

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

One of my readers brought James Howard Kunstler to my attention – yet another cranky prophet-wannabe with no credentials in the domains he discusses.  A few years ago, he opined on tattoos thusly: “Tattooing has traditionally been a marginal activity among civilized people, the calling card of cannibals, sailors, and whores. The appropriate place for it is on the margins, in the back alleys, the skid rows. The mainstreaming of tattoos is a harbinger of social dysfunction.”  You see, social collapse has nothing to do with predatory banks, preemptive invasions, punitive theocracies, unequal distribution of wealth.  No sir!  Tattooing is the true cause of the impending apocalypse.  Along with rock music, long-haired men and women in the professional work force.

I have mentioned a few times that my father’s side were seamen – captains and engineers in the merchant marine.  They lived the hard lives of sailors, probably softened by their relative status within the iron hierarchy of ships.  Several died away from home, including my grandfather and two of my father’s brothers who died in their twenties of TB, a perennial scourge of the profession back then.  We don’t even know where some are buried.  In their brief shore leaves, I suspect many of them got tattoos.  I recall seeing a shadow under the thin fabric of my eldest uncle’s summer shirt, but I didn’t get to ask him before death took him.

This August, I got a tattoo.  I asked my friend Heather Oliver (whose artwork graces this site and my stories) to create a design for me.  She rose to the challenge magnificently.  By this act I wanted to honor my father’s line, now going extinct (I’m the sole twig left of that once-great tree); to mark the narrow escape from my first brush with cancer; and to remind myself that I should try to finish and publish my stories before the Hunter stoops on me for the final time.

Tattooing means different things across people and cultures – but it’s interesting to consider that outside the West, tattooing done willingly was often a status symbol, from the Scythians to the Maori.  To a large extent, it is also considered a rite of passage and/or a signal of entry to a soldier-like fraternity, whether this is the army, a criminal organization, a prison group or the Knights of St. John; in this guise, the practice has been associated with masculine “bravery” (since it involves pain) and group identity.

These aspects of the process are highlighted in one of the best SF novels, Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite: an Earth ship has ended up on a planet whose lifeforms are poisonous, forcing the human settlers into carefully regulated cannibalism – although they have retained enough technology to engineer some foodstuffs.  Children are raised communally and watched for signs of a talent.  When one is discerned, they receive their first tattoo, become members of an extended family and acquire human status (aka: they’re no longer potential food).

In my own stories, the Koredháni people, who consciously decided to adapt themselves to their new planetary home, are matrilineal and polyandrous because of a dearth of women (they also hail from the Minoans, who seem to have had at least one of these tendencies).  The second night after a handfasting, the co-husbands give the newcomer a tattoo (using nanotech, which is prominent in their living arrangements).  The design, chosen by the newcomer, almost invariably marks his previous allegiance or provenance, so that memory of his lineage is kept alive even after he is part of his wife’s hearth.

On the individual level, people often get a tattoo to decorate a scar – a gesture of defiance against the ravages of illness.  Also, recent technology advances have made possible the use of tattoos as medical monitors: glucose meters for diabetics, for example, removing the need for constant needle jabs.  The flip side of all this neat stuff, of course, is forcible tattoing, which predated the Nazi concentration camps: slaves and soldiers were routinely tattooed in the Roman empire to prevent them from running off. It was deemed more humane than branding.  Its Hellenic name “stigma” (dotting) led to the term stigmatize, with its known connotations.

For me, it’s interesting to think that tattoos, despite their vaunted “permanence”, are among the first of our parts to disappear when our bodies rest in fire, water or earth – unless we have the luck of the young Pazyryk warrior priestess who merited six horses in her journey to the other world.  Her kurgan was filled with water which then froze.  So when Natalia Polosmak opened the tomb in 1993, its occupant emerged almost entirely intact, from her wild silk blouse to her gold-inlaid felt headdress… and the ravishing soot tattoo on her shoulder.  She was a shaman; and in the end, tattoos are talismans: a way of reconnecting with what we sundered from when we became (perhaps too) self-aware.

Images: 1st, Deena Metzger’s famous self-portrait; 2nd, a recreation of the Pazyryk shaman’s tattoo; 3rd, Candleflame Sprite; design by Heather D. Oliver, execution by Deirdre Doyle.

If They Come, It Might Get Built

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Sic itur ad astra (“Thus you shall go to the stars.”)
— Apollo, in Virgil’s Aeneid

Last Friday, several hundred people from a wide cross-section of the sciences and humanities converged on Orlando, Florida, to participate in the DARPA-sponsored 100-Year Starship symposium.  As the name tells, this was a preliminary gathering to discuss the challenges facing a long-generation starship, from propulsion systems to adapting to extraterrestrial homes.

I was one of the invited speakers.  I won’t have the leeway of long decompression, as I must immediately submerge for a grant.  However, I think it’s important to say a few words about the experience and purpose of that gathering.  Given the current paralysis of NASA, activities like this are sorely needed to keep even a tiny momentum forward on the technologies and mindsets that will make it possible to launch long-term crewed ships.

Open to the public, the event lasted two and a half days, the half being summations.  Content-wise, half was about the usual preoccupations: propulsion systems, starship technologies, habitats.  The other half covered equally important but usually neglected domains: biology, society, ethics, communicating the vision.  The talks were brief – we were each given 20 minutes total – and varied from the very broad to the very specific.  The presentations that I attended were overall high quality (though I personally thought “exotic science” should have been folded into the SF panels); so were the questions and discussions that followed them.  The age distribution was encouraging and there were many women in the audience, of which more anon.

Some aspects of the symposium did dismay me.  Structurally, the six or seven simultaneous tracks (with their inevitable time slippages) not only made it hard to go to specific talks but also pretty much ensured that the engineers would go to the propulsion talks, whereas the historians would attend those about ethics.  The diversity quotient was low, to put it mildly: a sea of pale faces, almost all Anglophones.  Most tracks listed heavily to the XY side.  This was particularly egregious in the two SF author panels, which sported a single woman among nine men – none with a biological background but heavy on physicists and AI gurus.  It was also odd to see long biosketches of the SF authors but none of the presenters in the official brochure.

Most disquieting, I sensed that there is still no firm sense of limits and limitations.  This persistence of triumphalism may doom the effort: if we launch starships, whether of exploration or settlement, they won’t be conquerors; they will be worse off than the Polynesians on their catamarans, the losses will be heavy and their state at planetfall won’t resemble anything depicted in Hollywood SF.  Joanna Russ showed this well in We Who Are About To…  So did Chelsea Quinn Yarbro in Dead in Irons.  But neither story got the fame it deserves.

On the personal side, I had the pleasure of seeing old friends and finally seeing in the flesh friends whom I had only met virtually.  I was gratified to have the room overflow during my talk.  My greatest shock of happiness was to have Jill Tarter, the legend of SETI, the inspiration for Ellie Arroway in Contact, not only attend my talk but also ask me a question afterwards.

I hope there is sustained follow-up to this, because the domain needs it sorely.  Like building a great cathedral, it will take generations of steady yet focused effort to build a functional starship.  It will also require a significant shift of our outlook if we want to have any chance of success.  Both the effort and its outcome will change us irrevocably.  I will leave you with three snippets of my talk (the long version will appear in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society):

“An alternative title to this talk is ‘Distant Campfires’. A Native American myth said that the stars are distant campfires, where our ancestors are waiting for us to join them in storytelling and potlatch feasts.  Reaching and inhabiting other planets is often considered an extension of human exploration and occupation of Earth but the analogy is useful only as a metaphor. To live under strange skies will require courage, ingenuity and stamina – but above all, it will require a hard look at our assumptions, including what it means to be human.”

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“In effect, by sending out long-term planetary expeditions, we will create aliens more surely than by leaving trash on an uninhabited planet.  Our first alien encounter, beyond Earth just as it was on Earth, may be with ourselves viewed through the distorting mirror of divergent evolution.”

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“If we seek our future among the stars, we must change for the journey – and for the destination.  Until now, we have participated in our evolution and that of our ecosphere opportunistically, leaving outcomes to chance, whim or short-term expedience.  In our venture outwards, we’ll have to overcome taboos and self-manage this evolution, as we seek to adapt to the new, alien worlds which our descendants will inhabit.

One part of us won’t change, though: if we ever succeed in making our home on earths other than our own, we will still look up and see patterns in the stars of the new night skies.  But we will also know, each time we look up, that we’re looking at distant campfires around which all our relatives are gathered.”

Images: 1st, sunset, September 27, 2011, Sarasota, Florida (photo, Athena Andreadis); 2nd, Spaceborn (artist, Eleni Tsami)

Are Textbooks Science Fiction?

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

by Joan Slonczewski

Today I have the great pleasure of hosting my friend Joan Slonczewski, who will discuss how textbooks can fire the imagination of future scientists.  Dr. Slonczewski is Professor of Biology at Kenyon College where she teaches, does research in microbiology, and writes a leading undergraduate textbook, Microbiology: An Evolving Science (W. W. Norton). She is also an SF author well-known for incorporating real science in her fiction, as highlighted by her justly famous A Door into Ocean.  Her recent SF novel, The Highest Frontier (Tor/Macmillan), shows a college in a space habitat financed by a tribal casino and protected from alien invasion by Homeworld Security.

When the film Avatar opened, it drew many critiques based on science. The planet Pandora could not exist around a gas giant; the neural-linked ecosystem would have no predators; and the Na’vi should have six limbs, like other Pandoran fauna. The greatest flaw was that the Na’vi have breasts, although their class of creatures are not mammals. Non-mammals having breasts would be an error unthinkable in real science.

Yet I wonder what might happen if an introductory textbook in biology were to receive scrutiny similar to that of Avatar.  If non-mammals should not be shown with breasts, does it follow that true mammals, named for the mammary gland, should indeed show breasts? The typical textbook section on “mammalian diversity” shows scarcely a mammary gland. One would never guess that we drink milk from cattle, mares, camels, and reindeer. The more modern books do show prominent breasts on a human. In other words, a view of life surprisingly similar to Avatar.

I first saw the fictional aspect of textbooks from the viewpoint of a science fiction author writing a college text, Microbiology: An Evolving Science (W. W. Norton).  As a fiction author–my book A Door into Ocean won the Campbell award–I well know the dilemma of “hard SF,” which aims to invent a future world of gadgets that don’t yet exist based on science that actually does. Even “hard” science fiction often dodges inconvenient points about exceeding the speed of light, breathing the air on any planet where the starship lands, and mating with the seductive native “aliens.”

A textbook, I thought, would be different. My coauthor John Foster would correct what I wrote, and our publisher provided a throng of editors and expert reviewers. The art budget paid for stunning visuals from a first-rate graphic arts firm whose artists actually check details in the primary literature.

Our early illusions about textual perfection fell away in the light of reviewer comments based on errors entrenched in other books, and editorial “corrections” that often made clearer English but muddier science. But the art process was what really made me think of fiction. Early on we chose a “palette” in which color conveys information: DNA was purple, RNA was blue, proteins red, yellow, or green. And cell interiors, with their nucleus, mitochondria, and so on, offered a rainbow of colors from lilac to salmon. Our color-coded figures are more than informative; they are gorgeously attractive, so much so that prospective adopters have been known to caress them on the page.

But DNA is not “really” purple, and RNA is not really blue. Chloroplasts are indeed green, as typically shown, but mitochondria are not red aside from a few of their iron-bearing proteins. And what of individual atoms as ray-traced blue and red balls and sticks? This aspect of science art goes beyond fiction–it is fantasy.

Despite their limitations, the visuals in a textbook illustrate in that they form a pattern in the reader’s mind; a pattern that deepens understanding of a concept. This aim of illustration is actually shared by the best science fiction. Frank Herbert’s Dune illustrates how water scarcity drives an ecosystem. Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood illustrates how organisms trade genetic identity for survival.

So if textbook art is “fictional,” what needs to be “correct”? The mental patterns formed by the text and art need to be honest; to spark genuine insights that lead to understanding. A cell’s nucleus is not “really” lavender in color, but the colored shape draws attention to the nucleus as a compartment enclosing the precious DNA. By contrast, an image depicting the nuclear contents as spilling out of the cell would not yield insight, but confusion. A troubling new group of textbooks aim to sow such confusion–books with titles like Exploring Creation with Biology and The Lies of Evolution.  Such books aim to inoculate “inquiring preteens” against the founding principles of biology, geology, and cosmology.

If deliberate confusion is the worst sin of any book, the next worst sin is boredom. Teachers can make students read the most boring book; but will they stay awake?

A key decision we made for Microbiology: An Evolving Science was to tell stories. We told how Bangladeshi women taught the world to fight cholera. How life began out of atoms formed by stars that died long before our own sun was born. How a high school boy testified at the Scopes trial that humans evolved from microbes. How Louis Pasteur as a student discovered mirror symmetry in biomolecules–a tool that astrobiologists may use to reveal life on other worlds.

A textbook, like science fiction, should raise questions. Is there microbial life on Mars–and what might it look like? Textbooks should take the reader to new places where we’ve never been–and perhaps could never go, such as the interior of a cell, the electron cloud of an atom, or a planet where people have three sexes.  Like science fiction, a textbook should inspire people to learn more about real science, and even become scientists.  After Jurassic Park came out, some scientists felt embarrassed by the book’s technical flaws and its portrayal of money-mad dinosaur cloners.  But so many students came to Kenyon College wanting to clone dinosaurs that we founded a new program in molecular biology.

My latest work of fiction, The Highest Frontier, has already drawn complaints. The space elevator won’t work; the casino-financed satellite can’t be built; and the aliens could not really evolve like viruses. Let’s hope at least the book inspires students to pursue virology.

Athena’s coda:  Readers of this blog know the reasons why I detest Avatar, which go beyond its sloppy science; so do some attendees of Readercon 2010, because Joan and I had a lively exchange about it in a panel.  Even so, I entirely agree with what Joan says here, as attested by The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction.

In my essays and talks, I have repeatedly used A Door into Ocean as an example of outstanding “hard” SF that does not trumpet its hardness and also contains the additional layers and questioning of consequences that make it compelling fiction.

I also had the privilege of reading the penultimate version of The Highest Frontier.  The novel is an unusual combination of space opera and grounded near-future extrapolation — and Harry Potter aficionados would love it if they found out about it (unfortunately unlikely, given the proliferation of unlinked subgenre ponds in speculative fiction).  It’s fascinating to compare and contrast it with Morgan Locke’s Up Against It, also from Tor.  Both are set in beleaguered space habitats where cooperative problem-solving is the only viable option; both literally brim with interesting concepts, vivid characters and exciting thought experiments.

The two novels are proof of three things: women can write stellar hard SF; scenarios for a long-term human presence in space that ignore biology (very broadly defined) are doomed; and I need not despair of finding SF works that engage me… provided that authors as talented as these continue to be published against least-common-denominator tides.

Images: 1st, a Sharer of Shora (from A Door into Ocean) as envisioned by Rowan Williams; 2nd, Slonczewski’s microbiology textbook opens with the NASA Phoenix lander and asks, “Is there life on Mars?”; 3rd, a glimpse of the habitat in The Highest Frontier.

High Frontiers and Cheap Snarks

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Note: This article has a coda about the CERN neutrino results, which came out while I was writing it.

Two seemingly disparate but actually related items came up in the news recently. One was the discovery of a planet circling a close binary star system given the placeholder name of Kepler 16. The other was the publication of a viral protein’s crystal structure.

What, I hear you ask, do these have in common? Well, for one both projects used crowdsourcing (now going by the PR-friendly term “citizen science”). The other commonality was the anti-scientist hype: the media trumpeted gleefully that non-scientists are more prescient and clever than scientists. In contrast to plodding experts, prophetic film directors (“OMG, Tatooine!”) and intrepid gamers simply vault over obstacles and gracefully yet squarely hit the target. Kinda like Luke Skywalker homing on the tiny dot of vulnerability in the planet-sized Death Star with little flying experience and eyes wide shut because, ya know, the Force is with him.

Let’s parse the circumbinary planet first. Close to half the stars are in binary configurations, and about half of these have accretion disks. Hence, the likelihood of planets in such systems is very high. Astrophysicists’ models have shown that a planet can stably orbit either around one member of a widely separated pair or around a very tight pair. The first discovery of a planet circling a close binary dates from 1993 (or 2003, if one counts the final confirmation of the original observation). What makes the Kepler 16 system a first is that its planet appears to be smaller than Jupiter. As for prescience, beyond the astrophysicists’ theoretical calculations, Isaac Asimov had written Nightfall and Chesley Bonestell had painted Double Star long before Tatooine was even a solitary neuronal firing in George Lucas’ brain.

So now on to the crystal structure that “had stumped scientists for years but was solved by gamers in a few days”. To begin with, this was not the first crowdsourcing scientific project as touted. The honors for that must go to SETI@home, launched in 1997. There have been many others since, across disciplines. Beyond that, the people in the protein folding contest used a program developed by scientists (FoldIt) and half of the dozen or so participating “gamers” were biologists themselves. Crucially, they were given NMR and X-ray diffraction data to constrain and guide their steps. Finally, the result (a model, which means it’s still hypothetical) primarily aided crystallographers in placing heavy metal elements so as to get well-formed crystals, whose X-ray patterns gave the real, definitive proof of the structure.

Parenthetically, protein folding is a topic of perennial fascination to both creationists and believers in the strong anthropic principle. Many non-biologists, including physicists who blithely delve into biology in popsci books, are fond of intoning ad nauseam that amino acid strings would take billyuns and billyuns of years to fold correctly – hence god/intelligent design/a privileged universe/fine tuning of constants. In fact, with one exception that I can think of, proteins that have been unraveled into amino acid strings never re/fold at all (nor do they fold efficiently or correctly in programs like Rosetta, that presume complete lack of folding). Proteins fold as they get made, while they emerge from the ribosome. So they fold locally to achieve partial energy minima (so-called secondary structure) and these partly folded structures quickly coalesce into the final tertiary structure. On the technical side, making protein crystals is a difficult, delicate art – the biological equivalent of glass blowing. Like coaxing cells into growing, it’s part craft, part experience-based knowledge so deep that it becomes instinct.

Involving many people in parsing scientific data is a tremendous idea: it gets non-scientists familiar with the concepts, process and vocabulary of science, it can accelerate portions of the analysis, and it helps forge a sense of collective purpose and achievement. The great success of crowdsourcing highlights the unique human ability to notice anomalies instead of undeviatingly following protocols as computers do. This human attribute, not so incidentally, is one of the strongest arguments for sending crewed exploration teams to places like Mars.

At the same time, scientists are not stodgy techs in lab coats (whose wearing is almost entirely confined to movies; in real life, MDs are far likelier to sport such togs). To be a good scientist, let alone a great one, you must possess not only knowledge, rigor and stamina but also imagination and the informed, trained intuition that enables you to recognize patterns as well as deviations from them (aka “the prepared mind”). And distributed data churning won’t replace trained experimentation and thinking any time soon – or later.

Anglo-Saxon cultures have a strong anti-intellectual streak. Some of it is the lingering mystique of the British gentleman dilettante; some is the American obsession with self-determination. Yet the same people who treat scientists like class enemies and jeer at their painstaking mindsets and work habits follow woo gurus – from homeopaths to investment advisors to Teabagger televangelists – with unsurprising outcomes.

If people really think that they can do science better than trained scientists, I invite them to apply this reasoning to other domains and have the next person they meet on the street do their root canals or wire their house for electricity. Those who participate in citizen science are praiseworthy, citizens in the full sense of the word. Nothing but good can come from the practice – except for the demagogic triumphalism of those journalists whose self-satisfied ignorance vitiates every hard-won gain achieved by the scientist/layperson partnerships.

It’s a natural human reaction to ridicule what one fears and/or doesn’t understand, though adults are supposed to mature beyond this juvenile tendency. The question then becomes why science, whose record is far better than that of just about any other human endeavor, has become a bugaboo rather than a vision and an integral part of this culture. It’s a question well worth remembering when all the GOP presidential candidates fall all over themselves to deny evolution – and one of them might lead what is still struggling to remain the most powerful country on this planet.

[Click on this image to see legible larger version]

Coda: The news that CERN’s OPERA project recorded anomalous results of neutrino speeds got its share of “Roll over, Einstein” smartass quotes although, thankfully, the hype didn’t reach the proportions of NASA’s “arsenic” bacteria. Neutrinos are literally the changelings of the particle clan but the claim is far from proven and the paper has still not been peer-reviewed.

If it proves true, it won’t give us hyperdrives nor invalidate relativity. What it will do is place relativity in an even larger frame, as Eisteinian theory did to its Newtonian counterpart. It may also (finally!) give us a way to experimentally test string theory… and, just maybe, open the path to creating a fast information transmitter like the Hainish ansible, proving that “soft” SF writers like Le Guin may be better predictors of the future than the sciency practitioners of “hard” SF.

Images: 1st, Double Star by Chesley Bonestell (used as a Life cover in 1954); 2nd, a schematic of a protein structure; 3rd, Neutrinos by ever-sharp xkcd.