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The Other Half of the Sky: Cover

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

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

I’ve been barely able to contain myself while waiting to share this cover.  As with the story teasers, I won’t say more — I think the art speaks for itself. The artist who gave such eloquent expression to the stories is Eleni Tsami, whose work has graced other book and magazine covers.

One of the many marvelous attributes of the cover is that it’s not pegged to a specific story — the figure could be almost any of the protagonists in the collection. The wraparound version is as breathtaking as the front shown here and I will link to it when it appears on Eleni’s site [ETA: see link at the end of this entry]. Among other things, the back contains the full list of contributors. Be sure to click on the image to see a larger version that does justice to the work.

For those who missed it the first time, here’s the anthology TOC:

The Other Half of the Sky

Athena Andreadis, 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”

Update: Eleni discusses the evolution of the cover and shows the full wraparound on her blog.

Planetfall at the World SF blog

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

The World SF blog just republished my story Planetfall, which first appeared in Crossed Genres issue 13, December 2009.

Like many of works, Planetfall is mythic space opera and belongs to the larger universe I discussed in The Next Big Thing.

Image: Tanegír Sóran-Kerís, by Heather D. Oliver (click on the image to see a larger high-resolution version).

Caesars and Caesar Salads

Friday, November 16th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gender Essentialism? Elementary, My Dear Watson!

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

I first read the collected Sherlock Holmes stories in a really good translation when I was very young.  I recall that even back then I wondered about its attitudes towards women.  Beyond the single token appearance of Irene Adler and the long-suffering Mrs. Hudson (a typical caretaker role), it was a universe of men.  Yes, this was Victorian and Edwardian England where you could live as sex-segregated a life as in a country with sharia law – and of course Watson plays the role of admiring helpmate to a cranky genius – but even so the stories made repeated, explicit points about women being “clutter” that might impinge on the pristine state of that incandescent Holmes mind.

There have been countless Holmes adaptations, both film and television, but most were period (indulgently defined – “period” was extended to include Basil Rathbone battling Nazi spies).  Fast forward to 2010.  The BBC started airing the series Sherlock, in which the stories are kept “intact” but happen in the present.  Holmes and Watson are played by two talented actors whose stars are rising: Benedict Cumberbatch has been appearing in career-making roles since 2007 and Martin Freeman is about to become a household face by playing Bilbo in Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit.  Critic accolades, prestigious awards and aficionado swoons rolled in.  General verdict: “Flagrantly unfaithful to the original, yet wonderfully loyal to it in every way that matters.”

This fall, CBS started airing Elementary, also based on Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes is played by Jonny Lee Miller, another sharp actor, as a recovering addict taking time out in New York.  Watson is played by Lucy (Yuling) Liu.  Two episodes have aired so far, to positive reviews. What is the Holmes worshippers’ verdict?  I will spare you the suspense: “How dare they desecrate gospel?!”  One of the most vocal purists is Victoria Coren of The Observer, who essentially reprised Ursula Le Guin’s denigration of Helen Mirren playing Prospero in The Tempest.  Beyond that, Coren decried the cultural shift of a fundamentally British “myth” (Has she ever used adapted Hellenic myths?  If yes, she should stop right now.)  She also bemoaned the “Will they, won’t they vibe” (discernible only to her), ignoring the fact that the original Holmes stories and all their successors have an obvious homoerotic tinge.

I’ve seen four episodes of Sherlock and both episodes of Elementary.  My verdict: although it’s too early to make a definitive decision, Elementary so far is head and shoulders above Sherlock in terms of originality, chemistry between the two leads, lack of preciosity and (yes) elementary human resonance.

I saw only four episodes of Sherlock because I found it frankly repellent.  The settings tend to brutalist deco (edgy, dontcha see), the style is consistently pseudo-sophisticated smug (Dr. Who half a notch up… not surprising, given who the directors are).  Irene Adler is shown as a high-end prostitute who wears furs with nothing underneath and sheds her furs every few minutes whether it’s relevant to the plot or not.  Cumberbatch’s self-satisfied smirking becomes oppressive after a while, despite his brilliance otherwise; Freeman’s slack-jawed adoration, ditto; and the misogyny is up-front and blatant, unlike Conan Doyle’s quasi-passive elision (there’s also nudge-nudge treatment of homosexuality, which is odd to say the least).

Elementary is subversive along more axes than just its choice of Watson, though it retains some traditional default tenets.  Watson is a helpmate, so casting an Asian woman perpetuates stereotypes, and Holmes’ behavior would not be tolerated for a split second if it came from a woman (see discussions about how beloved Harriet Potter and Edwina Rochester would be).

However, core carryovers are spot on.  The cases remain outré and Holmes performs his acrobatic intuitive leaps, both hallmarks of the original.  Placing the series in New York makes sense: today’s London is not as central to the world as it was in Conan Doyle’s time.  New York still is.  Making Holmes a recovering addict is not new; what is new is that it’s not just a tick to make him fascinating in the Luciferian mold.  Instead, his adjustment process is integrally linked to both his investigations and his own personal decisions.  Also new and welcome is that he’s given kith and kin connections beyond a cardboard brother with convenient top-government access.

Watson remains a doctor, but she is not the cipher of the original or the dumb follower of most other versions.  She has a full backstory of her own that plays an important, organic role in the developments, and she has already become an almost-equal partner in the cases because her medical knowledge is put to active use.  And Aidan Quinn, with his dissipated good looks and easy-going manner, makes a perfect Lestrade stand-in.

What has really improved is the depth of the characters.  Both central actors speak volumes with their face and body language and they submerge themselves in their roles, rather than strut in them like mannequins on a stage.  The chemistry between them is marvelous, the repartee as fast and furious as world class tennis – and it has zero eroticism, but tons of friction and compromise as genuine as you can get on TV.  Too, Watson isn’t following Holmes because he gives meaning or adds spice to her life: it’s a job, with specific boundaries and mutual obligations.  For more details, I recommend Beatrice Eagle’s thorough comparative analysis of the two series.

Through ages and cultures, women were forbidden to do many things by the explicit or implicit decree that they weren’t “equipped” for it (because lower head equals upper head).  This went from praying to the ancestors, forming a minyan and ruling as heads of state to becoming craftspeople.  To that must be added women taking roles in iconic works of art that have been infinitely reinterpreted, Shakespeare prominently among them.  Everything has been altered in these stories upon retelling, from shifts in the time and context to changes of the race, class or sexual orientation of the principals.  As long as these have been done well, they are still recognized as legitimate variations of the original.  All, that is, except to introduce girl cooties by casting women in roles deemed “inalienably male” (just as Tiptree “could not possibly be a woman”).

It’s fine not to like anything but canon.  However, using gendered slurs like “menopausal” and “blundering half-naked” (Le Guin for Mirren), “trendy feminizing”, “sexy lady cohort” and “castrating fiction’s greatest sidekick” (Coren for Liu) are statements not of aesthetics but of politics: gender politics as regressively essentialist as those of Rand, Paglia and Coulter.  Women who use such expressions may be jealous of someone assuming a role they fantasized playing themselves; or, perhaps, they simply don’t like attention being diverted to other powerful women (de facto disproving the idea that women are gentle nurturing creatures incapable of aggressiveness).  But given the still-parlous status of women in the world, people who consciously use such expressions in their critiques deserve the gender-neutral epithet of another body opening.

For those whose minds are not welded shut, I suggest watching the first two episodes of Elementary, available on the CBS site.  I do, nevertheless, agree with Coren on one point: I’m looking forward to a version that casts Holmes as a woman (Tilda Swinton is my first choice, followed by Judy Davis).

Related articles:
“As Weak as Women’s Magic”
We Must Love One Another or Die

Watson (Lucy Liu) and Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) in Elementary

Addendum: Elementary has steadily grown even better, if possible. As I said in another venue, Sherlock is the firstborn son at an Anglo entailed estate: sure of his righteousness & worthiness. Elementary is his suffragette sister.

Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing

Monday, October 8th, 2012

A blog game called The Next Big Thing has been making the irounds. It involves answering questions about your work in progress or new piece that you’d like to become the next big thing, then tagging more writers to propagate the wave.  I rarely write about work in progress, but I got tagged by Ann Leckie, the editor of GigaNotoSaurus, so here we are.  For the next round, I name Laura Mixon, Christine Lucas, Alex Jablokov, Melissa Scott and C. W. Johnson.

The Stone Lyre main cast, clockwise from top left: Nifar of Drige (Veldir); Kevrad tegri Durath (Nireg); Ardenk tegri Durath (Nireg/Behtalka); Ferái Kámi-o (Ténli); Linarme of Drige (Veldir)

1. What is the title of your book?

Except for occasional standalone pieces, my fiction takes place in a large universe that starts in Minoan Crete and goes into the far future when humans inhabit distant earthlike planets (my story Planetfall also takes place in it).  Within this context, I currently have two works in progress.  The first is a novelette, The Stone Lyre, that has a completed sister story, The Wind Harp.  The second is a novel that is the beginning of this universe, titled Shard Songs.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

It’s a sea with many tributary rivers.  Myths feed into it, and my people’s history; my love of languages and songs; the desire to envision women-equal or women-dominant societies that are not reverse-oppressive; the concepts of genetic engineering that allows non-destructive human adaptation to earth-like extrasolar planets and of stable wormholes that enable fast interstellar via neuronal interaction with the ships.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a hybrid of epic myth, kinship saga, alternative history and space opera.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I have a very strong sense of my characters: what they look and sound like, what they feel and think beyond just the plot matters at hand.  So I envision not specific actors, but specific age-frozen characters played by actors.  Shard Songs has too many dramatis personae to show because it extends from the deep past to the far future (with jumps – it will be neither a doorstopper nor a first of endless sequels).  The main casts of The Stone Lyre and The Wind Harp are shown above and below.

5. What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book?

The Stone Lyre is a reversed-gender Orpheus story fused with the distortions caused by interstellar colonization.  Shard Songs tells of the decipherment of Linear A (the Minoan script, later used to write Mycaenean Greek), of past and future women rulers and their consorts (polyandry is fairly common), of lost homelands, and of rifts and time loops created by stable wormholes.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Given the content and style of these works, their chances of becoming agented are close to nil.  Editors of semi-pro magazines, themed anthologies and small presses have expressed provisional interest in all three.  If none of these pan out, I may publish the two novelettes as a singlet on my own or bide my time until I have enough linked stories to approach a small press.  The appearance specifics of Shard Songs will depend on several parameters.  One of them is the trajectory of The Other Half of the Sky, the upcoming feminist mythic space opera anthology that I conjured into existence.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I essentially write my fiction like a palimpsest: a continuous single draft with multiple passes.  When I sit down to write a story, I know the beginning and the end and I tend to write that kernel in a single burst.  What is usually hazier is the middle.  I write the scenes that are clear, then let the back of my mind meander and weave.  As soon as another scene becomes clear, I write it down, polishing as I go.  I wrote The Wind Harp in two bursts of about three weeks each.  The same is happening with The Stone Lyre.

8. What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?

That’s a hard question to answer, since they don’t really belong to a specific genre.  Within SF, their closest kin are probably Cherryh’s Union/Alliance cycle and Jablokov’s twinned novels – Carve the Sky and River of Dust.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I have no idea, unless it was my chronic insomnia.  The various segments sprang into my mind almost fully formed as far as the scaffolding went.  I continue to elaborate the plots, characters and cultures, of course – but I have lived in this universe so long that its foundations are lost in the mists of time (*laughs*).

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Well, nothing like the thing itself.  Here’s a passage from The Wind Harp.  The narrator is Antóa Tásri, a young diplomat on a mission that may save hundreds of lives – and perhaps persuade a very difficult culture into an alliance:

Just then, I heard a low hum behind me.  Through the barrier came the Tel-Kir who had harassed the Sedói.  A whiff of barely suppressed triumph hovered around him.  He went to the dais, touched the edge of Teg-Rav’s over-robe.  A discharge ran through his fingers and the musk in the room got overlaid with the acrid scent of burnt flesh.  When he withdrew his hand, I saw spots of blood glisten on the garment.  The dull throb behind my eyes sharpened to a fiery spike.  I felt such spikes whenever I faced a Tohduat who could not – or would not – control his Talent.

“Please greet our guest,” Teg-Rav told him.  He stood stock-still, looking down at me from his great height.  “Properly this time, Tan-Rys.”  The scent in the room turned slightly bitter and his yellow eyes flickered like brush fires.  He ostentatiously went on one knee, touched my ankle.  Unlike her, he was easy prey, I sensed him think.  We’ll demand his ship’s weight in water.

“Do you wish to best your adversaries?” I challenged him as he snapped upright.

“With your puny help?” he jeered.  I inhaled and spoke as fast as I could, switching to the tonals forbidden to all but the Dor-Nys.

“I brought a drug that can put some of your people into temporary suspended animation.  This will let you repair the reservoir ducts without a Whittling.”  I kept addressing her but pinned my gaze on him.  “Do you want to protect your people as you have vowed to do?  Or do you seriously think that capturing the Melhuat’s low-Talented brother will be your salvation?”

“I should have pulverized you when I had the chance!” he growled.  I dove for the floor.  A needle from his arm darter flew through where I had just stood and buried itself in the wall.

The Wind Harp main cast, clockwise from top left: Antóa Tásri (Ténli); Teg-Rav, Dor-Nys of Kem-Fir tower (Gan-Tem); Tan-Rys (Gan-tem); Ferái Kámi-o (Ténli); Serkadren, Melhuat of Behtalka (Behtalka); Talsekrit (Behtalka)

Galley Cover for The Other Half of the Sky

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Few people see galleys and galley covers, the crucial but invisible scaffoldings upon which a book is erected. Yet as much thought and care goes into their preparation as into that of the final book, because they’re its early scouts into the world.

The cover of The Other Half of the Sky is unfurling, and it will be a nova. Until that ignites here’s the galley cover, designed by our publisher, Kate Sullivan of Candlemark and Gleam (click on the image for a larger hi-res view):

When I released the anthology TOC, I included teasers for each story but not for my introduction. Here is its opening:

Athena Andreadis, Dreaming the Dark

“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.” – Monique Wittig, Les Guerillères

Being a voracious bookworm, I came to science fiction very young. My first well-remembered book was the unexpurgated Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. By cultural background and temperament, I didn’t like the Leaden … er, Golden SF Era. I preferred the Silver Age and the New Wave, with their explicit charters to push boundaries and write worlds and characters with more depth and flavor than cardboard. And since my mythology and history haunt my dreams and steps, it’s also not surprising that one SF mode I like is space opera.

Most people conflate opera with Wagner. Likewise, most SF aficionados conflate space opera with galactic empires, messianic anti/heroes (invariably white men) and gizmos up the wazoo, from death stars to individually customized viruses. And herein lies a tale of an immense, systemic failure of imagination.

Postscript: the authors participating in the anthology have their own takes on it. Two particularly entertaining views are those of Alex Jablokov and Sue Lange.

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 Launch of the First Stage Approaches

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

As many of you know, I decided to conjure an anthology of original stories that are (broadly interpreted) mythic space opera with women protagonists. I will be releasing the TOC of The Other Half of the Sky in the next few days.

In the meantime, Charles Tan interviewed me for the World SF blog specifically about the anthology. This interview is a bookend to an earlier one I gave to SF Signal. The two give a lot of insight into what I wanted to achieve with this venture:

The World SF interview

The SF Signal interview

Keep eyes on telescopes for the next stage of the launch!

Image: Eleni Tsami, A Fisherman of Ares Vallis

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.

Close Your Eyes and Think of Apóllon

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

The Oracle of Dhelfoí, known by her title of Pythía, was the closest equivalent to a shaman in classical Hellenic culture. In the official version, she delivered her prophecies by entering into a trance and becoming possessed by Apóllon – or by the displaced original owner of that temple and its myth: Python, the serpent/dragon that signified The Great Goddess.

In reality, the prophecies were almost certainly formulated after information had been gleaned from informants and spies (which explains the fabled ambiguity that earned Apóllon the moniker Loxías, Slanted). As for the trance, some archaeologists have linked it to the hallucinogenic effects of ethylene gas, which could have been released into air and water from the hydrocarbon reservoir beneath the limestone strata whenever the bedrock around the temple shifted or cracked. Many argue that the Pythíai were just mouthpieces for Apóllon’s “interpreter” priests. However, the fact that they were post-menopausal women from families of good standing (which, outside Athens, usually implied a modicum of education) suggests that they were more than mere passive vessels. They may have exerted real political influence behind the veils of incense, mystical blather and suffocating male authority. Either way the temple was a hive of political intrigue, as can be garnered from the surviving lists of who consulted it and what replies they received.

Given the influence of Dhelfoí and the centrality of the oracles to its function, it’s surprising that there have been so few stories about the temple’s doings. I can only recall two: Jenny Blackford’s novel The Priestess and the Slave (Hadley Rille, 2009) and Barry King’s novella Pythia (Colored Lens, Spring 2012). Both have problems that nag at me, but they’re not the disasters that often result when Anglo writers attempt to recreate another culture from the inside – especially classical Hellenic culture, which is invariably treated as public domain.

The two works share more than just their focus; they:

– eschew heroic/famous protagonists in favor of ordinary people;
– are first-person narrations by women who are decidedly non-kickass;
– take place in the same time period, just before the Persian wars (The Priestess and the Slave consists of two stories told in alternating chapters that never intertwine or converge; one of them centers on a Pythía, so I will discuss just this strand vis-à-vis King’s novella);
– incorporate extensive research and wear this effort on their chitons;
– use the occasional Hellenic word to increase verisimilitude;
– teeter on preciousness and melodrama but also contain passages of vivid prose;
– contain a fair amount of cliché situations and cookie-cutter dialogue;
– have many secondary characters that are two-dimensional stereotypes.

The first two choices are unusual, especially in combination: most writers delving in that era chose aristocratic men as protagonists, because they were free to roam physically and intellectually, able to initiate and/or witness pivotal events. The few exceptions (Bagoas in Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, Xeones in Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, Sappho in Peter Green’s The Laughter of Aphrodite) are either commoner men or noble women. Only Lykaina in Ellen Frye’s The Other Sappho is a common woman (though a gifted one), like Blackford’s and King’s protagonists.

This combination made me read both works very closely. My verdict is that Blackford treats her protagonist and starting material better than King does his, despite his stylistic bravura. As Pythíai, the narrators must deal with fake prophecies connected to Spartan ambitions: King Kleomenes in The Priestess, a soldier called Trivviastes (more about names anon) in Pythia. Both priestesses find themselves involved in events that could change the fate of many, and here is where the authors’ approaches diverge. In simplified terms, The Priestess is adult Apollonian history whereas Pythia is adolescent Dionysian fantasy. Fittingly, the totem of The Priestess is a wolf, that of Pythia, a lion(ess) – animals linked to different aspects of Apóllon, though the latter is more closely associated with his sister Ártemis, The Mistress of Animals.

Thrasylla, the narrator of The Priestess, exhibits stoic endurance and the clear-eyed, slightly weary worldview of a woman in her fifties. She had an arranged marriage to a decent, average smallholder and mourned a stillborn daughter and subsequent barrenness. She believes in the gods, but calmly, matter-of-factly. There’s no rapture in the duties she discharges soberly and scrupulously. Iola, the narrator of Pythia, is young, a virgin who starts having ecstatic, orgasmic visions after a brick falls on her head in the storeroom where she’s hiding while a Spartan soldier is raping her mother. Whereas Thrasylla tries to guide a fellow priestess who is seduced by riches (the Pythíai were a rotating triad during the temple’s heyday), Iola abandons herself to the god inside her head who manifests as was customary with his type: a playmate who morphs between human and animal, lover and ravisher.

The Priestess retains an even temper and tempo throughout; there are no jolts in it and its ending is open. It is also a relatively linear narrative, with minor flashbacks when Thrasylla thinks back on her younger years (especially her encounter with a rabid wolf, which highlights the combination of uncanniness and pragmatism that makes her an effective Oracle). Thankfully – for me, at least – Thrasylla is a rounded character who does not need to embark on a quest nor has “unfinished business”, the near-obligatory gimmicks that drive too much genre fiction. She is a fully grown human firmly embedded in her context. Despite the gender hobbling of that time and place, her privileged position gives her some power; she is aware of the consequences of wielding it but does not sidestep the associated responsibility.

Pythia reads like an angsty teenager’s diary; it’s full of jolts and indulges in time jumps to such an extent that they make the story’s sidelines hard to track (although plot is not a primary concern – it’s a Cinderella tale with Apóllon as fairy godfather). Iola is a survivor of traumatic events that broke her both physically and mentally, though they also gave her the visions that secured her the position of an atypically young Pythía. Given this premise, it is inevitable that she’s fixated on reconstituting herself and her family and avenging the wrongs done to them. However, the responsibilities of power frighten her, so she decides to “trust the Force.” Lo and behold, when she abandons all agency not only does the villain get his comeuppance but her mother and adoptive father miraculously reappear – married to each other, yet, and owners of a solid homestead where Iola can remain happily ever after.

The Apollonian/Dionysian distinction carries into the stories’ styles. The Priestess adheres to plainness that sometimes shades into grittiness. This decision means that The Priestess lacks the “echoes” that make a story haunt its reader. One example is Thrasylla’s temptation to investigate the Python legend, which is left to lie fallow. Another is the total absence – even in rumor – of Ghorghó, daughter of King Kleoménis, wife of King Leonídhas (of Thermopylai fame), and a formidable political presence in her own right. The sole flourish is the wolf leitmotif, which surfaces whenever there are glimpses of the madness of power. Pythia, besides Iola’s visions (which contain beautiful, if overheated passages) has two symbol-laden recurring images: the serpent, morphing from regenerating lizard to chthonic dragon, the older manifestation of the god that once was a goddess; and the cracked pot, which brings to mind the endless rows of fragmented, imperfectly reconstituted ceramics in museums.

At the same time, it is clear that Blackford has been to Hellás whereas the physical background of King’s story, painstaking research notwithstanding, is the generic “Mediterranean” that also mars such otherwise interesting efforts as Rachel Swirsky’s retelling of Ifighénia’s tale, A Memory of Wind. This difference carries into two other domains: the historic underpinnings of the stories and the names of the characters. Blackford makes the historical references plain in her characters’ dialogue, whereas King omits names and otherwise obscures events to such an extent that even someone steeped in Hellenic history cannot follow without an effort. This may be an attempt to reinforce the mythic atmosphere of the story, but it ends up as a distracting affectation. The names Blackford gives her characters ring mostly true, though she strikes a few false notes; King’s name choices are less fortunate. Spazakia (Iola’s nickname, which is supposed to mean Broken) is plural neuter – plus it is contemporary Hellenic, not classical. The villain is given the subtle name Trivviastes… which means Thrice-Rapist, not a name that even a hard-bitten Spartan parent would endorse.

The result is that Blackford’s novel sustains suspension of disbelief despite its workman prose and even when her characters’ actions are so contrived as to reek of soap opera (such as a seasoned Pythía literally pouting over her colleagues’ jewelry). In contrast, King’s novella, despite its layers and beautiful passages, punctures illusion because of the disempowered protagonist who embodies a gendered cliché, the too many coincidences, the forced obscurity and – for me, specifically – the names.  I appreciate what each author tried to achieve; I also appreciate the effort they obviously put into researching the background of their stories. Yet both works could have been far more resonant with a demanding editor and a few more discussions with natives of the culture they chose to depict.  If anyone wants to see the theme of a wounded young woman beset by visions treated well, I recommend Evghenía Fakínou’s Astradhení, which I discussed in The Unknown Archmage of Magic Realism.

Images: Aeghéas consulting the Pythía, red-figure kylix, ~450 BCE; Jenny Blackford’s The Priestess and the Slave — its cover depicts another notoriously ambiguous Oracle; Candice Raquel Lee’s Pythia, what the Oracle might have been like pre-Apóllon.

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

Poems Sung in Counterpoint

Monday, May 14th, 2012

Long ago,
I became astrogator in the arcships.

– the beginning of Spacetime Geodesics

Two publications appeared almost simultaneously: Bull Spec issue 7, which contains my poem Night Patrol; and The Moment of Change, a reprint anthology of speculative feminist poetry edited by Rose Lemberg and published by Aqueduct Press, which contains Spacetime Geodesics and Night Patrol. The cover (shown) is Sister, Brother by Terri Windling.

The anthology contains seventy poems. Some names you may recognize: Ursula Le Guin, Catherynne Valente, Delia Sherman, Amal El-Mohtar, Sonya Taaffe, Jo Walton, Nisi Shawl, J. C. Runolfson, Vandana Singh, Calvin Johnson, Shweta Narayan, Mary Alexander Agner, Theodora Goss, Yoon Ha Lee, Greer Gilman, Claire Cooney, JoSelle Vanderhooft.

In other words, a sky dragon’s hoard.

Internet Scofflaw: Breaking the Blogging Commandments

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

I have the bad habit of site-jumping when a topic snags my interest.  Recently, starting with a tale of blatant plagiarism by a top YA book reviewer (who issued the standard non-apology and accused her victims of being mean to her, thereby setting up a bullying spree by her followers), I found myself skimming the plagiarized pieces.  Two dealt with blogging don’ts.  Those who know me will guess the rest: I looked up “blogging no-nos” in Google.

Several sites later, suffice it to say that the advice is as harmonious as a skua rookery.  There are, however, a few near-consensus points for non-business blogs:

  1. content über alles (if only);
  2. fast loading good, pop-ups and multi-clicks bad (unless they help the site’s hit count);
  3. also bad: spelling mistakes, eye-hurting design and music autoplay (the latter makes it hard to secretly net-surf at work, for one);
  4. well-chosen pictures are mandatory (a thousand words and so forth);
  5. so is replying to all comments and having painless spam filters (everyone’s whims must be catered to the max, otherwise they won’t keep reading the blog);
  6. don’t exceed a certain length (below 1,000 words good, below 750 even better – after all, people are busy surfing);
  7. use social media – newsletters, Share buttons, Twitter (establish a presence!);
  8. do 10-Things lists, polls, contests (with awards);
  9. update frequently or risk being forgotten (people must be constantly entertained, after all);
  10. find a content niche and stick with it like a burr (or else no community for you).

Now, the first four are commonsense and should be obvious – though judging from what I saw during this particular dip, they’re not.  This observance-in-the-breach includes the common associated clause of “don’t be negative” for point 1: if anything, flamewars seem to feed blogs like dry twigs feed brushfires.  However, I break the last six with abandon and in full consciousness.  This may explain why my blog flipflops wildly at various ranking sites, and why I haven’t yet been awarded a Pulitzer or a regular column at, say, Nature or Tor.

Points 5-9 can only be followed if your blog and the activities it promotes are the focus of your entire existence – or you’re paid what passes for a pro rate (whatever that is, in today’s “content yearns to be free” mindset).  It does so happen that I don’t live in my parents’ basement pushing XBox buttons: I have a research lab and an academic job that demand more than passing attention.  Besides, I’ve seen Twitter, Facebook and Livejournal close up and found them less than enticing.  “Loyalties” that spring from social media are shallow and brittle.  It takes more than exchanging snarky soundbites to build sturdy alliances that go beyond “Like” or “Headdesk”.

More fundamentally, having entered the last third of my life, I sometimes tire of old issues springing up again and again like dragons’s teeth: the relentless fundamentalist war on women’s rights in this country and elsewhere; grittygrotty SF/F authors calling their pornokitsch fiction subversive and invoking “rape modules in male brains” (although I and several others tackled this from the writing angle and I intend to discuss it in a near future post from the biological angle); young women and self-labeled “progressive” men saying that feminism is passé, having achieved its goals (equal pay? easy access to contraception?); fanboiz whining that I’m elitist because I don’t like Avatar, Accelarando or the pronouncements of Kurzweil, or that I’m hard on armchair tourist authors who get famous (or at least solvent) from tone-deaf depictions of non-Anglo cultures.  Which brings us to the major issue, point 10: content focus.

What people write on their blogs depends on their goals.  Some use them as pulpits, others as public diaries, yet others as marketing tools (“Here are my Hugo nominations, now go vote!”).  Focused-content blogs tend to become watering holes for the like-minded.  In some cases, their owners become oracles to a worshipping group of reader-acolytes.  Personally, I’m interested (more than casually) in several domains: science, history and language, literature and the arts, space exploration, politics.  I also believe that none of these strands can be examined in isolation.  To give a recent example, my critique of the John Carter film included all these angles – and when I was asked to take out “the review bits” for possible reprinting on a popsci-oriented blog, I realized I couldn’t do so without essentially rewriting the entire piece.

I’m also allergic to acolytes because at some point they take you over.  Not that women attain prophet status without becoming Ayn Rand or the equivalent, mind you – women who denigrate their own, thereby becoming pillars of the status quo.  Being a non-Anglo woman who is a non-joiner by temperament and falls between more stools than I can either avoid or count, I’m reconciled to the idea that if I were a man I would probably be knee-deep in accolades, awards and groupies eager to have my babies.  But I’m happy to be a feral nomad instead.  “I cannot be tethered, while I still hear the night winds moan and call.” [1]

So here we are – done in less than 1,000 words this time!  Bottom line: this blog will continue to be unapologetically eclectic in topic selections but neither a diary nor a collection of laundry lists. It’s a salon where friends and passing guests gather for conversations, subject to my tides of mood and health; a review along classic lines that reflects its opinionated editor’s interests and viewpoints.  For me it is a window to the world.  All kinds of neat things alight here as I sing for my own pleasure.  And that’s good enough for a pagan outlaw loner like me.

[1] From Though I Grow Old with Wandering… in Realms of Fire

Images: 1st, Curious Cat (Jane Burton); 2nd, self-explanatory; 3rd, how I see the blog.

 

Looking at John Carter (of Mars) — Part 2

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado (plus a coda by Athena)

Part 1

Burroughs’ Influences

ERB had several strong influences while creating the fictional world of Barsoom. One came from his experiences in the late 1890s as an enlisted soldier with the 7th U.S. Cavalry at Fort Grant in Arizona (still a US territory at the time). The vast desert landscape of the Southwest served as a geophysical model for his drying and dying Mars. The surrounding Native American population became the Tharks. The native women – whom he found to be haughty, beautiful, and very proud – may also have served as ERB’s involuntary muses for Dejah Thoris.

ERB’s other prominent influence for the formation of Barsoom came from a fellow who was also a resident of Arizona around the same time: Percival Lowell. A member of a very prominent Boston Brahmin family, Lowell became fascinated with Mars after the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported observing a series of long, straight dark lines on the Red Planet starting in 1877. His intense and focused interest in Mars (along with his wealth) led Lowell to build a professional observatory in remote Flagstaff, Arizona, where he felt he could properly study our neighboring world to better discern its compelling features.

Lowell and others soon came to the conclusion that such formations had to be artificial in nature. Lowell believed that a race of beings much older, wiser, and more advanced than humanity dwelt on Mars. These Martians built a vast network of giant canals to bring water from their arctic regions of ice to their cities on and near the equator. Their plan was to stave off extinction as their ancient world began to dry up, taking the native flora and fauna with it in the process. Lowell and his followers thought they were witnesses to the last great act of an alien civilization.

Lowell’s hypothesis for Mars were not completely pulled out of thin air, for his ideas were based on a combination of contemporary thoughts and observations: From what astronomers could see through their telescopes about the Red Planet from their vantage point on Earth many millions of miles away, the fourth world from the Sun appeared to be more like our globe than any other place in the Sol system. Mars possessed two white polar caps, an axial tilt and rotation rate very similar to Earth’s, and light and dark regions which changed in color, shape, and size through the long Martian seasons. Many conjectured that these mobile surface markings were the life cycles of native plants or even the migration of animals.

Another idea popular at the time was the Nebular Theory of solar system formation. This plan declared that the outer worlds cooled and condensed first ages ago from the cosmic cloud of dust and debris that would become our Solar System. These places would thus develop  the conditions to support life sooner than the worlds closer to the warming Sun. As a result, the outer planets would also one day find themselves becoming less able to sustain their ecosystem sooner than the inner planets. This is why Lowell concluded there were canal-building intelligences on Mars without being able to actually see any such beings to learn whether he was correct or not.

Whether Percival Lowell was eventually right or wrong about the true state of the Red Planet ultimately mattered little to authors such as ERB and H. G. Wells. They found in Lowell’s ideas a fertile field for their imaginary worlds, though of course in Wells’ case, the Lowellian conditions on Mars served as a literal springboard for his octopus-like inhabitants to seek a better place to live, by force no less, thus creating the alien invasion scenario that remains popular to this very day. The only major difference between Wells’ creatures and their fictional descendants is that they now spring (mostly) from worlds circling other suns.

In contrast, ERB’s Martians remained on Barsoom despite the similarly debilitating environmental situation. There was and is a lot of high technology across Barsoomian society in both the novel and the film, including aerial flying machines, but they did not seem to focus on space travel, if you exclude the Therns’ guarded method of celestial transportation. Nevertheless, at least Helium appears to have had some rather powerful ground-based telescopes, as in the film version Dejah Thoris eventually realized that John Carter was a native of Jarsoom, while in the novel the princess was well aware of human civilization on Earth long before Carter arrived on her world.

Obviously the main reason I am emphasizing the John Carter connection with Lowell’s Mars is due to its important influence in bringing about the world of Barsoom. My other motive for bringing up the era defined by what Lowell created, pursued, and essentially preached about the Red Planet – namely from the latter half of the nineteenth century to July of 1965, when the American robotic probe Mariner 4 revealed with its t relatively crude images of the planet’s surface and other measurements a shockingly Moon-like Mars – is to highlight a period of astronomical history that is both fascinating in its own right and a relevant lesson in our current pursuit of extraterrestrial life.

John Carter did give some tantalizing hints about the Lowell era of Mars at the beginning and end of the film, very briefly displaying some real early hand-drawn maps of the planet. Included among these charts was one of the famous Lowell maps of the Martian canals, where it turns out that ERB rather closely modeled the various city-states and other features of Barsoom upon in numerous cases. See here for the details:

I also took special pleasure in noting that John Carter’s tomb looked rather similar to the one Percival Lowell was buried in on Mars Hill at his Flagstaff observatory in 1915.  It is these touches and obvious indication that someone did their historical research which I appreciate very much.

While it is clear to us (and a number of astronomers from that era) that Lowell went much too far in speculating on what the Martian canals were all about (sadly, even the canals turned out not to be real but rather optical illusions caused by real surface features being just beyond the resolution of most telescopes), his influence and imagination were the important catalyst in spurring both classic works of fiction and the people who would go on to study and explore the real Red Planet. A film about that era could be quite successful in my opinion. Certainly there would be enough real excitement, romance, and drama to work from.

Final Thoughts – The White Messiah

When Athena initially asked if I was interested in writing a review of John Carter, we briefly touched upon the “White Messiah” complex that exists in most films such as Avatar, Dances With Wolves, and certainly the John Carter series.  Of course one could not create a John Carter story absent of its white male American hero without radically changing the focus and point of what ERB was trying to do (in addition to making a living at writing): to get American boys to become manlier like their forbears were presumed to be.

While researching John Carter, I read that ERB was concerned about the growing population move from the farms and fields to more urban areas.  ERB felt that boys who were not able to spend their youths hunting, fishing, and partaking in other outdoor activities were in danger of losing their manhood and possibly becoming – gasp – intellectual sissies!  So ERB conceived of a character that would inspire young males to become bold, daring, and adventurous (along with pursuing beautiful women) under the guise of an entertaining plot.

I have my doubts that this idea was actively considered or even known of by the makers of the John Carter film.  If anything, the snachismo concept Athena has written about here in her blog was quite in play:  John Carter was still indeed a manly man, but he was also shown to have a sensitive and caring side, including a back story that did not exist in the novel so far as I know.  And for a “Gentleman from Virginia” of the Nineteenth Century, Carter recognized and respected Dejah Thoris’ numerous abilities, despite her being – gasp – a woman.

The White Messiah idea does have some literal merit for John Carter (note the initials).  This article in Slate magazine goes into some interesting and revealing depth on the subject.  One has to wonder why our society seems to always be waiting and hoping for one particular individual (or even an advanced ETI) to come along and save the rest of us from ourselves?  Is it just because we are social mammals hardwired to defer authority to an Alpha Male?

While works like John Carter were not really aimed at exploring this topic, they can stir us to move beyond these basic plots and concepts to create our own ideas and stories of worlds and beings who think and operate in ways different from our current culture.  After all, that is one of the key features of science fiction, to imagine alternate scenarios and societies and see how they might play out.

It was nice to see on the big screen a fairly well done rendition of and tribute to a series that inspired so much of our popular science fiction stories today.  Now that a century has passed, I think it is time for cinematic science fiction to start graduating to more complex and daring concepts, which we did see a few times in the pre-Star Wars era.  If done and sold right, I think audiences are becoming sophisticated enough to handle stories outside the mainstream “comfort zone”.  At the very least, perhaps next time we will have a story about a Dejah Thoris type who simultaneously inspires young women and saves the world.

Athena’s coda: I already expressed my views of how well-made/progressive I deemed the JCM film in part 1.  ERB is one of the forefathers of the grittygrotty contingent in SF/F.  Its members are invariably linked with regressive tropes, evopsycho paradigms that extol reactionary mores as universal (the Alpha Male canard among them – there are no such creatures in the human species, biologically speaking) and hack writing.  I won’t list names, lest I spread the disease; nevertheless, it’s indicative that this contingent went ballistic because the JCM film updated the novel to lighten its deeply reactionary nature vis-à-vis women and non-whites.

Percival Lowell’s social prominence and wealth allowed him to indulge in his passionate hobby, and concrete good came of it: namely, the discovery of Pluto (he could have spent his money on golf clubs or financing conservative politicians).  However, it was already widely accepted during Lowell’s heyday that the Martian canals (a mistranslation of Schiaparelli’s original term, which meant channels) were natural formations.  It’s entirely likely that his “maps” of Mars and Venus were in fact depictions of his retinal blood vessels.

Mars, by dint of all its intrinsics as they gradually unfolded before us, has been a perennial object of fascination.  The issue of whether it once did or still does harbor life has not been resolved and I, for one, am all for a crewed expedition that will not only attempt to definitively answer this question but will also be useful in showing up the pitfalls and limitations of longer space travel.

On the art side, it’s true that there hasn’t yet been a film depiction of Mars that does it justice.  The obvious candidate (for a series rather than a standalone film, given its length) is Stan Robinson’s trilogy.  But for my taste, the hands-down choice would be Alexander Jablokov’s River of Dust: it shows a Mars that harbors a precarious but culturally vibrant underground human colony after a terraforming attempt failed, and it overflows with mythic echoes, dramatic situations that matter, exciting ideas, unique settings and vivid characters.

Images: Lowell’s “map” of the Mars south pole (1904); Lowell’s mausoleum; Valles Marineris, one of the largest canyons in the solar system (NASA/JPL); Alex Jablokov’s marvelous River of Dust

Looking at John Carter (of Mars) — Part 1

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado (plus a dissenting coda by Athena)

There is an interesting parallel between John Carter as the main character of the Mars series of adventure novels begun by Edgar Rice Burroughs (from here on called ERB) one century ago this year, and the recently released Disney film of the same name.

Both arrived on their respective worlds – the fictional man Carter on planet Mars, a.k.a. Barsoom, and the motion picture John Carter in cinemas all over planet Earth (a.k.a. Jarsoom) – with relatively little fanfare. Both Carters initially encountered natives who had no real idea who they were and were ready to kill them off. Yet somehow both survived their hostile environments and slowly earned the understanding and respect of their newfound worlds, eventually going on to change things for the better and having a wild time in the process.

Now of course the film version still has a long road ahead to achieve its equivalent of what the novel hero achieved in his fictional and serialized lifetime. To be honest, I do not know if it will ever become as popular and influential as the novels were in their day, if for no other reason than too many other fictional series influenced by the ERB works have left their much stronger mark on the cultural mindset in the intervening century. In addition, while John Carter is better than I feared, the very ironic fact that it looks rather derivative of the very genre it spawned may permanently hobble its journey across the cinematic and cultural landscape.

So why should I make a big deal out of a film and series that its parent company will probably write off as a financial loss, one that most of today’s audience is almost totally unfamiliar with, and in truth its core plot was not terribly original or new when ERB produced its first installment back in 1912?

For the following reasons: The film did not become the bloated mess that I thought Hollywood was going to turn it into (and which many film critics who I do not think would know or understand science fiction and its history if they proverbially bit them continue to insist it is while mentioning its big budget in the same breath). The John Carter series deserves to be honored, understood, and appreciated for all it has done both for science fiction/fantasy and for influencing later real scientists like Carl Sagan, who talked about his love for the series as a youth in an episode of Cosmos. Finally, the real story and history behind the influences – hinted at in the film – that spawned John Carter and affected our views of life on Mars and elsewhere are more than worthy of being reintroduced to new generations as well.

The plot of John Carter is essentially that of ERB’s first novel in the series, A Princess of Mars: Confederate war veteran and Gentleman of Virginia John Carter goes into a cave in the Southwestern United States and wakes up millions of miles away on the planet Mars. There he meets several of the remaining native populations on that world, all of whom are battling with each other and the elements as Mars is slowly drying up. Carter’s Earth-developed muscles allow him to jump quite high and punch very hard in the lower Martian gravity, abilities which quickly earn him the awe and respect of key natives. In the end, our hero defeats the bad guys, wins the hand of the beautiful Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris, and then involuntarily ends up back on Earth.  Carter spends most of his Jarsoomian exile trying to get back to Mars and his wife, which he eventually does.

I must confess: I did not read any of the John Carter novel series until rather recently, despite knowing about them for most of my life. I am not a big fan of fantasy fiction and that is what I considered these works to be. I also assumed that the prose would not have aged well in the intervening decades.

I have since read the first novel and, like the film, found it to be not as bad as I feared. Both were rather entertaining and I found myself actually caring about the characters, always a key point for me with any story. As just one example, I recall being both surprised and moved when it was revealed in the novel that Sola was the daughter of Tars Tarkas.

Based on past experience with Hollywood’s efforts at science fiction (and John Carter really is basically SF and not fantasy), along with Disney’s historical habit of making major changes in their productions to suit their intended audiences and their less-than-stellar promotional efforts for this film, I expected John Carter to be an expensive and flashy mess, one that was as much about the original A Princess of Mars as the “re-imaged/re-invented” Star Trek film from 2009 was about the original Star Trek television series: A shell resembling the franchise but full of hot air and junk underneath. Instead I witnessed a film that actually got the main characters and plot points, along with the essence and feel of the novel – no small feat there. I just wish that more people were aware of this and could appreciate it. Ironically, science fiction is starting to become more “acceptable” to the mainstream audience due to the reimaged Battlestar Galactica and especially The Hunger Games series, whose first film came out right after John Carter and financially steamrolled our Martian hero and every other current movie in its path.

I found the film to capture the feel and look of the novel as I and others imagined it quite well. From the flying battle cruisers to the appearance and behavior of the warrior Tharks, this cinematic world of Barsoom is one I think ERB would have said well matched his visions of his creation.

There were a few notable changes from the novel, most of which only make sense in light of the medium and era. One was the addition of clothing on John Carter and the residents of Barsoom. In the novel, most natives went either naked or nearly so and did not even think twice about being in such a state (Dejah Thoris only wore strategically-placed ornate jewelry, for example). John Carter even arrived on Mars sans clothing. For obvious reasons the film could not replicate this situation from the novel; besides, it probably would have been too distracting even if such a thing were allowed by the modern film industry.

The women of Barsoom fared rather well from their “modernization” in the film, though it should be noted that even in the first novel I did not find them to be just the damsels-in-distress one might be led to believe from the decades of artwork depicting that alien world.

The two main Martian city-states depicted in the film, Helium and Zodanga, employed female soldiers as readily as male ones. I had to wonder if this situation was due to the fact that the Martian environment was dying and people and resources were in ever-dwindling supply, but no one ever seemed to question or even react to the idea of women in their military. The audience was not given enough cinematic time to learn very much about these societies in any event.

The Thark Sola was an intelligent and compassionate individual in addition to being a strong warrior. She endured a fair deal of suffering from her harsh culture to remain true to herself and her beliefs. Sola also became open to new ideas as the story progressed, such as flying, despite her father and chief Tars Tarkas earlier intoning that “Tharks do not fly!”

The most notable woman of the series is of course Dejah Thoris. While she remained a beautiful princess and the focus of John Carter’s admiration and desire, for the film Dejah also became a highly capable scientist as well as a warrior who more than held her own in battle. When the Helium leadership was ready to cave in and acquiesce to the demands of the Zodanga leader to marry Dejah in the hope of saving their society from defeat and destruction, Dejah was the only one who not only balked at this forced union but saw how Helium’s being united with the more barbaric city-state of Zodanga would actually undermine her culture and eventually all the people of Barsoom.

Dejah’s demonstrated scientific knowledge and technical skills were strong enough that the main “bad guys” of the film, the highly advanced species known as the Thern, considered Dejah to be a serious impediment to their plans for Barsoom while simultaneously admiring her abilities. As for the actor who played the Princess of Helium, Lynn Collins was an excellent choice for the character. She not only played Dejah with both intelligence and an air of royal nobility, Collins’ years of martial arts training also showed convincingly in her numerous scenes of hand-to-hand combat – including the several occasions when Carter got behind Dejah for protection!

The Thern are another cinematic modification from the novel. In A Princess of Mars, Martian natives make a trip down the River Iss when they feel ready to pass on from this life. They believe at the end of that river is where they will meet the goddess Issus and go on to a paradisiacal afterlife. Instead the mythology and the journey are a trap set by the Thern, descendants of the White Martians, who use monstrous creatures such as the white apes to kill and eat the unwary pilgrims and enslave or consume in turn those who survive the ordeal.

In the film, the Thern are an advanced alien race (they appear as humanoids but can also shapeshift) who travel from one inhabited world to another and “feed” off the energies expended by the native populations as they struggle with each other and use up or neglect their planet’s natural resources. One Thern named Shang implies to Carter that Earth and humanity are next on their menu once they are done with the dying Barsoom.

The Thern have a very interesting and quite alien technology which looks like a tangled mass of blue fibers, whether it is one of their structures or a weapon (Dejah Thoris recognizes its artificial nature). They also travel between worlds by sending “copies” of themselves similar to a fax using a medallion that operates on specific verbal commands. Whereas in the novel, Carter mysteriously arrives on Mars after simply falling asleep in a cave, our hero is accidentally transported to Barsoom by Thern technology. While of course there is no actual explanation given as to how the mechanism works, the audience is at least handed some kind of plausible reason for Carter’s celestial journey that is no worse than using a faster-than-light drive for a fictional starship. Besides, the JC series is all about the destination, not the journey.

The film version of the Thern left me wondering if perhaps there are advanced societies in the galaxy who view other alien species as lesser creatures to either be ignored or utilized for their own purposes. While they held some genuine admiration for Dejah Thoris, I got the impression that their whole attitude about using Barsoom until it was dry and dead and all the other worlds they have come across could be summed up as “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.”

I have often wondered if an advanced ETI, using the Kardashev Type 2 or 3 labels for simplification, would mow over whole worlds and species as they developed their interstellar existence in the same way a construction crew would run over an ant colony on their building site. I would like to think that such sophisticated and experienced beings would be a bit more sensitive than that, but we are still so very clueless about anyone else in the Milky Way galaxy and beyond.

Athena’s afterword: Unsurprisingly, my view of John Carter (henceforth JCM) is far more jaundiced than Larry’s.  JCM is dull, curiously inert, with zero frisson or sensawunda despite the non-stop eye candy.  Although the novel it’s based on predated and influenced Star Wars, Avatar, etc, it was a given that the film’s late arrival would doom it to looking stale unless its makers were truly bold.  Pressing Pixar’s Stanton into service made success a possibility but Disney standard hackery prevailed: the deletion of crucial words from the film’s title (Mars, because other films with Mars in their titles bombed; Princess, because… it might give the film girl cooties) signals this fatal lack of conviction.

True, JCM is not a total failure; however, given its semi-infinite budget and the longueurs recognized even by its champions, this is a pathetically low bar.  It’s a near-failure even as film space opera — which by tradition has low standards for coherence, opting instead for assaultive FX pyrotechnics.  Of course, JCM’s science is non-existent even within its own silly framework (example: the intermittence and variability of Carter’s locust-like jumping abilities).  At least, unlike Cameron’s Na’vi, Stanton forbore from putting breasts on female Tharks.  In fact, JCM’s core failure lies in its clumsy, generic narrative and its paper-thin worldbuilding and characters, for whom it’s impossible to care.  Additionally, by being mostly faithful to the novel, JCM’s makers reproduced its highly problematic underpinnings.

The cultures in JCM are based (snore) on ancient Rome and the Celtic and German nations that opposed it  – as filtered through the lens of someone who learned history from comics or fifties Hollywood films.  JCM’s obvious muscular-christian underdrone further underlines its poverty of imagination.  There is no internal logic to the conflicts: they must simply exist, so that 1) we can see the neat-o flying machines and 2) the savior can become indispensable and lead his disciples to victory.  Its pace is as lumbering as its six-legged war beasts; neither its tone nor its visuals ever coalesce.  The relentless battles and fights are choppy and muddy.  The dialogue is clunkier than that of Lucas (a feat I considered impossible), the characters look and speak like Pharaonic wooden statues and the two leads have as much chemistry as pet rocks.  The aptly named Taylor Kitch, blander than lo-fat cottage cheese, doesn’t deserve Lynn Collins’ hot chili and the best that can be said about Thoris and Sola is that neither is a bimbo… or a blonde.

The clichés that literally sink JCM have dogged Hollywood space operas even in their self-labeled progressive incarnations like Star Trek: the White Messiah who out-natives the natives and has their princesses begging for his babbies; the lone feisty-but-feminine metal-bikini-clad woman among a sea (desert?) of men, bereft of any female interactions; the total absence of mothers, when even the non-dyadic Thark family structure gets twisted into providing Sola with a father; natives as noble savages who prevail, Ewok-like, over much superior technology once they choose the right (non-native) leader; hierarchical dog-eat-dog warrior societies; imperial rule by charismatic autocrats as the sole viable method of governance; the dog-like mascot whose sugary cuteness could elicit a full-blown diabetic coma.

People will undoubtedly try to argue that ERB was “a man of his time”.  This is an excuse used ad nauseam for other SF/F “founders” such as Tolkien – who in fact was deemed a regressive throwback even by his own circle before he got canonized into infallibility by his acolytes.  Ditto for ERB.  As one example, John Carter is a “gentleman of Virginia” who served with distinction in the Confederate Army.  Romantic lost causes aside, it means that ERB deliberately made his hero someone who chose to uphold the institution of slavery.  And, of course, the names… oh, how they thud!  Zodanga.  Woola. Tardos Mors.  Barsoom (rhymes with bazoom and va-va-voom, underscored by the Frazetta opulent pornokitch depictions so adored by Tarzanist evopsychos).

Such material can be salvaged in only two ways: either by radical re-imagining (which briefly was the route of the Battlestar Galactica reboot before it collapsed under its maker’s pretensions) or by being played as stylish high camp (which was why the Flash Gordon 1980 remake was such a breath of fresh air).  Like a good bone structure underneath flesh gone to flab, there were glimpses of what might have been had Stanton and his paymasters been braver.  But that would be a parallel universe where Barsoom truly came alive.  Stanton tries to elicit extra sympathy (and remind us of Wall-E) by dedicating JCM to Steve Jobs – but his latest opus resembles a clunky, bloated Microsoft PC.  It makes me once again think how immensely grateful I am that The Lord of the Rings was not directed by an American.

Images: John Carter (Taylor Kitch) realizing that not even super-jumping abilities will get him out of this mess; Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) all undressed up with nowhere to go; Dejah Thoris and John Carter trying to find escape clauses in their contracts; Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton) in WTF? posture.

Part 2

The Mysterious Story: A Theory of Fiction, with Exercises (Part 2)

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire. Because the essay is slightly longer than usual blog length, it appears in two parts.

The Mysterious Story, Part 1

The Mysterious Story, Part 2

Opening questions are how a story starts the seduction of our minds. To keep us reading, a story must carry out a balancing act, like a good joke, between logic and surprise.

If, for example, Tolkien had never answered the question of “what is a hobbit,” but instead zoomed off to examine the lives of Russian serfs, we might well feel cheated of the logic of the story. If, by contrast, Tolkien had written, “A hobbit is another name for a rabbit, the end,” we might feel the story lacks enough surprise as a reward.

Understanding that a story balances logic and surprises gives underlying support for many so-called “rules” of writing that seem irritatingly arbitrary to novice writers. Deus ex machina endings, where a sudden character or event out of nowhere “solves” the problem, violate the principle of logic. Chekov’s dictum, that a pistol on the mantle in the first act must be fired in the third act, also feeds on the principle of logic, as well as what I call the “reverse-Chekov dictum,” that if you are going to fire a pistol in the third act, better introduce it in the first.

Classes and books on fiction writing often advise one to write stories wherein the main character, or a main character, changes; e.g. Rick in Casablanca, who evolves from an aloof, uninvolved man to a freedom fighter. In truth, such character evolution isn’t formally necessary at all, but character arcs do provide a powerful and logical pattern for our minds to tease out. Rick’s story is made all the more logical, and more compelling, by the fact that he had previously been a freedom fighter.

# # #

Logic alone is not enough. There must be surprises as well.

But surprise is a tricky thing. One method of introduce surprise is introducing a random event.  While common, it is a weak structure, because randomness is the opposite of logic.  A random event–such as a cyclone ripping through the fields of Kansas, or an old flame walking into your gin-joint–can kick off a story, but the response must be rigorously logical and one cannot rely upon too many random events. It doesn’t matter that real life is full of randomness; our minds demand patterns and rebel when the patterns don’t make sense.

Another strategy is through concealing information.  The logic is there, but only apparent in hindsight.  Again, this is a tricky strategy.  Simply withholding information from the reader so you can spring a surprise on them can tread dangerously upon logic.  Too many weak plots, especially those built on mistaken identity, rely upon characters making assumptions that few normal people would make.  Concealment can work, however, if the character concealing the information has good reason to.

A third and stronger strategy is misdirection.  One give a logical alternative while dropping clues to the real solution. This is a favorite strategy of J. K. Rowling, making Snape, or Lupin, or Sirus Black appear to be a villain, while quietly laying the groundwork so that when the true villain is revealed, you say, Ah! That makes sense after all. (Rowling is not above using heavy-handed concealment when it suits her, though.) Alternately, one can frame an situation to imply a wrong assumption, which is how the joke about the grasshopper works.

Surprise doesn’t have be just in plot. It can be in character as well.  My two favorite pieces of advice for constructing characters are, one, work against cliché and convention (i.e. instead of making the female love interest pale, thin, and helpless, make her dark, large, and kick-ass), and two, in addition to a primary character trait, add a secondary, seemingly contradictory character trait. A globe-trotting archaeologist who is afraid of snakes. A gangster who shoots his rivals yet gives money to the poor. A wizard powerfully skilled in dark magic who still worships the memory of his one true love.

Exercise: read a story carefully, taking note of the surprises, especially those beyond the initial hooks. What mechanism is used for those surprises? Going further, is the response to the stories logical?

And, for you writers out there, here is your final exercise: write a marvelous story, full to the brim with surprise and logic, that delights us with the patterns they weave in our brains.

For further reading: Samuel R. Delany, “About 5,750 Words,” which can be found in his book, The Jewel-hinged Jaw:  Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (Dragon Press, 1977; revised 2009). An excellent essay on how we read, and especially how we read science fiction.

Images: 1st, Anton Chekhov, who grew increasingly more sophisticated in the use of loaded guns in his plays (painter: Osip Braz, 1898); 2nd, Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (illustrator: Richard Powers).

The Mysterious Story: A Theory of Fiction, with Exercises (Part 1)

Monday, February 13th, 2012

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire. Because the essay is slightly longer than usual blog length, it appears in two parts.

The Mysterious Story, Part 1

You all know this one:

A  grasshopper goes into a bar and orders a beer. The bartender brings the beer to the grasshopper and says, “You know, we have a drink named after you.” “Really?” says the grasshopper. “You have a drink called ‘Larry’?”

Most jokes rely on a combination of logic and surprise. We know the bartender is referring to the drink called a ‘grasshopper.’ But we think of ourselves primarily not by our species but by our personal names. Thus the pleasure in the joke is seeing the grasshopper’s response is perfectly logical though unanticipated.

Much of fiction works the same way.

Theories of fiction are as old as Aristotle. Many of these are prescriptive: for a story to be good, it should do this and that. I want to develop a descriptive theory of fiction: why do we perceive certain stories as effective? By understanding how stories works, we can write better stories.

# # #

Humans are outstanding at pattern recognition. The discernment of complex patterns spread over space and time has been the secret of our success, allowing humanity to develop agriculture and technology, and consequently for civilization to flourish.  Our talent for pattern-recognition is so overdeveloped, in fact, we see patterns where they don’t exist: spirits and gods, astrology and magic, constellations and conspiracy theories.

It is my thesis that our innate skill for pattern-recognition drives our love of story, and governs what we consider a good story. A good story is like a good joke: it is logical, so that we see the sense of the pattern, but contains enough surprise to give our pattern-recognizing machinery a workout.

I don’t claim my thesis is completely new, though I will suggest less common ways of closely reading texts. The closest antecedent is Samuel R. Delaney’s work on how science fiction texts are read, and read differently from mainstream fiction, in particular his classic essay “About 5,750 Words,” which I highly recommend if you can get your hands on it.

# # #

A necessary component of the drive to recognize patterns is our insatiable curiosity. Fiction does this by provoking questions in our minds–and, teasingly, withholding the answers.

For example:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit

grabs our attention: what is a hobbit? It is particularly enticing because the answer seems just out of reach: “hobbit” is reminiscent of “rabbit,” a similarity enhanced by the fact said hobbit lives in a hole in the ground like a rabbit. But is it a rabbit? Curious minds want to know, and soon we are off in the story.

So here is an exercise: take any piece of fiction, and read the opening paragraphs. Read slowly, sentence by sentence, and pay particular attention to how questions in your mind immediately start popping up. These questions, these mysteries, these hooks engage our pattern-seeking minds and draw us along.

I’ll do a worked out example: the first two paragraphs of Connie Willis’ award-winning story “Fire Watch.”

September 20 – Of course the first thing I looked for was the fire watch stone. And of course it wasn’t there yet. It wasn’t dedicated until 1951, accompanying speech by the Very Reverend Dean Walter Matthews, and this is only 1940. I knew that. I went to see the fire watch stone only yesterday, with some kind of misplaced notion that seeing the scene of the crime would somehow help. It didn’t.

The only things that would have helped were a crash course in London during the Blitz and a little more time. I had not gotten either.

Now let’s go through it again in slow motion, sentence by sentence. I’ll add boldface to emphasize text that raises questions, with parenthetical questions and comments inserted. But imagine you are reading the opening for the very first time:

September 20 – Of course the first thing I looked for was the fire watch stone.

(Q: What’s a fire watch stone?)

And of course it wasn’t there yet.

(Q: How could the narrator look for something that isn’t there yet?)

It wasn’t dedicated until 1951, accompanying speech by the Very Reverend Dean Walter Matthews, and this is only 1940.

(Experienced SF readers will recognize this is a time-travel story–a partial answer to the previous question–but it raises several new questions. Q: How did the narrator get here? And why is the narrator here?)

I knew that. I went to see the fire watch stone only yesterday, with some kind of misplaced notion that seeing the scene of the crime would somehow help. It didn’t.

(Q: What crime? Help with what?)

The only things that would have helped were a crash course in London during the Blitz and a little more time.

(This partially tells us the story’s location in space as well as time. But our question about why the narrator is here is heightened.)

I had not gotten either.

(Q: Why not? Has something gone wrong?)

(Full story available free at http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/firewatch.htm)

Such hooks come more rapidly in recent (late 20th-century) fiction and in short stories. Fiction from older, less hectic times is more leisurely in suggesting mysteries, and the longer length of novels allow for slower development.

Nonetheless, I propose that effective fiction works this way. Whether rapidly or at leisure, fiction lays out mysteries, provoking our curiosity. Now for different kinds of fiction the primary mysteries will be different. In so-called literary fiction, the mystery is often primarily of character: who is this person, why are they this way, and how does it affect their lives?  Other fiction is primarily plot driven: will the character succeed or fail? In the genre called “mysteries” there is a specific question: who committed this act (usually a crime)? In fantasy and science fiction stories there are also mysteries of setting: what is this world; science fiction can also have the additional mystery of “how did we get here”?

Furthermore, when a story is carefully read, you can trace how questions arise, are answered, but new questions replace them. For example, we quickly learn that a hobbit is a small person, but that’s not the end of the story; a wizard has come calling on the hobbit and proffered an adventure. How will that adventure end? And so on.

To amplify on the previous exercise: take a short story you like very much, and go through and determine the major mysteries: where are they raised, and where are they resolved.

The Mysterious Story, Part 2

Images: 1st, a perfect logic/surprise combo from Gary Larson, a champion of this trope; 2nd, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) tries to parse the mysteries of his long contract; 3rd, Willis’ Fire Watch collection (likely artist: John Jude Palencar).

The Superhero Issue

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

I sent notes to 27 authors I wanted as contributors to my projected anthology. I expected long silences, because of the holidays. Six days later, 17 of them want to participate.

It’s premature to mention names, because I know we will have the usual attrition. Let’s just say that everyone who reads SF will recognize them. But I will share my framing criteria:

– Space opera(ish) and/or mythic, but it must be science fiction, not fantasy;
– Female protagonist(s) who do not (nor are made to) feel guilty about career versus family;
– Content and style geared to adult readers, not young-adult “finding one’s self/place”;
– No “big ideas” Leaden Age SF, nor near-future earthbound cyber/steampunk.

It is my fond hope that having an offbeat editor will shake something unusual out of these frames.

I can hardly wait.

Update: The final starting roster stands at 22.

Photo: Foléghandhros (one of the Cyclades), by RALF.

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.