Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Science Fiction, Science and Society

by Laura J. Mixon; originally posted on Feral Sapient.

Athena’s note: In September of 2008 I participated in the Viable Paradise workshop. The experience was lukewarm at best. Laura J. Mixon was the major exception: she gave me the sole critique of my submission I value and has since become a friend.

Laura is a working scientist who writes space opera of the highest quality. Her works brim with those beasties presumably lacking in women’s writing: ideas that are imaginative yet grounded. But unlike the “authors of ideas” who cannot write their way out of a wet paper bag, Laura also has writing chops. Her plots are intricate, her characters vivid, her worldbuilding meticulous.

Next month Tor is bringing out Laura’s new space opera, Up Against It. I was lucky enough to see the novel in draft (and opine about it at length, as is my wont when works engage me). It’s a great story and, like all of Laura’s works, it pushes all kinds of boundaries. My one complaint is that Laura’s publishers gave her a gender-obscuring pen-name for her new work. I understand the need to sell books but such practices obscure the large number of women who yes, Virginia, do write hard SF.

My publicist put together some questions for me to answer to promote the upcoming release of Up Against It, and some of my writeup ended up on the cutting room floor. I wanted to share those thoughts here.

The driving force in the book is a resource crisis. Abruptly and unexpectedly, the Phocaeans lose nearly all their energy, water, and clean air. Their own little ecosystem — Kukuyoshi, the arboretum that meanders through their living space — is under threat. They are utterly dependent on technology: the nanomachines that produce their clean air and water, their computer systems and robotics. And now, suddenly, all that is endangered. And they only have this narrow window of opportunity to act.

If you squint at it at the right angle, isn’t that similar to what we are facing here and now on planet Earth? Are we not dependent on our technology to survive? What would we do if suddenly we had no fuel for our cars and our buildings, and to produce our food and clothes and medicines? What if our own air and water were turning to poison? Do we not also have only this narrow opportunity to act?

When I was seven, I first looked through the business end of a telescope. A father of a friend of mine took us out to a park one night for some star- and planet-gazing. He showed us Saturn, Mars, Venus, and the moon, along with a couple of nebulae and galaxies (the latter of which I found rather boring: they were very faint and hard to see. Thank you, Hubble, for transforming that faint trickle of photons from the cosmos into all those amazing images for us to gape at).

I remember looking at Saturn and then Mars, first through the scope and then with my unaugmented gaze, over and over. Saturn had rings! Mars had ice caps! I had this thrill of joy and awe as the reality settled in. Those little specks of light were other worlds, and science was putting them within reach.

I had a similar reaction to the Apollo 11 landing in 1969. I was twelve. That day my family raced down to Alamogordo to watch with our cousins as Neil Armstrong hopped down off the Eagle’s ladder and said his famous words: one small step. It felt as if the whole world was holding its breath in that instant before his boots touched the dust. The scene is so familiar now that it’s hard to describe just how important it was. Here we all were, many millions of people from all over the world, watching transfixed as these two guys hopped around. In spacesuits! On another world! In sixty-six years, we had gone being land-bound, to first powered air flight, to leaving our planet’s atmosphere and landing on its moon. Holy apes in space, Batman!

Our ability to think things through, figure things out, and make things go has enabled us to launch ourselves far, far beyond our origins. Ten thousand years ago, there were about ten million of us, living in small clans dotted around the globe. Now the world supports seven billion souls. Technology has saved countless lives. It brings us fulfillment on so many levels, enabling, quite literally, a real-time conversation between people on different continents, in different cultures, who even a hundred years ago would not have been able to communicate.

And our advances in medicine are nothing short of miraculous. At the turn of the 20th century in the U.S., nearly one in 100 women died in childbirth, and one in ten infants died. Stop and think for a moment about that. My own grandmother lost her mother to childbirth. My mother required emergency abdomenal surgery in her sixth month of pregnancy with me. Fifty years earlier, she and I both would almost certainly have died.

In the fourteenth century, one third of the population of Europe died of bubonic plague. Today, bubonic plague is exceedingly rare, and of those who contract it, over nine in ten who receive treatment survive. In 1918, the Spanish flu killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people. There are still risks of deadly new viral mutations, such as a new avian or swine flu, which could cause widespread serious illness and death. But unlike our ancestors, we have an international network that tracks flu mutations and prepares vaccines and other measures to protect us. Odds of survival are better for most of us than they ever were before.

In short, I feel very blessed to live in this time and place. And yet, we have paid a high price for that success. Consider how time and again our technology has threatened rather than rescued us.

Sixteen million people died in World War I. More than sixty million in World War II. We saw the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We can’t help but wonder in the back of our minds how easy it would be for someone somewhere to trigger a nuclear war that would kill many millions more. We have watched Challenger explode, the twin towers go down, New Orleans drown, and Port au Prince collapse into rubble. These tech failures, and tech abuses, have caused so much anguish and harm to so many.

And we live with other fears as well, fears large and small: of terrorist attacks and genetically modified foods; of global warming, famine, and super-bugs like MRSA; of mass extinctions; contaminants in our food and water supply; pedophiles stalking our kids on the internet. The list goes on and on. And technology certainly hasn’t solved the problems of uneven distribution of the resources we take from the Earth. Many, many children go to bed hungry every night. It isn’t right.

As I write this, the world’s sixth great extinction event is well underway and human growth and consumption are the cause. Three entire species die off each hour—irrevocably lost. We have loaded the atmosphere with sufficient carbon to continue heating the world for another thirty to forty years, even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow. We humans are, bluntly, racing toward a cliff edge and seem unable to find a way to put on the brakes. If we don’t do it, soon, nature will do it for us.

I became an environmental engineer because I wanted to put my own passion for science and technology to work to help steer us toward that better future, in some small way. For the same reason, I wanted to write novels that cast light on some of these issues in a more personal way. I want readers to feel the same love for Phocaea and its people that I do for this world, and on some deep personal level, to have hope that if we work hard enough and work together, we might find a way through our own twin crises of resource loss and technology out of control.

To find a way through to a solution, one first has to be able to imagine it. One of the things I love most about science fiction is how it permits us to imagine what might be.

10 Responses to “Science Fiction, Science and Society”

  1. Thanks, Athena! And thanks also for the kind words about my books.

    In fairness to my publisher, the pseudonym decision was made because they want me to be successful, and I collaborated wholeheartedly in the decision to go with an androgynous byline. It’s exceedingly tough to carve out a (female) name in a traditionally-male form, and I wanted to give my “children of the mind” their best chance to flourish.

    What you say is true, that choosing a male or gender-neutral pseudonym obscures the contributions of women in the field. But I can’t apologize for my decision to go with a gender-neutral byline. I tried it one way the first time; now I’m trying it the other way, in hopes my books see better success.

    We live in the breech, alas, we women of skiffitude.

  2. Athena says:

    You’re most welcome, Laura! I know the pen-name dilemma and cannot blame individual decisions like yours. However, you and I know that they have a cumulative power that reinforces the status-quo and its unquestioned assumptions.

  3. It’s damned-if-you-do; damned-if-you-don’t, though. Because SF books by women tend to substantially under-perform SF books by men.

    Which is worse: for women’s presence in the field to be hidden by pseudonymity, or by obscurity?

  4. Athena says:

    Authors cannot bring about substantial changes on their own. Publishers should be more proactive on both ends of the issue: signing up more women writers as well as actively promoting their work. I looked at a recent listing of women authors and women characters in several SF/F presses. The author ratio starts at 1:3 (Baen, of all places!) and goes downhill from there, including such purportedly “progressive” venues as Angry Robot. The ratio of major characters is very similar (not protagonists, who are almost entirely male). The only instances when things look substantially different are when the editor involved is a woman.

  5. It’s a multiplicative effect, as well. A cycle which becomes self-perpetuating.

  6. zarpaulus says:

    I still think that space colonization is the best solution to environmental problems. We may not be able to get most of the population off world but we can certainly move mining and energy production, two of the dirtiest industries into orbit. Solar satellite power and fuel cells should off-set the greenhouse gases from rockets.

    Though we should probably get used to eating yeast cultures now before they become our primary food source.

    And I actually think that nuclear weapons prevented World War III (and IV, and V), the USA and USSR would have torn each other apart if not for the threat of nuclear winter. Course now there’s a bunch of loose nukes lying around for terrorists to find but there’s no way they could launch an ICBM or sneak something radioactive into an airport.

  7. Athena says:

    Yeast grown in rich medium smells like beer, in poor medium like bread. So it’s not that bad.

    I agree that space colonization will help conserve resources, but only if it achieves economy of scale. So it means we must invest a huge amount up front — which requires political and social will. The USA and USSR did tear each other apart: as with all equivalent confrontations throughout human history, the protracted Cold War resulted in economic collapse of both entities. The USA was (sorta kinda) left standing at the end, but it still diverted tons of resources into war that could/should have gone into much better pursuits.

  8. Caliban says:

    I look forward to reading your novel, Laura! (And I second Athena’s comments on your excellence as an instructor.)

    Curiously, because I use initials for my fiction (and my SFnal poetry), I often get mistaken for a female author–and in the assumption my work gets slammed.

    So it’s damned if you do, doubly-damned if you don’t…

  9. Athena says:

    If anything, the excuses about your poem after the facts were established were as lame and shrill as the original review. There’s no doubt in my mind that the review would have been radically different had you been identified as male from the start. This says something about the artificially impoverished gender-specific niches and the mindsets such divisions encourage.

  10. zarpaulus says:

    Okay, yeah the superpowers tore each other apart economically, but look at the death tolls.

    Over 72 million died in World War II, including the Holocaust. The Korean war took 4.5 million, Vietnam anywhere from 1.5 to 3.5 million, same with Afghanistan. Stalin’s Purge is estimated to have executed 950,000 to 1.2 million, and at least 45 million starved to death in Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

    And WWII lasted only eight years, the Cold War was spread out over four decades.