Category Archives: Books

Darkborn goes academic

Derek Newman-Stille, author of the Speculating Canada blog*, who previously reviewed Darkborn, has just published an academic article on “Where Blindness is Not (?) a Disability: Alison Sinclair’s Darkborn Trilogy” in the September 2013 issue of Mosaic: a journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature. He examines the trilogy in the context of literary portrayals and conventions of disability in general and blindness in particular, and compares and contrasts those with the descriptions of blind people themselves as to how they perceive the world. He points out the parts that worked, and the parts that did not, in places because of accommodation to genre and in places because, yes, I did not think something all the way through. It’s a very enjoyable read**, accessible to the non-English academic, and my one niggling criticism is that Mosaic is not open access. But I’m sure Derek has reprints.

* Which just last weekend won the Aurora Award for Fan Publication
** Which is not just authorial ego speaking!

Where’d the web go?

I had a minor bowl-of-petunias moments a while back. I was looking at another project compiling a list of works by women in an attempt to make them visible, when a quiet voice said in the back of my mind, “Oh no, not again.”

Because the list didn’t tell me why I should care about these books. It didn’t tell me why I should read them. It didn’t tell me where to start. It didn’t capture what was in them, how they were like and unlike each other, how they spoke to each other, to their moment, to the history and conventions of genre, which were romps and which were sober, which were controversial, which broke new ground, which refreshed the old, and which did neither but were still fun to read. It didn’t contain any indicators of if-you-liked-this-then-you’ll-probably-like-that or if-you-loathe-hate-and-despise-this-then-touch-not-that-book-with-tongs (so the reader doesn’t get ticked off and fire off one of those “SF/F is all _____” denunciations) . . . for which covers are a dismal guide [1].

All of that is already out there. People — many much more incisive and more knowledgable than I — have already said a great deal about these books, spanning several decades. We have reviews, articles, commentaries, forum-posts, critiques and commentaries and defences and controversies of decades, and they might as well be invisible to such lists. There wasn’t even an indication of such discussions even having happened.

Collective forgetting is a significant problem with women’s writing. We keep having to start at the beginning again, remaking the lists, rediscovering the books, rediscovering that other people knew about the books, and we all have to do it one at a time.

Back when I first learned HTML, several epochs and browser extinction events ago (I think it was the Mosaic-Navigator boundary), I made lists, too. I’d open my editor and a page, write out “a href=”, paste in the link, remember to close the quotes. These days, I’m still doing pretty much the same thing, though I get to click a button with an icon of a link and fill in form fields, and I only have to hack HTML if something breaks.

What I’d like to be able to do is, for example, directly connect someone else’s mention of Vonda McIntyre’s (terrific) Starfarers Quartet (1989-1994) to the ebook that’s available on Bookview Café, to the article McIntyre wrote about its inception (“It started out as a hoax”), to the article on “Changing regimes: Vonda N. McIntyre’s parodic astrofuturism” that DeWitt Douglas Kilgore published in Science Fiction Studies. Directly. So that if someone finds one, it will lead them straight to the others. Without having to do what I’ve just done, which is having to create an entirely redundant new web-page and stick myself in the middle where I don’t need to be when I’ve nothing new to say. (Although yes, it would be essential to flag the source of the new connections, in the interests of transparency, disclosure, and attribution).

It’s a challenging programming problem; although I am not a librarian or an information scientist, much less a programmer [2], I know that much. Not only to do it, but to get the interface not only straightforward but appealing enough that it could be widely adopted. It might not even be possible. But I also have the feeling that we could be further along than this, and I wonder if one reason might be the influence of commercial interests shaping development of the web over the past decade.

In its beginning, Google search was a significant advance, returning results that reflected links made by humans who were informed and interested on a topic, so that the substantial material would rise to the top, and the first page of a Google search was a valuable snapshot of the good material on any subject – or book. Google became the go-to aggregator of information.

Then the web went dot-com, and Google got into the advertising business. SEO became an industry, and now what floats to the top of a Google search for a title is Amazon et al, and Goodreads, and Wikipedia if there’s an entry, but where the citation quality is extremely variable, and assorted high volume review blogs which are so spoiler-fixated that they don’t even get past the skin, never mind anywhere near the bones of the book. Meanwhile the 3000 word (“tl;dr”) thoughtful consideration published 8 years ago in plain-vanilla HTML — which once would have been at the top of the search rankings — might show up around about page 7, and the three richly detailed articles published in scholarly publications and archived in JSTOR might not show up at all and even as they did, would be inaccessible to most people [3].

And now there’s social networking, and everything’s still lists, and everything’s still linear, and moreover, links vanish into the silos of Facebook or Google or Delicious or Goodreads, although with RSS (however long that lasts) or IFTTT, at information can be propagated across silos.

With the result that we’re still making new lists, we still struggle to be aware of previous work, and we still have the perpetual first steps phenomenon.

… Wanders off grumbling to brood on this more.

—-

[1] Something I remember realizing when picked up early Joanna Trollope on the basis of the very similar cover design to Mary Wesley‘s novels. Trollope is a fine writer, but (at least in her early novels) was the antithesis of the very thing I most liked in Mary Wesley – Trollope’s characters who defied convention were always punished.

[2] I have been known to describe myself as a geriatric script-kiddie, although such facetiousness is begging to be misunderstood. I am law abiding (except when cycling the streets of Montréal, which is an exercise in getting in touch with one’s inner anarchist) and I can usually figure out what’s going on in several programming languages.

[3] And as someone who has been an supporter of open access academic publishing since the days of the first Harold Varmus proposal in 1999, all I can say is have we lived and fought in vain.

My wandering starship finds a small press home

Old news, now, in this social networked age, but two of the three novels I wrote between Cavalcade and Darkborn have found a home with Bundoran Press, a Canadian small press. Their (current) titles are Breakpoint: Nereis, which is due out in April 2014 (in time for LonCon3, hurray!), and Contagion: Eyre, currently scheduled for April 2015.

When asked what they are about, I have described them somewhat cheekily as “Star Trek meets medicine.” They concern the voyages of the 50-person starship Waiora (one of nine) on a mixed humanitarian and diplomatic mission to re-contact human colonies in the aftermath of a plague that collapsed an interplanetary human civilization. Their purpose is twofold, to try and ensure the immediate survival of the colonies they contact, and investigate the source and nature of the plague.

Sounds straightforward, right?

But the people on the surviving colonies have their own ideas about what they want, and they’re not shy about asserting them. Aeron Ivesen wants her lands back and its invaders defeated. Creon McIntyre will do anything to ensure his people’s freedom and survival. The history of colonization has left its own legacy of bitterness and distrust, and the sponsoring colonies of the mission are anything but united. And two of the crew of Waiora have a separate agenda that could threaten the whole mission.

Canada Writes – A Sci-Fi Odyssey

For the latter part of this month, CBC (Canada Broadcasting Corporation) has turned its Canada Writes pages over to the SFnal set, in “Canada Writes – a Sci-Fi Odyssey“.

I’m a bit late on this (one of those weeks when I growl “You did this to your own self,” at my own pathetic put-upon face in the mirror) but here are the entries so far.

And yes, my name is there! I get to stand under the Twitterfall on Wednesday as one of the readers for their Twitter competition. (Further details, including theme, coming soon).

Utopian science in science fiction by women: Notes from Frankenstein’s Daughters

 

Previously I mentioned Jane Donawerth’s book, Frankenstein’s Daughters, which contains a long, fascinating chapter on “Utopian Science in Feminist Science Fiction”. It’s one of the rare discussions of feminist SF that foregrounds the ‘science’ in SF, instead of rolling up science fiction with fantasy, horror, slipstream, magic realism etc as one of multiple imaginative strategies for critiquing patriarchal and oppressive social orders.

When I originally read it, I took a slew of notes, which I thought I’d post. Comments in square brackets are mine; otherwise all the rest is Donawerth’s. See all the books!

Conventions of science fiction

  • masculinist science, inscribes women as objects of study, not scientist-subject
  • representation of women’s identities (as aliens)
  • history of male narration

culture defines science as a masculine endeavour – women respond by imaginative creation of utopian science [not altering culture? is it possible to alter culture and not alter science?] – coming up with a similar paradigm:

  • participation in science as subjects, not objects
  • revised definitions and discourse of science
  • inclusion of women’s issues in science
  • treatment of science as an origin story that has been feminized
  • re-conception of human-nature relationship
  • ideal of science, subjective, holistic, relational, complex

Participation of women in science

  • Mitis (physicist), Gvarab (physicist), Takver (biologist) – The Disposessed (Le Guin)
  • Jeanne Velory (physicist and astronaut) – Barbary (Vonda McIntyre)
  • Hellene Ariadne (nanotechnologist) – Light Raid (Cynthia Felice, Connie Willis)
  • Mary (biologist, communications specialist) – Memoirs of a Spacewoman (Naomi Michinson)
  • Kira (biologist, physician) – Cloned Lives (Pamela Sargent)
  • Margaret (computer expert) – Up the Walls of the World (James Tiptree Jr)
  • Varian (veterinary xenobiologist – Dinosaur Planet: Survivors (Ann McCaffrey)
  • Marguerite Chase (physician) – The Wall around Eden (Joan Slonczewski)
  • Vivian Harley (chemist, astronomer) – “The Menace of Mars (Clare Winger Harris)
  • Mildred Sturtevant (scientist) – “The Astounding Enemy” (Louise Rice, Tonjoroff-Roberts)

Extending the definitions and changing the discourse

“the boundaries of science are mapped onto the boundaries of masculinity” in Western science

referring to the work of Hilary Rose

  • communication as a science in Memoirs of a Spacewoman, The Bloody Sun (matrix science), After Long Silence (Sheri S. Tepper – communication through music), Woman on the edge of Time, Native Tongue, Triad (Shiela Finch), Hellspark. Communications (traditionally assigned to woman), given legitimacy as science and directed nonhierachically to all species
  • relation to nature – “the web of nature” in Woman on the Edge of Time, the Door into Ocean.
  • science as one of the roads to truth rather than the only one – The Ragged World (Judith Moffett) – female geneticist with AIDS, chooses her field, her experiment, her way of relating to her subjects of study.
  • A Door into Ocean – removes gendering, since all scientists are female. science is part of the home, and therefore invisible to the invaders, and the home as part of the environment
  • science as a social endeavour and social investment – Women on the Edge of Time, Godsfire (Cynthia Felice)

Women’s issues in science

1. alternatives in reproduction
2. disputes with sociobiology

  • combining ova – “When it Changed” (Joanna Russ), A Door into Ocean
  • cloning, with heterosexuality and biological birth discouraged – Solution Three (Naomi Michinson)
  • in-vitro conception and extra-uterine gestation – Woman on the Edge of Time
  • artifical insemination – The Gate to Women’s Country
  • androgyny – The Left Hand of Darkness (Le Guin)

women freed from control by heterosexual relationships – women freed, and allows for more equitable distribution of childcare – writers explore positive and negative consequences, effect on personal relationships

  • refutations of sociobiology – The Handmaid’s Tale, Native Tongue (and sequels), the sex-role reversal novel, eg, The Pride of Chanur, The Shore of Women, Leviathan’s Deep, Double Nocturne, Xenogenesis (several of which look to liberate males from biological stereotype of inferiority)

Science as an origin story

women SF writers offer feminized versions of science as origin story; science not a body of facts dispassionately accumulated, but “as social movements threaten social order, scientific theories emerge that implicitly defend status quo” (Ruth Bleier).

  • challenge to nineteenth century evolutionary theory, female as primary sex, social evolution towards altruism natural – Herland (Gilman)
  • challenge to Darwinism, contemporary, removing competition – Penterra (Judith Moffett)
  • multiple origin stories, in conflict with each other – Emperor, Swords, Pentacles (Gotlieb), Becoming Alien (Rebecca Ore)

Partnership with nature in subjective, relational science

male scientists viewed nature as potentially unruly woman to be mastered and penetrated. nature associated with women. vs female view of women’s nature and identification with Nature, need for connection rather than domination

  • partnership with nature, limits to questioning and growth – Breed to Come (Andre Norton), Penterra (Judith Moffett)
  • men’s and women’s view of nature in divergence – The Shore of Women (Pamela Sargent)
  • valuing subjectivity in science – The Garden of the Shapes (Sheila Finch)
  • scientists trying to establish connection with aliens to protect from exploitation and destruction – Dinosaur Planet Survivors, After Long Silence, Hellspark
  • intuition of value – Up the Walls of the World, An Exercise for Madmen (Barbara Paul)
  • empathy as a science – Witch World series, Darkover series, The Wanderground (Sally Miller Gearhart), Serpent’s Reach (Cherryh)
  • ethics in science [most if not all]
  • a vision of science as sustainable, not based on scale, in much of women’s science fiction – Herland, Women on the Edge of Time, A Door Into Ocean
  • emphasis on science in decentralized, non-hierarchical society, operated as craft industry – problematic for recent women novelists, who seem to be anti-science reactionaries to typical SF fans – Always Coming Home, A Door Into Ocean

Detailed discussion, pulling themes together, of Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Under the Canopy (Barbara Paul), “Bloodchild” (Octavia Butler)

Sources

  • Donawerth J. Frankenstein’s daughters : women writing science fiction. 1st ed. Syracuse  N.Y.: Syracuse University Press; 1997.
  • Donawerth J. Utopian Science: Contemporary Feminist Science Theory and Science Fiction by Women. NWSA Journal. 1990 Autumn;2(4):535–57.
  • Rose, Hilary. Love, Power and Knowledge: Towards a feminist transformation of the sciences. Bloominton: Indiana Univ Press, 1994
  • Rose H. Dreaming the Future. Hypatia. 1988 Spring;3(1):119–37. (on presentations of science in SF)