Category Archives: Science fiction

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.

Readercon 23 schedule, July 13-15, 2012

Readercon is coming up in a couple of weeks, once more at Burlington Marriott, in Burlington MA, just north of Boston. This year, I’ll be there for Friday as well, although the epic journey from downtown Boston to Burlington after the Express bus has stopped running means that I’ll miss most of the Thursday evening programming. The menu is once more full of meat and potatoes as well as spicy crunchy bits not served elsewhere. The full schedule is here, and my part of it is . . .

Friday July 13

11:00 AM    G    Subversion Through Friendliness Glenn Grant, Victoria Janssen (leader), Toni L.P. Kelner, Alison Sinclair, Ruth Sternglantz

In a 2011 review of Vonda N. McIntyre’s classic Dreamsnake, Ursula K. Le Guin quotes Moe Bowstern’s slogan “Subversion Through Friendliness” and adds, “Subversion through terror, shock, pain is easy—instant gratification, as it were. Subversion through friendliness is paradoxical, slow-acting, and durable. And sneaky.” Is subversion through friendliness a viable strategy for writers who desire to challenge norms? What are its defining characteristics? When do readers love it, and when does it backfire?

6:00 PM    ME    Podcasting for the Speculative Fiction Author; Or, Will the Revolution Be Recorded? Mike Allen, C.S.E. Cooney, Jim Freund, Alexander Jablokov, Alison Sinclair, Gregory Wilson (leader)

Building on last year’s talk at Readercon about promotion for the speculative fiction author and drawing from an upcoming SFWA Bulletin article, Gregory A. Wilson and discussants will focus on the pros and pitfalls of podcasting for fantasy and science fiction authors, looking at some examples of successful podcasts in the field, different types for different purposes, and the basics of getting started with podcasting.

Saturday July 14

7:00 PM    ME    Kurzweil and Chopra, Ghosts in the Same Shell Athena Andreadis (leader), John Edward Lawson, Anil Menon, Luc Reid, Alison Sinclair

Transhumanism (TH) has been a prominent strain in contemporary SF; cyberpunk is in many ways the fiction arm of the movement. Athena Andreadis and discussants will explore core concepts of TH (longevity, uploading, reproductive alternatives, optimization projects from genome to organism), investigate which are strictly in science fiction versus science territory, and examine the larger outcomes of these tropes within the genre as well as in First Life, aka the real world.

Sunday July 15

10:00 AM    G    Making Science Sound Like Science Jeff Hecht, Katherine MacLean, Eric Schaller, Alison Sinclair, Allen Steele, Eric M. Van (leader)

The science fantasy of the 20th century tried to make the magical and impossible sound scientific and plausible. Thanks in part to that legacy and in part to the increasing complexity of scientific discoveries and developments, when we write about 21st-century science in ways that are meant to sound scientific and plausible, it often comes across as magical and impossible. How can we make quantum entanglement feel at least as real as the ansible? What can we learn from science fantasy about imbuing writing with not just truth but truthiness?

12:00 PM    G    Paranormal Plagues John Benson, Richard Bowes, Alaya Dawn Johnson, James D. Macdonald (leader), Alison Sinclair

Some paranormal novels portray vampirism, lycanthropy, and even zombification as infectious diseases that work in ways directly opposite to real-world diseases, such as making the infected person physically stronger and longer-lived. The idea of a disease we can choose to have and choose to share is also compelling. Yet these paranormal diseases are rarely explored in comparison to real-world ones (other than in the innumerable vampires-and-AIDS stories of the 1990s). Is disease just a narrative convenience, or does it relate to real-world medical issues such as the (overhyped) evolution of multiple-drug-resistant bacteria and the persistent incurability of illnesses like HIV, cancer, and influenza that we were supposed to have beaten by now?

1:00 PM    G    Mapping the Parallels Greer Gilman, Walter Hunt (leader), Alison Sinclair, Howard Waldrop, Jo Walton

Stories of parallel worlds are often actually stories of divergent worlds. As such, they contain implicit ideas about how and why divergences can happen: questions of free will and personal choice, theories of history, and speculation about the core constants of the universe. The range of divergences, and the reasons behind them, also serve as at least a partial map of the kinds of possibilities considered worth telling stories about. With this in mind, let’s talk about what has been done, or could be, with the idea of parallel worlds in fiction—both classic and contemporary examples in SF&F, women’s fiction, MG/YA, and more. How do the differences in usage of the trope—such as the scope of divergence (personal vs. societal vs. scientific, human-centric vs. extra-human), the degree to which the causes of divergence are explained, and the ability to travel between divergent worlds—play out across parallel and divergent world stories? How do they express ideas about what is possible?

. . . And I am resolved to know my customs allowance to the nearest cent, this trip! Unlike last.

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)

 

The Heroine’s Journey I (Remnant Population)

Courtesy of the Heroine’s Journey thread over at Tor.com, about which I’ll say more once I’ve dug myself out from underneath Bayesian analysis, counterfactual models, causality, directed acyclic graphs, fractional polynomials, splines, and simulation of datasets … I’ve been rereading Elizabeth Moon’s Remnant Population. There aren’t many protagonists in SF like Ofelia, whom the Scots (and we should know) would describe as a cussed auld besom. She’s nearly eighty, one of the oldest inhabitants of a human colony thwarted in its development by repeated disasters; of Ofelia’s several children, only one son, Barto, has survived into middle age. The colony has endured but not grown or progressed; education is purely vocational and individual talent and aspiration suppressed. The social order is narrow: Ofelia’s community impresses on her her dependency and diminishing worth as an old woman, and Ofelia in turn passes silent judgment on disruptive, sexually promiscuous women like her neighbour Linda and childless women like her daughter-in-law Rosara.

But within the first pages of the novel the colonists learn that their colony has been judged a failure and is to be abandoned by its corporate sponsor. Within a month, the colonists will depart for another planet, decades away, leaving the work of forty years behind them. As a further imposition, the sponsors are refusing to pay for Ofelia’s passage, charging it to her son and daughter-in-law.

Enough, Ofelia decides. When the time comes, she will walk into the forest with enough food for a few days, and wait until she is certain the last shuttle is gone. The company representatives will not trouble themselves to look for one woman too old to work. She will live the rest of her life alone, and for the first time in her life she’ll have nobody around to tell her what to do and who to be.

And she does. Once she has restored power to the deserted colony and established a routine of gardening and foraging, she has everything she needs. She gets up to mischief. She pokes into other women’s cupboards. She sleeps in other people’s beds. She sheds the drab clothing of elderly respectability and dresses in gaudy colours, walks naked in the streets, weaves herself a cape of netting and beads, daubs her body with paints. She annotates the colony’s official log with the stories of sexual strife and violence that lie behind single line entries of moves between households or ‘accidental’ deaths. The narrow inner voice of social censure is gradually silenced by a new voice. (These acts of throwing off social convention, that argument between the inner voice of social censure and the new voice of true experience turns up in other womens’ novels, too. Top of my mind is Joan Barfoot’s Abra, a mainstream novel of a woman who also chooses solitude and self-sufficiency, but on this earth.)

But she does not remain alone. Months later, the colonists’ successors arrive. Disdaining the site of her failed colony, the new settlers set down elsewhere on the planet—and Ofelia, silently listening over the radio, hears their unanswered pleas for help as they are slaughtered to the last man, woman and child by aliens that no one knew were there. Ofelia’s initial intense fear, loneliness and vulnerability are gradually easing with the familiarity of her surroundings and routine when, in the middle of one of the planet’s violent storms, she comes face to face with a small wandering band of the aliens. The recognition that one of them is injured, and exasperation at seeing anyone or anything too foolish to come out of the rain, pre-empts fear, and she throws open her door.

They spend an uncomfortable night huddled together in the dark, and each party (the aliens’ collective voices are represented in brief interpolated passages) emerges gratified to find themselves unharmed by the other. Ofelia would be quite happy to go back to her solitary life, but the aliens are social and curious, and Ofelia finds herself shooing them out of the kitchen and out of the colony control room and power-plant, convinced they’ll do themselves harm, and pushing towels and mops into their hands when they track mud and water across her floor. Children, she thinks, having reached the age where everyone looks like children, and exasperated all over again at losing her precious solitude. But she demonstrates how light-switches work, and how domestic appliances work, and struggles—despite her own truncated education—to explain how electricity is generated. She makes music with them. She dances with them. An elder, a nest-guardian, the People decide in their turn, and summon one of their senior singers, a diplomat, to treat with her as a representative of her people. And, half-understanding, she finds herself appointed as guardian to the newborn babies of one of the band.

One of the marvelous aspects of this novel is that the important events happen in Ofelia’s old age. Many novels with an old person as protagonist (eg, Margaret Lawrence’s The Stone Angel, itself a groundbreaking book) take place as much in the novel past as the novel present, and youth’s adventures and dramas pre-empt attention. Age seldom gets all the adventure all to itself, as it does here. Despite the arrival of a team of experts, all shiny, knowledgeable, and oblivious to their own human foibles (Children, thinks Ofelia), Ofelia—old, ill-educated, eccentrically clad, and cussed—and the alien diplomat whom she calls Bluecloak, succeed in making the human representatives recognize the outrage that provoked the massacre, and establish the terms for colonization of the planet in full partnership with the People.

Anticipation schedule

When: Thu 12:30
Title:  Bio-Ethics
All Participants:  Alison Sinclair, Judy T. Lazar, Laura Anne Gilman,
Russell Blackford, Tomoko Masuda
Moderator:  Laura Anne Gilman
Description:  Medical experiments, drug companies, cloning, insurance,
bookies and you.

When: Fri 12:30
Title:  Alison Sinclair Signing
All Participants:  Alison Sinclair
Duration:  0:30 hrs:min
Language:  English

When: Fri 20:00
Title:  Mad Social Scientists
All Participants:  Alison Sinclair, Sparks, Shariann Lewitt
Moderator:  Sparks
Description:  Why do the chemists get all the fun? Why do you have to
be a physicist to destroy the world? The panellists discuss the
possibility of using social science to destroy the universe.

When: Sun 10:00
Title:  Science for SF Writers
All Participants:  Julie E. Czerneda, Alison Sinclair, David Clements,
David D. Levine
Moderator:  David Clements
Description:  Where can you get crash courses on science for science
fiction writers? Is it actually useful?

When: Sun 11:00
Title:  Food for Writers
All Participants:  Alison Sinclair, Jon Singer, Sharon Lee, Debra
Doyle
Moderator:  Jon Singer
Description:  So you have 90000 words to write, tthree months to do it
in, and the fridge is bare. What foods keep you going?

When: Mon 10:00
Title:  Author Reading
All Participants:  Alison Sinclair, Edward Willett, Heidi Lampietti