Category Archives: Science fiction

Catching up: February-April, 2014

Derek Newman-Stille interviewed me for his Speculating Canada blog. Derek has published an academic paper about and presented at conferences on the Darkborn trilogy, and he asks good, probing questions.

I was one of the readers at ChiSeries Ottawa on March 18, 2014, whereupon I discovered it is indeed possible to go to Ottawa and back in an evening (It was a Tuesday, I had a Wednesday morning meeting, and the 0625 train held very little appeal). The piece I read was the follow-on to the posted section of Breakpoint:Nereis. And it's on YouTube.

I was invited to speak at the Ampersand 2014 conference (theme Science(Fiction)) here at McGill on March 22, 2014.

I went to Ad Astra 2014, April 4-6, 2014, and launched a book!

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.

When Words Collide 2013: A convention report

Summary

  • Skipped doing panels (not organized enough to propose ones or get onto the ones I would have been able to contribute to; resolve henceforth to do better)
  • Friday: Flew Montreal to Calgary in the morning, arriving just before noon, made it to the hotel (via public transit from the airport, glad I packed light – Eagle Creek small holdall), checked in, waited for the elevator (10-floor hotel, one working elevator, locked stairs), mastered the key elevator card (went up and down a few extra times in the process), picked up registration package, talked to people, wandered around spacey with sleep deprivation for what remained of the afternoon, and headed out to see a friend for supper and the evening. Thereby missing all of Friday’s programming. After I got back to the hotel, I went back to my quiet room, and slept for about 10 hours. Thereby missing all of Friday’s parties.
  • Saturday: Surfaced just in time for the 9 am communal breakfast on the 10th floor, a excellent innovation from SF Canada for larks and easterners, attended panels (see below), had fascinating conversations, worked two stints on the Bundoran table in the dealer’s room, and had an extremely sociable, very tasty, but desperately slow supper at a adjacent Indian restaurant that could not possibly have anticipated an invasion by hungry con-goers. Thereby missing all Saturday evening programming, including the Bundoran launch. Next year, we have collectively resolved to warn them.
  • Sunday: Breakfast in the hotel restaurant (pancakes), panels, conversations, a swim in the hotel’s enticing outdoor pool, crystal blue water, excellent temperature, decorative sprays. Second elevator still down, but stairwell was now open and getting much use, particularly between the first and second floors. Checked out, adding my orange holdall to a substantial hoard behind the main desk, snatched lunch at Starbucks, attended panels (see below), hit the dealer’s room one more time, and, failing to find anyone else heading to the airport for a late afternoon flight, availed myself of the hotel’s offer of a subsidized taxi ride out to Calgary airport … wishing I’d stayed until Monday.

Books bought

(It was a little holdall.)

  • Right to Know (Ed Willett), Bundoran Press’ latest, a generation ship story.
  • Shanghai Steam (edited by Ace Jordan, Calvin D Jim, and Reneé Bennett), an anthology of steampunk wuxia stories
  • Healer’s Sword (Lynda Williams), seventh in the Okal Rel series

Later in my trip I added

  • Beyond the Blue Horizon (Brian Fagan), a fascinating book about very early seafaring and exploration, which has just come out in trade paperback, and which I have already paid library fines on
  • A Distant Soil: The Gathering (Colleen Doran) The remastered, definitive version of Doran’s long-running epic space opera (which I started reading when I was doing my PhD thesis), now finally on the home stretch.

The Alien (reconstructed human) as metaphor

Nina Munteanu, Peter Halasz, Lynda Williams, Candas Jane Dorsey

  • Lynda mentioned the risks to understanding others, the fascination and danger. I identified one source of danger as the risk of being estranged from one’s culture of origin without necessarily being accepted in the adopted culture. The loss of family and community. The writer can wave his/her narrative magic wand and make up those losses, but the real-life experience of exiles, dissidents, and even migrants who have simply sought better opportunities elsewhere, shows it isn’t necessarily that easy … By the third book of CJ Cherryh’s foreigner, series, Cherryh has brought Bren Cameron to that position of estrangement without acceptance; acceptance comes later, by several books.
  • My other thought was that the interest in aliens was rooted in the childhood experience of trying to learn social rules, which were frequently bewildering and apparently arbitrary.
  • A lot of writers wanted to address the problem of humanity in a way that does not raise hackles (by invoking current concerns).

Academic Papers I-II

  • Jessica Bay, on “Kisses and categories: blurring genre definitions through relationships”, talking about two series, one of which I had not read, the Kate Daniels series, by Ilona Andrews, and the other the Mercedes Thompson series, by the con guest Patricia Briggs, talking about the crossing over between a romance and quest plot.
  • Paula Johansen presented on “Looking for Ghosts in The Curve of Time.” The Curve of Time is a memoir by M. Wylie Blanchet, who spent multiple summers travelling the BC coast with her children in the ’30s. Paula traces the movement from invitation to a haunting in an abandoned house (which the narrator flees), through her encounters with deserted first nations longhouses and arboreal burials, to her awareness of the eerie movements of the wind and the trees – a reversal of the usual progression of a ghost story from suggestive and non-specific spookiness to the climactic encounter.
  • Aida Patient talked about “The Centennial Reader: Online publication and reading practices”.

“Pantser, plotter, or quilter”

Amanda Sun, Jodi McIsaac, Susan Calder, Patrick Swenson

As a member of the Ancient and Proud Order of Literary Pantsers[1][2], I had to go to “Pantser, plotter, or quilter” where Amanda Sun, Jodi McIsaac, Susan Calder, Patrick Swenson compared the merits and demerits of the various modes[1] of getting from idea to finished story. Having written technical documents according to guidelines and templates, I know how pleasant it is to have a sense of the shape from the very beginning, and how peculiarly relaxing it is to know exactly where you stand in relation to the end, even if the relaxation is one of limp hysteria at the disproportion between what remains to be done versus what time remains to do it in (no, never happens, never) …

Unfortunately, I snuck in late, missed the introductions, and was too far away from the speakers to read their nametags, so I cannot properly attribute the following pearls

  • “How many characters actually listen to their author??”
  • “Plotting removes the organic energy of the story”
  • “One of the best pieces of advice I received was that, while it was impossible to think of 20 good ideas, it is also impossible to think of 20 bad ideas.”

[1] Pantser[2] = flies by the seat of their pants, outlines retrospectively and/or only when compelled to do so. Plotter = prepares a prospective outline, usually in (obsessive, from the pantser perspective) detail. Quilter = writes out of sequence, as pieces come to them. Probably could be a special case of either of the previous categories.
[2] Battle cry: “Outlines? We don’t need no stinkin’ outlines!” Mayday: “Help! I’m stuck in the middle!”

Patterns of recognition in humans and what it means to writers

Patricia Briggs and Lynda Williams.

  • The human brain is a pattern recognition machine. One of the cardinal problems of artificial intelligence is that computers have difficulty recognizing patterns
  • The writer can make use of this pattern recognition: one does not have to work so hard to join up the dots
  • Characters contribute a huge pattern to the story. When they enter, they are neutral, and then they gradually define themselves. Tropes can be very valuable (Lynda), but with main characters, the readers should not be able to recognize the tropes (Patricia); tropes are, however, useful for secondary characters.
  • One strong pattern is that of cause and effect; readers expect that cause and effect will match
  • The writer needs to be careful as to what patterns are invoked. If a pattern is invoked, and then contradicted, the reader may get confused, or see it as a betrayal. Eg, in Mooncalled, Patricia killed off a character early in the novel, “and got crap for it”. [He was one for whom the pattern demanded better treatment (he was young, innocent, a victim, and seemed to have found rescue).]
  • How well subverting expectations works depends the skill of execution, the reader’s expectations, and the character. You can break the pattern for some characters, but not others.

Examples mentioned:

  • Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman, which begins conversation between a man and his mistress in which the time and place are never specified but is somehow is still utterly clear
  • Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, where the central character is an archaeologist who regards herself as a proper Victorian lady, but by the reaction of the other characters is clearly a holy terror.
  • As an example of breaking of a pattern, Patricia cited the death of Colonel Blake in MASH, a random and capricious accident of war overtaking an everyman character whose role in the series was principally as a foil to the others
  • Patricia also cited the death of Bothari in Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Warrior’s Apprentice, both because it is unexpected (a retribution from a generation before) and because it is unexpectedly tragic. Readers do not expect to mourn monsters. (Bujold does this all the time, subverts patterns.)

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)