At Farthing Party last August (good grief), I was on a panel on the question of “Who is Qualified to Write SF?”. My intro packed in an awful lot of thought, so I figured I would take the opportunity to unpack – though why I did not post this until now I can’t really explain, because it reached close to final form in the first couple of weeks after. Might have something to do with submitting Shadowborn, going out west, and starting a new job.
I raised four points:
- The usefulness of having a background (whether acquired through formal education or not) in the discipline (defined broadly) that is the focus of the story, which helps with the details, helps with getting the fundamentals right, and allows extrapolation (in any direction – forward, sideways, or backwards), as opposed to what I chose to call fabrication, which is just picking up the trappings [i]. At the panel we spent a lot of time on the big and small things that made us go ‘owww’ and – metaphorically or otherwise – throw books against walls.
- The need to know and avoid the ‘big dumb clichés’, the misperceptions of science promoted by news media that tend to normalize the aberrant and popular narrative media conventions that romanticize the deviant. Everyone who is a member of a social group or practitioner of an occupation or serious hobby has to deal with the ‘big dumb clichés’ around their domain. Others have written about the annoying and persistent myths around science; my personal pet peeves are the distortions of human research and medicine (a longer rant for a later time). This is about getting the culture, norms and ethics right [ii].
- The importance of being engaged with science. I spoke about the social awkwardness around being a young woman in science at social events – particularly those where the sexes were herded into different corners (we’re talking about the late 1970s and early 80s) – and saying what I did was the kiss of death to conversation. I still get the sense that many people who express judgments about science on the Internet are as checked out on the subject as those women who’d tell me that science was boring or too difficult for them [iii]. This is not a position to write SF from.
- However, being engaged does not mean being uncritical, which brings me to the fourth point, which is an argument that the best people to undertake the critique of science within SF may not be scientists [iv]. Science is a dominant, if not the dominant narrative in our society, and as much as we need competence and accuracy in the depiction of science in SF, we need competence and accuracy in the critique of science in SF – as a culture, as a system, as what my history lecturer would have said a ‘project of modernity’ – as the way it reinforces dominant narratives and power relations, and how it subverts and is subverted by them [v]. This requires a different position and a different toolkit, which is where SF needs people who don’t have a science background, and aren’t socialized and acculturated.
And this is by no means a complete list. Other thoughts:
- In my observation, it’s more likely that a writer who writes prose that makes me drool, purr, and mutter ‘envy is a sin, envy is a sin’, does not have a formal education in science than that they do (note the epidemiologist’s phrasing here). I may be biased by knowing how much my own style deteriorated from late high school to graduate school, and by the memory of having my style described as both ‘flowery’ and ‘insensitive’ during the same university term, by a science prof and an english prof respectively.
- Jo Walton and Jim McDonald both said the writing – the mastery of storytelling – was paramount. Yes, yes, yes! If a writer has the writing and storytelling part right, I’ll not only be more prepared to believe that they have the information right if I don’t know the subject, and more willing to accept implausibilities and forgive errors (having fact-checked) if I do.
- There’s also the problem of time.There’s that million words of garbage or that 10 000 hours of practice needing to be got over. Science-science doesn’t generally give one as much time as social sciences and the arts do for the simple exercise of putting words together to convey one’s meaning accurately, much less time to think about narrative or the production of story.
[i] We can argue about whether or not extrapolation is a necessary criterion in the definition. It’s in my own, particularly on those odd Tuesdays when I define SF as a product of the present day in dialogue with the needs, concerns and technologies of the present day, and therefore needing a reference to the present day. Plus, I like to watch writers do the extrapolation. However, my definition of SF is anything but fixed. See also [v].
[ii] And for me personally, errors there are more offensive than errors in fact.
[iii] Today, I could offer a number of responses that might lead into productive conversations about how and why they had become checked out (if indeed they were) – public perception of science, science education, dynamics of inclusion and exclusion – but then I was too young and skinless to deal well with what felt like dismissal.
[iv] At the panel I mentioned butting heads with fellow listserv members on the subject of Margaret Atwood, and realizing upon reflection that the heat was actually being generated by a struggle over who did and did not have the dominant narrative. We were not arguing so much about whether Atwood is a SF writer, or whether she writes good SF or not; we were arguing about power, privilege, and who gets to be the authority. I saw the arts having the dominant narrative, and Atwood being granted disproportionate attention because she was such a major figure in CanLit. I suspect my fellow members saw science as having the dominant narrative, and myself as dissing Atwood because she was neither within the field of SF or the field of science.
My early experience did not suggest that science was privileged. The formative years of my education were at an all-girls school that came out of a particular tradition in female education that took the education and vocation of young women unusually seriously, but which nevertheless centred on the arts, leaving the sciences as something of an afterthought. Then, before I had finished school, we moved (back – it’s complicated) to Canada, in the mid-70s, where the arts were the chosen platform for the expression of Canadian identity. It was in America, where science and scientific prowess were one of the platforms for the battles of the Cold War, that science was being actively promoted.
In addition, as a woman training in science, I did not feel privileged. I felt a barely tolerated outsider, stumbling through the complicated dance that would keep the men around me seeing me as a scientist rather than as a female, and entirely too aware that my femaleness would be used to push me outside any time it suited them. I’d discovered feminism, but many feminist writers appeared to equate science with masculinity and condemn it as a tool of patriarchy (it is, it is), leaving me with the sense – rightly or wrongly – that they regarded as science as no place for a woman, and a woman in science as an unnatural being (… where had I heard that before?). It was a splendid moment for me when I picked up a 1982 issue of Ms magazine in which they published a long excerpt from Vivian Gornick’s “Women in Science: Portraits from a World in Transition”.
I got clued to the biases resulting from being embedded in science via various inputs. The ones that come to mind are:
- the inescapable experience of being female in science and observing how the science around gender was refracted through social expectations
- the work of critics of the sociology of science like Evelyn Fox Keller and Hilary Rose [vi]
- going into medicine, where there had been extensive work by feminists and sociologists looking at how the science of medicine intersects with the sociology of medicine and with the lines of power and privilege
- taking a course on the history of modern Europe, which turned out to be an intellectual and political history of Europe, which gave me the perspective of science as one of the projects of modernity – along with feminism, democracy and individuality.
And I also clue to the potential limitations of science fiction purely by scientists by reading a form of SF written primarily by insiders. I’ve been reading naval and military fiction and SF ever since I got into Hornblower via Star Trek [vii]. I recognize the writers’ authority – not only do most of them have the real-world credentials equivalent to having science degrees and writing SF, but the work gives off that particular resonance of an author confident both in story and subject. However, being an outsider, I also recognize the unexamined assumptions in many of the popular works [viii], and feel the tension of being pulled into the story and yet being fully aware that as civilian, a physically unexceptional female, and someone whose politics – at least these days – is left of centre, I do not belong there. Well, other than as a shreddie. That’s another area where Lois McMaster Bujold stands out, because she takes the perspective both of the insider and the outsider, does not take for granted militarization as a norm (Barrayar is a militarized society in the process of demilitarization), and questions the power-relations. Furthermore, Miles is by birth, socialization, and ambition an insider, but because of his physical limitations is an outsider.
When I was writing Cavalcade, I was in the middle of medical school and conscious of the ongoing process of socialization to professional norms , and the difference between the realities of the profession and the ‘big dumb clichés’. I wanted a special forces team aboard, and I was sure that popular representations of the military were as distorted as those of medicine. I read a whole variety of books written by insiders, would-be insiders, and people who were consciously using an outside perspective and outside toolkit to look in. Ones I particularly remember were “The Company They Keep”, written by an anthropologist married to a special forces soldier, “The Militarization of Women’s Lives”, about the influence of even a peacetime military on women, families and society, a book about praetorianism (whose exact title I can’t remember), which picked apart the American republic’s history of profound ambivalence and indeed distrust of military power as a threat to democracy, fascinating to someone living next door to the post-WWII, post-Cold War, militarized republic. I never was sure enough of myself to present a point of view from the special forces unit, but their presence and the relationship between them and the forming government ran through the novel.
[v] There are a heck of a lot of my personal causes and beefs embedded in this viewpoint, and unpacking those would run for few thousand words or so. Suffice for the moment to say I Have Views about the social as well as the artistic purposes of science fiction. But see also point [i]. On alternate Wednesdays, I don’t care about the social purposes of SF; I just want some shiny, irresponsible fun.
[vi] Rose discusses science fiction as offering models for a feminist science in a later chapter in her book “Love, Knowledge and Power”, and Jane Donawerth uses Rose’s ideas to give shape to a broad discussion of women’s presentation of science in science fiction (with lots of examples) in “Utopian Science in Science Fiction by Women,” in “Frankenstein’s Daughters”.
[vii] I once had a conversation with Marie Jakober about our shared fascination with war despite being unambiguously opposed to it IRL. I don’t recall that we reached a conclusion, but we were fully aware of the contradiction.
[viii] Unexamined within the work, at least.