Every winter, the Montréal Botanical Gardens (Jardin Botanique), fills up one of its greenhouses with butterflies, Papillons en liberté … and I go and take photographs.
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).
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.
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)
- 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)
In my 1999 article on women scientists in fiction, I identified the prevalent theme of the women’s scientist’s withdrawal from science. Discouraging, to say the least, but I’m chagrined to say that, until I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, I never asked myself what happened next?
[Note: I go into detail about events and resolution in these novels (particularly Prodigal Summer and Animal Dreams), so if you haven’t read them, and mind such things, then please read them first!]
In Prodigal Summer, Lusa, an entomologist, meets and marries a farmer, Cole. When he is killed in an accident before their first anniversary, she decides to assert her claim to his farm and settle there. Ultimately, as well as her husband’s profession, she adopts both her husband’s name and the children of her dying sister-in-law.
On my first read, I characterized it as another withdrawal from science novel. But when I re-read the book, I saw how Lusa continued to be a scientist, and once I saw that in Prodigal Summer, I saw it in Kingsolver’s other books, too.
Kingsolver’s descriptions are informed by a biologist’s intimate knowledge of the natural world. Kingsolver’s scientists, although no longer identified as belonging to the institutions of science, continue to apply the same observation and analysis they used in their work to the world. Lusa’s experience in agriculture and entomology help with her farming. Her knowledge of the wider society lead her to take the novel step of raising goats, knowing that with three major religious holidays coinciding, they will be in demand.
Kingsolver also points up the environmental and social responsibility of the scientist in the world. Lusa expresses her responsibility through her resistance to pesticide-intense farming methods, her refusal to grow tobacco as a cash crop, and her refusal to allow hunting on her land, even by members of her own extended family-in-law. Cody (Animal Dreams) is a dropout from the profession of medicine, who has been drifting around the world with her lover, an emergency-room locum as alienated as herself. When her father’s faltering health brings her back to her hometown, she falls into the job of substitute science teacher at the town high school. On a field trip, she and her students discover that the water in the town’s river is so acidic with industrial effluent that it is sterile under the microscope. Cody turns activist, helping organize efforts to save the river, and lending her authority as a scientist and teacher. (Ironically, it is not science that saves the town—the proposed rescue plan being to contain the pollution by damming the river—but culture. To raise money for their activism, the ladies of the town have turned to their traditional crafts. Their distinctive piñatas become collector’s items, and attract the attention of a shrewd expert who advises them how to apply to become an historic site, which gives the town the protection that the environmental laws cannot.)
The second expression of Cody’s social responsibility is her quirky one-woman sex-education campaign. At the age of fifteen, she gave birth to a premature, stillborn child, alone, and in secret. So when yet another one of her female students falls pregnant, she whips out a condom in class and gives an impromptu demonstration of its application to a zucchini. Trouble ensues, but in a reversal from her avoidant past, she stands firm.
Kingsolver’s scientists also use their science to make a connection to estranged children. Cody shows her students the power in knowledge. Lusa’s dying sister-in-law has a daughter whom Lusa initially takes for a boy because of her dress and fierce manner. The girl resists all the aunts’ efforts to nurture her, mixed as they are with denial about her mother’s condition, emotional coercion, and expectation of gender conformity. She is sent to Lusa as a last resort. In an extended scene, the pair work their way through Lusa’s chores and then go hunting bugs. Lusa shares her knowledge with Crystal, and that conversation moves on to touch on matters of sexuality and mortality. In Kingsolver’s Bean Trees, Taylor reads to her little adopted daughter from a library book about rhizomes and nitrogen fixation. It’s a moment of intimacy and safety for an abused child, and a metaphor for the interrelationship of their community.
Science also cinches a connection between Cody and her own origins. Her father, a proud man from the wrong side of the tracks, married the cherished daughter of one of the town’s elite families, and then estranged himself and his daughters from them when his wife died. When Cody finds the yellowing records and fading pictures of her father’s study of an idiosyncratic feature of the town’s newborns, and recognizes her own picture among them, she is able to feel herself as one of them.