Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Authors, Imagination, and Authority

A discussion of the “ownership” of a range of the abstractions that fictional texts generate (and are, of course, composed of) is in progress over on John Scalzi’s blog. Legally, of course, authors own the copyright to their work, and that includes the work’s characters. But what does such ownership mean as far as interpreting the work and its characters’ personalities, traits, behavior, feelings, and beliefs go (which some participants in the discussion seem to asserting)? I’m a fiction writer, a critic, and a person who’s been reading novels for nearly half a century. And so I require of myself a single answer to the question that I can make comfortable sense of in all three roles.

Reading a discussion provoked by JK Rowling’s revelation that her character, Dumbledore, was in the privacy of the author’s own mind (but nowhere else) gay, I can’t help thinking of a complaint made to me at WisCon by a fan who’d read Alanya to Alanya and was annoyed when she discovered near the end of the novel that the protagonist, Kay Zeldin, has blonde hair. All through the novel she imagined Kay as a brunette, and the detail of the blonde hair at the end of the book seriously jarred her image of the protagonist. It’s a minor detail, right? But she was justified in her annoyance. As it turns out, I had deleted a passage in the first chapter that revealed Kay’s hair color. When I did that, I ought to have either inserted the detail somewhere else in that chapter or deleted all later mentions of it. The omission of such a trivial detail early on meant that the narrative encouraged readers to invent supply the detail of the protagonist's hair color for themselves, since texts constantly invite readers to invent omitted trivial details for themselves. (This does not hold, of course, for significant details, where the author might have legitimate reasons for deliberately withholding the information.)

Now imagine that I had deleted all mention of Kay’s hair color from the Marq’ssan Cycle and then remarked publicly that in fact, Kay is a blonde. Because that detail wasn’t in the book, it would simply be my Kay Zeldin who was blonde, not the Kay Zeldin. Fans of the Marq’ssan Cycle might have found such a revelation interesting, but I couldn’t expect that it would in any way stand as a corrective to whatever image they had formed of her.

Is Dumbledore’s gayness a trivial detail? Rowling is treating it as such. I haven’t read the books, but by all accounts, the detail does not register (much less reverberate) in the books. (Whether such a detail can reasonably be considered trivial is another matter.)

As a fiction writer, I learned fairly early that most readers pick up on some details and not others, and how they do that will create wildly different interpretations. Since almost no readers will ever get everything, I long ago saw that I can either write down to readers (to try to make sure they get what I want them to get) and stifle their imaginative engagement with the fiction, or aim high for the “ideal” reader—someone prone to snatch up the allusions and subtle hints and stories lurking below the surface—and be satisfied with whatever the best readers come up with. I chose the latter, though I’ve been told many times that it’s a mistake to “set the bar too high.” I figure, though, that if I’m willing to live with the consequences, it’s no big deal.

I used to get exercised over people actually making up details that weren’t in my fiction as part of their interpretation, but not even that bothers me now. Changing the “facts” of a story to flesh out an interpretation may be poor critical technique, but in one sense, it’s merely an artifact of reading. The author can only put so much down on the page—unless, of course, they overwrite to the point of not allowing the reader a single imaginative thought that they haven’t dictated, as certain sf writers (whom I can’t stand to read myself) regularly do. A huge part of the pleasure of reading is taking the bones of story, world, and characters offered by the text and putting flesh on them. Is it any surprise that while creating the story, world, and characters in their imaginations readers write over some of what the text actually gives them?

I have a vivid memory of the August, 1991 weekend I wrote “Motherhood, Etc.” I was still giggling from writing the last scene early Sunday morning when I printed out two copies and gave them to my two first readers, who’d been reading the New York Times down in the living room. Discreetly I retired upstairs to my office, to clean up the mess of reference books and marked-up rough drafts that always attend the scene of writing. About an hour later, it sounded like WWIII had erupted on the first floor of the house. Nervously I ventured downstairs to find my first readers standing on opposite sides of the work table in the kitchen, one of them shouting, the other responding with sniping, sarcastic cracks that only exacerbated the shouter’s rage. Such disagreement about my fiction wasn’t in any way unusual. But I was struck by how elaborately the one shouting had constructed a network of inferences that created a subtext that outraged his ideological sensibilities, rendering my character, Pat, a moral monster and the men trying to control Pat the Good Guys whom the narrative openly dissed. To my astonishment, that reader actually exhorted me not to send the story out on the grounds of its immorality.

As a critic, I often pick up on implications, connections, and subtexts in stories that other readers don’t see and sometimes even the writers themselves have missed. It’s not unusual, though, for an author to tell me that my reading has helped them to see aspects of the work they weren’t conscious of but were, nevertheless, unconsciously intended. (Yes, even the most conscious writers rely heavily on their unconscious processes as they write.) As a writer, I know that I often learn things about my work some time after I finish composing it. Oh! I will say to myself: so that’s what that story was about. If I’m lucky, I will learn those things before it gets into print and tweak the story appropriately. It’s a very odd feeling, discovering meanings and resonances that you did not intend, for always, at the moment of writing, you feel as though you’re the God of the world you’re bringing into existence—all-knowing, all-powerful, in perfect command of the material. It’s a necessary illusion, since it would be impossible to shape the narrative without it. But it’s still an illusion, for all that (as most writers know as soon as they walk away from the keyboard or put their pen down).

As a reader, I learned long ago that the story I read will often prove shockingly different from the story others read. Later, I realized that the story I read in 1970 won’t be the same when I read it again, years later. This should come as a surprise to no one. Fiction is something that created in people’s heads, and there’d be something wrong with us if our mental processes were always and ever the same and never altered with experience or shifts in context. The written text allows the reader to participate in this creation. Although the writer provides the written text that allows that creation to take place, the good writer does not try to restrict the reader’s imaginative engagement with the work but instead attempts to trigger and facilitate it. (Samuel R. Delany says that the text provokes the reader to “remember,” and that successful descriptions work on readers’ memories.)

Until the writer gives the fictional text to someone else to read, it’s solely and totally her property. Imaginative (as opposed to legal) ownership is breached as soon as others read the text, though not seriously, since the text remains provisional right up until the point of official publication. On publication, however, since anyone can read the text, anyone can participate in the imaginative construction the text not only invites but also demands. The results of that imaginative construction won’t always be felicitous. But post-publication, in any discussion of the text, the writer’s voice will carry only as much weight as another reader’s (and probably less than some critics’). That will be the case even if the writer supplements the fictional text with another text or even rewrites the book and publishes a revised edition. “Director’s cuts” of films distributed a year or more after the studio has released the original version don’t erase the original (unless its material existence has been thoroughly eradicated); rather, they add another version that may or may not supplant the original version some time in the future. When rival editions of the same novel exist (as is the case, for instance, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), a variety of factors will determine which version predominates, and even then, the matter may not be settled definitively as long as both versions continue to be available in print. Imaginative "ownership" or authority (which is what I think this discussion is really about) is never simple and is always open to contestation.

From my point of view, it's a Good Thing we can't nail interpretive authority in any definitive way. It's what makes the conversation we cherish possible.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Call for Comments on How to Deal with Racism & Sexism in a Workshop Environment

I’m putting together an article on how feminist and anti-racist writers deal with sexism and racism when it comes up in workshop environments. I hope some of you will be willing to share your methods.

Preferably, I'm looking for responses of 200-750 words in which people explore their own ideas about reacting to sexism and racism in workshop -- but shorter responses are fine, too. I'd love it if people would wing off on their own based on the topic, but I've also included more description and some questions to help people get started. If you're interested, feel free post your comments on this post, or to email me at rachel dot swirsky at gmail dot com.

Here are some of my starting points:

Many workshops are voluntary, so one can choose to leave when racist or sexist material comes up — but only if one is willing to deprive oneself of the feedback. Some workshops are compulsory, however, particularly when one has signed up for a class. Voluntary or compulsory, workshops are always a unique combination of work and play. On the one hand, one is usually friend with ones workshop peers -- but on the other, for working writers a workshop can also be a functional and essential part of how one prepares one’s work.

Workshops can also become hotbeds for emotional turmoil, since the material in question is so personal.

If you’re planning to stay in a workshop, you have to create a business relationship with the other people involved. So what do you do when one of them writes a story with blatant racist or sexist content? I think this has happened to all of us; certainly, it happens in the workshops I’m in.

And here are some questions for those of you who'd like them as a starting point:

*When you encounter racist or sexist (or otherwise bigoted) material in a workshop setting, how do you deal with it? Do you ignore it? Do you call it out? How do you decide whether to ignore it or call it out?

*How do you call out racist and sexist material while preserving your relationships in the workshop? What techniques do you use? How do you vary them based on context (power dynamics in the group, your own place in the group, the type of racist or sexist material being presented)?

*Have you ever decided not to call something out? What happened? How did you feel afterward?

*Have you ever regretted calling something out? Why? What happened?

*Have you ever quit a workshop because of racist or sexist material?

*What was the most offensive thing (on the lines of bigotry) you’ve ever encountered in workshop? (Please describe it in generic terms.) How did you react?

*How do other people in workshop situations tend to react when you note offensive material? How does it vary between workshops you’ve been in, and why do you think it varies that way?

*Anecdotes that you can tell without compromising yourself or anyone else (changing names and story subject matter helps) would be quite appreciated.

*Have you ever been in a workshop that was a safe space for race or sex? What was it like? Did it feel limiting or limited?

*How can workshop leaders (or the group in an acephalous workshop) create a positive environment? What environments have worked best for you?

I need responses by this Sunday, November 4th.

Monday, October 29, 2007

(Re) Reading Feminist SF: An Annotated Book List

(Re) Reading For A Chapter On Feminist SF: An Annotated Book List.

I was asked to write a chapter on Feminist SF, for “The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction”. The chapter is something different, a fair, informative round-up & overview for the general reader; at least I hope so. The assignment drew me on, above and beyond common sense use of my time, through the back pages of the seventies and eighties, one title suggesting another; and this is my reading list. It’s not so much the big names, or titles that have remained visible, continually discussed, established. It’s more of a miscellany, some well-known texts, some hidden gems, and some. . . Well, a mixed bag, anyway.

Native Tongue: Suzette Haden Elgin.

No use, not for me. I feel the same now as I did then. The concept sounds fascinating. There’ve been secret feminine languages and writings for millenia, in Asia eg —but a language devised by women linguists, that cuts up the world in subtle new ways unknown to man: that’s something else. Sadly, the execution is narrow and prosaic. Every science fiction is about the making of the present, and classic feminist sf is (typically) a satire and a rebellion against a very particular place and time, namely the fifties, post-WWII USA. But this is just too transparent. Middle class US professional women surely did, and do, get treated with contempt by their male colleagues —a prosy, paper-thin scifi top-dressing doesn’t help to illuminate their plight.

Venus Rising: Carol Emshwiller.

Space man. Sea woman. . . . A fable about our foremothers, the Aquatic Apes, written after reading Elaine Morgan’s The Descent Of Woman. I like the Aquatic Ape hypothesis. We’re naked, we’re fat, we have voluntary breath control, we weep. Sure, I’ll buy it. We were driven from the savannah in a period of global overheating, and became human on the ocean shore, frolicking like sea-otters in the waves.

I liked the fable when I first read it, at first I wasn’t so sure second time around. Emshwiller’s sweet style can charm you, or irritate you. Venus, the proto-human narrator, is so careless in her oceanic, happy innocence, she could seem vapid. Zeus (the non-aquatic hominid, whose people have already invented patriarchal society, violence, paranoia and banishment) is very much the regulation bad guy. But there’s a subversive twist.Gentle Venus gets nasty to deal with Zeus, and saves her people. But in the process she has become tough, progressive and ambitious (Adam tempted her to eat his apple?); and we leave her setting off in search of new worlds to conquer.

The Wanderground: Sally Miller Gearhart

Generally held to be the most embarrassing “seventies feminist” sf text in the world, ever. ‘Who can read The Wanderground now?’, a highly sympathetic male respondent demanded, rhetorically, on a mailing list I belong to, a few months ago. So naturally I had to check it out. Actually, it’s not that bad. Along with Despatches From The Frontiers Of The Female Mind, this is the book that brought back the flavour of those strange days of The Women’s Press SF imprint. Like listening to Leonard Cohen again, first time since circa 1973. What you have to realise, first of all, is the tiny scale of the operation. This isn’t Wimmin For World Domination. This is the yoga class that meets above the wholefood store, Bay Area, West Coast USA, daydreaming about getting back to nature, rejecting the cruel city & all its works, and developing their psychic potential. Let’s everybody curl up in a ball, arms around your knees. Now imagine that you’re lifting off the floor, imaging that you’re floating, floating. . .

Can you buy it? In certain moods, I can wish it might be so. David Saxton, reviewing for the Guardian around 1987, called the Wanderground women “something between robins and hobbits”; sounds about right. Take over? Kick ass? No, no, we’re pacifists! Gaia Herself is going to do the dirty work. Can the boys play too? Yes, if they promise not to spoil everything. But they have to build their own treehouse.

The Female Man: Joanna Russ

Most of the canonical texts got displaced: I felt I could wing it on prior knowledge and received wisdom, introducing eg U.K.LeGuin or Suzy Charnas titles to the readers. But I had to read The Female Man again. What did I notice? (Apart from the fact that I still found the four-ply story gripping, the elliptical style sharp and compelling). The Probability Mechanics, the “braided possibilities” that also turn up in this year’s In War Time, Kathleen Ann Goonan; for a different satirical purpose. And the theatre of operations. Once more, it’s not about the human world, as I assumed in my salad days: it’s about the good old USA. The planet Whileaway has two continents, North and South. Little girls cast out to do their spirit journey in the far north (aka Canada I surmise) kill wolves & bring back the paws as proof. . .

A feminist, separatist Utopia where children are treated rough, leave their mothers at five and grow up shooting straight & taking no shit. . . The longings of a person deprived of not just any set of “male coded” freedoms, but of a specific, temporally and culturally defined set of “male coded freedoms”; almost a Robert Mitchum part, a Hollywood Golden Age version of what it means to be human (as in, the defining human being, to whom woman is the yielding, supporting complement). I’m reading these texts historically, should I apologise? I’m seeing them in context, and I don’t think any the less of them for being more personal, less universal, than I imagined.

more later. . .

Friday, October 26, 2007

What Doesn't Surprise Me---and What Does

It’s been a few years since particular articles on any of the array of environmental disasters currently in train have genuinely startled me. Just about every morning I encounter a few such articles, and though they pain me just as the constant horror show of the Bush Administration’s words and deeds do, they never surprise me. This morning, for instance, I read an article by James Randerson in the Guardian reporting that 60 leading primatologists from the world conservation union, the International Primatological Society and Conservation International, has released a report that twenty-five primate species are close to extinction. “You could fit all the surviving members of these 25 species in a single football stadium; that’s how few of them remain on Earth today,” said Russell Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International.”

Though this article saddened me, it did not surprise me. Similarly, Richard A. Kerr’s article in the October 5 issue of Science (the weekly magazine published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science) titled “Battered Arctic Sea Ice Down for the Count?” took note of the “quantum leap downward” in the quantity of Arctic sea ice this last summer. I hadn’t previously seen the graph that makes the immense shift in a single year from the pattern of decades dramatic and scary, and I hadn’t read the comment by polar researcher John Walsh that although abrupt changes can occur in models, “this is the first time we may have seen it in the real word,” but I had read articles in which scientists warned that projections for the pace of global warning were constantly being revealed as overly optimistic. So I found nothing surprising there.

I was, however, stunned when I turned the page and saw the title of the next story, “Greening the Meeting” The heading for “Greening the Meeting” declares: “Scientific travel pours huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Some [professional science] societies are changing the way they run their annual meetingsand a few scientists are proposing even more drastic changes”. The opening paragraphs offer the usual dismaying figures about the environmental costs of conferences and meetings and notes that a scientific conferences service provider lists in its online directory nearly 4000 events scheduled for the next two years. Although some of these conferences are small, some draw thousands of attendees. (The AAAS’s own annual meeting, for instance, drew 8000 this year.) It’s a difficult problem, as the article notes. An inset offers the magazine’s readers eight travel tips for reducing the environmental footprint of professional travel.

The following article, “This Man Wants to Green Your Lab,” focuses on the efforts of Allen Doyle to “spread the gospel of sustainability from lab to lab,” but has a similar inset, this one titled “Lab tips” (that are all easy no-brainer practices that shouldn’t be as hard a sell as the article suggests they in fact are). David Grimm, the article’s author, notes: “Yet in Doyle’s experience, scientists are blasé about reducing their environmental footprint while at work. ‘There’s a bit of a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” culture out there,’ he says. Many researchers chastise the government for not doing more for sustainability, says Doyle, ‘but we’re ignoring the same issues in our own labs.’”

Grimm’s article doesn’t surprise me: it tells a familiar story of an activist meeting the ingrained resistance to responsible behavior that constantly, in our world, triumphs over logic. It’s the fact that some science societies are struggling with the environmental costs of professional travel that impresses me. Why? Because it means that the state of the environment has become so precarious that the very people who are researching climate change have realized (as most non-scientists have not, pace Greenpeace, Al Gore, & the host of environmental activists who have been struggling for years to bring both the political class and the general public to their senses) that significant behavioral change is essential now.

Another Whacky Scheme to "Protect" Women from Rape

Via BoingBoing, a whacky solution (this one Japanese, but is it any whackier than what we Americans come up with?):

Vending Machine Costume

Ms. Tsukioka, a 29-year-old experimental fashion designer, lifted a flap on her skirt to reveal a large sheet of cloth printed in bright red with a soft drink logo partly visible. By holding the sheet open and stepping to the side of the road, she showed how a woman walking alone could elude pursuers — by disguising herself as a vending machine.

The wearer hides behind the sheet, printed with an actual-size photo of a vending machine. Ms. Tsukioka’s clothing is still in development, but she already has several versions, including one that unfolds from a kimono and a deluxe model with four sides for more complete camouflaging.

It's hard to imagine this particular solution being proposed in the United States, but this is one place where I think the narrative of Japanese oddness can do some good. Dressing up as a vending machine seems silly to American eyes, and hopefully it can demonstrate by analogy the silliness of our own expectations of what women can and should do to avoid rape and assault.

At BoingBoing, Doctorow notes that the design of this vending machine plays into a Japanese cultural myth that crime rates are increasing, when in fact "Japanese crime levels are in decline" -- another point of similarity between Japanese and American hysteria about rape and assault.

(Hat tip: draegonhawke)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Thinking About The Four Gated City on Doris Lessing's Birthday

By Nancy Jane Moore

I just finished re-reading Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City and am pleased to report that I still think it's a great book. I haven't read all of Lessing, so I will refrain from saying it's her best book, but it remains my favorite.

I was a little unsure at first. I did a panel at Capclave on re-reading, and one of the subjects we discussed, over and over, was that some books do not hold up well on re-reading, especially many years later. And the beginning of The Four-Gated City is slow, and reads like a fairly traditional tale of human relationships.

But it moves on to include the best comprehension of the phenomenon we call the Sixties I have ever read. Written during the Sixties by someone who was open enough to see what was happening and old enough to make sense of it, she gets to the heart of the matter, melding together swinging London, communal living, and exploration of the mind in a way that both validates my own experiments of the time and makes me blush to realize how superficially I understood what I was doing.

More important -- at least to the readers of this blog and to me at this stage of the game -- it's science fiction. The book moves from conventional explanations of insanity into mind exploration, using some ideas that might be Jungian, but going farther into potential telepathy. The appendix is pure near future apocalyptic SF.

And while The Four-Gated City's near future is our recent past, the fact that the predicted catastrophes didn't happen in the extreme way presented in the book doesn't weaken its power, because the truth underlying those catastrophes (climate change, new plagues, dangerous and foolish governments, people who get stuck in negative scripts in their brains) are all quite familiar to us at present. Here's one of a hundred lines that struck me:
It can be taken absolutely as an axiom that the populace will not be told the truth, nine-tenths because the governments concerned won't know what is the truth, will be as much in the dark as anybody else, and one-tenth out of panic, greed, hysteria, fear of their own citizenry.

Sound familiar?

Here's what really caught me on this re-read: This is the book that paved the way to science fiction for me.

I am not one of those people who read SF as a kid. I didn't disdain it, but I didn't focus on it. In college I came across Dune, the Foundation Trilogy, Stranger in a Strange Land, and (of course) Lord of the Rings, but while those books affected me, I didn't separate them into a separate category from other reading.

It was a few years after reading The Four-Gated City that I began seriously reading SF, because it was in SF that I found the same kind of complex ideas that Lessing raises. At the time, much so-called literary fiction was mired in stories about middle and upper class people and their failed marriages -- a subject that bores me to death -- while SF looked at at any number of ways we might live.

No wonder I'm not in the Analog Mafia -- I didn't come to SF for science and technology themselves (though they bring a lot to the mix). I came for thinking that made me question the most fundamental things -- what does it mean to be human, how does the human race become civilized, what capacities do we have that we are ignoring?

No wonder I'm impatient with formulaic fantasy and space opera, much as I love a good rollicking adventure story. I want ideas, even in my adventures.

Blame it on Doris Lessing. She ruined me for superficial SF. Give me ideas, meaty ideas, ideas that haunt me for years. I first read The Four-Gated City in 1973 and I'm still thinking about it. It's just possible I'll still be thinking about it when I die.

Study Finds: Positive Attitudes Don't Slow or Cure Cancer

Now that I've knocked Pharyngula a few times, I guess I'll do a post favoring some good ol' enlightenment rationalism, based on this study from the BBC.

An oft-touted example of mind over matter is the efficacy of optimism in aiding cancer cures. A good outlook is supposed to equal a cure. "How brave and corageous she was," we hear of those who pull through. "She struggled and she overcame."

Sometimes nastier stories drift in of assumptions that people who died from cancer somehow sinned in succumbing. They gave up. They were weak. They failed to fight. They didn't want to live. They weren't strong enough.

My mom had such an anecdote a few years ago, to describe the way that her hairdresser's husband had died. "[My hairdresser] says he gave up, and died a week after that. What a shame. It's too bad he gave up."

The appeal of such a narrative is obvious -- it gives us a sense that we control our own fates. It gives us a tool -- optomism -- to hold against insurmountable odds. If we can be positive and uplifting enough, we have a chance against illness. It's only those who give up that die.

Optomism as medical cure is a secular replacement for prayer as medical cure. For some religious people, it's a way to talk about the power of prayer in language that's acceptable to the ears of people who don't believe in the efficacy of appealing to god for intervention. For areligious people -- like my mother -- it can be a replacement for prayer, a way of capturing the sense of control that we gain from something like prayer, and applying it to a (mostly) materialist view of the universe.

Unfortunately, it doesn't actually work.

The power of the mind has been overestimated when it comes to fighting cancer, US scientists say.
They said they found that a patient's positive or negative emotional state had no direct bearing on cancer survival or disease progression.

They do suggest that cancer patients continue with therapy and working toward a positive attitude -- but they suggest it so that cancer patients can be happier, not as a life-saving measure. From the article, "Lead author Dr James Coyne said: "If cancer patients want psychotherapy or to be in a support group, they should be given the opportunity. There can be lots of emotional and social benefits. But they should not seek such experiences solely on the expectation that they are extending their lives."

Of course, on one hand, it's depressing to discover that we can't cure ourselves through sheer cheerful bloodymindedness. It's hard to acknowledge that we don't have control over these things, that our outcomes are determined by factors we can't affect.

I am reminded of the debates about rape, in which people will go to great lengths to blame the victim. We understand why many men do it, but I've always found it insightful when feminists observe that one reason many women will do it, too, is because women want to convince themselves that they have the power not to be raped. That if they are not sluts, that if they don't drink at the wrong time, or trust the wrong person, or go out at night, or wear a short skirt, they can eliminate the possibility of being attacked.

We know it's not true with rape, and now we know it's not true with cancer either: you can't force yourself to be safe, or be cured. But the silver lining in both situations is the same. If we accept that optimism and ineffective safety measures are not the protection that we want to claim, then we can stop blaming the victim. We can stop suggesting that women invite their own rapes, and we can stop suggesting that people invite their deaths because they don't try hard enough to maintain a sunny disposition.

Julia Frater, of Cancer Research UK, said: "People with cancer can feel under pressure to cope well with their disease and treatment and to stay on top of things. They are often urged to feel positive.

"These results should reassure them that if they don't feel like this, it's okay. Many people do feel worried or low following a diagnosis and this isn't likely to affect the outcome of their treatment."

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Trifecta of Neat Stuff Part III: Evening Reading

I first read "Amnesty" last week. It was the last new piece of Octavia Butler's that I will ever read. I think I was unconsciously saving it as a kind of treat. I've been reading her novels since I was six or seven, and her short stories since I first got my hands on her short story collection.

This story was published in SciFiction after the edition I own of her short story collection was printed. I'd put it on the syllabus for the class I'm teaching because, this year, I've decided to teach only fiction that's available online. I had previously read the other story of Octavia's which is online, and it's all right, but I wanted something that would hit the gut. I'd heard descriptions of "Amnesty" and knew it would fit the bill, which it does.

Octavia was probably the world's first professional, black female science fiction writer. She wrote about race and biology. Many of her stories seem to ask whether human beings are redeemable. A common theme that appeared in her writing was the way that the bigotry and violence in human nature skew all our loving relationships, so the great loves in her stories tend to be things that seem off-kilter -- for instance, in her story "Bloodchild," the two lovers are a scorpion-like alien and the enslaved human child whom the alien has chosen as ahost for her eggs. Octavia wanted to write about a loving male pregnancy, she wrote, adding that the story was supposed to be about love and not slavery. For many in her audience, it's the latter that comes through, which demonstrates the ways in which love and slavery distort each other.

Octavia Butler's humans often find redemption only after being destroyed. Yet the agents of that destruction (often external and biological: aliens, alien viruses, alien alterations to human physiology) are never simple; they are not pure, but nor are they villainous. Sometimes they are morally ambiguous, and sometimes they're amorally mindless. Usually, the worst evil comes from inside humanity. Here's an excerpt,

Noah shook her head. "The only difference between the way they treated me and the way the aliens treated me during the early years of my captivity was that the so-called human beings knew when they were hurting me. They questioned me day and night, threatened me, drugged me, all in an effort to get me to give them information I didn't have. They'd keep me awake for days on end, keep me awake until I couldn't think, couldn't tell what was real and what wasn't. They couldn't get at the aliens, but they had me. When they weren't questioning me, they kept me locked up, alone, isolated from everyone but them."

..."It mattered more than I know how to tell you that this time my tormentors were my own people. They were human. They spoke my language. They knew all that I knew about pain and humiliation and fear and despair. They knew what they were doing to me, and yet it never occurred to them not to do it."

I found the story moving -- and of course, I am deeply saddened by the fact that I'll never again have a chance to read a new stoiry that evolved from Octavia's singular, amazing view of the world. If you can still read this story for the first time, I envy you. Read here.

Trifecta of Neat Stuff Part II: An article

The BBC reports new discoveries in the field of animal research:

The study found African elephants reacted with fear when they detected the scent of garments previously worn by men of the Maasai tribe.

Maasai men are known to demonstrate their virility by spearing elephants... The elephants also responded aggressively to red clothing, which is characteristic of traditional Maasai dress.

However, the elephants showed much milder reaction to clothing previously worn by the Kamba people, agriculturalists who pose little threat.

The psychologists said they had expected to find elephants might be able to distinguish among different human groups according to the level of risk they posed.

They said: "We were not disappointed. In fact, we think that this is the first time that it has been experimentally shown that any animal can categorise a single species of potential predator into subclasses based on such subtle cues."

It's interesting that the article is focusing on the Massai as hunters, as Westerners have long held up the Massai as the quintessential "noble savage." I don't think the article or the study are playing into that, but it catches my eye to see them being used in the role of "fearsome hunter."

Another thing I found striking: the elephants will run from any red clothing, but they'll run farther and faster from red clothing that also carries the odor of Massai men than they will from red clothing that has been worn by members of another African group.

How do the elephants get this knowledge? Is it all experiential, or do they pass it down as they do knowledge about things like where mineral deposits that they need to acquire vitamins are?

And I had no idea that different ethnic groups had detectably different smells. Diet, I assume? And other lifestyle factors. I didn't realize the divides in lifestyle were still large enough to produce that effect, although it makes sense, particularly in the context of something like one group's continued tradition of hunting elephants.

Trifecta of Neat Stuff Part I: A quote

Today, I'm going to post a trifecta of neat stuff in three short entries, staggered through the afternoon and evening.

The first thing is an entry about sex & sex work in science fiction, which is smart and interesting, but which is totally eclipsed by the cleverness of this quote/propsal. Thene writes on Aaru Tuesday,

I would like to propose a measure called The Frank Miller Test. It will test how much male sci-fi writers are obsessed with whores; if the proportion of female sex workers to neutrally presented female people in his story is above 1:1, he fails.

Hear, hear.


But it would be unfair not to give you a taste of the smart, interesting entry, too. Thene's entry looks at sex & sex work in science fiction and fantasy. "There's a lot of supposedly 'speculative' fictions where it's still 1958," she says.

Summarizing one story that poses an SFnal frontier, she writes, "It's 1958 again. The men have a quest, and the women are the questers' prostitutes. (Anonymous homosexual intercourse is suggested as the cash-free alternative). There's also, of course, this narrative about how 'vices' of all kinds are brought by the evil capitalist enterprise to the virgin wilderness."

She quotes the story to illustrate her point:

There are several like her, some boys but mostly young women, utterly charged by the arrival of these tough roustabouts and the breathing pistons of the trains. Their families lament while they let their flocks run, or sell them for meat to railroaders for scrimshawed trinkets from the tool-rooms. The goatkeep young men join the grading teams and fill the rivers. The young women find other outlets. [...] There is bad blood among the camp followers. The whores who have dutifully followed these men, splitting from the perpetual train to work with these mountain diggers, are affronted by their new rural rivals, these farmgirls who expect no pay. Some of the workers themselves are threatened by these newly voracious young women who do not sell sex or even give sex but take it. They know no rules. They have yet to learn taboos... [emphasis hers]

And her smart analysis: "Part of me adores that bolded line, and the energy of the passage in general. The other part is saying waitacottonpickingminute, you're appropriating vaginas to demonstrate your philosophy of technology? You're using the gender-neutral word 'worker' to mean 'man who pays for sex'? You're drawing lines between 'untamed' rural amazons and prostitutes who are Slaves Of The Patriarchal-Capital-Whatsit? Prostitutes who (as the story goes) 'corrupt' those women through violence, enforce their taboos and turn them, vampire-like, into prostitutes themselves? The shit?"

Read the whole thing.

(Hat tip: Ide Cyan at Whileaway)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

He's Gay, and He's Native American: Rowling and Scalzi Claim Marginal Identities for Charcters After the Fact

Well, this is interesting. (Hat tip Lawrence Schimel)

On October 20, J. K. Rowling read from book 7 at Carnegie Hall in New York.

After reading briefly from the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, she took questions from audience members.

She was asked by one young fan whether Dumbledore finds "true love".

"Dumbledore is gay," the author responded to gasps and applause.

She then explained that Dumbledore was smitten with rival Gellert Grindelwald, whom he defeated long ago in a battle between good and bad wizards. "Falling in love can blind us to an extent," Rowling said of Dumbledore's feelings, adding that Dumbledore was "horribly, terribly let down".

Three basic reactions:

1) Huh.

2) That fairly cool.

3) Well, damn it, why the hell couldn't you have told us that during the series?

Recently, there was a kerfuffle (has anything other than blog wars ever popularized that term?) on the popular blog of military science fiction writer John Scalzi. Scalzi, responding to discussions of how and when race is deployed in science fiction, revealed how he wrestles with the issue.

My way of dealing with spec fic's racial lopsidedness (on the writing side, at least) is somewhat passive-aggressive: I avoid making any sort of overt racial identifiers at all with my characters unless it's required by the plot, which for my books it generally isn't. This is not the same as actively specifying minority characters in my books, which is a point no doubt many will be happy to make, and they're right. But it's not excluding them, either, which is not trivial.

Scalzi went on to indicate that he had imagined a main character in one of his series to be non-white, although he had never left any racial markers on the page.

This is the moment when I say "I heart Scalzi" before launching into intense criticism. Kameron Hurley of Brutal Women summed it up well:

As a writer, you may write colorblind. You may pull out all the color and race and cultural tags for every single one of your characters, and thereby prove that they could be of any race!

Sure. Let's go with that. Nobody in your book has a skin color, or any sort of physical description at all.

You really believe your reader's not givng your characters a physical description? You think that one of the first markers they make, after size and gender, won't be color? Pigment?

The problem with writing in "race-neutral" (what is that? Gray? Beige?) terms is you get the same problem you run into when you write in gender-neutral terms. As people raised in a racist, sexist, society, we're going to norm a lot of stories, a lot of people, as white males. There are certainly ways you can code this differently, and every reader brings their own unique set of indicators to the reading experience, but I think the vast majority of people are going to sit down and code your world in whitewash unless they get some indication that it's otherwise or they bring something non-majority to the table.

We have a default setting we've been programmed with, and it's the default setting we've been pumped full of since birth: stories about bands of white brothers, fathers and sons, heroic male conquerors, Columbus, rich white presidents, men of Science, great white male writers; the men who run the world are white. The important people are white. We're reading about important people, right? Unless we're reading some kind of hippie women's story set in some jungle where people don't speak plain English.

As Kameron Hurley acknowledges, Scalzi has provided himself a little bit of an out here: he works in a far-future world which may no longer share our politics of race. (But really, do they have nothing to replace it? Nothing?)

Scalzi himself argues that he's not writing colorblind (because he knows what colors his characters are), but that readers are reading colorblind. He goes on to say that this doesn't of necessity reinforce a white default. As a first step, he says that while he envisions characters is novels as being "people like me," whiteness is not part of that profile. Honestly, I have a big problem accepting that -- but, let's accept it anyway. Scalzi's politically aware and not, IMO, given to lying to trump himself up. Perhaps, through deliberation or coincidence (I trend toward postulating the former, even if not on a conscious level), Scalzi has trained himself not to view race as a default.

The mistake he makes is in assuming that it's responsible for writers to assume that readers will be able, or willing, to do this. Scalzi:

Now, you may ask why I didn't just note all this [stuff about race] in the book; the answer is because I didn't want to, because it never came up as part of the story, and because I'd rather have people imagine Harry Creek to be who they were comfortable with him being. If they see him as white, that's their karma, although I will say I'm sorry that their default is white.

Kate Nepveu, who also wrote a separate post on the subject, responds in comments:

This entry is built around a big misunderstanding, to wit:

"The people like me" != "the cultural default."

The default in our culture is whiteness -- and, to get back to Rowling, heterosexuality. When sexuality and race are not mentioned, most authors mean to indicate whiteness and heterosexuality. Scalzi is not subverting this paradigm by refusing to mention race; he only plays into it. The world in which he's writing has certain politics, which certainly he needs to write to, but in other ways he acknowledges that he's working for his audience. As an author who belongs to the joking group the "New Comprehensible," Scalzi puts an emphasis on writing fiction that is accessible to the mass of our population. Our population has certain tools for analyzing texts. These include a white default as much as they include certain assumptions about nanotechnology -- the latter of which Scalzi overtly navigates. When he introduces the basic rules of his world in the first chapter of his novel, he exposits them. He exposits them because readers need to know. Why does he assume we don't need to know about race?

Perhaps because he says that readers should already know enough to know to vary their default. But then again, maybe they "should" know stuff about physics which he has to explain. We don't. He's stuck with the reading population he's got, and we don't live in a futuristic utopia.

Niall Harrison said something I thought was smart on the topic of writing about marginalized or non-default characters:

If “straight white male” is the default, then anything else indicates that a choice has been made — or at least, it implies that a more conscious choice has been made than the one made by Stanley’s author. Even if the motive behind that choice is, perfectly validly, “why not?”, the choice is there.

And when it's not textually present -- that choice is, in a real way, not there.

This scenario is even clearer with Rowling, who does not have a utopic science fictional world to pose as a hypothetical. It's neat that Rowling has a homosexual character, but could we have seen this in your series, please? Could we have seen Dumbledore with a real, living lover? Or, failing that -- if he spent his life pining -- why couldn't we have learned about that? We got to learn about the long flaming heterosexual torches, including much more twee whining about Snape and Lily than I was interested in.

Yes, I know Rowling has to deal with the reality of her audience, just as I said Scalzi does. And of course, writing for children means accepting certain boundaries. I can understand that she didn't want to ask for more textual trouble from Christian conservatives than she's already got. As the interview relates: "Not everyone likes her work, Rowling said, likely referring to Christian groups that have alleged the books promote witchcraft. Her news about Dumbledore, she said, will give them one more reason."

Of course, that leads me to say: they hate you anyway. So, why pander to them?

Most texts only appear as themselves. Books are a finished form. We, as writers, are often told we have to send them into the world without our excuses, without our explanations. When we go to workshops where other people critique our manuscripts, writers are entreated to stay silent. Because our justifications don't matter -- the text becomes what the reader makes of it, a combination of their experiences and the tools you give them.

Neither Rowling nor Scalzi gave their readers the tools that they needed in order to pry this information from the text. It's an afterthought, left to discussion by only the most devoted fans, only the people who happen to read the blog. Why should it have to be the non-white characters and the homosexual characters whose marginal lives are illuminated not even in the marginalia of the text, but in the essays and justifications afterward? Once again, they get the short shrift.

For Rowling, there's one redemptive silver lining: the fact that her books have, outside her hands, a vital textual life of their own. As the article reports her saying, "Oh, my God," Rowling concluded with a laugh, "the fan fiction."


UPDATE: Several people of my acquaintance have mentioned that their central annoyance with Rowling’s reveal is not that she didn’t mention the gay character’s identity in the series, but that she is playing off of an old and poisonous stereotype that gay people are doomed to heartbreak.

This seems, to me, to be a valid concern. However, in the context of the novels, it seems to me like Rowling is often eager to split up romantic and family relationships. I guess I’d read Dumbledore/lost-love as parallel to Snape/rejection. That doesn’t excuse the stereotype, though, since there are no positive examples of gay romance in the novels.

Still, my primary concern is erasure. From Kat Allen’s blog, I learn another thing Rowling’s said: “Rowling remarked that if she had known that (applause) would be the response, she would’ve revealed her thoughts on Dumbledore earlier.”

That kind of gives me the shivers. Gay people are only worth writing about if the reaction is applause.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Is Belief in Evolutionary Psychology Hardwired, or Is It Just a Biological Imperative to Cling with Death Grip to Privilege?

Well, that'll teach me to dash off my angry thoughts at 7am after pulling an all-nighter.

Because everything I said about some of the Pharyngula commenter's obsession with using evolutionary psychology to prop up their own faltering egos and desperate need to be viewed as intelligent -- Chris Clarke has said better, funnier, and pithier.

This just breaking from Creek Running North: Belief in Evolutionary Psychology May Be Hardwired, Study Says

The particularly brilliant beginning to the post:

Special to Creek Running North: Biologists have long assumed that evolutionary psychology, a controversial branch of psychology that ascribes many common social behaviors to genetics, is a muddled blend of half-understood evolutionary biology, selective data mining and resentment of women’s changing roles in society.

A new study, published in today’s issue of the German publication Unwirklichen Genetikjournal, does not challenge that assessment. But it does suggest that some men may be genetically predisposed to believe in evolutionary psychology, a finding that may well suggest future methods of treatment of the psychological malady.

Believers in evolutionary psychology maintain that feminism sets itself in opposition to millions of years of anthropoid evolution, and is thus futile and inhumane to men. Allegations made by believers include references to putative differences in math skills between men and women, a supposedly irresistible but entirely non-visually stimulated female attraction toward powerful and/or arrogant males, and the existence of a genetically preordained male right to multiple female sexual partners.

Many such men hold to these beliefs despite an absolute lack of supporting scientific evidence, says Dr. Ulrike Mann-Esser, chair of the sexual anthropology department at Universität Ulm and the study’s lead researcher. “But we had no way to determine why this was so until last year’s discovery of the locus taedius.”

I'd excerpt more, but the whole thing is too damn correct and funny to pull pieces out of. While it's written to mock evolutionary psychology's claims about sex and gender, it pretty much demolishes all the ridiculous "White dudes is the smartest and most civilizedest!" claims at the same time.

So go read over there. He even has witty illustrations, which proves that he carries the Superior Blogging Gene.

UPDATE: [Deleted]

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Conversation with Julie Phillips

Last summer I spent a couple of hours talking with Julie Phillips about her compelling and illuminating biography of the feminist sf writer, Alice Sheldon. The biography, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, which more than a few people have characterized as being a page-turner, has won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Locus Award, the Washington State Book Award, and the Hugo Award. Julie had just spent several hours talking to the screenwriter who’s working on a film of Alice Sheldon’s life, so the pump was well primed before we even began talking. Perhaps that’s why I failed to notice that I pressed PLAY rather than RECORD on my tape recorder? Only later, as Julie was preparing to leave, did I discover that the tape meant to record our fabulous conversation was blank. But all was not lost! Julie kindly essayed a reconstruction of the salient points of the conversation on tape for me, which I then transcribed. The reconstruction is a bit dryer and more focused than our live conversation; nevertheless it has much to offer anyone interested in the issues Julie tackles in her book.

Timmi: Although literary biography is a recognizable genre, in some sense it is still a hybrid of biography and literary criticism. I’m interested in what your take on the balance and interaction of these two foci were for your biography of Tiptree/Sheldon. Did you have a clear sense of it when you began the work, and did your sense of it change over the course of the decade in which you carried it out? Did you read all of Tiptree’s fiction before you began, or later? Did your understanding of the Sheldon’s life change your reading of the fiction? Did your reading of the fiction ever change what you made of Sheldon’s life?

Julie: The book started as a piece of criticism, a book review. So I had read almost all of Tiptree’s stories while I was writing that first review, andyou know there’s a lot to say about them, but when I started writing the biography, to me the stories were very subordinate to the story of her life. And I tried as much as I could to put them at the service of Alli’s life.

I had to include the stories to some extent if only just to show that she was going to become a writer, to foreshadow that a little bit. I would have liked to mix the stories through the book more, I would have liked to give it a more unconventional structure, but nobody knew anything about Alli’s life; I didn’t think I could pull it off. I thought it would be too frustrating narratively not to make it a straight story. You could get away with that, the way Hermione Lee does in her biography of Virginia Woolf, if it was a life-story where the outlines were known, but not where people didn’t really know anything about her life.

Obviously the stories aren’t autobiographical, and I didn’t see the fiction as a reliable guide to her life. But I do think that knowing something about Alice’s life helped me in reading the fiction. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” didn’t make much sense to me at first, because I kept trying to read it as an ugly duckling story. It was only when I knew more about Alli’s life that I began to feel that it was about the opposite experience, of growing up in a beautiful body that doesn’t feel like it matches the mind inside.

I did include some literary criticism. I had to do that, to explain to readers what Tiptree’s literary achievement was. And in some places I put in bits of literary criticism where I felt like I had come up with something that hadn’t been said before and I was just pleased with it.

But to me the book was primarily a story. And I don’t think that I would go back and write more about her fiction. I think actually that I’m a better storyteller than a critic, which surprised me, because I had thought of myself the other way around. I struggled with the lit-crit parts of it. They were very hard for me to write. I felt like they were some of the most boring parts of the book. I hope that there will be more criticism of Tiptree written because of my book, and I hope that other people will do it and not me.

Timmi: By the time I finished reading your book, I had formed the distinct impression that for all that Alli admired her mother and was anxious to establish professional friendships with women as well as men writers, at bottom, she was a male-identified woman. Do you think this is a faulty conclusion on my part?

Julie: I think that’s absolutely true, that she was a male-identified woman. I think that almost every woman of her period who had any talent was male-identified, because there weren’t that many opportunities for talented women. You can say “Oh well, you know but look at her mother,” but her mother’s only one example, and when she needed to separate from her mother in order to get her own life, there weren’t any other examples, there wasn’t anyone else that she could model herself on or attach herself to.

She wanted to like women and she was dying to find women with whom she could identify. They just weren’t there. She was very politically minded, very technically minded, and even now there aren’t that many women who are like that. There are still very few women engineers, for instance, or women computer scientists. Women aren’t necessarily encouraged to think that way, and women who do think that way are not believed and not given credit, and it was easier just to think of oneself as a man. Besides, Alli liked men and felt very comfortable in their company.

I think that Alli was very good—I said in the book somewhere—at defining women so as to exclude herself. I think that it was frightening to her to identify with women because if you were too womanly, that was a kind of a trap; but if you fell in love with women, that was also a kind of trap. To identify with men was very much off limits for Alli. As much as she wanted to be a man at some moments of her life, she was terrified of that desire and spent a lot of time trying not to feel that, and I think that probably had to do with her closeted sexuality. The more she admitted to herself that she wanted to be a man, the more it must have made her think of her generation’s image of a lesbian, and that must have been scary.

Alli was ambivalent about feminism too. She believed in it but, like a lot of women of her generation, felt uncomfortable with consciousness-raising. It was too emotional for her, too personal. And she thought younger women, like Joanna Russ, were naïve to think that they could get away with being so angry.

One of the interesting things about her looking back on having been Tiptreebecause I don’t think she thought through why she had become Tiptree, and what it meant to her to be Tiptree, very much until after it was over. Charles Platt interviewed her, and he later told me that it was very hard for him to get her to admit that she had wanted to be a man. He thought that’s what the deception was about, and she didn’t want to say that. And I wondered why? To me it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world to admit that she had wanted to be a man, because of course who doesn’t want a man’s privilege and a man’s literary opportunity? And in her journal, for instance, just after Tiptree was unmasked, she said that she had wanted to be a man. It’s possible that she had revised her opinion by the time she talked to Charles Platt. But I wondered if her sexuality, and her fear of not just of admitting but giving in to her sexuality, didn’t play a part in that reluctance.

(I think we rambled on quite a bit about this question when we talked and I’m not sure I’m including all of the important bits. I know we were talking about women’s intellectual life and how women didn’t get much of it.) Alli wasn’t exposed to much of it. Maybe if she had gone to Vassar where the women were more intellectual she would have had an easier time, but she really deliberately turned her back on that, too. To please her mother, maybe? To spite her mother, maybe? To try to fulfill this promise of glamour that she had at an early age? To try to turn her back on the precocious child-prodigy-genius expectations that her parents had of her? I don’t know. Her choice not to explore her intellectual side until very late in her life was always a really strange one to me, because I started out with a very strong intellectual side and I couldn’t imagine anyone as brilliant as Alice who didn’t want to study, who didn’t want to learn. I came to feel that I understood it, or could accept it anyway, but that took awhile.

Timmi: In her review of your book, Elizabeth Hand characterizes Alice Sheldon as “a woman tragically born a half-century too soon.” She doesn’t say precisely what she means by this, although I think we are meant to infer that if Alice Sheldon had been born in 1965, she would have been able to have come out as a lesbian or else had gender reassignment therapy. (Quote: “Later, after Alli’s identity was revealed, [Harry Harrison] concluded that his friend had not been ‘nuts’ but ‘a woman was just being very female about it.’ Phillips refrains from commenting on Harrison’s observation, but I won’t. Why is behavior that would be considered ‘nuts’ for a man considered normal for a female? This is the crux of Alice Sheldon’s often tormented life, the disconnect between her projected voiceher storiesand her everyday self. She sometimes seems like a prime candidate for gender-reassignment therapy; at other times, a lesbian so deeply closeted that one’s instinct is to drag her into daylight and shout, ‘See? IT’S NOT SO BAD AFTER ALL.’”) & yet Hand also acknowledges that Alice’s childhood had a great deal to do with her problems as an adult. Is there any sense in which you would be able to agree with Hand’s characterization?

Julie: I certainly think she would have approached her sexuality and her sense of her gendered self very differently. But I could not possibly say how she would have done it. She’s so very much a person of her own time; who am I to say what she might have done in a different time? There’s no way I can know whether she would have been transgendered, whether she would have chosen for women or for men. The opportunities would have been so different for her. And the way she saw herself I think would have been really different.

Timmi: Hand ends her review by talking about the essential scariness of the human being who wrote could write that “finish[ing] the series with one about a man who kills EVERYBODY, that will make me feel better” and claiming that the reader encountering “The Screwfly Solution” or “The Last Voyage of Dr. Ain” or “The Women Men Don’t See” for the first time will feel “the same emotion, perhaps, that gripped that physical education teacher in For Des Moines, or Alice Sheldon’s husband when he realized, as Phillips suggests, that his wife was going to kill him: pure fear.” One person I recently talked to said that when they’d received a fan letter from Tiptree, they were wary and so did not respond. Another person who had a correspondence with Tiptree said that there was something “creepy” about certain questions Tiptree sometimes pressed on her. Do these responses surprise you? Or do they resonate with your own reading of Sheldon’s life?

Julie: Finishing the series about a man who kills everybody. Elizabeth Hand thought that was frightening. I don’t. There’s something to me very liberating about Alice Sheldon’s anger. I don’t think it was necessarily liberating for her—it certainly didn’t make her happy—but I’m always cheering her on when she’s angry, and wanting her to explore her anger and use it and use it to pry open the parts of her life that were hidden to herself. In the story Hand is referring to, “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain,” there’s also a promise at the end that killing off people will save the world, and that life will begin again. What I think Alli’s doing in that story is tipping over the chessboard, an act I find childish, unsatisfying, and exhilarating all at once.

Besides, some of Tiptree’s friends and fans, Mark Siegel in particular, saw her as this wise, compassionate figure, concerned with the world’s problems. Whereas I thought she used worrying about the world as an escape from her own problems, and that she ought to save some of her compassion for herself. So I was pleased whenever I got a chance to contradict that limited and, I thought, damaging, image of kindness and concern.

At the same time it disappoints me that Alli wasn’t able to finish her stories except by killing everybody. She was often able to explore more satisfying futures for women or imagine more satisfying futures for women, but she was never able to resolve those stories in any positive way. Instead she shut everything down. She didn’t dare, maybe, to allow herself to imagine a future in which she could be herself. No, I don’t think that her anger is frightening. I have mixed feelings about it, but I think it needs to be there.

I don’t think Alli murdered Ting, by the way. I don’t think he was very happy about the pact, but I think he went along with it. Peter Sheldon thought the same; I remember he told me (though I didn’t put it in the book because I couldn’t confirm it) that they had been found in the guest bed, not in their own. Rightly or not, he took that as a sign that Ting had lain down willingly in that bed.

People shouldn’t go too far the other way and make a scary monster out of Alli, either.

Timmi: What in your opinion is her best work?

Julie: I would say her performance as Tiptree in the letters she wrote as Tiptree. Other than that, of course, there are lots of stories I love. “The Women Men Don’t See” is one. “A Momentary Taste of Being” is another; it’s funny, it’s very gloomy, it’s incredibly psychologically rich, and I still don’t feel like I’ve got to the bottom of it. I just admire it incredibly for its depth.

Timmi: In an essay in Asimov’s SF reviewing your book, Paul di Filippo writes:

It seems to me that a cabin in Yucatan and a lodge in Wisconsin, among other perks, were necessary prerequisites for the exfoliation of Tiptree’s odd and extravagant personality, in a way that, say, having to support oneself scrubbing toilets would have precluded. I hesitate to call Tiptree a “drama queen,” since she was so often stoic and silent in her suffering, but perhaps you’ll take my meaning if I say that had Tiptree been born equally talented, but black and poor, or even white and lower middle-class, it’s hard to imagine she could have afforded such self-indulgence and often morbid introspection as she exhibited and was permitted. And although such counterfactual speculations are really beyond the pale of a biography, still it would have been nice to see more acknowledgment of the role Tiptree’s above-average economic freedom played in allowing her character to become so involuted.

Would you care to comment?

Julie: Paul di Filippo is not the only one who has wondered why a woman with all Alli’s privilege had such a hard time. He gives some of the answers himself: her brain chemistry and her relationship to her parents, which made it particularly hard for her to break out of their mold. (A book I drew on a lot in thinking about Alli was The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller, which talks about how children who are enlisted in the project of comforting their parents can end up constructing a “false self,” which makes their own desires and emotions inaccessible to them.) To your point, that introspection and unhappiness are absolutely not limited by class, I would add that daughters of privilege, in Alice’s generation, led terrifically constricted lives. Don’t forget what happened to Alice’s talented, rich friends: they were married off or became alcoholics. If Alli had “economic freedom,” then it was of a very limited and contingent kind. The “economic freedom” of marriage, same story.

Besides, a lot of her free time to think and write came as the result of her not being able to have children. So it wasn’t exactly an unmixed blessing. *

I’m not quite sure what Di Filippo wants me to say. That she was spoiled and privileged? That her money allowed her to be arrogant about, for instance, not looking for a teaching job after she got her Ph.D.? I kind of thought I made that clear.

Timmi: I suspect he’s missing a context largely invisible to a lot of men. Perhaps he ought to read a few more biographies of twentieth-century women writers to get a clearer sense of what creative women have been (and to some extent continue to be) up against.

Thank you, Julie, for taking the pains to recreate our discussion. It’s always a pleasure talking with you.
* Would Alice have been happy having children? I wonder. But that’s another story.

Possibly My New Favorite Quote

From Cara in this thread at Feministe:

Isn’t it funny how all of those so against identity politics tend to be white middle-class dudes? It’s almost like they share a political view that is shaped by a shared identity. WEIRD.


As a side note, the post at feministe that generated the thread is an example of particularly acute awesomitude shining in a generally awesome blog.

Pharyngula Commenters Prove Immorality Not Sole Balliwick of the Religious

I do love Pharyngula's P.Z., but he attracts some real low-lifes to his site. Prime viewing: this thread.

In the post itself, P.Z. quotes Dr. Watson, the egomaniacal co-discoverer of the double helix:

Dr Watson told The Sunday Times that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really". He said there was a natural desire that all human beings should be equal but "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true".

I'm not going to spend this thread analyzing Watson's comments, because they've been so soundly and easily trounced, and I have different fish to fry. Educated individuals should already have an idea of the scientific evidence rebuting Watson's idiotic remarks. For those who want crib notes, P.Z. has the proper reaction. To wit:

our wanting to see our particular ethnic or racial group as superior to all others is not enough to make it so. There seems to be no environment on earth (except, perhaps, the coddled womb of the upper middle class lifestyle) where the average human being can afford to dispense with intelligence — and that includes Africa — and even where populations have been isolated for ten thousand years at a time, as in North America and Australia, we don't see powers of reason decaying. And of course, Africa is not significantly geographically or genetically isolated at all.

However, as often happens on Pharyngula, when some of the commenters sniff out the potential for misrepresenting the results of biology to erase sociological factors and make sure everyone knows that white men really are the bestest (they can't help it! they were born that way!), the racist and sexist comments fly. In this case, the commentariat trots out some of the most distinctly aromatic blatantly racist arguments. A couple stinky examples:

John Smith: Why is it unreasonable to suggest that black people might be intellectually inferior? Why does PZ consider this ludicrous and easily dismissible?

The "everyone is equal" philosophy doesn't always bear itself out. You can't expect it to be a universal law. Maybe there is a significant intellectual disparity between some races. Who knows? Watson at least has a point.

PZ is continually proving himself a faith-head, PC-fundamentalist.


robotaholic: . To my knowledge there is no conclusive evidence that all humans regardless of race have the same potential for intelligence. I think intelligence can be measured and so can physical fitness. There is the possibility that he is correct. Until there is conclusive evidence that he is wrong, I don't think so many people should scorn him. Just like Richard Dawkins says about the nice comforting idea of going to heaven or having a soul- just because it is comforting -that doesn't make it *TRUE*...

Now, there are at least an equal number of defenders of actual truth (instead of, "hey, I can't help being your superior, my shiny alabaster skin just makes me that way" truth) over there, too.

Unfortunately, some of them utilize a well-intentioned racism in their arguments, like this fellow who doesn't know a lot about modern Africa:

True Bob: "You see a gazelle, a zebra and a giraffe at a watering hole. Which do you select to kill?"

"Which will provide you better food value; 20 grubs, 24 millipedes, or a cobra?"

I appreciate that this guy is standing up to the other people in the thread, and trying to point out -- in what he sees as a humorous fashion -- the drawbacks of a concept like IQ.

IQ, as commenters here are probably aware, is a construct that was developed in order to test developmentally delayed students and determine who would need extra help. The inventor of the IQ test warned that it should never be used to rank children of average or superior intelligence, which of course resulted in the immediate use of the test ot rank children of average and superior intelligence.

The concept of IQ -- [omitted claim] -- may be real, but it's not real in the way that we want to make it real. It's not separable from cultural factors, and it can't be measured on a single dimension or as a single number. In fact, it probably can't be measured at all. We can measure approximations of it, but we've known for a long time that our tests are skewed by cultural factors. As several commenters on the Pharyngula thread point out, differences in IQ between Africa and the United States can be explained by sociological factors. On the one hand, there's the inherent skew of the tests themselves. On the other, there are factors like poor nutrition which affect early childhood development -- including, some studies suggest, intelligence.

But let's look back at this guy's comment, which gets at some of those important things through a couple lines of humor. What tools does it use to uncover those things? What is the basis of its humor? True Bob wants us to re-examine an American view of intelligence, so he constructs what he thinks will be an African view of intelligence. To do so, he represents Africa as an untamed wild in which people hunt and gather at a susbstitence level. For the vast majority of Africans, this description is wholly inaccurate.

Africa doesn't look like the United States, but neither does it look like the primitive collection of mud huts and jungles that inhabit our collective, racist imagination. As an anthropology student, I took a class on People's of Africa in which our professor often brought in slides showing Africans going about their normal activities. I remember clearly one photograph of an African man riding a bike through a city, clusters of bananas tied to his bike, a monkey clinging to his handlebars. I remember laughing. It was funny.

The humor derived from the tension in my mind between what I thought Africa was (monkeys) and what I thought modern life was (a bike ride through the city). Seeing them together made me laugh; what are modern elements doing in "primitive" places? Over and over again, this dynamic was repeated. The whole class laughed.

As anthropology students, we knew that Africa doesn't exist in some kind of bizarre state of Joseph Campbell savagery. But the cultural imaging of Africa as something backwards, where you survive by bashing a snake on the head and bringing it home for your family to eat -- and where you don't use toilet paper or know what a factory is or wear cast-off American clothing -- is an incredibly strong cultural icon.

And we have this guy using it here, in order to debunk racist ideas. Because, even as he struggles against its inevitable conclusions, he's been suckered in by the powerful American myths about Africa. Our cultural mythology creates a false dichotomy, in which Africa and the west embody opposite traits. All that is primitive and savage is constructed as being African, while that which is modern and civilized is constructed as western. Of course, this is the same construction that's leading John Smith and robotaholic to their conclusions. Because if the west is all that which is civilized and modern, then of course intelligence belongs on our side of the border.

Therefore, blacks are stupid.

Certain groups of scientists and atheists seem prone to this particular racist narrative. Of course, part of it's just the pervasive racism in the society. But I think there are certain aspects of an emphasis on rationalism as the only and best way of knowing which contribute to the ease of adopting these narratives, even though they are demonstrably false and in actuality are the opposite of the science and rationality which the speaker claims to be pursuing.

First, an emphasis on rationalism tends to denigrate other ways of knowing. We see that with robotaholic, when he derides the belief that all human races are equal by writing it off as comforting. (He fails of course to acknowledge that his own desire to believe in the intellectual superiority of what is likely his own race is also comforting.) If rationalism is being posed as in opposition to ways of knowing things emotionally and spiritually, then it's easy for people to take a simplistic, dichotomous view of the world. Is the only evidence for God that he's comforting? I serve a realer, grittier truth that is not about comfort. There is no good. Is it comforting to believe women are equal? Well, then they serve a realer, grittier truth about that too -- never mind that they're suddenly going against the evidence. The feel of the thing (telling a hard truth) has substituted the reason for the thing (rebutting arguments backed by poor evidence).

More than that, I think the ideas that are posed by the oppression of women and non-whites (particularly blacks) are particularly appealing to white, male people who ally themselves with rationality and science. They want to claim logic. They want to claim civilization. These are things which traditional myths assign to them, by way of moving all the opposite traits onto women and non-whites (particularly blacks). Men are logical. Women are hysterical. Whites are civilized. Blacks are brutes.

When you've made the mantle of rationality a priority in your life, it must be very seductive to be able to claim it without having to exert any work. When cultural myths about women and black people are in effect, these white men get to grab their desired mantle without having to do anything. They need to be scientifically logical, and they get to be scientifically logical, because women are crazy and emotional. They need to be smart, and they get to be smart, because black people are stupid.

This is so important to them -- they are so insecure about whether they could measure up if the competition wasn't ruled out by a technical foul -- that they're willing to exchew actual rationality and actual science. The racism and sexism become more important than real rationality, because they provide an illusion of it.

Now, of course, P.Z.'s also got a following of people who aren't racist shitheads. There are women and people of color who can't claim rationality through sexist/racist arguments, because such arguments leave them on the wrong side of the fence. And there are women and men and white people and people of color who are secure enough in themselves that they're not afraid of what could happen if they don't get to special just by virtue of their genitals and skin.

And my, they're lovely. I'll leave it to one of the good guys to sum up a reasonable reaction to Watson's blathering:

Julian:Jeez, some of you folks are dunces. If there was no essential difference in the capacity to reason between us Moderns and Europeans in the Middle Ages, even those who lived in Russia, the sparsest, most inclimate, least fertile, most predator rich section of Europe, and we have an entire tradition of literature ecclesiastical, scientific, and personal to prove that lack of difference, then how can you honestly sit there and smugly assume that sub-saharan Africans, who by the way, live in an infinitely richer environment that Saharan or Mediterranean Africans, are stupider than everyone else? Bigotry, thats how.

I.Q. tests do a better job of exposing the inherent biases of those who write them than they do of registering the intelligence of the test taker; any psychologist can tell you that.

As to showing he is wrong, hundreds of studies have over the last 60 years. How many times do biologists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, ethnologists, and historians have to win this argument before you damned racists will pack up your crap and admit you're wrong?!? And why does Watson's opinion on this even matter? If he's such an expert of genetics then he'd be well aware that, bereft of an environment which encourages the use of traits, traits are not expressed in a life form. Genetics could be, at best, a predictive science of predispositions, but never one of immutable determinations regarding skill and ability, yet this is precisely how he treats it in his comments. By doing so he does not contribute constructively to the debate, as some posters here seem to think, but merely exposes his own ignorance of the advances made in genetic sciences since his partially stolen discovery over half a century ago.


Another political blogger is thinking of quitting, not from disinterest so much as from continual abuse. If sie needs to go, sie needs to go. Sie is precious and important and should preserve hirself and hir happiness, particularly since sie has given so much. But I want to say to hir and everyone else:

Anger is valuable. Anger is incredibly, immeasurably valuable. Anger is incandescent. It’s consuming. Most of us feel the flame and gutter. Burning makes us uncomfortable. We avoid conflict. We go out. We find ways to soothe ourselves in comfort. We ignore injustice. We see the face of oppression, and we look away instead of igniting. We lack strength.

Those of you who burn and burn — you are a light for us.

Your blaze is not an obligation. Your blaze is a gift — a gift you’ve given us. It’s a gift you will always have given us, even if you only burned bright for a moment.

I cannot count the times when I say, “Not now,” when I say, “I don’t care,” when I silence the information that will disturb me. When I am so disturbed that I am growling with frustration, so often I lack the courage of confrontation. Another time, another hour, never at all. That person can hurt me — he holds power over my career — I have reason to be silent, and so I am. I can only begin to attack orthagonally, through the guise of fiction or poetry, when there is enough ambiguity between me and my interlocutor that we need not look each other in the eye, our conversation sliding into whispers and indirections.

No one has an obligation to burn, and certainly no one should burn hirself up for anyone else. All I am saying is I know my weakness, and I see your strengths — not just sie who I am addressing, but hir and hir and hir, scattered like stars across the blogosphere, across the streets, in groups of activists, sitting in the bar while refusing to be silent while that man calls that woman “cunt,” laboring in law offices to defend the homeless, in medical waiting rooms to dispense free innoculations, on phones to counsel rape victims, waiting by a fighting couple to be sure the shouts won’t become blows, helping the Mexican family across the street to clean up the rubble of a racist attack, marching for Jena, declaiming the white woman who wouldn’t hire you, declaiming the teacher who told you should shut your mouth because black girls are too stupid to stay loud, raising children who know the word heteronormativity, hanging a picture of her wife or his husband on hir office wall, transitioning despite angry fathers, helping friends through transition, shouting no and no at each oppressor who attacks one’s own weakest spot, opening themselves and caring and burning — and I thank you for those gifts.

Burning comes at a cost. We who fail to burn as brightly know that. We know that we do not pay the price you do. We honor you and thank you, but you owe us nothing. What you’ve given is beautiful.

You should never feel guilty. You should never feel ashamed.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hour of the Wolf Interview

By Nancy Jane Moore

Back in May, while I was attending the Nebula Award ceremonies, I recorded an interview with Jim Freund, host of WBAI radio's "Hour of the Wolf," a program on science fiction and fantasy. The program airs from 5 to 7 AM on Saturday mornings, but for those who don't live in New York City (where WBAI is at 99.5 FM) or get up that early, the programs are available online.

My interview, which included a lot of discussion of feminist SF, aired along with an interview with Nancy Kress on September 22. It's available online here. Clicking on that link should allow you to open the show with iTunes or similar programs.

Here's the "Hour of the Wolf" table of contents for all shows available online.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Warrior Wisewoman Anthology Calls for Science Fiction Stories with Strong Female Protagonists

Norilana Press Books is calling for submissions for a new anthology of science fiction stories with strong female protagonists. The anthology is being imagined as a sister series to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress series, with the major difference that Warrior Wisewoman is science fiction instead of fantasy.

The anthology is paying 2 cents a word. Here's some text from the call, written by the anthology's editor Roby James:

"I am looking for stories that shed light on the truth of what it means to be female, that illuminate the wisdom and the strength of a woman, but not in cliché 'goddess' stories. I love action and adventure, grand space opera, thrilling discovery, and intelligent protagonists. Make the story thoughtful, wise, and surprising, not merely the same old metal spaceship hull filled with cardboard military uniforms with female names 'barking' orders and firing at aliens. In addition, the stories in the anthology should appeal to genuine emotions, suspense, fear, sorrow, delight, wonder. The science can be part of the background and the characters foremost, or the science can be central to the story, as long as the characters are realistic and appealing.

"This is science fiction, but I also welcome stories of spiritual exploration, looking at the bond between the scientific and the divine. I want to see how a woman survives tragedy and disaster, overcomes impossible odds, achieves her true potential, or goes on to thrive in a marvelous universe of so many possibilities, using what is inside her, as well as what she finds in the laboratory, the alien planet, or space itself.

"The stories should contain the question of 'what if' on some level. And they should have a woman answer it."

The description of what the editor's looking for rubs me a bit the wrong way, but I think this is probably overall a good thing for the genre. Sword and Sorceress put women's faces on fantasy stories written in extremely traditional modes, perhaps Warrior Wisewoman can do the same for traditional SF.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Yes, Fat Lady, You Too Can Be Objectified: Examining the Objectification of Fat Women Through the Lenses of Feminism and Fat Rights

I haven't been blogging much, but here's my latest contribution to Alas, a Blog. It doesn't have to do with science fiction, but it's got a hefty dose of feminism.

On October 3 (oy, I take a long time to write posts), Shakespeare's Sister wrote a post about an offensive ad for playtex, which uses the bodies of fat women and women of color to create an impression of being woman-friendly while in fact marketing what Melissa MacEwan calls "the new misogyny."

Here, take a gander at the ad itself:

Here's an excerpted transcript of the salient bit (taken from Melissa):

"What do I call them?"

"Boobs, breasts, knockers…"

"Are you asking me if I have a nickname for them?"

"It's a guy thing to name parts of your body!"

"Betty and Jane."

"Titties! Boobies!"


"I've been asked to shake the moneymakers on the subway a few times."

"Back up for a second," writes Melissa. "I've been asked to shake the moneymakers on the subway a few times?! Giggle giggle ha ha. And that's exactly how smoothly and coolly the new misogyny can minimize the seriousness of sexual harassment."

In this ad, Playtex is expecting fat women and women of color to be so awed by their inclusion that they don't notice the misogyny inherent in the way that they are included. Melissa's not falling for it. She writes:

Of course I want to see more images of fat women and women of color (and disabled women and dwarf women and birthmarked women and tattooed women and women of every shape, size, color, age, and circumstance). But I'll be damned if I want their presence used as a diversionary tactic while my skull is pounded with messages like "Breasts are toys!" and "Sexual harassment is flattering!" by companies who then expect me to genuflect in desperate gratitude because this something is ostensibly better than the nothing of the status quo.

This reminds me of another item that recently showed up in the feminist blogosphere, a photograph of recording artist Beth Ditto posing naked for the cover of a magazine. The Feministe article on this photograph seemed relatively uncritical, although they noted some assinine questions that a reporter, trying to pit one woman against another, asked Beth Ditto about Kate Moss. Twisty of I Blame the Patriarchy, on the other hand, was more critical. She laughs at the idea that sexy pictures of fat women are transgressive.

1. Porn isn’t transgressive; it’s de rigueur. No one in Western culture has drawn a porn-free breath in decades. This means it’s the norm.

2. Pictures of naked women empower nobody but the men who pimp’em out and the voyeurs who consume’em. A woman may elect to reap the benefits of her capitulation to her oppressor, and she can even call it “empowerment” when she does it, but that doesn’t mean she’s not full of shit, and it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s doing any other women the least bit of good.

3. Dude Nation is already well aware that fat women exist. And I guaran-fucking-tee that they’ll continue to hate fat women just as much as they hate skinny ones, no matter which pop star shows up weighing how much on what magazine cover.

Girls, the dominant pornsick culture is crapping on you. Get hip to this: the ability to titillate men is not a high moral purpose. Being sexually manipulative is not a high moral purpose. Posing naked on the cover of NME isn’t empowering, its emposeuring.

I agree with both Twisty and Melissa on this. We as feminists should be deeply skeptical of a culture that offers absolution to fat women by granting them a shadow of the objectification which plagues skinny women.

Fat women and skinny women are played agaisnt each other abominably in this debate. It's a hideous catch 22, which I realized several months ago when chatting with a gorgeous friend of mine who is routinely trailed by cars when she walks down the street, misogynists leaning out the window to hoot at her body and offer propositions. When she told me this, half my brain went, "Assholes." The other half went, "That never happens to me and this is a sign of my failure and inferiority."

Either way, women lose. We lose when we're harrassed. We lose when we're not harrassed. We're objects of sex, or we're objects of disgust. Either way, our sexuality is framed around the imagined desires of a "default" male. Allowing fat women to be sexually objectified is far from ideal -- it is not a radical movement that will lead toward women's equality.

But there's another analysis I want to bring into this, and that's a fat rights analysis. As a fat woman, I can say that the damage done to my psyche through years of being told I'm revolting is really, really bad. In a fatphobic society, a society that's more afraid of women's fat than men's, I, as a fat woman, suffer more than a thin woman who is otherwise situated like I am.

I share most of the disadvantages that thin women have in this society. Like thin women, I still need to fear for my safety late at night. I am still a potential target of hate and violence. Simultaneously, I am culturally denied the ability to view myself in one of the primary (and problematic, and limiting) roles of acceptable, western-constructed female sexuality and identity.

Twisty suggests that access to sexual objectification for fat women and women of color is no benefit at all, but only an admission into a club full of misogyny and problems. This is true, on one level, but I think that it's important to look at the ways in which the axis of being fat affects women's lives.

One thing that's missing from Twisty's analysis (or perhaps is implied in point 3, but not expanded on as much as I'd like) is that fat women are *already* objectified. We are objectified as objects of revulsion or disinterest. We are taught to view ourselves as repellant. Others are taught to view us this way, too.

Being treated like an object for collection, an object for consumption -- something beautiful and desirable -- sucks, because it involves being treated like an object. However, being treated like a treasured object is still better than being treated like an object to be thrown away.

Melissa's position is closer to mine, and I think her emphasis is right on. We shouldn't allow the fat woman's or brown woman's body to distract us from seeing how despicable a naturalization of sexual harrassment is. Still, if fat women and brown women growingly have access to being able to move out of the molds in which patriarchy has placed them, that will make our lives more liveable in some (limited) ways, even if that change is expressed in reprehensible and misogynist ways.

Ideally, everyone would be treated as fully human. However, while fat women are more oppressed than thin women, changes which alter our status will benefit us -- even while they play into the misogyny that oppresses all women, fat and thin.