Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cosmetic Gestures

The April 18 issue of Science Magazine reports that despite the Bush Administration's public response to the "impending calamaity" of food shortages around the world-- ordering $200 million dollars in food aid-- "behind the scenes, however, researchers charge that the US government is moving to slash funding for international agricultural research."

Last week, several concerned scientists circulated an online petition seeking to reverse cuts to research funds they say are being planned by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), calling them "unacceptable mistakes that will damage worldwide food production for many years to come." The group argues that international agricultural research should be expanding. "Restoring [support] isn't really enough; this should be an area of major growth," says Jeffrey Bennetzen, a plant geneticist at the University of Georgia, Athens, and a petition organizer.

The disastrous shortfall in grain production has already sparked food riots in several countries. But it's obviously going to get worse:

[A] perfect storm is brewing. Across the developing world, farmland and water for irrigation have been lost to urban development and industrialization. Grains are being diverted to feed livestock to meet rising demand for meat and to make biofuels. Droughts in Asia and Australia have severely curtailed grain production. And productivity has stagnated, says Zeigler [director general of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines], due to cuts in agricultural research in the 1990s.

The result is a steady rise in grain prices. On 20 March, the UN's World Food Programme issued an appeal for help in covering a $500 million shortfall in its $2.9 billion budget this year to feed 73 million people in 78 countries. In the 3 weeks since, food prices shot up another 20%. "You could see the train wreck coming for years," says Zeigler.

In other words, this policy began with the Clinton Administration.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Resonance, Anyone?

I'm sure I'm not the only reader who tends to find that news stories make interesting pairings? Here are a few that recently struck me:

--Retired Col. Ann Wright's Is There an Army Cover Up of Rape and Murder of Women Soldiers? about US soldiers raped and murdered by their colleagues in Iraq and Afghanistan (which I also thought of pairing with the unfolding story of the punishment and silencing of US women working for military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan) paired with the ongoing story of the rising violence against Iraqi women for enforcing a new, more repressive set of gendered behaviors, as exemplified in this article in the Independent.

--The International Herald Tribune's Guantanamo Drives Prisoners Insane, Lawyers Say paired with The Belleville News-Democrat's The War Within: Experts Say Millions Could Seek Treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which discusses the high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder for those who have served the military in Iraq.

--The New York Times's Bicycle-Sharing Program to Be First of Its Kind in US paired with The Los Angeles Times's Diamond Lanes for the Rich.

--The Washington Post's Studies on Chemical in Plastics Questioned: Congress Examines Role of Industry in Regulation paired with Science Magazine's EPA Scientists Unhappy about Political Meddling, which reports on a survey taken by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Your suggestions for interesting pairings are of course welcome.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

2007 Nebula Awards

Last night in Austin, this year's Nebula Awards were presented:

In the Novel category: The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
In the Novella category: "Fountain of Age" by Nancy Kress
In the Novelette category: "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang
In the Short Story category: "Always" by Karen Joy Fowler
In the dramatic Script category: Pan's Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro

Other presentations included:

The Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling
The Damon Knight Grand Master for 2008: Michael Moorcock
The SFWA Service Award: Melisa Michaels and Graham P. Collins
And Ardath Mayhar was honored throughout the weekend as Author Emeritus.

The SFWA site has posted pictures.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Rick Moody Misses the Obvious

I'm glad to see the excitement over the reissue of Joy Williams's The Changeling. But it's frustrating for a cultural historian to see Rick Moody's explanation of the hostility that initially greeted the novel:

The Changeling, which is rich with the arresting improbabilities of magic realism of the folkloric revival (Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber was published about the same time), and with the modernist foreboding of Under the Volcano, would have seemed perfectly legible in 1973 when Gravity’s Rainbow was published, or Gaddis’s JR. But the late 70s, with their punk rock nihilism and their Studio 54 fatuousness, were perhaps not properly situated to understand the variety of challenge. To their shame.

Joy Williams's innovations were regarded as incompetence, unlike the innovations of Gaddis, Pynchon, and Lowry; and Rick Moody blames The Ramones? Hmmm . . . what other cutting-edge Seventies authors were slammed or underappreciated . . . how about Carol Hill? Joanna Russ? Gayl Jones? What in Heaven's name could be responsible for reviewers' uncharitable responses or insufficient attention to such authors? Nihilism and Studio 54 fatuousness? [Image of Dana Carvey in drag, looking smug and saying: "Could it be . . . MISOGYNY?"]

Men and Women in Public Space

The outrage du jour is tired, tedious, and old-fashioned, however dressed-up it might be in new language. The "Open Source Boob Project," for all its claim to hipness, once again figures women's bodies as property (a practice commonly known as sexual objectification). The point is not sex--it never is--but the terms on which women negotiate (or are allowed to negotiate) public space. It's the same issue that arose when the POTUS put his hands on the German Chancellor at a high-level public function. Do white men figure themselves as property? The thought never even crosses their minds.

There've been moments in my life when I've felt such rage at experience a constant stream of groping, leers, and insolent remarks that I've found it almost impossible to resist the urge to knee every one of the jerks in the groin. In my mid-twenties, the term "sexual harassment" and the theorization that accompanied it didn't yet exist. It was a constant feature of my life, though, and I had long understood that its point was humiliation of girls and women, to demonstrate to them that in public spaces and institutions they have no right or expectation to bodily privacy-- which white men, of course, do. (Needless to say, I had learned that this was also true in private spaces-- at home, where family members or their friends could infringe on that privacy with ease.)

For centuries, the attitude has been that a woman out in public without an appropriate male to protect her is fair game. Feminists' insistence that they don't want or need owner/protectors seems not to have made a dent in that attitude. And so, in my mid-twenties, finding myself sexually harassed by the professor I TA'd for, I had two choices. (These days I'd have three choices. But since we did not have the term "sexual harassment" back then, my university, not surprisingly, had no policies for dealing with it.) So I could go to either my advisor (the harassing professor's sworn enemy) or the chair of the department for help, or I could handle it myself. Both the chair and my advisor were men. I couldn't stand the thought of begging their protection and thus being treated as a piece of property the harasser was poaching on, and so I decided to handle it myself by replacing his public acts of aggression with my own.

In short, I humiliated him as he was lecturing and caused him to falter and then end his lecture prematurely. It was a risky ploy. For one thing, if he hadn't been so insecure, he could have called my bluff and made me look bad in front of our students. For another thing, he was on my doctoral exams committee. The result, however, was excellent. Though he expressed biterness at my undermining him before our students, the sexual harassment ceased--even the lascivious leers. When a few months later I took one of his courses, he made a practice of firing a dozen or more random questions at me during each class meeting. Although this arguably constituted a form of hazing, I much preferred it to sexual harassment and suspected that my taking it without complaint would make my prelims go easier. (It did.)

The lesson? Rage is the appropriate response to outrageous beahvior. I don't think any other experience of sexual harassment I've had so drove home the point to me that it's all about whether a man thinks a woman has the same place in public space as a man does. Sf conventions, like universities, are public spaces. Although here in the US feminists have forced the issue of allowing women entry into public space (and this was certainly one of the most significant achievements of second-wave feminism), we haven't yet managed to change the terms on which women are allowed to negotiate public space.

Links to a few of the many feminist posts on yesterday's outrage:

mystickeeper's I find it highly amusing that his username is ferret
Rachelmanjia's "A proposal to crush the button-enabled sexual harassment proposal"
Micole's post
Liz Henry's The Internets Work How They're Supposed To"
Misia's A Modest Proposal: the Open Source Swift Kick to the Balls Project"
Oursin's The ick just keeps on a-coming and Invizbel soshul contrakt
Vito_Excalibur This Is Not a Joke. This Is Not Satire. This Is Not a Test.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tactics of Plausibility

The Winter 2008 issue of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society has a fascinating article on the activist art of Women on Waves, "Twelve Miles: Boundaries of the New Art/Activism" by Carrie Lambert-Beatty. Noting that "while political art represents political subject matter, activist art does politics," Lambert-Beatty cites Lucy Lippard's distinction ["Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power" (1984)]:

Although "political" and "activist" artists are often same people, "political" art tends to be socially concerned and "activist" art tends to be socially involved.... The former's work is a commentary or analysis, while the latter's art works within its context, with its audiences."

Women on Waves carries a portable gynecological clinic operated by two physicians and a nurse from port to port on a ship they rent with a largely female crew, flying the Dutch flag. The clinic is funded largely by the Mondriaan Foundation (a Dutch arts foundation dedicated to the visual arts and design):

In port it offers legal and medical workshops, sex education, and contraception; on the way out to sea it gives sonograms and counseling; and in international waters it provides the abortion pill to women who want it. Its missions have been controversial enough to earn its doctors and volunteers not only bombardment with eggs and paint but also court cases and even death threats; it was radical enough in its challenge to national sovereignty to move the Portuguese government to launch warships to protect its populace from the feminist invasion. As a result, Women on Waves has spurred debate on aboriton law where such debates had not occurred for years. Its visits galvanized the local groups of activists that invited the abortion boat to each country, and more such pro-choice groups were formed in its wake. A Polish government survey in 2003 found that popular support for liberalizing abortion law had gone up 12 percent in a year and cited the Women on Waves visit that summer as a source of the change.

Lambert-Beatty compares Women on Waves to the Yes Men. The Yes Men, in case you've forgotten, are those devious, ingenious parodists who create strange and wonderful moments in the corporate business of the day. They declare, on their website:

The Yes Men agree their way into the fortified compounds of commerce, ask questions, and then smuggle out the stories of their hijinks to provide a public glimpse at the behind-the-scenes world of business. In other words, the Yes Men are team players... but they play for the opposing team.

In 2004 the BBC mistook one of them for a spokesperson for Dow Chemical and broadcast the "breaking news" that Dow had decided to own up to its responsibility for Union Carbide's poisoning of the population of Bhopal and offer compensation to the multitude of victims (whose lives have been wrecked by Union Carbide's criminal negligence). The Yes Men provided a more frivolous moment in 2006 at the Catastrophic Loss Conference when claiming to represent Halliburton, they unveiled the "SurvivaBall":

"The SurvivaBall is designed to protect the corporate manager no matter what Mother Nature throws his or her way," said Fred Wolf, a Halliburton representative who spoke today at the Catastrophic Loss conference held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Amelia Island, Florida. "This technology is the only rational response to abrupt climate change," he said to an attentive and appreciative audience.

Here's where I think Lambert-Beatty's article gets really interesting:

To me there is still no more moving statement of faith in the revolutionary force of imagination than the one on the streets of Paris during the uprisings of 1968: "Under the cobblestones, the beach." But "twelve miles from the beach, the Netherlands," Women on Waves might respond, for the project is driven by a similar determination to replace what is with what could be. Instead of the 1960s vision of liberation, however, it imagines something concrete: a world in which women have access to safe and legal abortion no matter where they live. And instead of symbolically promoting change, the project's method is to make it so: to use maritime law and the concept of international waters to actually create--however temporarily and provisionally--the dreamed-of situation. This, the performative quality of Women on Waves, was captured in 2001 by critic Jennifer Allen. The project "does not thematise, represent, or illustrate the problem of abortion," she wrote, "it imposes a new geo-political reality that challenges [the] status quo in ways that cannot be fathomed, let alone controlled."

It is at this point that she makes the comparison to the Yes Men. After which she argues:

From one perspective, the opposition between the legalistic, earnest Women on Waves and the mischievous, hoaxing Yes Men is as complete as that between the genders in their names: as clear as the difference between real and virtual,between what one group calls campaigns and the other hijinks. [...] And yet, while they do not have the power to make real the changes they announce, the Yes Men nevertheless have real effects--on Dow's stock price that day in 2004, for example. And for its part, Women on Waves lists toward the unhappy performative more than one might think. For the fact is that two of the group's three campaigns to provide legal abortions were thoroughly thwarted. [...] And yet this does not mean the project failed--far from it...Indeed, its brilliance is in recognizing the special power of doing both [i.e., media politics and medical service] at once: of using bodily care to do representational work.

Lambert-Beatty describes this as "the politics or aesthetics of plausibility":

By providing opportunities for belief--however fleeting, and no matter how stymied--such tactics of plausibility provide especially rich, emotional experiences of "what-if." The art of the plausible works to edge an imagined state of affairs from the merely possible to the brink, at least, of the probable.

Lambert-Beatty insists that "the category of activist art starts from [the] belief that the aesthetic is not a retreat from the real but is in and of it." "Those of us who believe in a political and activist art," she says, "want to eat our cake and have it too."

We do not accept that art is an apolitical space apart from worldly pressures, and yet we want it to be a zone of special freedom. This is either an embarrassing lapse or, as Jacques Ranciere would suggest, a structuring paradox for political art today. According to Ranciere, there is a constant tension in modernity "between the logic of art that becomes life at the price of abolishing itself as art, and the logic of art that does politics on the explicit condition of not doing it at all." But consider a corollary: the possibility that the category of activist art is not just defined against but actively requires its nonactivist counterpart--it needs borders around art so that it might sail through them; or, so that, as Ranciere puts it, "the border be always there yet already crossed."

Lambert-Beatty concludes her article by discussing the "political unconscious" of the Women on Waves project, which is characterized as some critics as having colonialist undertones or by others as being meolilberal. All in all, it's a fascinating piece. Check it out if you get the chance.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Adamic Privilege

Check out Laura Q's post on the naming of women's body parts, women: the undiscovered country on the Feminist SF Blog.

"Human Nature"

I've long had problems with "human nature" as a meaningful explanation for anything. Just now I came across this passage in John Dewey's 1939 Freedom and Culture:

[T]he shift that has occurred from time to time in theories that have gained currency about the "ruling motive" in human nature suggests a question which is seldom asked. It is the question whether these psychologies have not in fact taken the cart to be the horse. Have they not gathered their notion as to the ruling element in human nature from observation of tendencies that are marked in contemporary collective life, and then bunched these tendencies together in some alleged psychological "force" as their cause? It is significant that human nature was taken to be strongly moved by an inherent love of freedom at the time when there was a struggle for representative government; that the motive of self-interest appeared when conditions in England enlarged the role of money, because of new methods of industrial production that the growth of organized philanthropic activities brought sympathy into the psychological picture, and that events today are readily converted into love of power as the mainspring of human action.

In any case, the idea of culture that has been made familiar by the work of anthropological students points to the conclusion that whatever are the native constituents of human nature, the culture of a period and group is the determining influence in their arrangement; it is that which determines the patterns of behavior that mark out the activities of any group, family, clan, people, sect, faction, class. It is at least as true that the state of culture determines the order and arrangement of native tendencies as that human nature produces any particular set or system of social phenomena so as to obtain satisfaction for itself. The problem is to find out the way in which the elements of a culture interact with each other and the way in which the elements of human nature are caused to interact with one another under conditions set by their interaction with the existing environment. For example, if our American culture is largely a pecuniary culture, it is not because the original or innate structure of human nature tends of itself to obtaining pecuniary profit. It is rather that a certain complex culture stimulates, promotes and consolidates native tendencies so as to produce a certain pattern of desires and purposes. If we take all the communities, peoples, classes, tribes and nations that ever existed, we may be sure that since human nature in its native constitution is the relative constant, it cannot be appealed to, in isolation, to account for the multitude of diversities presented by different forms of association.

All sf writers take this view, right?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The James Tiptree Jr. Award

Today in the US, working folk face the deadline for filing personal federal tax returns. It's worth reflecting that this is a tax paid largely by middle-class and poor people that chiefly flows into the pockets of defense and military contractors and those who lend money to the government to finance its economy-busting, never-ending War.

On another front, the 2007 Tiptree jury has announced that Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army has won the Tiptree Award. The Honor List (which seems to have replaced the short list) has also been announced:

* "Dangerous Space" by Kelley Eskridge, in the author’s collection Dangerous Space (Aqueduct Press, 2007)
* Water Logic by Laurie Marks (Small Beer Press, 2007)
* Empress of Mijak and The Riven Kingdom by Karen Miller (HarperCollins, Australia, 2007)
* The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu (Hyperion, 2007)
* Interfictions, edited by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss (Interstitial Arts Foundation/Small Beer Press, 2007)
* Glasshouse by Charles Stross (Ace, 2006)
* The Margarets by Sheri S. Tepper (Harper Collins 2007)
* Y: The Last Man, written by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Pia Guerra (available in 60 issues or 10 volumes from DC/Vertigo Comics, 2002-2008)
* Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce (Harcourt, 2007)

From the press release, posted on juror Gwenda Bond's blog:

Each year, a panel of five jurors selects the Tiptree Award winners and compiles an Honor List of other works that they find interesting, relevant to the award, and worthy of note. The 2007 jurors were Charlie Anders, Gwenda Bond (chair), Meghan McCarron, Geoff Ryman, and Sheree Renee Thomas.

The Carhullan Army elicited strong praise from the jurors. Gwenda Bond said, “Hall does so many things well in this book – writing female aggression in a believable way, dealing with real bodies in a way that makes sense, and getting right to the heart of the contradictions that violence brings out in people, but particularly in women in ways we still don't see explored that often. I found the writing entrancing and exactly what it needed to be for the story; lean, but well-turned.” Geoff Ryman said, “It faces up to our current grim future (something too few SF novels have done) and seems to go harder and darker into war, violence, and revolution.” Meghan McCarron said, “I found the book to be subtle and ambiguous in terms of its portrayal of the Army, and its utopia….The book became, ultimately, an examination of what it means to attain physical, violent power as defined by a male-dominated world. And it asserted that it could be claimed by anyone, regardless of physical sex, provided they were willing to pay the price.”

The book, which is Hall’s third novel, also won the 2007 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for the best work of literature (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama) from Britain or the Commonwealth written by an author of 35 or under.

Victoria Hoyle's review of this book piqued my interest, but it wasn't available in the US at the time. I gather it will soon (or may even now) be available in the US under a different title, Daughters of the North. Colin Greenland also reviewed it, here.

Of the titles on the short list, I've so far read only three (but will soon, of course, be remedying that):

--The Stross novel is curiously old to be on this list for a mainstream book. My lengthy, comprehensive review of it is still available at Strange Horizons.

--Interfictions is an interesting mixed-bag anthology (that has little to do with gender exploration). My favorite story in it is Vandana Singh's "Hunger," which I highly recommend.

--Much has been written about "Dangerous Space." You can find excerpts of and links to many of the reviews here and purchase it here.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Why Publish With an Independent or Small Press?

Tuesday evening I'll be participating on a panel at Hugo House, in Seattle, as a part of its InPrint series. Judging by the publicity material, I'll be in very fine company. Here's the scoop:

The Hugo House InPrint Series presents:

Why Publish With an Independent or Small Press?

An Evening with Northwest Independent Press Publishers

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008, 7:00 – 9:00

Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave. Seattle
Admission $3 members/$5 non-members

Why Publish With an Independent or Small Press?

The Northwest features a handful of excellent independent press publishers who are producing interesting work and attracting positive critical attention and awards.

Tonight editors and publishers from several publishers will be on hand to explain the advantages of publishing with an independent small press and how to go about it. Our speakers will cover the editing and business side of small press, from queries and pitches to editorial preferences and distribution.

Small press publishers can serve audiences that aren’t normally served by larger publishers who can only publish very commercial work, allowing them to get away from publishing only work that appeals to the largest common denominator of readers. Once books have been published and received positive reviews, they often attract the attention of larger publishers for broader distribution. All of your questions will be answered and you’ll come away with valuable information and contacts for publishing.


Black Heron Press: Jerry Gold, publisher and editor-in-chief Black Heron Press is one of the oldest literary presses in the Pacific Northwest. It specializes in literary fiction. Its books have been reviewed in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Stranger, Booklist, Publishers Weekly and other newspapers and journals. Several books it has published have won national or regional awards. Black Heron Press leans toward books that make a philosophical or moral statement, as well as being well-written. Sinc e 1996, it has given the Black Heron Press Award for Social Fiction.

Chin Music Press: Bruce Rutledge, journalist and author - Chin Music Press resurrects some of the best practices of publishing in past centuries in books that tell decidedly modern stories. As a reporter and writer living in Japan during the 1990s, Rutledge was struck at how US news media was devoting less and less space to international news. Chin Music Press was founded to catch those fascinating and insightful stories about our world that were being ignored by an increasingly myopic and profit-driven media.

Copper Canyon Press: Copper Canyon Press is a nonprofit publisher that believes poetry is vital to language and living. Since 1972, the Press has published poetry exclusively and has established an international reputation for its commitment to authors, editorial acumen, and dedication to the poetry audience. Copper Canyon has published more than 300 titles, including works by Nobel Laureates Pablo Neruda, Odysseas Elytis, Octavio Paz, Vincente Aleixandre, and Rabindranath Tagore.

Fantagraphics: Eric Reynolds, editor - Fantagraphics authors have garnered more favorable press attention than any publisher’s in the history of the medium of graphic novels and comics. Recent books alone have received significant, positive coverage in TIME, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Spin, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, The Nation, and others. Fantagraphics was ranked among the top five most influential publishers in the history of comics in a recent p oll by an industry trade newspaper; it was the only independent publisher on the list, and the only contemporary publisher named alongside corporate behemoths Marvel and DC.

Aqueduct Press: L. Timmel Duchamp, author, publisher and editor – Aqueduct Press dedicates itself to publishing challenging, feminist science fiction that stretches the imagination and stimulates thought. Acqueduct Press authors include award-winning British authors Gwyneth Jones and Nicola Griffith, as well
as Northwest authors Ursula K. Le Guin, Nisi Shawl, and Kelley Eskridge.

Payseur and Schmidt: Jacob McMurray, publisher - Payseur and Schmidt resides in the lacunae between art and genre, producing literary-based art projects with ridiculous packaging. The Payseur & Schmidt stable of awesomeness includes works from Thomas M. Disch, Nicola Griffith, Art Chantry, John Clute, and Marvin Bell.

Wood Works Press: Paul Hunter, publisher and editor - Recently featured on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Paul Hunter has published fine letterpress poetry under the imprint of Wood Works for the past 14 years, currently including 24 books and 55 broadsides. The press seeks to offer the best in contemporary poetry and poetry in translation, in an attractive, durable, inexpensive format. Three of his titles have been finalists for the Washington State and Colorado Book Awards.

The InPrint Series is a quarterly forum designed to connect writers with agents, publishers and publishing industry experts. The mission of Richard Hugo House is to build a vital learning community that develops and sustains practicing writers doing essential work. (206) 322-7030

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Stuff to Check Out

I've had galleys coming out of my ears all week. I really wanted to play hooky yesterday, when Seattle had its first day of gentle-- even balmy-- weather in months; dutifully, I resisted. So no post, except for a few links:

--In Men Explain Thngs to Me, Rebecca Solnit begins with an anecdote of how Mr. Very Important, knowing she's recently published a book, proceeds to hold forth on a more important book on the subject that just came out (that turns out to be her own book, of course). "I like incidents of that sort, when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that’s eaten a cow or an elephant turd on the carpet," Solnit writes. And she goes on to discuss "The Slippery Slope of Silencings" and characterizes credibility as a "basic survival tool" that women and others are still fighting to achieve.

Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.

I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the trajectory of American politics since 2001 was shaped by, say, the inability to hear Coleen Rowley, the FBI woman who issued those early warnings about al-Qaeda, and it was certainly shaped by a Bush administration to which you couldn’t tell anything, including that Iraq had no links to al-Qaeda and no WMDs, or that the war was not going to be a “cakewalk.” (Even male experts couldn’t penetrate the fortress of their smugness.)

Arrogance might have had something to do with the war, but this syndrome is a war that nearly every woman faces every day, a war within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence, one from which a fairly nice career as a writer (with a lot of research and facts correctly deployed) has not entirely freed me. After all, there was a moment there when I was willing to let Mr. Important and his overweening confidence bowl over my more shaky certainty.

-- Angry Black Woman, who has been fighting off racist attacks, is calling for a Carnival of Allies:

This got me thinking about those white folks who exist in that liminal space where they are against racism but don’t understand how it works and get defensive, hurt, and freaked out when folks point out how they benefit from it without trying. We saw a lot of that on the Thank You thread before the others showed up. I am wondering how you turn that kind of person into an ally. I’m wondering if maybe I cannot simply because, when they read my words, they are so filled with defensiveness and perhaps guilt, nothing I say can get through. If they can’t listen to me, can they maybe listen to other White people?

And that got me wondering if this was true for any kind of ally. Is it easier to understand oppression, to move past guilt and on to useful dialogue, etc., if the person explaining these things to you in-depth is a person like yourself? White or male or straight or Christian or whatever? I don’t know. But as this is the Internet, it should be easy to figure out.

I call a Carnival. The Carnival of Allies. Where self-identified allies write to other people like themselves about why this or that oppression and prejudice is wrong. Why they are allies. Why the usual excuses are not good enough. I figure allies probably know full well all the many and various arguments people throw up to make prejudice and oppression okay. Things that someone on the other side of the fence may not hear. Address those things and more besides.

And when I say allies, I’m talking about any and every type. PoC can be (and should be) allies to other PoC, or to LGBTQ people if they are straight, or any number of other combinations. If you feel like you’re an ally and have something to say about that, you should submit to this carnival.

--And last week, Strange Horizons posted my review of Sarah Monette's The Bone Key.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Feminism and Appropriation

If you haven’t been following Delux Vivens' posts on the discussions as they've broken, She Who Has Hope has a roundup of the BrownFemiPower/Amanda Marcotte imbroglio*. Marcotte recently published a story on the institutionalization of sexual abuse of women immigrants in the U.S., without referencing or crediting the work women of color had been doing on these issues for years, particularly BrownFemiPower, a blogger Marcotte has acknowledged she reads regularly. There’s been a lot of blogosphere discussion, not all of which I’ve followed: I found ProblemChylde’s post linking Marcotte’s article to previous BFP posts especially instructive, and High on Rebellion’s Intellectual Theft Is Still Theft, discussing the ongoing problem of white feminists appropriating the work of women of color, painfully resonant with the discussion Pam Noles initiated over last Wiscon’s "But the Master Has A Black & Decker Cordless Power Drill" panel (on which I appeared).

Delux Vivens has also linked this to the ongoing Seal Press/BlackAmazon imbroglio, in itself just a single example of the divide between women of color and white women at the Women’s Action Media conference, which is in itself part of the long history of the contemporary feminist movement’s failure to acknowledge, include, or respect the work of women of color. The responses from all too many white feminists have been ... awkward.

*TM Witchqueen, with apologies for kvetching about the term before.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Seeing Voices: A Conversation with Nisi Shawl

by Jesse Vernon

Whether drawing upon the protective power of watermelon vines, the healing power of funk, or the pragmatic power of intelligent women, Nisi Shawl's collection of short fiction sparks the imagination. Her synesthetic descriptions elucidate an often psychedelic perception of the worlds therein. The tales in Filter House leap forward and backward through time and space, deftly weaving all-too-real topics like resource depletion, colonization, and racism within fantastical worlds of persuadable dragons, fickle gods, and interstellar travel. In true Seattle fashion, we discussed these stories and their inspiration over the din of an espresso machine.


This collection of stories is entitled Filter House. What exactly is a “filter house”?

I like ocean things, I like marine biology [and] I enjoy anything oceanic. I found this article about appendicularia and was reading about them and then looked at other articles on the web and found out about filter houses. They are so, so gorgeous. They are so beautiful. And I was just really attracted to the idea of something that was so ephemeral and beautiful.

So [a filter house] is sort of like an underwater, 3-D spiderweb that [appendicularia] use to trap food. They are filter feeders but they build these filters outside their body that last for about two or three hours, until the appendicularia outgrows it or they become clogged, useless. Then they release them and they drift down to the lower levels of the ocean. If you’ve read about anything in marine ecology, you’ve heard about “marine snow” – all the lower levels of life subsist on [it]; that’s the basic element of their ecology. So [discarded filter houses are] a large component of marine snow. [I liked] the idea that it was something so basic, too.

I wanted to have the title of the collection not be a story and I wanted it to be the sort of combination of words that would make people think, “Well, what is that?” I also was drawn by this idea that the structure of the short story collection is ephemeral, that it’s made up of other elements that are brought together in this moment – because they are so short, short stories are sort of ephemeral too.

I noticed the theme of water throughout different pieces in this collection, although they were written over a span of eight years. Bodies of water seem to hold significant power in your many of these stories.

[Water has] pretty much always been a passion of mine. I feel very watery – I know we’re all composed of 90% water or something – but I really feel like not just my body is made out of water. When I think about astrology, I’m a Scorpio: a water sign. I practice this West African religion called Ifá and in Ifá, one of the things is that different orishas are said to rule different people’s heads. You’ll be closer to or have an affinity for a particular orisha. And the one that I’m close to is called Olokun, [who] rules the bottom of the ocean.

So all of that benthic stuff really, really excites me…I love it – it’s water.

The stories in Filter House contain a huge breadth of narrative voices – not only within the collection but within each story as well. They range from rural African-American dialects to a philosopher princess in a medieval Muslim community to disembodied prisoners. Will you talk more about it’s like to make these shifts while you’re writing?

I’ve heard that there are people who write visually and people who write aurally. I hear everything – I hear the words. And so I hear those different voices – I hear the healer and I hear the aunt – and if I don’t hear them right, then I know I better not write them. ‘Cause they’ll be fake.

There is a lot of warmth in the relationships between your characters, especially the voices of children when they are narrating the stories. It feels like it captures something really familiar to me, even in stories that have nothing to do with my own history, or tradition, or culture, or spirituality…

I do write about children a lot. I use a child’s point of view quite frequently. Maybe it’s because you remember being a child. Some people forget that right away and I promised myself I would never forget what it was like to be little.

I told myself that too.

I think that some people really do forget. How can they live? [laughing]

In addition to writing stories, novels, and poetry, you also review books for the Seattle Times.

Yeah, I just turned in a review for a book called Incognegro that’s a graphic novel, a mystery. Oh, it’s wonderful. It was the first graphic novel I’ve ever reviewed…I’ve also reviewed some science fact, like Oliver Sacks and stuff like that. And some books from Africa. Sometimes if a science-fiction writer does something that’s not science-fiction, I’ll review it – like I reviewed Molly Gloss’ The Hearts of Horses which is a western and the last two William Gibson books; he’s not writing science fiction anymore.

So you’ve had extra opportunity to be reading lots of different books. Who has influenced you in terms of your writing and who are some of your all-time-favorite authors?

Well, as far as who I want to emulate, for a long time I’ve really been influenced by Colette. She’s a French writer. She was most popular in the 1920s, 1930s, up through 1950 – she had a good long run of a career. It’s very sensual writing; what I love about her writing is that there are no inanimate objects. They’re all characters.


I first got the idea that I could actually write science fiction and get other people to read it, besides my English teacher, from Suzy McKee Charnas. In the 1970s she came out with all this feminist science fiction. Particularly Motherlines – there’s a nuclear war and all the head honchos have their little hideaway in the Colorado mountains and then several hundred years later the story starts with the civilization that developed in the aftermath of that. It was a very harsh story but it was really beautiful and courageous – a story of this woman who was one of the slaves of the patriarchy that developed from these war survivors and how she tries to find a mythical land where women were in charge. So I read that and thought, whoa, so you can write this kind of stuff, and get away with it. [laughing] So, that was a big influence.

When I’m not reading for pay (with the Seattle Times), when I’m not reading for the science-fiction book club, which is another reading gig, or for my critique groups, I read Victorian literature. Because it’s so different than, first of all anything that I have to read for pay, and anything that’s going on now. The class consciousness is so different and so unconscious. And the attention to detail and the attitudes – it’s all sensawunda.

Hmm, that explains how you can capture so many different voices – that you're reading something that I don’t think a lot of sci-fi authors are reading.

They’re not reading the Trollope, they’re not reading the George Eliot, no.

Who else? Samuel Delany. I found him early on. And Jack Vance, still very pleasant to read. I’m not gonna just sound cool here, I’ll tell you the truth....

Let’s see. I read a lot of romances at one point. Regency romances. They’re the ones, where if it’s getting really racy, the couple will hold hands. [laughing] Georgette Heyer, in particular was one of those. She has this great, great wit. And again there’s a slang that they use in the Georgette Heyer novels. Those are set in regency period, you know, Jane Austen. She’ll have the slang of the young blades, then she’ll have the language of the older dames that are widows and dowagers and then she’ll often have the language of people who are called Bow Street Runners – this was before police forces, they were freelance detectives. And then criminal slang. So maybe that has some influence on the different voices.

I’ll tell you one more thing about different voices. Have you heard of the term code-switching?


Okay, so from the beginning I was code-switching. I was raised in a house where the people I lived with spoke different voices. You would speak one voice when you were talking to someone at a barbecue and another one when you were at a PTA meeting. So, it’s like second nature, of course. I’ve carried it to such an extreme that one time I was taking orders over the phone at a natural foods warehouse – each person in the office had [their own] accounts and at one point, one of my favorite accounts said to me, about something that was suspicious that was happening with his order, he said, “There’s a nigger in the woodpile.” And I just never spoke to that person again. He had no idea who he was talking to, because I had been so good with the code-switching. So sometimes it’s a little harsh on me.

How do you feel like your personal experiences with or political ideas around power and oppression influence the way you tell your stories? For example, in one story in this collection, “Deep End,” prisoners are punished by being removed from their bodies and, in turn, given the bodies of their oppressors.

Well, that story, actually, was an invitation to write about colonization from a person-of-color’s point of view. So I was drawing on the idea that a lot of times places are settled by prisoners, [like] Australia. And then I thought, corporations only get worse (or better depending on your point of view) at what they do. So what’s one step further from sending you as a prisoner to do their dirty work of settling somewhere? The answer was, well, they don’t really need the body. Just commodify the mind.

My take on politics…a lot of people would consider me really apolitical. When I was very young, like five and six and seven, one of my earliest memories was actually being on a picket line and picketing a drug store because they wouldn’t hire black people. They were in a black neighborhood with all black customers, but they were all white. And I was out there marching on that. But when the World Trade Organization met here, I wasn’t protesting. I didn’t think that it would do any good, except make people that participated in it feel better, because they were doing something. But I didn’t see that it would change anything. So I think that I probably have a pretty cynical view. I think that actually the ways to change things are to do things that are not necessarily considered political. I do them consistently. So, hopefully, people can change things by changing themselves.

I vote all the time. I’ve been told all the time that voting doesn’t make any difference, but I know that people, that were my ancestors probably, fought for the right to vote. So, if someone was trying to keep them from doing it, then I’m going to do it. I think that the fact that I write at all, that I’m literate, is pretty political actually.

Is there anything else that readers should know about Filter House?

I want to say one more thing. This goes back to when I was little. When I was little I heard [the saying], “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” and I couldn’t understand that, because, one bird or two birds? Two birds are obviously worth more, plus you get this bush! Maybe it has berries on it and stuff. After someone finally explained it to me, I got the concept that having something in your hand is holding it and controlling it and that that is the boundary of yourself – your hand. But before that, no, the bush was mine too! And so what I want to give people is two birds and a bush.


You can purchase Filter House, which will be officially released in August, through Aqueduct's web site in early May. More information about Nisi Shawl can be found at her homepage.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Ursula K. Le Guin's Cheek by Jowl

I'm pleased to announce that Aqueduct Press will be publishing a new collection of essays by Ursula K. Le Guin, Cheek by Jowl, scheduled for release in March 2009. The collection's eight essays argue passionately for the necessity of fantasy in making and negotiating our world and refuse the ghettoization of both fantasy and "kid's lit" in favor of the supposedly more literary (and serious) realism.

[photo by Joyce Scrivner]

Just to give you a taste, here is the opening of the title essay, "Cheek by Jowl":

I am writing at a desk over which is pinned a painting from the Mexican state of Guerrero. It is in very bright colors of blue and red and orange and pink and green, and shows a village, drawn in the kind of perspective I understand -- no vanishing point. There are lots of flowers the size of trees, or trees the size of flowers. This village is busy: a lady is selling pies, men are carrying sacks, a young man is proposing to a young woman, a gentleman is playing the guitar and a lady is snubbing him, people are gardening, grinding corn, cooking, coming out of church, going to school; a cowboy on a horse is herding some cows and a bull, there is a cock-fight going on, a donkey pulls a cart into town, there are rabbits, chickens, and dogs in the house yards, at least I think they're dogs although they're rather hard to tell from the goats — or are they sheep? — next door, horses carrying loads are trotting down a street past the drunk man lying on his back kicking his heels in the air, there are fish in the stream, and up on the bright green hill under the bright golden sun stand two fine stags, one bright white and one bright red.

There are almost as many animals in the painting as people, and all of them are mixed up together, cheek by jowl, except for the wild stags, who stand aloof.

If you took the animals out of the picture it wouldn't be a true picture of the village, any more than if you took the people out of it, for the villagers' lives and the animals' lives are totally entwined. Food, drink, transportation, sport: the animals provide all that to the villagers, and therefore the villagers provide for the animals; each is at the service of the other. Interdependent. A community. Cheek by jowl. And this is the way most of us have lived during the several thousand years of human history, until just the last century or two.

The two stags, the only wild animals in the picture, stand outside the village, not part of it, yet very much part of the picture.

Before history, before agriculture, we lived for hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers. A hunter-gatherer village typically consisted of people only, with maybe some pets -- dogs or baby animals. Such a human community was an element in a predominately nonhuman community: forest, jungle, grassland, or desert, with its stable population of plants and animals, its ecosystem. Each species, including ours, was part of this population, this interdependent system. Each species went about its business on a more or less equal footing -- the tribal village, the ant hill, the antelope herd, the wolf pack. As hunter-gatherers, our relationship to the animals was not one of using, caretaking, ownership. We were among, not above. We were a link in the food chain. We hunted deer; lions hunted us. With the animals we didn't eat and that didn't eat us, our relationship was neutral or neighborly: some neighbors are tiresome, some are useful, or liked, or laughable, or admirable.

[...] The more we herded and bred animals for food and work, domesticating and dominating them, and the more we lived in cities among other humans only, the easier it was to separate ourselves from other species, to assert difference and dominance, denying kinship and its obligations. In Europe, the idea of community or neighborliness with animals became so rare that St Francis was considered strange and saintly merely for asserting it.

By the eighteenth century in Europe we'd invented "Nature." Nature comprises all the other species and all the places where they live and we don't. Idealised or demonised, Nature is humanity's Other. We stand outside it and above it.

In the forest, the village, or the farm, our interdependence with animals was unmistakable, community was a fact of life; we could despise our domestic animals, bully them, brutalise them, but we couldn't get on without them and we knew it, and so we knew them. But the cities kept growing and the farms and the wilderness shrinking. After the Industrial Revolution, more and more people lived without any daily contact with other species. In the twentieth century, when the Ford replaced the horse, the last animal to be of essential use in cities, it became possible to live a whole life indifferent to and ignorant of other species. The animals needful to us for food and other requirements are elsewhere, in distant batteries and ranches and slaughterhouses; our dependence on them is so well hidden that we can literally not know it. It takes an informed, active, and uncomfortable imagination even to connect a living pig or hen with the plastic-wrapped slab, the batter-fried lumps. The disconnection is radical, the alienation complete. With the evidence of continuity gone, the sense of community is gone. We have made a world for ourselves alone, in which nothing matters, nothing has meaningful existence, but us. There are no Others.

In this radically impoverished, single-species world, pets have become intensely important links to the nonhuman world. Watching the many animal shows on TV gives us the illusion of being in touch with that world. Birdwatching, fishing, hunting -- by now an entirely artificial hi-tech sport, but linked sentimentally to its origins: through all these we seek connection with nonhuman beings, or a reminder, however artificial, that there used to be a connection. That other people used to live here. That we had a family.

Our storytellers offer such a connection.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Canadian Commercial Seal Hunt: Largest Slaughter of Marine Mammals on Earth

The annual commercial seal hunt has begun in Canada. It is the largest mass slaughter of marine mammals on Earth. The number from last year was around 300,000.

In the first few days of this year's season, they have killed over 2000 seals. Apparently 95% of those killed are babies. They are killed for their fur, which ends up in fashion houses in Europe and Asia. Gucci and Versace are among the culprits.

Baby seals are often left on their own on the ice while their mothers go to feed. They are curious creatures who will approach a human who stands still. They are clubbed to death rather than shot, so as not to damage the valuable fur. The bloody carcasses are left on the ice. According to an independent panel of veterinary experts, who examined the carcasses in 2001, some of the baby seals did not show enough evidence of cranial injury to even guarantee unconsciousness – much less death – at the time of skinning.

I’m appalled and sickened by this. Most people here in the US I’ve talked to didn’t know it was still going on, and were horrified. Over 70% of Canadians are opposed to it as well. I learned all this from the Humane Society of the U.S., which has a petition and a list of suggestions as to what to do.

Public pressure apparently works, if slowly. According to the site, public pressure in Europe led to a strong statement from the European parliament. Although it fell short of a ban on seal products (such a ban on imports holds in the U.S.) it led to a drop in seal fur prices by 50%.

So it is important not to turn away in horror and try to forget about it. I haven’t been able to do so for days. Here is the site:

Homo Sapiens indeed.

Thoughts on Feminism and SF

I apologize for the fact that the response below is dated; I began it in response to a February 29 post from Timmi DuChamp here:

The post was with reference to an article in Foundation from August 2006, apparently favorably reviewing a book that is harsh on feminists in the SF field. I have not read this book and can only comment on feminism in American SF as a relative outsider (not being familiar with too much of Campbellian SF or American SF history) but with those qualifiers, here are some thoughts.

First, I understand that the argument goes as follows: in the past, women writers may have (wrongly) assumed that editors would not publish their fiction and that this perceived bias may have prevented them from submitting stories. But why blame the feminists for this, when a reading of golden age fiction (from anthologies in my case) makes it painfully obvious that women are either absent or limited to stereotypical roles in these stories? Does the author have any data to back this assertion? And even if it were true, what about the possible compensating effect that feminist SF writers have had in terms of providing inspiration to other women writers? In my personal experience (and acknowledging that an anecdote does not a scientifically credible conclusion make) I wouldn’t be writing science fiction and fantasy for publication if it hadn’t been for the feminists. I loved the genre as a kid but read mostly Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, and as I grew older I felt distanced from it (it didn’t seem to have much to do with people of my race and gender, for one thing). When I came to the US I wanted to return to it because I loved the intellectual thrills I got from the genre, but I could not work through the distanced feeling until I discovered Ursula K. Le Guin. My brother and my husband had both read her for years and I finally read her in my early thirties, to discover with a shock of delight that someone had gone ahead and hacked a path through the jungle for people like me. And that is how I got started on writing SF.

It seems that if I can draw any conclusion from the excerpts in Timmi’s post, the reviewer is falling into a trap by accusing MacLean the way he does. Just because Campbell happened to support Merrill and MacLean does not automatically mean that he couldn’t possibly be biased against women’s writing. I went to a university in the southern U.S. for my Ph.D., where I met white people who were friendly to me, supported me in various ways, but they still held racist views. Perhaps overt racism is harder to find these days (as is, perhaps, overt bias against women) but there are still unconscious biases and institutional biases. I once talked with an SF editor, a woman I respect and admire, and said something to the effect that it was a pity there was not more fiction published by third world writers. The editor responded by saying that no, there was a lot of third world fiction published, and named a string of writers, all of whom were white Westerners. Somewhat surprised, I pointed out to her that I meant writers from the third world, and her response was as far as I could interpret it, an “oh, I hadn’t thought of that.” Here’s a perfectly nice woman who had apparently never thought that writing by third worlders would have value distinguishable from writing about the third world. It is not too hard to imagine an analogous blindness about women’s writing existing in the past.

And by the way here is an essay by Canadian critic and writer Claude Lalumiere, commenting on the dominance of Campbellian SF in American SF history:

Also of interest is this survey and statistical analysis of women’s writing in the new millenium (in the short fiction realm) by Susan Linville:

Her conclusion is that in our times there is no evidence for overt editorial bias --- the lack of women’s writing in the genre (for short fiction anyway) is because women submit a lot less than men. There are reasons for this that may be related to gender disparity. I wonder how many women writers of SF can relate to this great quote by Mary Turzillo in the article by Linville:

"Men writers frequently have to work two jobs, especially at the beginning of their careers: the day-job and the writing job (yes, it is a job!). Women work three jobs: the day-job (because most women with kids have a job outside the home), the evening job of taking care of the house and kids, and the evening job of writing. They may be able to get a few stories in print, but the time angle is crushing."

But missing from all this analysis is the nature of the stories submitted, and whether the ones published fit a certain mold that makes them recognizably and acceptably what people think of as SF. Is it easier for women who write within a certain dominant SF canon to have their stories published, than for women who are doing something truly transgressive with the genre? I can’t answer this question except anecdotally. But it is a point worth thinking about because --- who knows? --- there may be fair number of women writers for whom SF means something quite different than what it might mean for most men.

The Beauty of Dichroic Glass

I’d like to introduce readers of this blog (and the universe at large) to the fantastic glass art of my friend Michele Gutlove.

Michele works with dichroic glass, which utilizes the phenomenon of thin film interference to create shifting, iridescent colors, in a manner similar to colors on soap bubbles, or oil spills on the road on a rainy day. Glass itself is no ordinary substance, despite its ubiquity. It is solid, but shares some properties of certain special (supercooled) liquids. To Michele glass is a fluid in slow motion. Inspired by nature, her glass art captures motion, or the illusion of motion, in a manner that brings out this fluid aspect. Add to it the special properties of dichroic glass, in which the reflected rays and transmitted rays are complementary to each other, and her work becomes magical. View it at:

Miscellaneous thoughts: Arthur C.Clarke; The Trouble with Physics;

Here is my annual (or possibly biannual) post to this blog. I have a bunch of things to post about, all of which I have posted at once, after which I will be silent again for months. Such is life.

To begin, I’m saddened by the death of Arthur C. Clarke, who was one of the writers I read as a kid. Just reading the names of the books in his obituary brings back childhood memories: Rendezvous with Rama, The Fountains of Paradise, Childhood’s End. What I find most wonderful about his works (or my memory of them) is the grand scale of his ideas, the jaw-dropping sense of wonder that came through. He thought big --- and that applies just as well to his technological innovations (like the space elevator) as to his fiction. I think one of the first trips I ever took to Mars was via The Sands of Mars. I still remember how Childhood’s End pulled the rug out from under me. I read and devoured Asimov, too, in those days, and have some nostalgic fondness for those stories, but they did not move me like Clarke’s works did. Clarke’s vision was more humane, his writing more fluent and more passionate. Somehow I must have unconsciously assumed he would live forever, there on the jewel-like island of Sri Lanka, writing away and being the grand old man of SF for all of us space-bug-bitten carbon-based bipeds. Which is perhaps why his death was such a shock to me, even though I knew he was ninety, and frail. The night I heard the news I went out and looked at the stars.

Science fiction, by the way, was a major reason I went into science. For that and more, thank you, Sir Arthur.

Here is a link to an article about Arthur C. Clarke, published in New Scientist in December, 2007.

I plan now to re-read his works and see if my older self likes them just as much as the child I was did.


In my copious spare time (hah!) I recently finished reading a book called The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin. It is a critique of the current crisis in theoretical physics, which according to the author (a physicist at the Perimeter Institute in Canada) is a result of everyone jumping on the string theory bandwagon. String theory, despite its mathematical beauty and its great success in unifying the fundamental forces of nature (if at the cost of extra dimensions), has not brought us one experimentally verifiable prediction in 30 years. It is apparently widely believed that there is no other game in town but string theory, and Smolin debunks that by presenting five other approaches by various groups that are at least equally promising, if not more so. Unfortunately because physics is no less immune to fashions and fads as any other endeavor, people working on alternate approaches are not given as much prestige (including jobs and funding and air time) as the string theorists, although ironically this was the very situation faced by string theorists when they first started out.

One of the interesting points that Smolin makes is that one reason why we haven’t had a theoretical physics revolution since the early twentieth century (when quantum physics and relativity took us by storm) is because we’ve stopped asking philosophical questions about the nature of reality. Quantum mechanics took us to some very strange places where the usual analogies and interpretations were useless, and there was much debate about the meaning of physical reality at the time, with Einstein, Bohr and others among the participants. At some point Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics won out (although I’m reading another book that details how Bohr was misunderstood and continue to be misunderstood even now --- more on that another time), and since that point physicists were encouraged to “shut up and calculate.” And calculate they did, and their efforts were rewarded when experiments verified the predictions of quantum electrodynamics to an absurd degree of precision, making quantum physics simultaneously the least understood and most successful theory of all time. Since then it has been quite unfashionable for physicists to ponder the nature of reality (at least in front of other physicists).

My own experience in college (both undergraduate and graduate) bears this out. Some of my friends and I wanted to know what Schrodinger’s wave function really meant, what it implied for the nature of nature. (Somehow Born’s probabilistic interpretation didn’t feel like the last word). I do not recall being taught about the different interpretations of quantum mechanics such as those of David Bohm --- I didn’t even know he’d come up with an alternate formulation until much later. We were quietly discouraged from going beyond the canonical interpretation. And to tell the truth, with assignments and tests and all, there wasn’t time to think deeply about it, so we had to content ourselves with speculative discussions over cups of chai or noodle soup. That was in Delhi University and later on I came across the same attitude in graduate school in the U.S.

So now I’m reading all kinds of interpretations and speculations on what quantum physics reveals about nature, and some of it is clearly nonsense, while the more rigorous stuff is fascinating but slow going.

But anyway one of the things I wanted to mention about Smolin’s book is that in one of the chapters he goes right out and says that that the reason why there aren’t more women or blacks in physics is “blatant prejudice.” Drawing upon his inside experience with hiring committees and the like, he reports that from what he sees, candidates are generally turned down if they are 1) female, 2) non-white and/or 3) someone inventing his or her own research program rather than following the mainstream. He notes that “whereas there have always been talented women musicians, the number of women hired by orchestras rose significantly when candidates began auditioning behind a screen.” He goes on to make analogies between the prejudice that women face in various endeavors and the resistance that new ideas face from the establishment.

The subject of why there aren’t enough women in physics is a topic for another day but it is interesting to note how clueless men seem to be about this subject (and some women too). Back in 2006 there was a report in Physics Today by researcher Evelyn Gates in which she wrote about factors affecting women going into physics. The letters from male physicists responding to her article (which does not seem to be available online) are revealing in their naivete and their assumptions about science and gender. Also well worth reading is Gates’ response at the end of the section:

Here is yet another dispatch from the land of Men Who Don’t Get It:

I want to scream.

* **

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Of Motorcycles, Highways, and the Dangers of Safety

By Nancy Jane Moore

My story "Running the Road" is now available on the current edition of Farrago's Wainscot.

This is an old story; it originally appeared in a motorcycle magazine. I'm terribly fond of it -- is it as wrong for writers to admit that they have favorites among their stories as it is for parents to say they have favorites among their children?

At any rate, I'm very glad to see it in cyberprint, since it didn't exactly reach a broad audience in its initial publication.

If you want to know (or guess) the gender of the narrator or have any other reaction to the story, please feel free to post a comment.