Sunday, February 28, 2010

Utah Will Soon Not Be A Good Place For Pregnant Women

When I read today that only Republican Gov. Gary Herbert's signature is lacking to enact into Utah state law a bill that will make pregnant women subject to even more stringent surveillance and control than they already are in US society-- a law that would make them vulnerable to being charged with murder when they miscarry-- I flashed on the measures the Nicolae Ceausecu regime took to enact its plan to increase the population of Romania from 23 to 30 million by the year 2000.
While the main thrust of the law is to enable prosecutors in the majority-Mormon state to pursue women who seek illegal, unsupervised forms of abortion, it includes a provision that could trigger murder charges against women found guilty of an "intentional, knowing or reckless act" that leads to a miscarriage. Some say this could include drinking one glass of wine too many, walking on an icy pavement or skiing.
15-20% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage-- without intervention.

The Ceaucescu regime, of course, went much farther than Utah's new law does, but the underlying attitude is rather similar:
[Ceaucescu] began his campaign in 1966 with a decree that virtually made pregnancy a state policy. "The fetus is the property of the entire society," Ceausescu proclaimed. "Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity."
The underlying attitude being: "The fetus is the property of the entire society." That is, after all, what the Utah legislature is saying by criminalizing miscarriage. The Ceaucescu regime began the campaign with banning abortions and sex education.
Books on human sexuality and reproduction were classified as "state secrets," to be used only as medical textbooks. With contraception banned, Romanians had to smuggle in condoms and birth-control pills. Though strictly illegal, abortions remained a widespread birth-control measure of last resort. Nationwide, Western sources estimate, 60 percent of all pregnancies ended in abortion or miscarriage.
Lots of places in the US ban sex education for teenagers. And some of the same people who have campaigned to ban sex education for teenagers would like to see contraception banned altogether. The ideology may be different, but the attitude toward who owns (mostly female) people's bodies is identical.

Here's what really horrified me about Ceaucescu's persecution of women back then, every time I read or heard about it:
The government's enforcement techniques were as bad as the law. Women under the age of 45 were rounded up at their workplaces every one to three months and taken to clinics, where they were examined for signs of pregnancy, often in the presence of government agents - dubbed the "menstrual police" by some Romanians. A pregnant woman who failed to "produce" a baby at the proper time could expect to be summoned for questioning. Women who miscarried were suspected of arranging an abortion. Some doctors resorted for forging statistics. "If a child died in our district, we lost 10 to 25 percent of our salary," says Dr. Geta Stanescu of Bucharest. "But it wasn't our fault: we had no medicine or milk, and the families were poor."
Presumably state legislatures-- even Utah's-- won't ever go this far. Still. I lived in Utah once, and I was of child-bearing age at the time. This is creepy stuff. Deeply creepy.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Fishtrap Winter Gathering

Report from the Fishtrap Winter Workshop
by Kristin King

I just got back from a weekend workshop in Oregon called the Fishtrap Winter Workshop ). It was a wonderful experience and worth sharing, but all I have time for on this post is a quick summary of the presenters' talks. I'll try to post more on my blog ( within the next few weeks, so if there's anything people want to hear more about, let me know and I'll try to focus on it.

What I'm leaving out of this report because I can't do justice to it just now: the bus ride and what I learned of the countryside from Portland to Fishtrap; the trip to the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute; the amazing attendees I met and the conversations we had; the writing sessions; the four-minute readings by the attendees; and just
generally my feelings and impressions and my personal transformations and so on. (In the terms of the presenters, the "private stories.")

Some General Comments

The topic was "learning from women," and I have to point out that all the presenters were aware of how tricky it is to speak of women. They were aware that when they were speaking of "women," they weren't speaking of some idealized, essentialist image of women. Women's voices, women's stories, and women's myths were something that men could and did take part in. Sometimes the presenters changed "men's stories / women's stories" to be "public stories / private stories." (I jumped in and made the point that women are normally expected to be men, so for the weekend, it was only fair to ask the men in the audience to be women.) But there seemed to be a general understanding that by and large, across cultures, women are socialized to take on
certain roles and ways of being. And it needs to change.

There was a general concern among the presenters (and attendees as well) about our world, our environment, the feminist backlash, technology, and capitalism, as well as a discussion of where we find hope.

There were some interesting and possibly unintentional linkages between the presenter's talks. In particular, I found Molly Gloss' discussion of Shane to have implications for topics in both Ursula Le Guin's and Tony Vogt's talks.

Molly Gloss

On Saturday, Molly Gloss spoke first. She is the author of award-winning Western novels The Jump-Off Creek, The Dazzle of Day, and Wild Life, as well as a bestseller The Hearts of Horses. (The Dazzle of Day is sf in addition to being a Western.)

Her talk centered on the Western myth of the lone cowboy, or Shane. He's got only one name, no parents or family to speak of, and he rides into town on his horse to save the day by gunslinging, then rides back out again. She drew the connections between our Shane myth and so many of the troubles we're facing, economic, environmental, and social. And then she presented an alternative Western mythology, that of private stories of women - women adventurers, homesteaders, First Nations women, etc.

Also in her talks: a history of Western writing and a fabulous reading list of Westerns.

She read an essay on Shane that I sincerely hope is available somewhere.

Tony Vogt

Next, Tony Vogt spoke. He has been active in progressive political and environmental movements for forty years, and also contributed to a book about Mount Saint Helens called In the Blast Zone. He addressed
three topics: how men's and women's knowing are different, how we look at the larger biotic community, and the transformational role of women in social movements. He talked about organizing among villagers in
Northern New Mexico, and what happened in the 1960s when a large number of men were rounded up and taken to jail and the women did the organizing work. (There's more to say here, but I would prefer to ask
in case some of it is not mine to tell.)

Also in his talks: what European-American Peggy McIntosh taught him about race and privilege; how "most men in a patriarchy do not feel powerful"; his encounter with Mount Saint Helens; and the human capacity for both cruelty and compassion.

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin, who has written more books and won more awards than I can count, talked about her path as a writer: "on learning to be a man and unlearning it to be a woman." When she was first writing and publishing, fantasy and science fiction was all about men, written by men. It took her a while to question that, but when she did, here's how she put it: "What right did they have to force me to try to be a transvestite?"

She read from Tehanu, a part where Tenar talks to the wise woman Moss about the difference between women's knowing and men's knowing. Moss gave an eloquent and lovely speech about women's knowing being down under the earth in the dark - one that is often quoted by critics. Rarely or never quoted is Tenar's response, "I have lived long enough in the dark." It's time, Ursula suggested, for the guys to live in the basement, kitchen, and kids' room, then come up and talk to us in the living room!

Other topics: capitalism, technology, the way capitalism enforces technology to keep getting bigger and using more resources; imagination as a way of trying out social transformation; and her involvement in the Google Books Settlement. She discussed the way the National Writer's Union stood up to Google and recommended people join it in order to help increase its political clout.

In a parting remark, she spoke to young writers about how long it will take to hone their craft as writers, that writing is a serious art and in many ways takes longer than the others, so they should just keep at it . . . "and then you'll be good."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What Really Matters

Here's Hendrik Hertzberg, writing for the New Yorker:

[James] Cameron knows a lot about science, but he's happy to bag it when necessary, as suggested in this colloquy, from a recent interview with a men's magazine:

PLAYBOY: How much did you get into calibrating your movie heroine's hotness?

CAMERON: Right from the beginning I said, "She's got to have tits," even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na'vi, aren't placental mammals.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Economic Disobedience": Morally Justified?

Yesterday the Boston Globe ran a story, Tracking a New Kind of Civil Disobedience, by Kathleen Burge, that discusses a surprising revelation in Lisa Dodson's The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy (published by the New Press published late last year). Apparently the harsh, inexorable impoverishment of the working poor is having an effect on some of the individuals who are employed to manage them:
As Newton resident Lisa Dodson, a Boston College sociology professor in the thick of a research project, was interviewing a grocery story manager in the Midwest about the difficulties of the low-income workers he supervised, he asked her a curious question: "Don't you want to know what this does to me too?''

The interview changed the way Dodson talked with other supervisors and managers of low-income workers, and she began to find that many of them felt the same discomfort as the grocery store manager. And many went a step further, finding ways to undermine the system and slip their workers extra money, food, or time needed to care for sick children. She was surprised how widespread these acts were....

As Dodson's questions grew more pointed, she began to hear fascinating stories. Andrew, a manager in a large Midwest food business, said he put extra money in the paychecks of those earning a "poverty wage,'' punched out their time cards at the usual quitting time when they had to leave early for a doctor's appointment, and gave them food.

Andrew had decided that by supervising workers who were treated unfairly - paid too little and subjected to inflexible schedules that prevented them from taking care of their families - he was playing a direct role in the unfair system, and so he was morally obligated to act.

Dodson concluded that Andrew and many like him were following the American tradition of civil disobedience - this time, against the economy - and creating a "moral underground.''

But her book, which came out late last year, has provoked debate about the morality of such acts.

After Dodson talked about her book on a radio program, American Public Media's "Marketplace,'' some listeners posted comments on the show's website arguing that supervisors like Andrew are cheating their employers.

Referring to the show's host, a listener from Leesburg, Va., wrote, "I was surprised that throughout the entire interview, neither Tess Vigeland nor Ms. Dodson touched on what would seem to me a rather crucial point - that these ‘Ordinary Americans' are stealing from the companies who employ them.

"The examples Ms. Dodson gave . . . are acts of theft from the companies, yet they are described as if somehow moral and virtuous. It's one thing for me to see someone in need and open my wallet; its quite another to address that need by giving something I've stolen from my neighbor.''

Although Dodson makes clear where she stands - the subtitle of her book includes the phrase "unfair economy'' - she said she believes the debate is important.

"I think that this is a really important conversation that we should have in this country,'' Dodson said. "What is the worst wrong here? Is it to break a rule or to pass some food over, or is it that we have tens of millions of children and people in families that are working as hard as they can and they can't take care of their families?''
So where would such "economic disobedience" fall on the Kholberg scale, I wonder? Stage Three, or Stage Six?

Here's Wikipedia's summation of Stages Three-Six:

In Stage three (interpersonal accord and conformity driven), the self enters society by filling social roles. Individuals are receptive to approval or disapproval from others as it reflects society's accordance with the perceived role. They try to be a "good boy" or "good girl" to live up to these expectations,[2] having learned that there is inherent value in doing so. Stage three reasoning may judge the morality of an action by evaluating its consequences in terms of a person's relationships, which now begin to include things like respect, gratitude and the "golden rule". "I want to be liked and thought well of; apparently, not being naughty makes people like me." Desire to maintain rules and authority exists only to further support these social roles. The intentions of actions play a more significant role in reasoning at this stage; "they mean well ...".[2]

In Stage four (authority and social order obedience driven), it is important to obey laws, dictums and social conventions because of their importance in maintaining a functioning society. Moral reasoning in stage four is thus beyond the need for individual approval exhibited in stage three; society must learn to transcend individual needs. A central ideal or ideals often prescribe what is right and wrong, such as in the case of fundamentalism. If one person violates a law, perhaps everyone would—thus there is an obligation and a duty to uphold laws and rules. When someone does violate a law, it is morally wrong; culpability is thus a significant factor in this stage as it separates the bad domains from the good ones. Most active members of society remain at stage four, where morality is still predominantly dictated by an outside force.

The post-conventional level, also known as the principled level, consists of stages five and six of moral development. There is a growing realization that individuals are separate entities from society, and that the individual's own perspective may take precedence over society's view; they may disobey rules inconsistent with their own principles. These people live by their own abstract principles about right and wrong-principles that typically include such basic human rights as life, liberty, and justice. Because of this level's "nature of self before others", the behavior of post-conventional individuals, especially those at stage six, can be confused with that of those at the pre-conventional level.

People who exhibit postconventional morality view rules as useful but changeable mechanisms - ideally rules can maintain the general social order and protect human rights. Rules are not absolute dictates that must be obeyed without question. Contemporary theorists often speculate that many people may never reach this level of abstract moral reasoning. [7][8][9]

In Stage five (social contract driven), the world is viewed as holding different opinions, rights and values. Such perspectives should be mutually respected as unique to each person or community. Laws are regarded as social contracts rather than rigid dictums. Those which do not promote the general welfare should be changed when necessary to meet "the greatest good for the greatest number of people".[8] This is achieved through majority decision, and inevitable compromise. Democratic government is ostensibly based on stage five reasoning.

In Stage six (universal ethical principles driven), moral reasoning is based on abstract reasoning using universal ethical principles. Laws are valid only insofar as they are grounded in justice, and a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws. Rights are unnecessary, as social contracts are not essential for deontic moral action. Decisions are not reached hypothetically in a conditional way but rather categorically in an absolute way, as in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.[16] This involves an individual imagining what they would do in another's shoes, if they believed what that other person imagines to be true.[17] The resulting consensus is the action taken. In this way action is never a means but always an end in itself; the individual acts because it is right, and not because it is instrumental, expected, legal, or previously agreed upon. Although Kohlberg insisted that stage six exists, he found it difficult to identify individuals who consistently operated at that level.[13]

Individual or collection actions trying to stop or go around foreclosures surely raise the same issue. But isn't it getting a little hard to believe that non-community, corporate banks out to defraud the world own the moral high ground? I myself take heart when I hear that the State of New Mexico will be moving all its money (a few billion) out of those banks and into credit unions and community banks...

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Afrika Solo

Biking home from work, I was fuming over the discussion and hoopla about Avatar and District 9. Irritation does indeed warm the muscles.

I had just taught a class (at Smith College) on Afrika Solo, a play by Caribbean-Canadian playwright Djanet Sears. The play is a performance piece based on the author’s journey across Africa in search of home. Invariably some of my (mostly women) students worry that they just won’t be able to relate to Djanet and her journey.

Most students know diddly squat about Africa, its many cultures and peoples, its histories, geography, economy, or relevance to their lives. The Dark Continent is a black hole in their minds—the event horizon is crisis or thuggery—starving babies squatting in a wasteland or warped dictators/gangsters preying on hapless victims. Nothing much else gets through.

Some students fear that the gulf of race or ethnicity between Djanet and them will be too wide; they won’t be able to find pleasure, meaning, or insight in her story. Some students steel themselves for attack; guilt gripping them at the title—maybe they’ll be identified with the “bad guys” in Afrika Solo.

If given a choice, my students might not read or see a production of Afrika Solo. However, since the play is required reading, they bravely press on! Despite these initial misgivings, most survive. Indeed, it seems Djanet didn’t know much about Africa either, until she walked across its deserts, rain forests, and grasslands; until she haunted its cities and ancient universities; until she spoke with people, ate food and sang into the night with them. When the goggles (fashioned from TV, Film, and other Media foolishness about Africa) come off, Djanet is finally able to experience Tunisia, Benin, and the Ituri Rain Forest as something other than an episode of Tarzan.

A few students always express astonishment that the play is so accessible! They immediately connect to Djanet’s character and her struggle to fashion and perform an identity for herself in this complex world we inhabit. She’s a geek who loves SF & F—and they feel at home with that whatever else might be “different” about Djanet. They are very excited that she finds and enjoys a prince, but doesn’t marry him to live happily ever after. At the end of the play, Djanet continues her journey of discovery—which is what my students hope to do.

These same students don’t express trepidation about being able to relate to white male heroes and any journey they might undertake. They don’t (seem) to worry about finding pleasure, meaning, or insight in “his” story—even if they later critique such stories as ludicrously racist or insidiously sexist.

I have been teaching this play for almost twenty years with similar results.

I didn’t quite know how to conclude my thoughts, but this morning I read the Hey Clare-What Gives? thread.

Rebecca Ore in a comment wrote:
I have a gut hostile reaction to people who try to judge art by morals and values that aren't esthetic. Art is joy, not pedagogy. No pleasure, no value, and some pleasures are dark or complex.

Unfortunately I believe that some of the dark, complex pleasures have been to make colonialism a thrilling adventure and Africa and its multitude of peoples, cultures, histories a black hole in our imagination. European male culture is the enjoyable, universal center. That’s the entertaining pedagogy still running through District 9 and Avatar.

Art is complex. It is joy and pedagogy. It's morals, values, and aesthetics. Craft depends on insight. Repetition is meaning. What we hear endlessly, goes without saying--is learned. Artists sometimes delight us with what we think we know that is not so. Afrika Solo is that sort of journey.

Friday, February 19, 2010

2009 Nebula Award Nominations

The 2009 Nebula ballot is out-- and has two Aqueductistas on it. Congratulations, Carolyn and Rachel!

Short Story

Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela, Saladin Ahmed (Clockwork Phoenix 2, Norilana Press, Jul09)
I Remember the Future, Michael A. Burstein (I Remember the Future, Apex Press, Nov08)
Non-Zero Probabilities, N. K. Jemisin (Clarkesworld, Nov09)
Spar, Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld, Oct09)
Going Deep, James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jun09)
Bridesicle, Will McIntosh (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jan09)


The Gambler, Paolo Bacigalupi (Fast Forward 2, Pyr Books, Oct08)
Vinegar Peace, or the Wrong-Way Used-Adult Orphanage, Michael Bishop (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jul08)
I Needs Must Part, The Policeman Said, Richard Bowes (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Dec09)
Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast, Eugie Foster (Interzone, Jan/Feb09)
Divining Light, Ted Kosmatka (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Aug08)
A Memory of Wind, Rachel Swirsky (, Nov09)


The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker (Subterranean Press, Jun09)
Arkfall, Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Sep09)
Act One, Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Mar09)
Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow (Tachyon, Feb09)
Sublimation Angels, Jason Sanford (Interzone, Sep/Oct09)
The God Engines, John Scalzi (The God Engines, Subterranean Press, Dec09)


The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Nightshade, Sep09)
The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak (Bantam, Nov08)
Flesh and Fire, Laura Anne Gilman (Pocket, Oct09)
The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey, May09)
Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor, Sep09)
Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland Press, Oct09)

Bradbury Award

Star Trek, JJ Abrams (Paramount, May09)
District 9, Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell (Tri-Star, Aug09)
Avatar, James Cameron (Fox, Dec 09)
Moon, Duncan Jones and Nathan Parker (Sony, Jun09)
Up, Bob Peterson and Pete Docter (Disney/Pixar, May09)
Coraline, Henry Selick (Laika/Focus Feb09)

Andre Norton Award

Hotel Under the Sand, Kage Baker (Tachyon, Jul09)
Ice, Sarah Beth Durst (Simon and Schuster, Oct09)
Ash, by Malinda Lo (Little, Brown & Company, Sep09)
Eyes Like Stars, Lisa Mantchev (Feiwel and Friends, Jul09)
Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi (Tor Aug08)
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books, 2009)
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente (Catherynne M. Valente, Jun09)
Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld (Simon, Oct09)

For more information, visit or

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A few thoughts on agency and narrative

A book I edited, Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Strategies, currently at the printers, grew out of a lively, contentious panel at WisCon 32 on narrative politics; it offers essays by a lot of highly conscious writers as well as a some thoughtful scholars (viz., Eleanor Arnason, Samuel R. Delany, Alan DeNiro, L. Timmel Duchamp, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Nicola Griffith, Eileen Gunn, Andrea Hairston, Lesley A. Hall, Ellen E. Kittell, Claire Light, Lance Olsen, Susan Palwick, Rachel Swirsky, Wendy Walker, and Rebecca Wanzo). I may be done with the book, but I can't say the subject of narrative politics has released its hold on me. Last weekend when I read Dr. Franklin's Island by Gwyneth Jones writing as Ann Halam, I found myself pondering the conscious construction of a fantasy by the novel's two main characters that is based on a consensual lie. The novel is, of course, interesting for other reasons, but this particular moment in the novel struck me powerfully-- disproportionately so in relation to its importance to the overall story. I'd like to talk a bit about that, but first need to set up some backstory of my own to make that possible.

For conventional fiction, the prescribed narrative boils down to a protagonist (usually in the singular) facing a challenge and meeting it. In some forms of literary fiction, failure is an option, but not, usually, in science fiction (unless, of course, the failure results in some sort of tragedy, preferably apocalypse). If the main character is female, she's permitted to be passive and rescued, especially if her rescue coincides with her getting the boy (though some people, particularly feminists like those of us who hang out on this blog, won't find such a narrative satisfying). Agency, that is to say, is essential for lead male characters, but not so much female characters. This narrative imperative is the reason why Sully, in Avatar, must according to the rules of conventional narrative be endowed with the cosmic specialness that makes him the leader in a situation where he should, logically, be the leader's helper.

Agency has always been an issue for writers of feminist sf. Back in 1972, Joanna Russ articulated some of the problems in her article, "What Can A Heroine Do? Or Why Women Can't Write." But looking further back, I suspect that most women writing sf have grappled with how to create and depict active female characters (rather than damsels in distress)-- characters able to survive the depredations of readers' gender politics. Female agency, of course, can be found in the early years of sf. C.L.Moore's Jirel of Joiry offers a strong example of a female character who exercises agency (and is therefore powerful). But Jirel is the antagonist of the stories in which she appears rather than the protagonist. (Because yes, Virginia, it's easier to create powerful female antagonists than powerful female protagonists...)

Although female agency has always been important to women writers (think of Christine de Pisan!), it became profoundly important to second-wave feminists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at least partly in reaction to the examples and images of female subordination that had become so constantly present in the movement as a result of, on the one hand the anti-pornography/anti-violence-against-women wing of the movement (later known as "cultural feminism") and, on the other hand, somewhat ironically, the underside of consciousness-raising, which was all about women confronting their subordination and oppression in order to take charge of their own lives. The images and attitudes of 1960s and early 1970s US culture were more overwhelmingly sexist than anyone who wasn't around for it could possibly imagine, and so exposing and naming the pervasive effects of sexism was the first step to agency. But if memory serves me, some cultural feminists got so tightly focused on the facts and machinery of subordination (and its apparent totalization in US culture) that they couldn't believe any female agency was possible for as long as the sexist system remained in place.

In reaction to cultrual feminism's essentialism and (in my view, anyway, negativity and ressentiment), other feminists devoted themselves to identifying and celebrating women's agency wherever they looked. The effects of this strategy were on the whole excellent since it enabled women to insert themselves back into history and see themselves as actively involved in making the world they live in. Equally importantly, it enabled white women to see the intersectionality of oppressions and, consequently, their own privilege. (Much of the Marq'ssan Cycle is about this, which is not very surprising, I suppose, given its date of composition.) At the same time, I can't deny that agency also became something of a fetish for feminists, with sometimes ridiculous results, as feminist scholars used elaborate casuistry to establish a claim for agency in unlikely and even inappropriate situations, producing a narrative about an ugly situation that doesn't make them intolerably uncomfortable. I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that a weird sort of morality has developed in which it is de rigueur for feminist analysis to locate some sort of exercise of agency in every situation, as though not finding and recognizing agency in some way disses the woman seen to lack it. The results of such a moral imperative can on occasion be grotesque.

I can think of several times in my own life that I've knowingly lied when asserting that doing such and such was my own choice and desire--claiming an exercise of agency where there was, in fact, none-- when instead I'd felt coerced or without real choice and was simply acquiescing to the situation. In one of those instances, I simply lacked the stomach for the fight it would have taken to resist. In another case, resistance would have entailed serious damage to myself or others. In a couple of other instances, I wasn't quick-witted enough to make a choice when I had the opportunity so that when the window of opportunity closed, and it was too late to do otherwise, I made a show of embracing the default. Claiming in each case that the choice was mine served various social-psychological purposes (that I didn't consciously consider at the time), most of them to do with my self-respect and pride. I suspect that claiming agency where none was exerted is all about a certain moral psychology.

As I mentioned when I began this, a passage in Dr. Franklin's Island impelled me along this train of thought. Semi and Miranda, teenagers who have washed up from a plane wreck on an island owned by eponymous mad scientist in the title, are prisoners lying under full-body restraint in strait jackets, on the eve of being submitted to surgery that will genetically re-engineer their bodies in radical and shocking ways. As the narrator, Semi, is about to "start screaming and screaming," Miranda says, "her voice...a light I could follow, like the little glowing lights that led to the emergency exit" (on the plane):
"List, Semi. This experiment is exciting. Exciting, do you hear? Say it.

"Exciting, I whispered. I didn't understand, but I was trusting her with my life."

"We're going to be made more than human, we're going to have superpowers."

"I want to go home."

"Well, you can't go home. That's over that's out. So concentrate on the adventure....We're going to imagine we've volunteered for this. The stratjackets are to... to keep our muscles rested, before the operation. We've volunteered, and now we have to be brave, really brave and tough. That sounds good, doesn't it? Doesn't it sound good? I like the idea of being brave."

"We're going to die."

"Yes," she said, with a shake in her voice. Probably. But we don't have to die screaming. Let's go for quality of life? For believing anything that makes us feel better? Come on, Semi. Try it."

The tactic works. They get through the night. And after the surgery, Semi continues to use the tactic. She isn't fooling herself, but rather is creating a sort of antidote to the mental effects of helplessness-- which Jones makes brilliantly clear is a survival strategy. Vis-a-vis the narrative, of course, Semi and Miranda do manage to save themselves and crush Dr. Franklin. But it's clear that until they are in a position to actually exercise agency, they need to cultivate a state of mind that makes that exercise of agency possible for that moment when they discover a break in the walls of their imprisonment.

All of which leads me to think we need a term for that particular state of mind, a term recognizing that it's not the same as an exercise of agency, but that it is nevertheless not passivity. We need to acknowledge, in other words, that agency is not a toggle switch that's either off or on.

To go back to narrative politics: maybe we need a different way to think about agency in narrative. I think Dr. Franklin's Island would have been a different story if Jones hadn't depicted her characters coping with total entrapment in this way. Until this point in the book they'd been vigorous in their efforts to survive (both before and after capture by Dr. Franklin). And a bit later, they become active again. But depicting their mental activity in the face of forced inaction in effect insists that exercising agency doesn't simply comes naturally to certain people, but requires a certain kind of work that makes an exercise agency, in the right circumstances, possible.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Hey Claire: What Gives?

Claire Light writes:

Those who read slush know (although it's not cool to talk about in these terms) that the submissions from women and poc are often disproportionately sucky, which is sometimes why even the proportions of women and poc who submit aren't reflected in the proportions of women and poc actually published.

Really, Claire? Who exactly knows that? Certainly not "those who read slush." For instance, Jay Lake doesn't know that:

I've edited 11 anthologies, published at least one story that wound up in Best American Short Stories, and I have not shared your experience of the slush pile.

Nick Mamatas doesn't know that:

I've only been reading slush for both book-length (fiction, poetry, and political non-fiction) and short subjects (overwhelmingly fiction, some non-fiction queries) on and off for eleven years, co-edited a Hugo and World Fantasy Award-nominated magazine for two years, and co-edited two open anthologies, so maybe the thousands of stories and hundreds of book samples and queries I've read were somehow skewed, but I have no problem saying that when it comes to women at least Light is 100 percent wrong... Women are, on average, better writers than men, probably because they read a lot more and perhaps because males who show an interest in writing and reading as children are often gay-baited or picked on.

I don't know that. Ann Leckie doesn't know that. Molly Tanzer doesn't know that. Cat Rambo and Sean Wallace don't know that.

So: who does, Claire? Would you care to give us attribution? By "slush readers know" do you mean that *you* know? Or are you referring to sources in the industry? Who? If you won't name them, at least do us the courtesy of acknowledging that they don't count as all slush readers. Their opinions are not a consensus that can be applied to a monolithic group "slush readers."

While you're at it, Claire, would you like to substantiate your claim? At all?

Or are we just going to let it slip by as a "fact" agreed on by "slush readers?" How lovely.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Just When You Thought Political Discourse Couldn't Get Stupider

As I checked for local news this morning on the Austin American-Statesman website, I was confronted with the following headline under the kicker THE TOP STORY:
Education board candidate faces claim he's soft on terror

I had to double check the URL to make sure I hadn't found The Onion instead of the Statesman.

If you click on the link above, you will indeed find that one right wing Republican candidate for state school board (in fact, the incumbent) is accusing his right wing Republican opponent of being soft on terrorism because he once had a law partner who once represented the government of Saudi Arabia. Of course, as this lengthy magazine piece in tomorrow's NY Times makes clear, the Texas State Board of Education routinely makes decisions that any sane person would assume were meant as satire.

Add that to the United States senators who think last week's blizzard means there's no such thing as global warming, and the scuttlebutt that such accusations might mean the end of meaningful climate change legislation, and it's enough to make even an optimist like myself start to wonder if all those science fiction stories showing the collapse of civilization are prescient and not just warnings.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Reviews of Interest

I notice that today's review at Strange Horizons, by T.S. Miller on Eclipse 3, singles out the three stories in the anthology that I thought were outstanding-- Karen Joy Fowler's "Pelican Bar," Maureen McHugh's "Useless Things," and Nicola Griffith's "It Takes Two."

Meanwhile, Jeff VanderMeer's piece on "The Best of 2009" has just been posted at Locus Online. Aqueduct Press's 2009 books fare well in his estimation. In particular, he classes among his favorite books of the year Centuries Ago and Very Fast and The Secret Feminist Cabal. Here's what he has to say about them:
Centuries Ago and Very Fast by Rebecca Ore (from the truly amazing Aqueduct Press) has a kinetic energy and hard-to-define originality that held me captivated from first word to last. Profane — scandalous? — the book wraps stories around stories, combines the surreal with the mundane and every-day. A story like "Acid and Stoned Reindeer" that I thought was either genius or chaos when published by Clarkesworld works much better in the context of the other stories. I'm not really sure how to describe a book that includes lines like "We'd run out of mammoths. The ponies looked nervous.", but I tend to come down on the side of finding it fascinating, although I know many readers will find this collection difficult.
The Secret Feminist Cabal provides a context for many of the recent online discussions about gender and the politics of gender. The book is brilliant in how it fills in a potentially lost history of the genre, detailing the involvement of female fans in the genre community from the early days, the birth of feminist SF and criticism, and also the many arguments back and forth between male and female writers in the 1970s and 1980s. I may be unaware of similar books on this subject, but for me it was fascinating to read Merrick's documentation of discussions between writers like Joanna Russ and Michael G. Coney. Better yet, Merrick's excellent prose makes The Secret Feminist Cabal a compulsive reading experience. (For an even more complete reading experience, read the Merrick in conjunction with another excellent nonfiction book from 2009, the Farah Mendelsohn-edited On Joanna Russ; it contains a variety of perspectives on Russ and her work from, among others, Gary K. Wolfe, Samuel R. Delany, Graham Sleight, and Merrick herself.)
I heartily second the recommend of combining The Secret Feminist Cabal with On Joanna Russ. Togher, these reads are not only complementary, but even synergistic.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

RIP Phil Klass

Phil Klass, the tiny old Jew who (under the name "William Tenn") had introduced compassionate satire to Golden Age SF, died on Sunday at the age of eighty-nine. Interviewing him in 2001 at his home, I found him to be a wonderful man, even though he'd moved away from his socialist origins and become, in his words, "almost, but not quite, a neoconservative."

There's a famous passage from his friend Sturgeon on Klass's influence: "It would not be too wide a generalization to say that every SF satire, every SF comedy and every attempt at witty and biting criticism found in the field is a poor and usually cheap imitation of what this man has been doing since the 1940s." Not fair to Cyril Kornbluth, but not too far off the mark: a great deal of satirical SF that works can be traced, genealogically, back to Klass. In an era of romanticized space pilots, he showed that you could write SF with a kind of 18th-century ironic sensibility and not be a complete Swiftian misanthrope.

What I don't see enough of in encomia to him is credit for his unashamed Yiddishkeit. SF was full of Jewish writers before Klass, sure; but they tended not to know what to do with their Jewishness (Asimov) or to be unhappy with it (Bester) or to reduce it to a two-dimensional vaudeville. Jewish guys who wanted to be Chesterton and Doyle and Kipling. Klass (and Horace Gold, who published much of his work) showed, with pieces like "Bernie the Faust" and "My Mother Was a Witch" and "On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi," how to be shamelessly Jewish in an SF story. I'd say he made it possible for Davidson (and hence Ellison) to do what he did, and perhaps cleared the way for expressions of Jewish-Americanness in the likes of Russ, What, and Friesner. And by extension, demonstrated that an SF writer didn't have to aspire to be or to write about an ethnicity-free Ideal White American (no small feat in the years after World War II, when liberal image-brokers were very attached to the tactic of arguing "Minority members are just like you!" Watch the movie versions of Home of the Brave and Gentlemen's Agreement).

Laurie Mann is collecting commemorations. I especially liked one of her own.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

My Gender and Authorship essay

Today I threw myself into Jeff VanderMeer's amazing Booklife. As I read, it very quickly struck me that I really ought to at least begin updating my website, which I'd pretty much allowed to go to seed. (It must be brilliant the cover of Booklife thrusting such a metaphor into my head-- obviously working considerable insidious magic on me.) I was feeling so, er, inadequate vis-a-vis managing my "public presence" that I thought, well, that's the least I can do.

And so this afternoon I did make a start on doing that. Besides adding links to more of my reviews and beginning to update my books page (which is still a bit out of date), I posted "Creating the 'Second Self': Performance, Gender, and Authorship," a paper I gave at WisCon 31 (and which was published in The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 2). The essay is all about writing and the performance of gender, with particular focus on Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree, Jr., Eileen Gunn, and Willa Cather. You can find that essay here.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Vel and Orlando

In his "On Books" column in the March 2010 issue of Asimov's SF, Paul DiFilippo reviews Centuries Ago and Very Fast. Here's a bit of what he says:
Ah, but a true power chord is infinitely replenishable, given enough talent on the part of the author. And Rebecca Ore proves this to the max with her new “novel in stories,” Centuries Ago and Very Fast (Aqueduct Press, trade paper, $16.00, 160 pages, ISBN 978-1933500-25-6).

We are introduced in economical fashion to three main characters: Vel, a seemingly immortal man who was born in the Paleolithic, some fourteen thousand years ago. Not only has Vel survived to the present, thanks to remarkable regenerative abilities, he’s also discovered how to time-jump, so that he can visit any point along his personal continuum. His unique history is known to one of his generations-separated descendants, a modern woman named Carolyn. And he’s recently also disburdened himself to a new lover named Thomas. For Vel, you see, is gay.

Now, at first this sounds like the setup to a bad joke or parody. But in the capable hands of Ore, it’s anything but. This novel comes with an endorsement from Samuel Delany, and on sexual and gender issues it exhibits the same polished rawness and sophisticated yet wide-eyed wonderment that Delany’s writing is famous for. Vel is utterly believable—and believably strange—as a fusion of pre-modern, postmodern, and timeless attitudes and habits. He narrates most of the book, with some chapters from Thomas’s POV, and he comes across as the ultimate alien in our midst, rather in the manner of the hero of Carol Emshwiller’s The Secret City (2007). A cousin to our species, yet not exactly in our direct lineage.
I'm always pleased, of course, to see Aqueduct's books reviewed. But I can't help remarking that whenever I'm reading anything by DiFilippo's that's not fiction, I always expect to encounter at least one head-scratching moment. & so as I continued reading the review past this point, I was sort of holding my breath, wondering if this review was going to be the exception.

It was not to be. The moment came in the final sentence of the review:
In a way, Ore is following in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf as well: this is her caveman Orlando (1928).

After I did a little head scratching, I thought, well okay, I can get that for both Orlando and Centuries Ago the story's about a young guy who lives for centuries without aging... and I can get that much of the tension in both stories has to do with how they react/adapt to changes in the worlds they live in... But still. Orlando? Whose interest for us, unlike that of Vel, lies chiefly in the apparent extremity of his change? Hmmmm...

So what I'm thinking now is that it'd be interesting to hold Orlando (by which I mean both the character and character's life in the narrative) up to Vel (ditto), in profile, nose to nose, and look at all the places where their profiles don't meet-- where there're gaping spaces between the two. Though somehow I don't think that's what DiFilippo actually had in mind when he offered the comparison...