Friday, September 30, 2011

Aqueductista News

*Sheree Renée Thomas has a post, "An Idea so Crazy It Might Come True," up on the New York Times blog.

*Cynthia Ward is interviewed here.

*Liz Henry's The WisCon Chronicles Vol. 3: Carnival of Feminism is newly reviewed here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What I read last summer, part 2

[Note: the first installment of this series of posts can be found here.]

One of my most compelling reads last summer was Palle Yourgrau's Simone Weil, published in a gorgeous edition, lavishly illustrated, by Reaktion Books as part of their Critical Lives series. I say that it was compelling, but it also pushed some of my buttons and made me think hard, forcing me to momentarily set aside my usual categories for sorting and associating ideas, since my understanding of the implications of certain of Weil's statements were in apparent contradiction with my understanding of other of her statements. In short, I had to tolerate a certain amount of uncertainty and confusion about the meaning and implications of Weil's ideas throughout my reading of the book, which was a bit like fitting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle without a picture of the image you're supposed to be constructing. That uncertainty, of course, added a dash of urgency to the reading, which countered some of the negative feelings about Weil that I had had before I'd even picked up the book-- though I ended up thinking that some of my reservations about her (particularly her attitude toward embodiment) were justified.

As the series title indicates, Simone Weil's life is the focus of the book-- even as its central theme is its insistence that an appreciation for and understanding of Weil's thought has been distorted and overshadowed by the received notion of what that life was. Yourgrau notes in his introduction that Weil was omitted from the "groundbreaking" 1996 collection, edited by Mary Warnock, Women Philosophers, because Warnock grouped Weil's work with "the writing of women who, to put it crudely, seem to rely more on dogma, revelation or mystical experience than on argument." Yourgrau's bio of Weil, though most interested in Weil's Platonist preoccupations, does take note of Weil's work in political philosophy. So that makes me wonder: did Warnock know of Weil's work in political theory, or did Weil's political theory not count as "philosophy" (given how closely it was tied with analysis of labor issues)? Yourgrau notes that Warnock included Iris Murdoch--who, ironically, was strongly influenced by Weil-- in the book, then suggests that
Weil, by contrast [to Murdoch], resists all categories. While it is not accurate to say, as Warnock has, that she does not engage in extended argument, it is true that argument was but one of her weapons--and 'weapon' is the appropriate term, since Weil is an extremely dangerous thinker. The same is true, however, of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, yet both of these thinkers (men, to be sure, a not incidental fact) occupy well-established niches in the philosophical canon. Indeed, one of the key tasks of a presentation of Weil's life and mind that pretends to any kind of seirousness is to try to provide a ocnvincing account of exactly what kind of thinker Weil was.(13)
I think it is indeed true that more slack is cut for thinkers who don't fit neatly into formally recognized categories when they are men. Although Weil's thought is in many ways almost orthogonal to Nietzsche's (most glaringly in Nietzsche's pronouncing Christianity as the religion of slaves and castigating it as therefore insidious and demoralizing, while Weil pronounced it as is the religion of slaves and cherished it for that very reason), Yourgrau is right to point out some of the parallels between them (and between Weil and Wittgenstein, as well).

Reading this intellectual biography, what struck me most (apart from the fierce, even rigid stubbornness of this woman) was not how short her life was, but how much she accomplished and how seriously she lived for someone who died at the age of 34. I can well imagine that Simone de Beauvoir (who attended the Sorbonne when Weil did, and whose test score for entering the Normale Superieure was the second highest for the year in France-- while Weil's was the highest) found her intimidating, as Yourgrau comments:
'Her intelligence,' notes Beauvoir,' her asceticism, her total commitment and her sheer courage, all these filled me with admiration, [though] I could not absorb her into my universe, and this seemed to constitute a vague threat to me.'

Neither Beauvoir, it seems, nor Sartre, could, for all their admiration, incorporate Weil into ther life's view, a discordance unsurprising, as [John] Hellman wisely remarks, 'in a couple who remained pure intellectuals, seeking a "meaning" for human existence sooner than addressing its sufferings and misfortunes....' Whereas Weil aspired to become a 'slave,' Beauvoir's goal was to become a master, of herself if not of others. Where Beauvoir is the mother of feminism, Weil would reject even the label. Asked to lead a discussion group, she lashed out, 'I'm not a feminist!(41)
I'd have been interested to hear what Beauvoir made of that response, myself. Yourgrau, though, denies us that pleasure.

It seems to me that Weil's early and persistent identification with "the slave" lies at the heart of her life, her thought-- and my long-time difficulty of opening my mind to her ideas. This identification started, not surprisingly, in early childhood, since children often hold the notion of sacrificing oneself as a proof or achievement of goodness, sometimes on a grand scale. Weil was raised in an extremely affluent (secular) Jewish family in Paris in the first decades of the 20th century. (She was born in 1909.) She was raised like her brother Andre (yes, the famous gifted mathematician) as a boy, and they were very close. Yourgrau observes: "Signing her letters, 'your respectful son,' Simone became Simon-- a favourite nickname for her in the family-- a brother to her only brother, a second son. When, in the course of time, she wrote about the legendary Cathar civilization of Laguedoc, she adopted the pen name of a man, the anagrammatical 'Emile Novalis.'"(17) When, as a child during World War I, Simone learned that soldiers at the front were "being denied their ration of sweets," she gave up chocolate. As an adult, she developed the habit of sleeping on the floor (as a practice of humility). As early as the age of three, she refused a gift on the grounds that it was "luxurious." Here's Yourgrau:
It was other people's pain that moved her, not her own. From early in life to late, no border could contain her empathy for the plight of others, from soldiers on the front lines to enemies subjected to harsh treaties, from workers in the luxury hotels in which her family vacationed to factory workers, slaves to machines, from present holocausts to those buried in the distant past. But what she could least bear was separation-- holding herself apart from those outside, in pain....

....As a child, she would sit herself down in the cold snow and refuse to budge if her brother was given the heavier bags to carry. Why should his burdens exceed hers? On vacation during her gradute studies, she shared the harvest in Normandy, heaving sheaves of thistles bigger than herself....When the war came, she could never understand why only men should be asked to die. Hence her plan, never realized, of organizing a volunteer corps of front line nurses, aimed more at the sharing of death than at the saving of life. (22)
My mother would have derided Weil as suffering from a "martyr complex"-- a sneering phrase she trotted out to counter my own tendencies, as a child, toward self-sacrifice (because I associated it with "being good."). As an adult, Weil would ask people who were providing her with hospitality to give her "the worst room" in the house. On reading that, my response was to imagine being confronted with that request from a guest. Except for the most unwelcome guests (and sometimes even for them), most people are anxious to make their guests as comfortable as possible. (Their own self-esteem and self-respect depends on it!)

I found her utter obsession with being assigned a resistance taks that would inevitably result in her death the most repellent thing about her. But what makes me feel that I'm unlikely to ever properly appreciate her thinking is her attitude toward embodiment. Yourgrau asserts that Weil was "suspcious of the very fact of embodiment" (17)--which, to my mind, dovetails perfectly with her passion for Plato and Platonism. She could not tolerate being touched or embraced by anyone. She pretty much malnourished herself all her life (something that would eventually hasten her death from TB), she hated her own beauty and did everything she could to conceal it (except when, during her phase of forsaking teaching in order to take up the harsh-- and ultimately flattening and depressing-- life of a factory worker, she needed to doll herself up to get hired at Renault). It occurred to me, though, reading that as an infant she became seriously ill and could not tolerate her mother's milk, and that when she was weaned, refused food entirely, and that in general sh "never really recovered her taste for food" [if before 11 months she had ever had one], that abstaining from food was not the sacrifice it would have been for most people, particularly since as an adult she was a caffeine and nicotine addict. Ascetism is much more of a challenge for people who love the things of the flesh than for those who have all their lives felt indifferent to them even before they came to despise them.

As you've no doubt figured out by now, Weil's distate for embodiment and the wish to be exalted by the glory of sacrificing her life for others added up, for me, to something pretty negative.

I got pulled up short, though, when I read this, because it initially called into question my sense of her loathing and contempt for the body:
God is in the details, it is said. For Weil, as for van Gogh, he is in the vineyard--close to mother earth. Indeed, especially in his early paintings, it is difficult to distinguish van Gogh's peasants from the earth they are working. In his famous De Aardappeleters ('The Potato Eaters'), there is a kind of alchemy in which there is as much potato (aardappel, 'apple of the earth') in the peasant as there is on the table. In Weil's alchemy, too, the transformation comes from labour. Her 'labour theory of value,' like van Gogh's, owes more to St. Augustine than to Karl Marx. Yet, with Marx, she comes to believe that it is precisely one of the sins of capitalism, of industrial society, that it not only separates the worker from his product, but more importantly robs his activity of its intrinsic worth and dignity, for it is 'work... [which] creates respect for the human person, and equality'. For both, the opposition of mental work to physical work is one of the great lies of the modern world. 'From the bottom of her heart,' writes Jacques Cabaud, 'Simone Weil desired to work for the abolition of the degrading division between intellectual work and manual labor.' And not just a degrading division, but the illusion of a chasm in epistemology. '[Even] to see space', she writes at Normale (to the amusement of all), 'is to grasp work's raw material...Geometry, like all thought, perhaps, is the daughter of labour's fortitude' ain work not only is the person himself realized but for Weil, it is there that his mind takes command. A Cartesian, for Weil it is not a question of cognito ergo sum but rather, 'je veux, donc je suis' ('I will, therefore I am'); I bend my will to work.
This mishmash of the Platonic and the Cartesian with the organic at first appeared (to me) to be carnephilic. That, I think, was an illusion created by Yourgrau's invocation of Van Gogh's De Aardappeleters). For slowly I began to realize that Weil did not value laboring with one's hands for its organic connection with the world and as a valorization of embodiment, but rather because-- for her, a highly educated child of wealthy parents who voluntarily left her comfortable job teaching to repeatedly damage her malnourished, clumsy body with dangerous factory work (entailing repeated burns and cuts and other injuries)-- laboring with her body required an act of will to subject herself to the harsh discipline of manual labor. She found it good, in other words, because she chose (willed herself) to do it. But just think about it: that kind of reasoning simply cannot work for people who labor in order to eat and keep a roof over their own and their children's heads. They don't have a choice (other than to starve)! I think I can see how that might not have occurred to her, ever-- and how the people around her might not have thought of mentioning that to her, either. It strikes me as a somewhat...tragic misunderstanding, one that some people might see as presumptious rather than glorious.

On the other hand, I have no problem grokking her intense distress over exclusion, which, I think mistakenly, she held against the Jewish religion, and which ultimately prevented her from becoming a Roman Catholic, and which also prompted her to think of the Vietnamese when the Nazis marched into Paris, and write in her notebook "A great day for Indo-China"-- meaning that the colonialist French who had been occupying Indochina for so long were now the occupied themselves-- a remark that Jeffrey Mehlman interpreted as indicating that she was siding with the Nazis rather than expressing her awareness that the oppressed could also be oppressors. (73) In fact, the invasion and occupation of France prompted Weil to do a lot of interesting, critical thinking on the subject of patriotism, and I think I would like sometime to read the writings that resulted (and were later collected and published as The Need for Roots.

I realize that except for mentioning her critical thinking about patriotism I've mostly talked about the aspects of Weil I have trouble with. There was more than that that I found interesting, and I think I'd be very interested to read what she has to say on the Cathars as well as on Homer's Illiad. So please don't be put off by my focus on her disdain for embodiment. I assure you, her strength of will and persistence in thinking beyond the obvious come through with such clarity in this book that I have no reservations about recommending the book highly. There is nothing dry about it, and the author's choice of presenting Weil's thought side-by-side with her development and the events of her life makes it a surprisingly easy, sometimes amusing, and occasionally poignant read.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

So just how important is women's suffrage in Saudi Arabia?

Because, ya know, this news is just in:
Sept. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Two days after Saudi King Abdullah's historic decision to allow women to participate in elections, two Saudi women were punished for breaking the ban on female driving: One was sentenced 10 lashes by a court in Jeddah and another was detained in Riyadh.

The incidents highlight the continuing disparity between the rights of men and women in the kingdom. Women may be able to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections, but they still can't drive, argue in court before a judge, travel, get an education or a job without male approval.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Democracy needs the arts: but do the arts need democracy?

I've been reading some essays in the Spring/Summer issue of Salmagundi, collectively presented as a symposium titled "Good Art/Bad Art: Is There A Difference?" At the end of Benjamin Barber's "Patriotism, Autonomy and Subversion" [yikes, Salmagundi apparently can't make up its mind on whether or not to use the serial comma!], Barber concludes:
The reality is that democracy needs the arts more than the arts need democracy. The arts have flourished under tyranny and authoritarianism where, though he may generally be in for a rough ride, the artist is always firmly grounded in his freedom, independence, and critical imagination. And although the arts do not need democracy, and they may sometimes even be paralyzed by it, democracy sorely needs the arts. Without a vibrant arts culture, democracy cannot flourish, perhaps it cannot even survive. Apart from the relevant gift and technique, freedom, stubbornness, autonomy, eccentricity and rebelliousness turn out to be the characteristics we most look for in the well functioning artist, as well as in the well functioning citizen. Democracy offers a home for the contrarian virtues that are indispensable to democratic life and that make markets possible.
Hmm. What do you all think?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Aqueductista News

-- Karen Burnham reviews Redwood and Wildfire for Strange Horizons.

--Nic Clarke concludes her four-part series on Gwyneth Jones's Life at Torque Control.
  • part one, on the practice and politics of science in the novel
  • part two, on the major characters' relationship with feminism
  • part three, on relationships and gender roles
  • part four, on sex, gender, and how the central sfnal conceit may (or may not) change the world

--Paul Kincaid reviews Gwyneth Jones's The Universe of Things for the SF Site.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Did a neutrino beam really move faster than the speed of light?

Cern Press Release, 23 September 2011:

OPERA experiment reports anomaly in flight time of neutrinos from CERN to Gran Sasso

Geneva, 23 September 2011. The OPERA experiment, which observes a neutrino beam from CERN 730 km away at Italy's INFN Gran Sasso Laboratory, will present new results in a seminar at CERN this afternoon at 16:00 CEST. The seminar will be webcast at Journalists wishing to ask questions may do so via twitter using the hash tag #nuquestions, or via the usual CERN press office channels.

The OPERA result is based on the observation of over 15000 neutrino events measured at Gran Sasso, and appears to indicate that the neutrinos travel at a velocity 20 parts per million above the speed of light, nature's cosmic speed limit. Given the potential far-reaching consequences of such a result, independent measurements are needed before the effect can either be refuted or firmly established. This is why the OPERA collaboration has decided to open the result to broader scrutiny. The collaboration's result is available on the preprint server

The OPERA measurement is at odds with well-established laws of nature, though science frequently progresses by overthrowing the established paradigms. For this reason, many searches have been made for deviations from Einstein's theory of relativity, so far not finding any such evidence. The strong constraints arising from these observations make an interpretation of the OPERA measurement in terms of modification of Einstein's theory unlikely, and give further strong reason to seek new independent measurements.

"This result comes as a complete surprise," said OPERA spokesperson, Antonio Ereditato of the University of Bern. "After many months of studies and cross checks we have not found any instrumental effect that could explain the result of the measurement. While OPERA researchers will continue their studies, we are also looking forward to independent measurements to fully assess the nature of this observation."

"When an experiment finds an apparently unbelievable result and can find no artefact of the measurement to account for it, it's normal procedure to invite broader scrutiny, and this is exactly what the OPERA collaboration is doing, it's good scientific practice," said CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci. "If this measurement is confirmed, it might change our view of physics, but we need to be sure that there are no other, more mundane, explanations. That will require independent measurements."

In order to perform this study, the OPERA Collaboration teamed up with experts in metrology from CERN and other institutions to perform a series of high precision measurements of the distance between the source and the detector, and of the neutrinos' time of flight. The distance between the origin of the neutrino beam and OPERA was measured with an uncertainty of 20 cm over the 730 km travel path. The neutrinos' time of flight was determined with an accuracy of less than 10 nanoseconds by using sophisticated instruments including advanced GPS systems and atomic clocks. The time response of all elements of the CNGS beam line and of the OPERA detector has also been measured with great precision.

"We have established synchronization between CERN and Gran Sasso that gives us nanosecond accuracy, and we've measured the distance between the two sites to 20 centimetres," said Dario Autiero, the CNRS researcher who will give this afternoon's seminar. "Although our measurements have low systematic uncertainty and high statistical accuracy, and we place great confidence in our results, we're looking forward to comparing them with those from other experiments."

"The potential impact on science is too large to draw immediate conclusions or attempt physics interpretations. My first reaction is that the neutrino is still surprising us with its mysteries." said Ereditato. "Today's seminar is intended to invite scrutiny from the broader particle physics community."

The OPERA experiment was inaugurated in 2006, with the main goal of studying the rare transformation (oscillation) of muon neutrinos into tau neutrinos. One first such event was observed in 2010, proving the unique ability of the experiment in the detection of the elusive signal of tau neutrinos.

Further information:

OPERA website:

Blog post about the topic:

Pictures available here:

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The wonderful Elizabeth Warren dissects the "class warfare" charge

Steve Benen provides a partial transcript of the video:

[Elizabeth] Warren, after explaining some of the reasons for the nation’s deep fiscal hole, pointed to a more sensible approach to economic policy in general. “I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever,’” she said. “No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.

“You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

“Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hey, that cup is half full!

I was interested to read a summary of a new Harris Poll, asking people about their reading habits, particularly with reference to their use of e-readers: Harris Interactive: Harris Polls One in Six Americans Now Use E-Reader with One in Six Likely to Purchase in Next Six Months.
Its sub-header is "e-Reader users likely to both read and purchase more books than non-users." What interests me most isn't the numbers about e-readers per se, but what they tell us about reading and purchasing habits generally, with breakdowns not only by gender, but also by region, generations (identified as Matures (66+), Baby Boomers (47-65), Gen X (35-65-- which must be a typo), and Echo Boomers (18-34), and genre of books read).

See, there's always so much attention on the high percentage of people who don't read, that it surprised me to see how many people do still read books fairly regularly. Answering the question of how many books you purchased in the last year, 12% in 2010 and 9% in 2011 said more than 21 books (which was apparently the pollster's ceiling), and 11% in 2010 and 10% in 2011 said 11-20. (The figures are a bit better for books read, as opposed to purchased.) Note, though, that these are not averages (or even means) of numbers of books read per person, since the poll doesn't count books per person past 21. (Which is to say, the many extreme bookaholics among us aren't skewing the figures.)

Considering all the competition for people's time and attention, these figures cheer me up. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

New in Our Surveillance Society

A proposal that secondhand record and book stores report everyone whose stuff they buy to the police has been passed by Madison's Committee of Public Safety (!) and goes before the City Council next week. Yeah, this may not be an outrage on the scale of the FBI hiring a birther who writes for WorldNet Daily to teach its agents about Islam, but it's really telling that such a law is being considered.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Call for materials for a new anthology

Call for Materials for “Missing Links and Secret Histories” 

Most writers leave out a lot of what they know about their characters and the histories and workings of the worlds their characters live in. And that’s practically an invitation for readers to barge in and read between the lines and invent more than is actually on the page in the official, authorized version of the story. For “Missing Links and Secret Histories,” an anthology to be published by Aqueduct Press, I’m looking for wikipedia-page-style entries with the aim of compiling a Treasury of Missing Links and Secret Histories of stories we know and love. Such Missing Links and Secret Histories must shed critical or transformative light on the works they riff rather than appropriate them. These entries will probably not include zombies, sea-monsters, vampires, werewolves, and other such frequently interpolated monsters. They must, of course, make sense within the framework of the official, authorized version of the story they are glossing, and the more Wikipedia-like the better. Hyper-links are encouraged. Stylishness, wit, and ingenuity will be especially prized. And for Secret Histories, the more byzantine and buried they are, the better. A word of caution: if the official, authorized version of the story is not in the public domain, it behooves the contributor to be certain that author of the original story being riffed will not view the contribution as infringing their copyright.

Deadline for submissions is Nov 15, 2011. Submissions should be made by email to L. Timmel Duchamp (use this email address: ltimmel [at] You may either paste your submission into the body of the email or attach it as an rtf or Word Doc file. Payment will be 1 cent a word and two contributors’ copies. Query me first before making multiple submissions.

What I read last summer, part 1

Last December, when I was posting others' essays about their year's reading, listening, and watching, I never got around to writing my own. It's occurred to me that it would suit me better to write about my reading at shorter intervals-- say, seasonally. (Not, of course, that I don't already occasionally post here about what I'm reading.) So what have I been reading this summer, besides James Boyle's "Endowed by Their Creator" and David L. Ulin's The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time? A hodgepodge, of course. To make the task of reporting a bit less daunting, I'll do just a few titles at a time.

Let me start with Tansy Rayner Roberts' Love and Romanpunk, which I read early in the summer. This slim, elegantly produced volume is the second entry in Twelfth Planets Press's "Twelve Planets" series, which will be offering up twelve small collections by twelve Australian women writers. These are reasonably priced, especially if you get a partial or half subscription to the series (which you can do at Love and Romanpunk features an alternate history that begins with the Roman Empire, in which certain individuals (for instance, Livia, wife of Augustus) are lamias. Lamias, in Roberts' fictional world, are dangerous, vampiric autocrats; but in that world, they are offset by the "Julias," who have "a strength that meant something beyond death to your enemies, and poison in a cup." As you might expect, the Julias engage in deadly, centuries-long battle with the lamias, which is in fact the theme bridging the volume's four stories, each set in a different time and place though all in the same world, whether in Roberts' alternate history or its resulting future.

The first story, "Julia Agrippina's Secret Family Bestiary" is a cleverly structured tale, told through the alphabetically organized "Bestiary" that despite its rigid principle of organization nevertheless facilitates the telling of a sly, dramatic narrative involving fantastical feats of swimming and the fierce assistance of naiads. I can easily imagine Suetonius's (contemporary) readers delighting in this first tale. (English male aristocrats, among the core of Suetonius's  later readers, would probably have loathed it.) I imagine Robert Graves, though, would probably have been charmed by it.
Livia separated the world into those who were of use to her, and those who were expendable. She had a particular hatred for Julias. How could she not, when we had a power she could never understand, a strength that meant something beyond death to your enemies, and poison in a cup? (15) 
The second story, "Lamia Victoriana," begins "The poet's sister has teeth as white as new lace. When she speaks, which is rarely, I feel a shiver down my skin." I don't think I need to add much more to give you an idea of the tone and style of "Lamia Victoriana." I'll merely remark that in this alternate history, the "poet" and his sister are never identified, though the story takes place in Florence, the poet's lover is named Mary, who is pregnant, and the narrator is Mary's sister, Frances "Fanny" Wollstonecraft...

The third story, "The Patrician," is set in the future, in a place called "Nova Ostia," while the fourth story, "The Last of the Romanpunks," also set in the future, takes place on board a Roman-orgy themed zeppelin tavern. As the narrator says, "Of all the watered wine joints in all the world, I had to let myself be trapped on this one. The newly christened Julia Augusta was a two hour round trip across the Sydney skies." (80) Trapped together on a zeppelin programmed to stay aloft for exactly two hours, a pair of ex-lovers, one a lamia, the other a Julia, fight it out to the death.

All great, witty fun. Recommended.

Very early in the summer (really, more like late spring), I read Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Sciencefictional Universe. Before I read the first sentence, I was intensely aware of that "sciencefictional" in the title. The novel begins with the narrator, Charles, holing up in a "time machine" that it is his job to repair. Before long, though, the narrator has classified the time machine in terms of the universe it is "zoned" for-- number 31-- and explicitly states that universe 31 is not zoned for "space opera." The universe in this novel is, indeed, sciencefictional. In fact, while exploring the sf trope of time travel, the novel tells the story of Charles's struggle with his past (i.e., his childhood) and with his feelings about his painfully distant relationships with his parents (who are separated). I will say only that repetition and time-loops take on a whole new meaning in Yu's hands. Everyone, the narrator tells us, has a time machine and is a time machine (though most of these are-- like his-- broken).

Thought-provoking; emotionally painful. Recommended.

At the end of Sycamore Hill, when Richard Butner drove Veronica Schanoes and me to Asheville, we had a bit of time before our flight departures, so the three of us had lunch and spent some time in Asheville's Malaprop's Bookstore & Cafe. I bought three books, as I recall, all of them slim. I read one of them, Rikki Ducornet's Netsuke, on the flight back to Seattle, and another of them, Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town: lectures and essays on poetry and writing the week after my return to Seattle. Given its subject matter, Netsuke could have been painful, but the dazzling elegance of its stylish prose gave me ample emotional distance, as did the predominance of present-tense narrative. The tale the novella tells can pretty much be summarized by this description of David, a wealthy sociopath who passes himself off as a psychiatrist solely so that he can fuck emotionally vulnerable, hurting women:
For now all the rest is the edge upon which he glides. It is a necessary edge; he would not know how to live without it. But it is growing sharper and soon it will be razor thin.So there is this edge and on either side the dark water that will someday claim him. There is no way out of it. None that he can see. (28)
The novella shows us David manipulating his wife Aikio and his "patients," constantly juggling his many lies and teetering on the edge until finally, he leaps off it. It's all about treachery, baby.

Recommended for Ducornet fans, for those interested in obsessive personalities, for those who prize beautiful prose. Not recommended for those who find depictions of emotional abuse from the perpetrator's viewpoint triggery.

To be continued...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Living in the future means thinking like an sf writer, pt. 3

Douglas Rushkoff's post at (reposted at Dangerous Minds), Are Jobs Obsolete, discusses another aspect of "living in the future":
New technologies are wreaking havoc on employment figures—from EZpasses ousting toll collectors to Google-controlled self-driving automobiles rendering taxicab drivers obsolete. Every new computer program is basically doing some task that a person used to do. But the computer usually does it faster, more accurately, for less money, and without any health insurance costs.

We like to believe that the appropriate response is to train humans for higher level work. Instead of collecting tolls, the trained worker will fix and program toll-collecting robots. But it never really works out that way, since not as many people are needed to make the robots as the robots replace.

And so the president goes on television telling us that the big issue of our time is jobs, jobs, jobs—as if the reason to build high-speed rails and fix bridges is to put people back to work. But it seems to me there’s something backwards in that logic. I find myself wondering if we may be accepting a premise that deserves to be questioned.
And question it he does:
We’re living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That’s because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, there is enough food produced to provide everyone in the world with 2,720 kilocalories per person per day. And that’s even after America disposes of thousands of tons of crop and dairy just to keep market prices high. Meanwhile, American banks overloaded with foreclosed properties are demolishing vacant dwellings to get the empty houses off their books.

Our problem is not that we don’t have enough stuff—it’s that we don’t have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.
He goes on to argue that "jobs, as such" are an artefact of the Industrial Revolution. And that maybe we ought to be thinking of them in that way.
We start by accepting that food and shelter are basic human rights. The work we do—the value we create—is for the rest of what we want: the stuff that makes life fun, meaningful, and purposeful.

This sort of work isn’t so much employment as it is creative activity. Unlike Industrial Age employment, digital production can be done from the home, independently, and even in a peer-to-peer fashion without going through big corporations. We can make games for each other, write books, solve problems, educate and inspire one another—all through bits instead of stuff. And we can pay one another using the same money we use to buy real stuff.

For the time being, as we contend with what appears to be a global economic slowdown by destroying food and demolishing homes, we might want to stop thinking about jobs as the main aspect of our lives that we want to save. They may be a means, but they are not the ends.
That's all very interesting-- and it's right out of a science fiction novel. Which seems appropriate, right, since we are, after all, "living in the future." But there's a serious hitch. In the US, we've been retreating ever more rapidly from being able to accept even the idea that human beings have a right to food, shelter, and clean water. So far are we USians from making food and shelter a human right: many cities are happily (or at least self-righteously) denying people similarly basic rights-- for instance, the right to urinate or defecate. (They do this by refusing to provide facilities for people lacking homes and then criminalizing urination and defecation that doesn't take place in a "private" space. Which pretty much makes it a crime to be homeless.) Recently, a special investigator for the UN excoriated the US for making homelessness the crime of the victim rather than the gratuitous, deliberate human rights violation it is.

So I'm wondering about the part Rushkoff mentions: the attachment in this country to punishment rather than reward as a means of administering and regulating status. The very existence of the homeless serves to make the merely hungry or those suffering from medical conditions because they can't afford treatment realize it could be worse. And after all, the threat of "worse" rather than the promise of "reward" is what keeps people in their places, right? Ressentiment is the universal super-glue, that prevents fluidity and the ability to shift gears when necessary. Following Rushkoff's thinking would be, well, revolutionary-- and for the right-wingers who are quick to accuse, nothing short of "class warfare." And lord knows, we couldn't have that here, in the US.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Much More Than That

In her essay Just Like a Woman, Audrey Bilger reviews (for the Los Angeles Review of Books) two works focused on their authors' passionate devotion to the "genius" of Jane Austen. One is by William Deresiewicz, who has previously published a more scholarly work, and one by Rachel M. Brownstein, formerly famous for her feminist work Becoming a Heroine: Reading About Women in Novels (1982). The tale that Deresiezwicz tells is one of enlightenment, evident at once in his title: A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter.

Bilger begins her essay by reviewing the V.S. Naipaul kerfluffle.
If Naipaul’s goal in putting down women writers was to get attention, he couldn’t have picked a better target than Jane Austen. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any other woman whose disparagement would have garnered so much notice. In a word-association game, if I say “woman author,” odds are the first name in your head would be that of the creator of Pride and Prejudice. It’s worth noting that when I tried to talk to one of my nonliterary friends about Naipaul’s remarks, his immediate response was “Who’s V.S. Naipaul?” Nobody ever says, “Who’s Jane Austen?”
And she references Naipaul when she begins talking about Deresiewicz's book:
Deresiewicz is someone who might have agreed with Naipaul’s point about Austen’s inferiority had he not undergone a dramatic conversion. When he was a young graduate student in the 1980s, he could barely bring himself to think of Austen: “Wasn’t she the one who wrote those silly romantic fairy tales? Just thinking about her made me sleepy.” In his misguided youth, Deresiewicz identified with manly modernist writers and their ungovernable heroes. “I was Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, raging against the machine,” he gleefully reports; “I was Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the rebel artist who runs rings around the grown-ups. I was Conrad’s Marlow, the world-weary truth teller who punches through hypocrisy and lies.”

A Jane Austen Education recounts how Deresiewicz overcame his bias against Austen and became a better person because of her. When he actually sat down to read the novels, he discovered that “Austen wasn’t silly and superficial; she was much, much smarter — and much wiser — than I could have imagined.” He blames masculinity for his initial skepticism: “If I was slow to catch on … there was a very good reason. I’m a guy, after all.” As he recounts his moral education at the feet of the author he once thought of as the “girliest novelist of all, the godmother of chick lit,” he makes a case for why men need to take women seriously and why Austen is the perfect teacher.

For Deresiewicz, Austen becomes not just a representative woman writer, but a stand-in for all women, and his ongoing surprise and delight at being schooled in the art of being human by, of all people, a female, is certainly honest, even if it leads to some cringe-worthy moments.
Bilger's discussion of Brownstein is where her essay gets interesting. Consider this passage:
Rachel Brownstein, author of Why Jane Austen?, shares Deresiewicz’s humanistic approach, but unlike him, she would rather we stopped talking about gender altogether. In referring to her 1982 study, Becoming a Heroine: Reading About Women in Novels, a foundational text for feminist literary scholars, Brownstein expresses nothing but remorse. In fact, she claims to have written this new book “to atone for joining the chorus that has ended up by imagining Jane Austen as first of all and most of all a woman, the paradigmatic prisoner of sex and gender, and a paragon of proto-feminist romance — in other words, by misreading her, and not reading her as she meant to be read.” Brownstein now wants to focus on “genius” and on how “Jane Austen’s subject is, as she wrote, human nature.”

Both Deresiewicz and Brownstein are critical of ideological readings and of the current state of the academy, and Brownstein is, in addition, particularly hostile to feminism. She begins the book by expressing discomfort at having been called, at a literary party in the 1980s, a “feminist critic,” — this would have been a new term then — and although she comes to admit that this is exactly what she once was, she wants to distance herself from “the women’s party,” as she calls it.
According to Bilger, Brownstein wants to rescue Austen:
A subtext of Why Jane Austen? is Brownstein’s own disillusionment with academia and her recovered faith in the life of the mind via this exploration of what Jane Austen means. She recalls what it was like to encounter Austen before the late-20th-century culture wars erupted: “When I was in college in the 1950s, Jane Austen was the author of great works that were by the way delicious, six peaks of pink icing on the cake of English literature (or perhaps its rich center).” In discussing what happened in the decades that followed, Brownstein claims, “the critical attack on the canon in the late 1960s, and feminism and queer and postcolonial criticism, and the new media and the sense of a new millennium” all combined to diminish Jane Austen’s status. Toward the end of the book, Brownstein writes, “We reread Jane Austen because she persuades us to be nostalgic for what we never knew, and because we want her clarity.” She concludes by identifying the history of the novel as the “story of civilization,” and she associates Austen with the highest possible meaning: “[M]any of us see civilization now as a fiction, a story threatening to come to an end. Jane Austen is the focal point of nostalgia for that old story, a name for it.”
Rescuing Austen, as Bilger reminds us, is an old, old mission. Fans of one sort or another have been battling one another over Austen's ownership for more than a century. (Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees, ed by Deidre Lynch, which she quotes from, is a fascinating book that addresses just that subject.) But I find it hard to wrap my head around the notion that "feminism and queer and postcolonial criticism" are responsible for ruining Jane Austen, given that Brownstein seems to be fussing most about Austen's being associated with "girliness" (which isn't an association that feminist, queer, or postcolonial criticism ever makes). Unless, that is, I zoom in the phrases "the story of civilization," "nostalgic for what we never knew," "civilization as a fiction, a story threatening to come to an end..." And once I do that, I'm really rather aghast. Brownstein is reading Jane Austen for that? Wow. I've never felt nostalgic when reading Jane Austen. Ever. So what is that all about? Oh: civilization. Ah, yes. The reactionary's longing for the Good Old Days, when the wealthy were ladies and gentlemen, and the poor knew their place and were grateful when the Mr. Knightlys condescended to them. Before a band of outlaws attacked the US exactly ten years ago. Now I get it.

Bilger doesn't zoom in on that, but she does go to the heart of what's at stake in the Naipaul kerfluffle:
For Brownstein, emphasizing Austen’s role as a woman limits any sense of artistic greatness. “Readers who excoriate (or, indeed, adore) her too narrowly imagine Jane as first-and-foremost a woman, a writer of romances, and/or a moralizing goody-two-shoes,” she declares. “She was in fact much more than that.”
This, from someone who used to call herself a feminist critic? Why in the world does she imagine that feminist, queer, and postcolonial critics don't see her as "more than that"? (Unless by "more than that" she means the reactionary ideologue filling us with nostalgia for the Good Old Days? For me that would be less, rather than more.) The problem is sexism, not feminism. For, as Bilger notes, "If feminism ever succeeds in making men and women full-fledged equals (for what else might?), we will be able to stop talking about whether women genuinely belong to the literary canon. Maybe there will even come a time when we can speak of Jane Austen without thinking of her as a female. Then comments like Naipaul’s will be universally mocked as the sexist “tosh” they so obviously are. Whenever this comes about, Jane Austen will still be a great author." I can't imagine why Brownstein thinks that rescuing Austen from feminist and queer theorists will bring about Austen's universal recognition as a Great Writer. It certainly won't bring the day on which we stop thinking of her as "female" a step closer.

More to the point, perhaps, is Bilger's quote of Deidre Lynch:
“Shakespeare fans, we should note, can act like fans, parade through Stratford-upon-Avon every April 23 sporting sprigs of rosemary, and not put at risk the plays’ claims to be taken seriously. No one, it seems, feels compelled to take this cult audience to task for their excesses and their failure to blush over them.” Bardolatry does Shakespeare no harm, but Austen’s cult following has, in the eyes of many, branded her as a chick-lit exemplar, a frivolous writer of “feminine tosh.”

And isn't that the real problem?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Wildcat Action in the Pacific Northwest

I fell down on the job on Labor Day, I know. But here's some hot labor news from my part of the world. A corporate consortium, EGT Development, has just opened a new grain terminal in Longview, Washington-- with the express intent of employing nonunion labor to staff it, despite their having signed a contract with the port requiring they use union labor. They then said they would employ workers form a union that has never done the port work that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union always does on the West Coast. (Every other grain terminal on the West Coast is operated by members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.) The actions taken by workers to prevent EGT from smashing the union began in early July and have been escalating. Early this morning, at 5 a.m., 500 people broke down the terminal's gates, prevented security guards from interfering, cut the brake lines of the train they attempted to block yesterday from leaving Portland, and dumped the train's load of grain onto the tracks.  A local newspaper reports (citing the AP):
In Seattle, Tacoma, Everett and Anacortes, hundreds of Longshore workers failed to show up or walked off the job Thursday in apparent solidarity with the Longview activists, halting work at those ports. Union leaders said they had not called for any such actions.

"It appears the members have taken action on their own," said ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees from union headquarters in San Francisco.

He said some workers maight have been motivated by a photograph circulating on the Internet of ILWU President Bob McElrath in police custody in Longview. Police arrested 19 protesters as they blocked railroad tracks on Wednesday night.

The protesters in Longview have portrayed themselves as being on the front line in the struggle for jobs and benefits among American workers in an economic downturn. But while union strife has flared up around the country _ most notably in Wisconsin _ the aggressive tactics seen in Longview have been a rarity in recent labor disputes.

Labor activists insist that after receiving tax breaks and promising to create well-paying jobs at the new $200 million terminal, EGT initially tried to staff the terminal with nonunion workers. Following a series of protests by the Longshore workers this year, the company announced it would hire a contractor staffed by workers from a different union.
Evan Rohar and Jane Slaughter conclude their report for Labor Notes:
LWU spokesman Craig Merrilees said, “There is no formal action at either the local or International level, but large numbers of individuals appear to have taken action on their own.” He stressed that no arrests were made at this morning’s action and called the AP’s report of security guards taken hostage “ridiculous.”

“When corporations and the government turn their backs on working families,” Merrilees said, “it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see people step forward and try to fight back.”

Ports in Tacoma and Seattle are closed today, though the international said no job action has been called. One worker said work would resume at 3 a.m. Friday—unless it doesn’t.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Would that Will could answer back

This afternoon at our writing date, Eileen Gunn put me onto this: William Alexander's review, for Rain Taxi, of Orson Scott Card's Hamlet's Father. It's a novella, published by Subterranean Press, retailing for $35. It's meant to be a sort of Hamlet for Dummies. "Updated" for our times. Only...
In this adaptation, Hamlet was never close to his father. The prince is unfazed and emotionally indifferent to the old king's death, feels no sense of betrayal when his mother speedily remarries, and thinks that Claudius will make a perfectly good monarch. Hamlet is also secure in his religious faith, with absolute and unshakable beliefs about the nature of death and the afterlife. He isn't particularly hung up on Ophelia, either. Throughout the novella, Prince Hamlet displays the emotional depth of a blank sheet of paper.

Card has completely removed the dramatic stakes and haunting questions posed by the play, and the threadbare result is a failure of narrative craft on every level. Only one question remains: Is the ghost of Hamlet's father really a ghost, or is it instead a demonic liar? (Both, as it turns out.) But most of the novella is filled with pedantic moralizing, made all the more bland by Hamlet's smug and uncomplicated certainty.
But you'll never guess what Card thinks Hamlet is all about (Never, I say, in a thousand years):
Old King Hamlet was an inadequate king because he was gay, an evil person because he was gay, and, ultimately, a demonic and ghostly father of lies who convinces young Hamlet to exact imaginary revenge on innocent people. The old king was actually murdered by Horatio, in revenge for molesting him as a young boy—along with Laertes, and Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, thereby turning all of them gay. We learn that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are now "as fusty and peculiar as an old married couple. I pity the woman who tries to wed her way into that house."

Hamlet is damned for all the needless death he inflicts, and Dead Gay Dad will now do gay things to him for the rest of eternity: "Welcome to Hell, my beautiful son. At last we'll be together as I always longed for us to be."
Here is Alexander's critical judgment:
The extent of the novella's failure is surprising—and embarrassing, given that Card is a skilled veteran novelist and Subterranean a well-respected press. The most polite thing for us to do would be to walk away and quietly forget the whole painful exercise. But Card does not deserve our polite amnesia. His failures should be known and remembered, because the revelation in his "revelatory new version" turns out to be a nightmare of vitriolic homophobia.

To which I say, Amen.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

They "might as well be living in 1927" (Living in the future means thinking like an sf writer, Part 2)

In talking about "living in the future" the other day, I didn't mean to imply that we are all of us living in the future. Or that every aspect of our lives is spent in the future. It's all uneven. As ABC News quoted a doctor at Vanderbilt University a couple of days ago, as far as medical resources go, a lot of people in the US "might as well be living in 1927." 
A 24-year-old Cincinnati father died from a tooth infection this week because he couldn't afford his medication, offering a sobering reminder of the importance of oral health and the number of people without access to dental or health care.

According to NBC affiliate WLWT, Kyle Willis' wisdom tooth started hurting two weeks ago. When dentists told him it needed to be pulled, he decided to forgo the procedure, because he was unemployed and had no health insurance.

When his face started swelling and his head began to ache, Willis went to the emergency room, where he received prescriptions for antibiotics and pain medications. Willis couldn't afford both, so he chose the pain medications.

The tooth infection spread, causing his brain to swell. He died Tuesday.
That was just last week. As Carrie Gann notes in the piece, it is not unusual for people in the US to die of simple-to-treat problems:
"People don't realize that dental disease can cause serious illness," said Dr. Irvin Silverstein, a dentist at the University of California at San Diego. "The problems are not just cosmetic. Many people die from dental disease."
. . . .
"When people are unemployed or don't have insurance, where do they go? What do they do?" Silverstein said. "People end up dying, and these are the most treatable, preventable diseases in the world."
This would be a very easy problem to fix, if our elected officials cared to serve anyone but the wealthy. Unlike health insurance, medicaid costs almost nothing to administer. But that's because government-brokered health insurance is a nonprofit undertaking. If Dante were alive now and writing the Inferno, insurance executives (along with proponents of torture and banksters) would no doubt be found in of his choicest circles.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

It can't come as a surprise...

When journalists and Human Rights Watch workers reported that they had discovered a cache of documents found in Tripoli showing that the CIA had contracted out torture to Libya's External Security Organization, CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood commented: "It can't come as a surprise that the Central Intelligence Agency works with foreign governments to help protect our country from terrorism and other deadly threats. That is exactly what we are expected to do."

Reading that is like having a finger shoved down my throat. The fact is, many of that agency's former employees would beg to differ with the atrocious-- and disingenuous-- assumption she uses to rationalize war crimes.

What doesn't come as a surprise is that the official CIA position is still, like our former VP, claiming torture is legitimate (and useful).  

Reading for a Saturday

Over at Torque Control, Nic Clarke has kicked off a discussion of Gwyneth Jones's Life with a post that puts Life in conversation with Vandana Singh's most recent Diffractions column.

Aliette de Bodard expatiates on the dominance of Hollywood and US publishers' tropes and narrative conventions in the wider sf field and how confining and frustrating that is, particularly for writers living in other parts of the world (though of course that applies to many, many writers here in the US as well). Her post resonates powerfully, I think, with my WisCon 32 GoH speech.

Kim Wright, on The Millions, says that lit-fic writers are saving their careers by moving into genre writing (though they risk not being allowed back into the hallowed precincts when they do so). The other alternative, she says, is incorporating elements of genre into literary novels.
It will probably always be open to debate whether these innovations are the result of writers seeking creative expression and wider audiences or a calculated move on the part of publishers who are simply trying to sell more product, even if it means slightly misrepresenting a book to its potential audience. But either way, the future seems to be stories which combine the pacing and plots of genre with the themes and style of literary writing.

In other words, this crappy market may actually end up producing better books. Because hybrids, bastards, and half-breeds tend to be heartier than those delicate offspring that result from too much careful inbreeding.
Hmm.... (or should that be ho-hum...?)