Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for February, 2010

The Souls in Our Machines

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

I recently saw a xkcd strip about the Spirit rover.

I’m notoriously immune to the usual causes that are supposed to make women weep.  But tears sprang to my eyes when I saw the strip.  Just as I wept while I watched the little robots tending the spaceborne trees in Silent Running; at the launches of the Voyagers; and when I saw the drawing of Sojourner that showed it leaving human footprints on Mars.

These are just instruments.  They’re not fluffy, they’re not cuddly.  But they represent the best in us – the builders, the gardeners, the explorers.

ETA: My friend Calvin asked an important question in his comment to this entry: “Do you think these robots are pushing our neoteny buttons? The Spirit rover (as well as Wall-E) have the large “eyes” of a child. And the squat proportions of the robots in Silent Running (as well as R2D2) also seem to echo the proportions of a child.”

I considered this possibility.  But the Mars rovers and the Voyagers lack several crucial attributes of neoteny: roundness, softness, cooing gurgles.

R2D2 adhered more closely to the neotenic model, and he didn’t arouse these reactions (in me, at least).  For me, their roles are what make them so enormously touching — the quiet, uncomplaining, unsung preservation and propagation of supremely “humane” values.


Top, a portion of the xkcd strip Spirit.

Center, Swirl, by Joe Bergeron.

Bottom, a gardener in Silent Running.

Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

In the last few weeks, I’ve been reading stories nominated for the Hugo awards. One of them, the first choice of an SF/F author whose judgment I trust, gave me pause. The concepts were interesting, although the story was a variation on Total Recall. But the characters tasted like cheap cardboard and the style was equally flat. This led me to ponder yet again the much-discussed decline of SF. And from there, with the help of yet another Dr. B. (not the Dr. B. I discussed in Camels, Gnats and Shallow Graves, though they’d fall into a bromance at first sight), my thoughts segued to empathy.

Empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, neatly falls into the “feminine” virtues. Certainly, it is a requirement for successfully rearing children. It is also is a survival tactic for the powerless. So it’s not surprising that it’s a cultivated and praised attribute in women and slaves.

Three kinds of adult humans lack or have difficulty with empathy. The first group cannot help it: they are the people with autism spectrum disorders who often find it hard to understand or interpret the emotions and motivations of others. The second group consists of fundamentalists of all stripes who are convinced they verily possess the stone tablets of Truth and are ready to smash dissenters’ heads with them. [ETA: the second group includes narcissistic socio/psychopaths, who invariably regard themselves as messiahs].

Finally, we have the obnoxiously smug. Invariably these are comfortably off white men who feel free to smirk and sneer about Other’s issues, but when called on it insist that they are misunderstood free spirits persecuted by the humorless PC police. Which brings us to Dr. B.

A few months ago, a pingback showed that someone had referred to my essay The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction. Being a curious cat, I followed the link. It led to the blog of Dr. B., an academic astronomer who also writes hard SF. He advocates science literacy, calls himself progressive… so, ever hopeful, I started visiting, happily prepared to join the conversation.

Yet almost immediately, I couldn’t help but notice that several of Dr. B.’s stances “ain’t evolved” (to paraphrase Clarence Thomas). Among them was gratuitous, strident misogyny skulking under the “fairness” veneer. The trend culminated in a recent post in which Dr. B. commented approvingly on an anonymous screed from the National Post, the Canadian equivalent of Fox News:

Women’s Studies programs removed from Canadian universities: “These courses has done untold damage to families, our court systems, labour laws, constitutional freedoms and even the ordinary relations between men and women.” I guess I don’t shed a tear if these are gone. Where are the Men’s Studies? I guess some would say every other course and department out there, but that’s not exactly fair. // Well, that should be provocative enough for some comments.

The Post article itself is the usual venomous tripe about the horrific harm feminism hath wrought, though it missed one obvious talking point – that them dastardly feminazis caused 9/11. It’s the sort of thing Marc Lépine might have written before he murdered fourteen women students of engineering in the Montréal École Polytechnique.

Being a believer in giving people a long rope, I went through four rounds of exchanges with Dr. B. In his responses, he covered every single square of the misogynist bingo board, from the demand to “educate him” to the opinion that women bring down standards in the hard sciences, to whining about the humorlessness of feminists. The gist of his replies was: Enough about women and their imaginary problems. What about oppressed tenured white male ME???

People of this ilk infest self-labeled “progressive” groups – SF authors, transhumanists, “futurists”. Their mindsets are so similar that I wonder if pod-style human cloning isn’t already with us. Their sense of entitlement is as vast as that of any three-year old. They sulk and throw furniture when they’re thwarted in any way, consider their monoculture experience to be universal truth, and believe that their muddled self-serving ideas should be accepted without question because… well, because they are “liberal, leaning libertarian” (translation: it’s fine to bully Others, as long as it’s not state-imposed).

At this point, my readers will justifiably say: “Yet one more obscure navel-watcher is dragging his knuckles on the Internet. Maybe he had a messy divorce, maybe the Diversity Office in his campus took a corner office he was eyeing. Why are you wasting your time and ours on him?”

The answer is, because this man has assumed the role of thought leader and storyteller. A person with a mindset like his is highly unlikely to write absorbing fiction or convincing characters. The empathy that would make the works anything beyond a mirror of the author’s blinkered self-involvement is absent. I found one of Dr. B.’s novels on the Internet. I gave up after slogging through sixty painful pages. Bear in mind that I like hard SF, from Egan to Mixon, and I’ll endure infodumps, shallow characters and tin-ear dialogue if a story’s elements captivate me.

To write well (let alone live well), people need to have open, informed minds. What constitutes such a worldview goes beyond just imaginative extrapolations of concepts and objects. Curiosity and empathy toward others are equally crucial components. If an author can’t (won’t) do that, s/he won’t be able to create credible elves or andromedans either. By encouraging and rewarding lopsided parochialism, SF/F contributes to its own ghettoization and puts a stamp of approval on being junk-food escapism by/for the emotionally stunted.

When people in relatively privileged circumstances live as Others even briefly (John Howard Griffin comes to mind), their outlook changes radically. If I ever became Supreme Dictator, one of my edicts would be that everyone spend at least one year in another culture during their adolescence. Even a brief stay in a different environment peels away the complacency that arises from being embedded in a single context. The double vision that results from such exposure forever alters people’s perceptions. Layered, nuanced storytelling, free of navel-watching and whiny angst, can arise from these jolts.

Most fiction works are slated for oblivion. “Cool” concepts date fast, genre fashions even faster. But storytellers who see into others’ minds create characters that haunt and compel us, whose actions and fates matter to us. Through them, they burst past genre confines to make great literature that is long remembered, retold and sung.

Passed-out-cold bookworm: Gutenberg Project.
“Tantrum” bronze sculpture: Gustav Vigeland, Oslo.
Tales from Earthsea cover: David Wyatt

Camels, Gnats, and Shallow Graves

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

Nine years ago I met someone in a convention about science fiction and society.  Let’s call him Dr. B.  Because of our mutual interests, we moved in overlapping circles.  Dr. B. used to write  tie-ins to SF movies and is now a professional philosopher.  He’s white, middle class and lives in a Western democracy.  He is vocal about atheism, individual rights and censorship.

Recently, he stated that he cannot bring himself to sign a manifesto by Iranian women.   Why?  Because the manifesto calls for abolition of polygyny.  As Dr. B. loftily explained, that’s (horrors!) a slippery slope that could lead to state scrutiny of all polyamorous connections.  Never mind the fact that most polygynous marriages are contracted under coercion; never mind the fact that sharia law is state law in Iran and sharia law does not make a distinction between private and public, between religion and government.

In the meantime, Afghani girls have acid thrown on their faces because they are attending school.  Saudi girls are locked inside their burning school, because they might run out of the flames “not properly” veiled.  Somali girls are stoned to death because they were raped.  Sudanese girls have their genitals shredded.  Indian girls get set alight for having “inadequate” dowries.  And then we have stories like this, from yesterday’s news (composite from several sources):

Sixteen-year old Medine Memi was discovered bound and lifeless in sitting position in a hole dug beneath a chicken coop outside the family’s house in the town of Kahta in Southeastern Turkey, 40 days after she had disappeared. The hole had been cemented over.   According to a post-mortem examination the large amount of soil in her lungs and stomach showed that she had been buried while fully conscious and suffered a slow and agonizing death.

The execution was an honor killing carried out as a punishment for talking to boys.  Medine had repeatedly tried to report to police that she had been beaten by her father and grandfather days before she was killed. “She tried to take refuge at the police station three times, and she was sent home three times,” her mother, Immihan, said after the body was discovered in December.   Medine’s father is reported as saying at the time: “She has male friends. We are uneasy about that.”

In Turkey’s impoverished Kurdish region, the practice of honor killing has become a well-known ritual that is chilling in its precision: when a young woman is suspected of “dishonoring” the family by wearing tight clothes, having unauthorized contact with young men, or falling victim to rape, a family council is called, and a family member appointed as an executioner.  Afterwards, the family will try to pretend she never existed.

Official figures have indicated that more than 200 such killings take place each year, accounting for half of all murders in Turkey. Community workers say the figures are likely higher, as many go unreported.  After the 2005 reform, passed to help Turkey join the European Union, a new practice of forced suicide sprang up.  According to media reports, victims would be locked in their rooms for days with rat poison, a pistol or rope, and ordered to spare their families the legal retribution by killing themselves.

Dr. B. got huffy when I called his quibbles about the Iranian manifesto risk-free privileged nitpicking.  This, friends, is the epitome of swallowing camels and dissecting gnats.  The Greeks have a more vivid, if profane, saying: The world is burning, and some people are combing their pubic hair.  Perhaps Dr. B.’s olympian armchair philosophizing would benefit if he lived for a month or two in Afghanistan — in a burqa.

Images: Top, Medine Memi’s place of execution; bottom, Shamsia Husseini, who’s still going to school, even after she and her sister Atifa were almost killed by acid attacks.