Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for July, 2010

Only Kowtowers Need Apply

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

About twenty years ago, I was going through the gauntlet of becoming a US citizen. The immigration interviewer put her hand on top of the thick stack that contained copies of the Harvard B.A., the MIT Ph.D., the assistant professor appointment from Harvard Medical, the research papers, the Harvard Review articles and asked: “Have you ever been a whore? Are you one now?”

None of my credentials mattered. And given the specifics of the situation, she could humiliate and mistreat me with impunity. People who want to cut others down to their own size consistently employ this technique.

I had reason to recall this incident yesterday. A friend sent me a link to a magazine soliciting literary criticism and non-fiction of interest to the SF/F community. I e-mailed them asking if they would consider reprints. When told that they wouldn’t do reprints, I gave a link to an published example to showcase my work and proposed a brand-new unpublished review.

The editor — who prides herself in her progressiveness — didn’t deign to read through my message. Instead, she accused me of trying to “sell” used goods (for the astronomical amount of $100, one third of my hourly consulting fee). The last sentence of her e-mail, which is representative of her overall tone, reads: “I appreciate your chutzpah but you are wasting my time”.

The exchange was so fast that she clearly didn’t bother to even Google me. Maybe the non-Anglosaxon name was sufficient to disqualify me from consideration as either a writer or a human of sufficiently high caste. And obviously I did not register as someone who could affect her wallet or reputation – if I had, the refusal would at least have been polite.

As with the immigration officer, it made no difference that I’ve written a popular stealth science book, that some of my essays won awards, that I must turn down requests for reviews and articles for lack of time, that several SF authors consult me and send me their novel drafts for critique, that I’m one of the few people in the domain who is also a working scientist. The crucial point was to establish superiority by acting as if I were a sleazy impostor attempting to weasel my way into her gated community.

My words won’t change anything, because this person is deemed to be one of the industry Names who Must be Appeased (if only because “editors talk to each other”). And I’m sure I will hear the argument that her brilliance as a critic and editor excuses her behavior. The reality is that she represents the increasing mistreatment of writers by self-appointed gatekeepers who fancy themselves feudal lords and the rest serfs because it’s a buyer’s market.

This kind of behavior does nothing to enrich the stock of contributors or the quality of the contributions. When the overriding factor is massaging a primadonna’s ego, craft and imagination become distant second requirements. It does encourage other things, however: bootlicking and similar ghetto habits. And it may explain why speculative fiction increasingly cannot have nice things.

Image: Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), the epitome of rudeness to “inferiors” and obsequiousness to “superiors”.

What I Did During My Summer Non-Vacation

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

(best read to Oysterband’s Dancing as Fast as I Can)

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes,
and oh, my friends —
It gives a lovely light!

— Edna St. Vincent Millay

To anyone wondering about the unusually long silence on the blog — I’ve been working solo in the lab and closing out my two small grants. I’ve gone once again to half salary, to nurse my tiny seed corn until the fate of my pending grant gets decided.

On other fronts, I’ve managed to keep my hanging gardens going despite the weather. Last weekend we went on an art walk in that lovely corner of New England tucked between Newport and South Dartmouth, which is Cape Cod minus tchotchkes and tourists. I’m wrestling with several invited stories, articles and reviews — though I need to impose some discipline, because they keep jostling each other for attention in my head.

I was one of the judges in the short story contest of Science in My Fiction. The ten finalists were excellent and hard to rank. They also had several commonalities. All but one and a half were resolutely earth-bound; all but two unfolded in the US or a vague post-apocalyptic landscape; all took their kernels from biology and focused on the brain/mind; and they contained zero romance. In short, cyberpunk… but they engaged well with the scientific concepts that fueled them.

I also gave a solo talk and participated in two panels at Readercon. In my talk, Citizens of the Universe, Citizens of the World, I discussed the importance of wide horizons to writing speculative fiction with authenticity and legitimacy. The panels were Avatar and the Future of Planetary Romance and The Body and Physicality in Speculative Fiction. Both were thought-provoking and lively – and if you guessed that I had much to say and did so, you’d be right. The second panel could easily have lasted three hours. We were just getting warmed up when we had to roll our tents.

On the Saturday of Readercon Joan Slonczewski, Jack McDevitt and Sue Lange came to dinner. Given the topics we covered, I should have registered this as a panel!

And I still take the occasional moment to shake my head over such things as the seriously flawed longevity gene study (another spectacular case of hype over rigor, especially for a journal like Science) and the witchhunts by those whose appetite for destruction has overwhelmed their reasoning capacity. The Democratic leadership should grow a spine and re-read the tale of the scorpion and the frog.

Images: top, Loie Fuller, Serpentine Dance (1896); bottom, the hanging gardens of North Cambridge.

Escaping Self-Imposed Monochromatic Cages

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

A few years ago, I shared parts of my SF saga (glimpsed in Planetfall) with several dozen readers in a closed list. Their first view of the Koredháni, the major culture in the story, was the formidable Meráni Yehán:

My consort’s people are lean, sharp-featured, great-eyed. Intricate jewelry circles their arms, adorns their long manes. A spiral-shaped brand glimmers on the breastbone of one of the adult men. Two are striplings, a girl whose breasts have just budded and a boy with the roundness of childhood still on his limbs. They range loosely behind an erect, dark woman with white hair still glinting with copper threads and eyes the color of stormy seas.

Stopping two paces in front of me, she smiles calmly and briefly inclines her head. “Ánassa Tásri-e Sóran-Kerís… Meráni kóren, tanegír adhríti Yehán.”* The night-hued voice, the voice that sailed into my mind like a sleek canoe to help me reel him back from the starry void.

*”Long Shadow Tásri-e Sóran-Kerís… I am Meráni, leader of hearth Yehán.”

Right away, one reader asked: “How do you ‘see’ Meráni and her husbands?” (Yes, women lead all the households, many are polyandrous, and the co-husbands consider themselves brothers; they also have nanobiotech, star drives and both gene and planetary engineering – and have used their technology to leave practically no footprint on their adopted planet).

I replied, “Except for the seafoam eyes, she looks like Entity (Tina Turner) in Beyond Thunderdome. Her four husbands look like a Celt, a Native American, an Arab and an African. And Ánassa looks like Lao Ma (Jacqueline Kim) in The Debt.” This was so with no deliberation on my part. That’s how they looked to me from the moment I conceived them.

There was dead silence on the list for a day or so. Then I got an avalanche of private e-mails, with photos attached. Without exception, the e-mails told how they felt that the story had become truly theirs. Unbeknownst to me, and not easily discernible from the names, half my readers were non-white.

This led to another outcome: everyone stopped assuming that the characters in my story were white (in fact, none were, given the Koredháni reproductive constraints). In a tiny way, I had jogged everyone’s mindset away from instinctively following a convention. This led to an unexpected gift that has never ceased to amaze and delight me. After the photos, I also got a flood of illustrations to my saga from two readers who are artists. Their depictions were so true to my characters that I can no longer see them in any other way – and if the saga ever sees the light of day, I will try to include them in the manuscript.

I was born and raised in a country that was racially and culturally homogeneous, but had always been a migratory passage as well as the nexus of two multicultural empires – Alexandrian and Byzantine. My history courses were peopled by Persians, Egyptians, Nubians, Gauls, Huns. When I came to the US at 18, I marveled at the human colors, shapes and accents, and the individual and collective backstories that came with them. And when I started writing fiction, my characters came in all hues without any conscious effort on my part. How could it be otherwise, with the swirling kaleidoscope inside and around me?

Yet even today, the default assumption of SF/F denizens continues to be that everyone is bleach-white unless explicitly specified otherwise. This is not confined to Anglosaxon cubicleers who write faux-Victorian steampunk. The Japanese give saucer-round eyes to most of their manga characters (these, along with the breathless falsetto voices, are very disquieting on female characters with exaggerated secondary gender attributes). Manoj Nelliyattu (aka Night) Shyamalan, a Tamil who must have more than a drop of Dravidian in him, cast bleached actors in all the main roles for his disastrous Last Airbender.

I still remember starting a story by Arthur C. Clarke that postulated a long-generation starship in which the social structure was identical to fifties middle-class suburbia. Having read his “bouncing breasts of female astronauts distract men in zero-G” screed I already thought him blinkered, but this clinched it. I put the story down unfinished and never read anything by him again. How is it possible for self-defined visionaries to continue showing societies inhabited by people of a single hue in nuclear patriarchal families? Only if you build a mind cage and put yourself willingly in it can you continue extrapolating in this impoverished, impoverishing mode.

Readers want to find themselves in stories. They want protagonists who look like them, who carry at least a bit of their particular culture and history. And when enough unbleached people appear in a genre, they stop being sidekicks or tokens and become the unique, memorable persons they have the capacity to be: Ursula Le Guin’s copper-skinned, hawk-featured Ged and her Inuit-like Gethenian hero/ine Therem Harth rem ir Estraven; Poul Anderson’s half-Dutch, half-Javanese Nicholas van Rijn; Alma Alexander’s sworn women friends in alternative China; Aliette de Bodard’s Aztec priest Acatl; Xena’s rainbow of lovers; the Scorpion King and his almond-eyed sorceress partner (which put Dwayne Johnson on the snacho list).

There’s an object lesson in my experience with my readers. We don’t have to accept every culture and cultural custom as equally valid for ourselves individually. Personally, I would not be happy in any fundamentalist and/or coercive world and would be unlikely to read with pleasure a story that depicted such a culture positively (cautionary tales are a different category). But we cannot become citizens of the universe if we do not first become citizens of the world: if we do not allow ourselves to register the dizzying richness and variety that surrounds us – and use this knowledge, carefully but fearlessly, to create genuinely new worlds worthy of remembrance.

Images: Tina Turner as Entity in Beyond Thunderdome;
Ged, Wizard of Earthsea by Laurie Prindle;
Meráni, tanegír Yehán, by Heather D. Oliver.