Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for October, 2012

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Several attributes of human women are routinely posited as evolutionary enigmas because they tend to be placed in the “not really necessary” and/or “inconvenient” bins: hidden ovulation (How’s a guy to know a kid is his?? Ergo, chastity belts and purdahs!); orgasms (Who cares, as long as the kids come out?); and living past menopause (Done with heir production and no longer eye candy — discard!).

However, it turns out these attributes are not that enigmatic unless you believe that teleology drives evolution. It looks increasingly like the bright red buttocks of our primate relatives are actually a recent acquisition, and hidden ovulation is the earlier default. Some cultures have solved the kinship problem: brothers act as fathers to their sisters’ children, to whom they are unequivocally related. Orgasms are equally explicable once you accept the simple fact that the clitoris is the equivalent of the penis, including the associated excitability and sensitivity (which is why female genital mutilation is identical to a penectomy, not to foreskin circumcision). As for living longer than the contents of one’s ovaries, which is a third of women’s lifespan once they’re past the risky childbirth years, it may have to do with what made us human in the first place. So says the grandmother hypothesis, first intimated by George C. Williams of antagonistic pleiotropy fame and later elaborated by Kristen Hawkes and her colleagues in the late nineties, after observations of the Hadza people in Tanzania.

Back in the fifties and in today’s evo-psycho groves, the fashion has been to posit the nuclear family as the kernel unit of primordial humanity. If you take the crucial details of humans into account (unique birth risks, extended neoteny, unusual nutritional requirements, necessity for higher-order skill acquisition), you realize that the possibility of such a unit seeing offspring reach adulthood is close to nil. Not surprisingly, when anthropologists look carefully and past their own cultural blinders at less technologically endowed human groups, the scaffolding they see is always communal. As Sarah Blaffer Hrdy said, it really does take a village to raise a child.

Such a configuration is not problem-free: it’s vulnerable to tyranny of conformity as well as the devastation that can be wrought by charismatic sociopaths. Nevertheless, it allows distribution of infant care, overlap of skills, quasi-fair apportioning of resources and monitoring of emerging imbalances. And grandmothers, maternal ones in particular, play a crucial role in all of these.

The grandmother hypothesis postulates that the presence of grandmothers allowed more children to reach adulthood, because grandmothers not only foraged for their daughters’ older offspring but also socialized them, taught them important skills and transmitted knowledge and experience. It also postulates that older children had to develop ways to compel caretaker attention, giving rise to the enlarged frontal lobe unique to humans. So the hypothesis argues that female longevity is essentially a “quality over quantity” fitness adaptation that in turn favored descendants of women who fit this profile.

There is, of course, a competing hypothesis far more beloved of Tarzanists. The hunting hypothesis, demolished by Sally Slocum, postulates that hunting became better than foraging as a means of sustenance when resources became scarcer in Africa; and that coordinating the hunt (versus, say, figuring out which berries weren’t poisonous) led to natural selection for bigger brains as well as ushering in the female adoration of “alpha males” who brought home the only protein that supposedly counts.

Kristen Hawkes recently published the results of a mathematical simulation of the grandmother hypothesis. The algorithms did not include brain size, hunting or pair bonding. The model showed that grandmother effects alone are sufficient to double life spans in less than sixty thousand years. Not surprisingly, one requirement is natal homing: living close enough to the maternal grandparents that grandmothers can exert their humanizing effects. This fits with the observation that rigidly patrilocal and patrilineal societies which completely obliterate female kinship networks have often gone for quantity over quality, essentially reducing women to incubators that can always be exchanged for newer models – and that some of these societies used to discard infant girls and older women literally like garbage. Other societies went the opposite route, treating older women like honorary almost-men (allowing them to keep sacred objects, for example, though few were made council heads) once they were no longer “tainted” by menstruation.

Those who had grandmothers almost certainly remember the stories they told and the moderating influence they exerted on the family. I never met either of mine. Both died young; tuberculosis hollowed one, fire consumed the other. I did get to know my father’s stepmother, a gentle too-religious soul who was one of the first Greek women to become a teacher. She tried her best, but was not strong enough to counteract my mother’s fierceness, which I have internalized by now. I wonder if I would have been more adjusted to social expectations had my other grandmothers been around, wielding the authority of blood kinship. Given my other non-adaptive core attributes, I suspect the answer is no.

Selected papers:

Slocum, Sally. (1975, reissued 2012). Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology. In Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms, eds. Pp. 399-407. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hawkes, Kristen. (2003). Grandmothers and the evolution of human longevity. American Journal of Human Biology 15 (3): 380–400.

Images: 1st, Grandmother Storyteller by Ada Suina (Wheelright Museum, Santa Fe, NM); 2nd, Pakistani grandmother with her three-day-old grandchild (credit: Adek Berry, AFP).

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

(sung to the glam tune of The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys)

Last week, astronomers announced that Alpha Centauri B may have an earth-sized planet in tight orbit. Space enthusiasts were ecstatic, because the Alpha Centauri triplet (a close binary, Alpha A and Alpha B, circled by Proxima) is the closest star system to ours at a distance of 4.3 light years. The possible existence of such a planet buttresses the increasing evidence that planetary systems form around every possible configuration: in particular, binary systems had been traditionally discounted as too unstable to maintain planets. Terms like “in our back yard” and “stone’s throw” were used liberally and many expressed the hope that the discovery might spur a space exploration renaissance.

As with many such discoveries, the caveats extend from here to Proxima. The planet’s existence has been inferred by the primary’s wobble, rather than from direct observation. This means that independent confirmation will be required to pronounce it definitively real. The lifespan of such a planetary system remains an open question. The specifics of the system (including the reason that a wobble was detectable) suggest that the planet, if present, is closer to Alpha B than Mercury is to the sun – which in turn means that it would be tidally locked, awash with the primary’s radiation and too hot for liquid water. Last but decidedly not least, it would take us about eighty thousand years to get there with our current propulsion systems. Depending on one’s definition, eighty thousand years exceed the entire length of human civilization by a factor of two to ten.

So besides the fully justified calls for an immediate robotic probe mission, cue the “solutions” of FTL, warp drive and uploading in addition to those within the realm of the possible (nuclear fusion, light sails, long generation ships… I’m even willing to put Bussard ramjets in this bin). Lest you think such suggestions pop up only on places like io9 or singularitarian lists, I assure you that talk tracks examining such scenarios with totally straight faces were entertained at both last year’s and this year’s Starship Symposium. The warp drive scenario got a boost when a NASA-linked lab announced that they thought they could sorta kinda fold space… if they could get enough strange matter (as in: a few stellar masses’ worth) and manage to stabilize it beyond the usual nanosecond life length. Then again, a NASA-linked lab gave us the “arsenic bacteria” cowpat, so nothing of this kind surprises me any longer.

Science fiction has been the entry portal for many scientists and engineers. The sense of wonder and discovery that permeates much of SF makes people dream – and then makes them ask how such dreams can become real. The problem arises when science fiction is confused or conflated with real science, engineering and social policy. When that happens, our chances of ever reaching Alpha Centauri decrease steeply, for at least two reasons: the fantasies make people impatient with/contemptuous of real science and technology; and when this pseudo-edginess substitutes for real science, you get real disasters. The recent sentencing of six Italian geoscientists to years in jail for “failing to predict” an earthquake with casualties speaks to both these points. So does the story of the Haida community that allowed a “businessman” to dump tons of iron into its coastal waters, based on his assurance it would improve conditions for its salmon fisheries. The resulting potentially lethal algal bloom has become visible from space.

Propulsion systems are an obvious domain where fiction (and the understandable fond wish) is still stronger than fact, but there are others. One is using space opera terraforming paradigms for geoengineering. (“Stan Robinson did it in the Mars trilogy, why not us?”) Another is using cyberpunk novels to argue for economic solutions – think of Greenspan’s belief in Rand’s Übermenschen fantasies. More recently, Damien Walter, a Guardian columnist, earnestly urged the head of the British Labour party to bypass austerity and resource limitations by… implementing ideas from Banks, Stross and Doctorow (Walter also wrote a column about women writing hard SF and used a man as his star example; between him and Coren, it looks like elementary reasoning is not a particularly strong suit at the Guardian). Commenters added Herbert’s Dune to the list, using swooning terms about the politics and policies it portrays. (“Banks’ Culture does it, why not us?”) Just intone “3-D printing!” or “Me Messiah!” over a rock pile, with or without Harry Potter’s wand, and hey-presto: post-scarcity achieved, back to toy universes and customized sexbots! I won’t go over the semi-infinite transhumanist list (uploading, genengineering for “virtue” etc), having done so before.

A related problem that looks minor until you consider social feedback is the persistent mantra that SF has been forced willy-nilly to become inward-gazing and science-illiterate because… reality moves too fast, thereby instantly dating predictive fiction. Much of this is justification after the fact, of course – writers “must focus on maintaining their online presence” so who has time for background research? – but the basal argument itself is invalid. There’s exactly one domain that’s moving fast: technology that depends on computing speed, although it, too, is approaching a plateau due to intrinsics. To give you an example from my own field, I’ve worked on dementia for more than twenty years. During this time, although we have learned a good deal (and some of it goes against earlier “common sense” assumptions, such as the real role and toxicity of tangles and plaques) we have not made any progress towards reliable non-invasive early diagnosis of dementia, let alone preventing or curing it. The point here is not that we never will, but that doing so will require a lot more than the mouth farts of stage wizards, snake-oil salesmen or pseudo-mavens.

When faced with these facts, many people fall back to the Kennedy myth: that we went to the moon because of the vision of a single man with the charisma and will to make it reality. Ergo, the same can be done with any problem we set our sights on but for those fun-killin’ Luddites who persist on harshing squees (file this under “unclear on concepts” and “perpetual juvenility”). Messianic strains aside, there were very specific reasons that made the Apollo mission a success: it was tightly focused; it had no terrestrial repercussions; it was the equivalent of gorilla chest-beating, another way of establishing dominance vis-à-vis the USSR; and it was done in an era when US was flush with power and confidence – the sole actor involved in WWII not to have suffered enormous devastation of its home ground. The outcomes of “war on cancer”, “war on drugs” and “war on terrorism” (to just name three of many) illustrate how quickly or well such an approach works when applied to complex long-range problems with constellations of consequences.

Mind you, as a writer of space opera I’m incorrigibly partial to psionic powers and stable wormholes (in part because they’re integral to mythic SF). And the possible existence of a planet in the Alpha Centauri system is indeed a genuine cause for excitement. But I know enough to place the two in separate compartments, though they’re linked by the wish that one day we have propulsion systems that let us visit Alpha Centauri in person, rather than by proxy.

Selected related articles

The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction
SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

“Arsenic” Life, or: There is TOO a Dragon in my Garage!
The Charlatan-Haunted World

1st, Alpha Centauri A and B seen over the limb of Saturn (JPL/NASA); 2nd, the algal bloom in the NW Pacific after the iron dump (NASA/Wikimedia Commons); 3rd, real science: The Curiosity Mars rover (Maas Digital LLC/National Geographic)

Free Speech: Bravehearts and Scumbags

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

I was twelve years old in 1967, eager to start high school. One fine morning, April 21, I woke up and the radio was jammed with military band music and Hitleresque shrieks. The military junta that took over the country lasted for seven years of fear and terror. Civil liberties were suspended. Even more than before, women were denied basic rights and both arbitrary police actions and state-sponsored religion became intrusive. People were summarily arrested, tortured, exiled, killed — my uncle among them; censorship erased entire swaths of art and literature and the history we were taught in school was a parody of the truth. Informants stood ready to report any “illegal” utterance to the secret police.

So I know firsthand what it is to be deprived of free speech, and some of what goes on under the “free speech” rubric in the Internet is not it. Lest I be misconstrued, I’m not talking of suppression of media and sites by governments or government-sponsored entities, but of the concept that uninhibited “self-expression” trumps all.

Freedom of speech is one of the supporting beams of democracy. How states treat their dissidents and gadflies (which include poets, playwrights, historians, journalists – and now bloggers) is a litmus test of their political system. Definitions of what constitutes protected speech differ even in democratic regimes. Generally, there are restrictions connected to questions of harm: hate speech and slander (more so in Europe), national security and right to privacy. Superimposed on that are the behavior codes of specific communities, from organizations to religious groups within a sovereign nation. Some of these shade into de facto censorship if there is no separation of secular and religious governance or if the government is insecure: blasphemy laws in nations plagued by fundamentalist resurgence, terrorist definitions in totalitarian governments (and the US, post-9/11).

Traditionally, problems with free speech have crowded at the suppression end. However, a different type of distortion is happening in the US – ironically, at the same time that its government has significantly curbed civil liberties. The US constitution is more sweeping and absolute in its establishment of free speech privileges. As a (perhaps inevitable) result, Americans often espouse bizarre versions of the First Amendment – the Second one as well, while we’re at it. The general credo seems to be not only that people can say whatever comes into their thalamus, especially online, but also that there should be no consequences for doing so. For people who equate criticism with censorship, free speech has become a fundamentalist religion without any context of relative power, balance or accountability.

Coupled to that is the issue of pseudo/anonymity on the Internet, invoked as a sanctum sanctorum when someone’s activities may affect their professional and/or personal life. However, what is crucial safety for the oppressed can become a license to hurt others with impunity for the oppressor. Abusers of reasonable systems are notorious for turning the rules against their real purpose on technicalities, daring their rule-abiding fellows to call them on their cynical manipulations. If they’re made to stop, they commonly employ false-equivalence arguments (example: “feminazi” – because asking to be treated as a human being is equivalent to invading and devastating most of Europe).

All of these facets have been recently come to the fore in two very different cases: the heroic, consequence-fraught stand of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year old schoolgirl, against the Taliban and the colluding Pakistani government; and, in stark contrast, the trail of toxic slime left by Reddit “moderator” Michael Brutsch. I’ll deal with the latter first, so that this article doesn’t leave its readers with sewer stench in their brains.

Michael Brutsch, under the handle Violentacrez, spent all his waking hours setting up subreddit threads that specialized in violent misogyny and racism. Representative titles of his threads: creepshots, rapebait, chokeabitch, beatingwomen, picsofdeadkids, niggerjailbait, jewmerica. He and his followers posted pictures of underage girls and “upskirt/downblouse views” without their targets’ knowledge or consent and he bragged about receiving “consensual” oral sex from his teenage stepdaughter (according to him, his then-wife, the girl’s mother, “got mad, then got over it”). Reddit used Brutsch’s threads and the reactions to them to boost site traffic, gave him awards and special leeway – and met protests with the mantra “Free speech!” and the assertion that “If you step out of your house, you’re fair game.” Exactly what fundies and MRAs say about women, in harmonious patriarchal agreement.

In short, Brutsch was a inciter and enabler of predators who knew that his actions were harmful (and edging on the illegal) and who used his pseudonym as a shield to abuse at whim. However, when Adrian Chen of Gawker (itself of basement standards) unmasked him in standard investigative journalism mode, Reddit shrieked “violation of free speech rights” and “invasion of privacy” (clearly unclear on concepts). Then, this bastion of free speech banned Gawker. Brutsch himself feels that the only thing he did wrong was to get in Chen’s sights and is proud that his soon-to-be-a-Marine son is his devoted fan. I wonder how his son will behave as a soldier overseas – or as a lover and parent.

So let’s turn to a real free-speech hero: Malala Yousafzai, the namesake of the young warrior woman of Maiwand. Yousafzai lived in a world where Brutsch’s idea of women being chattels totally at the mercy of men is everyday reality: the Taliban-infested and US-drone-blanketed region of Swat in Pakistan. She was 11 when the Taliban overran her home region and established an autonomous fundamentalist theocracy essentially unopposed by the government. As is their wont, they blew up girls’ schools and suspended every right for women and girls, from going to school to receiving medical care.

Yousafzai started blogging at BBC Urdu about her experiences during this reign of terror under the handle Gul Makai (Cornflower). Her real name became known when the Pakistani military finally bestirred itself to partially clean up the Swat region, and a NY Times crew came to film her. Tellingly, her mother was “not allowed” to appear in the film and although we know exhaustive details about her father, we don’t even know her mother’s name. Yousafzai’s father supported her – if he hadn’t, she would obviously not know even how to read and write, which shows with whom the real power lies. After that, she appeared in many venues to advocate for female education and started winning national and international recognition and awards. The Taliban took notice as well, and Yousafzai started receiving death threats about her “dirty language” (see “feminazi”, above).

A week ago, several Taliban boarded Yousafzai’s school bus, asked the terrified schoolgirls to point her out and shot her three times, hitting her in the spine and head. Two classmates (like her mother, nameless) were collateral damage. Because she was well-known, the Pakistani government and media (even some imams, though not all) went into a frenzy of hand-wringing and suddenly she was in everyone’s prayers. Of course, prayers take no effort or expense; keeping schools open and ensuring that girls can attend them do. The Taliban, echoing Brutsch, said that their only regret was that Yousafzai somehow survived – and that should she recover, they’ll try again till they succeed.

The last thing Yousafzai needs is prayers, especially from the mealy-mouthed hypocrites who let this happen while they could have prevented it. What she needs is world-class medical attention and after that, a life free of fear and coercion. She is now in a UK hospital that specializes in wounds like hers, but it’s still unclear whether she will recover and to what extent. A bright light is wavering and may go out, because men who are convinced they’re entitled to treat women like cattle or furniture felt threatened.

Malala Yousafzai, like Shamsia Husseini (who continued going to school after having acid thrown at her face), happened to be noticed by the West. Countless others, especially women and girls, have done similarly brave things — and suffered similarly atrocious fates — while remaining unknown and without the (flimsy, transitory) support of global media. This is the free speech that must be protected: schoolgirls who say “We will educate ourselves. We will win. They can’t defeat us!” while in real danger of violation, torture and death.

The young girls who thirst to acquire knowledge and yearn to be treated as human are wrong, of course. They have been brutally silenced before, and they will be again – and their torturers and killers will sleep soundly and die in their beds, having lived long, full, self-satisfied lives. But it’s better to go down fighting than live a life of degraded slavery, of enforced silence. Something that conscience-free manipulative scumbags like Brutsch, who never question why they deserve their entitlements, can’t even begin to understand.

Images: 1st, Malala Yousafzai (from Wikipedia, before repeated vandalism of the article forced its removal); 2nd, Pakistani schoolgirls (Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS)

Gender Essentialism? Elementary, My Dear Watson!

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

I first read the collected Sherlock Holmes stories in a really good translation when I was very young.  I recall that even back then I wondered about its attitudes towards women.  Beyond the single token appearance of Irene Adler and the long-suffering Mrs. Hudson (a typical caretaker role), it was a universe of men.  Yes, this was Victorian and Edwardian England where you could live as sex-segregated a life as in a country with sharia law – and of course Watson plays the role of admiring helpmate to a cranky genius – but even so the stories made repeated, explicit points about women being “clutter” that might impinge on the pristine state of that incandescent Holmes mind.

There have been countless Holmes adaptations, both film and television, but most were period (indulgently defined – “period” was extended to include Basil Rathbone battling Nazi spies).  Fast forward to 2010.  The BBC started airing the series Sherlock, in which the stories are kept “intact” but happen in the present.  Holmes and Watson are played by two talented actors whose stars are rising: Benedict Cumberbatch has been appearing in career-making roles since 2007 and Martin Freeman is about to become a household face by playing Bilbo in Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit.  Critic accolades, prestigious awards and aficionado swoons rolled in.  General verdict: “Flagrantly unfaithful to the original, yet wonderfully loyal to it in every way that matters.”

This fall, CBS started airing Elementary, also based on Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes is played by Jonny Lee Miller, another sharp actor, as a recovering addict taking time out in New York.  Watson is played by Lucy (Yuling) Liu.  Two episodes have aired so far, to positive reviews. What is the Holmes worshippers’ verdict?  I will spare you the suspense: “How dare they desecrate gospel?!”  One of the most vocal purists is Victoria Coren of The Observer, who essentially reprised Ursula Le Guin’s denigration of Helen Mirren playing Prospero in The Tempest.  Beyond that, Coren decried the cultural shift of a fundamentally British “myth” (Has she ever used adapted Hellenic myths?  If yes, she should stop right now.)  She also bemoaned the “Will they, won’t they vibe” (discernible only to her), ignoring the fact that the original Holmes stories and all their successors have an obvious homoerotic tinge.

I’ve seen four episodes of Sherlock and both episodes of Elementary.  My verdict: although it’s too early to make a definitive decision, Elementary so far is head and shoulders above Sherlock in terms of originality, chemistry between the two leads, lack of preciosity and (yes) elementary human resonance.

I saw only four episodes of Sherlock because I found it frankly repellent.  The settings tend to brutalist deco (edgy, dontcha see), the style is consistently pseudo-sophisticated smug (Dr. Who half a notch up… not surprising, given who the directors are).  Irene Adler is shown as a high-end prostitute who wears furs with nothing underneath and sheds her furs every few minutes whether it’s relevant to the plot or not.  Cumberbatch’s self-satisfied smirking becomes oppressive after a while, despite his brilliance otherwise; Freeman’s slack-jawed adoration, ditto; and the misogyny is up-front and blatant, unlike Conan Doyle’s quasi-passive elision (there’s also nudge-nudge treatment of homosexuality, which is odd to say the least).

Elementary is subversive along more axes than just its choice of Watson, though it retains some traditional default tenets.  Watson is a helpmate, so casting an Asian woman perpetuates stereotypes, and Holmes’ behavior would not be tolerated for a split second if it came from a woman (see discussions about how beloved Harriet Potter and Edwina Rochester would be).

However, core carryovers are spot on.  The cases remain outré and Holmes performs his acrobatic intuitive leaps, both hallmarks of the original.  Placing the series in New York makes sense: today’s London is not as central to the world as it was in Conan Doyle’s time.  New York still is.  Making Holmes a recovering addict is not new; what is new is that it’s not just a tick to make him fascinating in the Luciferian mold.  Instead, his adjustment process is integrally linked to both his investigations and his own personal decisions.  Also new and welcome is that he’s given kith and kin connections beyond a cardboard brother with convenient top-government access.

Watson remains a doctor, but she is not the cipher of the original or the dumb follower of most other versions.  She has a full backstory of her own that plays an important, organic role in the developments, and she has already become an almost-equal partner in the cases because her medical knowledge is put to active use.  And Aidan Quinn, with his dissipated good looks and easy-going manner, makes a perfect Lestrade stand-in.

What has really improved is the depth of the characters.  Both central actors speak volumes with their face and body language and they submerge themselves in their roles, rather than strut in them like mannequins on a stage.  The chemistry between them is marvelous, the repartee as fast and furious as world class tennis – and it has zero eroticism, but tons of friction and compromise as genuine as you can get on TV.  Too, Watson isn’t following Holmes because he gives meaning or adds spice to her life: it’s a job, with specific boundaries and mutual obligations.  For more details, I recommend Beatrice Eagle’s thorough comparative analysis of the two series.

Through ages and cultures, women were forbidden to do many things by the explicit or implicit decree that they weren’t “equipped” for it (because lower head equals upper head).  This went from praying to the ancestors, forming a minyan and ruling as heads of state to becoming craftspeople.  To that must be added women taking roles in iconic works of art that have been infinitely reinterpreted, Shakespeare prominently among them.  Everything has been altered in these stories upon retelling, from shifts in the time and context to changes of the race, class or sexual orientation of the principals.  As long as these have been done well, they are still recognized as legitimate variations of the original.  All, that is, except to introduce girl cooties by casting women in roles deemed “inalienably male” (just as Tiptree “could not possibly be a woman”).

It’s fine not to like anything but canon.  However, using gendered slurs like “menopausal” and “blundering half-naked” (Le Guin for Mirren), “trendy feminizing”, “sexy lady cohort” and “castrating fiction’s greatest sidekick” (Coren for Liu) are statements not of aesthetics but of politics: gender politics as regressively essentialist as those of Rand, Paglia and Coulter.  Women who use such expressions may be jealous of someone assuming a role they fantasized playing themselves; or, perhaps, they simply don’t like attention being diverted to other powerful women (de facto disproving the idea that women are gentle nurturing creatures incapable of aggressiveness).  But given the still-parlous status of women in the world, people who consciously use such expressions in their critiques deserve the gender-neutral epithet of another body opening.

For those whose minds are not welded shut, I suggest watching the first two episodes of Elementary, available on the CBS site.  I do, nevertheless, agree with Coren on one point: I’m looking forward to a version that casts Holmes as a woman (Tilda Swinton is my first choice, followed by Judy Davis).

Related articles:
“As Weak as Women’s Magic”
We Must Love One Another or Die

Watson (Lucy Liu) and Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) in Elementary

Addendum: Elementary has steadily grown even better, if possible. As I said in another venue, Sherlock is the firstborn son at an Anglo entailed estate: sure of his righteousness & worthiness. Elementary is his suffragette sister.

Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing

Monday, October 8th, 2012

A blog game called The Next Big Thing has been making the irounds. It involves answering questions about your work in progress or new piece that you’d like to become the next big thing, then tagging more writers to propagate the wave.  I rarely write about work in progress, but I got tagged by Ann Leckie, the editor of GigaNotoSaurus, so here we are.  For the next round, I name Laura Mixon, Christine Lucas, Alex Jablokov, Melissa Scott and C. W. Johnson.

The Stone Lyre main cast, clockwise from top left: Nifar of Drige (Veldir); Kevrad tegri Durath (Nireg); Ardenk tegri Durath (Nireg/Behtalka); Ferái Kámi-o (Ténli); Linarme of Drige (Veldir)

1. What is the title of your book?

Except for occasional standalone pieces, my fiction takes place in a large universe that starts in Minoan Crete and goes into the far future when humans inhabit distant earthlike planets (my stories Planetfall also takes place in it).  Within this context, I currently have two works in progress.  The first is a novelette, The Stone Lyre, that has a completed sister story, The Wind Harp [ETA: the latter has since been published in Crossed Genres].  The second is a novel that is the beginning of this universe, titled Shard Songs.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

It’s a sea with many tributary rivers.  Myths feed into it, and my people’s history; my love of languages and songs; the desire to envision women-equal or women-dominant societies that are not reverse-oppressive; the concepts of genetic engineering that allows non-destructive human adaptation to earth-like extrasolar planets and of stable wormholes that enable fast interstellar via neuronal interaction with the ships.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a hybrid of epic myth, kinship saga, alternative history and space opera.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I have a very strong sense of my characters: what they look and sound like, what they feel and think beyond just the plot matters at hand.  So I envision not specific actors, but specific age-frozen characters played by actors.  Shard Songs has too many dramatis personae to show because it extends from the deep past to the far future (with jumps – it will be neither a doorstopper nor a first of endless sequels).  The main casts of The Stone Lyre and The Wind Harp are shown above and below.

5. What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book?

The Stone Lyre is a reversed-gender Orpheus story fused with the distortions caused by interstellar colonization.  Shard Songs tells of the decipherment of Linear A (the Minoan script, later used to write Mycaenean Greek), of past and future women rulers and their consorts (polyandry is fairly common), of lost homelands, and of rifts and time loops created by stable wormholes.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Given the content and style of these works, their chances of becoming agented are close to nil.  Editors of semi-pro magazines, themed anthologies and small presses have expressed provisional interest in all three.  If none of these pan out, I may publish the two novelettes as a singlet on my own or bide my time until I have enough linked stories to approach a small press.  The appearance specifics of Shard Songs will depend on several parameters.  One of them is the trajectory of The Other Half of the Sky, the upcoming feminist mythic space opera anthology that I conjured into existence.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I essentially write my fiction like a palimpsest: a continuous single draft with multiple passes.  When I sit down to write a story, I know the beginning and the end and I tend to write that kernel in a single burst.  What is usually hazier is the middle.  I write the scenes that are clear, then let the back of my mind meander and weave.  As soon as another scene becomes clear, I write it down, polishing as I go.  I wrote The Wind Harp in two bursts of about three weeks each.  The same is happening with The Stone Lyre.

8. What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?

That’s a hard question to answer, since they don’t really belong to a specific genre.  Within SF, their closest kin are probably Cherryh’s Union/Alliance cycle and Jablokov’s twinned novels – Carve the Sky and River of Dust.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I have no idea, unless it was my chronic insomnia.  The various segments sprang into my mind almost fully formed as far as the scaffolding went.  I continue to elaborate the plots, characters and cultures, of course – but I have lived in this universe so long that its foundations are lost in the mists of time (*laughs*).

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Well, nothing like the thing itself.  Here’s a passage from The Wind Harp.  The narrator is Antóa Tásri, a young diplomat on a mission that may save hundreds of lives – and perhaps persuade a very difficult culture into an alliance:

Just then, I heard a low hum behind me.  Through the barrier came the Tel-Kir who had harassed the Sedói.  A whiff of barely suppressed triumph hovered around him.  He went to the dais, touched the edge of Teg-Rav’s over-robe.  A discharge ran through his fingers and the musk in the room got overlaid with the acrid scent of burnt flesh.  When he withdrew his hand, I saw spots of blood glisten on the garment.  The dull throb behind my eyes sharpened to a fiery spike.  I felt such spikes whenever I faced a Tohduat who could not – or would not – control his Talent.

“Please greet our guest,” Teg-Rav told him.  He stood stock-still, looking down at me from his great height.  “Properly this time, Tan-Rys.”  The scent in the room turned slightly bitter and his yellow eyes flickered like brush fires.  He ostentatiously went on one knee, touched my ankle.  Unlike her, he was easy prey, I sensed him think.  We’ll demand his ship’s weight in water.

“Do you wish to best your adversaries?” I challenged him as he snapped upright.

“With your puny help?” he jeered.  I inhaled and spoke as fast as I could, switching to the tonals forbidden to all but the Dor-Nys.

“I brought a drug that can put some of your people into temporary suspended animation.  This will let you repair the reservoir ducts without a Whittling.”  I kept addressing her but pinned my gaze on him.  “Do you want to protect your people as you have vowed to do?  Or do you seriously think that capturing the Melhuat’s low-Talented brother will be your salvation?”

“I should have pulverized you when I had the chance!” he growled.  I dove for the floor.  A needle from his arm darter flew through where I had just stood and buried itself in the wall.

The Wind Harp main cast, clockwise from top left: Antóa Tásri (Ténli); Teg-Rav, Dor-Nys of Kem-Fir tower (Gan-Tem); Tan-Rys, senior Tel-Kir of Kem-Fir tower (Gan-tem); Ferái Kámi-o (Ténli); Serkadren, Melhuat of Behtalka (Behtalka); Talsekrit, Tohduat third rank (Behtalka)

Bridge Struts in Pink Pantalets

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

My readers know by now that I’m not “feminine” as defined by western mainstream culture. It wasn’t a conscious effort on my part. I was instinctively allergic to being girly. I didn’t like the brittle plastic feel of dolls (though woolly bears and tigers crowd my bed even now), I detest all pink except the salmon-nectarine hues of dusk and dawn, I took to formal math like a goose (not a gander) to water – the silly stories made up to “soften it” gave me hives – and I’ve always loved and excelled in structural toys and puzzles, including those that supposedly derange female brains: namely, mentally rotating objects.

A question that comes up constantly in the circles I frequent is “Why aren’t more girls following STEM paths?” (STEM=Science Technology Engineering Mathematics). In many ways it reminds me of that other vexed question: “Why are First Worlders getting more obese?” In both cases, the question foci (girls/overweight people) are caught in severe double binds: the desired goal (becoming a woman who enters a STEM domain/having a healthy weight – which is not the same as a “socially desirable” weight) is strewn with obstacles that are almost entirely external and so systemic as to constitute the equivalent of the atmosphere; and both success and failure at following each path carry heavy personal costs [before anyone starts shrieking about “fatphobia”, read You Can Have Either Sex or Immortality where I discuss the grave dangers of excessive thinness. I intend to write a counterpoint follow-up to that at some point; this time we’ll focus on girls and STEM.]

To put it bluntly, a girl/young woman who wishes to follow a STEM vocation sets herself up for a lifelong drizzle of frustration, belittlement and harassment. At all points she will be reminded she’s unnatural, like a dog prancing on its hind legs; that women cannot achieve “true greatness” (however defined) in STEM. She may be actively attacked, from verbal insults to outright physical assaults. She will be given less mentoring, less salary, fewer plum positions and first-ranking journal publications, even fewer awards, promotions and perks – and she will be expected to be the default parent, if she wants a family. Her credentials and credibility will always be questioned, even if she gets a Nobel. This holds for the so-called First World as well and in fact it’s getting worse rather than better (economic downturns and fundie religiosity tend to do that). Given all this, the fact that women do make up a significant proportion of STEM is actually a near-miracle.

I was reminded of this issue recently when I had reason to look into games aimed at familiarizing very young girls with STEM before the age they start get turned off science or risk being labeled unfeminine. A preliminary point is that such efforts may be “making holes in the water” because the sad fact is that when enough women enter a discipline, it gets automatically re-classified as “female” and its perceived value and social/financial rewards plummet. This is true regardless of content: from doctors in the former Soviet Union to personal assistants to writers of what is arbitrarily labeled “soft” SF (which, ironically, includes almost all biologically-focused work because, you know, only pointed and exploding objects are hard SF).

That aside, the attempts to create STEM-relevant toys that are “girl-friendly” show the desire to counteract gender targeting, which starts in the cradle and never subsides, as well as the unavoidable pitfalls of such coding. Unquestionably, narrowing the STEM gender gap is more than worthwhile. At the same time, the guiding principles of this concept give me serious pause.

Pitches of such products are abrim with bluntly essentialist statements like “Boys have strong spatial skills, which is why they love construction toys so much. Girls, on the other hand, have superior verbal skills. They love reading, stories, and characters.” and “The set features soft textures, curved edges and attractive colors which are all innately appealing to girls.” As a corollary, such toys/games are aggressively girly (bubble-gum pink features prominently) and their characters are usually so whitebread that they could cause snow blindness. This is nothing new, of course – just read Tom Englehardt’s trenchant and still sadly relevant 1986 essay about gender coding in children’s TV programs. This domain hasn’t moved an inch since the fifties. Given how formative early socializing is, the rarity of women engineers, in particular, should not really be so surprising.

Had I seen such games when I was their target age, I’d have walked right past them (and I threw them summarily away when I received them as gifts). For one, I used Erector sets and suchlike as enthusiastically as I read stories; for another, the bland blondness endemic in such toys codes for “daffy airhead” in my culture. These products are explicitly geared to appeal to parents anxious to “correctly” socialize their children. And despite their excellent intentions, they reinforce the incredibly problematic “separate but equal” status quo even as they try to combat it.

In some ways, these games are younger-cohort variations of the concept that it’s a good idea to have sex-segregated schools if they enable girls to gain a foothold in areas traditionally closed/hostile to them. Of course, this approach worked if you went to the Ivy League Seven Sisters before they went co-educational – or to my competition-entry elite high school, whose explicit mission was to create future nation leaders. On the other hand, my sister went to a public school whose math teacher decided not to teach the girls – because “housewives don’t need algebra.” So sex-segregated education works, kinda, but only if you’re a princess or, at minimum, a mandarin-to-be.

Proponents of this approach argue that “girly” identity is often established by age 5 and therefore girls need to be coaxed back to problem-solving (as if traditionally “feminine” occupations like cooking and doing laundry are not problem-solving and don’t require spatial and suchlike skills… but we’ll put that aside). As far as I know, Tarzanist bleatings excepted, no correlation has been established between early girliness and later inclination to science, nor are the two mutually exclusive at any age (this also depends on how “girliness” is defined). On the other hand, if your parents, teachers and peers punish you in a myriad small or large ways if you don’t behave “as you should” gender-wise, it’s a foregone conclusion you will tack your lifeboat accordingly. Unless you’re like me, in which case you’ll get even more stubborn – and pay the price.

I think the only real solution to this problem is to tone down the gender essentialism of both “halves” and see to it that girls (and, more importantly, their parents) receive the message that it’s okay to browse the “blue aisles”, where STEM-relevant games are not an explicit insult to basic intelligence. Of course, the ideal would be to tone down (better yet, erase) gender essentialism at all times and places and deem “non-masculine” things of equal value, but I recognize that for the pipe dream it is.