Thursday, February 26, 2009

Alien Sex and Worlds: Philip Jose Farmer (1918-2009)

A lalitha's uterus contains ova, the genes of which are duplicated in the bodies of microscopic wrigglers formed in the giant salivary glands in a lalitha's mouth. These wrigglers - salivary ova - are continually released by the adult.

The adult lalitha pass genes by means of these invisible creatures; they infect each other as if the carriers of heredity were diseases. They cannot escape it; a kiss, a sneeze, a touch, will do it.
[...]
Meanwhile, the first wrigglers she is exposed to have made their way through the bloodstream, the intestinal tract, the skin, boring, floating, until they arrive at the uterus of the host.

There, the salivary ovum unites with the uterine ovum. Fusion of the two produces a zygote. At this point, fertilization is suspended. True, all genetic data needed to produce a new lalitha is provided. All except the genes for the specific features of the face of the baby. This data will be given by the male human lover of the lalitha.

Not, however, until the conjunction of two more events. These two must occur simultaneously. One is excitation by orgasm. The other is stimulation of the photokinetic nerves. One cannot take place without the other. Neither can the last two come about unless the first happens. Apparently, fusion of the two ova causes a chemical change in the lalitha which then makes her capable or orgasm and fully develops the photokinetic nerves.
[...]
The photokinetic nerves are the exclusive property of the lalitha. They run from the retina of the eye, along with the optic nerves, to the brain. But the photokinetic nerves descend to the spinal column and leave its base to enter the uterus. The uterus is not that of the human female. Do not even compare them. You might say that the lalitha uterus is the dark room of the womb. Where the photograph of the father's face is biologically developed.

~ The Lovers by Philip José Farmer
In 1952 a 34-year-old science fiction writer broke one of the genre's taboos: he wrote a story where not only a human and an alien fall in love, but they have sex (the female alien even has an orgasm!), and we get a description of alien reproduction. It seems pretty tame by today's standards, but it won Philip José Farmer a Hugo award for "Most Promising New Talent". The story was republished in novel form in 1961, and Farmer's career was off and running.

My introduction to Farmer was when I picked up the first Riverworld novel, To Your Scatted Bodies Go, at some time in the late 1980s. It's a great concept: somewhere, somehow, every adult human who ever lived - up until the mid-1980s if I recall correctly - is resurrected in young healthy bodies on a planet consisting of one long river and bit of shoreline. That meant that humans from any era could meet and interact - Sir Richard Burton, Mark Twain, Prince John, Hermann Göring, Lewis Carroll's real Alice and many other well-known figures share adventures along the river. I eventually read all five of the novels in the series, which pretty much burned me out on Farmer's writing.

I've read a number of his short works, and honestly, a lot of them don't do much for me. They often read like old-fashioned pulp fiction, only set in the future and with lots of sex. The future and sex I like, but the pulp fiction not so much. However, even though I don't count Farmer among my favorite authors, it's clear that he has left a lasting mark on the genre.

Farmer died on February 25 at the age of 91. Make he reawaken on a Riverworld!

There are links to more remembrances at the Official Philip Jose Farmer website.



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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Science and Science Fiction at ScienceOnline09

As promised, here is a roundup of posts on the science and science fiction session at ScienceOnline09. The structure wasn't the in the traditional "listen to the lecturer" style,but rather more like an "unconference", with the moderator - in this case Stephanie Zvan - leading a discussion. As she has pointed out "no one goes to an SF panel who isn't into SF", which sounds like an excellent place for a discussion to start.

So here are some of the comments about the session that I found particularly interesting. I recommend reading the whole posts. The most commented-upon take-home message: the practice of science is itself like science fiction.

Stephanie makes an interesting point from the perspective of an SF writer:
One thing I noted at the session that I will repeat here: it's obvious that many scientists are fans of science fiction. What should also be obvious is that many SF writers are fans of science. If you're a scientist who wants to have some impact on the science in SF, Google your favorite (living) writers. These days, many to most of them have blogs. Start participating in the comments, and tell the writer that s/he has fans who are scientists. Then just see how quickly you get used as a resource when the writer is working on something in your field.

Ryan Somma @ ideonexus.com points out that SF is a way to "wrestle with ethical questions in science" and notes that science itself is by its nature speculative:
Kim Gainer, English Professor at Radford University, brought up the important point that Science Fiction provides a medium for wrestling with the ethical questions in science. My whole novel Clones was such a thought experiment, dealing with the unique social dynamics of people raising child versions of themselves. Science Fiction stories about resurrecting Neanderthals or Wooly Mammoths give people the opportunity to philosophize about it, work out all the implications, decades before it happens.

[...]

The most insightful comment of the discussion, was when someone brought up the idea that science is inherently a speculative endeavor. “Every time you create an hypothesis you create an alternative universe for testing.” Science, therefore, is the practice of Science Fiction.

Chris Clouser @ The Logical Operator has a nice overview of the whole session, and points to a couple of "very cogent comments on where sci-fi fits into the larger scheme of science blogging":
  • One, scientists likely make allusions and references to science fiction all the time in their blogs - there is almost a cultural context that is assumed, in that you can reference Lovecraft and Heinlein and Asimov in passing**, and it is simply a subliminal nod. Science bloggers aren’t science fiction bloggers, so the science fiction that they deal with is only in the furtherance of their own point.

  • Two, and this was probably the most profound statement of discussion, was that science is by its very nature an exploration of science fiction. Every single hypothesis made is, in effect, the creation of an alternative world that must then be tested.

    Of course, for sci-fi authors, the testing side is not part of the process.

Glendon Mellow @ The Flying Trilobite:
Though SF has a something of a credibility issue on many science-based blogs, there is still a strong sense of SF culture, especially in random asides and jokes, often in the comment threads. Also, in a way, each time a scientist proposes a hypothesis, it is a kind of science fiction put forth until data back it up.
John Dupuis @ Confessions of a Science Librarian:
This was a good session, but like all discussions on Science Fiction and X, it ended up talking about why normal people don't really appreciate SF. In any case, there was some talk about using sf as a gateway to engagement in scientific issues, and what role blogs could play in that, but not a lot. There were a few good book recommendations and some discussion about "What is science fiction for!" One thing I'm definitely going to track down is Tolkein's The Notion Club Papers!
Other attendees included AcmeGirl, Henry Gee (who criptically, yet poetically referred to the session).

I'm really bummed I couldn't be there, even though the hotel had no SciFi channel causing the attending SF fans to miss the season premiere of Battlestar Galactica. What kind of backwoods is Research Triangle Park? (I kid!)

More posts here on science, science fiction and ScienceOnline09.

Image: Photo by evoque at Flickr
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Sunday, February 22, 2009

What Women Want

So I've been away from the blog here much longer than I anticipated. Since my dad became very ill mid-January, I've spent most of the past month-and-a-half at my parents' house. During that time I spent a lot of time with my mom. - mostly worrying and waiting and driving to and from the hospital.

It was a nice mental break to be able to just sit down in the evening and watch something entertaining on TV. If mom and I had vastly different taste in entertainment that could have been a problem, but, fortunately we like similar things. It turns out that we both enjoy The Office and Thirty Rock, House, Chuck, and, a bit surprisingly to me, Fringe. I found it surprising because I don't think of mom as being a science fiction fan (mom, correct me if I've gotten this wrong). She doesn't read science fiction novels, never watched X-Files, Battlestar Galactica (old or new), and when my husband and I turned on Doctor Who during our Christmastime visit, she was surprised that it was "still on" (I did watch it a lot in the late-70s and early-80s). What is the appeal of shows like Fringe? It's probably the quirky and interesting characters and the fact that the show doesn't seem to take itself too seriously. At least that's why I like it.

Other mom-watched SF includes Life on Mars, Journeyman, the first season of Heroes, and a couple seasons of Enterprise. That's why I think the articles pop up now and again that claim women don't like science fiction are so stupid. Women like all kinds of shows. We can like both Gray's Anatomy and Fringe. Some women like relationships, some like weird science and aliens, and some of us like all of that, as long as it's entertaining.

I do think that the SciFi channel has other problems attracting an audience though. If you happen to flip it on, you are more likely to stumble on a Ghost Hunters marathon, old Star Trek reruns, bad monster-of-the-week movies (Chupacabra: Dark Seas!), or wrestling than quality dramas with broad appeal. "Women" aren't likely to turn on SciFi in any great numbers unless there is a reason to do so. So please, TV networks, more quality science fiction dramas!

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OK, now that I've got that off my chest, a bit of housekeeping:

I unfortunately missed ScienceOnline09, but it sounds like Stephanie did a great job leading the science & science fiction session. I'm putting together a post with links to some of the participants' responses.

I'm also slowly working my way through accumulated emails, so if you wrote to me and I haven't yet responded, I apologize. I'll get back to you as soon as I can.

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