Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Engineering Aquamen? It's harder than you might think.

Stephen Cass at Science Not Fiction recently tackled the question "could genetic mutation or manipulation create a superhuman?". The answer, not too surprisingly, is maybe - it all depends on what kind of superpower you have in mind. Flying? Probably not. A fluorescent glow? Almost certainly.

One of the examples of genetic engineering that Stephen writes about piqued my interest: a team of scientists at the MRC in Cambridge were able to modify human hemoglobin so that its biochemical properties were more like crocodile hemoglobin. Could that give a human Aquaman-like powers?

First a little background. Hemoglobin is the protein in our red blood cells that carries oxygen. One of its properties is that it binds oxygen more strongly when carbon dioxide levels in the blood are are low (such as in the blood vessels in the lungs). Higher levels of carbon dioxide - produced as waste when oxygen is used by cells to generate energy - reduce the affinity, promoting the release of oxygen from the hemoglobin. The exact biochemistry of the protein varies from species to species, depending on the animal's physiological needs and the environment it lives in.

Crocodile hemoglobin, for example, is more sensitive than the human version to dissolved carbon dioxide in the blood. The result is that a greater proportion of the hemoglobin bound oxygen can be released when the crocs are holding their breath, which allows them to stay under water for as long as an hour. It turns out that changing just a few amino acids in the human hemoglobin sequence changes its biochemistry to that of the crocodilian version. This recombinant "scuba" hemoglobin was developed as an improvement to artificial blood products, and was only produced in bacterial cells. But imagine introducing such a modified hemoglobin sequence into a human - it would potentially allow the carrier to hold their breath for an hour, just like crocs.

But unless such engineered Aquaman wannabes want to spend their time in warm shallow water lurking for their prey evildoers, they would need a number of other modifications to reach their superhero potential. Besides stay under water a long time1, Aquaman is also supposed to be able to dive very deep in the ocean and swim very fast. Neither ability is going to be provided by modifying hemoglobin.

The problem is that both the intense cold and high pressure in the ocean depths can easily kill any ordinary human. Animals that do routinely dive to great depths - like sperm whales - built anatomically to survive the pressure changes: they lack sinuses, have special structures in their ears and reinforced airways. There is no way to create similar changes in human anatomy without multiple genetic alterations. Whales also have a nice layer of blubber that acts as insulation. The blubber also makes the whale's body more buoyant and streamlined, which are important for rapid swimming.

Possibly a human could be modified to live like a whale, but he would end up looking pretty whale-like. In other words, he'd look like the big guy in the picture below, rather than the slim muscular dude wearing little more than tights.
The idea that genetic engineering could easily be used to reconfigure the human body to give it extraordinary abilities (for a human anyway), while retaining a normal human shape is a pet peeve of mine. If you are talking about biological beings, rather than magical ones, function does affect form.

1. I know Aquaman is supposed to be able to extract oxygen from the water in some kind of gill-less fashion. I'm not even sure where to begin to tackle that one.

Image (top): Cover of Aquaman 17 at comics.org
Image (middle): Structure of hemoglobin of the antarctic fish Pagothenia bernacchii. DOI 10.2210/pdb1hbh/pdb .
Image (bottom): Aquaman fights a whale guy in a panel from JLA #223 at The Aquaman Shrine.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Beast Men and other Bio Horror SF at Apex Magazine

There is something about the nature of biology - growing things, squishy internal organs, monsters and mutants - that lends itself to the horror end of the science fiction spectrum. And they aren't always just chilling entertainment; such horrifying stories can be used to look at philosophical questions about what it means to be human. The March 3rd edition of Apex Magazine ("where science fiction and horror collide") has a couple of good examples of that this month. As Sarah Brandel writes in her introductory essay "Beast Men and the Human Animal":
Another facet of the question ‘What is human?’ addresses the differences between human beings and other members of the animal kingdom. If, in some respects, tiny variations in DNA are all that separate human beings physically from their closest primate relatives, where is the genetic line drawn between what is human and what is not? (There are easy answers from a species perspective—only members of the same species can produce viable offspring—but we’re not looking for easy answers here.)
I won't quote any more, because there are spoilers for the stories, but you can read them online yourself:
And for some more good creepiness, here are a couple of other biology-science fiction-horror stories from their archives:
(And if you enjoy what you read at Apex, consider clicking on their "Donate" button and making a small contribution.)

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pardon My Dust

I'm in the process of updating the blog template so things may look strange for the next few hours. It should be back to normal soon.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

David Brin on Uplift

While David Brin has written many fine novels, I think the most interesting are those set in his "Uplift universe", in which "patron" species in the intergalactic civilization genetically modify non-sapient "client" species to bring them sapience. In this universe humans have uplifted and work side-by-side with chimpanzees and dolphins. (You can read two Uplift Universe short stories for free on Brin's web site.)

This week David Brin is guest blogging at George Dvorsky's Sentient Developments. Dvorsky is quite interested in ethical issues around the uplift of nonhuman animals, and has asked Brin to share his thoughts on whether this is something we should or even could do. In his first post, Brin does just that. He also writes a bit about why his take is different than that of The Island of Doctor Moreau or Planet of the Apes:
The notion that we would abuse or enslave such creatures has some deep metaphorical resonance -- and during a long transition they would not be our peers. But as a goal? A reason to create new beings? It really is kind of pathetic, as are the simplistic tales.

I wanted, instead, to explore what might happen if we took on such a challenge with the BEST of intentions! Wouldn't the new species have problems anyway? Problems that are much more subtle and interesting than mere oppression?
And it raises many questions as to what the situation might be like from the uplifted species' point-of-view, something Brin likes to explore:
I get to stretch my imagination, and the reader's, exploring what sapient dolphins or chimps might feel and think, under the pressure of such development, tugged between both the ancient instincts of their forebears and the new template being imposed upon them by their "patrons."
It's been many years since I read Startide Rising, and this makes me want to go back and read it again. Go read Brin's whole post!

Also, in a related post, Dvorsky suggests checking out the work of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh at the Great Ape Trust to learn more about the possible cultural issues of uplift:
Just to be clear, Sue is not an advocate of biological uplift, but the work that she does integrating bonobos into non-traditional living environments and in comprehending their language and culture speaks directly to this issue; there's a very fine line between cultural and biological uplift. For starters, check out the article, "Sue Savage-Rumbaugh on the welfare of apes in captivity." Also be sure to check out the work of the Great Ape Trust.
I have mixed feelings about some of Dvorsky's arguments about non-human animal culture, but I do think it's an interesting and important topic to consider. I'm looking forward to reading more posts by Brin at Sentient Developments this week.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Mother of Us All

Friday night's two-hour-plus Battlestar Galactica finale was an excellent ending to the series, from its action-packed beginning to the more contemplative ending that allowed us to say goodbye to the characters and tied up most of the loose ends. I wasn't particularly keen on the final message: that humanity's "brains outrun our hearts", and our development and increasing reliance on technology will ultimately lead to our downfall - and, at least in the Galatica universe, has ended up destroying civilization again and again.

In the first part of the finale, Admiral Adama leads a small human and cylon crew (including all the show's principal characters, natch') on a mission aboard the failing Galactica to rescue Hera Agathon - the only known human-cylon hybrid - from her cylon captors. It is only through a series of highly improbable events that our heroes escape - ending up on our very own Earth.

It's not really "our" Earth though, it's the Earth of 150,000 years ago. The few tens of thousands of survivors from the defeat of the 12 colonies land in the grasslands of East Africa, just about the time that Homo sapiens emerged as a separate species. And there are indeed already inhabitants there. We don't learn much about them, except that they carry long spears, travel in groups, and likely have no language. And in what appears to be a coincidence of supernatural proportions, their DNA is similar enough to that of the humans (or perhaps "humans") from the fleet so that they are genetically compatible. The improbability of populations evolving so similarly on planets that are millions of light years apart is even commented upon by Doc Cottle, so it's no careless mistake by the writers. That the refugee and Earth populations will be able blend together seems to be part of the divine plan that is influencing the characters' fates1.

That plan involves more than just humans, though. Young Hera Agathon's father Helo is human, and her mother Sharon is a humanoid cylon. The humanoid cylon models had tried unsuccessfully to reproduce for many years, and their experiments attempting to breed human-cylon hybrids also ended in failure. It's not clear to them - or us - why that is the case. They are anatomically identical to humans down to the "cellular level", and presumably pass standard fertility and genetic tests (otherwise why would they think reproduction was possible at all). With all of their resurrection ships destroyed the need to find a solution becomes urgent to the remaining humanoid cylons. They see Hera as the key to their own survival.

I always thought their hope in Hera holding the secret to cylon reproduction was probably unfounded. Would she be any more fertile than a mule? It turns out that I was totally wrong.

In the closing scenes to the finale we see the divine (or otherwise supernatural) versions of Baltar and Number Six in present-day New York City. They look at a magazine in a science article that claims that scientists had discovered the fossilized bones of "Mitochondrial Eve" and they note that she had a cylon mother and human father. Sounds like Hera!

But who exactly is Mitochondrial Eve? I always thought the name was a bit unfortunate, because the Biblican Adam and Eve story has so much cultural baggage. Just to be clear she was not the first female human, and she lived roughly 100,000 years before the similarly poorly-named "Y-Chromosome Adam". To understand what geneticists mean by the term, the first thing you have to know is how mitochondria are inherited. Mitochondria are energy generating organelles found inside our cells. Importantly, they carry their own DNA. Unlike the chromosomal DNA which we inherit equally from both parents, our mitochondria are inherited only from our mothers. That means that geneticists can use the sequence of our mitochondrial DNA to follow maternal inheritance2. They followed this back for many many generations, until they arrived at the most recent woman who is the ancestor of all presently living humans. She is "Mitochondrial Eve" and she lived roughly 150,000 - 200,000 years ago.

If you are having trouble imagining how that works, Krishna Kunchithapadam has a pretty good explanation at Talk.Origins:
Consider all the humans alive today on Earth. Put them into a set S.
Next, consider the set of all those women who were the mothers of the people in the set S. Call this set S'. A few observations about this new set S'. It consists of only women (while set S consists of both men and women)---this is because we chose to follow only the mother-of relationship in going from set S to set S'. Also note that not every member of set S' needs to be in set S---set S consists of all people living today, while some of the mothers of living people could have died, they would be in set S' but not in set S. Third, the size of set S' is never larger than the size of set S. Why? This is because of the simple fact that each of us has only one mother. It is however overwhelmingly more likely that the size of set S' is much smaller than that of set S---this is because each woman usually has more than one child.

Repeat the process of following the mother-of relationship with set S' to generate a new set S''. This set will consist of only women, and will be no larger (and very likely smaller) than set S'.

Continue this process. There will come a point when the set will consist of smaller and smaller number of women, until we finally come to a single woman who is related to all members in our original set via the transitive-closure of the mother-of relation.
Well, it makes it clearer to me, anyway. She's not our most recent common ancestor or even our only common ancestor. She's not the only woman who was living at the time. She may not be the our common ancestor for chromosome 1 or 7 or 20.

And because the way mitochondrial inheritance works, in the Battlestar Galactica universe our mitochondria - passed down to us from Hera who inherited them from her number eight model mother - are entirely cylon.

That makes the series' suggestion that humanity is caught in an ever repeating cycle of technological development that ultimately leads to our destruction that much more circular because we are are inherently a part of that very technology.

We are them.

Related posts:

Read the original Mitochondrial Eve-related publication: Cann RL et al. "Mitochondrial DNA and human evolution"
Nature 325, 31 - 36 (01 January 1987); doi:10.1038/325031a0 (free pdf or text version)

1. I think the scenario presented in the finale brings up a lot of issues of ethics and race that are beyond the scope of my post. One question that I have Racefail to thank: Is it problematic that the technologically advanced and mostly white members of the fleet are shown arriving on Earth and either breeding with or supplanting the native African population so that they became our ancestors? I think so, but I haven't been able to put my thoughts clearly into words. I'm hoping others will post on that subject.

2. In the 1980s, geneticist Mary-Claire King used mitochondrial genetics help identify children who had been taken away from their imprisoned mothers during Argentina's so-called "dirty-war". Since then she's worked with human rights organizations to help identify missing personas all over the world. It's not science fiction, but her work is an important demonstration of using science to support human rights.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Does this mean we're incompatible?

So, tonight was the big night. About an hour or so in, my husband's first thought was 2001, and mine was The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Maybe it's one of those Mars-Venus things?

Of course we both knew that a FTL jump near a black hole always means travel to an expected time and/or parallel universe, so maybe we're on the same wavelength after all.

More when I've had time to actually think about it a bit . . .

ART Evoloved

While I'm on the topic of paleontology, I'll point you to ART Evolved, a new Palaeo-Art community.Founder Peter Bond writes:
Craig and I started ART Evolved for one reason. To share art and technique about recreating dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, plants and ancient landscapes. As someone who loves art of extinct life, I found that there really wasn't a community of amateur palaeo-artists on the net. ART Evolved aims to bring together everyone who shares our love for art from Earth's history.
They are open to contributions, so be sure to check it out if you'd like to share your own paleontology-inspired art.

While the art on the site is more science than fiction, contributor Glendon Mellow's work is a bit of both worlds. I especially like his alien looking Life As Trilobite (at left) and Sara Chasm.

(Thanks to artist and writer Sean Craven for the tip.)

Image (top right): Psittacosaur Fleshed Out by Sean Craven
Image (bottom left): Life as Trilobite by Glendon Mellow


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Alternative Evolution on Ratha's Island

Clare Bell is exploring a bit of alternative evolution set in the prehistoric world of Ratha, an intelligent self-aware cats. Her new novellette ". . . sends Ratha to a large island where evolution has taken a different course than on the mainland."

* SPOILER * The evolutionary twist is that the vertebrates on the island evolved from a fish that "walks on three pairs of fins." As you might imagine, that gives the island's creatures a bit of a leg up on vertebrates descended from lobed-fin fish like the fossil Tiktaalik (pictured at right). * SPOILER *

The story is also a bit of experimental modern story-telling in that it's being published sentence-by-sentence on Twitter. I think it's interesting to see how the limit of 140 characters for each sentence affects the flow of storytelling. It reads a bit choppy to me so far, but that may change as the story develops. I'm looking forward to the appearance of the alternatively evolved critters.

You can follow the story's progress on Twitter (RSS feed), or read the regularly updated log post at The Scratching Log. The blog post also has links to information about the paleontology behind the various animals in her story.

Bell's twitter feed also points to two interesting related sites: the Speculative Evolution forum and The World We Don't Live In blog.

Clare Bell's short story, "Bonechewer's Legacy" was recently published in Firebirds Soaring: An Anthology of Original Speculative Fiction. The fifth book her "Named" series, Ratha's Courage, was released last October.

Related Post: Ratha's Creatures

Image: Tiktaalik rosae drawing by ArthurWeasley on Wikipedia
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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How is that pronouced again?

It was announced earlier this week that the SciFi channel is changing its name to the SyFy channel. I think the new moniker is pretty silly-looking, but I do understand why the S_F_ channel might want to use a more trademarkable spelling. But what's really annoying is what they are claiming are the reasons behind the change:
“The name Sci Fi has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular,” said TV historian Tim Brooks, who helped launch Sci Fi Channel when he worked at USA Network.
And I'm sure that the association has nothing to do with the SciFi channel's prime-time wrestling, or the video game-based game shows, or their choice of advertising that focuses on hot women (my "favorite" being the one for Enterprise with the green Orion slave girls and sexy scheming mirror universe ensign Sato, which had pretty much nothing to do with the actual series).

And it ignores the many women who do watch SciFi. Like, you know, me. Or the many women fans of Battlestar Galactica and Stargate and Star Trek and Doctor Who. And you know where I read about the name change first? Yup, women bloggers. I suspect that I'm not the only woman out there who would watch SciFi more often if they added more quality programming. There are only so many times I can watch the same Star Trek episodes.

And what about those women who don't watch "SciFi" because they associate the term with dysfunctional boys? Are they going to see "SyFy" and think "ooh, shiny" and ignore that it's pronounced exactly the same way? Or, as Lisa Fary at Pink Ray Gun puts it:
OK. Dude. Don’t make chicks the culprit here. Are women who are not currently viewers really reporting that they’d watch the channel if it wasn’t called “SciFi”?
And this rationalization is pretty funny:
“When we tested this new name, the thing that we got back from our 18-to-34 techno-savvy crowd, which is quite a lot of our audience, is actually this is how you’d text it,” Mr. Howe said. “It made us feel much cooler, much more cutting-edge, much more hip, which was kind of bang-on what we wanted to achieve communication-wise.”
Now, I'm a bit older than that demographic range, so I'm out of touch, but I'm having trouble imagining 20-somethings texting each other about a TV channel. About a TV show, yes. A channel, not so much. Aren't the techno-savvy crowd twittering instead of texting these days anyway? Michael Hinman, founder of SyFy Portal (which was purchased a few weeks ago), must be amused that the name he came up with more than 10 years ago is apparently still so cutting-edge and hip.

And all the talk of branding ignores SciFi's real problem: changing the name means nothing if they don't change the programming. Will they add quality programming? Or will SyFy end up indistinguishable from Spike, with a schedule filled with endless CSI reruns, a bit of wrestling, and the monotony broken up with a bit of Star Wars and Star Trek, and something supernatural for the girly girls?

It would be nice if they remembered those of us who are interested in science fiction. Give me more of that and I'll watch. I'll even try to forget the insults.


Science Fiction, Race and Fandom

If you hang about the science fiction blogosphere, you've almost certainly come across references to RaceFail09, which has been simmering along since January. Ann Somerville has put together a summary which explains the "fail" part, wistfuljane has a collection of summaries, and Rydra_Wong has been heroically collecting links, with the earliest here and the most recent here (and many many in between).

And a lot of the posts have been uncomfortable and eye-opening reading for me. As a white person I have had the luxury of not really paying attention to the way that different races have been and are portrayed in science fiction. I also am very uncomfortable with confrontation and anger and find myself wishing that arguers would just be "more polite". I'm more at home with a sort of academic "civil" feuding in which attacking your opponent with bon mots, literary allusions, and aspersions on intelligence and credentials are acceptable, but simply saying "shut up" is not, even when that's what's meant. But that only works when everybody involved agrees to play that way. And I shouldn't be surprised that people told to shut up - even civilly - take offense, particularly when their intelligence is insulted besides. But I found myself taken aback when it happened, and that's my fail.

I've also been the clueless white person who wished I had an "ethnicity" or a more "exotic" culture. I've been that person who claims she "doesn't see color". The failure to notice the culture that's all around me and that I'm part of is a pretty clear demonstration of white privilege, as is my ability to ignore the issue of race when I choose. I've gotten better, I'd like to think, but I know I still have many blind spots. And so, while some people have characterized this current discussion and others like it on fan and feminist blogs as mere wank, it's actually been the source of a number of thought-provoking posts that have helped me better understand my own privilege and highlighted the problem with simply trying to discuss race in SF.

One of the very troubling aspects of the RaceFail09 discussion - people on the "anti-racist" side have been characterized as stupid and trolls and criminally anonymous by some of the white fans and members of the SF publishing world who contributed to the fail. That seems bizarre to me, because I recognize many of the names, pseudonymous and not, from other discussions about race and SF going back several years. But the old guard of science fiction book fandom seems to have kept itself largely separate from media fandom, which has more of a focus on TV, comic books and video games than printed SF. So that's been part of the conflict too.

And even though I'm more of a reader than a TV watcher or video game player, I find myself feeling alienated from those old-school SF book fans. I've never been to a convention, in part because the whole point seems to be to socialize and I'm not good at socializing with complete strangers, particularly at events that aren't particularly friendly to women. And yes, WisCon is explicitly feminist (and I should mention that WisCon or Bust: Fans of Color Assistance Project), but I don't feel like it would be worth the money to travel halfway across the country to attend ba con by myself. That's of course my own hang up, but in the SF book fandom world "real" science fiction fen attend cons1, which means that I'm not really a fan, or at least not a Fan. Add to that the arrogance of many Fen, who assume they are smarter and more open to new ideas than the mundane masses who aren't science fiction readers. And that leads to denial of any problems with racism or sexism, since they can insist that the SF future is "race blind" or that it "transcends" race2, which ignores that the default color of SF characters is white. I've even seen the argument that hard science fiction is about science (Science!), so the characters don't matter, which I find to be a silly argument. If SF was only about the science it would be indistinguishable from a textbook; it's that fiction part, the characters and their actions, that makes reading it enjoyable most of us (or at least to me). Maybe I'll attend a con someday and have a blast, but, at the moment, I don't feel like there's any real upside to being a "real" science fiction fan.

So if you've read this far, you are probably wondering what this has to do with biology. Well, I look around me, and I'd have to be blind not to notice that the U.S. is made up of people of many different colors and ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Our descendants - the future people that populate science fiction - should reflect that. That the future will be multi-hued is a matter of genetics. That the future human race will be made up people with different backgrounds and life experiences that are influenced by the color of their skin and ancestry is very likely, at least based on the past few thousand years of human history.

Here are the some of the posts about race and science fiction I've read in the past couple of weeks that I think are particularly interesting and thought-provoking (I've included a snippet from each post, but I recommend following the links):

Deepa D: I Didn't Dream of Dragons
I grew up with half a tongue.

Do not tell me, or the people like me who have grown up hearing Arabic around them, or singing in Swahili, or dreaming in Bengali—but reading only (or even mostly) in English (or French, or Dutch)—that this colonial rape of our language has not infected our ability to narrate, has not crippled our imagination. When I was in class 7, our English teacher gave us the rare creative writing assignment, and three of my classmates wrote adventure stories about characters named Julian and Peggy and Tom. Do not tell me that this cultural fracture does not affect the odds required to produce enough healthy imaginations that can chrysalis into writers. When we call ourselves Oreos or Coconuts or Bananas (Black/Brown/Yellow on the outside, White on the inside)—understand the ruptures and bafflement that accompanies our consumption of your media while we resent and critique it.
(and see her follow-up post: White people, its not all about you, but for this post it is)

Nojojo: We worry about it too
A lot of the people talking in all these comment threads -- clarification; a lot of the white people talking in these threads -- keep complaining that all this scary appropriation stuff means they're damned if they do and damned if they don't, they can never write people of color to the satisfaction of PoC so they're not going to bother, I guess this means white men should only write white men, o woe, o melodrama. That this is a false woe motivated in most cases by narcissism, spite, and no genuine interest in change is a given. But a few of the people voicing this complaint are sincere, because for various reasons they haven't yet realized something very basic: that racism infects the thinking of everyone, in a racist society. Everyone, including PoC themselves. White people are the most frequent perpetrators of stereotyping and "inappropriate appropriation", largely due to history and the power structure of Western society. But it's never been solely a unidirectional thing, however it might seem to those poor, confuzzled, put-upon white men (and others who think like them). PoC can stereotype and inappropriately appropriate other PoC. Hell, PoC can stereotype and inappropriately appropriate themselves. This is not some kind of intellectual-property race war, nor is it a game with winners and losers. It never has been, and the sooner everybody realizes that and gets on the same page, the sooner we can make some progress.
(also read her follow-up post Operating in hostile territory)

ciderpress: ven ve voke up, ve had zese wodies
I know that many white fans consider fandom as their "safe" space or at least, they think it *should* be their safe space. The subtext of that in regards to race and white privilege is that fandom is supposed to be a safe place for people not be challenged about their white privilege. For me, a safe space in regards to race is that no one gets to call me racist epithets or treat me or people who look like me with less respect, as accessories or dehumanise me because of my race. Those two models are incompatible and I'm not sure how to reconcile them or whether they can be at all.

Fandom isn't a safe place for anyone. I had already known that fandom wasn't a safe place for me. I hadn't, though, realised quite *how* unsafe it is. As more of these discussions keep happening, I am weary and am wondering if it will ever end. I find myself pulling further away from fandom and am much more wary of people. Which isn't very fun because it means that I have limited fandom interaction with people in my *own* fandom.
Yuki-Onna: Let Me Tell You a Story
Stories teach us how to survive. They tell us that our lives can be transcendent, that we can overcome almost anything, no matter how strange, that we can go into the black wood and come out again, that the witch can be burned up in her own oven, that we can find someone who fits a shoe, that the youngest, unloved child will find their way in the world, that those who suffer can become strong, can escape, can find their way into comfort and joy again. That there are secrets, and they are always worth discovering, that there are more and different creatures in the world than we can ever imagine, and not all want to eat us. Stories teach us how to win through, how to perservere, how to live.
And when we see story after story that has no one like us in it, a book entirely without women, a TV show where white people speak Chinese but there are no Asians visible, a movie set in California without Hispanics, image after image of a world where everyone is straight, and when we are told that it's no big deal, really, there is no race in future societies, that it's not anyone's fault if all the characters are white, that's just how they are, in the pure authorial mind, that we have no sense of humor, that we are ganging up on people because we speak our minds, this is what we hear:

You do not have a right to live. There are no stories for you, to teach you how to survive, because the world would prefer you didn't. You don't get to be human, to understand your suffering or move beyond it. In the perfect future society, you do not exist. We who are colorblind, genderblind, sexualityblind would prefer not to see you even now. In the world we make in our heads, you have been obliterated--even better, you never were. You are incapable of transcendance. You are not worthy of the most essential of human behavior. If you are lucky, we will let you into our stories, and you can learn to be a whore, or someone's mother, or someone's slave, or someone's prey. That is all you are, so pay attention: this is what we want to teach you to be.
Coffeeandink: The elephant in the room
Dear my fellow white people in sf/f fandom, of the bookish or media type:

We have a problem. That problem is racism. That problem is that the vast majority of books in our field are written by, edited by, and published by white people. The vast majority of TV shows in our genre are written by, directed by, and produced by white people. Most of these books, movies, and TV shows star white people and feature people of color only in secondary and stereotypical positions, if at all. Cons are attended largely by white people. [Public] sf/f discussions online take place largely in white spaces. Attempts to discuss race, cultural appropriation, racism, or racially inflected power disparities, whether American or global, invariably end up discussions of the hurt feelings of white people.

The few fans of color who are willing to engage with white people end up having to create strictly defined spaces for the discussion of white issues, which are already the predominant issues discussed, in order to attempt a public discussion of race. Most fans of color end up abandoning the genre or the public conversation for semi-private safe spaces, because the public spaces are simply too hostile to sustain conversation. Several of the most articulate and activist white fans, writers, and editors in our field can engage in a discussion of racism and come out of it feeling like the most significant problem in the discussion is that someone criticized a white person's action as racist.
(see also: Kate Nepveu: An open letter to white people in SFF fandom)

Mary Anne Mohanraj: On Writing Identity and the Need Thereof
When I was teaching at Clarion last summer, I spent a good portion of my week trying to convince my students that they needed to start writing identity into their stories. Now, by 'writing identity' I don't mean just 'add a person of color' to the story. What I wanted them to get away from was the generic white character (who was still, so often, also automatically male, and straight). I wanted them to think about how every white person they know has a specific ethnic identity. Maybe they're first-generation Polish-American. Maybe their ancestors came over on the Mayflower. Maybe they're some kind of European mongrel in descent -- a bit of Scottish, a bit of Irish, a whole lot of German, and a few other unidentified bits.
1. Not writing identity makes for bad fiction.

This one seems self-evident to me, and yet the more I read (especially work by my students, or work off slush piles), the more it becomes clear that many writers haven't figured this out yet. Fiction is a reflection of the real world. (Often, in the case of sf/f, a deliberately wildly distorted mirror, but still.) If you have human beings (or human analogues) in your stories, and they don't reflect the identity realities of people in the real world, then as a reader, that breaks the fictive illusion for me. I just re-read some Heinlein, and while I still have a terrible fondness for the old man, his women are so painfully unrealistic, so lacking in identity, that I can't read them as real people. Which means I can't care about them, which means that on a deep and profound level, the story has failed.3

(Mary Anne also has two posts on John Scalzi's blog on race, science fiction and fantasy: Part 1 and Part 2.)

Puella Nerdii: RaceFail '09; or Art Does Not Exist in a Vacuum
Art does not exist in a vacuum. When we write, we have to be conscious not only of the world we're writing about, but the world we're writing in, and the people we're writing for. And again, our cultural context doesn't dictate what we produce, but it sure as hell informs it, and I think good artists should be both conscious of this and in dialogue with it. If I as a white person write a novel where the villain is a large, muscular, menacing black man (for example), that carries meaning with it beyond the words I put on the page. It calls to mind decades and centuries of degrading stereotypes, and it creates associations with those stereotypes in the minds of my readers, who have also been bombarded with those images and patterns and have their own responses to them. If I as a white person get into a debate with a fan of color and chide them for becoming too emotional, or basing their arguments on emotional response rather than rational analysis, that carries with it cultural connotations. I might not intend to make ignorant or offensive remarks. I don't think most of the people involved in this meant to attack fans of color or make them feel unwelcome. But regardless of what they intended, they did.
Oyceter @ Ambling Along the Aqueduct: Racefail'09 This hurts us all
What SF book fandom is telling me—a woman, a person of color, and a long-time fan of SF books and a con-goer—what you are telling me is that you don't care. That these are, in fact, your community norms, that you are all right with people who have more power in your community (by virtue of profession, race, and gender) using that power to harm other, less powerful, members of your community. That you are fine with the erasure of women, of people of color, of those without the same professional privileges you enjoy, and that you are willing to stand by silently and let people be hurt. This is how it affects us. This. And this. Your silence speaks volumes.
And a few comments on how the depiction of race dovetails with the way science fiction depicts science:

Well, plus white people are logical and scientific and non-white people are magical and have cults! I remember in the first season of the X-Files (and I LOVED that show) you could tell whether the big reveal would be magic/paranormal or government/aliens based on, no joke, the race of the subjects of the case. White people? Government conspiracy. Asian? Magic mushrooms. Romany? Magical twin-birth psychic powers. Etc.
I never noticed that. Yup, I'm oblivious.

And several people pointed out that SF writers are willing to go to great lengths to get the science right, while resisting research that would help the depiction of characters.

Avalon's Willow:
And then things exploded and various PoC online learned that professional SF&F was not ready to have people who are not white, telling them where they're messing up. It's ok for doctors and physicists and engineers to point out fallacies and problems and myths that have been accepted as fact but really have no scientific basis what so ever and have actually been refuted. It is not ok when someone who experiences life differently due to the colour of their skin, due to their background and heritage (of slavery, of colonization, of fights for independence that happened within the past 70 - 100 years) - when they point out fallacies and tropes and pitfalls into myths and stereotypes which have been refuted and yet continue...It is an appearance of THE HORDE.
And that's why my commenting on the science in science fiction is a much safer activity than talking about race (or gender or sexuality) in the genre.

NK Jemison:
The thing that kills me about SF writers is that many of them will jump through all kinds of hoops in order to get the science right in their stories. Especially hard SF writers — they’ll research, confer with physicists, even go back to grad school and get themselves a nice shiny Ph.D. in their chosen area of obsession, and then angst over every reader nitpick if they get even the tiniest detail wrong. Yet so many of these same writers won’t put forth even a tenth of this effort to get people right. There’s something wrong with that, I think.
Bar exam training classes talk about how all you really need to pass is a "glib understanding" of particular areas of law; not enough to appear before the Supreme Court on the topic, but at least enough to get by. Writers often get this kind of fluency to be able to talk about advanced physics or biology, and there are ways to get the same level of "I can manage at a cocktail party and not piss people off" in culture and language.
Writers really do have to be jacks of all trades, and that always necessitates research. I think most good writers would, as a matter of course, research something about beet farming if they were going to write a beet farming character. Researching things about race, class, ethnicity, religion, etc. should be an automatic part of that process, too.

I personally think the characters are at least as important as the science in a well-crafted science fiction story. Unless the story is very short, cool scientific ideas aren't enough to hold my interest, while interesting characters can easily make me overlook deficits in the science.

A few more posts and essays, old and new:
Race and TV SF:
Where to find racially diverse science fiction:

Our specific objectives include (but are not limited to):

  • Increasing the number of authentically portrayed people of color in speculative fiction
  • Increasing authentic ethnic diversity in speculative fiction
  • Increasing the number of strong, authentically portrayed women in speculative fiction
  • Increasing the number of authentically portrayed gay, lesbian, bisexual and asexual people in speculative fiction
  • Increasing the number of authentically portrayed transgender, transsexual, intersex and genderqueer⁄fluid people in speculative fiction
  • Increasing the number of authentically portrayed people with disabilities in speculative fiction
  • Publishing essays and reflections on speculative fiction and fandom which challenge the established biases of the field ⁄ genre
  • Challenging all forms of stereotypes and cliches in speculative fiction
  • Creating a venue so that those whose points of view tend to be represented unrealistically or negatively in most speculative fiction may speak out in their own voice
  • Humanizing the "other" by telling the story from a non-traditional point of view and⁄or reversing who is the insider and who is the outsider in speculative fiction
Amusingly (not), Expanded Horizons has been accused of "reverse descrimination" because of these guidelines.

And if you are looking to publish, you should also check out the newly formed Verb Noire press. According to their submission guidelines "We are looking for original works of genre fiction (science fiction/fantasy/mystery/romance) that feature a person of color and/or LGBT as the central character." They are also taking donations.

1. Of course it's only convention-goers (or people willing to pay the convention fee) who are allowed to vote on the Hugo Awards, so in that sense it's people who attend cons who help define which novels are the "important" ones in the genre.
2. I don't know how people of color feel about the idea of "transcending" their race, but I personally loathe the concept of transcending my gender. That assumes that being a woman is something lesser - less intelligent, less capable, less worthy of interest or consideration than a man - and I must move away from my femaleness to be considered something more. No thanks. (And I wish I could find the comment thread where it was claimed that SF had transcended - I believe there was also the claim that the discussion of race in SF had already been done because Delaney was on a panel at the local con 15 years ago or something.)

3. In the comments to MAM's post, a guy claims "most women [he's talked to] with a scientific of technical training at or above the graduate level say they never had no trouble at all [identifying with Heinlein's women]", which I had to restrain myself from responding to since it wasn't the point of the post. But, for the record, this scientifically trained woman does indeed have trouble identifying with most of Heinlein's female characters.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Tangled Bank Anthology: Submit Your Evolution Spec Fic

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
~ On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, 1859
As most of you probably know, 2009 marks the 200th Anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. In celebration, Australian writer Chris Lynch is putting together an anthology of short speculative fiction and poetry. Here's the notice from his aptly named Tangled Bank Press:

It’s hard to overestimate the impact of Charles Darwin’s work on science and society — the theory of evolution has been described as the best idea anyone has ever had. Science fiction has been profoundly influenced: Gardner Dozois has gone so far as to say that science fiction began with The Origin of Species, by establishing an evolutionary sense of time that allowed science-fictional ideas to flourish. And yet Brian Stableford, in his entry on evolution in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, argues that “it is lamentably unfortunate that so few sf stories have deployed the theory in any reasonably rigorous fashion”.

H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine was a powerful late 19th century meditation on Darwin’s theory. More than a century later, Darwin’s theory remains socially controversial, despite an explosion of evidence and new ideas that build on Darwin’s insights. Why? What is it about evolution that refuses to catch the imagination of so many? What does evolution mean in the early 21st century? What will it mean in the future? The Tangled Bank is an attempt to answer these questions in an entertaining and thought-provoking way.

Explore the process of evolution in any of its forms. Breed us a story that engages the heart and the brain, a story that explores what evolution means to you, a story that evokes wonder or fear, laughter or despair. Take us on a voyage of discovery. Bring back specimens from old worlds, or new ones. Shine a light on dark corners. Illuminate what it means to be human, or inhuman. It could be a hard sf story, a contemporary tale of atheists and creationists, a magic realist story in Charles Darwin’s backyard, a myth of origin, a fairy tale, steampunk, cyberpunk, horror, new weird, old weird, or something entirely different.

Sounds right up my alley.

Contributions can be short fiction (1000-7500 words), poetry or artwork. If you are interested in submitting, check out the guidelines.

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The Family Tree

Sorry for my absence, dear readers. My dad passed away on February 28th, and I'm still getting myself back up to speed. If you are interested, you can follow the link to see some photos and some of my memories. I miss him very much.

I've spent more time in my childhood bedroom in the past few months than I have in many years. While most of my junk precious possessions were moved out long ago, I did find a variety of paperbacks - some I recognize as mine, others not so much. There was a really bad SF novel1 that I'm sure my brother purchased (I refuse to take any responsibility for it, anyway).

I also came across my copy of Sheri Tepper's novel The Family Tree. It's actually one of the first SF novels I selected specifically because of its biological themes. There are actually two parallel plots: in a world very much like our present day, police officer Dora Henry investigates the murder of several geneticists, tries to figure out why rapidly growing trees and weeds seem to be taking over, while recovering from the breakup of her loveless marriage. The second plot takes place in a fantasy-like world, with royal families, limited technology, working magic, and sentient trees. There an unlikely band of travelers finds themselves on a quest that they believe will save the world. As you would expect, the two seemingly separate tales eventually become one.
"Dr. Winston was always getting himself in trouble with the boss, but he used to say every time he isolated a particular combination of genetic instructions and saw what the effect was, he'd filled in a bit of knowledge. [...] Winnie really opened our eyes to the possibilities. He was working on clusters, you see. Discrete genetic items that added up to more than the sum of the parts. One change in skull structure plus one change in hormonal tissue, plus or minus some other odds and ends, gave us horns on a pig. [...] Some brain modifications, other change in skull structure to make it curved instead of flat, and a change in throat and tongue structure should theoretically give us a sheepdog that could talk to the shepherd."
~ The Family Tree, Sheri S. Tepper, 1998
I have mixed feelings about the story. I found the fantasy part of the novel a bit too cute for my tastes, and the message - that man is destroying the environment and that genetic engineering may have long term consequences - a bit heavy handed.

If you've read Tepper's other novels, that environmental message shouldn't come as any surprise, since it's a recurring theme in her novels. As she told Locus in 1998:
''I happen to be obsessed by some subjects. There's the whole card of environmental issues, the extinction of species after species. To my mind, the expression of divinity is in variety, and the more variable the creation, the more variable the creatures that surround us, botanical and zoological, the more chance we have to learn and to see into life itself, nature itself. If we were just human beings, living in a spaceship, with an algae farm to give us food, we would not be moved to learn nearly as many things as we are moved by living on a world, surrounded by all kinds of variety. And when I see that variety being first decimated, and then halved – and I imagine in another hundred years it may be down by 90% and there'll be only 10% of what we had when I was a child – that makes me very sad, and very despairing, because we need variety. We came from that, we were born from that, it's our world, the world in which we became what we have become."
The science isn't described in much detail and I don't think it's particularly plausible. All that having been said, I did find most of it entertaining, an the way she brought the two story lines together was clever. It was definitely worth rereading.

1. The author writes in the postscript that the novel was rejected many times, and that it wasn't until he was famous that he found a publisher for it. I'm not at all surprised.


Monday, March 02, 2009

Dear readers, I won't be posting for the next week or so. I hope you come back around then.