Wednesday, August 12, 2009

WiSF reading club: Woman on the Edge of Time - Equality Through Biotechnology?

Note: I've volunteered to host the WiSF reading club discussion about Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. The post below is my take on one aspect of the novel - one that fits in with the "biology in science fiction" theme of my blog quite nicely - but I don't mean for it to limit the discussion. I think there are a number of other issues the novel touches on that would be interesting to explore, so please have at it in the comments.

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Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time is a disturbing novel. It's the story of Consuelo "Connie" Ramos, a poor Mexican-American woman who has been in and out of mental hospitals. She ends up committed once again after she physically defends her niece from her niece's pimp boyfriend and that's where the horror starts. In the "present day" (mid-1970s) mental hospital the patients are treated with both indifference and abuse by the staff, and Connie and several other patients are chosen to receive experimental neural control implants, not only without their consent, but in Connie's case explicitly against her wishes. The patients are considered little different than test animals by the physicians and doctors participating in the experiment:
[Connie] remembered something she had heard Dr. Redding say to Superintendent Hodges: that they had used up five thousand monkeys before they began doing these operations on patients. Used up. She had heard him say he had wanted to work with prisoners – he thought the results would be more impressive – but there had been such an uproar about three little psychosurgical procedures at Vacaville in California that his team decided to work with mental patients. "After all," he had said, smiling his best ironic smile, "they made a court case and a bleeding heart publicity brouhaha about three procedures, while San Francisco Children's Hospital does hundreds with sound and thermal probes – mostly on neurotic women and intractable children – and no one says boo."
This unfortunately wasn't just fiction. By the mid-1970s there had been a number of cases in which experimentation on human subjects without their informed consent had been revealed to the public.

But Connie has an escape of sorts*: she is visited by Luciente, a woman from 22nd century Massachusetts. She comes from a future in which time travelers leave can behind their unconscious bodies while appearing corporeally by forming a mental link with an individual at their destination. This allows Connie to leave the nightmarish hospital to visit Luciente's utopian future. What she finds is that Luciente lives in a small rustic-appearing village, a communal society in which everyone has their own space, works to their best ability, is free to pursue their interests and has their necessities are taken care of. However that appearance of rusticity is somewhat deceiving. Not only does everyone have a personal networked computer (a "kenner"), but the underpinning of their society is advanced biotechnology.

Luciente herself is a plant geneticist who develops new crops, in part by introducing new genes from the plants in carefully preserved wild areas. But the real difference that sets her society apart from Connie's is the elimination of discrimination due to gender or race. Their solution was two-fold: eliminate childbearing and child-rearing as female-only activities and separate genetics from parenthood. As Luciente explains to Connie:
"It was part of women's long revolution. When we were breaking all the old hierarchies. Finally there was that one thing we had to give up too, the only power we ever had, in return for no more power for anyone. The original production: the power to give birth. cause as long as we were biologically enchained, we'd never be equal. And males never would be humanized to be loving and tender. So we all became mothers. Every child has three. To break the nuclear bonding."
Their reproduction is based on vitro fertilization and fetuses grown in artificial wombs. After birth, each infant has three co-mothers, male and female, who are given hormonal treatments so that all can share in nursing. And because there are no genetic ties between parents and their children, they have eliminated discrimination by race. However, they have found a way to maintain cultural diversity by separating it from genetics:
"At grandcil – grand council – decisions were made forty years back to breed a high proportion of darker-skinned people and to mix the genes well through the population. At the same time, we decided to hold on to separate cultural identities. But we broke the bond between genes and culture, broke it forever. We want there to be no chance of racism again. But we don't want the melting pot where everybody ends up with thin gruel. We want diversity, for strangeness breeds richness."
As that quote hints at, people of Luciente's society can adopt any culture they chose, just as they select a name they feel suits them. Luciente's village is culturally "Wampanoag", while others are "Harlem-Black", "Cape Verde" and "Ashkenazi Jewish". I use quotes because only the elements of those cultures that fit their society are adopted - sexism, racism, and patriarchal religion are excluded.

But not everything is idyllic. Luciente and her people are at war with a neighboring society that is essentially their exact opposite. It's urban, uses genetic engineering to create super soldiers, and the common people eat bland food grown on factory farms. Connie accidentally travels to the future New York City where she meets a woman - Gildina 547-921-45-822-KBJ - from this society who has been "cosmetically fixed for sex use" and is sealed in her windowless apartment. Gildina's none to bright, and that's by design:
"She was born a dud. She's just a built-up contracty. All duds have brain deficiencies from protein scarcity in fetus and early childhood. Their IRP's are negative forty to negative fifteen. Her psych scan tests show negative twenty-five. She has no more mental capacity than a genetically improved ape."
Wealthy families and corporations in this version of the future use biotechnology to keep the lower classes oppressed. Gildina doesn't expect to live beyond her 40's while the "richies" live for centuries on involuntarily "donated" organs. It's a nasty place to be one of the masses.

Despite the novel's heavy handed (to my eyes) dichotomy between Luciente's idyllic pastoral Marxist society and the hellish capitalist urban society of New York, I thought it was interesting that both versions of the future are heavily dependent on technology - particularly biotechnology - for their existance. In one it's used to allow women to become independent equal members of society, in the other it creates women that are just sexual objects (among many other differences). If forced to chose I'd obviously prefer the former over the latter, but my perhaps naive hope is that we can achieve equality without reengineering our biology.

* There is some ambiguity as to whether Connie's trips to the future are real, or whether they are just manifestations of schizophrenia. It could be argued that she is a victim of being a poor non-white woman whose normal actions are interpreted with the assumption that she is mentally ill (something that has been shown to happen in psychiatric hospital).

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So that's my take on the biotechnology in WotEoT. I think there are a number of other aspects that would make for good discussion too.

If you are interested in an academic analysis, check out this essay by Clemson English professor Elisa Kay Sparks.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Hugo Award Winner: Bear's Shoggoths in Bloom

The sea-swept rocks of the remote Maine coast are habitat to a panoply of colorful creatures. It's an opportunity, a little-studied maritime ecosystem. This is in part due to difficulty of access and in part due to the perils inherent in close contact with its rarest and most spectacular denizen: Oracupoda horibilis, the common surf shoggoth.
This year's Hugo for best novelette went to Elizabeth Bear for her WWII-era alternate natural history tale "Shoggoths in Bloom". As the title suggests the story features shoggoths, creatures from HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, but with a slightly different twist.

Read Shoggoths in Bloom

Image: Shoggoth by pahko @ wikimedia commons. Also see pahko at DeviantArt.
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Hugo Award Winner: Chiang's Exhalation

It has long been said that air (which others call argon) is the source of life. This is not in fact the case, and I engrave these words to describe how I came to understand the true source of life and, as a corollary, the means by which life will one day end.
Ted Chiang's excellent short story "Exhalation" won a Hugo last night. The setting is an alien world where an argon-breathing metal scientist seeks to understand his world and himself. Admittedly, it technically isn't about biology - at least not carbon-based life - but if you read it for yourself I think you'll see the similarities.


Read Exhalation
Listen to a podcast of "Exhalation" @ Escape Pod or @ Starship Sofa


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Hugo Award Winner: Kress's Erdmann Nexus

Nancy Kress's novella "The Erdmann Nexus" won a Hugo yesterday. It's basis is a combination of the philosophical and scientific concept of emergence in complex systems along with a bit of neuroscience. In particular she uses the fact that activity in the brain changes when people go into deep meditative states as an indication that humanity could develop a group mind that goes beyond basic human consciousness. It's not a new science fictional idea, and not surprisingly the story has significant religious and mystical themes. I didn't find the story that interesting, other than Kress's inclusion of some recent science.

Read The Erdmann Nexus.

Image: fMRI data for expert meditators. From Brefczynski-Lewis JA et al. "Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners". Proc Natl Acad Sci USA (2007) 104: 11483–8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0606552104
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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Hugo Nominee: Pride and Prometheus

Mary Shelly's 1831 classic, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, is considered by many to have been one of the earliest science fiction novels. It is, of course, dear to me because of it's basis in biology, particularly the contemporary experiments on the effect of electricity on "reanimating" corpses.

Shelley's work is revisited in John Kessel's "Pride and Prometheus", a nominee for this year's best novelette Hugo Award. Kessel has Dr. Victor Frankenstein meeting a young Miss Mary Bennet, Elizabeth Bennet's bookish younger sister in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Mary is a Natural History enthusiast, and her meeting with Frankenstein changes her life . . .

Read "Pride and Prometheus" at Fantasy & Science Fiction

Download John Kessel's The Baum Plan For Financial Independence and Other Stories
(including "Pride and Prometheus") at Small Beer Press

Image: Illustration from the 1831 Edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
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Monday, August 03, 2009

Science in SF at the WorldCon

The next big event on the summer convention schedule is the 67th World Science Fiction Convention - Anticipation - to be held in Montreal on August 6-10. Amidst the author readings, writing workshops, filk singing, costume crafting, there will be panels on many SF and fantasy topics, including science in SF.

The Master of Ceremonies is former biologist and SF author Julie E. Czerneda. Not surprisingly, Czerneda's novels have a strong bioscience basis. She is also the author of the non-fiction No Limits: Developing Scientific Literacy Using Science Fiction, which has suggestions for teaching science with SF, and runs the SciFiZone at ScienceNews for Kids, among other educational endeavors. Czerneda will be giving the keynote at the free Science Fiction in the Classroom workshop on Thursday August 6th.

I've listed below some of the panels I think sound interesting and have a strong "science in SF" component from the scheduled convention programming (pdf). If I was attending the con, I'd have a hard time deciding which panels to attend!

Thursday

12:30 1hr 30min: "Bio-Ethics"
Alison Sinclair, Judy T. Lazar, Laura Anne Gilman, Russell Blackford, Tomoko Masuda
Medical experiments, drug companies, cloning, insurance, bookies and you.

14:00 1hr 30min: "What is Consciousness?"
Pat Cadigan, Kim Binsted, Peter Watts
Studies of complex chemical systems, AI, neuroscience and MRI are beginning to find answers to this question. What are the results and what do they mean for our sense of self?

16:00 1hr "First Contact: Worldbuilding"
Julie E. Czerneda, Charles K. Bradley, Nina Munteanu, Eoin Colfer
Worldbuilding workshop: we'll discuss and create alien worlds and cultures.

Friday

10:00 1hr: "How to Effectively Talk about Science to Non-Scientists and Why it Matters"
Chad R. Orzel
Presenting one's ideas is ever more crucial for scientists. If we don't do it well, you can be certain someone else will do it badly.

10:00 1hr "In Space Everyone Can Hear"
Chris Becker, David Stephenson, Jeanne M. Mealy, John Douglass, Christopher D. Carson
No they can't, unless it's a really neat special effects explosion. Is it possible to do hard SF on screen (big or small), or is a certain amount of dumbing down inevitable?

10:00 1hr "Is Science Used Differently in French-language SF?"
Eric Picholle, Jean-Louis Trudel, Michele Laframboise, Laurent Genefort
SF in English often prefers technology to science, but how does SF in French handle science?

10:00 1hr "Just how does Creationist Science Work?"
Edward James, Jay Lake, Leigh Ann, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Paul Chafe, Rev. Randy Smith
What stories are told in creationist science to explain things like fossils, dinosaurs, astronomy, geology and genetics?

10:00 1hr [Teen Programming] "First Contact: Extraterrestrial Life"
Charles K. Bradley, Geoff Hart
We'll discuss possible alien worlds, and the beings that might live there.

14:00 1hr 30min: "The Future of Gender"
Cheryl Morgan, Jason Bourget, Jeanne Cavelos, Veronica Hollinger
From contraceptives to computers, is technology undermining traditional gender roles andif so where is this taking us?

14:00 1hr 30min: "Getting it Right: Environmental Issues in Science Fiction or Fantasy"
Bob Sojka, Jason Tuell, Kristin Norwood, Nina Munteanu, Mike Gallaher
These panelists want to explain about using correct environmental details in science fiction (and fantasy): weather, green buildings; green processes and, yes, linoleum

15:00 1hr [Teen Programming]: "First Contact: Create and Design Aliens"
Carl Fink, Jane Carnall, Judy T. Lazar, Jean-Pierre Guillet, Dana MacDermott, Diane Kelly
A workshop conceptualizing other beings: What sort of biology are aliens likely to have? What might they look like? What personalities/behaviors? How will this affect our communications?

15:30 1hr 30min: "Are We Conscious and Does it Matter?"
Daryl Gregory, James Morrow, Kathryn Cramer, Peter Watts
What do we mean by consciousness? Has it become as much of a distraction as wondering whether there is a heaven? Would we act any differently if we didn’t think we were conscious? How important is the concept to fantasy and science fiction?

15:30 1hr 30min: "Anatomy for Writers, Heroes and Tavern Brawlers"
Darlene Marshall, Jetse de Vries, Sean McMullen, Kristen Britain
Author, karate instructor, fencer and first aid officer Sean McMullen provides a tour of how the human body can and cannot be damaged. Want to know where a hero can be punched without any effect? Worried about his vascular dilation? Curious about the real-life version of Mr Spock’s nerve pinch? Not sure whether a really long sword fight is three hours or seven seconds? Wondering why readers are laughing because your hero has microsecond reactions? Come along and find out in complete safety.

22:00 1hr: "Build a Better Astronaut"
David H. Brummel, Jeanne Cavelos, Nick Kanas, Steven Popkes, H.G. Stratmann
With rocket accidents, radiation, zero gravity, hard vacuum and long journey times is space travel just too dangerous for humans? And if so, how are we to reach the high frontier ourselves? What changes need to be made to the human body and mind to make it better suited for interplanetary and interstellar travel?

Saturday

9:00 1hr: "The Goldilocks Alien"
G. David Nordley, Judy T. Lazar, Geoff Hart
Many SFnal aliens come from worlds just like ours - not too hot, not too cold, not too radioactive. Is this realistic? Can't we do better than this? What if their evolutionary pattern was different?

10:00 1hr: "The Philosophy of Science"
Chad R. Orzel (blog post on the panel), Greer Gilman, James Morrow, Jeff Warner, Richard Crownover, DD Barant
To what extent does SF explore the meaning of science for scientists and create the ideas that our culture has of science?

19:00 1hr: "Panel in the Pool"
James Bryant (G4CLF), Kat Feete, Lindsay Barbieri, Seanan McGuire, Thomas A. Easton
What would dolphins do? What side of the road would cephalopods prefer? Do they make screwdrivers for right-handed octopuses? The panel, in the deep end with lead boots, discusses aquatic intelligences.

Sunday

9:00 1hr: "Cloning Dos and Don'ts"
Birgit Houston, Jeanne Cavelos, Judy T. Lazar, Kat Feete, Paolo Bacigalupi
Cloning frequently comes up in SF, but how does it work in real life? And what happens when it goes wrong?


10:00 1hr "Science for SF Writers"
Julie E. Czerneda, Alison Sinclair, David Clements, David D. Levine
Where can you get crash courses on science for science fiction writers? Is it actually useful?

10:00 1hr "Realism in Science Fiction"
Chris Howard, kyle cassidy, Pascale Raud, Joel Polowin, Tobias Buckell
A lot of near-future SF novels duck the problems we read about in the news – climate change or energy shortage – in favour of problems which look more solveable. We all know that SF shouldn’t be pure prediction, but how much of a duty does it have to be based on realistic assumptions?

21:00 1hr "Legitimizing the Woo"
Margaret Ronald, Eoin Colfer, Peter Watts
It is an ongoing tradition of science fiction to rehabilitate overtly fantasy tropes (vampires, zombies, fairies, god) by soaking them in SFnal rationales. What are the rules for hijacking a trope from one genre and reprogramming it for another? And why bother?

Monday

10:00 1hr "A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing"
Amy Thomson, Carl Fink, Christopher Davis, Karl Schroeder
What happens when physicists try ot write biological SF; or when a writer's research goes badly wrong?

11:00 1hr "The Drake Equation and the Fermi Failure"
Ian Tregillis, Thomas Womack, Jordin Kare, Peter Watts
Recent discoveries have enhanced our estimates of the number of planetary systems in the galaxy; recent analysis suggest that the silence dominating the hydrogen band may be more an artifact of signal dissipation than evidence of an empty universe. Is there any real point in describing the frequency of technological civilizations using a 7-variable equation for which 5 of the parameters are completely unknown? Do we even know enough to *have* a reasonable debate?

12:30 1hr 30min; "Hard SF: Is it What You Do, or How You Do It?"
Amy H. Sturgis, Marc Schirmeister, Joël Champetier, Gabrielle Harbowy
Many critics – including David Hartwell – argue that hard SF is as much defined by an attitude (how you depict science in an SF story) rather than to do with detailed depiction of science. So a story, like Ted Chiang’s “Tower of Babylon” could be hard SF whilst being based in a completely imaginary scientific foundation. Is this a useful way to see things?

12:30 1hr: "Genetic Engineering Our Offspring"
Birgit Houston, John Wilson, Judy T. Lazar, Russell Blackford, Paolo Bacigalupi
Surgical modifications, perhaps with controlled re-growth. Cyborg technology. All standard SF tropes that are now just around the next corner but one. What will all these changes mean? To us as individuals? As a society? Will we try to postpone or control them? Will we succeed? Will we still be human and does it matter? And what reactions will there be from broader society?

14:00 1hr 30min: "Mundane SF vs Science"
Geoff Ryman, Henry Spencer, Karen Burnham, Mark Olson
Mundane SF aims to extrapolate from the science of today. But science doesn’t work like that. What’s happened to the paradigm shift?

And of course that's just the tip of the iceberg, programming-wise. I'm looking forward to seeing what people report back from the con. Maybe there will even be video (?)

If you are in the Montreal area, you should consider going, particularly since they are selling low-risk "taster" memberships at the door.

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