Saturday, June 14, 2008

Hard Science Fiction, Biology and Women (again)

Space Biologist
"Sorry guys, I can't join you
at the pub until I finish this
ELISA for Professor Ribbit."
LiveJournaler badgerbag has put up a transcript of the WisCon 32* panel on "Women and Hard SF". The panelists were Margaret McBride, Janice Bogstad, Victoria Gaydosik and Sue Lange. Not surprisingly (to me anyway) their discussion touched on the biological sciences:
JB: Part of the reason the concept, the term [hard science fiction] is problematic is it's used as a norm for "real science fiction" and however we define it, it has changed as more women enter the field. Fantastic, speculative, there's other terms they call it when they don't want to call it sf. Femspec. In early days of 50s and 60s sf, male authors would write about social issues and the social issues around tech but when women do it's soft sf. Then we come to 70s and 80s when writing about biology was considered soft, because (the rhetoric is that) women are their biology in some way, women can therefore more easily be biochemical scientists... I expect the next thing to fall is going to be mathematics. Real, normative, actual, the only kind we should really care about, that counts, used in book reviews, not included in canon. This changing definition has a gender bias to it.
The argument that the association between women and biology is part of the reason why it's considered less "hard" than physics isn't a new one (for example see my previous post on Women, Biology and Hard Science Fiction). And it's true that many more women receive degrees in the biological sciences than in the physical sciences.**

The discussion also touches on one of my pet peeves: the conflation of "science" and "technology". SF with gadgets and gizmos and exotic engineering is often considered "hard", even if those gadgets don't have any scientific basis (FTL travel, for example). And I think that feeds into the notion that biology isn't "hard" - there aren't that many gadgets that have come out of the biological sciences, at least as compared to the physical sciences.

I don't completely agree with the idea that women don't like SF because there is too much science and technology in it, however.
Aud: I would like to like hard sf, but, it's like the cold skeleton, bare bones, boy playing with his toys, in Singularity Charlie Stross (something), there's no movement, human touch, it's the skeleton of ideas without people moving through it.

Margaret: This raises a very significant thing for me. The people who doesn't read SF at all, especially women, because they think that's what it is. Even more importantly, is it making the feeling of science less interesting or important to women, because they think that's what it is?? That's why it's important and that's why these tropes and definitions matter.
She seems to be arguing that women are less interested in hard science fiction - and science - because we prefer the "human touch" to technology. While it may be true for some women, it's definitely not true for me. I like the nifty gadgets and descriptions of black holes and weird speculation about the evolution of mutant alien viruses, as long as there is an entertaining story to go along with it.***

Anyway, there are many male writers whose science fiction people consider to be "hard", but who don't actually use much rigorous science in their stories. The discussion brought up Heinlein and Crichton and Bear, who got thwacked pretty hard:
Annalee: Greg Bear, number one our list of criminals, he sits on a committee that advises the DOD on future scenarios, he's very proud of it! He thinks he's the hardest of the hard, but his science is terrible! and he's dealing with biology! Which a ton of women have dealt with.

For some good hard science fiction by women, Annalee Newitz at io9 lists "10 books that prove science fiction just got harder", which includes The Nanotech Quartet by Kathleen Goonan, The Color of Distance by Amy Thomson, Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories by Nancy Kress, Lilith's Brood by Octavia Butler, Downbelow Station by CJ Cherryh, and Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold. There's lots of bioscience in the list too.

(via Feminist Science Fiction)

* WisCon is "the first and foremost feminist science fiction convention in the world."

** In the 1999-2000 academic year (pdf) women received 58% of the bachelors degrees in the biological and life sciences and 40% of the bachelor's degrees in physical sciences. In the same period women received 44% of the doctoral degrees in the biological and life sciences , but only 25% of the doctoral degrees in the physical sciences.

*** That especially bugs me, because it's the kind of argument SciFi has made for reducing the actual science fiction on its schedule - according to them, women like the ghost hunting and psychics and the "touchy feely". What I do like is science fiction that doesn't give short shrift to it's female characters. Or even better - puts women in the starring role. It can be soft or hard science-wise, but please give me women who are more than eye candy or info dumpees. Definitely read Annalee Newitz's rant on the subject.

Image: Half nude chick doing biology inspired by this exchange: "Margaret: I have to be a little bit cynical. editor at tor, book cover panel, memo, I don't care what you people think, the half nude broad is what sells it. Annalee: Well if that half nude broad is doing biology, I'm down with it." I used my leet Photoshop skillz to mashup an old Avon paperback cover with the tools of the trade.

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  1. Anonymous9:17 AM

    I was unaware that the definition of hard scifi was in any real way being debated.

    As I've always understood the definition, in hard scifi an author is allowed to fudge or make up one and only one thing and everything else in the story must be either a logical outgrowth of that one thing or be already within the realm of possibility.

    Many, though not all, of the Asimov robot stories fit this definition. The positronic brain is taken as axiomatic and everything else comes straight from that.

    Gattaca is also a good such example.

    Is my understanding flawed?

  2. My understanding is that there is some disagreement as to how much fudging is "allowed" in hard science fiction. It often is associated with stories that have lots of technology, but not much science - much like your example of Asimov's robot novels. It's not just the positronic brain, but the faster than light travel, the psionic powers, and the machine that makes the Earth more radioactive. IMHO those particular novels are really murder mysteries in a science fictional setting than hard SF.


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