Thursday, September 27, 2012

SF tropes and the ever-shifting edge of reality

Once in a blue moon I wake up from a dream so soaked with a sense of reality that it feels less like a dream I've just had then a memory of something I've recently done. Oddly enough such dreams tend to be sfnal in character. While I'm in them, I have no perception of their being sfnal-- that only comes after I've woken up.

Such was the case this the morning. In my dream, I was writing an article on a trip I'd just to the moon for a magazine' the article would be comprised of an text, photos, and video clips. I'd decided that the article would focus on a researcher who'd been there for 23 years-- since the beginning of the settlement-- studying kinetics. In my dream, I kept reviewing the video clip of my conversation with her, in which she spoke of her distress at being dumped by her HMO-- which had been covering her for all the 23 years she'd been working on the moon-- because her health problems were different to those of women her age on earth. The image of this woman speaking is the most vivid image of my dream: she is wearing a white lab coat of course, over silk the color of autumn leaves, and small dangling earrings, and has enough ray in her hair and lines and wear in her face to be in her 50s or 60s were she to have been living all that time on earth, though I acknowledged that living in lunar gravity she might well be a good deal older. Thinking about her face, which seemed oddly familiar, after waking, it occurred to me that she might be modeled on Susan S, a dancer I'd know in the early 1970s, suitably aged. (With a personality considerably toned down.) She was someone I hadn't seen or even thought of for years and years. I'd already written the part of my article about how pedestrian travel to the moon actually was, and how surprisingly populous the place seemed, and how though the hotel accommodations were a bit cramped, weren't that much more expensive than hotels in major cities in the US. Etc. All very ordinary, even pedestrian. Which was why my article was focusing on this woman and her difficulties, partially a consequence of her never having budged from the moon for 23 years.

Mulling over the peculiar realization that my most real-seeming dreams tend to be sfnal, it struck me that coherence combined with strongly delineated detail is what makes such dreams feel real. And of course the realization that one is dreaming can occur in any kind of dream-- for me, most often in unpleasant dreams that up until that point feel very real but that I'd like not to be real. The realization is never reasoned (as in: oh, this doesn't make sense, so it can't be true-- not making sense is perfectly normal in dreams). It's when I wake up that I marvel at how coherent and real-seeming the sfnal dream had been-- after that moment of disjunction when I grasp that no, this was a dream, and not something in my actual memory. (Sometimes in fact I am imbued with a partial belief in it as memory for a long time after the dream-- as in dreams about a story I once wrote that I somehow lost and forgot about until I came upon it in a box of old papers-- a part of me somehow feels that that story must be around somewhere, and longs to see it, read it, remember it. I don't feel that way about sfnal dreams, of course, because my mind has identified them as sfnal and thus impossible as memory.)

The thinness of the membrane distinguishing the sfnal from reality has become something of a preoccupation with me lately. I know I've often said over the last ten years that I often have trouble distinguishing reports of real-life behavior and speech from satire, but it occurs to me that despite being accustomed to technological innovations that were once purely sfnal now being materially incarnate in our lives, I still find myself astonished at the thinness of the line between fiction and reality. Consider these three items appearing in the Seattle Times over the last few days:

--State's first case of 'zombie bees' reported in Kent. Honeybees, previously immune to parasitic flies called Apocephalus borealis or scuttle flies-- native to the US and apparently common-- have lately begun to be infected by them. Here's the article's description of the infection:
The fly's life cycle is gruesomely reminiscent of the movie "Alien" — though they don't pose a risk to people. Adult females, smaller than a fruit fly, land on the backs of foraging honeybees and use their needle-sharp ovipositors to inject eggs into the bee's abdomen. The eggs hatch into maggots. "They basically eat the insides out of the bee," [biologist John] Hafernik said.
Previously, these flies had only been known to infect wasps and bumblebees. They've now infected 80% of the hives in the Bay Area, and have made an appearance in South Dakota. This is particularly alarming, given the recent plummeting of honeybee populations all over the United States. The irony, of course, is that the scuttle flies are native to North American, while the honeybees are imported (or "invasive"), while the sharp point of relevance is that most pollination of fruit and vegetables is performed by honeybees. Why, you may wonder, are infected honeybees called "zombie bees"? "Unlike healthy bees, which spend the night tucked up in their hive, infected bees fly after dark and tend to congregate at lights. Hohn noticed bees buzzing around the light in his shop, flying in jerky patterns and finally flopping on the floor." (There's a video available with the Seattle Times article.) If you're interested in the knowing more about "zombie bees," check out Hafernik's website

 --And then there's the article on the California legislation, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed yesterday, allowing "autononmous" or driverless cars in California.
"Today we're looking at science fiction becoming tomorrow's reality - the self-driving car," Brown said. "Anyone who gets inside a car and finds out the car is driving will be a little skittish, but they'll get over it."
Google Inc. has been developing autonomous car technology and lobbying for the regulations. The company's fleet of a dozen computer-controlled vehicles has logged more than 300,000 miles of self-driving without an accident, according to Google. "I think the self-driving car can really dramatically improve the quality of life for everyone," Google co-founder Sergey Brin said.
Autonomous cars can make roads safer, free commuters from the drudgery of driving, reduce congestion and provide transport to people who can't drive themselves, such as the blind, disabled, elderly and intoxicated, Brin said. "I expect that self-driving cars will be far safer than human-driven cars," Brin said.
Brin predicted that autonomous vehicles will be commercially available within a decade. He said Google has no plans to produce its own cars, but instead plans to partner with the automobile industry to develop autonomous vehicles.
Why is it that this seems much more sfnal to me than smartphones do? I suppose it's because it strikes me as in some ways a more conscious technological development than the by contrast feckless, sometimes frivolous development of all the silly gadgets that distract rather than assist us. Autonomous cars seem hands-down more socially utilitarian and have the tremendous potential of saving many, many lives (and prevent many, many personal bankruptcies due to the catastrophic medical costs and chronic disability that attend most serious traffic accidents. Our (in this case visibly administered) culture tends to oppose sensible solutions for serious, large-scale problems (for instance, affordable health care). The politicians, venture capitalists, and financiers who determine which technologies are brought into existence prefer to support the development of weapons, tools of surveillance, and gadgets and toys big corporations can endlessly "upgrade" to technology that is unglamorously utilitarian. (Here in the US, from infancy most individuals imbibe their values primarily from the advertisements they consume.) Or else they're simply whacko gimmicks based on dubious notions of coolness, like Argentinean publisher Ererna Cadencia's use of ink that vanishes from books two months after the date of purchase. (The idea is that disappearing ink will force consumers to read the books they buy, in a timely fashion. It's supposed to be for the authors' benefit, though I have to say that I myself would hate to see my books vanish and be unavailable for future rereading: rendering books into utterly disposable entertainment.)

--The third item doesn't report on a piece of new technology, but rather on an almost seismic shift in attitude. (Like parasitic creatures wielding ovipostors, infected organisms, and driverless cars, certain attitudes, too, can be sf tropes.) In this case, the shift in attitude is striking for being found in a rather conservative source, the editors of the Seattle Times, who have a long history of endorsing Republicans, which in Washington State can mean way off the spectrum of the local norm. They certainly consider themselves a voice of the mainstream. Four days ago, they published an editorial urging the approval of Initiative 502-- to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana. Many, many people have been urging this for a long time, including former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper. Many conservatives have even urged it. Nevertheless, US jails are crammed with offenders of the prohibition against marijuana use and sale. The editorial is reasoned and reasonable.
What would legal marijuana be like? Consider what has happened in Seattle. The city has become a sanctuary for medical marijuana, with aboveboard dispensaries. Recreational marijuana is readily available in Seattle on the illicit market, and users of small amounts are no longer prosecuted. For several years, recreational marijuana has effectively been decriminalized in Seattle, and there has been no upsurge in crime or road deaths from it.
Virtual decriminalization resulted from the force of broad public pressure on prosecutors here in King County. Several years back, while I was performing Superior Court jury service, the prosecuting attorney conducted a discussion among the jury pool of which I was a member about drugs as part of the voir dire for a drug prosecution. About three-quarters of my fellow potential jurors expressed the opinion that marijuana use ought to be decriminalized. (The prosecutor, by the way, was resigned rather than surprised by this opinion.) I read in the Seattle Times not long after that prosecution policies were going to be changed to be more in line with public opinion. I was struck by this. I'd always assumed that jury service was largely a waste of my time, since jurors have in recent years been forbidden the democratic exercise of nullification, a traditional alternative for jurors faced with rubber-stamping unjust outcomes. After that, I wasn't so sure.

The fact is, we are constantly adjusting what is real, what could be real, what probably won't ever be real. Sfnal tropes have a lot to do with the process. But I'm particularly interested these days-- because of my nearly finished novel in progress, "Deep Story"-- in what becomes real,as memory, in an individual's brain, and what the coherence of narrative has to do with the process.

 My absence over the last month from this space, by the way, has been due to a family emergency followed by illness. I'm on the mend now, though I'm still a bit shaky and weak, which forces me into making frequent retreats back to bed. I hope to resume regular posting soon.

ETA: I see that the Seattle Times has actually endorsed Obama-- and that they did so last time around, too. Pardon my misperception.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Shulamith Firestone, 1945-2012

Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, died Tuesday. This is a book that sits on a shelf in my library near Simone de Beavoir's Second Sex and Joanna Russ's What Are We Fighting For? It burst upon the world in 1970, when Firestone was only 25 years old, a radical tour de force that helped shape the lineaments of Marge Piercy's alternative Mattopisett society-- "democratic, anarchist, communist, environmentalist, feminist, non-racist," in Tom Moylan's words in Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination-- and informed feminist imaginings of the positive, liberatory possibilities of new reproductive technologies. As Firestone concluded at the end of her impassioned argument, what she called "cybernetic socialism" "would abolish economic classes, and all forms of labor exploitation, by granting people a livelihood based only on material needs." She envisaged an end to sexual monogamy and the embracing of polymorphous perversity, and a family unit "meant to serve immediate needs rather than pass on power and privilege." Her call for such a revolution-- which specified women's sharing of reproductive roles with men and children-- came in for a torrent of criticism from many feminists (particularly from essentialists). Her analysis of sexual politics (now "gender politics") was both crunchy (she bites into a lot of Marx, Engels, and Freud) and visionary. It blows my mind that she was 25 when she published it.

The Women's History site offers a concise description of Firestone's activism:
Shulamith Firestone helped create several radical feminist groups. With Jo Freeman she started The Westside Group, an early consciousness-raising group in Chicago. In 1967, Firestone was one of the founding members of New York Radical Women. When NYRW split into factions amid disagreement about what direction the group should take, she launched Redstockings with Ellen Willis.

The members of Redstockings rejected the existing political left. They accused other feminist groups of still being part of a society that oppressed women. Redstockings drew attention when its members disrupted a 1970 abortion hearing in New York City at which the scheduled speakers were a dozen men and a nun. Redstockings later held its own hearing, allowing women to testify about abortion.
Kind of makes you cringe, doesn't it, reading about that hearing on abortion. We're now back to talking about contraception-- only with men only, not even nuns allowed to talk.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Chris Barzak posts about Varo, Carrington, and Tanning

If you have any interest in the fascinating work of Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Dorothea Tanning, you'll probably want to catch Christopher Barzak's posts on their work. One of the posts has a wonderful You Tube clip of Leonora Carrington chatting about her teenaged self and the debutante experience interspersed with a marvelous vid of her story "The Debutante" (in which the protagonist helps a hyena attend in her place, in drag, her coming out ball). Chris also talks a little about writing the stories in Birds and Birthdays.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Joanna Russ Issue of the CSZ

I'm pleased to announce that the Cascadia Subduction Zone has just published a special issue on Joanna Russ. "This issue of The Cascadia Subduction Zone is supplemental, published without regard for our usual schedule and distributed free of charge to subscribers. For the editors, it’s an exceptionally special issue we began planning shortly after Joanna Russ’s death last year. When I think about Joanna Russ’s relationship to feminism and feminist science fiction in general and to the work the CSZ aims to nurture and provoke in particular, Christine de Pizan’s brilliant conceit of the City of Ladies comes to my mind. The medieval thinker constructed her “City” of every powerful, accomplished woman she knew of. Russ’s work, always powerful and challenging, is more than a brick in the wall of our city, though; it is a substantial element of its foundation. Foundations are tricky things, especially in the seismic times in which we live. They are invisible to those paying only casual attention to the buildings they support.
But for the inhabitants of any building, the foundation matters tremendously." (Quotation from my introductory essay)
Non-subscribers can purchase an electronic version for $4 or both the print & electronic version for $5 here

Current Issue
Vol. 2 Supplement
August 2012 

Outsider, Creative Contrarian,
Lesbian and Feminist Theorist
    by L. Timmel Duchamp

   by Farah Mendlesohn

Feminist Futures Out of Time: Reading Joanna Russ’s
What Are We Fighting For?
    by Alexis Lothian

Alienation and “the Other”
in the Short Fiction of Joanna Russ
    by Brit Mandelo

On Joanna Russ
    edited by Farah Mendlesohn
    reviewed by Candra K. Gill

Heiresses of Russ 2011:
The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction

    edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft and Steve Berman
    reviewed by Cynthia Ward

Featured Artist
Monte Rogers

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Funny uncles

Sunday I told an old friend my family's multi-generational saga of rape and incest.  Most of it, anyway.  Into her silence at the end I asked, "Aren't all families like that?"

"No," she replied.  "No, they're not."  But I think our science fiction family might be.  At least a little.

The incident that my assertion above will bring immediately to mind for you depends on when you're reading this.  At the time I'm writing it, that's most likely the sexual harassment a congoer underwent at Readercon.  It wasn't the first incident of its kind.  It won't be the last.

I met the Readercon offender when he served as MC for the Carl Brandon Society Awards ceremony at Arisia in 2011.  I'm not shocked that he's someone I know.  That's how this sort of thing works.

The encounters that affront me are more often racial or cultural in nature than sexual.  And the people that hurt me, that stun me with their ignorance and blithe insensitivity, their privileged cluelessness, are my friends, my role models, my elders.  My tribe.

Here are two names.


Gene Wolfe was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame this past March.  I was asked to contribute an essay to the event's program book.  I'm very proud of  "Cookies and Kindness," which describes how sweet Wolfe was to me when we first met.  He was a GOH at 1983's World Fantasy Convention, and I was a total n00b whom he rescued from utter dejection.   But I left out of the essay our last meeting, a Locus Awards Weekend panel featuring him and Greg Bear speaking at length about the nonexistence of racial profiling.  That panel I came within inches of walking out of, because both these men whom I love and respect were so wrong I couldn't bear to hear what they chose to say on a topic of which they lacked any personal experience.  Honestly, if I'd been just a little closer to the aisle....And why, you may ask, didn't I stand up and speak out if I couldn't sit calmly and listen, or manage somehow to slip away?

Really, I really do love these men.  It's so hard to tell anyone you admire they're queefing like a douchebag.  I guess I'm doing it now.  Hi, Greg.  Hi, Gene.

I understand why the Readercon ConCom made the error that they made.  They were wrong; I'm so glad they've admitted that.  Let me repeat: it was a mistake not to apply the standing sexual harassment policy to René Walling just because he was who he was.  And I get how that mistake happened.

My mother had three brothers.  They're all dead.  She has one sister.  I know she felt it her sacred duty to keep the remaining family together when, at the age of 11, she lost her own mother to rheumatic heart disease.  I understand why she felt she had to forgive her sister's rapist, their last surviving brother.  Who grew up to rape his oldest daughter before she left grade school.  My mother wasn't about to abandon him, though.  And I understand why she doesn't understand that the now-adult raped daughter won't speak with my mother or return her calls.  I understand that lack of comprehension, and I understand that lack of forgiveness.

 The hurts I've endured from racism and inappropriate cultural appropriation and the like are nonphysical, so perhaps they're not as horrific as those endured by members of our genre family suffering sexual predation.  I'm not the target in the cases I'm talking about, either.  There are a whole host of dissimilarities.  But here's what the two classes of offense share: they're committed by the opposite of strangers.

Would it help if I named more names?  The next one could be yours.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Will there be any stars in our crowns?

"Because We Are All So Royal" is my contribution to Aqueduct Press's WisCon Chronicles 2; it's about making crowns at the Carl Brandon Society's annual party.  This year CBS co-founder MJ Hardman and her husband Dimas Bautista bought the tinsel and flowers and plastic fruit and giant moths and toy motorcycles partygoers used to construct crowns.  Health issues (cancer, embolisms) have kept them at home for the last two years, but they support the event and commissioned the creation of a crown because they love being part of the creativity.

Here's what I came up with for them.  To a circular base of fluttering white hearts I added a silver purse begemmed with multi-colored plastic, a golden candelabra, and a huge honkin hibiscus.  Someone took photos of me wearing this crown, but I can't find them at the moment.  Still, you get the idea, right?  All the elements I used here are symbolic of something I wish for MJ and Dimas to have.  I'll mail the crown tomorrow and hope they get what I want to send.

Occult wisdom says you get back what you put out.  So helping others externally concretize their inherent noblesse makes MJ and Dimas true royalty. The kind without armies.  The kind we love.  The kind we can become.

Here's MJ at WisCon 33, ready to work it.

Here's Dimas with Margie Peterson at WisCon 33, enjoying their handiwork.

I wrote a picture book called "The Secret Princess" about how to do what MJ and Dimas have done.  It starts out this way:

Once there was a secret princess: Princess Herminutia.  She was a secret princess because nobody knew about her royal status.  Her mama and daddy called her Minnie and made her take out the garbage.
With the assistance of a wise costumer, her neighbor Mizz Cherry, the secret princess constructs crowns for all her family and finally receives the respect she deserves.  She gets what she gives.  What I want for us all.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Looking at looking

Late Wednesday SFSignal published short essays by me and some other writers on viewpoint in genre.  Timmi joined an online discussion of what we'd said, adding:

"I've--more times than I can count--written a second version of a story in first (if the first version was in third) or in third (if the first version was in first)--when unsure of which would best serve the story. It's an illuminating exercise in any case. And sometimes the second version really is the correct one (and brings out different sorts of details that collectively change the reader's affect)."

She rewrites entire stories to make sure she's using the correct viewpoint?  That is some mondo literary muscle.  That is the authorial equivalent of hauling pianos around with your teeth--but much more useful.

 I wish one of those SFSignal essays had been by Timmi.  I bet she would have revealed more surprises and amazements.  And I wish I'd said more in my essay about the choice of narrator, not just about styles of narration.

The story I'm revising today took me twice as long to write as I'd scheduled for it in my calendar.  Midway through the notes I kept during the writing process I recorded serious doubts about my protagonist.  "What does Trill do?" I asked myself.  "What can she do?"  And on another line, "Is this really Dola's story?"

I get into a haze when I write sometimes.  Too much sawdust in the air--I can't see what I've done.  If it's the deadline, though, I turn in what I've got.  The editors read what is actually there on the page--not the lumber of words and phrases I cut and sanded away or discarded before the glue set.  In this case they pronounced what I'd given them whole, a complete instrument.  A story.  One in need of some polish, but all there.

In the discussion after my pov essay got posted I declared that my choice of Trill as the story's pov character had worked because Dola was unconscious for the rape scene, whereas Trill was able to witness and describe it.

But if I'd written the story from Dola's perspective, maybe that scene would have arrived on the page another way?  Or maybe that plot point would have been reached without it?

I'm going to leave this particular piano where it is.  But future ones could get pulled around.  By my teeth, if that's what it takes.