Book Review: Women Destroy Science Fiction

Lightspeed_49_June_2014Women Destroy Science Fiction is a special, book-length edition of Lightspeed Magazine featuring short stories (originals and reprints) flash fiction, author interviews, and essay – all by women.  This issue was funded through a kickstarted campaign.  Here’s the pitch:

Women aren’t writing “real” science fiction, the fallacy goes. “Real” science fiction is . . . whatever science fiction certain men like. Some days this makes us sad. Some days it makes us angry. And some days it just seems hilarious. . .and a quip on Twitter turns into a special issue of LIGHTSPEED in the space of roughly half an hour.

When we announced the Women Destroy Science Fiction! special issue in September, the response was immediate and overwhelming. All people had was a title and an email address, but the enthusiasm was boundless. The special “I Want to Destroy SF” inbox we setup filled with subject lines like:

  • Helping my sisters destroy science fiction since 1983
  • I CAN HAZ DESTROY?
  • If anyone’s going to destroy SFF—
  • Please sir, may I destroy science fiction?

Why, yes. Yes, you may.

LIGHTSPEED was founded on the core idea that all science fiction is real science fiction. The whole point of this magazine is that science fiction is vast. It is inclusive. Science fiction is about people (roughly 50% of whom are women), just as much as it’s about ideas. Science fiction is about us, our perils and our promise; it’s about our collective future. LIGHTSPEED has also been committed to gender parity from the beginning, and we have achieved it consistently for nearly four years now. But looking around at media at large, it’s clearly just not enough—and thus the Women Destroy Science Fiction! special issue was born.

Lately I’ve been coming across a lot of short story anthologies that score high on concept and low on content.  Luckily these stories combine original ideas with excellent craft, and the essays provide plenty of brain food.  Here’s some highlights from the original stories in the anthology:

Each to Each, by Seanan McGuire:  When the navy starts modifying women’s bodies to turn them into every possible variety of mer-creature, what could go wrong?

The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick, by Charlie Jane Anders:  A friendship between two women is challenged when one accesses the memories of the other’s ex-boyfriend

A Burglary, Addressed by a Young Lady, by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall:  Another story with an emphasis on friendship between two women, this story is about a Regency-style world in which courtship is conducted through burglary instead of Balls.

There are steampunk stories and stories about clones and stories about body-swapping.  There are weird stories (Dim Sun, by Maria Dahvana Headly, is especially surreal) and in the flash fiction category, there’s a story that contains only four sentences.

This is an exquisite collection and I can’t wait for the upcoming issues: Women Destroy Horror, Women Destroy Fantasy, and Queers Destroy Science Fiction.  I had a great time with the stories in these collections as well as the essays and interviews that accompanied them, especially the roundtable interview by Mary robinette Kowal which features Ursula K. LeGuin, Pat Cadigan, Ellen Datlow, and Nancy Kress.  This is good stuff!

 

 

Friday Book Club: The Art of Racing in the Rain and 5 Myths about Dogs

SWT-Book-ClubsGarth Stein says that he got the idea for The Art of Racing in the Rain from a documentary about Mongolia.  This documentary claimed that there is a common belief in Mongolia that a good dog can reincarnate as a human.  Here’s some other myths, legends, and bits of folklore about dogs.  Once again, my super-reliable source is Wikipedia – this is fun background info, not academia here.

1.  Some Hindus believe that taking good care of a dog can get you into Heaven.

2. The second day of the Chinese New Year is considered to be the birthday of all dogs.

3. Saint Roch, also known as Saint Rocco, is the patron saint of dogs (in Catholicism).  His feast day, celebrated in Bolivia on August 16, is known as the birthday of all dogs.  If different countries provide different dates, should dogs get multiple birthday parties every year?  Seems fair to me.  As my husband points, out, by rights they should get seven.

4. The Black Dog, a supernatural portent of death, may be seen during thunderstorms in the British Aisles.  The legend of The Black Dog was the inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

5.  The maned wolf, which lives in South America, eats fruit, especially a species of tomato called a “wolf apple”.  Over half of its’ diet comes from fruit.  The red pigment in tomatoes, lycopene, is named for the wolf that finds it so appetizing.

 

Wednesday Videos: Game of Thrones Parodies

WednesdayVideoApparently there are only two ways to cope with another Game of Thrones season ending – one way to cope is to make parody videos, and the other is to watch them.  Here’s a few to tide you over until next season.

First of all, here’s Lena Heady giving an interview in character as Drunk Cersei.  Best line?  “You host a [bitter laugh] talk show.  How NICE”.

In case you need a catch up on who these people are, here’s a parody medley to explain it all to you:

And Wil Wheaton, not to be outdone, has his own way of explaining it all:

There’s no release date set for Season 5 but it’s rumored to be happening around March 2015, so you have plenty of time to stock up on dragon kibble and kleenex.  OK, go!

 

An Interview with Alex Dally MacFarlane, contributor to “Invisible”

Invisible-FullThis summer we’ve been hosting a series of interviews with contributors to the anthology, Invisible, edited by Jim C. Hines.  Hines was inspired to put the anthology together when he saw the heated response that Alex Dally MacFarlane received when she posted an essay on Tor.com calling for “an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories”.  Thanks to Alex for this fascinating interview about non-binary gender and fiction!

1.  Jim C. Hines said that your essay, “Post-Binary Gender In SF:  Introduction”, and the responses the essay got, inspired him to invite people to share their own experiences with representation on his blog.  Since then, you have written several other pieces for Tor.com about non-binary gender.  Have you noticed any difference in the tone of the comments?  Do you feel like some people are starting to understand your message better?

 

Most of my subsequent posts have been post-binary reviews of particular books, which haven’t drawn many comments. My non-review posts have received more. They’re… mixed. I’ve had some incredibly valuable comments, whether from specialists (eg: linguist Rose Lemberg commenting about “closed cases” and other issues on my post about adapting to non-binary pronouns) or fans/writers who are interested in the subject. I know the column has reached other non-binary SF fans and I know some binary-gendered SF fans are finding it interesting and informative, because they’ve told me. I care a lot more about that than the opinions of certain bigots and other people who won’t change (and who, yes, still leave comments on my posts, some of which the Tor.com moderators have needed to remove).

 

 

2.  What does non-binary gender mean to you?  Are there any websites you recommend for people who want to learn more or get support?

 

Well, I’m non-binary (my gender is best described as “it’s complicated”). I’ve found the best website is Twitter: the sheer quantity of marginalised people talking about their lives, experiences and all sorts of subjects is incredible. There’s a lot to be learnt by listening to people’s lived experiences, particularly lots of people, because everyone experiences their gender differently and it’s important to understand that there’s no one way to be non-binary. (But remember: these are people, not textbooks and not quiz machines.)

 

3.   Are there any books that you think do an excellent job of not defaulting to binary gender?

 

Hmm! No. Not that I’ve read.

 

There are books that I’ve enjoyed, but… I like Maureen F. McHugh’s Mission Child a lot, but the protagonist is the only non-binary person in a story that spans multiple cultures and locations. The world’s default is definitely binary. I found Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man fascinating — one of its cultures defaults to five genders — but it reinforces the five genders in exactly the same harmful ways that we reinforce our two, so it does and it doesn’t fulfil your question’s criteria. Potentially there’s Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, but it uses a binary pronoun to refer to people across cultures that mostly seem to recognise two genders (and it seems the Raadch recognises two but doesn’t care to differentiate in language, which is different to a non-binary default). I’ve had much better luck finding short stories that don’t default to binary, some of which are discussed in the next answer…

 

4.  You edited an anthology called “Aliens:  Recent Encounters”.  Does writing about aliens seem to make authors more comfortable with presenting a variety of gender identifications, body types, and skin tones?  How is writing about aliens potentially freeing, and how is it problematic?

 

I think it’s absurd to write aliens with the same sex and gender set-up as humans (which itself is a simplifying statement: humans do not have binary sex or binary gender, nor do all human cultures construct gender in the same ways), unless the aliens are of the panspermia, closely-related-to-us variety. I welcome science fiction where the aliens are different to us in this regard. The only problem is that writers almost always write the humans as binary in sex and gender: this is sometimes set up as a specific contrast. How strange, that more than two genders exist! etc.

 

I have enjoyed some stories with non-binary aliens and binary humans, but it’s where this contrast is not very pronounced, such as Catherynne M. Valente’s “Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy”, where the aliens are multi-gendered (but this is not subject to remark). Then there’s Nancy Kress’ “My Mother, Dancing”, where humans encounter alien life for the first time — humans who all use a non-binary pronoun, hirs. Ditching the humans entirely is Eleanor Arnason’s “Knapsack Poems”, an interesting story, though the three sexes of her aliens are unfortunately gender essentialist by contemporary Western cultural norms. All three stories are reprinted in Aliens: Recent Encounters.

 

Meanwhile Ken Liu’s “The Shape of Thought” has humans hundreds of years in the future stymied by the non-binary pronouns used for the aliens they live with: zie/zir are compared to a pebbles obstructing the smooth flow of language. I am rarely so swiftly Othered!

 

I would like to see stories about aliens and gender, but not where the aliens’ non-binary gender system(s) contrasts a false binary in the humans. Multiple gender systems and aliens/humans who stand outside their cultural norms would be a bonus! Gender isn’t binary; it also isn’t tidy.

 

5.  What draws you to science fiction and fantasy?

 

I’m drawn to fiction I enjoy in all genres, whether realist or non-realist. I tend to prefer the latter, though, because I like outer space and surreal cities and so on, which all occur more often in non-realist fiction. From a post-binary perspective, I like the potential of science fiction and fantasy to thoroughly deconstruct the binary — or scrap it entirely. I wish they’d actually do it more! Non-binary gender system(s) as a norm is still so rare.

History’s Hidden Heroes: “Wings of Their Own” and Female Aviators

Photo of Julie ClarkEvery month we take a look at “History’s Hidden Heroes” people (usually scientists, because that’s how I roll) who are women, people of color, LGBTQIA, or who otherwise don’t fit the common stereotype of what a scientist looks like.  I try to find people who, while they may be well-known in their field or in their country of origin, are not well-known among laypeople in the USA.

This month, we are shifting from the sciences a bit to talk about women in aviation.  I just got to see the documentary Wings of Their Own, and it is a fascinating and inspiring overview of women in  aviation.  The filmmakers interviewed (or otherwise discuss) 210 women, providing a fascinating overview of women in aviation from “Kitty Hawk to Cape Canaveral.

As a documentary, “Wings of Their Own” suffers from a lack of captions identifying women who are speaking (there are some but I could have used more), no option for subtitles, and generally low production values.  This is a low-budget labor of love, so the photography and music is poor (by film standards).  But the movie is absolutely electric when the women who are profiled are speaking – which is for most of the documentary.  Because so many women are talking, there’s no in-depth coverage.  This is the kind of documentary in which it’s casually mentioned that the Wright Brother’s had a sister who flew – and off I go to Google.  In case you’re wondering, Katherine Wright served as the brothers’ executive assistant/social manager/business manager and flew while touring Europe with her brothers.  She was the third woman to fly – the first two were Theresa Peltier and Edith Berg.  In addition to going up in a plane, she went up in a balloon.  But I digress.

Here’s just a few things the documentary mentioned that will have you googling for hours:

  • Bessie Coleman, the first female African-American pilot, had to learn French because in 1920 she could not get a pilot’s license in America
  • Jacqueline Cochrane, founder of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots group (WASP) had some special requirements for WASP members.  In order to promote the best possible public image, she looked for women who were pretty, athletic, and white.  No African-Americans were allowed in the group.
  • Mercury 13 refers to a group of women who passed their tests to qualify as astronauts in the Mercury spaceflight program in the early 1060s.  The testing was abruptly suspended and the women never flew.
  • When Julie Clark, one of the first female commercial airline pilots, was hassled by a male co-pilot, she finally told him, “Hey!  I’ve flown more hours inverted than you’ve flown upright!”

I mention Julie Clark because I used to see her fly at air shows and when she appeared on-screen I gave this little yelp of glee.  My dad used to take me to air shows and Julie Clark was my favorite performer because, year after year, she was the only woman.  I worshipped the ground that woman walked on when she wasn’t flying.  One of the things the documentary talks about is how many women were introduced to flying by supportive men – and how much women value the support and mentorship of other women.  The networking of women is placed front and center at the beginning of the documentary, which talks about women’s air races, some of which are flow by mother-daughter teams.

One of the traps of history is that of the token hero.  In science, if there’s a picture of great scientists, they will usually be male with the exception of Marie Curie.  Marie Curie was great, and we should all know about her, but she’s one of just thousands of women who have been scientists historically.  In aviation, we get Amelia Earnhardt – again, a great, but not the only woman out there.  The problem with this is not only the factual error but the physiological impact.  If all we see is one image of ourselves in a sea of others, than we think that to succeed in a given field we must be very special and very alone.

My favorite thing about Wings of her Own was that it shatters the myth that female pilots are few in umber (and always white).  The women are young (the youngest is nineteen) and old (some women are still flying well into their eighties!).  They are black and white and Indian and Asian and Latina.  They flew in every possible capacity – Coast Guard, commercial jet, stunt pilots, medevac, police helicopters, fighter planes – you name it.  Then there’s the women who fly purely for fun – kindergarten teachers, therapists, moms, anyone.  They light up when they talk about their first solo flights.  They encourage each other and the urge the viewer to “just try it!”  Even though I wish the film had gone more in-depth about some things, as an overview this was inspiring and exciting and fun, and it makes me want to go through the attic and see if I can still find my “Julie Clark” metallic sticker.

Friday Book Club: The Art of Racing in the Rain vs To Kill A Mockingbird

SWT-Book-ClubsThere are so many things to love about The Art of Racing in the Rain.  This book is wildly popular for a reason – it’s expert at eliciting emotional response.  I love the racing stuff.  I love the philosophy, though I find it somewhat simplistic (which, since it’s being understood by a dog, actually makes sense).  I love the dog, because you’d have to be completely devoid of heart not to love the dog.  There’s just one thing that sends me into such a rage that I practically froth at the mouth and it’s this:

WTF is going on with the subplot about statutory rape?  Why am I the only person on the entire Internet who finds this entire subplot to be contrived, stereotypical in the worst way, offensive, and wildly improbable?  For the initiated, the subplot goes like this:

Denny, our hero, is falsely accused of statutory rape by his in-law’s teenage relative.  Enzo, the dog, is the only witness and Enzo knows that really that brazen hussy threw herself at Denny, who nobly turned her down and drove her home.  The in-laws want custody of Denny’s daughter and conveniently the teenager presses charges for statutory rape.  During the entire ensuing legal battle the in-laws have the kid.

There are all kinds of problems with this storyline, the biggest of which is that it takes a very real problem and makes it into the old “Teenage hussy” cliché.  That cliché was tired and ugly when it was used in To Kill a Mockingbird and it’s even older and uglier here.  Let’s compare how To Kill a Mockingbird made it work while Art of Racing does not.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Mayella, the young woman who accuses Tom Robinson of rape, is an ugly character, but she is at least a character.  She has some background and some personality and a motive.  Her accusation has consequences that affect her adversely – it’s understood that this is serious business, even if she didn’t understand what she was getting into at first.  It’s explained why, even though she knows these consequences will befall her (not to mention Tom, of course, the victim of her accusation), it’s still worth it to her to make the accusation.  She’s a horrible, horrible person – but she’s a person, one Atticus even has some sympathy for even as he utterly destroys her on the witness stand.

Everything in To Kill a Mockingbird is told from the point of view of the child named Scout, who has an advantage over Enzo in that she can get into the courtroom.  Still, most of what Scout knows about Mayella doesn’t come from the courtroom – it comes from adults explaining things to her or talking in her presence.  Enzo, the narrator of Art of Racing, can’t get into the courtroom, nor is he present when the in-laws talk to Annika.  But he is around the in-laws after the case begins, and of course he’s around Denny often.  So there’s no mechanistic reason why Enzo couldn’t know more about Annika – for instance, the in-laws could discuss how they made her testify, or Denny could speculate about her personality and motives.  Enzo is also around Annika quite a bit before the evening on which Annika attempts to seduce Denny occurs, so Annika could have talked to Enzo then and given the reader a better sense of who she is, even if the topic had nothing to do with Denny.

But alas, Annika has no personality at all except that of a completely one-dimensional seductress.  It’s implied that the in-laws somehow convince her into making the accusation, but we never see how.  And while I’m willing to believe that sometimes people make false accusations, the idea that this is an easy and painless thing to pull off is a lie.  Annike can look forward to being backed up by her family, because they are making her do this in the first place, but in real life often the victim’s family doesn’t believe them or blames them.  Some of Annika’s friends might support her, some might envy her, but many people at school will vilify her as a whore.  She can expect to have her life scrutinized in court right down to the exact length of her skirts and the number of buttons on her shirt.  She’s not in for an easy time.

The author, Garth Stein, has taken a real problem and treated it irresponsibly, and that has two consequences:

1.  It’s a harmful  thing to do to the hundreds of victims who struggle to be believed but are told they must have really wanted it, and probably deserved it, and are probably lying anyway.

2. It’s sloppy writing.  My personal gender politics aside, having a one-dimensional character in a book diminishes the book.  One reason that To Kill a Mockingbird is such a classic that it refuses to take that path.  Not all the characters are nice people, or even remotely decent people, but they are characters.  We might loathe Mayella with every fiber of our beings, but we have some sense of why she is who she is, and some sense of her as a human being.  Annika, in The Art of racing in the Rain, is a caricature.

If you are interested in some stories that deal more realistically with sexual assault, here’s a short list, feel free to add to it in the comments:

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

She’s Come Undone: by Thomas Lamb

Jailbait:  The Politics of of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States, by Carolyn E. Cocca

Yes Means Yes:  Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valent1

White Oleander, by Janet Fitch

 

 

Wednesday Videos want to binge-watch Orphan Black

WednesdayVideoI finally started watching Orphan Black and it turns out that it really is as good as everyone kept telling me it was.  If you haven’t checked it out yet, for crying out loud, watch it!  It’s online at bbcamerica.com and the first season is out on DVD.  In honor of the series that seems to be my new drug of choice, I present you with the following:

I gotta run – I have more Orphan Black to watch!