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Gender’s Giving Sci-Fi and Fantasy the COOTIES!

When I was a kid, dresses weren’t the problem. I was. Of all the sticks and stones lobbed in my direction, ‘tomboy’ was one of the kindest. I didn’t help my circumstances by refusing to wear pink or pigtails or shoes that went ‘click’ on the sidewalk.

I wasn’t just a no-frills kind of girl. On school picture day, I rocked a pair of  boys’ Transformers sandals. There was more to me than met the eye. True, I was born with certain genitals and I wore my hair very, very long until I was an adult. But no matter how hard people tried – and sometimes they tried with fists and guns – nobody was able to convince me that my crotch defined my self.

Girl or boy, gender was an imposition as far as I was concerned. I took to it like I took to a beating: With my guard up and my head down. That is, until I grew up enough to ‘fight like a man’. After that, I started hearing a lot of, “Babe, you have to let the boys win.” Why? “Because if you don’t, some guy’s gonna kill you.”

Those were the stakes. Be a proper girly-girl. Accept your role. Take it. Or else.

Pardon me while I carry on answering that threat of violence with a rude gesture of my own.

Ordinary people say a lot of daft things:

  • Gender and sex are the same thing.
  • Gender is innate and never changes (or should never change).
  • Gender determines sexuality (and it should).
  • I’m/she’s a girl, so I/she naturally [fills in the blank like a girl].
  • I’m/he’s a boy, so I/he naturally [fills in the blank like a boy].

When called out for telling lies and otherwise embarrassing themselves, they raise the usual defenses:

  • I can’t help it; I was brought up this way.
  • God says [whatever I say].
  • Science says—

GOTCHA! Science says that all humans are far more alike than we are different from each other, regardless of gender, sex, sexuality, race, or [you-name-it]. In unbiased experiments, the binary sexes (female/male) are effectively indistinguishable from each other. There isn’t a lot of research done which includes the entire plurality of gender (or the many sexes), but given that most people fail to even recognize more than two genders, my educated guess is that science wouldn’t be able to find a significant difference between straight, white, cis-gendered men and asexual, multi-racial, intersex androgynous people. Because there is nothing to find except IDIC.

Writers are human, though, so they sometimes make this noise:

  • My story’s not about that.
  • My characters just formed [white/straight/]cis-gendered.
  • I write for kids, and this ‘subject matter’ is too mature.
  • This is historical fiction, and gender wasn’t a ‘thing’ in the past.

To which I must answer:

  • Maybe not, but while opportunity is leaning on the doorbell, you’re hiding under the bed.
  • Who’s in charge, here? You, or the figments of your imagination?
  • Bullshit. Kids are swimming in this ‘subject matter’ while you’re refusing to write them something potentially life-saving.
  • BWAHAHAHAHA! (Do better research.)

These are usually met with hand-wringing and sham-sincerity: “I’m afraid of screwing it up. I don’t want to offend anyone.”

Tough luck, Pinocchio, because, first of all, there is such a thing as offense by omission. Secondly, you’re better off telling the truth: You can’t handle critique, and you don’t want to learn. Finally, if your writing never challenges convention or tradition, it’s probably not important. Deal with that.

This sort of careless writing and non-thinking is why science fiction and fantasy fans can’t have nice things, like a woman Doctor Who. And why the first book in a certain bestselling series wasn’t a stand-alone titled Hermione Granger Kills The Dark Lord With Her Brain. And why writers are still falling over themselves trying to write the next Twilight, of all crap.

Because when we reach for a hero, we keep reaching until we find a dude, and when we need a victim or a dummy, we grab a chick (and put her in the fridge). Those characters who don’t fit the cis-gender binary are ignored completely… Until somebody needs a truly sinister villain. Or a corpse. Then it’s like a pride parade breaks out on the page.

Fortunately, there are some quick and easy shortcuts to avoid being a gender jerk in fiction:

I lied; there are no shortcuts. Educate yourself. Read stories you’re too timid to write. Read blog posts and articles by people whose very identities challenge your notions about what is ‘normal’ and ‘right’. Get uncomfortable. Spend some quality time with a mirror and a microscope. If you examine yourself honestly and find nothing about who you are that’s unconventional, please cast your likeness as the villain in your next story.

You might win an award for giving everybody the creeps.

Recommended reading:

Baggage Check” by Shay Darrach

FINE a comic by Rhea Ewing

Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency

Sniff-less in Science Fiction

It’s springtime in the Northern Hemisphere, so much of my attention has lately been on my nose. Working in the garden exposes me to an array of allergens, and like anyone who enjoys examining most of their experiences through the lenses of science and fiction, I began searching for interesting nose-related research. Because the end of winter and the onset of allergy season also coincide with the return of my interest in social contact, I’m in the mood to share the highlights of my search.

What does nose science have to do with writing science fiction? Plenty! My simple search for sniffles-related research turned up several worthwhile writing prompts within the study of the sense of smell.

Did you know that the vibration of scent molecules may have as much to do with the detection and identification of different odors as their shapes and surfaces? Apparently, even we weak-nosed humans can tell the difference between molecules that are identical except for a feature as tiny as how their atoms transfer electrons. Where’s the story idea in that? Well, if your main character has a device or an ability to change the way their body odors, maybe they can escape the police. Or affect their perceived age.

Why do we humans have such a comparatively weak sense of smell, anyway? One reason is that, unlike other mammals, it seems that our olfactory bulbs don’t continue making neurons after birth. For the sake of a story, one could speculate about how changed a character’s experience of life might be if they were born with anosmia or hyposmia and later developed a keen sense of smell. Or vice versa; a character with hyperosmia might find a coworker’s perfume so antagonistic that they develop scent-cancelling ‘white odor‘ nose plugs, sell the idea for a fortune, and retire from the cubicle farm.

But what if your main character’s odor issues don’t live in their nose or their brain, but in other organs or their blood? What if exposure to scent molecules triggered unusual experiences instead of the full body yummy feeling most people get from eating or drinking something they like, or the visceral disgust we get when we ingest something foul? To me, that smells like a reasonable science-basis for ‘magic’ potions.

Which reminds me of reading The Scent of Magic by Andre Norton. That was years ago, but it was the first and remains the most memorable use of olfaction I’ve read in a piece of fiction. If anyone can recommend other or more recent stories that put the nose to the literature stone, I’ll be grateful. In the meantime, I’ll amuse myself with more sniffing science.

Rat Telepathy: Let There Be Nuance

The scientists developing rat telepathy have an aim. They want to answer the question: Can mammal brains be trained to communicate with each other electrically? Research shows that it can work in rats, at least. Much remains to be seen: Will it work in other mammals? In humans? For now, the electrical communication is one-way; is ‘telepathic’ repartee possible? Is it possible for different species to communicate effectively brain-to-brain?

We know from other research that some mammal brains can control machines designed for that purpose. But what about feedback – sensory information simulating touch transmitted from prosthetic to brain, for example? Current science seems to indicate it’s possible. It’s certainly an easy leap to make in fiction, but any scientist worth her weight in pipettes will tell you that it’s usually a few orders of magnitude harder to manage in real life.

Navigating the administrative and regulatory obstacle courses between the lab bench and the clinic alone is costly in terms of time and money, yes, but it also takes a toll on the heart. The business of science is hard on people. It consumes researchers in much the same way biologists burn through reagents, and at metaphorically the same rate. It’s dimensions harder for scientists who experiment on animals. Not only are the mountains of paperwork piled higher and the pitfalls dug deeper, the researchers are human. Animal lovers and vegans among their number.

How can anyone tolerate animal testing? For that matter, how can anyone eat meat? It’s all down to our capacity for cognitive dissonance. Hypocrites! Idealists!

It’s complicated. It’s hard and it should be. We should be suspicious of over-simplification, even in our own fiction. We should look close, listen carefully, and imagine with depth. In our writing, we should resist the ‘mad scientist’ trope. For a fun change of pace, avoid pursuing plot devices to their logical extremes. Instead of painting science as the villain, how about shining a light on the tensions that emerge when budget constraints – sequestration, anyone? – force post-docs to compete with their mentors for increasingly limited federal funds? Why not examine the consequences of alowing basic science to languish while throwing money at the few headline-making scientists so adroit at standing on giant shoulders that they achieve celebrity status? What happens to a civilization after a generation of quiet giants is lost?

And what of the tender-hearted scientist? She’s no fool. She would never release lab animals into the wild. Instead, her data is better because she stacks the deck in favor of her furry subjects. They have the best care possible under the circumstances, and it shows in how well her test results stand up to peer review. Her work informs others’ and ultimately, the care provided in her vivarium becomes one high standard to which others’ are upheld. She is loved and hated. As can happen to any normal person, she becomes known in certain circles for something other than what she intended. It’s a pain, but one she knows she’s lucky to have. Her social media presence is trolled by animal rights protesters and zealous novelists alike. In the end, she’s offered few choices: Embrace celebrity or obscurity. Chase research dollars or abide by evidence-based principles… What’s a tender-hearted scientist to do?

There is room in any given story for both technological advancement and, oh, the humanity! We can navigate the inelegant intersection of rat telepathy and animal rights. Why don’t we? We could place blame with ignorant writers, lazy readers, or publishers who aim for the lowest common denominator, but the real answer is beautifully more complex. It encompasses everything from public funding for STEM education through social stigma for being unironically enthusiastic science nerds. It defies gender binaries and thumbs its nose at sterotypes. There is no overly simple answer.

So, let’s look beyond the obvious extrapolations from this most recent piece of sensational science news. Let there be nuance.

Giving The Far Future The Blues

When writers build worlds, we [are supposed to] give at least a passing thought to water supplies and waste management, and all the handy physical infrastructures that support our characters. We also [are supposed to] spare a thought for social infrastructures like bureaucracies, economies, families, and so on. It’s usually possible to gloss over most of these things – much exposition can be safely left to the readers’ assumptions – and when that’s impossible, it’s usually still wise to attend primarily to the details of the setting that lend context and veracity to the plot.

That said, there is a tendency to retreat the setting to the background to such a degree that characters merely strut their half-hour upon a stage; a practice that leaves many stories reading like the pilot episodes of failed sitcoms.

Then again, there is an equally unfortunate habit – particularly in epic fiction – of elevating the setting to the point that it upstages the players. In examples of this, readers must follow puppets along the three-hour tour demanded by too-formidable scenery.

In stories with depth, there is an interplay between agents and their environment. This repartee is best carried out in the middle ground: Yes, there is political intrigue on our generation ship, and yes our happenstance main character must expose the villainous parties before Voting Day, but what about the music? What earworms has she been enjoying or suffering, lately? What’s the current musical controversy? What’s losing traction on the playlists? Musical divergences reflect broader social shifts, and signs of the times tend to be broadcast in popular music. Generally speaking, party music is big while the populace is happy with the course their ship is on. But if everyone’s singing the blues? Expect change.

Nuancing the middle ground – the field of play between foreground and background – is the technical equivalent of granting that even futuristic cities (and generation ships) must include alleys and graymarkets in their design to function believably. For the writers among us who particularly enjoy devilling with the details, this layering approach to story-building may sound like child’s play. For everyone else, it may seem like a shortcut, a hack, or a magic trick. Better yet: Music to their ears.

Sleeping Fiction

Photo by Kay T. Holt

In science fiction, sleep is a pastime. For the sake of continuity, characters are put into suspended animation so the reader can travel with them across vast expanses with neither suffering catastrophic ennui. Sure, sleep facilitates other things, too – vivid dreamers communicate with aliens and sleep-deprived characters make every kind of mischief sooner or later – but SF is really big on sleeping beauties.

Which is a shame, when you think about it. Sleep itself is in many ways still a frontier. We have some interesting ideas about sleep and learning, problem-solving, fat, food, puberty, immunity, blood pressure, loneliness… Name anything to do with the body, and it appears to be affected by sleep in one way or many, yet SF largely neglects to explore sleep past its nearest and most familiar boundaries.

Returning to the idea of character continuity; even that tired old plot device has been only superficially explored. What if the brain activity while we sleep is the process by which we maintain our personal continuity from day to day? How might suspending that activity for the duration of long spaceflights disrupt our capacities or even our identities? Or, if sleep-state brain activity is somehow maintained during suspended animation, wouldn’t the brain develop physiological changes over time? If so, how would they present in terms of behavior?

There are an abundance of dimensions of sleep still open for speculation. In fact, as soon as I finish this post, I’m going to navigate a few of them with my eyes closed. But what about the reader? What interesting treatments of sleep have you found in SF? And what other interesting biological phenomena would you like to see better explored in fiction?

What’s Slick, Dry and Smart All Over? Science In My Fiction

As an editor, I read a lot of sci-fi that leans too heavily on worldbuilding tropes of the past. Every starship and space station I read about has the same old rigid hulls, single-use environments, and clunky, intrusive computing elements that seem designed to abandon users when their need is greatest. Science fiction is lately wanting in the ‘imaginative applications of materials science’ department.

Fortunately, there has recently been no shortage of interesting advances in that field. To make inspiration convenient for writers too busy to seek out new science and boldly go where no fiction has gone before, I have gathered together a few examples of research into novel materials that could rock your worldbuilding.

In space, everyone’s a janitor. Scum grows everywhere, all the time, catastrophically unmitigated by ‘normal’ gravity and the sort of biological processes that we take for granted on Earth. So writers had better equip all their characters with impressive arrays of scrub brushes, or start coating surfaces in biofilm-resistant technology.

Nothing’s perfect, especially not plumbing. In the far future, people will still struggle with sweating, dripping, seeping, oozing, bursting pipes of one kind or another. Scarcity is bad enough on Earth, especially when it comes to potable water, but resource management in space is even more urgently a matter of life and death. Depending on the location and the gas or liquid involved in a leak, people could find themselves facing a fire or flood or drought that could wipe out all life in their fragile tin-can biome. The future needs plumbers with advanced leak detection capabilities.

Just like the vacuum in your house, the vacuum of space is crowded with dust and the universe’s other castoffs. But in space, all the never-ending clouds of specks and chunks are traveling at incredible speeds. They’re hot, cold, radioactive, magnetized, and our pathetic little ships are on collision courses with every mote and rock between their origins and their destinations. Even if sensors and navigation are sophisticated enough to let us detect and dodge the worst encounters, our hulls will eventually erode and fail. Unless we think to cover them in snakeskin

I could go on like this for volumes, there’s such an abundance of clever ideas out there for how to transform the most inefficient and woefully humdrum materials we use on Earth into believable support for above average science fiction.

Earworms are for Science!

If humans love anything, it’s our tools. Yes, hammers and wrenches and probes and mass spectrometers, but also the subtler tools. Tools that help us play well together, like the arts, and tools that help us learn. Like science.

Humans also love shortcuts. There’s a reason articles on tips, tricks and secrets are so popular on the web. And we writers are anything but immune to the temptation of the cheat – what is storytelling but a canny twist on reporting?

Because everyone finds devices of one kind or another irresistible, I’ve dug up a few of the mnemonic sort that make an infamously formidable tool rather more approachable. Yes, thanks to the magnificent multi-tool that is arts, Ye Olde Periodic Table of Elements earworm has a few new music videos.

Watch and learn, then pass them on. After all, isn’t that why we built the internet – to share information?

That Great Big Wave Pool In The Sky

When we imagine the distant future, we tend to envision some combination of industrial-strength social order on starships and preindustrial-strength chaos in exoplanetary exploration. Star Trek, Star Wars, City Mouse and Country Mouse, etc. There’s a lot of technologies-versus-organics still going on out there in the big wide multiverse of fiction.

What’s more interesting is the fact that humans will probably never survive very long away from the tiny wet marble we evolved on if we’re unable to forge a successful marriage between those two influences upon our bodies and minds.

No, there is no living system on Earth evolving in such a way that we can simply encapsulate it and use it to fly ourselves to other stars. Tardigrades seem to do alright for themselves in space in spite of the radiation, cold, and total lack of food, water and air. But humans aren’t that hardy. Or that cute.

Cuter than a tardigrade? ('Wild Thing' by Kay Holt)

Yes, it’ll take unprecedented degrees of human cooperation and organization and invention to make-real the technologies and infrastructure we’ll need to support ourselves off-Earth. We’re very good at gadgets; maybe someday there’ll even be an app for that. But all our best engineers working together for generations will never be able to fix what’s wrong on a starship devoid of wildlife and wide open spaces.

If we don’t want to self-destruct on our way to the stars, we’re going to need a bigger ‘boat.’ One big enough to carry an ocean inside. And a bit of forest. Some lovely crags. An icy brook here and there…

Bearing in mind that we essentially need to build small inside-out planets to sustain us on our [hopefully] inevitable deep space treks, the question I have for the writers among us is this: What’s in your interstellar terrarium?

Godless Heroes

Once upon a time, in a far away desert, a priest came to visit a girl working at her poor family’s farm. He asked her, “Do you like going to the Temple?”

“Oh, yes. I look forward to it every week.” She smiled as she fed an impatient nanny goat and her kids. “The Temple is beautiful and clean and quiet.”

The priest was pleased by her answer. “Do you study the scriptures?”

“Oh, yes. My whole life.” Still smiling, she drew water from the well and tipped it out for the thirsty peppers. “The scriptures give me a lot to think about.”

He was impressed. “Do you obey God’s Laws?”

The girl paused with an egg halfway to her basket. She gave the priest her full attention for the first time. “Am I in trouble?”

The priest gave a little placating gesture and a smile. “No, no. I’ve spoken with your family. They tell me you’re old enough and ready to take your first Temple vows.”

Basket and egg were forgotten. “What kind of vows? To become a priest and look after people?”

“Of course not. Priests are all men. Your Temple vows are simply promises to God that you will obey His Laws and his priests.” He noticed her disgust. “What’s wrong? Aren’t you faithful?”

After a gaping pause, she laughed as though tickled. “Of course not. Worshipers are all mad!”

Funny thing about atheists: We enjoy ritual and song and participating in acts of community as much as anyone does. Many atheists even have a ‘spiritual’ side – an affinity for the unknown and the uncertain that leads many of us to pursue science as a path to personal enlightenment as well as a career. We seem drawn to fantasy in fiction for similar reasons.

There’s a fair amount of sci-fi in which humans discover that their deities are actually aliens, or humans insert themselves into alien pantheons in order to control their behavior. There’s certainly an abundance of sci-fi that borrows heavily from mythology for its major plot points. And while there’s still a lot of work to be done in sci-fi (and speculative fiction as a whole) with regard to race and issues of gender and sexuality, at least pantheons and priests don’t seem to dominate every other space opera on offer.

Fantasy is a different beast. There are exceptions, but it seems that the default is to tie magic with religion in fantasy worldbuilding. Not that mages are all priests in disguise, although that’s sometimes the case, but rather in worlds where magic is a fact of life, often deities are also real. Consequences of this include an unfortunate dependence upon deus ex machina to rescue untenable plots, and a disappointing shortage of compelling secular lead characters in fantasy.

At the very least, there’s a vast and virtually pristine wilderness left to explore in fantasy. There are thousands of unwritten books about brainy little girls who can think and act as well as they can heal and hurl levinbolts.

Science Hacks Our Fiction (And The Feeling Is Mutual)

Science fiction loves robots to pieces, but fortunately for genre writers and fans, the feeling is mutual. Engineers and scientists are working near-miracles in the robotics field, and the fruits of their labor are ripe for fiction’s picking. 2012 is still young by most accounts, yet this year robots have already grown tails and scales, acquired aerial speed limits, and learned to swim like a boss. Next they’ll be popping-up in swarms and colonizing our eaves. Or better yet: We’ll wear them on our hands to reduce the repetitive stress injuries we’re causing ourselves by trying to write ever-cleverer new robots into science fiction faster than actual science can render the bots of our dreams obsolete.

Probably the only way we writers can keep up with – or even hope to outpace – the current rate of robotic development is by imagining new purposes and roles for robots. It’s unlikely that scientists and engineers will ever stop endeavoring to simulate humanity and integrate androids into society, as lofty as that goal is. But if real bots must eventually look like and learn like humans, the least we can do is give readers more interesting robots to read about than the one that sweeps floors and amuses cats, or the android in the kitchen with Dinah. We already use droids for offense and defense, manufacturing, and surgery. Robotic search and rescue is a high priority for research and development, and it looks like construction may soon be crawling with bots. So what frontiers does that leave fiction to explore?

Plenty. The world already includes many different kinds of robots with different functions and forms, and the diversity of artificial ‘species’ will only continue to expand (even as natural diversity contracts at an alarming rate). As robots abound, they will inevitably need to interact well with natural species and with each other in order to satisfy human demands. They’ll need to function optimally with a minimum of human guidance, and endure at times in spite of human intervention. Face it: We abuse our tools and hack our toys. Robots need to be resilient just to survive life among humans. There’s enough fodder for stories in those last few sentences alone to keep an author busy for the length of a so-called Golden Age of fiction…

The strange android had stepped from behind an overgrown bougainvillea and disabled their Guardians before they’d even known it was there. “Remain calm, children. I won’t hurt you.” It spoke like a classic film actress, its voice a disarming combination of cultured and flinty that the boys recognized from their seventh grade film history elective but had never heard in person. Read an excerpt from ‘Parent Hack’ by Kay T. Holt