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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

Dreaming Robot Can’t Wake Up

ZaZa can't wake from dreams of being splashed.

Do androids dream of electric sheep? Apparently not, according to researchers at the Interdisciplinary Technology Institute in Boston. “Most of ZaZa’s dreams are about getting splashed.” Whether that’s the result of oversight or foresight, ZaZa’s vulnerability to liquids has been a boon to the scientists at ITI from the beginning of this uncanny project.

As part of their research into the relationship between dreaming and memory formation, ZaZa was created to be a learning robot. Scientists expose her to new stimuli and information every day and then assess her recollection over time. According to one researcher, ZaZa came in contact with an uncovered cup of coffee during the first week of the study, and immediately afterward, her dreams became less like randomized input logs and more recognizably dream-like. “After the incident, we instructed her to avoid all moisture in the future. We expected to see the event reflected in her dreams but we’re still surprised by the extent of its impact.”

Because organic brains are still far more complex than even the most advanced computers, scientists at ITI had to overcome major hurdles while designing the project. In order to construct a useful model of a human mind, they had to give ZaZa several ‘brains.’ In addition to the central unit in her chest, she has a computer to regulate and monitor each of her six sensor-types, another to coordinate the senses and simulate short term memory and recall, and a ninth computer dedicated to communication and dreaming. One would expect a robot brain composed of so many computers to be cumbersome and awkward, but ZaZa is surprisingly small; about the size of a kindergartner. Because ITI’s dream research requires that ZaZa be able to move around and interact with scientists, they took advantage of existing, inexpensive broadband mobile technology rather than reinventing the wheel for the project. As a result, little ZaZa is completely wireless and has a remote brain.

Wifi is only one of the technological advances that researchers at ITI have incorporated into the design of their dream-bot.  To give ZaZa the ability to learn like a human, they applied developments in self-organizing computer networks, simulated cognition and artificial intelligence, and even language acquisition and physical creativity. “The ZaZa Project is really a collaborative effort between ITI and dozens of other institutions. The individual advances made in their labs are brought together in ours.”

Considerable effort went into ZaZa’s outward design, as well. In order to inspire more ‘life-like’ dreams, they’ve equipped her with the social skills necessary to recognize human emotions and respond appropriately. For day-to-day interactions between ZaZa and researchers to be as normal as possible, they’ve even given her human mannerisms and appearance. One scientist said, “When all her systems are functioning optimally, you could almost forget she isn’t someone’s little girl.”

Of course, any system as complex as ZaZa’s is bound to malfunction at times. Because most of her brains are located outside her body, she slips into standby mode whenever the local wifi signal drops and must be woken manually. If even one of her computers crashes, scientists must shut her down completely and repeat the day’s research from the beginning. Simple physical problems, like replacing worn sensors, can be dealt with more easily because ZaZa doesn’t technically feel pain. However, every time she gets wet – a month after the coffee incident, poor ventilation in another lab at ITI triggered the fire sprinklers – ZaZa’s body suffers catastrophic failure and must be rebuilt.

When everything goes according to plan, ZaZa is still only awake for eight hours a day, five days a week. “ZaZa can’t be left unattended while she’s awake, so she has to dream while we’re all home on nights and weekends,” explained the project’s lead scientist. That’s perfect for their research because it means that during periods without major malfunctions, they still acquire enough dream logs to make up for the time they spend rebuilding and repairing her systems.

Scientists are naturally reluctant to offer much speculation about the results of this study so early in the project, but many researchers are already planning future studies involving ZaZa and conceiving new robots based upon her design. One such project has already been green-lighted by ITI, but the only details scientists would divulge about it were that the next generation of ‘dream-bot’ will be adult-sized to accommodate internal, self-contained computer brains. Also, unlike ZaZa, who spends most hours lying under a tarp unable to wake from dreams about getting splashed, their next prototype will be able to swim if necessary, and may rest, but never sleep.

Frickin Laser Beams!

Earlier this year I spent a week out at Los Alamos National Laboratory vaporizing things with a high powered laser. Now, as I drown in data that I collected out there, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about lasers. When I tell people that I zap things with lasers, I can almost see the mental images flickering behind their eyes. They tend to look something like this:

Man, I wish. I hate to burst your bubble, but working with lasers, although very cool, is not as showy as most sci-fi depictions. To help understand why, let’s first talk about how lasers work. The word laser is actually an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, and that actually sums up how they work quite well. There are lots of different types of lasers these days but they all share a few common characteristics. First, you need the “lasing medium” – that is, the stuff that will give off the light. The first lasers used artificial ruby crystals, but now there are lasers that are based on everything from CO2 gas to organic dyes to various semiconductors. The laser I use for my research is a Nd: YAG which stands for Neodymium-doped Yttrium Aluminum Garnet crystal. Ok, so we have a “lasing medium”, now we need to make it shine. Things give off light when they have electrons in high energy levels jumping back down to lower energies and getting rid of the excess energy as photons. In a laser, the goal is to get something called “population inversion”, meaning that there are more electrons in excited energy levels than there are in the ground state. This is typically done with a flash lamp in a process called “pumping“. By shining very intense light on the lasing medium, the electrons all get excited and the laser is ready to, well, lase.

Diagram of a ruby laser from HowStuffWorks.

Of course, the goal of a laser is to have a nice narrow beam, but if you just have a lump of stuff with excited electrons, the light will be given off in all directions. A fluorescent bulb is a good example of this. A lasing medium acts in much the same way, shining a diffuse light in all directions, unless we do something to it. The secret is to place it between two mirrors, one which reflects all light, and one which reflects only some of the light that hits it. Initially, the atoms in the lasing medium give off light in all directions, but some of those photons will end up traveling along the laser, bouncing back and forth between the two mirrors. Here is where the laser really starts working. It turns out that when you have photons of a certain energy traveling along through a bunch of atoms with excited electrons that have the same energy, you get “stimulated emission“. The first photons cause the electrons to jump down and emit identical photons. And I do mean identical. Yes they have the same energy (and therefore the same frequency/wavelength/color), but the new photons also have the same phase, polarization and direction as the initial ones. They are completely indistinguishable at the quantum level. As you might expect, this stimulated emission leads to a chain reaction. Each photon of laser light can stimulate new photons to join it. Since one end of the laser is partially transparent, the result is a narrow beam of light made up of identical photons: a frickin’ laser beam! Wonderful. Now that we understand how they work, I want to address a few misconceptions about lasers in science fiction and popular culture in general.

1. Laser beams are visible.

With a laser, the idea is to have all of the light going in the same direction, right? That means that if you can see the laser beam from the side, as shown in this picture from Star Trek, and in pretty much every depiction of lasers ever, then something isn’t right! The light is being scattered out of the beam. If you’ve ever used a laser pointer you know that even though it gives off visible (usually red or green) light, you just see a dot where it is pointing. Now, if you shine it at someone who is smoking, or if you use it outside in the fog, or in a dusty room, you can see the beam because the light is reflecting off of particles in the air (smoke or water droplets or dust). So, yes sometimes visible lasers in air are plausible because there could be stuff in the way, but visible lasers in space? No way! There are some other caveats to this also. Not all lasers use visible light! The Nd:YAG that I use for my research and the similar laser used by ChemCam emit infrared light. It is completely invisible, no matter what. This makes it incredibly dangerous to work with lasers like this, especially when first lining up the optics, because you can’t tell if the laser is being reflected around the room! Just because these lasers are not visible doesn’t mean they can’t destroy your retina in a millisecond, so we wear special protective goggles designed for the specific wavelength that the laser emits at all times when the laser is on. Also: you can’t see the laser beam traveling from the source to the target. It’s going at the speed of light. So all those sci-fi depictions of laser blasts whizzing by the hero’s head like tracer bullets: wrong.* *Yes, I know, some sci-fi explains this by invoking pulses of plasma and not actual lasers. That’s a whole different can of worms with its own issues. Suffice it to say that most people *think* those blasters, phasers, etc. are supposed to be lasers, so I’m debunking that misconception.

2. Pew pew pew!

That’s not what they sound like. I know. I’m sorry. Low powered lasers don’t really sound like anything. And can you imagine how annoying it would be if they did? At the grocery store checkout: pew pew pew! Using a CD or DVD player: pew pew pew! Laser pointer: pew pew! Yes, but the “pew pew” sound really comes from things like Star Wars, depicting lasers used as weapons. So what about big lasers, capable of vaporizing things? Nope. With higher powered lasers, at least the kind I work with, the main sound comes from the flash lamp. It’s sort of a ticking noise, one tick per flash, one flash per laser pulse. Now, when we crank up the power or use something called a “q-switch” to make each pulse shorter and more intense, you get another noise that comes from the laser actually vaporizing things. That noise is more of a “crack” or “pop” noise. In fact, I once popped some bubble wrap in the laser lab while my collaborators were aligning the laser and totally freaked them out because they thought it was the laser. Oops… The popping noise is essentially the same thing as thunder: a rapidly expanding ball of plasma causes the air to be compressed in a shockwave. Our laser plasmas are tiny, so they just make a little noise. Lightning bolts (plasma formed by electrical discharge) are rather larger, and so is their noise. Many of my experiments are done zapping rocks inside a vacuum chamber, and it’s always fun to hear the noise fade away as we decrease the air pressure in the chamber.

3. Lasers as weapons.

They’re really not that great. There are a lot of issues with using lasers as weapons. First of all: the optics. For a laser to be useful as a weapon, you would have to focus the light as tightly as possible on the target. De-focus at all, and you might still blind them, but there won’t be much vaporization going on. The precision required for the optics to do this makes a hand-held laser really impractical. The slightest bump or wiggle and all of a sudden your gun is a high-powered flashlight. There’s also the issue of air. Anyone who has looked through a telescope or out over a parking lot on a hot day has seen the shimmering mess that the air can make of an otherwise clear image. Now imagine trying to shine a tightly focused beam of light through that mess and hitting a target. Not an easy task. The military has worked on this to some extent with adaptive optics used for giant plane-mounted anti-missile laser, but it is a significant problem. The air poses another problem: it absorbs light. In fact, a high enough powered laser can cause the air itself to break down into a ragged line of plasma. I’ve seen this in the lab and it is awesome. The problem is that plasma is full of free-flying electrons, so it absorbs light. A laser strong enough to use as a weapon would also be strong enough to turn the air to a plasma, which would then block the laser from hitting its target. One way around the plasma problem is to use a pulsed laser. As long as the pulses are timed so that the plasma has dissipated before the next pulse is fired, the plasma is not as much of a problem. I mentioned lightning earlier and that’s relevant here. There is a way to make use of the “plasma issue”, because plasmas conduct electricity. So in theory it would be possible to use a laser as a long-distance taser! The laser would first create a conduit of plasma out of the air, and then with a high enough voltage, an electric shock could be send down the plasma to the target. This would not be a subtle weapon: at this point the lightning analogy is not really an analogy anymore. It would basically be a lightning gun, and would make a noise to match. I thought I was being really clever when I thought of this, but it turns out I’m not the first: the US military has experimented with them. Another problem with lasers as weapons is the power source. It takes quite a lot of power to make a laser capable of doing damage, and it would probably not be practical for a person to carry such a power source around. In the video game “Fallout 3″, the energy weapons use things called “microfusion cells” for ammunition to get around this issue. But right now, we don’t even have power-positive macro-fusion cells, so bullet-sized fusion powerplants are not available yet.

Finally, there is the issue of collateral damage. The thing with light is that it tends to reflect off of things. This means that anyone using a laser weapon better be wearing the appropriate protective eyewear or else their own target is going to blind them. Aside from the practical issues with blindness, the Geneva conventions also specifically forbid laser weapons that cause blindness (in other words, all of them). In my opinion, I highly doubt that lasers will ever be practical as pistols or rifles. Maybe as large mounted guns on tanks or something. But really, the most likely place for lasers as a viable weapon is space. Without air, the difficulties with plasma creation and turbulence are removed. The issue of power and optics remain, but I could plausibly see a satellite or space station with the stability and power to use a laser as a weapon. It might still be difficult to focus on a distant target, just due to the physical limits on the optics, but the advantage of near-instant travel-time might be of benefit when you’re aiming at a target thousands of km away, traveling at thousands of km per hour.

This post reprinted with permission from Ryan Anderson’s blog.

Mind Reading Societies

A common characteristic of “advanced races” in science-fiction is the ability to communicate without using speech, gestures, or writing, but with their brains.  Telepathy can be an inherent ability powered by “magic”, or it can be granted by implanted radios.  Though one has to wonder what kind of effect this has on their society, specifically relating to their ability to keep secrets or to deceive one another.

Some say that relationships, and by extension civilizations, are founded on lies and held together by secrets.  I expect that would be very hard if everyone could read everyone else’s minds.  If such a society existed they would either have to be completely honest and keep no secrets from one another; or they’d make scanning another’s thoughts without permission a serious taboo or crime.  In fact, one might expect a naturally telepathic species to be colonial organisms.

And as for collective consciousnesses, most portrayals involve each member broadcasting their every thought to everyone else in the collective, unless they’re all remotes controlled by the queen of course.  This shouldn’t be a problem if they are all born into the hive like ants are, but if they were individually sapient beings (such as humans) who joined together as adults their individual pasts might come into conflict.  If, for example, a married couple were to join such a group mind would it bring them closer, or tear them apart?

Granted telepathy, being fictional, often varies in its form and capabilities, one of the most common being that neural impulses give off something that certain people/species can sense at a distance.  That particular form would work best with the societal effects listed here but there are other possibilities.  For example a more “realistic” depiction would be a specialized organ or implant in the brain (maybe the corpus callosum or equivalent attached to a electrical organ like those in certain fish) emits radio signals in response to impulses in certain neurons, though it might be possible to learn not to send one’s thoughts through mental disciplines, or just change your settings so that only the thoughts you want others to pick up are sent.

Some possibilities:

  • Humanity encounters a telepathic alien race that can only read each other’s minds, human brains are closed to them except through conventional communication.  They have no concept of deception and cannot tell when humans are lying to them.
  • In the near future brain-computer interfaces are ubiquitous and allow full thought-to-thought communication between two or more people.  Someone develops a program similar to Twitter except that it posts thoughts instead of short texts.
  • Software that allows constant mental communication between multiple people is developed and becomes the next big thing, followed by a surge of divorces and violent crime.