Shattering it to bits: Women and the Destruction of Science Fiction

August 9, 2014

“…Would we not shatter it to bits and then

Remould it closer to the heart’s desire…”

(Omar Khayyam, as translated by Fitzgerald)

The June 2014 issue of Lightspeed is a special issue called “Women Destroy Science Fiction.”  With an all female guest editorial team and an impressive roster of women writers, the issue is a great start toward a newer, richer science fiction.  I have not finished reading all the stories, but the ones I’ve read achieve a fine balance of style and substance.  There is of course no doubt in my mind that women can write science fiction, being one of those women myself.  But in many ways I feel we are still at the start of the journey.  The journey began with Mary Shelley, with Rokeya Sukhawat Hussain, later it got a fresh start with Joanna RussUrsula Le Guin, Eleanor Arnason, Octavia Butler among others, and even later with a new crop of women writers, increasingly international and diverse, among whom I feel privileged to count myself.  Each start was from a different place, and each part of the journey carried all of us women writers, and indeed science fiction itself, into new and strange places.  It is in this sense that I refer to the special issue as a ‘start.’

So what does it mean to ‘destroy science fiction?’  The guest editor, Christie Yant, says this:

Why “Women Destroy Science Fiction”? Are we really trying to destroy it? As you read the stories in this issue, you may very well think so. Here you’ll find galactic gastronomy and alternate astronomy, far-future courtship and a near-future food court—right alongside alien invasion and deep-space salvage missions. My hope is that one or more of these stories will reach a reader who never realized that kind of story is science fiction, too, and will seek out more like it. And I hope that one or more will convince those writers—the fantasists, the poets, the ones more comfortable in Middle Earth or the Midwest than on Mars—that they, too, can create science fiction stories and participate in the expansion of the field.

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Hateship, Friendship… Spaceship! On ‘Good’ Stories

June 22, 2014

I finally saw the movie “The Namesake.”  Based on Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, it is a story about the struggles of a young Indian-American man, born of immigrant parents, growing up in America.  What lends freshness to this tired old theme is the particularity of the story, and the fact that it doesn’t cater to stereotypes.  I thought the movie was pretty good, but a bit thin on substance.  Yes, it is a coming-of-age story, an immigrant story, a story about belonging, identity and maturity, done rather well.  But it (the movie, not the book, which I haven’t read) reminded me of a comment my mother had once made, years ago, upon starting to read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.

The Vikram Seth book is apparently a multi-family saga, centered around a family’s search for a groom for their daughter.  It is a doorstopper of a book.   My mother’s point was – why write a novel (and such a fat one at that) about ordinary, everyday things that happen in so many families?  What’s so special about that?  Where’s the story?

Some people have compared Seth’s monumental work to Tolstoy and Dickens.  I will read it at some point when I have enough time to tackle a tome that voluminous.  I don’t want to detract from its virtues, which are spoken of as many – suffice it to say that the amount of drama in my family, particularly the maternal branch, is enough for a dozen novels that would put most fiction to shame.  This is kind of where my mother was coming from when she made that comment.

Nevertheless I want to pursue the notion of story from various perspectives based on my personal encounters, viewpoints, eccentricities, and sets of assumptions.  When we say “that was a good story,” and shut the book reluctantly, with a sigh, what are we saying?  How might personal quirks, cultural and other assumptions determine a ‘good’ story for one person and a bore for another?

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Of Whales and Ships and Eskimos: Jean George’s Book “Ice Whale”

June 7, 2014

When I was a kid, I used to sometimes sneak out of my classroom at my school in New Delhi, and hide in the library.  My school environment was highly disciplined, with a great emphasis on academics and proper behavior.  While this was all to the good, sometimes my imagination needed free rein.  I still remember hiding behind the stacks, a shaft of sunlight coming in through the window, illuminating the page of the book I held on my lap.

It was during one of these escapades that I came across author Jean Craighead George’s book My Side of the Mountain.  I devoured the book, marveling at the adventures of a boy who had run away from home to live in the wilderness.  It had been a dream of mine to do something as bold.  Many of the books I’d read while growing up involved children who ran away from home with monotonous regularity, usually to camp in the wilderness, and it seemed like the thing to do.   My own attempt at it had been some years before my discovery of My Side Of the Mountain, when, as a ten-year-old, I’d run away to the tree outside my grandparents’ house.  For the first couple of hours I had enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversations of mynahs and jungle babblers, and observing buffaloes pass beneath me, but the tree limb wasn’t the most comfortable perch.  To my everlasting chagrin, when I returned to the house in a few hours, bored and hungry, I found that nobody had missed my absence.

But there was something different about this book.  It made the animal inhabitants of that mountainside come alive, in a way that I had experienced in my own interactions with non-humans, but had not been able to articulate.  Later I would realize that this aliveness was really a way of recognizing that animals had agency – they were actors in their own dramas, with their own agendas and worldviews.  Without turning animals into cutesy Disney-style caricatures, without over-sentimentalizing, George had brought forth in her fiction what naturalist Henry Beston had so clearly articulated about animals:  They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth. 

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Alternate Visions: Some Musings on Diversity in SF

May 27, 2014

I was recently in the remote Alaskan town of Barrow for an academic project.  Barrow is profoundly different from any place I have been: at 71.3 N latitude, it perches at the edge of the Arctic Ocean.  During April, when I visited, the ocean is frozen as far as you can see.  The tundra is white and flat, and there is no vegetation.  Most of the people who live there are Inupiat Eskimos.  It is as far removed as you can imagine from Delhi, where I grew up, or for that matter, Boston, near which city I now reside.

I was wandering through the bright hallways of Ilisagvik college in Barrow, looking for someone with whom I hoped to speak, when I found an efficient young administrative assistant.  She assured me she would find the person I was seeking, and took my name down.  As is usual in the US I had to spell it for her.  “I’ve never heard that name before!” she said.  “Where are you from?” There was only curiosity and friendliness in her gaze.  I could tell that she was trying, and failing, to place me.  My skin was about the same color as hers, yet I looked different.  I was clearly not white, or African-American, and I was certainly not Inupiat, like her.  The innocence of her question was such that it did not occur to me to be offended, and I explained.

She said: “Wow!  It must be really strange for you to be here.”

I must have looked a question as I nodded, because she explained that she had once gone to Washington D.C.  Having lived in Barrow all her life, it was her first trip south.  South!  What was it like?  “It was so weird!” she said.  “So different!”  After that experience she realized how strange her home would seem to people from other places.

The best speculative fiction, like travel, does that to you – it takes you to strange places, from which vantage point you can no longer take your home for granted.  It renders the familiar strange, and the strange becomes, for the duration of the story, the norm.  The reversal of the gaze, the journey in the shoes of the Other, is one of the great promises of speculative fiction.  Much of the time it doesn’t deliver, however.  Much of the time you get to go to other worlds with your feet firmly encased in your own shoes, carrying around your perspectives and prejudices as though you had never left home.

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On Listening to Mahler on a Rainy Night

May 26, 2014

It’s been a strange sort of day, with sunshine and rain alternating. I’ve been sitting in the breezeway working on a long post for this blog about diversity in science fiction. The topic makes me think about distances, literal and metaphoric, about solitude, about the difficulties of relating to the other, who may be an alien, your next door neighbor, or both. As I’ve been writing, dark has been falling, bringing rain. I love the sound of rain drumming on the roof. It makes me long for samosas and hot tea, and music from the likes of Lata Mangeshkar. But for some reason tonight the rain has brought me a desire for Mahler. So I’ve been playing this youtube video of one of my favorite lieder ever Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. The music is fabulous, soaring, somber. Since I first heard this in a little student flat over two decades ago with my Korean roommate, it has haunted me. It was sung in a remarkable French movie, Le Maitre De Musique. All these years later I find myself humming the melody under my breath at odd moments.

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A Frenetically Fruitful Summer Reading

July 15, 2013

Recently, in about a seven day period, I read five books.  It was a feverish reading spree, starting with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, followed by Flight Behavior, her latest book.  I also read Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are Completely Beside Ourselves, Maureen McHugh’s Mission Child, and Michael Frayn’s Spies.  This is one of the great luxuries of my summer, although even in summer it is not easily done.  But reading good books is one of the things that keeps me alive.

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Swimming Upstream

July 8, 2013

I was listening to an old Hindi film song not long ago in which a man addresses a woman thus.  “You, who are smiling so, what sorrow does your smile conceal?  Tears in your eyes, laughter on your lips…”  The original is much more elegant than my translation, but the idea is clear.  There are people who might be some of us, or all of us at some time or another, who are — despite appearances — swimming upstream through a river of sorrow. 

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And When That Dawn Will Come…

June 6, 2013

One of the best last lines I’ve read is from Alan Paton’s novel, Cry the Beloved Country.  I read it as a schoolgirl and have never forgotten it.

And when that dawn will come, the dawn of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why that is a secret.

That day did come, the day when apartheid became history.  It was worth the wait.  I’ve realized, after thinking about this for some months, that a certain kind of waiting has to do with love.

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Why People Don’t Like Science: some links

May 17, 2013

A long while ago I wrote a piece called “Why People Don’t like Science, Especially Physics” in which I speculated as to the answer to that question.  About two years ago I decided to delve more deeply into that and related questions, and ended up writing three columns for Strange Horizons.  The columns involved interviews and email exchanges with scientists, a historian, and anthropologists, and revealed some very interesting things about the culture of science.  So I thought it would be worthwhile to post the links here.

So here goes.

1)  Diffractions: On Science, Emotions, and Culture, Part 1, where I pose the question as to why so many scientists are embarrassed by emotions.

2) Part 2, where a mere physicist discovers the explorations of anthropologists in… physics labs

3) Part 3, where I start with a poetic quote from Richard Feynman and end by growling at Descartes.  Actually I end with a quote from Bell on new ways of seeing.  And hoping for a new way or ways to thinking about, doing, teaching and learning science.

More soon!

Re-Post: The Creatures We Don’t See: Thoughts on the Animal Other

March 22, 2013

Note: Back in 2008, the incredible Jeff VanderMeer invited me to guest-post on his blog.  Recently I had occasion to re-read this post, and I decided to post it here on Antariksh Yatra, minimally edited.  Unfortunately the post isn’t complete without the discussions in the comments, so here’s the original link.  

 

When I was around ten years old my family moved from New Delhi to the town of Patna, in Bihar, for two years.  Patna was a small, untidy, sprawling little town (relative to Delhi) and the area where we lived consisted of large, old-fashioned houses set among enormous gardens.  We stayed with my grandparents, and a little way from their house you could see fields.  Sometimes my brother and I would wake very early and go on a trek through the fields, pausing to watch a farmer and his bullock drawing water from a well, or looking at pond life in a ditch filled with rainwater.  In the evenings there would be kids playing cricket in the big maidan in front of the house, and my brother and I would be there too (it was in those days that I developed my now-lost skill as a fairly fearsome spin bowler).  Some of the pariah dogs that lived in packs in our neighbourhood would join in, especially if we were playing football (soccer).  Pariah dogs are descended from the earliest domesticated dogs — they are a tribe unto themselves, and live parallel lives with humans in towns and cities in India.  They are also beautiful, intelligent animals — you can see some really nice pictures here

 

One of these pariah dogs was a brown and white dog of noble bearing whom we called Moti (the word sounds like “more-thee” without the ‘r’, and means “pearl”).  As he was a regular on the football field, we became friends.  He would come over to our house if he wanted a meal.  Sometimes he would walk me home if I was late returning from a friend’s house.  There was a boy who lived next door who was friendly with Moti too, but he wanted Moti as a house-dog.  So he trapped the dog for three days in his house, spoiling him, feeding him delicacies and playing with him.  But at the first opportunity, Moti escaped.

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