“…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 Russ, Ursula 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.
So to ‘destroy,’ in this sense, is to expand the boundaries of the field. And in fact writers like Ursula Le Guin have done this as well – in her case, bringing intelligent sociological/ anthropological speculation to science fiction, thereby allowing SF to emerge from its adolescent boys-with-toys stage.
Earlier in her editorial, Yant states:
There was—is—something else going on, too, something apart from the attacks from the outside. It’s a smaller, quieter attack from within, and it’s just as pernicious. Too many accomplished writers are convinced that they aren’t qualified to write science fiction because they “don’t have the science.” I’ve heard this worry from men, too, but more often I hear it from women. I don’t know which is worse: the men who tell us we’re doing it wrong, or the voice within ourselves that insists that we’ll fail if we try.
This is a very important point – women thinking they ‘don’t have the science.’ It is easy to conclude, from these two paragraphs, that Yant’s solution to the problem of women’s discomfort with science (and therefore with science fiction) is to expand the definition of science fiction, and thus avoid any real engagement with the hard sciences. I don’t know if this is intentional on the part of the editor, although a couple of comments in the article seem to assume that. I’m going to keep an open mind about the editor’s intention, but I will address the issue of women’s diffidence about the sciences, particularly here in America, since this is a topic of deep interest to me, both in my professorial and writerly capacities.
I am going to attempt to ask the question I posed a few paragraphs ago in a slightly different form.
What does it mean to me to ‘destroy science fiction?’
Science fiction is dominated by certain assumptions, definitions of what is science fiction, and what is good science fiction or real science fiction. Science fiction is deeply influenced still by the Campbellian ‘golden age’ paradigm. Here, scientific and technological achievement are the province of the white cis male. The worldview is materialistic, science is a source of power and glory, ‘progress’ in the Western capitalist mode is naturally and unquestionably good. Space-faring heroes colonize and exploit other worlds, mimicking without engaging with or critically examining the problematic history of colonialism here on Earth. Space missions are invariably in the mode of a military chain of command, because what other options are there? Natives exist to provide exotic color, to be conquered and rescued, and to be uplifted through the magnanimity of the white heroes, to whom they can never be equal. Women and non-human animals play similar roles in these fictions.
In the above I’ve over-simplified somewhat, but I hope the idea is clear. Although the field has diversified and expanded through the decades, I find some form or other of these assumptions still extant in SF, sometimes including SF by women. So to me, to destroy science fiction means to examine these assumptions, to engage with them, to stretch our imaginations by coming up with alternative visions. Such science fiction should:
- Expand the field, as Christie Yant has stated
- Diversify the field, so that we are presented with a kaleidoscope of voices and visions (I’ve written at length about diversity in SF in another post).
- Question the enterprise of science and technology. Examine the notion that science, technology and progress are necessarily good no matter the circumstance. This entails examining the state of the sciences today. I say this as someone with a deep love of the sciences, as a scientist who, to echo Robert Frost, has a ‘lover’s quarrel’ with the way science is done.
- Science has origins in a ‘masculine’ Western culture whereby rationality, logic and science are associated with men, and gushy emotionalism, or anti-science, is associated with women. This view of science is pathologically limited, essentialist, and misses a lot. I’ve written at length about it in a series of three columns for Strange Horizons: Science, Emotions and Culture. For this series I interviewed scientists and people who study science cultures, and read books and papers on the subject. It is inevitable that a science culture still informed by such notions is going to give rise to a similar phenomenon in science fiction.
- The idea of science as a search for truth has been blemished by the use of science by vested interests. The co-optation of science by war and industry deserves better scrutiny in and out of science fiction. Consider the tobacco industry’s propaganda in the name of science. The pharmaceutical industry is rife with examples of products and concepts that may not stand scrutiny. How does the profit motive affect, promote, dilute and contaminate science? Much of the SF I’ve read from the American canon (mostly short stories because I often only have time to read these) seem to take for granted that the public interest and corporate interest always coincide.
- Perhaps related to item 3a) is the fact that much of science as practiced today is based on the reductionist paradigm – that if you understand the parts of some system, you can deduce from it the properties of the whole. This is powerful indeed and has enabled us to get to where we are today in terms of technological advance. But a relatively neglected field of study – that of real world complex systems – is telling us that reductionism can only go so far. If we are to think intelligently about issues like global climate disruption, we need to change the paradigm. I wonder: if there had been more diversity in the sciences, would we have developed the science of complexity earlier? For a great short essay on what I’m driving at here, read Willy Ostreng on holism versus reductionism. One way that science fiction can be ‘destroyed’ is to imagine a scientific world-view that is based on an appreciation of complexity rather than solely on reductionism. So for instance how to re-imagine future medicine based on this idea? And it turns out that scientific paradigms affect human society – modern urban cultures are based on a Newtonian world-view – the atomistic division of society into nuclear families and individuals, for example. The ‘clockwork universe’ notion that arose as a response to Newton’s discovery of some of Nature’s laws led to the industrial revolution and all the modern ‘isms,’ from capitalism to communism. Yet we know the universe is not Newtonian. What would a society based on a different paradigm look like?
- Include more science, not just more tech. Since this is a personal list, I am allowed to put this here. As science fiction writers we are good at thinking up futuristic gizmos, but what about scientific ideas, principles, concepts? There is quite a bit of technological fiction out there, but not enough that plays with science itself. So for example, we could have a story in a universe where the big bang didn’t happen, or one where physical laws change with time (something that physicist Lee Smolin suspects about our own universe). This is not just intellectually interesting but can be personally meaningful as well. Science fiction, after all, is the only literature that is regularly concerned with our interactions with the physical universe. When playing with big science ideas we get to engage with philosophy as well, with big questions that can only make our work richer, multi-layered and resonant.
All this requires, obviously, some knowledge of science – I’d generalize this to include philosophy of science and history of science — so I am going to examine what Christie Yant mentioned with regard to women who feel they ‘don’t have the science.’
This leads me to examine the realm of ‘hard science fiction,’ because that is where women are outnumbered most hugely by men.
There are many definitions of hard science fiction, but what makes most sense to me is this: hard science fiction is fiction where the people in the story are engaged with science and technology to such an extent that the story would not hold up if the said science and technology were taken out or substituted with something else. The sci-tech has its own story that braids with the story of the humans.
To me the crucial thing is the engagement of the people with the science and technology, so that the sci-tech is not merely a backdrop. Nor is the story a story without a well-developed human element – subtract that, and it is a speculative essay or manual. (Which eliminates, for me, almost all classic hard sf that is written with wooden dialog, cardboard characters, stereotypes of gender, race and sexuality, and ‘as you know, Bob’ infodumps). I add the bit about the sci-tech having its own story to mean that the sci/tech story, in the form of how it (device/ universe/ scientific idea) works, what is discovered, how it might affect the humans, how it is invented, calculated, tested, experimented with – that sci-tech story must be a primary part of the story as a whole. (An elegant story would accomplish this without indigestible infodumps).
I wonder to what extent stories written by women are simply overlooked as hard SF, because it is assumed that women can’t write the stuff. It would be interesting to compile a list of hard SF by women through the ages that are consistent with the definition above. This would give historical context to some of the stories in Lightspeed’s “Women destroy Science Fiction” special issue.
Looking at the table of contents of “The Hard SF Renaissance” (edited by Hartwell and Cramer), I see the names Nancy Kress, Joan Slonczewski and Sarah Zettel, three women among a list of 40-odd authors. In the “The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF” I find stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, Kate Wilhelm, Anne McCaffrey, James Tiptree Jr., and Katherine MacLean. Of these most don’t write hard SF on a regular basis. Off the top of my head I can add stories by Pat Cadigan and Octavia Butler. These are all, of course, writers from the West. Of the history of hard SF by women elsewhere I know almost nothing.
Of more recent-ish hard sf by women that come to mind: there is Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series, elegantly written and well conceptualized (I’d like to offer a detailed critique sometime); there’s this post praising three novels I have yet to read. There are many other women who at least some of the time write hard SF, and I hope that somebody more widely read than me (and with more spare time) will compile a list of their names and works. I suspect that part of the problem is that hard SF stories written by women are simply not often recognized as such.
[I mention in passing that several of my own stories are hard SF in the sense described above, but I don’t know that anyone familiar with my work thinks of me as a hard SF writer. My hard SF work puts science first and technology second as far as ideas go, and people are as important as ideas. I write with attention to words. My work has speculative physics and biology in it as well as good, old fashioned Newtonian physics. In many stories I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, to come up with alternative paradigms of science and doing science. My dream is to write hard sf that anyone will want to read, even if they don’t like science, and that they will finish the story with a different way of thinking about the world. (I can dream, can’t I?!)]
To write this sort of fiction, one must be willing to engage with the science. In my personal experience the notion that women are not good at science is much more prevalent in the U.S. than in India, where I am from. (We have our gender issues, but that seems to not be one of them, or not one of the major ones). This is consistent with data on the percentage of women enrolled in physics degree programs around the world.
Some of the diffidence women have about the sciences here in the U.S. likely comes from a) social-cultural expectations of what is appropriate for women and what they are capable of, and b) the bad PR about science, especially the physical sciences, so prevalent in a popular culture that is proudly anti-intellectual, which portrays science as boring, and scientists as exceptionally weird and smart, so they are clearly outside the norm and difficult to identify with, and c) a culture of science that is still unwelcoming to women. The first and third are discussed in a paper by Potvin and Hazari that I reference in Part II of my essay series, for those interested. Here’s my take on these three factors.
- Women are capable of any intellectual enterprise that men are also capable of. The nice thing about socio-cultural expectations is that when you examine them enough to know when they are untrue, you have the privilege of saying “the hell with that!” However socio-cultural expectations and assumptions are so powerful (as one can see in such phenomena as stereotype threat) that thumbing one’s nose at them is only the first step. What I imagine a woman needs other than the guts and honesty and perseverance to go against deeply ingrained stereotypes is a truly supportive community of other women. More on that anon.
So can we take it as given that women, when they have the chance, can bloody well do science, talk about and write about science, and write hard science fiction just as well as men? Which allows us to posit the possibility that women can bring new perspectives to these fields that might well revitalize these enterprises, but more on that anon.
- You go to a party, and at some point someone, let’s say a woman, although it could well be a man, asks about you and what you do. You admit to teaching at a university, and inevitably they want to know what you teach. Looking hard at the salad, you admit to having a background in theoretical particle physics, at which the person then does one of these things: 1) drop their jaw and say OMG, you must be so smart, 2) tell you how boring and horrible their sole physics class in high school was, and how much they hate physics, and 3) get a glazed look in their eyes and change the subject, and move away as soon as possible. Of these I much prefer 3), although I sometimes get a genuinely positive, interested response that makes me very happy. But there are so many misconceptions about the sciences in this single encounter that I barely know where to begin. One, the fact is that scientists are no more smart than anyone else – what it takes to do science is hard work, passion, curiosity and perseverance. And two, there is enough research out there to indicate that intelligence is not a fixed amount of smarts you are given at birth, but something you can grow. I’ve seen that again and again in the transformation that some of my students undergo. Three, physics is anything but boring, although there are many people who teach it as though it were a solution to insomnia. Physics is not ‘about facts,’ nor is it about memorizing disconnected blobs of meaningless information. Physics is about the underlying patterns in nature that result in the awesome physical universe we inhabit. Rocks falling, planets turning, sunsets, rainbows, ballerinas spinning, matter changing state, blood coursing through our veins, blue skies – we are surrounded by the manifestations of physical laws. How can this be anything short of amazing and wonderful? Science in general and physics in particular have an aesthetic aspect that so many people miss because they have had a bad first exposure to the subject. For writers in particular, these disciplines are rife with gorgeous metaphors too.
- I have sufficient personal and anthropological evidence to support the assertion that the physical sciences still present a ‘masculine’ (as constructed by the West) culture marked by confrontation, competitiveness and ‘son-of-bitch-ness’ which can be unwelcoming to many women. (I am not being essentialist here; I am talking about enculturation, and women are rarely enculturated to be confrontational in that way, and not all confrontation has virtue in any case. Where would modern science be without teamwork and collaboration?) In a similar fashion I suspect the culture of science fiction in the U.S. is territorial about science and hard SF, dismissive of women’s abilities to write the ‘hard’ stuff, and generally unwelcoming to women. It would not surprise me that even women who get past barriers a) and b) are turned away by c). [For more on these, see my essays in Strange Horizons].
These are of course musings based on my personal experience and informal investigations. I’d be delighted to hear from women who write or want to write ‘hard’ SF about their experiences.
How do we overcome these barriers? Women can learn about science in many ways, not just from books but also from news magazines (I recommend New Scientist), by taking free online courses taught by fabulous professors from top universities (check out coursera.org and edx.org), and taking college classes if and when possible. We can watch NOVA and other shows like Cosmos to ignite our sense of wonder and dispel the bad PR about science as a boring, dry-as-dust enterprise. We can read about the history of science to realize how very human is this enterprise. We can read critical works that examine how science has been co-opted by vested interests. But to do learning well, and especially if that learning is to be transformed by and into story, we need more. We need to work hard, to not give up, to familiarize ourselves with the research on intelligence (I HIGHLY recommend the work of Stanford University educational psychologist Carol Dweck) so that we can dispose of the myths about science smarts. In addition we need to be persistent. Perseverance and persistence move mountains. I once helped run a writers’ workshop in which a woman writer wanted to know how much time would pass for a person on a spaceship relative to the people they had left on earth. She prefaced that by saying ‘I don’t do math, just give me the answer.’ The mathematics of relativistic time dilation is not that hard. “It’s just square roots,” I said, offering to show her the formula and how it worked so that she’d never have to ask anyone the answer. She didn’t want to deal with it. I respect her right to make her own choices. But there are too many women I’ve come across who are content with staying safely within their comfort zone. I sympathize (I was once math-phobic myself, until tenth grade, after which I did mathematics for stress relief). Being female, I am distressingly familiar with the temptation of the easy way, the safe, familiar, well-trodden way, in a world that bristles with barbed wire fences as far as we’re concerned. But we do need to trascend the barriers that restrain us from realizing our full potential.
How do we do this? I imagine a community. Indulge my fantasy for a moment. I imagine – to start with – a two-week-long workshop of women SF writers who get together in some fabulous place with great views and wonderful food. We have daily presentations on the physical sciences as they relate to science fiction. So there’s cosmology, Newtonian physics, Einsteinian relativity. Add planetary geology, some atmospheric chemistry and biochemistry. We also have classes or workshops on the history of science, both Western and non-Western, on science and gender, and science and colonialism, and discussions that intelligently critique scientific enterprise. We do lab experiments, befriend mathematics, and read science news articles. We discuss these to clarify our understanding, to critique, to speculate on the consequences of new discoveries and technologies, and to come up with story ideas. (I’ve sometimes used science news stories as story prompts for practice, and it is fun). We use the afternoons and evenings to write and to critique our writing. This experience then becomes the seed for a true community of women writers who support each other, give each other honest critiques and share both failures and triumphs.
This sounds positively science-fictional, but perhaps someday someone will take the initiative.
So, in summary: women can and do write science fiction, and science fiction is as broad a canvas as the universe, or the imagination. All the different kinds of SF have their own virtues and pleasures. Among these, hard SF is historically the most unfriendly to women. For women (or anyone) to write hard SF well, an engagement with the sciences is essential, and while it might be difficult, it is also rewarding. But to write hard SF intelligently, one must go beyond the ‘golden age’ paradigm to something more daring, critical and visionary. Women, I believe, are particularly well-placed to do so.
I grew up loving the arts and humanities as well as the sciences. It was a terrible thing to have to make a choice, in eleventh grade, between science and humanities. Before that all subjects were mandatory, which exposed me to their variegated wonders. Now I feel very lucky, because between my job and my writing I have the best of both worlds. There are days during which I might spend time reveling in the poetry of Kalidasa, or reading with delight the wonderful novel of childhood by Guinean writer Camara Laye, after which I might turn to pondering the dipole moment of the ozone molecule, or travel in my imagination to the moon, and observe the electrostatic dust fountains on the barren lunar surface caused by the solar wind. This privilege, of having access to the full spectrum of human accomplishment, is one for which I am deeply grateful. (It does not come without struggle). One doesn’t have to have a background in the sciences to learn about and appreciate science, and also to interrogate and critique how science is done in our world. Women are particularly well-positioned to do this, because many of us know what it is to be marginalized. So we can go into this endeavor fueled by our outrage and our anger, as well as our curiosity. We can look around with unprejudiced, wondering, and critical eyes at what science is, and how it is done. We can notice, as many female scientists did, in archeology and developmental biology for instance, things that the men missed. We can ask why we study this thing or that thing without studying the relationship between them. Science in my not-so-humble opinion is a natural human response to the gorgeousness of the universe. So let’s take it back. Let’s take it back from the corporations and governments. Let’s talk to scientists, especially women scientists, and do some learning, on our own and together. And let us write our bravest stories, undaunted by categories and restrictions. Let us continue to take back science fiction, including hard SF – destroy it and recreate it, redefine it and enrich it.
More power to us!