Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Women and SF

delagar notes in the comments to my previous post on women and SF that it's common to find almost no women in the big name SF magazines; and it's common to find anthologies with 27 men and 3 women. I always count the women vs the men in Best of the Year anthologies, and the women are always a minority.

So I agree. But I also notice that I am more likely to read women than men SF writers. I currently have Andrea Hairston's novel and Nalo Hopkinson's new book and feel as if it's my birthday. So many goodies!

When I moved the last time, I went through my books and got rid of books I didn't want to pack and unpack. There are now no male SF writers left except Delany, Kim Stanley Robinson, Iain M. Banks and one book by Avram Davidson.

I wonder if it's possible that SF may divide the way mysteries have. "Cosies" (mysteries in the tradition of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers) are mostly read by women. Thrillers are mostly read by men. Obviously, some mysteries have a mixed audience. But I have noticed that I tend to read mysteries by women writers; and I avoid anything that looks like a thriller. I suspect it will be full of pointless violence, most likely directed toward women. Who needs that crap? At one point, the Star Tribune had two mystery reviewers, because the audiences were so different. And I suspect the woman reviewer didn't want to read thrillers; and the male reviewer didn't want to read cosies.

There are some fine and intelligent male SF writers, but too much SF by men strikes me as obsessed with hardware or violence or intellectual games; and too much of it does not seem to deal with the big and real issues that humanity faces.

Stephen Jay Gould

I am reading a new book by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould died five years ago, so this is a collection of already published essays, a sort of "Best of..." It's edited by Steven Rose, an English scientist who is also a fine science writer.

In one of the essays Gould talks about the misuse of Darwin by Herbert Spencer, the man who invented "Social Darwinism" and coined the term "survival of the fittest." Here (via Gould) is a quote from Spencer:
We must call those spurious philanthropists who, to prevent present misery, would entail greater misery on future generations... Blind to the fact that under the natural order of things society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members, these unthinking, though well-meaning, men advocate an interference which not only stops the purifying process, but even increases the vitiation -- absolutely encouraging the multiplication of the reckless and incompetent but offering them an unfailing provision...

And here is a quote from Andrew Carnegie, the famous robber baron and opponent of unions and workers' rights:
The growth of a large business is merely survival of the fittest... The American Beauty rose can be produced in splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God.

I have relatives in Pittsburgh, and it is now -- since the death of the American steel industry -- a pleasant city, well endowed by Carnegie with fine institutions. But when Carnegie talks about the production of a rose, he is really talking about the creation of Pittsburgh, as it existed in the days when you could not see the sun at noon.

Carnegie's wealth was created by work; and the work was done by underpaid, overworked people in mines and mills. If they vanished, so would his income. So the unfit were supporting the fit; and if they were destroyed, like unfit animals in the popular version of Darwin's theory, the fit would not flourish and multiply, filling the empty ecological niches left by the unfit. (How many capitalists would want to fill those niches? Or see their sons and daughters fill those niches? "I'm sorry, Young Andrew, but the working class has vanished; so I am afraid you will have to go mine coal.) Most likely, the fit would starve.

What struck me most about these quotes is the icy calmness with which the suffering of millions is treated.

This tone reminds me of the attitudes of modern neoclassical economists. I don't think they would label the billions who suffer under capitalism as unfit and needing to die for the betterment of the race. Rather, they would see them as the collateral damage that is inevitable in any system. It's too bad, but in general the system works -- and works well enough, so the suffering of billions does not matter.

I am inferring this attitude and tone from the absence of human suffering in the work of many modern economists. (They are rarely as direct as Spenser and Carnegie.) It's possible they simply don't know about third world sweatshops and vast and growing third world slums. Maybe the lives that most human beings lead are simply invisible to them. But let's assume they know enough to justify their jobs as college professors...

In both cases, the actions of people and the harm they do is being attributed to something outside humanity which works with relentless efficiency and no conscience. It does not need a conscience any more than gravity needs a conscience. It is a natural force, a law of nature; and it frees us of responsibility for our actions. To Spencer and Carnegie, this outside thing was evolution. To contemporary economists it seems to be The Free Market.

I don't think we can rely on natural forces to save us from responsibility. "I held the baby outside the window and let go. But it was gravity that did the rest." This does not work as an excuse.

And I do not think a model of one kind of human behavior -- the exchange of goods through buying and selling -- is adequate to explain human society or to relieve humans of their responsibility to care one another and the planet.


Sunflowers are starting to bloom by the freeways. They will continue until the first hard frost. These are not the industrial plants with one thick stem and a single huge bloom. Instead, they have branched stems that bend in the wind and many smaller flowers. Though even a small sunflower is pretty big. I think they may be my favorite flowers, though I love lilacs in the spring, and peonies are pretty good too.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Weather Report from Serbia

The following is by Jasmina Tesanovic, a guest commentator on Bruce Sterling's wonderful Viridian newsletter. Sterling says he is about to end the newsletter, since its topic -- global warming -- is now in the headlines. But I haven't seen this story in the headlines here in Minneapolis.

Today was the hottest day in Serbia ever since the
temperature has been measured, 45 C.

If we Serbs were truly interested in our survival as
a nation, we'd be scrambling to get some modern
hardware for dealing with ecological catastrophes.
It's been ten years since Milosevic sold off our
forest fire-fighting aircraft and pocketed the money.

We would talk together seriously about last year's
massive floods throughout the Danube basin, about
this year's deadly heat wave in Serbia and throughout
the Balkans, about the state of emergency in our
neighbor Greece, about the electricity shortages
and blackouts throughout the region, about the
woods of our homeland set on fire.

Even tidy Britain is being overwhelmed with their
flood catastrophes, while here in Serbia we lack
any organized emergency-response because the
Serbian state is, by its nature, in an emergency
situation all the time...

The Russians promised us practical help for the
smoldering forests of the border, but they have yet
to send a single Russian helicopter. Meanwhile the
firemen and local peasants are saving our burning
forest heritage with raw courage and mostly hand-tools.

When will we overcome our local obsessions and
realize we are part of a world in a general crisis?
The climate crisis isn't for rich countries, it's
for every country. Especially us. We had Floods
in 2006, now Fires in 2007 == the cause is in the
Air, and we will end up with no Earth.

Global warming is invisible... it steals up on us
like a slow fever, but our daily lives are being
transformed by it. Kids can't get milk at school,
eggs might be poisoned with salmonella, the crops
are wilting in the fields.

My friend, a pianist, sews clothes by her
air-conditioner instead of playing her piano.

I am singing after dark instead of writing at noon.

My friend is writing a book about the future but
is not sure if it is the same book he started anymore...

Year by year, mankind is becoming justly afraid of
our vengeful climate. I have an epiphany: our
world in 1999 is becoming all the world. No
electrical, no water, no business-as-usual: fear.
I remember those bombing days of Serbia and Kosovo
when everyone in this land, without exception,
was a refugee under a scowling enemy sky.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Women and Writing

The following is a cross-post from Ambling Along the Aqueduct. The strain of posting on three blogs is getting to me, so I think I will use some material twice.

Timmi has a post on spelling bees in school and girls being better than boys, which meant (to the boys) that spelling wasn't important. She ends:
Because that was the way the world we lived in worked: the work women did wasn’t important, and so it was fine for women to be better at it than men.

This reasoning is so familiar that though I can just about manage to laugh wryly when I hear such an anecdote, it almost makes me want to cry. The Russ-ian literary equivalent would be: If women are good at writing a certain kind of story, it must not be either profound or interesting and is certainly not worth reading.

Of course, that was exactly the attitude toward novels in the late 18th and early 19th century England. From the Gothic novels on, novels were a women's art form, and considered frivolous, trivial, possibly immoral and so on. Serious people -- men -- read collected sermons or poetry.

Jane Austen, who loved novels and wrote some of the greatest, has scenes where men -- guys like Mr. Collins, that idiot -- sneer at novels or are offended by them.

At some point, probably with Dickens, men became dominant in the writing of novels, and they became a serious art form. Though Dickens was madly popular and kind of trashy. True seriousness for the novel probably came later. At that point, women writers tended to disappear from discussions of The Novel. My friend Ruth mentioned a book she has just read, which is about ideas of The Frontier or some such thing. The author did not mention any women writers, not even Willa Cather.

(I may revise the above, after checking with Ruth. I'm not sure I'm remembering correctly.)

The same thing happens in discussions of hard science fiction. Women never make the list of hard SF writers. I think there is a double prejudice operating here. One is a prejudice against the life sciences as opposed to physics and engineering.Women tend to write about biology. If you don't think biology is a real science (in this era of biotechnology and genetic engineering) then books by Joan Slonczewski don't make the list. However, there are women who write about machinery. C. J. Cherryh and Melissa Scott come to mind at once. If they don't make lists of hard SF writers, then I think we are looking at the idea that hard SF -- real SF, serious SF -- is and has to be male.

I prefer to call hard SF "very large, hard machinery SF." I think this captures much of what is going on.

I'm not too offended by having women excluded from the hard SF lists. I mostly don't like hard SF, because the social science is so terrible. A society 1,000 years in the future is just like our society today. Most of the characters have English last and first names. People talk the way they do now. And social relationships have not changed, even though science is hugely advanced. How likely is this? Science changes technology; and technology changes the way people live and think; and we are not the same as our ancestors.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Twin Cities Daily Planet

The Twin Cities Daily Planet, an electronic newspaper based here, is now publishing excerpts from my blog.

I'm tired tonight, so I won't explain what has happened to print papers in the Twin Cities. But you might want to check on the Daily Planet. How can one help loving a paper called the Daily Planet?

Prairie Island Bison Leaving

Photo by Patrick, as the bison ambled away.

Bison Pausing to Wallow

Another photo by Patrick.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Bison and One Eagle

Patrick and I drove south along the Mississippi yesterday. As always we took the loop that goes through the Prairie Island Indian Reservation; and as usual we took the smaller loop that goes past the pasturage for the band's small bison herd. We never got a glimpse of the bison until yesterday. There they were, 20 or 30 animals, including three calves young enough so they still had their orange baby fur. We stopped so Pat could take pictures. As soon as we did that, the bison began moving away from the fence and the road. But several of them stopped at what must have been a good wallow, lay down and rolled back and forth in the dust. It's quite a sight to see an animal that massive kick up its legs and roll almost all the way onto its back.

Finally, they all moved out of the sight, and we drove on.

Farther down river we saw an immature bald eagle being chased by a bird that way maybe as big as the eagle's head. I have never figured out what it is about small birds chasing big birds.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Ore Docks in Two Harbors, Minnesota

You are looking at the James R. Barker, length 1004 feet, breadth 105 feet, cargo capacity 63,300 tons, next to the Phillip R. Clarke,length 767 feet, breadth 70 feet, cargo capacity 25,300 tons. Sorry about the quality of the photo. It was an overcast, hazy day.

Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park, Ontario

River Below Kakabeka Falls

Harbor at Thunder Bay, Ontario

North Shore and Thunder Bay

Patrick and I drove to Thunder Bay, Ontario this past weekend. The drive up the North Shore of Lake Superior was truly fine: crystalline air; a clear blue sky; a big blue lake; a rocky shore line; and low mountains covered with an intensely green pine, birch and aspen forest. The stretch north of Grand Marais, including the Grand Portage Reservation, was especially amazing. This is seriously beautiful country. We didn't take pictures the first day, and the following two days were partly cloudy with hazy air. Not nearly as pretty.

Thunder Bay is a working port, mostly low buildings spread out along a harbor. The only public access to the lake (as far as I could tell) is Marina Park, which was occupied by a Blues Festival while we were there. If we'd had more time, we could have driven the waterfront roads and maybe seen some boats loading grain. This is a major terminal for grain from the prairie provinces going by ship to the rest of the world; and there are huge rows of elevators at either end of the harbor. On another, brighter day, when it wasn't 85 degrees, humid and overcast, the elevators might have looked more impressive.

As it was, we took a brief look at the hazy harbor, then went to the history museum, which was small and dusty, and then to the small but fine Thunder Bay Art Gallery. The Gallery has a focus on contemporary First Nations art; and there was an exhibit of drawings by an Ojibwa artist, which Pat and I liked a lot. They were done with white and turquoise pencils on black paper: flat, stylized human and animal figures deriving from North American pictographs, Australian aborigine painting and even European cave art.

The artist's name is Ahmoo Angeconeb. The Gallery is raffling off one of his drawings. I bought three tickets. I don't expect to win, but it's nice to dream.

That was one high point to the trip. Another was Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park, which we saw the next day. The falls drop 120 feet into a rocky canyon, edged by pine forest. We made up for taking no pictures on the first day of the trip by taking a lot of the falls and canyon.

We stopped at the Grand Portage National Monument on the way south and took pictures of the modest recreation of a fur trading fort, trying to keep modern objects, such as the asphalt road, out of the pictures. I suddenly realized I was photographing the neatly trimmed lawn, which has to be as unhistorical as the highway. I can't imagine the voyageurs out with scythes, cutting the grass, which was probably not available in the Northwest in 1800. Doesn't lawn grass come from Europe?

I just checked. American grasses are not suitable for lawns, and English grass did not do well in North American climates. Our current lawn grass was developed in the early 20th century by an alliance of golfers and the Department of Agriculture.

Farther down south, we stopped in Two Harbors. There were two ore boats at the taconite docks. We took more pictures, but decided not to wait till the ships left. It didn't look as if either was ready to go.

So -- beautiful scenery, art, ore boats and a little history. Not a bad trip, though we were both tired when we got back.

I forgot to mention, when I first wrote this, that the lilacs and peonies were blooming up north, a month after they bloomed in the Twin Cities. It was as if we had spring back for a day or two.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Orr Books and Beat Poetry

Orr Books closed two weeks ago. It was a small, independent bookstore in Uptown in Minneapolis. Charlie Orr ran it for almost 40 years, scraping by until recently. His new landlord raised the rent, and he decided he'd sooner retire than find a new place and move and maybe go out of business in the process.

Ruth says she and I went to high school with Charlie. I remember a Chuck Orr, but I can't connect him with Charlie. I never would have thought Chuck Orr would open a bookstore. I'm not sure what high school tells us about people.

In any case, K and I went to the closing party, which was sad. I bought four books, so Charlie would have a bit more money and bit less stuff. Two were mistakes. I got rid of one and will get rid of the other.

(My unwanted books either go in the nearest library book drop, as a gift to the Friends of the St.Paul or Minneapolis Library, or I hand them on to friends to read. Sometimes a book I don't want to keep will be just fine for friends.)

One of the keepers is a collection of Minnesota poetry, starting with Frances Densmore's translations of Ojibwa and Dakota poems. It includes work by three people I know or have known: John Rezmerski, Bill Holm and Tom McGrath.

The other keeper is a collection of Beat Poetry. It's very much a mixed bag. The Beats took a lot of risks in their writing and made a lot of mistakes, but I like them for their risk taking and their anger at white bread America. I especially like the poems by Diane di Prima. I am going to have to get a collection of her work.

I want to use their example to loosen up my own work, to get me to take risks. Of course, most of the Beats were men and a lot of their risk taking was the kind of thing guys do. Diane di Prima writes about how hard it is to get her poetry done, when the men around her won't shut up and help with the dishes.

So what I need is a kind of art that takes risks and gets the dishes done.

Happy Fourth of July

I took a walk by the river this morning. There was a big Ingram tow boat docked at Lambert's Landing, a couple of two-person sculls on the river and a guy fishing. I would not eat fish from the Mississippi this far south, but I guess it's okay to catch and release. I used to do that, but gave it up, because I could not convince myself that the fish were having fun.

I got to the Science Museum, which faces on the river, and climbed the stairs up to downtown St. Paul, walked past the main library and through Rice Park, then stopped at the downtown Dunn brothers coffee shop for a coffee frappe.

Going past the library I got a good look at what had to be a male house finch: brown with bright red forehead and breast. Right out of the bird book. I've been hearing and seeing finches a lot, but haven't been sure if they were purple or house finches. House finches are a west coast bird, that was introduced on the east coast. They have been working they way west. No question they are here.

It's hot and bright today, and I just read an article in New Scientist on sun screens: they are not as effective as people think. So a short walk, much of it in the shade of buildings, seemed like a good idea.

I have just started on a four day work week. I'm going to use the free day for writing and taking walks and thinking.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Novel Report

I figured out how to rewrite the section I've been working on. It's nicer, and the chronology problem is fixed. Another quiet day. I am sitting in the living room, listening to a Diane Krall CD and typing. We plan to run errands in a little while.