Friday, November 28, 2008

Reading the Forty Signs of Rain Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

I finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain triology last week, and so I had the odd experience when reading George Monbiot's One Shot Left: The latest science suggests that preventing runaway climate change means total decarbonisation in Tuesday's Guardian of feeling the lines blur between one kind of reading experience and another, between reading fiction and reading nonfiction. This has rarely happened to me before, and so it prompted me to think about why it happened. For those unfamiliar with it, the trilogy consists of three sequential novels: Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting, totaling roughly 1600 pages of near-future science fiction.

The novels' primary setting is Washington D.C., deep in the bowels of the federal government; its primary characters are scientists and politicians. Unlike most scientists depicted in science fiction (the physicists in Carter Scholz's Radiance offer a finely depicted exception), many of the scientists in these novels are also administrators. The crux of the overarching narrative is the administrator-scientists collectively formulating and acting upon what they call "The Frank Principle" (named after one of the books' central characters, Frank Vanderwal): saving the world so that science can proceed. The inception of collective action coincides with the stalling of the Gulf Stream and concomitant onslaught of extreme weather, thus bringing a convincing level of plausibility to Frank's argument that a Kuhnian paradigm shift is necessary. Given the federal government's general disregard for science and scientists, there is very little infrastructure for coordinating such an effort. He therefore proposes that the NSF become the political and organizational means for directing confronting the problem of global warming.

The narrative includes many documents that reminded me of Monbiot's article; the documents are, of course, a part of the fictional narrative. But the sorts of events and statistics they describe are not far off from the flood of such reports to be found in science journals, magazine, and newspapers today. As such, Robinson's documents serve the novels' sense of verisimilitude admirably. But the similarity between the fictional and the real cannot alone account for my sense, reading Monbiot's piece, that because of these books, the lines between fiction and reality have become blurred in my mind. I've been reading narratives that include life-like documents for decades and have never had that experience before now. Something else is at work here, something that speaks to the quality of Robinson's achievement with these books. To see what it is, it helps, I think, to look at the narrative choices Robinson makes.

First and most important, he chose not to write a thriller in which disaster strikes and politicians are made fools of and a lone scientist almost single-handedly saves the day. He could easily have inserted the basic facts and characters of his story into the sf thriller formula. Of course if he had done that, he would have rendered the issues themselves trivial-- since all it takes in such a story is the brilliance and powerful will of one individual to solve a discrete and pressing problem. (The presumption of such a storyline would be that after the scientist had saved the world from the stalling of the Gulf Stream, the book would have ended with everyone realizing that This Can't Go On... and the world would have set about with a will to stop or even reverse global warming. Book over. Warm and fuzzy feeling for readers assured.) Such a narrative would have raced by, speeding from one dramatic moment to the next. The narrative's documents would have provided key information at crucial points and have been used to great dramatic effect. And as if with most thrillers, once finished, the reader would have forgotten most of it within hours of closing the book.

Instead, there are no dramatic moments in these books, though there are numerous events that could have been presented with great dramatic flair. This was a risky strategy for Robinson to take, a strategy few sf writers would even consider (and even fewer editors would be likely to endorse). But it works (mostly). And where it works, it works powerfully. What Robinson does, instead, is weave for the reader the fabric of particular characters' lives-- chiefly, in the first book, that of Senate staffer Charlie Quibler (and, to a lesser extent, his scientist wife, Anna Quibler), and, in the second book, Frank Vanderval. (Robinson drops the pattern in the third book, Sixty Seconds and Counting, which I logically expected to take up the lives of either Diane Chang or Drepung, a displaced Tibetan Buddhist, and I think this accounts for the weakness of that novel and the trilogy's conclusion as a whole.) The events are subsumed to the fabric and take their meaning from the effects it has on the fabric.

Charlie Quibler, while a part-time policy wonk working for liberal Senator Phil Chase (a job he does mostly over the phone and via email), is first and foremost the caretaker of his toddler son, Joe. A significant portion of Forty Signs of Rain is devoted to depicting in unusual and utterly believable detail what being directly responsible for the welfare of an infant is like and, more particularly, a plausible male version of that role. I hasten to add that this is the kind of narrative that is usually open to criticism when produced by a woman-- as it has indeed been done. I'm not signaling this book out for its innovation tout court. But it is rare to see this kind of narrative in a book of hard science fiction. It isn't only that the narrative pays such close attention to the life of caring for a child that matters here: rather, it's the narrative's insistence on viewing all the players in these books as living interconnected lives, where the realms of science, policy, and daily life are inextricable and impossible to view meaningfully in isolation from one another.

In the second book, Fifty Degrees Below, the character whose life is under close examination, Frank Vaderwal, decides that he lives a "parcellated" existence-- one in which he comprises numerous selves living compartmentalized lives. He may think that; he may feel his consciousness is split any number of ways; but the reader can plainly see the interconnections and never forgets them. Frank is the most inconsistent and fluid character in the series, but for me he is the most true-to-life. He is more like the scientists I have known than just about any scientist I've encountered in science fiction. That when he finds himself homeless he builds a tree house in a park and creates a social routine that substitutes for the habits of "home" strikes me as just the sort of thing I could imagine certain scientists I've known doing.

The upshot of the slow, nondramatic pacing and drawn out attention to detail is that the reader ends up knowing the characters to a degree they never get to know the crisply depicted characters in thrillers (or, indeed, in most hard sf novels)-- and by knowing them so well, also cares about what happens to them. Okay, so I'm saying these are good novels. But what do the virtues of Robinson's narrative have to do with my blurring of the documents in the novel with Monbiot's report?

It's this: over the span of 1600 pages, the characters repeatedly read or generate reports about different aspects of global warming. And in showing the characters doing this, the narrative subtly teaches us to read the documents in a particular way. And so, while reading Monbiot's piece, certain key themes popped out at me. For instance, after writing--

But this last binge of vandalism is also the Bush presidency reduced to its essentials. Destruction is not an accidental product of its ideology. Destruction is the ideology. Neoconservatism is power expressed by showing that you can reduce any part of the world to rubble.

--Monbiot then asks:

Is it too late [to stop runaway climate change]? To say so is to make it true. To suggest that there is nothing that can now be done is to ensure that nothing is done. But even a resolute optimist like me finds hope ever harder to summon. A new summary of the science published since last year's Intergovernmental Panel report suggests that - almost a century ahead of schedule - the critical climate processes might have begun.

This question, in the trilogy, is revealed as double-edged and part of the mechanism of denial that prevents governments from doing anything about global warming. As the books' cientists note, merely asking the question plays into the hands of the fatalists who say there's no point in trying to salvage the world-- global destruction is inevitable. But the flip side of that is that as long as scientists say there's still time to do something, then politicians (in the US, anyway) will insist that that means there's no need to do anything.

Monbiot is probably grimmer than the trilogy, though:

The Tyndall paper* points out that annual emission reductions greater than one per cent have "been associated only with economic recession or upheaval." When the Soviet Union collapsed, they fell by some 5% a year. But you can answer these questions only by considering the alternatives. The trajectory both Barack Obama and Gordon Brown have proposed - an 80% cut by 2050 - means reducing emissions by an average of 2% a year. This programme, the figures in the Tyndall paper suggest, is likely to commit the world to at least four or five degrees of warming, which means the likely collapse of human civilisation across much of the planet. Is this acceptable?

* Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, 2008. "Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. Published online. doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0138

Anderson and Bows state that "The framing of climate change policy is typically informed by the 2 degrees C threshold; however, even stabilizing at 450 ppmv CO2e [parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent] offers only a 46 per cent chance of not exceeding 2 degrees C." This estimate is given in the following paper:
Malte Meinshausen, 2006. "What Does a 2°C Target Mean for Greenhouse Gas Concentrations? A Brief Analysis Based on Multi-Gas Emission Pathways and Several Climate Sensitivity Uncertainty Estimates." In Hans Joachim Schellnhuber (Ed in Chief). Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. Cambridge University Press.

Oh, and one last thing: the second novel, Fifty Degrees Below, opens in a Washington D.C. that has been devastated by flooding and has Congress refusing to allocate the funds needed to clean it up and restore the public facilities and private housing that was damaged or destroyed in the storm. The release date for the book was November 2005, just two months after Katrina, which means it was probably at the printers when Katrina struck. Have to say, Robinson sure did nail that one.

ETA: Perhaps I ought to add one more thing: the narrative style of the trilogy reinforces at every level that the disaster story that is global warming is a collective problem (however much it visibly affects individuals differentially) that can have only a collective solution. But even as it approaches the problem collectively, Robinson's narrative focuses our attention through the prism of individuals' life stories. This is something the news media fails at accomplishing, miserably.


The title of my last post was a rhetorical question, of course, that I assumed would be taken in two ways. But reading Glenn Greenwald's piece (reprinted at, I find myself revisiting the question. Adressed literally, the answer would probably have to be: six years ago, almost everybody in the US; today, many people, perhaps most people, though I'd hope not. Greenwald's focus is on the short institutional memory the New York Times displays anent its own positions and its past participation in the collective insanity that swept US society not very long ago.

There are vital lessons from the last eight years that get obscured when influential outlets such as the Times Editorial Page try to erase their own responsibility for events and heap all blame on "the Bush administration" -- which was able to do what it did only because it enjoyed the acquiescence, complicity and often blind support from so many of our leading political and media institutions.

In the US, very few people are willing to consider "temporary insanity" a defense for any behavior they consider morally wrong. And although the US has a morally terrible collective history itself, very few of its citizens, surveying the collective crimes of other societies, are likely to consider temporary insanity a defense for collective behavior they consider morally wrong. That being the case, the New York Times' "revisionism," as Greenwald characterizes it, is necessarily the default national solution to dealing with bad behavior--- a revisionism that entails amnesia, disavowal, and scapegoating. The Bush Administration, of course, makes a fine rhetorical scapegoat. The policies were all theirs. But could they have enacted those policies without willing, even enthusiastic submission from the political class as a whole? Of course not. They probably couldn't have done it without massive support from ordinary citizens, out waving their flags to show their enthusiasm for detaining and torturing anyone with a name sounding foreign to "heartland" ears.

If the collective insanity is past-- and I'm still reserving judgment on that since, after all, the various versions of the US Patriot Act remain firmly in place; and torture and detention without due process still continue at various US-run hellholes around the world; and airports continue to be the scene of mass zombiefication; and secret intelligence services continue to conduct unlimited invasions of citizen privacy-- the past-ness of the insanity doesn't mean we'll be free from the longterm effects that frenzies of collective insanity leave always in their wake. This is a deeply uncomfortable subject that is very close to being taboo. In a more honest country, the Bush Administration would be held accountable for their misdeeds and the media and other institutions would be examining its own behavior. Here, where history is nothing more than an amusing source of nostalgia, there can be only amnesia and disavowal of anything shameful.

I'll give the last word to Greenwald:

What happened in the U.S. over the last eight years is about much, much more than what "the Bush administration" did. It begins there, but responsibility in the post 9/11-era is much more diffuse and collective than that. Shoveling it all off on the administration that is leaving, while exonerating our culpable media and political institutions that remain, isn't merely historically inaccurate and unfair, though it is that. Allowing that revisionism also ensures that the critical lessons that ought to be learned will instead be easily and quickly forgotten when similar episodes occur here in the future.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Who Can Listen to Such Crap in Silence?

I can just imagine the scene: a dinner in Washington D.C. hosted by the Federalist Society, attended by prominent judges and lawyers, all notably conservative. Attorney General Michael Muaksey is speaking. For the national media, of course, the dramatic moment last Thursday night came when Mukasey began slurring his speech and then collapsed at the podium. Here in Seattle, though, the real drama of the evening occurred earlier in his speech, when a Washington State Supreme Court Justice, Richard Sanders, could no longer stomach listening in silence to Mukasey's defense of the Bush Administration's detainment practices at Guantanamo Bay and its interpretation of the Geneva Conventions.

"Frankly, everybody in the room was applauding or sometimes laughing, and I thought, 'I've got to stand up and say something.' And I did," Sanders told The Seattle Times on Tuesday. "I stood up and said, 'Tyrant,' then I sat down again, then I left."
. . . .

Sanders said: "I think it was an impulse. ... At that particular time, I didn't have a chance to reflect on it. I didn't plan it out in advance. It just happened."

He left before Mukasey's speech was finished, Sanders said, because "I wasn't enjoying myself."

Sanders said he wouldn't call what he did heckling. Afterward, he said, he heard from a number of people — some supportive, others not. "Some people think it was the wrong thing to do," he said. "To other people, it was heroic."

Sanders said he now regrets what he did: "If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't."

Alternatively, he wishes he had said "Tyranny" instead of "Tyrant," "because in my mind, these policies can lead to tyranny."

Read the whole story by Ken Armstrong in the Seattle Times here.

Classic Feminist Fantasy

Fantasy Magazine has posted a classic story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. "When I Was a Witch." You may not approve of everything this witch does, but keep reading to the end: The story pays off! (The witch hat is from Fantasy's illustration for the story.)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Odds & Ends

I haven't been posting much or answering most of my email over the last week because I've been pathetically feeble with a nasty cold and spending a lot of time in bed. By a nice coincidence (or not), when I woke this morning charged with a bit of energy for a change, it was straight out of the mother of all anxiety dreams. It had every cliche known to such dreams rolled into it, ranging from giving a dinner party for a dozen people (some of them wearing faces well known to habitues of this blog) and finding I had only one bottle of wine and no salad or dessert to serve them, to showing up at a seminar, unprepared to make the presentation I was scheduled to give, to suddenly being a graduate student-- albeit one who'd been taking graduate courses & teaching for years beyond count while not being registered and thus facing two more years of course work and exams to complete, to showing up at my health care institution to discover that my plastic patient card-- caked with dirt, riddled with cracks, obviously unused for years-- was no longer recognizable to the system... & so on. When finally I woke from this string of fiascoes, it was with the conviction that I'd been malingering. (Though perhaps my sense of guilt is, simply, the fruit of anxiety at everything that I failed to do over the last five days. The terrible irony is that the only time I ever sleep for many hours without waking is when I'm sick. And I've been sleeping wonderfully this last week. And even when I'm sick, several hours of unconsciousness is still a fabulous treat.)

Anyway, for those of you wondering where the hell I've been, rest assured, I've begun tackling my inbox and will (eventually) be getting back to you. And I hope to start posting more often again. Links, of course, have been piling up. So I thought I'd start first with them.

Charlie Jane Anders has posted A Rock Star with an Emotional Megaphone, a review of Kelley Eskridge's Dangerous Space at io9.

Strange Horizons has posted Hanna Strom-Martin's review of The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 2.

Over at Adventures in Reading, Joe Sherry has reviewed Plugged In by L. Timmel Duchamp and Maureen McHugh here, and Renegade by L. Timmel Duchamp here.

Offline, Mike Levy's review of The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 1 has appeared in the new issue of Science Fiction Studies. It's titled "Duchamp Does WisCon Proud" and spans a nicely commodious two pages. He characterizes the book as "a treasure trove" and says "Although the panel discussions occasionally offer brilliant insights into the current state of both science fiction and feminism, readers of this journal will find most interesting the essays (some of them academic, some of them decidedly not), the interviews, and the short story." And also: "The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 1, ends with 'No Man's Land,' an original short story by Australian writer Rosaleen Love. A variant on the trope of the exclusively female society that must suddenly deal with the arrival of men, Love's story stands on its own as an entertaining and thoughtful read while fitting nicely in the company of such classic works as Russ's 'When it Changed' (1972) and Tiptree's 'Houston, Houston, Do You Read?'."

Speaking of offline publications, a couple of months back Aqueduct received a copy of the quarterly Rattlesnake Review-- poetry with fangs!-- from Rattlesnake Press of Sacramento, California, which also publishes poetry chapbooks. In addition to poetry, this issue includes an interesting piece by Tom Goff about Ina Coolbrith (1841-1928), California's first poet laureate, accompanied by a couple of her poems. It also includes a few reviews by B.L. Kennedy, notably one of my collection, Love's Body, Dancing in Time (even though it is short fiction: "Here is a handful of SF tales that are rich in lyrical quality and narrative execution. The stories in Love's Body, Dancing in Time will draw the reader into worlds of undreamed dreams which manifest in pure poetry."). Do check out Rattlesnake's website and their blog, Medusa's Kitchen.

Another publication I recently received was the Swedish SF zine, Nova Science Fiction-- this time because my story, "Dance at the Edge," appears there in translation. I can't speak to the quality of the translation, since I don't read Swedish, but certainly the production values of the zine are high. Other stories appearing in the issue, in translation, are Kage Baker's "The Empress of Mars," James Patrick Kelly's "Undone," James Alan Gardner's "Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream," and Alastair Reynolds' "Galactic North." An article by Nova's editor, John-Henri Holmberg, judging from its illustrations, seems to be a lengthy discussion of space opera from its origins to the present day.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Conversation with Wendy Walker

When Aqueduct author Wendy Walker (KNOTS) told me she'd been reading Lyndall Gordon's Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft and some of Wollstonecraft's work as well, I asked her if she'd be willing to undertake an email conversation with me about her reading. She said she would. And so questions and answers flew between us for about the next week.

Timmi: Wendy, Mary Wollstonecraft is known both as a writer and a passionate, early feminist. Her Vindication of the Rights of Women was important to the first-wave feminists who took up the cause of feminism decades after her death. She was also an educator and traveler and a woman whose fierce independence made her scandalous.

A lot of different stories could (and have been) told about Mary Wollstonecraft. What story or stories does Lyndall Gordon tell in her new biography of her?

Wendy: There are many revelations in Lyndall Gordon's Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. Perhaps the most momentous one consists of the reasons for Wollstonecraft's trip to Sweden, an unlikely tourist spot in the 1790's, especially for a woman travelling alone with a small child. The child was Fanny Imlay, Wollstonecraft's daughter by Gilbert Imlay, a shadowy figure who protected Mary during her residence in Paris at the height of the Terror. Imlay was an American, and had international business dealings. One of them involved buying up the silver that had been looted from the houses of aristocrats who had gone to the guillotine, and shipping it out of the country to sell so that the Revolutionary government could buy arms. Mary went to Sweden on the trail of the "silver ship" as Imlay's business representative. How much she knew about the scope of the deal is unclear, but it seems likely she did not know how dirty it was. Her motives in acting as Imlay's agent make absorbing reading. She despised commerce, and was madly in love. He was usually absent, always going to arrive, and evasive with explanations. Gordon makes a persuasive case that his evasiveness may have been part of the mode of conduct required from one of the first of the young United States intelligence operatives. Gordon's scholarship rests on letters by Mary in the Swedish national archive that have been unknown and unread till now. The book Mary wrote about her trip, A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, does not discuss her secret mission, but it is written in a fictionalized form of letters to her lover.

Timmi: I can just imagine how excited Gordon must have been to unearth those letters in the first place and then discover what she had found. (I certainly wouldn't be surprised to see novels and even films come out of this new part of her story.) Emma Goldman, who was a great admirer of Mary and obviously didn't have as much information as Gordon now does, wrote this about Mary's relationship with Imlay:

While in Paris, Mary met in the house of Thomas Paine where she had been welcomed as a friend, the vivacious, handsome, and elemental American, Imlay. If not for Mary's love for him the World might never have known of this Gentleman. Not that he was ordinary, Mary could not have loved him with that mad passion which nearly wrecked her life. He had distinguished himself in the American War and had written a thing or two, but on the whole he would never have set the World on fire. But he set Mary on fire and held her in a trance for a considerable time.

The very force of her infatuation for him excluded harmony, but is it a matter of blame as far as Imlay was concerned? He gave her all he could, but her insatiable hunger for love could never been content with little, hence the tragedy. Then too, he was a roamer, an adventurer, an explorer into the territory of female hearts. He was possessed by the
Wanderlust, could not yet rest at peace long anywhere. Mary needed peace, she also needed what she had never had in her family, the quiet and warmth of a home. But more than anything else she needed love, unreserved, passionate love. Imlay could give her nothing and the struggle began shortly after the mad dream had passed. Imlay was much away from Mary at first under the pretext of business. He would not be an American to neglect his love for business. His travels brought him, as the Germans say, to other cities and other loves....

Reading the above passage, I can only think how astonished Goldman would have been to have this new angle.

There are a couple of things I'd like to ask you about, but first, the biographical. I'd been vaguely aware that Mary was among the few English intellectuals who supported the idea of the French Revolution, but I'd had no idea that she actually
supported it in the material sense that you mention here-- acting as Imlay's agent. Though I agree that it does seem unlikely that she knew how dirty a business it was, I'm wondering if she knew Imlay was working toward the Revolutionary government's purchase of arms. I think I'd always assumed that most English and Continental intellectuals moved by the French revolution were eventually disillusioned in the actual outcome if not by the time the Directory was established, then shortly thereafter, when Napoleon began crushing dissidents both right and left (rather in the way that many Western supporters of the Soviet Revolution became disillusioned when the horrors of Stalin's repression came out). Did Mary become disillusioned with the Revolution before her death in 1797? (My guess is that if she wasn't disillusioned by living in Paris during the Terror, that the answer is no, but I've got nothing to base my guess on.)

Wendy: It was actually not Lyndall Gordon who discovered the heretofore unread Wollstonecraft correspondence regarding her mission to Sweden. That was done by a Norwegian historian named Gunnar Molden, who has published on the subject. Lyndall Gordon was using and interpreting his research....

Emma Goldman's view of the the love affair is pretty romantic, but not entirely wrong, just oversimplified, and of course dated by seeming to accept a double standard for sexual need and fidelity. Mary did get something out of their relationship which Goldman doesn't mention, that is, that Imlay probably saved her life by convincing the American ambassador in Paris to accept Mary as his wife, and issuing her a certificate that made her an American citizen. In a city where the English as "enemy aliens" were being rounded up and imprisoned, she was quite unsafe without his protection. Even Paine, who was a naturalized citizen of France and resident many years in America, did not escape imprisonment, and only just missed being guillotined because the mark that indicated he should be taken away by the guards was put on the wrong side of his cell door. It seems that Mary and Imlay entered into some sort of contract, though its legality later proved dubious. At any rate, during the height of the Terror, Mary was probably the only English person who was able to go everywhere. This in itself suggests that Imlay had secret dealings with the French government.... and he did. Even before the silver ship, he was engaged, at the behest of both Washington and Paris to wrest Louisiana away from Spain, whose possession it then was. This was to be done was through very underhanded land speculation, settling Americans on Spanish soil and then effecting a coup with French troops. The plan eventually fell apart, but Mary knew nothing of it. It was typical of their relationship, although later she did learn more, when she consented to act as his agent. Why did she do it? She had gone to France to write about the Revolution for her publisher Joseph Johnson (the publisher of Blake, Paine and Godwin). She went to see for herself what the new republic, which had passed many laws favorable to women, was like. But after the Terror began, she lost faith in the ideal revolution she had hoped for. She repeatedly writes of her horror and disappointment, so it seems out of character for her to support a deal which would promote the government she condemned. Nevertheless, she saw the silver with the Bourbon crests in a secret warehouse and knew the cargo of the silver ship for what it was. (I was wrong about trading for arms-- it was actually grain, gunpowder and alum --used to light gunpowder--for the French troops. Not a big difference, perhaps, but.....)

Imlay was a buccaneer capitalist, with many shady deals behind him of which Mary knew nothing, but he wasn't that different from many other "respectable" Americans (then and now) who were sympathetic to Republican government on both sides of the Atlantic, but didn't mind making a great deal of money with their sympathies. Mary was not at home with the war profiteering side of Imlay's business, but he had made their life together-- the future plan-- dependent upon the success of this business venture. He needed more luxury than she did, which she found a bit odd in the frontiersman he pretended to be. He had spent a great deal of time exploring America's lesser known regions, but he was the son of a rich New Jersey family who were dedicated merchants and owned plantations and slaves. Mary would have been very surprised-- not to say appalled-- had she been told about the slaves.

So it seems that she went to Sweden as Imlay's agent in the hope that that would secure their future together, even though she loathed the transactions she engaged in. Imlay for his part took up with an actress while she was away, and when she found out, she was distraught. One can't help feeling he used her and had no intention of keeping his promise. He never did provide child support for his daughter Fanny although he promised to do so repeatedly.

Timmi: Imlay must have been quite a piece of work. Certainly Goldman's romanticization of him is, in retrospect, deeply, deeply ironic.

The other aspect of Mary's affair with him that particularly struck me was the contradiction it represented, one that evoked opposite reactions in first- and second-wave feminists respectively. William Godwin's memoirs of Mary, written
and published shortly after her death, publicized her affair with Imlay, the child she had by him, and her subsequent suicide attempts. As Miriam Brody writes, "In fighting for limited reforms, the vote, admission to university, reform of marriage laws, [nineteenth-century] feminists abandoned Wollstonecraft so as not to bring down upon their own heads the opprobrium of being thought sexually wanton." But "there are two Mary Wollstonecrafts," Brody writes. "One who loved and one who was contemptuous of love. The first is the woman Virginia Woolf called a 'dolphin,' a creature who 'rushed Gilbert Imlay through the waters until he was dizzy and only wanted to escape,' the same woman who would attempt suicide to end the despair of her unrequited love for him. The second is the woman who wrote the feminist argument of the Vindication, recommending passionless friendship between husband and wife, hoping that the fires of sexual love will cool by the time the marriage is well established so the couple can get on with the rest of their life."

Mary wrote the Vindication before she fell in love with Imlay, of course. But it seems to me that her awareness of what passion can do to one's life might not be a contradiction at all-- that she might have believed in theory that one must try to suppress one's "appetites" (as she calls sexual desire) precisely because she saw the havoc it often wreaked in the world around her. (And so, we might characterize her Vindication as a sort of Do as I say, not as I do!) Many second-wave feminists, though, have blamed her for having founded a "puritanical" strain of feminism, one that eventually expressed itself as aiming for safety rather than liberation (which as you might recall, became a major issue in the late 1970s in the Women's Liberation Movement in the US). Does Gordon's biography address this issue?

Wendy: Gordon doesn't distinguish between first- and second-wave feminists in her discussion of the puzzling example Mary left for women who came after her, but she does make some original and fascinating points. Early in the book, introducing her topic, she suggests that Mary's greatest advance was in the conceptualization, which she at least partially realized in her relationship with Godwin, of a new kind of partnership between a man and a woman, one that contained romance, sexual love, a shared intellectual pursuit, independence and dependence, and fidelity. Imlay was a trial run that failed. It seems that she was in love as much with what he represented-- the experiment of a new nation, one that had shaken off Old World tyranny in favor of something better-- as she was with the charming, disingenuous man he actually was. Mary was always adamantly opposed to a woman's entering a relationship injudiciously (she had seen where that would lead with both her mother and her sister, both of whom entered upon disastrously abusive marriages at a time when there was no legal escape) so it seems unlikely that she threw herself at Imlay in the way that the story has been told. Gordon goes into detail about the way in which Godwin was largely responsible for the character of Mary that has come down to us, a character which has alienated so many. Godwin felt, as did Mary, that the truth must be told-- but he chose his informants about his wife's earlier life rather oddly. He refused to talk to her three sisters, and relied strongly upon the "memories" of Henry Fuseli, a painter for whom Mary had great regard. Fuseli made out to Godwin that Mary was obsessed with him, and had in fact wished to move into his house in menage a trois with him and his wife. Mary did propose living with the Fuselis, but she had lived in the house of her publisher Joseph Johnson (who had taken her in when she left her position as governess, in order to support her writing) and no one suggested there was anything sexual there. Fuseli was a charismatic, ambiguous character who wrote erotic letters to both men and women. (He painted one great picture, "The Nightmare," of a woman asleep with a demon crouching upon her chest.) He produced a great deal of pornography, and did not believe that women could contribute anything of lasting value to intellectual discourse. There is every reason to doubt his version of Mary-- but after she died, everyone wanted a place in her biography, and Fuseli carved out a such a place for himself, as an object of Mary's immoderate affections. It seems that the myth of Mary as a sexual wanton started there. She was a virgin at thirty-four when she embarked on her relationship with Imlay-- how sexually wanton is that?

As for the conflict among feminists about the contradiction between what Mary prescribed in the Vindication, and the life she subsequently lived, it seems to me to make little sense to try to separate her thinking from the historical moment and her own personal experience. In the late eighteenth century women lost not only their property and the right to their future children when they married, but the right of habeas corpus. There was no legal appeal against physical abuse, forced confinement or sequestering. The closest thing to a law that protected a married woman was a law about the size of the stick a man was allowed to beat his wife with-- no thicker than his thumb. (But the larger the man, the thicker the thumb.... no?) One of Mary's key experiences in regard to marriage as then constituted happened when her sister Bess fell into an extreme case of postpartum depression after giving birth to her first child. She begged Mary to help her escape her husband, and when Mary saw her
descending into madness, she and her other sister organized what can only be described as a kidnapping with consent. Helping her sister get away, even though they left the baby behind, was a criminal act. In such a context what do the words "puritanical" and "liberated" with respect to marriage mean?

Timmi: The tendency for women to be characterized after their deaths in misleading (and often clumsily simplistic) ways seems to be something women writers have been particularly susceptible to (when, that is, they are remembered at all!). It does seem
that how the work left behind by women writers is read posthumously is often determined by the filters that are put in place more or less soon after their deaths. Not necessarily maliciously, but always-- inevitably, even-- with respect to various gendered issues. The idea that Godwin would not talk to her sisters is a little shocking-- though I suppose it accorded with how little importance educated men placed on the perceptions and memories of women (presumably not themselves writers or intellectuals). (And Mary, being a weaver's daughter, educated herself: which makes me suspect her sisters had little if any education.) And so another irony occurs to me-- our whole conversation seems to be drenched in ironies-- namely, that a predominantly male-shaped image of Mary is the one that most feminists know.

Of course I agree with you absolutely that it is a mistake to separate Mary's (or anyone's) ideas from their historical moment. And what a moment! I suspect it's difficult for us in the early 21st century to make intuitive sense of the full force of Enlightenment ideas playing out so violently in the last quarter of the eighteenth century-- what it meant, for instance, that the French Revolution adopted the language of Virtue-- a Virtue fiercely dissociated from religion-- and a kind of Rousseauian logic that permeated its public discourse. Could you talk a bit about how Mary came to write the Vindication? I seem to recall back when I read it (a quite a long time ago, I'm afraid) that it struck me, even as it angrily confronted the situation of women, as gesturing powerfully toward an almost utopian impulse: the sense that the world doesn't have to work like this, that all that is wrong needn't be that way and that therefore we must fight for it until our last breath.

Wendy: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a sequel to Mary’s first full-scale political publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Men Before that she had written other books, but they were easier to classify under traditional women’s preserves of education and fiction, and she had signed them in the customary modest way (“by a lady”), as Jane Austen did her works some years later. A Vindication of the Rights of Men was Mary’s first venture into what was then the exclusively male preserve of political philosophy; she signed it with her own name. It seems to me that the immediately compelling circumstances of both works were the onset of the French Revolution and, more personally, the unwavering, multifaceted support and friendship of Joseph Johnson, Mary’s publisher. I have been reading A Vindication of the Rights of Men for the first time. It is now much less read than the more famous feminist sequel, but is astonishingly relevant to our time, a denunciation of the political “spin.” It was written as a response to Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke, Britain’s most eloquent parliamentarian, who came down squarely on the side of the ruling classes, and against “mob rule” when the evolution broke. Mary’s critique of Burke’s “flowers of rhetoric” could be applied to many disingenuous and inflammatory contemporary voices. She berates him for saving all his tears for “the downfall of queens,” to which Paine famously added that “in mourning the plumage he forgot the bird.” Lyndall Gordon does not speculate as to why Mary followed up the first Vindication with the second, more explicitly feminist document, but two events are suggestive. In 1791 the French published a new constitution, which ended aristocratic rule but failed to give women equal political standing. In the same year, France’s great feminist Olympe de Gouges published her Declaration of the Rights of Woman. Mary could have been taking her cue from either of these events, or she could have decided to balance her Rights of Men with a Rights of Woman for conceptual and aesthetic symmetry.

Incidentally, Mary’s father was not a weaver, that was her grandfather, but even so the term is misleading. Her grandfather was sufficiently wealthy from his weaving business at the time of his death to allow his son, Mary’s father, to set himself up as a gentleman. This climb up the social ladder did not work out. He tried his hand as a gentleman farmer, but drinking to excess does not foster successful farming, and the venture failed. They moved from one place to another, none working out, until he was borrowing his children’s money and removing the girls’ chances of marrying by doing so. Nevertheless, Mary and her sisters were fairly well educated by the standards of the time. When Mary went out to work, as a companion, governess, and teacher, it began a long cycle of her supporting her sisters, and she saw to their education above all. She really moved into a maternal position with respect to her sisters, and this led to complicated feelings relating to their dependency and Mary’s success. Godwin may not have wanted to communicate with them because he feared their financial impositions and other resentments…..still, his behavior is a little odd, given the book he was trying to write.

Certainly it is hard to imagine oneself back into the eighteenth century mindset of a person first experiencing the ideas of the Enlightenment, but I somehow think it is less hard to imagine now than it was eight years ago. We have entered another such watershed moment…. Although Mary’s vision was utopian by the standards of the day, it has proved to be workable, at least in part. I always feel uneasy about using the word utopian, as it literally translates as both “good place” and “nowhere,” a deliberate irony, no doubt, on Sir Thomas More’s part.

Timmi: Could you talk a bit about Mary's fiction? I know you've been reading at least some of it. How would you characterize it in terms of the fiction of her day, and is any of it still readable today, when fiction is built upon such different conventions?

Wendy: I do think Mary's fiction is still readable.... very readable. I don't find the difference in conventions an obstacle at all, in fact, I find it refreshing. Conventions, no matter from what period, grow tiresome very quickly. A really fine writer, in my opinion, works to alter conventions by manipulating them-- shifting the weight that the reader expects. Part of the reason I read so much fiction from other countries and other times is that I find the current American mainstream literary conventions in most genres pretty stale.

That being said, fiction was not Mary’s strongest suit. The Wrongs of Woman, or, Maria, her last book, unfinished at her death, has both narrative suspense and tragic eloquence for the first sixty pages, which show what the book might have been had she finished it. The rest is a draft, and, I think it’s safe to say, would have been much revised if she had survived childbirth. What I find most interesting in this book is the way it embodies what we now call the horror genre. If one began a novel today with a protagonist speaking from the private madhouse cell where she has been taken by force under her husband’s orders, deprived of her newborn child, and sequestered forever, we would scarcely imagine we were reading in the genre of realism. It sounds a bit more like Stephen King. To my ear this book falls squarely into the nascent genre of Gothic. It’s no coincidence that the text of The Wrongs of Woman resonates with images that spring from the abolition movement, with which Mary strongly sympathized, and with which early feminism had strong ties. None of the resonances are programmatic or heavy-handed, but seem to grow very naturally out of the story she has to tell. Her other novel, Mary, is a veiled and sometimes wishful autobiography, and therefore, to me, less interesting as fiction, but still great to read because the writer is such a fine stylist. By that I mean, her use of the English language is so unobtrusively elegant, so taut and musical, that the sentences are a joy to read. Her mastery of English as a medium for creating meaning is finally what I go to Mary for, and the issue of the genre is secondary. This is my attitude about writing in general. One loves to hear stories, and one associates stories with fiction, but the ever-present story lies in the way a sentence unwinds. Mary’s great strength lies in the fact that her ideas are simply not separable from the language that expresses them. What one misses in most discussions of her is a consideration of the total infusion of her thought with a simultaneous apprehension of beauty and justice (to use Elaine Scarry’s phrase). A moral aesthetics.

Timmi: Could you quote a passage, please, that exemplifies this infusion of her thought with a simultaneous apprehension of beauty and justice?

Wendy: Here is one. It comes from A Vindication of the Rights of Men: A Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke.

I glow with indignation when I attempt, methodically, to unravel your slavish paradoxes, in which I can find no fixed principle to refute; I shall not, therefore, condescend to shew where you affirm in one page what you deny in another; and how frequently you draw conclusions without any previous premises-- it would be something like cowardice to fight with a man who had never exercised the weapons with which his opponent chose to combat, and irksome to refute sentence after sentence in which the latent spirit of tyranny appeared. I perceive, from the whole tenor of your Reflections, that you have a mortal antipathy to reason; but, if there is any thing like argument, or first principles, in your wild declamation, behold the result:-- that we are to reverence the rust of antiquity, and term the unnatural customs, which ignorance and mistaken self-interest have consolidated, the sage fruit of experience: nay, that, if we do discover some errors, our FEELINGS should lead us to excuse, with blind love, or unprincipled filial affection, the venerable vestiges of ancient days. These are gothic notions of beauty-- the ivy is beautiful, but, when it insidiously destroys the trunk from which it receives support, who would not grub it up?

Timmi: This is really magnificent prose. It's bold and direct-- hardly the style used by women of the day-- and goes straight to the heart of arguments supporting the insupportable status quo: that they're based on "ignorance and mistaken self-interest" (you're right that her rhetoric here could well be applied to many "disingenuous and inflammatory contemporary voices"!), a reverence for "the rust of antiquity," and sentimentality. I'm really impressed that she did sign her name to this work.

To return to Gordon's biography: what did you find most interesting and insightful in it?

Wendy: Oddly enough, I think that the things I found most interesting in the book were somewhat peripheral to the story of Mary’s life. One was the story of Fuseli’s betrayal of Mary after her death, and his motives for it. Gordon speculates, on the basis of Mary’s amused silence in reaction to insinuations Fuseli made during her lifetime, that Mary knew the relationship between Fuseli and Johnson to be something more than collegiality. Since "sodomy" was at that time a capital offense, Mary would have said nothing, rather than endanger Johnson, or even Fuseli. Gordon’s speculation sheds some light, to my mind, on what could have driven Johnson to publish so many works defending the rights of slaves, Jews, prisoners, Dissenters and women. If he himself were an outsider, it makes his activism more comprehensible.

The other discussion that will stay with me from this book is that of the effect Mary had on the younger women whose lives she touched. Of these, the stories of her pupil Margaret King, later Lady Mount Cashell, is perhaps the most dramatic. Margaret King was a teenager when Mary went to her parents’ estate in Ireland to work as a governess. Margaret married young, to a wealthy neighbor, who gave her nine children in nine years. During this time she declared herself a United Irishwoman and a republican. When she and her family visited Italy, Margaret fell in love with another man. Defying the social code, she left her husband, even though this meant giving up her children. She continued to live with her lover, who went along with her decision to study medicine, even though this required her to disguise herself as a man for the years she pursued her degree. After she completed her studies, they moved to another part of Italy and she set up a medical practice, and later wrote and published the period’s authoritative text on the treatment of childhood diseases.

Timmi: Oh yes, I recently read about Lady Mountcashell-- Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter, wrote a story for her daughters (by her lover), titled Maurice, that was only recently discovered.

One last question, to bring our discussion to a close. Do you think Mary Wollstonecraft's work, thought, and life are interesting now chiefly as historical artifacts and an important piece of feminist history, or do you think they still have
meaningful things to say to women today?

Wendy: I definitely think Mary's life and work still have meaning. One of the things I've learned from this book is how crucial it is that such lives be revisited and reinterpreted by each generation. The Mary Wollstonecraft Lyndall Gordon has elicited in her research and thinking is a completely different person from the woman we all thought we knew. Part of the scholar's work is to eliminate, or at least expose, those filters you spoke of, that are put in place after a person's death, to reveal a more balanced image. And each generation is able to see things that the generation before was blind to.... So biography is a work that is never done, and I think it is really for ourselves that we engage in it, not out of some kind of piety towards the dead and the great, although those emotions can figure too.

I have found through my own historical research (on Constance Kent) that you just can't accept what people have written before you without extremely close examination. Part of the problem is that history and fiction are so easy to confuse, because both involve telling stories. In fiction the criterion of truth has to do with aesthetic meaning-- arrangement and rhythmic placement of elements. In history the criterion of truth is what Willard Van Orme Quine, the philosopher, called "a good fit." The scholar's job, and the reader's too, is to discover where the evidence and the narrative don't fit well to each other. Where that is true, a new biography is needed.

Timmi: Thanks so much, Wendy, for your thoughtful discussion. I've enjoyed our conversation immensely.

Wendy: Thanks for the great questions, Timmi. It was a real pleasure doing this!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Re-broadcast of "Transgender Identity" on Wisconsin Public Radio

If you missed it the first time it aired, now's your chance to listen to Kelley Eskridge's discussion of Dangerous Space and gender on Wisconsin Public Radio's To the Best of Our Knowledge. Check it out here.

Book View Cafe: A New Venture in Online Publishing

By Nancy Jane Moore

Do you find yourself running out of good fiction to read? Book View Cafe is the solution to your problem!

Book View Cafe is a brand new (we're still arranging the furniture) online source for fiction from 21 writers, including Ursula K. Le Guin, Vonda N. McIntyre, and Aqueduct authors Sue Lange and Nancy Jane Moore.

Book View Cafe has everything from flash fiction to novels, and we include many genres, though we're heaviest on science fiction and fantasy. Most of the content is free, but some authors will also be offering expanded work, subscriptions, print versions, and additional content for a fee.

Right now I'll be posting a new free flash fiction every Sunday -- with an occasional longer story thrown in just to keep you on your toes. My first story, "The English Major's Revenge," debuted Sunday, Nov. 16.

We have a companion blog to the site and it will be updated daily, too. My regular blog posting day is Sunday. Here's my first post: my opinions on flash fiction.

Book View Cafe writers are all professionals with lots of print publishing credits. We just want to widen our publishing horizons.

The authors are:

Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
Brenda Clough
Katie Daniel
Laura Anne Gilman
Christie Golden
Anne Harris
Sylvia Kelso
Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Sue Lange
Ursula K. Le Guin
Rebecca Lickiss
Vonda N. McIntyre
Nancy Jane Moore
Pati Nagle
Darcy Pattison
Irene Radford
Madeleine Robins
Amy Sterling
Jennifer Stevenson
Susan Wright
Sarah Zettel

Come by and check us out.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bragging on Other People

By Nancy Jane Moore

I'm a bit behind the times, but I just wanted to point out that Edward Miller, the artist who did the cover art for my collection, Conscientious Inconsistencies, won the World Fantasy Award for best artist for 2008. And the publisher -- PS Publishing -- won the "Special Award -- Professional."

Congratulations to Edward (and his other identity, Les Edwards) and PS Publisher Peter Crowther.

Here's the book cover:

And here's a link to Edward's painting, which he calls "A Mere Scutcheon," after my story that inspired it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Golden Notebook discussion has begun

A quick reminder: the online conversation addressing Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook begins today. Check it out here.

Haphazard browsing on the site's forum brought me to a comment noting that the New York Times included The Golden Notebook on a list of the books Barack Obama says have been important to him. Another comment alluded to the Bechdel test, and still another paid tribute to Alison Bechdel. I have a feeling this site could be a real time sink...

Friday, November 7, 2008

Nnedi Okorafor wins the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa

In case you missed this, Nnedi Okorafor's novel, Zahra the Windseeker, has been awarded the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa. She has posted a photo of the trophy as well as an account of flying to Lagos for the awards ceremony and photos of Wole Soyinka, who made the award personally, herself, and her family at the ceremony. Here's a quick taste of her post:

The event was pretty elaborate. There was a full-length play (written by Promise Ogochukwu), beautifully dressed singers (who serenaded Wole Soyinka. This was pretty funny as I saw that Soyinka is very much a Nigerian man), poems were recited, awards were presented for younger writers, a little girl did a reading (what a ball of talent she was), there was dinner (mmmm, jallof rice and flan…since I don’t eat meat I stayed away from the chicken and beef and goat meat).

Of course, the approaching elections in the United States colored the air. “I want to say in a few days that history will be made,” Soyinka said as he spoke to the audience. Obama is well-loved in Nigeria.

Do check it out!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Who Would You Put in Obama's Cabinet?

The day after the election, I'm feeling more sober than euphoric. Although it's now definite that Christine Gregoire prevailed over the horrible Dino Rossi and both Colorado and South Dakota's anti-abortion measures were defeated, gay rights took a trouncing-- in California, though the results aren't absolutely final yet, it looks as though voters took away the right for gays to marry; & bans were also imposed in Florida and Arizona.

A sentence from Obama's speech illuminates what I was feeling last night:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

For a long time we've had every reason to question that, in the nightmare of the last eight years especially. But thinking about all those people in California who voted to impose on a ban on gay marriages in defiance of the state's Supreme Court ruling permitting it, I find myself zeroing in on something else Obama said last night:

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America -- I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you -- we as a people will get there.

What "there" is, obviously, varies enormously from person to person-- even among those who voted for Obama. One thing he's done, though, is purposely left the question open about just where we might go. Not just for tactical political reasons, but to encourage widespread democratic participation in the process of important decision-making. The thing about hope, see, is that it's useless if it's vague or passive (waiting silently, for good things to fall into one's lap). Wishful thinking isn't synonymous with hopefulness.

Reading accounts of who might be on Obama's transition team and who in his Cabinet, I want to yell when certain names come up: No! Not him! He won't take us where we need to go!

What do you think? Who would you appoint to the top government positions if you were Obama? Let's play What If... I'd love to hear your suggestions.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Night Partying

In NYC and Chicago, big-time, of course. But locally, here in Seattle?

(Photo of people celebrating near the Pike Place Market, thanks to the The Seattle Times.)

People on my block are at this moment whooping and setting off firecrackers. And according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "thousands" have "taken to the streets" in celebration. (That's so Seattle. We love massing in the streets here on the barest pretext.)

In Seattle thousands of people basically took over the street on First Avenue outside the Showbox theater, where an election night party was held.

Police blocked off Pike Street to traffic near Pike Place Market.

Laura Bennett, 24, from Bremerton, voted for Barack Obama and was in crowd that prevented vehicles from moving. Some people got out of their cars and hugged passersby. Others were waving American flags, Obama signs and chanting "Yes we can."

"This is the most gratifying feeling that I've ever experienced as an American," said Bennett, who herself is half African American and half white. "I've been crying all day, it's almost too much too believe ... For the first time I feel like the person who is leading our country is representing who I am as an American and what I believe."

The Showbox was the site of an election night party held by The Stranger, an alternative news weekly.

The crowd at the all ages event was ebullient, bouncing around the venerable concert venue, which was packed to capacity.

More than a thousand more mingled outside, screaming and shouting and cheering, as passers-bys honked in support. Strangers hugged, high-fived, and danced around.

Since Aqueductista Jesse Vernon is on the staff of The Stranger, I expect she's there right now...

The Victrola, where Eileen Gunn and I have a writing date every Tuesday afternoon, had been advertising its "Election Night Celebration" for the last couple of weeks. Confident, aren't they, I remarked to her last week. Myself, I gave up election-night parties after the 1972 election... (McGovern vs. Nixon. And everyone knows how that one ended.)

More Election Night

It's been a long time since I've been able to listen to a speech made by the president of the United States. In his speech tonight, President-Elect Barak Obama invoked Lincoln. And he took us through the last century of US history through the prism of the life of Ann Nixon Cooper, a 106-year old black woman who cast the first vote of her life today in Atlanta. And then he looked ahead to the future and named our creed, "Yes we can."

"This victory," he said, "is not the change we seek, but the opportunity to make it happen."

Pinch me. I feel as though I'm dreaming. I've been hungry for this so long.

More Election Night

John McCain has conceded.

Let the good news keep rolling!

Election Night

As I type, I'm listening to Democracy Now!-- they're doing a five-hour special tonight. Howard Zinn and Mark Crispin Miller were just on. The polls haven't yet closed here on the West Coast, but good news is trickling in. South Dakota defeated the horrible abortion ban. Iowa and Colorado have gone to Obama. John Murtha has won in Pennsylvania. Massuchettes has decriminalized marijuana. And Amy Goodman says that a million people are in Grant Park in Chicago tonight.

I'm very excited.

A Couple of Quick Hits on Gender

By Nancy Jane Moore

1. Women and Ambition:

Bitch Magazine has a fascinating essay on women and ambition available. It discusses abuse heaped on women who dare to be self promoters, the tired excuse that "women don't submit enough," and the general problem of women being self-effacing. Here's an excerpt:
But by not owning up to her ambitions -- whether they are in the public or private realms -- a writer feeds the machine that discounts the aspirations and talents of all women writers. The silence is implicit support for editors who claim that their byline disparity is because women don't want it enough. It sets an example for other writers that ambition is something to be ashamed of. Though it might be the last thing in the world she means to do, by keeping her intentions for her work hidden, a female writer allows others to make assumptions about her work, and to decide where it will and will not go.

I note, with a touch of irony, that the author of this well-thought-out essay, Anna Clark, has not provided a bio on the Bitch website. Since she's got a relatively common name, I wasn't able to find out anything about her via a quick google.

By the way, Bitch is an excellent and irreverent feminist magazine that's just barely holding on financially. You can subscribe or donate on their website.

2. Gender Stereotypes Redux:

Some programming geeks who think word analysis can identify gender have set up Gender Analysis, a website where you can enter a URL and find out the gender of the blogger. It correctly identified my father's blog I Heard It at the Icehouse as written by a man, but it thinks my nephew's blog on his Korean English-teaching adventures, The Innocent Abroad, is written by a woman and that my self defense blog, Taking Care of Ourselves, is written by a man. One out of three doesn't strike me as much more accurate than guessing, which doesn't surprise me. I don't really think true gender is all that easy to define, even when one's biology is obviously male or female.

PS: Yes, I care about the election, but we all need a break now and then. Anyway, I've made political observations lately on In This Moment and my new site on Open Salon, Blending.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Narratives of Hope

This morning, walking from home to the Online Cafe, taking in the array of Obama signs displayed before many of the houses and apartment buildings I passed, I thought about what what different things one of the key words/keywords of Obama's campaign, "hope," mean for the heterogeneity of citizens that I imagine are choosing to vote for him. Ninety percent of the US public are said to believe that the US is "on the wrong track." Such a belief isn't, of course, accompanied by a clear notion of what the "right track" would necessarily be. But the sense of "wrongness" (which such a characterization implies), without hope, can lead to despair. And although despair can be and has often been exploited by wily, unscrupulous politicians, it is, as with individual human beings, liable to a degree of chaos and disaster that en masse soon has the possibility of becoming intolerable and thus difficult to sustain as the new status quo.

"Hope," as a refusal of despair, allows us (finally!) to grab hold of the notion that it doesn't have to be this way. For decades, now, many people in the US have believed (or behaved as though they believed) that what is simply must be: that substantial change (except for the worse!) is simply impossible. Granted, the incompetents at the helm who've crashed the US economy are still insisting that their navigational principles are fundamentally sound. Rigging the system so that all wealth flows upward, into the hands of a very few, is, they keep telling us, the only way it can be. (Any other way is "socialism," which they've been telling us for almost two decades now was thoroughly discredited by the USSR's defeat in the Cold War.) But regardless of what the incompetents are saying, it is a fact that that key Obama word, "hope," carries with it numerous, partially glimpsed narratives that pose alternatives to What Is.

One of such narratives, because it involves race, isn't being discussed very openly where white people are present. And yet, it is absolutely palpable. An article in today's Toronto Star, King's Dream Nears Reality in Cradle of Civil Rights, focuses on it, though curiously without explicitly spelling it out.

On the Sunday before election day in America, politics and religion do mix. And few places are more fervently engaged than this town [Selma, Alabama], steeped in civil rights lore.

[Young boys play in front of the Brown Chapel, in Selma, Ala., Nov. 2, 2008. The church played a pivotal role in civil rights marches in 1965.

"It's your season to be blessed," sings the choir of the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church. "God made you a promise, you stood the test."

Parishioners rise to join the refrain and there's little doubt that many are thinking about the "promise" of tomorrow's election, with their favoured candidate Barack Obama leading in the polls.

"He's opened up the window and poured you out a blessing." Everyone's singing now, rocking in frenzied holiness.

"It's your season to be blessed."

The article then moves to another church a few blocks away, with a "less effervescent audience" [clearly the reporter is not a church-goer], where someone visiting (from a Catholic Church) for the occasion remarks

"I feel like Dr. King is looking down," Dorothea says, King's bust towering down from the monument in front of the church. "I feel like he's reached that mountaintop. He had that dream; now it's coming to reality."

Back at Ebenezer, the choir has given way to Rev. Frederick Reese, 79, and still pastor. A legend, who got his head cracked open trying to march from Selma to Montgomery on Bloody Sunday. His sermon plumbs the familiar biblical story of the Jews' deliverance from Egyptian bondage.

And within minutes, Reese and his audience are in a holy synchronization.

Like the Children of Israel "we've endured many difficulties, but the Lord has brought us to possess the land," he intones.

"You can hold out a little while longer," he implores.

Another alternative narrative can be glimpsed in a quote from Obama in an article in the UK's Independent:

Barack Obama is promising a $150bn "Apollo project" to bring jobs and energy security to the US through a new alternative energy economy, if his final push for votes brings victory in the presidential election on Tuesday.

"That's going to be my number one priority when I get into office," Mr Obama has said of his "green recovery" plans. Making his arguments in a radio address yesterday, the Democratic favourite promised: "If you give me your vote on Tuesday, we won't just win this election. Together, we will change this country and change the world."

The election has come during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, but he declared: "We'll invest $15bn a year over the next decade in renewable energy, creating five million new green jobs that pay well, can't be outsourced and help end our dependence on foreign oil." The appeal of the idea that clean energy could help to kick-start the economy is such that Mr Obama's Republican opponent, John McCain, has also promised "millions" of green jobs if he wins.
. . . . .

In the mayhem of the election campaign, Mr Obama has yet to deliver a major speech about his renewable energy plans. But he has pledged to create five million new "green collar jobs", largely by greatly expanding the use of renewable energy, which should supply a tenth of America's electricity within four years, insulating a million homes a year and to put a million rechargeable "plug-in hybrid cars" on the road by 2015.

He also wants the US motor industry to take a lead in producing environmentally friendly vehicles rather than 4x4s. He promises to invest in clean engine technology, to increase America's hitherto lax car fuel economy standards by 4 per cent a year, and to boost sales of green cars by giving a $7,000 tax credit to people who buy them. And he has pledged to convert the White House fleet to plug-in hybrids within a year of taking office.

There is growing acceptance from economists in the US that a Green "New Deal" should be a fundamental part of the solution to the financial crisis and to America's long-term security concerns.

At the same time, British ministers are planning a huge increase in environmentally friendly investment as a central part of its economic rescue plan. Japan's Prime Minister, Taro Aso, has called the green economy "a great opportunity for new growth". And plans are being laid in the Australian treasury for a 3,000 per cent growth in green jobs over the next decades.

But it is the American plans that could have the greatest effect in dragging the world economy out of crisis. Mr Obama believes that a new clean-energy economy "can be the engine that drives us into the future in the same way the computer was the engine for economic growth over the last couple of decades".

The head of Mr Obama's transition team, John Podesta, has called for "a new vision for the economic revitalisation of the nation and a restoration of America's leadership in the world", adding: "We must seize this precious opportunity to mobilise the country and the international community towards a brighter and more prosperous future."

The beauty of such a proposal is its absolute departure from two this-is-the-way-it-has-to-be narratives that have been dominating the political landscape since 1980. One of these narratives is the insistence that any opposition to the ever-increasing consumption of Oil is unthinkable; and the other, of course, is the rejection of any possible version of the New Deal's WPA program in the post-WWII US. We've been told over and over that it was an aberration and that it failed-- that wartime-spending was what bailed out the US economy, not government-provided jobs focused on building domestic infrastructure.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that tomorrow will see the start of a lot of new narratives, previously "unthinkable." Will we be entering the grammar of What Could be?

Filter House Graces PW's "Best Books of the Year" List

Publisher's Weekly has announced its Best Books of the Year list, and I'm pleased to see that Nisi Shawl's Filter House made their list. Here is their list in the Science Fiction and Fantasy category:

The Living Dead, Edited by John Joseph Adams (Night Shade)

This superb reprint anthology runs the gamut of zombie stories, with entries by a plethora of renowned and outstanding authors from all sides of the genre.

Pump Six and Other Stories Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade)
Bacigalupi's extraordinary debut collection of futuristic tales, most of which focus on the very personal consequences of environmental disaster, delivers astute social commentary in poignant, revelatory prose.

Ink and Steel Elizabeth Bear (Roc)
The secret war between fae and the Elizabethan court comes to light in this dramatic tale of espionage, seduction and the literal magic of poetry and plays.

City at the End of Time Greg Bear (Del Rey)
Bear returns triumphantly to large-scale science fiction with this complex, difficult tale of Seattle drifters sent on a mission to preserve the universe's last vestiges of consciousness.

Fallen Tim Lebbon (Bantam Spectra)
Lebbon blends wonder and nightmare in this vividly memorable novel of aging voyagers whose quest for glory takes a dark turn when they encounter ancient and terrifying gods.

Filter House Nisi Shawl (Aqueduct)
Shawl's exquisitely rendered debut collection weaves threads of folklore, religion, family and the search for a cohesive self through a panorama of race, magic and the body.

Half a Crown Jo Walton (Tor)
Walton wraps up her Small Change trilogy with a powerful tale of an alternate 1960 in which a fascist Britain, attempting to emulate Nazi Europe, finally pushes its citizens too far.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

So much for the ordered release from Guantanamo...

On October 7, 2008,

US District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina said it would be wrong for the government to continue holding the detainees, known as Uighurs (WEE'-gurz), who have been jailed for nearly seven years, since they are no longer considered enemy combatants. Over the objections of government lawyers who called them a security risk, Urbina ordered their release in Washington D.C. by Friday.

"Because the Constitution prohibits indefinite detentions without cause, the continued detention is unlawful," Urbina said in a ruling that brought cheers and applause from a standing-room only courtroom filled with dozens of Uighurs and human rights activists.

He also ordered a hearing for next week to decide where the Uighurs should be permanently settled. Until then, members of the Uighur community in the D.C. area have offered to take them in and will help care for them.

But The Guardian reported today that the 17 Chinese men will nevertheless be held indefinitely at Guantanamo. Their lawyer, Sabin Willet, said yesterday that

"They were on freedom's doorstep," said Willett. "The plane was at Gitmo. The stateside Lutheran refugee services and the Uighur families and Tallahassee clergy were ready to receive them." However, the justice department appealed against the ruling and Willett claims this will put the men into a potentially endless limbo.

Yesterday Willett said his clients were "saddened" by the latest events. The men, who are Muslims, were in Afghanistan in 2001 and were captured by Pakistani troops and handed over to the US. So far, more than 100 countries have been asked to take them as refugees but none have agreed. Willett blamed US authorities for incorrectly describing them as terrorists.

According to the US justice department, the men "are linked to an organisation that the state department has labelled to be a terrorist entity, and it is beside the point that the organisation is not 'a threat to us' because the law excluding members of such groups does not require such proof."

Willett is also angry the defence department will not agree to let him meet his clients unless they are chained to the floor. He called for this restriction to be lifted: "Just permit these men one shred of human dignity." He added: "Americans are not supposed to treat enemy prisoners of war this way under the service field manuals, or the Geneva conventions - if anyone paid attention to the field manuals or the Geneva conventions anymore."

Reading that they'd been ordered released, I was skeptical that the Government would actually comply with the order and was a little surprised by all the jubilation, as though these innocent bystanders swept up into the nightmare were as good as freed. The Bush Administration has always considered itself above the law. I didn't believe the (so-called) Justice Department would ever defer to a judge's orders at this late stage of the game.

Earlier articles on the case can be found here and here.

"How many times does the Bush administration need to be told that detainees are entitled to essential rights? All the remaining detainees in Guantanamo Bay must be either charged and tried or released immediately," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA.

On Tuesday, the Bush administration argued a federal judge did not have the power to order the release of a foreign-born detainee into the U.S., saying would undercut immigration laws that dictate how foreigners are brought into the country.

Call me disgusted.