Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Seven years later...

The new issue of the American Book Reivew (September-October 2009) arrived in my mailbox a few days ago, and I was interested to see that the issue's Focus section is "Innovative Fiction by International Women." Most ABR issues have a Focus section, a Feature section, plus a section of uncategorized reviews. The content of the Focus section can vary, but sometimes, as in this case, it consists simply of an introductory essay followed by reviews.

Christina Milletti, the editor of this particular Focus section, begins by noting that the American Book Revew published a special issue devoted to "Innovative Women Writing Fiction" back in 2002. (This is an issue that stands out in my memory as wonderfully compelling.) Milletti recalls that issue's introduction:

At the time, guest editor Stacey Gottlieb called attention to the paradoxical spirit of the assignment: she not only wondered, for instance, how the relationship between gender, writing, and innovation could be measured, but also "whether such gender-specific roundups were even needed anymore."

Indeed. The way my spirits lifted when I saw that special issue, the way I snatched it off the rack at Bulldog News, made the answer to that all too clear. Milletti continues:

Now, seven years down the road, little has changed. The strategies for approaching innovative writing by women have settled ("stalled" might be a less tactful word) into two camps: those who propose the feminine is revealed in experimental work through specific stylistic devices-- i.e., a fluidity of prose, the nonlinearity of narrative elements, a decentered or nonhierarchical plot structure-- and those who are more hesitant to connect gender with writing techne. In short, the same body of questions remains core to the task at hand again. The focus of this special issue-- "Innovative Fiction by International Women"-- gives us a chance to once again revisit the problem that women innovative writers pose to readers. First, let me note the obvious: that, among writers and critics alike, there remains an ongoing discomfort with the question of "difference"-- to be more precise, the relation of "gender" to "genre." How, after all, do we "classify" women's fiction? Is it a subdivision of the great rubric "fiction"? A "literary subculture," as Nancy K. Miller unhappily remarks, given the "statistical majority" of women? Is women's fiction a "minor" literature, a "political" literature, a literature "of its own"? What is its object? Representation, for instance? Readership? Resistance? (Is an objective as such necessary?) And who writes it? Is women's fiction written by women, or is t a literature about women? Is it a feminist literature? Does it represent a "tradition"? (If so, whose tradition?) Finally, what do we mean by women's innovative fiction anyway. Innovative... compared to what?

Milletti looks to Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuch's Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction (1989) for possible answers, but comes away dissatisfied. She soon returns to the raw fact that stubbornly remains:

Certainly, the consequences for the historical production of women's texts are evident. As Susan Howe reminds us, for instance, even so-called "recognized" women writers are still often neglected; "Emily Dickinson and Gerturde Stein," after all, "are clearly among the most innovative precursors of modernist poetry and prose, yet to this day canonical criticism from Harold Bloom to Hugh Kenner persists in dropping their names and ignoring their work." It would appear, in short, that even when we hope to showcase the work of women, how the idea of the feminine is used and deployed (even with optimistic intentions) is itself at issue. I'd therefore like to propose the following: that we begin to create forums in which the idea of the "feminine" is also at stake-- not merely designated as a simple condition of inclusion. That we begin to question who, exactly "we" is: how are "we" a "collective" body of women writers? What conditions connect us? What circumstances keep us isolated from one another? How can we speak together, if not strictly, as one? After all, do all innovative women writers agree on the wealth of meanings the terms "woman" or "innovative" invoke? What we may very well discover is that women's innovative fictions are not founded in gender-- so much as in the critique of gender.

Milletti offers as an example a brief reading of Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star (1977), and then offers even briefer characterizations of the work by women writers reviewed under the umbrella of the Focus section.

I enjoyed reading this Focus section, particularly Milletti's essay. And yet, how much more satisfying it would have been to have been given a taste of Milletti's idea of a forum discussing the issues she raises, that she proposes in the middle of her essay. Or critical essays on the books under review addressing some of her questions with respect to the individual writer. Instead, because these were ordinary reviews written without reference to the Focus, I find myself feeling discouraged, for I came away with the sense that it is still apparently necessary to have a special feature on women writers in order to read reviews of these books that would have fit comfortably in any issue of the ABR-- books by some very well known writers (Rikki Ducornet, Lynne Tillman, Lydia Davis, Janet Frame, Mary Caponegro), plus work by three writers I had not encountered, Bhanu Kapil and Magdalena Tulli, and Christie Montalbetti.

I hate to say it, but we've got a long way to go, baby.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Quote of the Day

Chick lit—the range of fiction by women about contemporary city life, friendships, sex, jobs, climbing out of the wreckage of youthful dreams—gets a lot less respect than the male equivalent, which people tend to approach as if it were automatically more artful, more written. Women write “thinly veiled accounts”; men write “romans à clef.” Women writers may have a room of their own, but men who thrash around in front of the mirror and record their every failure, humiliation, moue, and excretion for an audience’s consumption still own the house, even if all they do in it is lie on the couch—and then write about it.--- Nancy Franklin, Brooklyn Dodger (The New Yorker September 25, 2009

Friday, September 25, 2009

Who gave birth to corporations as persons? Judges!

In case y'all missed it, last week Jess Bravin reported in the Wall Street Journal on Justice Sonia Sotomayor's maiden Supreme Court appearance, as the Court heard arguments in a campaign-finance case that a lot of people believe will be decided-- disastrously-- in favor of unlimited corporate political spending. Sotomayor, Bravin writes,

suggested the majority might have it all wrong -- and that instead the court should reconsider the 19th century rulings that first afforded corporations the same rights flesh-and-blood people have.

Judges "created corporations as persons, gave birth to corporations as persons," she said. "There could be an argument made that that was the court's error to start with...[imbuing] a creature of state law with human characteristics."

After a confirmation process that revealed little of her legal philosophy, the remark offered an early hint of the direction Justice Sotomayor might want to take the court.

As Bravin notes,

For centuries, corporations have been considered beings apart from their human owners, yet sharing with them some attributes, such as the right to make contracts and own property. Originally, corporations were a relatively rare form of organization. The government granted charters to corporations, delineating their specific functions. Their powers were presumed limited to those their charter spelled out.

"A corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible," Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in an 1819 case. "It possesses only those properties which the charter of its creation confers upon it."

But as the Industrial Revolution took hold, corporations proliferated and views of their functions began to evolve.

In an 1886 tax dispute between the Southern Pacific Railroad and the state of California, the court reporter quoted Chief Justice Morrison Waite telling attorneys to skip arguments over whether the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause applied to corporations, because "we are all of opinion that it does."

That seemingly off-hand comment reflected an "impulse to shield business activity from certain government regulation," says David Millon, a law professor at Washington and Lee University.

Bravin concludes:

On today's court, the direction Justice Sotomayor suggested is unlikely to prevail. During arguments, the court's conservative justices seem to view corporate political spending as beneficial to the democratic process. "Corporations have lots of knowledge about environment, transportation issues, and you are silencing them during the election," Justice Anthony Kennedy said during arguments last week.

But Justice Sotomayor may have found a like mind in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "A corporation, after all, is not endowed by its creator with inalienable rights," Justice Ginsburg said, evoking the Declaration of Independence.

How far Justice Sotomayor pursues the theme could become clearer when the campaign-finance decision is delivered, probably by year's end.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Folkpsychology at the CIA

We already knew that the Bush Administration was both scientifically illiterate and anti-science. Now Neurobiologist Shane O'Mara, a professor at Ireland's Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, has made a study of the use of torture by the CIA and published a paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science: Science and Society. His results will probably come as no surprise to anyone. According to Pamela Hess's AP article, Professor O'Mara concludes that

the severe interrogation techniques appear based on "folk psychology" — a layman's idea of how the brain works as opposed to science-based understanding of memory and cognitive function.

The list of techniques the CIA used included prolonged sleep deprivation — six days in at least one instance — being chained in painful positions, exploiting prisoners' phobias, and waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning that President Barack Obama has called torture. Three CIA prisoners were waterboarded, two of them extensively.

Those methods cause the brain to release stress hormones that, if their release is repeated and prolonged, may result in compromised brain function and even tissue loss, O'Mara wrote.

He warned that this could lead to brain lobe disorders, making the prisoners vulnerable to confabulation — the pathological production of false memories based on suggestions from an interrogator. Those false memories mix with true information in the interrogation, making it difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is fabricated.

Waterboarding is especially stressful "with the potential to cause widespread stress-induced changes in the brain, especially when these are repeated frequently and intensively," O'Mara wrote.

"The fact that the detrimental effects of these techniques on the brain are not visible to the naked eye makes them no less real," O'Mara wrote.

I couldn't help recalling recent reports that professional psychologists "designed" the CIA's use of torture at Guantanamo Bay. Once their role became known, the media began to zero in on them, and Scott Shane's NY Times article, published earlier this month, profiles them at unflattering length.

They had never carried out a real interrogation, only mock sessions in the military training they had overseen. They had no relevant scholarship; their Ph.D. dissertations were on high blood pressure and family therapy. They had no language skills and no expertise on Al Qaeda.

But they had psychology credentials and an intimate knowledge of a brutal treatment regimen used decades ago by Chinese Communists. For an administration eager to get tough on those who had killed 3,000 Americans, that was enough.

So “Doc Mitchell” and “Doc Jessen,” as they had been known in the Air Force, helped lead the United States into a wrenching conflict over torture, terror and values that seven years later has not run its course.

Dr. Mitchell, with a sonorous Southern accent and the sometimes overbearing confidence of a self-made man, was a former Air Force explosives expert and a natural salesman. Dr. Jessen, raised on an Idaho potato farm, joined his Air Force colleague to build a thriving business that made millions of dollars selling interrogation and training services to the C.I.A.

Shane describes Mitchell's development of a whacko plan for interrogation protocol cobbled together out of disparate odds and ends (that included misusing a researcher's findings, to his later horror). Mitchell was then given charge of an Al Quaeda captive the FBI had been getting "vital information" from (through conventional empathic interrogation methods), with pretty much the results Professor O'Mara says might be expected.

By the end of March, when agency operatives captured Abu Zubaydah, initially described as Al Qaeda’s No. 3, the Mitchell-Jessen interrogation plan was ready. At a secret C.I.A. jail in Thailand, as reported in prior news accounts, two F.B.I agents used conventional rapport-building methods to draw vital information from Mr. Zubaydah. Then the C.I.A. team, including Dr. Mitchell, arrived.

With the backing of agency headquarters, Dr. Mitchell ordered Mr. Zubaydah stripped, exposed to cold and blasted with rock music to prevent sleep. Not only the F.B.I. agents but also C.I.A. officers at the scene were uneasy about the harsh treatment. Among those questioning the use of physical pressure, according to one official present, were the Thailand station chief, the officer overseeing the jail, a top interrogator and a top agency psychologist.

Whether they protested to C.I.A. bosses is uncertain, because the voluminous message traffic between headquarters and the Thailand site remains classified. One witness said he believed that “revisionism” in light of the torture controversy had prompted some participants to exaggerate their objections.

As the weeks passed, the senior agency psychologist departed, followed by one F.B.I. agent and then the other. Dr. Mitchell began directing the questioning and occasionally speaking directly to Mr. Zubaydah, one official said.

In late July 2002, Dr. Jessen joined his partner in Thailand. On Aug. 1, the Justice Department completed a formal legal opinion authorizing the SERE methods, and the psychologists turned up the pressure. Over about two weeks, Mr. Zubaydah was confined in a box, slammed into the wall and waterboarded 83 times.

The brutal treatment stopped only after Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen themselves decided that Mr. Zubaydah had no more information to give up. Higher-ups from headquarters arrived and watched one more waterboarding before agreeing that the treatment could stop, according to a Justice Department legal opinion.

The Zubaydah case gave reason to question the Mitchell-Jessen plan: the prisoner had given up his most valuable information without coercion.

But top C.I.A. officials made no changes, and the methods would be used on at least 27 more prisoners, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times.

The business plans of Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen, meanwhile, were working out beautifully. They were paid $1,000 to $2,000 a day apiece, one official said. They had permanent desks in the Counterterrorist Center, and could now claim genuine experience in interrogating high-level Qaeda operatives.

Dr. Mitchell could keep working outside the C.I.A. as well. At the Ritz-Carlton in Maui in October 2003, he was featured at a high-priced seminar for corporations on how to behave if kidnapped. He created new companies, called Wizard Shop, later renamed Mind Science, and What If. His first company, Knowledge Works, was certified by the American Psychological Association in 2004 as a sponsor of continuing professional education. (A.P.A. dropped the certification last year.)

In 2005, the psychologists formed Mitchell Jessen and Associates, with offices in Spokane and Virginia and five additional shareholders, four of them from the military’s SERE program. By 2007, the company employed about 60 people, some with impressive résumés, including Deuce Martinez, a lead C.I.A. interrogator of Mr. Mohammed; Roger L. Aldrich, a legendary military survival trainer; and Karen Gardner, a senior training official at the F.B.I. Academy.

The company’s C.I.A. contracts are classified, but their total was well into the millions of dollars. In 2007 in a suburb of Tampa, Fla., Dr. Mitchell built a house with a swimming pool, now valued at $800,000.

Snake oil salesman always do well in the US, have you noticed? Wizard Shop, surely, was the correct name for Mitchell's company.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Pattern Recognition" at Transformative Works & Cultures

The third issue of Transformative Works & Cultures, the peer-reviewed academic journal on fan studies produced by the Organization for Transformative Works, has some articles that may be of interest to Aqueduct readers, including:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Geek Feminism and Women's History

As far as I can tell, no-one has alerted aqueductistas to a blog they may find interesting and relevant, Geek Feminism:
The Geek Feminism blog exists to support, encourage, and discuss issues facing women in geek communities, including science and technology, gaming, SF fandom, and more. (Yes, we take a broad view of geekdom.)

Things that are on-topic for this blog:

1. geeky discussion about feminism
2. feminist discussion about geekdom
3. geek feminist discussion about other things

I have recently been added to the roster of their posters, and it occurred to me that my post on the recent Women's History Network annual conference on ‘Women, Gender & Political Spaces: Historical Perspectives’ might also be of interest to readers of Ambling Along the Aqueduct.

Other papers of interest that I heard not mentioned over there included a peep at some preliminary work on the nanny and paid childcare more generally, which sounds as if it will be a very exciting project, by Kath Holden, who recently published a splendid scholarly study, The Shadow of Marriage: Singleness in England, 1914-60 (coming out in paperback early in 2010). In the same panel were a couple of interesting papers about the politics of nursing, which raised a number of further questions about women and caring work, and issues of power, authority and hierarchy within female-dominated professions.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Yesterday I received a mailing advertising a fall lecture series sponsored by the University of Washington's Astrobiology program, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Galileo's telecscopic discoveries and the 150th anniverary of Darwin's theory of evolution. Have to say, this is really cool stuff. Any sf writer'd be a fool not to attend! Here's the description and schedule:

Life and the Universe

Our series celebrates Galileo and Darwin and their ideas and takes stock of how these ideas have led to the emerging interdisciplinary science of astrobiology, which asks fundamental questions about the phenomenon of life in a cosmic context. Research today into the origin and evolution of life and the possibilities of extraterrestrial life has been made possible by these giants of science.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009
George Coyne, S. J.
Astronomer, historian, Jesuit priest
Emeritus director of the Vatican Observatory

The New Cosmos of Galileo

Advances in high-contrast imaging have produced a new sample of spatially resolved debris disks with morphologies attributed to the dynamical effects of planets. I will briefly review several cases, including our recent non-detection of the planet candidate Beta Pictoris b using Keck adaptive optics at L-prime. Then I will focus on the case for a planetary system around the nearby A star Fomalhaut. Optical coronagraphic observations using the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard HST shows a vast dusty debris belt offset from the star and cleanly sculpted at its inside border. Follow-up HST images have further revealed a co-moving point source with apparent orbital motion 18 AU interior to the dust belt. I will discuss both the observational and theoretical evidence that the point source is a planet with < 3 Jupiter masses, making Fomalhaut b the lowest mass planet candidate detected via direct imaging. I will give alternate explanations and discuss future plans for the detailed mapping of Fomalhaut's planetary system.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Steve Benner
Biochemical expert on synthesizing life in the lab.

The Origin of Life, the Universe and the Scientific Method

Everyone thinks that "the scientific method" based on observation, hypothesis, and experiment offers a reliable path to truth about the natural world. But how do we apply such methods to the big questions, like:

"How did life originate?"
"Are we alone in the cosmos?"
"What is this 'life stuff' anyway?"

The talk will consider how scientists go after such big questions starting from our worm's eye view of the cosmos. We will see scientists discarding data when it leads in undesirable directions, changing definitions as convenient, and ignoring disproofs. Nevertheless we will end up seeing how progress is made to address some of the oldest questions that humankind has asked.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Keith Benson
Leading historian of biology, who studies the era when Darwin's seminal work was being debated.

Charles Darwin and Evolution Theory

Charles Darwin's epochal book, On the Origin of Species, was and is recognized as one of the most important scientific texts ever written. Darwin struggled for over 20 years to produce what has come to be considered the foundation stone for modern evolution theory. Yet, after the book's publication in 1859, its main argument for species transmutation, as it was then called, represented but one of a number of ideas of organic change over time. Indeed, Darwin's ideas ran into so many obstacles that he was forced to offer several corrections and explanatory revisions in later editions of the book. It was not until the early twentieth century that a viable 'Darwinian' version of evolution theory began to emerge and perhaps not until mid-century that Darwin's version of evolution theory, now reconceptualized both with natural history observations and genetic explanations, was g enerally accepted. In this talk, I will explain Darwin's original development of his ideas, detail the major obstacles he confronted from 1859 until his death in 1882, and sketch the general outline of the gradual formation of Darwinian evolution theory in the twentieth century.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Chris McKay
Top NASA astrobiologist who studies extreme life in Antarctica and the Atacama Desert of Chile, and searches for life on Mars.

Searching for Life

One of the main goals of astrobiology is the search for another type of life in our solar system. The planet Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa, and Saturn's moon Enceladus are the most likely targets for this search. Studies of the limits of life and life in extreme environment on Earth help us develop a search strategy for life on other worlds. Fossils are not enough, for we will want also to determine if life elsewhere is the product of a separate genesis from life on Earth. For this determination we need to access intact alien life, possibly frozen in the deep old permafrost of Mars or the icy surfaces of Europa and Enceladus.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Peter D. Ward
UW paleontologist and astrobiologist who studies the history of our planet's life, as well as our long-term future.

Earth Life: Its History and Future

Earth life is still the only known life. Studying its history and future gives us clues as to what an extraterrestrial life might be. While Earth life is incredibly variable in terms of species, ranging from tiny microbes to giant redwood trees, in fact the basic units of DNA and amino acids are so similar that the unity of life is perhaps even more striking than its diversity. In this talk I will speculate on how that happened: Was our life the first out of the evolutionary gate (and therefore quickly dominated the world), or was it the product of brutal competitive wars in which today's familiar life arose through competition rather than speed? I will also look forward in time, to see that the evolution of life will be followed by its devolution in an approximately symmetrical manner.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Jody Deming
UW oceanographer and astrobiologist who studies microbes from Arctic ice under icy-moon and Martian-like conditions.

Ice as an Evolutonary Playground, Here and Beyond

Most of the planetary (and moon) surfaces we can expect to explore and sample in this century are deeply frozen. Where life-supporting water exists, it is in the form of ice or as briny (or more exotic) fluids kept liquid to the extent that salts depress the freezing point of water. Exploring Earth's coldest saline ice formations enables us to understand these habitats not simply as extreme settings that preserve life until conditions become more favorable, but as evolutionary playgrounds where microscopic life forms can engage in surprising activities that promote their well-being and the adaptability of their offspring. What we are learning from Earth's ice, even as we are losing it to a warming climate, brings optimism to what we may find elsewhere in the solar system.

If you live in the Seattle area and would like to attend any (or all!) of these lectures, they're at 7:30 p.m. in 120 Kane Hall. Admission is free, but you need to reserve tickets (which you can do through the website I linked to above).

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Top Secret

Or should that just be, "A Well-Kept Secret at the Top"?

Everyone, I presume, assumes that politicians (also sometimes known as "world leaders") tell one another things they would never willingly reveal to the people who voted them into office. Usually, though, such discrepancies don't come to light. But in Thatcher Told Gorbachev Britain Did Not Want German Reunification in the Times Online (U.K.), Michael Binyon tells a tale that is bound to warm historians' hearts, of

a remarkable cache of official Kremlin records smuggled out of Moscow. After Mr Gorbachev left office in 1991, copies of the state archives went to his personal foundation in Moscow. A few years ago Pavel Stroilov, a young writer doing research at the foundation, understood the huge historical significance of what they recorded.

He copied more than 1,000 transcripts of all the Politburo discussions and brought them with him when he moved to London to continue his research.
His copies were made just in time, as all the transcripts of Politburo meetings and talks with foreign leaders have now been sealed. The records detail how the Russians reacted to the tumultuous events of 1989 and reveal the frantic attempts by Britain and France to halt moves to German unification by manoeuvring the Soviet Union into opposing it.

Margaret Thatcher, the documents reveal, told Gorbachev

that she was “deeply impressed” by the courage and patriotism of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish Communist leader. She noted, approvingly, that Mr Gorbachev had reacted “calmly” to the results of the Polish elections, in which the Communists were defeated for the first time in an open vote in Eastern Europe, and to the other changes in Eastern Europe.

Margaret Thatcher as a Jaruzelski fangirl? Sounds like a Saturday Night Live skit, or something out of a comic book! But

then she launched her bombshell. She asked that her next remarks should not be recorded. Mr Gorbachev agreed — but the Kremlin transcript included them anyway, noting laconically: “The following part of the conversation is reproduced from memory.” She spoke of her deep “concern” at what was going on in East Germany. She said “big changes” could be afoot.

And this led to her fear that it would all eventually lead to German reunification — an official goal of Western policy for more than a generation.

She assured Mr Gorbachev that President Bush also wanted to do nothing that would be seen by the Russians as a threat to their security. The same assurance was later spelt out in person to Mr Gorbachev at the Soviet- American summit off Malta.

Six days before the wall came down, Gorbachev discussed the unrest in East Germany with Vladmir Kryuchkov and Eduard Shvardnadze:

[Eduard] Shevardnadze [Foreign Minister]: We’d better take down the wall ourselves.

Kryuchkov: It will be difficult for them* if we take it down.

Gorbachev: They [East Germany] will be bought up whole . . . And when they reach world prices, living standards will fall immediately. The West doesn’t want German reunification but wants to use us to prevent it, to cause a clash between us and the FRG so as to rule out the possibility of a future “conspiracy” between the USSR and Germany.

Mrs Thatcher was not the only one worried by events in Germany. A month after the Berlin Wall came down, Jacques Attali, the personal adviser to President Mitterrand, met Vadim Zagladin, a senior Gorbachev aide, in Kiev.

Mr Attali said that Moscow’s refusal to intervene in East Germany had “puzzled the French leadership” and questioned whether “the USSR has made peace with the prospect of a united Germany and will not take any steps to prevent it. This has caused a fear approaching panic.”

He then stated bluntly, echoing Mrs Thatcher: “France by no means wants German reunification, although it realises that in the end it is inevitable.”

In April 1990, five months after the wall came down, Mr Attali said that the spectre of reunification was causing nightmares among France’s politicians. The documents quote him telling Mr Mitterrand that he would “fly off to live on Mars” if this happened.

Yummy stuff, no?

Lamenting the wall and the separation of East and West Germany was a frequently invoked mantra from 1961, when the wall went up, to late 1989, when the wall came down. By the time I was an adult, I'd come to hear the lament as crocodile tears, just more of the constant stream of Cold War rhetoric that permeated life in the US. After the wall came down, quite a few analysts expressed anxiety about the possible consequences, of course. But never, of course, the people at the top: they were always jubilant. But now we know...
*"Them" = the East German government

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Book Talk

Here are some interesting conversations about books by women, going on elsewhere:

*Niall Harrison, Adam Roberts, Nic Clarke, Jo Coleman, and Abigail Nussbaum discuss Ursula K. Le Guin's Lavinia; their conversation has been divided into four parts: Part 1, at Torque Control, Part 2 at Punkadiddle, Part 3 at Asking the Wrong Questions, and Part 4 at Eve's Alexandria.

*Another discussion, this one in five parts, all to be found on the same blog, takes on Sarah Hall's How to Paint a Dead Man; it's currentl in progress at Ed Champion's Reluctant Habits. The participants, here, are Jenny Davidson, Brian Francis Slattery, Michael Schaub, Amy Riley, Traver Kauffman, and Abigail Nussbaum.

*And finally, the Women in SF reading club talk about Marge Piercy's feminist sf classic, Woman on the Edge of Time.

WisCon Chronicles 4 - Pushing Up the Ceiling

The first submission deadline for WCC4 was August 1st, and a good number of people made that. Some delayed subs. were still straggling in by September 1st, often with v. good cause, and there are still a couple of items outstanding -


We have now exceeded the notional top cap. of 60K words for the volume, and are prodding hard at the absolute ceiling of 70K, because in fact the submissions are already up to 68K words approx. And there may be another 6-7K still to come.

Thanks so much, well done and congrats. to everybody who sent me material, and there will be some really cool stuff in this one, from Nisi Shawl's exchange of letters with her mother, who was at WisCon too, if you hadn't heard, to Elise Matthesen's account of the Haiku Earring parties, with a package of stunning poetry from people well-known and not yet known - bet you never knew Pat Murphy and Sharyn November wrote haikus, or more correctly senryu, did you?

There will also be some very strong and thought-provoking panel reports and MyWisCon impressions, particularly from POCs. The POC presence in this volume is one of the things I'm really happy about.

And now, the second round commences. The editor stops soliciting, um, requesting material and starts snipping, then sending revisions for OKs so they can go off to be typeset. Important notice here:

If you have contributed material to WCC4, you are a pearl. If you have my editing requests, be a diamond and get them back as fast as possible.

The production sked is laid out, and we are already in danger of falling behind. So this round of first-edits needs to be telescoped. This is particularly important because we have the excellent cap. fill, BUT if edits don't get back in time for me to send away by end of September - not get to me but get on past me by then - I may have to jettison those pieces to stay on sked.

The WisCon Chronicle publishing sked. is a little more rigid than most , because it has an absolute back-wall - the volume has to be ready to release at WisCon 34, end of May 2010. No delays, no failed deadlines and cancelled publication, no nothing. And while that sounds centuries away, in actual working time, it's not very far at all.

Soooo, if you've had one of Those E-Mails with a revised file attached, please open it up, run down the Mark-ups, tick or X, and send it back. Then the happy but still anxious editor will be able to get on to the more delectable worry, sorting out the Table of Contents. And will that be a dilemma of feasts, oh, yes, indeed...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Reviews of Interest

*Graham Sleight reviews Mike Ashley's controversial Mammoth Book of Mindblowing Science Fiction for Strange Horizons-- and finds it wanting.

*Jonathan Strahan characterizes What Remains as "awesome" and Ellen Klages's "Echoes of Aurora" as one of his favorite stories of the year.

*Tangent Online has a review by Steven Fahnestalk of The Buonarotti Quartet (Conversation Pieces #25) by Gwyneth Jones.

*Ian Sales has been reading The Buonarotti Quartet, too, as well as De Secretis Mulierum (Conversation Pieces #23). You can see what he as to say about them here.

Recommended Reading: Vandana Singh's The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet

Vandana Singh's The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories, which I recently had the pleasure of reading, will appeal to a lot of Aqueduct's core readers. (Big surprise, hunh?)

The collection offers ten stories, each with its own finely grained world. When in the last story, "The Room on the Roof," I came across pov character Urmilla's conclusion "that the world she lived in was not a separate, self-contained thing, but actually an intersection of many worlds. There was the world of the beetle, the world of her mother pounding spices in the kitchen downstairs, the chess world, where her brother battled the evil enemy king, and who knows how many hidden worlds outside her awareness"(181), I found myself thinking that her observation distills a sort of subtext of the collection as a whole. Of course more world than one is evoked in each story, but one of the things Singh does well is give us a sensual taste of the particularities of the daily in her characters' lives.

I'd read several of the stories before and found them well worth a second read. I do have favorite stories in the book, though: the inexplicably powerful "Hunger," the poignant "The Room on the Roof," and "The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet." The latter is a classic feminist sf story that imparted a sense of wonder even as it made me giggle with its sly, not-to-be-denied humor. The story is told from the point of view of the middle-aged Ramnath Mishra, who grows increasingly frantic to restrain Kamala, his wife, who is in the process of becoming a planet, from disrobing in public (and private). Here's a sample:

He caught her just as she was about to run out into the driveway in nothing but a petticoat and blouse, in full view of street vendors, cricket-playing children and respectable elderly gentlemen. He wrestled her into the bedroom and tried to slap some sense into her, but she continued to struggle and weep. At last, frustrated, he pulled half a dozen saris out from the big steel cupboard and flung them on the bed.

"Kamala," he said desperately, "even planets have atmospheres. See here, this gray sari, it looks like a swirl of clouds. How about it?"
She calmed down at once. She began to put on the gray sari although the fabric, georgette, was unsuitable for summer.

"At last you believe me, Ramnath," she said. Her voice seemed to have changed. It was deeper, more powerful. He looked at her, aghast. She had addressed him by his name! That was all very well for the new generation of young adults, but respectable, traditional women never addressed their husbands by their names. He decided not to do anything about it for now. At least she was clothed. (45)

You can buy The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories here.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Quote of the Day

One of the things Lois chiefly wanted to know about marriage was--- how long it took one, sleeping with the same person every night, to outlive the temptation to talk well into the morning? There would be nothing illicit about nocturnal talking, as there had been at school; no one would be entitled to open a door sharply with: "Now go to sleep now, you two; that's enough for tonight," as had so often happened on her visits to friends. Would conversation, in the absence of these prohibitions, cease to interest?
---Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Necessity, Not Luxury

In so many respects, the US always finds itself in the worst company. John de Graaf's piece, No Vacation Nation, reminds us of one them:

Nearly all other countries in the world have something we don’t: a national law mandating that workers receive some amount of paid vacation each year. Only the Guyanas, Nepal, and that paragon of human rights, Myanmar (Burma) join the US in having no vacation law.

What’s with the difference? And does it really matter if people have vacation time or not? Some 50 experts from the fields of medicine, psychology, business, labor, recreation, environmental sciences, and family studies joined a group of activists at Seattle University to try to answer those questions.

Their answers were resoundingly clear: vacations are not an idle luxury. They’re a crucial ingredient in creating a healthy, civically engaged, and environmentally responsible society.

Vacations matter, especially for health. Sarah Speck, a cardiologist at Seattle’s Swedish hospital, scared everyone at the conference with a graphic look at the impact of stress, and especially workplace stress, on heart health, concluding that such stress is “the new tobacco,” and that vacations are an important way to reduce stress and burnout. Dr. Arnold Pallay, a family physician from New Jersey, confirmed Dr. Speck’s findings, saying that many of the health problems his patients suffer from stem from lack of vacation time. “Take two weeks and call me in the morning,” he tells them.

Representative Alan Grayson of Orlando, Florida introduced the Paid Vacation Act of 2009, the first effort to pass a vacation law in the United States since 1936. “When people tell me they oppose such a law, I ask them if they get vacations,” Grayson told participants, “and every single one of them has said, ‘Yes.’ They want vacations for themselves but not for others.”

Grayson’s proposed law (HR 2564) is extremely modest—one to two weeks of paid time off for workers in companies with more than 50 employees—but it’s a start, a down payment toward a time when we recognize the greater cost we pay for not providing vacation time. Even now, that cost to our already overburdened health system is substantial—men who don’t take regular vacations are 32 percent more likely to have heart attacks than those who do; for women, the figure is 50 percent. And they are two to three times as likely to suffer from depression.

Can anyone actually imagine that Grayson's proposed law would ever actually pass? Congress begrudges working people even the most rudimentary form of healthcare. I frankly find it impossible to imagine their being willing to lift the burden from workers for even seven days a year. I'm sure they'd think that would be socialism!

It's Labor Day Weekend in the US. Despite its origins, for most people it usually represents the point after which everyone of all ages is expected to buckle down and get hard (or even harder) to work. Sort of like a Mardi Gras for the Lent that is daily life in our lovely capitalist society.