From Around the Web: Coming Home for the New Year Edition

After holiday travel that entailed spotty internet access, I’m happily back home and in front of my trusty PC.  Here are a few links of interest for the new year.  I’ll be back to blogging about SF shortly.

  • The Future Fire, a speculative fiction journal and press, announced the launch of a fundraiser for their next anthology:Problem Daughters will amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. It will be an anthology of beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, with a specific focus on the lives and experiences of women of colour, QUILTBAG women, disabled women, sex workers, and any intersection of these.”  I’ll have an interview with the editors of this anthology posted soon.
  • All three editions of Lightspeed‘s People of Colo(u)r Destroy special issues (Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy) are now available.  From their website: “The People of Colo(u)r Destroy special issues exist to relieve a brokenness in the genre that’s been enabled time and time again by favoring certain voices and portrayals of particular characters.”  Also check out the Women Destroy and Queers Destroy series.
  • Since I thought I might be away from the internet a while, I loaded up my mp3 player to catch up on podcasts I haven’t listened to in a while.  Among them were BBC Radio 4’s episode of Four Thought, in which poet Hannah Jane Walker (no relation) “makes the case for being a bit sensitive [….S]he thinks that people should embrace their sensitivity, and not pretend to be tough if they’re not.”  Refreshing listen for those of us who are told (again and again!) that we’re just too sensitive….
  • And speaking of The Future Fire, I have a novelette over there that was published in late December, “Over the New Horizon.”  Pluto, alien signals, conspiracy theories, and the woman at the center of the discovery surrounding them.

All the best to you all for a happy 2017!


From Around the Web, Winter Solstice Edition

A few items from around the web and some meta stuff:

  • Check out December’s “The Monthly Aqueduct” from feminist SFF publisher, Aqueduct Press, including the linked blog posts. Advice from author Andrea Hairston: “And remember—the majority of the electorate voted for Hillary or someone other than Trump. Hillary won the popular vote. Let’s get a hold of the narrative.”
  • December’s reading group will be postponed to January.  Alas, I’ve spent more time writing and calling elected officials in response to the US election than I realized, which left little time for blog posts.
  • I’m working on a series of poems in the voices of the women and their descendants from Herland.  I’ve written about why this utopia is both problematic and useful here and here.  The first poem in the series is now up on Web Conjunctions here.

And on the shortest, darkest day of the year, all the best to you all as we face the first winter in a long, dark four year season….

From the Archive: Creation (of) Evidence

I’m reposting some of the content from my site, Freethinking Ahead, as part of the transition to this blog.  Here’s a post from August 2012 about the presentation of “evidence” as a sort of performance with a purposeful end.

Yesterday, I visited the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Texas with a group of non-believers.  On our way back to Dallas, we discussed whether or not the museum’s staff believed in the “evidence” presented to visitors, the carved human footprints among purported dinosaur tracks, the bits of pareidolia and coincidence.  The consensus was that if they do believe in their evidence, it has to be that they can look past their doubts because they are doing “God’s Work.”  But we weren’t sure whether they do believe in their evidence.  Looking back on the experience as a whole now, I don’t think they can believe it.  What looks like really bad “science” at first glance might just be part of a performance designed to undermine science.

The emphasis on the importance of science is present throughout the museum.  Documents verifying the origins of artifacts from ancient Israel accompany those artifacts.  Contemporary neuroscientists are quoted in support of the museum’s stance on the human mind.  Elaborate explanations are given for the antediluvian conditions in the hyperbaric biosphere, an experiment happening right on premises.  (Look!  Science!  Right there!)

Dr. Carl Baugh, the museum’s director, gave a lecture in which he presented evidence that the geological structure of earth was caused by a world-wide flood using “scientific” language.  His evidence was supported by the staff’s geologist and anthropologist (who were also taking tickets and selling merchandise).  Dr. Baugh made a point to note an example of a counterfeit human footprint discovered along with a dinosaur track, which allowed one of the scientists on hand to mention the importance of falsifiability in science.

From the beginning of the lecture, though, there was tension between secular form and religious content.  The performance opened with a song: the melody, a 19th century Italian tune originally set with secular lyrics; the words, those of a Christian hymn.  For all the sciencey language it was packaged in, the information presented in the lecture was twisted to fit the Judeo-Christian creation story.  There were references to dubious math and the “fact” that nothing could be more than 10,000 years old.  The purpose of the museum is not to give visitors a view of a set of facts as objectively gathered by scientists, but to use the framework of science to tell a religious story with the director as its narrator.

Once its emphasis shifts from presenting facts to presenting a narrative, the museum becomes open to criticism as a narrative.  The story goes as follows: science is unreliable, because the conclusions it draws go against the creation of the universe as it is presented in the Bible.  And yet, the museum insists it presents scientific evidence in the guise of fake human footprints and the fossilized finger that is probably nothing more than the rocky equivalent of Jesus appearing on toast. The museum becomes a sort of performance, acting out a parody of science while emphasizing the creation story.  The need for (in this case, unconvincing) science fades away, and what remains is the Bible verses, the Israeli history, and the word of an authority figure.  No matter what human-found or generated scientific evidence is presented, the story goes, it cannot best Biblical evidence.

If no science is worth believing in, what are we left with but faith?

(Faith, and also, a 12-foot statue of Tom Landry, hovering over a white mannequin in Native American dress, recalling old western movies in which right prevails.  This is Texas, after all.)

November Reading Group Response Post: Binti

This is November’s reading group response post for Binti, Nnedi Okorafor’s Hugo- and Nebula-winning novella. Here are my thoughts on the piece—let’s continue the conversation in the comments. I also recommend checking out Vajra Chandrasekera’s February 2016 review of the novella in Strange Horizons.

The eponymous character of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti has a notable gift: she’s a harmonizer. The act of harmonizing implies a separation between the objects of that act. For instance, voices in harmony are separate voices, regardless of how well they work together to create a coherent-sounding whole. These separations—these boundaries—drive the story forward, and they should give us, as freethinkers, pause.

Binti, an adolescent girl who is gifted at mathematics, lives these separations during her youth on Earth. Her talents set her apart among her people, the Himba. In fact, she must leave secretly for Oomza University, since leaving her homeland is not the done thing. The Himba are themselves set apart from the majority Khoush population that surrounds them. Binti feels this more acutely in the launch station, where she notes the differences in how she is dressed—in bright colors, as opposed to the black and white clothing of the Khoush—and her braided hair, which, like her skin, is covered in otjize. The Khoush treat her as an oddity, remarking on her appearance and scrutinizing her more thoroughly than one of their own travelers.

At the violation of these boundaries, Binti is irrevocably changed. She violates the boundary between her people and the outside world by leaving for Oomza Uni, and thus risks her station among the Himba and within her family. She inhabits a sort of in-between place: she’s Himba, but she is quickly accepted by the Khoush students aboard ship who see her abilities. She is not Khoush, however; otherwise, the Meduse would have killed her along with the others. In the end, transformed by the Meduse, she becomes something between human and Meduse, able to inhabit both worlds, to communicate with both peoples.

The professors seem to yield to Binti’s request almost too easily, despite her transformation. In fiction, we expect the protagonist to face more resistance during the final conflict, but this isn’t the case in this novella. Perhaps we should question this ease: it foreshadows the change she’s undergone but neither she nor we are readers know about until later. Perhaps Binti has simply been through enough. She’s left her home, and it’s possible she won’t be able to return. She’s witnessed the slaughter of her fellow students aboard ship, ones she considered friends. She’s survived her encounter with the Meduse. Binti is a master harmonizer, after all.

Which brings me to what we can take from the novella in the current US political climate. I’ve heard again and again that we freethinking liberals need to “build bridges” or “make connections” with those who feel marginalized by progressive politics. We need to harmonize, perhaps, in order to work within the system.

Except the system changes—compromises, really—those who must connect with others who view them as somehow “less than.” Binti is caught between the Khoush, who view the Himba as inferior, and the Meduse, who view all humans as Khoush. Though Binti is able to navigate this middle ground, this new identity, and both save Oomza Uni and the Meduse chief’s stinger, she’s exceptional. She survives because of her gifts. But she survives as a different person than she was before.

Your thoughts?

From the Archive: Care and Feeding of a Social Muse

I’m reposting some of the content from my site, Freethinking Ahead, as part of the transition to this blog.  Here’s a post from August 2012 about how to nurture our creative social actions.

On my list of current projects, nestled between working on the first Feminine Faces of Freethought (F3) conference, this blog, keeping up with an ever-expanding reading list (novels, journals, blogs), trying to wedge dance classes back in my schedule, and getting enough sleep to write decent code at my day job, are a young adult science fiction novel I’m drafting and some other short writing projects. Feeling in need of advice, I picked up a few books on writing science fiction, among them Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.

In his essay, “How to Keep and Feed a Muse,” Bradbury explains that his view of the Muse is the writer’s mental storehouse of experiences and exposures: “What is The Subconscious to every other man, in its creative aspect becomes, for writers, The Muse. They are two names for one thing.” (p33) In order to feed the muse*, the writer should, among other things, “Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. [….] And above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile. [….] Ideas lie everywhere through the books of poetry [. . . ].” (p37). Thus, poetry fosters our ability to think along with our ability to feel.

This advice is just as applicable to freethinkers as it is to writers**. We are engaged in creative acts as we shape the freethought movement: organizing groups and conferences, responding to events in blogs and talks, generating and regenerating the movement itself based on current concerns. So perhaps if we see ourselves as engaged in creative social acts, then it might be helpful to think of the “social muse” that we must nurture as part of our membership in the freethought community.

Which leaves me with this question: what should we, as carers for social muses, read or watch or experience in order to better fuel our creative acts?

* While I don’t think I’d use the term “subconscious,” I agree with the notion that what we take in and what we focus on shapes how we think about the world and what we create. I’m taking both “subconscious” and “muse” as metaphors for that process.

** Reading poetry is only one way to this end. Appreciating any art that speaks to both the intellect and the senses would do, as long as the end result is the same, as long as the sense of empathy is engaged.

From Around the Web: More Reactions to the Recent US Election

A few links from around the web regarding the recent US election:

Coode Street Podcast, Episode 291: Radio Free America. Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe discuss the US election results and what we can take from SF regarding the current political situation.  Strahan and Wolfe touch on the fact that SF’s reach may not be that great in the scope of the population as a whole.  That said, they do note the fact that SF is well suited for taking a critical look at politics.  (Here’s a link to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database listing for John Sladek’s 1973 story “The Great Wall of Mexico.”)

Philosopher Matthew J. Brown discusses the role of his discipline and how he can effect change in “Philosophy Under Trump.” He concludes that “Our politics is in a crisis of values, and [philosophers’] experience, knowledge, and skills here are much needed.”

In her recent blog post, “Nattering Social Justice Cook: Stay the Course,” SF author Cat Rambo discusses privilege, the divisions we see between ourselves and others, and what she’s doing in light of recent events.

SF writer Cheryl Wollner lists speculative fiction venues that feature diverse voices in her Luna Station Quarterly post, “Lit Mags that Love.”  Also check out her previous post, “Love and Solidarity,” in which she reminds us that “The more [women] write, the more we publicly exclaim that women’s stories matter. Women’s voices matter.”

Choosing My Words from Their Words

Over the past few days, I’ve been writing to elected officials at the federal level about the president-elect’s horrifying staff picks and at the state level about bills filed for the upcoming legislative session.  Since I’m writing exclusively to Republicans, I’ve found myself engaged in a sort of exercise in which I try to reframe the issues at hand as those that would concern them.  I’m using buzzwords such as “government over-reach” and “fiscal responsibility” again and again.

I haven’t divulged the fact that I am about as liberal as they come here in this red district in a red state.  While I don’t think I’m coming across as conservative–how could I be if I’m opposed to GOP-backed policies–I do find I’m sort of speaking a sort of libertarian language that I’m hoping the elected officials will be sympathetic to.

Which leads me to a question about where to find the balance between speaking to my audience in terms they’d be willing to listen to and the real motivation behind why I’m writing to them in the first place.

I’m heartened by the reaction to the US election on the part of my fellow liberals: we’re calling, we’re writing, we’re protesting.  But are the elected officials who need to hear us listening?  We need to stand up and speak out.  And yet in speaking out, are we using the language that will make them remotely willing to listen?

So I fear that some concerns–concerns about fundamental human rights–may get lost in the way I couch them.  And that is a problem.  As I write, perhaps I’ll find a better approach.  In the meantime, I’ll just keep writing.

From the Archive: History, Word Choice, and Education

I’m reposting some of the content from my site, Freethinking Ahead, as part of the transition to this blog.  Here’s a post from March 2013 about higher education with a conservative slant.  Given the outcome of the recent election in the US, the topic seems more relevant now than it did then.

Last weekend at our local freethought group’s gathering, I had the opportunity to work with the older children’s group, ages 8-12. March is Women’s History month, so I wanted to present an activity that focusing on pioneering women scientists. As a lead in, the group generated a list of what characteristics someone would need in order to be a scientist: creative, smart, focused, works well in teams, and so on. Then we talked about the fact that before the 20th century, another characteristic that many people would have added would have been “a man.” A couple of the children looked doubtful: women are scientists today, so why wasn’t that always the case?

In high school and college history classes, the students will, I hope, get to discuss this question and related ideas in more depth than we could cover in a half hour: the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, and so on. A couple recent news articles highlight reasons why this might not be the case.

Recently, the National Association of Scholars released “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?”1 The authors of this report studied the American history classes required of all students by public universities in Texas. While they do allow that race, class, and gender has a place in these classes, they recommend placing more emphasis on other topics, including the role of the military and religion in American history. Additionally, they recommend that history be “depoliticized”; that is, de-emphasizing the “liberal” view of history as “a struggle of the downtrodden against rooted injustice” (p. 50). Not surprising that the researchers came to this conclusion when one of the stated aims of NAS is “Overemphasis on issues of race, gender, class, sexual orientation.”2

In order to graduate from a Texas public university, students must take 6 hours of American history. At present, students can take courses that focus on the history of women, racial/ethnic groups, and so on in America. Given the history of ideology and Texas public education3, it’s not surprising that a bill has been proposed in the Texas legislature that would prevent students from taking anything besides the type of class promoted by NAS4.

An article5 in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus blog drew my attention to FreeThinkU, a site that provides an alternative to the “liberal education” offered at traditional colleges. Courses offered by this site include “How American Are You?”, “Is Global Warming Theory True?”6 and a course that seems to be made up of the movie Expelled. This is a conservative group interested in American exceptionalism and religion. So, I’m left wondering why the site uses “free thinking” and “free thinkers”? The definition of free thinker is one who uses reason to form beliefs and one who rejects religious dogma. This content on site does not appear to reflect these ideals. It’s odd that the site’s founder would select this term when freethought is the thing he is fighting against.

By the time the children in the freethought group go off to college, what will their history class choices look like? If efforts such as these continue, perhaps they will be limited. For now, I’ll keep following the activity on the bill, writing letters, and speaking out.

3. For an illustrative example, see The Revisionaries.
4. More information on the report, legislation, and reaction here: and here:
6. Yes

Election 2016: Where to begin?

Like many of you, I spent the days after the election in a sort of shocked silence.  Wasn’t this the year the US should have elected its first female president?  Weren’t we supposed to keep progressing?

But no.  Instead of celebrating, I keep wondering what sort of legacy the 45th president of the US will leave: some horrific combination of Andrew Johnson’s racism with Herbert Hoover’s disastrous economic policies, perhaps?

Of course, I’m angry.  I’m angry at the outcome of the vote.  I’m angry at those who keep chanting the “it’s okay, we’ll all be fine, let’s all just get along” line.  I’m angry at those who call out people protesting the election of someone who represents a worldview that fundamentally devalues their humanity.  We need to be angry.  And we need to voice our anger.

We need more voices speaking out about the effects of this travesty of an election.  More voices like Caine’s over at Affinity, covering the aftermath.

More voices calling out the implications of what a vote for a bigot is: an act of bigotry.  As John Scalzi wrote the day after the election, ” If you vote for a bigot who has bigoted plans, you need to be aware of what that says about you, and your complicity in those plans.”

More warning voices.  Jean Kazez noted some of her fears the day before the election in a post in which she asks “what are the worst things about a Trump future?”  Alas, we may know first-hand.

More voices keeping us focused on what is at stake, such as Clinton’s: “And to all the little girls watching right now, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.”

I’ll close with a link to a post by Alix Jules, “10 Ways My White Friends Can Help Fight Racism.”  Though I’ve seen many white friends and acquaintances on social media sites unfriend and block those who voted for Trump, I think they’d do well to follow Jules’ advice not to do so: “But how are you going to change their minds, even if just a little, if you’ve cut ties.”

So I won’t cut ties.  Instead, I’ll question.  I’ll amplify others’ questions.

It’s time to become a gadfly.

From the Archive: A Disclaimer about Disclaimers

I’m reposting some of the content from my site, Freethinking Ahead, as part of the transition to this blog.  Here’s a post from May 2015 about the purposes of disclaimers before talks.

A recent local secular humanist group function featured a talk on a subject contentious in both religious and secular circles. Before this talk, the group leader who introduced the speaker gave the standard “speakers views do not reflect the organization’s views” disclaimer. The speaker, who often gives presentations at churches about this and similar subjects, followed by expanding on the sorts of disclaimers these talks have been subject to: disclaimers sometimes accompanied by church leaders standing near the speaker for emphasis.

There is something that “goes without saying” in situations such as churches bringing in speakers that so obviously differ with religious doctrine. The audience, we’d assume, would know already that a secular humanist’s views necessarily conflict with those of Christians. Likewise, in freethought organizations, we’d also assume that given the premise of freethought—that we should weigh the evidence and decide for ourselves—we shouldn’t need a preamble to talks stating that the views don’t represent those of the group.

All this raises a question: if it’s clear to us that a speaker doesn’t represent the organization’s views, why do we need disclaimers? What work are they doing?

We typically view disclaimers as applicable to tendentious topics, often ones that can be cast in a negative light by one party or another. Disclaimers appear on television and radio stations before infomercials and programs that air unpopular opinions. For the most part, we don’t want or need whatever the infomercials try to sell us. We don’t agree with the conspiracy theories that may be promulgated by certain radio shows. Disclaimers warn us: this probably isn’t worth your time.

Except that the very fact that the media are presenting these programs means that they find something useful—positive, even—in what they’re warning us against. Granted, in the negative examples I’ve given, the rewards for the media are monetary, either directly as in the case of infomercials or through ad revenue generated by popular contentious radio programs. But this sense of something to be gained holds true for the speakers who challenge or even threaten the tenets of the organizations that allow them to speak.

By allowing the speaker an audience, the organization implies that the topic at hand is one worthy of discussion. In the case of arguments against doctrine, bringing in a speaker may be done with the intention of learning more about the other side in order to better argue against it. And yet, the idea that the argument is one worth having in the first place gives at least a little credence to the other side. In this way, the disclaimer may be an attempt to soften this credit, but it can’t negate it outright.

So should we continue using disclaimers? I think so: they’re a handy shortcut for letting us know what to expect in certain situations. Television station management, for instance, doesn’t necessarily think we should all rush out and buy whatever is flogged in the infomercials—they should provide the disclaimer in cases where not doing so would indicate outright endorsement. A disclaimer is absolutely warranted in this case. That said, we shouldn’t hide behind them. Disclaimers are useful as informative tools, but they can’t absolve us from allowing messages to go out from sources we disagree with on our platforms, even if we do repudiate them.

Which leads me to ask, is this what was happening at the secular humanist gathering? We value exposure to evidence, even if that evidence later proves to be less useful than the one who exposes us to it would like to lead us to believe. In this case, I think two things prompted with the disclaimer: one, that anyone unfamiliar with the functions would be assured that we’re not a homogenous group that holds to all the opinions presented at our functions and, more importantly, two, that we’re up for the challenge of difficult subjects. We’re a pluralistic group. As much as we’re happy to agree on a lot of topics—the need for community, the importance of service, and so on—we’re not going to agree on everything. The talk was not, as is the case with religious groups, followed by a “why this is wrong” talk outlining some sort of doctrine. The disclaimer in this case serves to remind us: the leadership trusts us to make up our own minds on this. We wouldn’t belong to the group, I’m certain, if that weren’t the case.