Ujima: Anansi, Maroons, Health, Poetry

Yesterday’s show on Ujima was a bit scary. Paulette had asked me to host the entire show as she was expecting to be on course. As it turned out, she was around, but I did the whole show anyway despite not knowing anything much about several of my guests.

The first half hour featured two fascinating ladies: Pearl, one of the elders of the Afro-Caribbean community in Bristol; and Dr. Olivette Otele, an academic from The Cameroon who is an expert in the slave trade. I was expecting Pearl to be talking about cricket, but as it turned out she treated us to a lovely folk tale about how Anansi stole the stories from Tiger. Olivette and I talked about several things, including Maroon communities because I knew Nalo Hopkinson would be interested in that.

Next up were my good friend Lesley Mansell from Bristol North NHS Trust, and a young lady called Subitha from Volunteer Bristol. We talked mainly about women’s health issues.

The first hour of the show is available here.

In the second hour I was joined by various poets and performance artists. Isadora Vibes has been on the show before and is always good value. We also had a young lady called China who is (amongst other things) a political activist clown. And we were joined by Jackie from our regular team who is also a poet.

You can listen to the second hour here.

Posted in Feminism, Health, Radio | Leave a comment

Yesterday’s Awards News

While I was out and about yesterday a few pieces of awards news came in. Most importantly, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has won the PEN/Faulkner Award. This is huge for Karen and I’m absolutely delighted for her. My review of the book is here, and my interview with Karen is here.

In addition, DetCon 1 has released the finalists for their Young Readers Awards. Locus has the lists. I really must read Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince, which is picking up awards everywhere. And Paolo Bacigalupi’s Zombie Baseball Beatdown because, hey, baseball!

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No Fooling

I haven’t been in the mood today to write anything funny, so I have passed on the opportunity to do an April Fool post. Given the quality of what I’ve seen elsewhere today, that was probably wise. I don’t want to add to the torrent of unfunny posts.

Things will be quiet tomorrow too. I’m doing radio at Ujima at lunchtime (no book stuff, I’m covering for Paulette who is busy elsewhere). Then I have some meetings, and in the evening it is Book Club day in Bath. I’ll see you Thursday.

Posted in Where's Cheryl? | Leave a comment

Origins of Feminist Transphobia

I thought that for Trans Day of Visibility I should talk a bit about why some older feminists hate trans people with such passion. Many of my younger feminist friends are very confused by this. Of course I am not a TERF, so I can’t actually know how they think, but I was around in the 1970s so I have some idea of the political climate of the time.

The main thing that you need to bear in mind about radical feminists in the 1970s is that many of them believed very much in sexual difference, they just felt that it shouldn’t matter. That is, they believed (and appear to still believe) that humans come in two types: men (who are evil) and women (who are good). When they talked about gender, all that they meant is gendered behavior. That is, they believed that how women dressed, how they behaved, what jobs they were allowed to so, and so on, were all the result of a con trick pulled by men.

An unfortunate aspect of this is that they tended to fetishize masculinity. That is, they assumed that socially coded feminine behavior was fake, and socially coded masculine behavior was real. Consequently they preferred male gendered appearance. The idea that women might enjoy wearing their hair long, having pretty clothes, using make-up and so on was anathema to them. There’s a passage in Joanna Russ’s The Female Man where the heroines express surprise that trans women learn how to beautify themselves, despite being raised by men. I guess Russ was thinking about the issues, even then.

These days we know a lot more about the biology of gender. We know that the default state of humanity is female, and that becoming male is a complex process than happens in the womb through many different biochemical pathways, any or all of which may not perform 100% as expected. Intersex people are real, and transsexuals, despite huge amounts of social pressure to conform, have proved just as resistant to “reparative therapy” as homosexuals. Indeed, one possible definition of a transsexual might be an intersex person whose lack of conformance to socially-defined gender norms is not yet fully understood by biological science.

Of course transsexuals are by no means all of the trans community. Indeed, we are probably a minority, because these days trans has expanded to cover all sorts of aspects of gender non-conformance. We haven’t yet got to the point where men can wear dresses and make-up to work without being laughed at, but women (at least in Western countries) can dress much more as they please. One of the interesting consequences of this is that young women who reject traditional femininity no longer say, “I am a woman, but I won’t behave like that”, they say, “I’m genderqueer, not female” instead. To people who have grown up in a political philosophy that is very much about opposition between males and females, that must seem a terrible betrayal.

A far more serious threat, however, is posed by trans women. Back in the 1970s, being a radical feminist often meant being a lesbian separatist. Creating a safe space for women meant keeping out men, all men, even the male children of your less-radical friends. Anyone who wants to get an idea of some of the debates that have gone on in feminism around the idea of lesbian separatism should read Suzy McKee Charnas’s Holdfast Chronicles, which go into them in depth.

For a radical lesbian separatist, being assigned male at birth is form of Original Sin for which no absolution is possible. The idea that someone can be assigned male and then apparently “become” female is entirely foreign to them. The idea that someone who may even still have a penis can call themselves female and enter “women only” spaces is often described by them in highly charged terms as “sexual assault” or “rape”. That’s what happens when you are wedded to a binary distinction between male and female, and you have built a political philosophy around the idea that “penetration” is evil.

These days we understand that the social pressures to behave in traditionally feminine ways begin the minute that one is assigned female, or self-identifies as female. Obviously the amount of social conditioning that you receive, and the amount of male privilege from which you benefit, can vary a lot depending on when you begin to self-identify as trans, and when you begin to transition, but there is no either/or to it. Speaking personally, I know I studied fashion mags and practiced make-up whenever I could, while I was still at school. My interest in fashion isn’t something I suddenly adopted when I transitioned.

So when a TERF talks about ending the gender binary, she doesn’t mean ending the distinction between men and women, because you can’t be a lesbian separatist if you don’t believe in a fundamental difference between men and women. All she means is putting an end to feminine gendered behavior.

Something else I have noticed TERFs do is accuse trans-supportive people of being homophobic. This will probably sound completely bizarre, especially if you are aware that many trans people are also homosexual. However, it too is rooted in attitudes from the 1970s when the gay and lesbian communities were very much anti-trans. That’s because, back then, encouraged by psychiatrists, people tended to believe that the primary reason for gender transition was sexual. It was assumed that all trans people were in fact homosexuals who were so desperate to be straight that they would mutilate their bodies to allow them to mimic the opposite sex. Amongst gays and lesbians, trans people were assumed to suffer from an extreme form of internalized homophobia.

These days, of course, we know better, or at least some of us do. Scan the comments section of any article about a gay or lesbian trans person and you’ll find at least one person asking “what’s the point”, as if getting to have straight sex was the only possible reason for transition. Of course for lesbian separatists the idea of a lesbian trans woman can be even more horrifying, because it leads to thoughts of people who are “really men” stealing their girlfriends.

All in all, therefore, we have a right mess. I can quite see that if I were a cisgendered radical lesbian separatist I might be very worried about trans people. Nevertheless, I also know very many lovely lesbians who have entirely come around to the idea that being female is not wholly defined by what a doctor says when you are born. I also know lots of fabulous people who understand that the “enemy”, such as there is one, is not men, but Patriarchy.

This is the point where I should bring in CN Lester who, by virtue of identifying neither as male nor as female, has a more interesting perspective on such matters. Read this, it is good.

My hope is that in a generation or so’s time TERFs will die out, because the ideas that gave rise to their attitudes have also died out. Then again, while we continue to live in a Patriarchy, the conditions necessary to create those attitudes will always exist. All I can say is that few people are better equipped top understand the reality of male privilege than those who have given it up. How anyone can be a trans woman and not a fierce feminist is a mystery to me.

Anyway, as I said, there are plenty of lesbian feminists, particularly the younger ones, who are fully supportive of trans people. For today, the good folks at Autostraddle have published a list of ways in which you can be supportive too. Here they are.

Posted in Feminism, Gender | 6 Comments

Farewell, Readmill

The weekend provided that sad news that Readmill, the company who produced by far the best ebook reader, is closing down. Baldur Bjarnason has a few words to say about their fate here. By and large, I think he’s right. Their app was superb, but their business plan appeared to rely on getting people to read socially, and most people don’t want to be discussing what they are reading with random strangers.

From my point of view, the primary benefit of Readmill was that they provided an opportunity for customers at my bookstore to download purchases directly to customers, just as you can do on the Kindle. But of course few of Amazon’s competitors were interested in working with a third party. All of the big stores are trying to replicate the “walled garden” strategy. For small stores such as mine, losing Readmill blows a big whole in the shopping experience.

There is one small ray of hope in that Readmill’s development team has apparently been sold to DropBox. What they will be doing there is unclear, but if they do add ebook reading capabilities to DropBox, and we get a “send to DropBox” button that we can add to stores, that could be very useful. Fingers crossed.

Talking of the bookstore, Shopify has just produced a “reviews” app, so if you buy a book from the store you can leave a review of it. Please consider doing a favor for writers whose work you have enjoyed.

Posted in Ebooks, Wizard's Tower | Leave a comment

New From Aqueduct

Aqueduct Press has sent me three new books for sale. As always with Aqueduct, these look very interesting.

Alien Bootlegger and Other Stories by Rebecca Ore is a collection of feminist SF stories that examines what it means to be alien.

The Stone Boatmen is a fantasy novel by Sarah Tolmie that has a recommendation by Ursula K. Le Guin on the cover.

And the one that is the most interesting to me is New Amazonia: A Foretaste of the Future by Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett. First published in 1889, it is a “sleeper awakes” style of utopian novel. Our heroine finds herself in Ireland in 2472. The country is run by women, but as with most utopias it has aspects to it that will horrify modern day readers. You can learn more about Corbett and her books at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia.

And yes, feminist science fiction was being written in 1889. What’s the betting Mrs. Corbett wouldn’t have been on the feature tables in bookstores either?

Posted in Books, Feminism, Wizard's Tower | Leave a comment

Airships Over Bristol

While many of my friends were busy celebrating the first day of same-sex marriage (congratulations, Mary & Georgina!), the mad, impetuous fools of the BristolCon Foundation were throwing an Airship Ball. There was a Victorian Picnic (complete with cucumber sandwiches, with their crusts cut off). There were Dramatic Presentations of Strange Tales of Derring Do (freely adapted from originals in Airship Shaped and Bristol Fashion). There was Splendiferous Musical Entertainment by the very talented Cauda Pavonis. And of course there were elegant costumes of various types.

Jo has done a full report on the proceedings, which I recommend to you. She has numerous photos of the finery on display. I’m just going to present one of them here. This is Heike Harding-Reyland dressed as one of the fern people from Deborah Walker’s story, “The Lesser Men Have No Language”. I particularly like the baby fern person buds around the skirts. It is very Jeff VanderMeer.

Queenie Greenie

One thing that Jo doesn’t mention in her report is that she and Roz kindly presented me with a gift of cheese, chutney and chocolate truffles as a thank you for making the book happen. It was very sweet of them, and I shall enjoy it immensely. For those interested in such things, the cheeses are Black Bomber by the Snowdonia Cheese Company and Tomi Twym by Caws Cenarth. The former is a mature cheddar, and the latter a mature Caerffili flavored with sun-dried tomatoes, spices and white wine.

Finally, profuse apologies once again to the fine people of Cauda Pavonis because I had to leave before their set to catch a train home. I did hear them doing their sound check and can warmly recommend their music. Here’s a sample.

Posted in Airships, Costuming, Food, Music | Leave a comment

Janet Mock at Google

I should probably do a bit more trans stuff than usual here as there is supposedly an International Trans Day of Visibility on March 31st. Thankfully, rather than have to write anything myself, I can always rely on Janet Mock be to doing something awesome somewhere that I can point you at.

The video below is of Janet’s recent appearance on the Google campus. I’m hugely impressed that she rates highly enough to be invited to speak there. It is a great interview too. It lasts just under 40 minutes.

I’d like to add a few brief comments on the question Janet was asked about not being obviously trans (which is what that young man was asking, even if he was polite enough not to do so quite so baldly). Like Janet, I don’t feel the need to go around telling everyone I meet that I’m trans. They can find out easily enough if they want to. I don’t go around telling people that I’m Welsh, or a science fiction reader, either. Partly that’s because those things aren’t relevant to most of my day-to-day interactions with people. But also, the general public’s knowledge of trans folk is shockingly poor, and most of it nonsense they have picked up from the media. It isn’t something you would volunteer, believe me. Sometimes you need a rest from having to educate people.

Posted in Gender | 3 Comments

Drowning in Aether

Aether - CN Lester
The cover art for CN Lester’s new album, Aether, shows CN underwater in various ways. The symbolism is apt. Aether is one of those albums where you want to turn all the lights off and just let the music wash over you. You can drown in it.

Those of you who already own CN’s debut album, Ashes, will be pleased to hear that Aether is much in the same vein, a collection of achingly melodic songs accompanied primarily by CN’s haunting piano playing. The new album, however, has a sharper edge provided by additional instrumentation — electric guitar and various bits of percussion, as far as I’ve been able to make out — played by CN’s producer, Jack Byrne. The basic feel is the same, however. If you loved Ashes (and I do), you will love Aether too.

Most of the eight songs on the album are CN’s own compositions. My current favorite is “Anonymous” because I think it makes best use of CN’s incredible (opera-trained) voice. There is also one cover version, and had you asked me to guess in advance who CN might choose to cover I would never in a million years have guessed Buffy Sainte Marie. “Cod’ine”, on the other hand, is a very CN song, and it works brilliantly in their inimitable style.

Talking of cover versions, CN has also done a cover of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” as a trailer for the album. It is not actually on the album, but you can listen to it or download an MP3 below.

I’m not really competent to do a proper music review, but if there’s one on So So Gay that should fit the bill if you want such a thing.

The album is available on Amazon and iTunes as an MP3 download. This is the point where I tell you smugly that you really should have backed the crowdfunding campaign for the album, because I have both a physical CD and wav copies of the songs. Copies of the CD will be available from CN whenever they play live gigs, and I note that they’ll be in Bristol on May 17th, of which more nearer the time when tickets are available.

More information is available from CN’s website, but what I recommend you do is listen to this podcast of the interview I did with CN on Ujima last month. It contains some fascinating discussion of gender bending in opera, and the world’s first woman opera composer, and CN talking about their career in trans activism. CN has kindly given me permission to include the two tracks from Ashes that we played during the show (which I have patched in direct from the album download for best quality).

One of the things we discuss in the interview is the Welsh National Opera’s Fallen Women season. They’ll be at the Bristol Hippodrome in April performing Puccini’s Manon Lescaut on Friday 11th and Verdi’s La Traviata on Saturday 12th.

Posted in Gender, Music, Radio | 1 Comment

Today on Ujima: Media Diversity & Airships

I’m delighted to report that the Women’s Outlook show has been back on air today. That was a great relief to all concerned.

Today’s show was mainly about media diversity issues. That was specifically with respect to women, but we did also cover race issues and trans & intersex issues. A whole hour and a half was devoted to this, with a rotating list of guests in the studio:

  • Darryl Bullock, owner of The Spark
  • Christina Zaba from the National Union of Journalists
  • Mike Jempson from Mediawise
  • Tim Pemberton, Managing Editor of BBC Radio Bristol (who is black – yay Bristol!)
  • Paul Hassan, one of the Ujima Directors

Paulette hosted the first hour, and I did the final half hour of this bit. We covered a lot of different issues. Here are a few things worthy of note.

One of the best points made all show was when Christina noted that with access to education getting so much more expensive media diversity is likely to go down, not up.

I’m very pleased that Mediawise is producing a handbook on LGBTQI issues (I understand that Christine Burns is involved). Personally I’m prepared to allow journalists a fair amount of slack, and am happy to do education. (I have a lot of sympathy with this piece from today’s HuffPo, though I am sure that Piers Morgan, and even more so Caleb Hannan, knew exactly what they were doing). Of course it is often the people who think they are progressive who have the most to learn. Anyone care to tell me what Darryl got wrong?

I’m also very keen to learn more about The Bristol Cable. Their workshops look great.

Tim was very impressive. He’s very corporate, of course, but he knows the right things to say.

I got to mention things like the VIDA Count and the lack of SF&F by women in Waterstones.

For the final half hour I had Roz and Jo in the studio to talk about Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion. Fun was had.

Paulette’s not as keen on music as me, especially as we had so many high profile guests to talk to, but we did manage to get some in. Here’s the playlist.

  • Lady Gaga – Paparazzi
  • Michael Jackson – Leave Me Alone
  • Steely Dan – Barrytown
  • Don Henley – Dirty Laundry
  • Amanda Palmer – Leeds United (because I’m not allowed to play Map of Tasmania)
  • Led Zeppelin – Whole Lot of Love

You can listen to the show via our Listen Again feature. The first hour is here, and the second hour here.

Posted in Airships, Feminism, Journalism, Radio | Leave a comment

Relative Reviewing

Yesterday Strange Horizons posted a number of articles on the subject of “Reviewing the Other”. The lead piece is this one by Nisi Shawl. I suspect that a lot of reviewers will skim or skip it on the assumption that it doesn’t apply to them. This would be wrong.

I’m not going to address Nisi’s contention that it is a good thing to seek out books by writers from marginalized groups to review. I happen to agree with her, but whether we are correct in that assumption or not is irrelevant to the fact that what she has to say actually applies to all reviewing.

Back when I first started reviewing, I learned that I was supposed to be impersonal and objective. No one would be interested in my personal reactions to a book, what they wanted to know was whether it was any good or not, and I needed to make that assessment impartially.

The more reviewing I did, the more I came to realize that objective reviewing was a load of hogwash. That in fact my liking a particular book often meant little more than, say, my liking a particular dress because the cut and color happened to suit me.

There are standards that you can apply, of course. You can’t hang around a lot with authors without picking up an appreciation of the craft. You learn to tell who has a mastery of words, and who just dumps them on a page as quickly as possible. You learn who constructs intricate plots, and whose books meander aimlessly. You learn whose characters will tug at your heartstrings, and whose are cliches and stereotypes.

Even that, however, won’t save you from readers. If I were to quote some magnificent piece of Cat Valente prose in a review, I am pretty sure that somewhere there will be a reader who will think me an utter fucking moron for praising what he sees as a steaming shitpile of overblown, pretentious intellectual wankery, and will want to tell me so. What he’ll mean by that, of course, is that Cat’s prose isn’t to his taste, and my championing of it is such a gross insult to his ego that he is moved to violence, and least in language.

More generally, there are types of book that I like, and types that I don’t. I once mentioned that I didn’t review military SF in Emerald City because I didn’t much care for it and didn’t think it would be fair of me to do so. I got email calling me a bigot. I don’t much like romance either, though I appear to have ruffled fewer feathers over that.

When Nisi talks about reviewing books originating from cultures other than your own, she gives the following list of questions you should ask yourself:

  • What was this book trying to do?
  • Who was the book’s intended audience?
  • How did I relate to that audience?
  • How did I relate to authors/editors?

My contention is that those rules hold good no matter what book you are reviewing. The intended audience for a YA romance is very different from the audience for hard SF, is very different from the audience for historical mysteries. Which is not to say that the same person can’t enjoy all three types of book, just that they are trying to do different things and not everyone has hugely catholic tastes.

We all tend to laugh at Amazon reviews when the reviewer clearly hasn’t understood the book at all, but a supposedly objective review written by someone who clearly has no sympathy for or interest in the type of book he’s reading can be just as bad. And yes, in that category I do include male reviewers who approach books by women from the starting assumption that they won’t be any good, and are therefore looking for faults from the first page.

Nisi is quite right in saying that books by people from other cultures may be doing very clever things that we don’t notice because we lack the cultural reference frame to spot and understand them. Books by people like Karen Lord and Sofia Samatar don’t work for me in the same way that books by, say, Liz Hand or Seanan McGuire do. But, as Samuel Delany says in his companion article to Nisi’s piece, “Look, we are all ethnocentric. There’s no way we can escape it because we are all born into an ethnos from which we learn how to live.” The only major difference is that members of marginalized groups are generally forced to learn to appreciate works produced by the dominant local culture. So girls have to read books by men in school, whereas boys can often avoid books by women; and people of color in white-majority countries have to read books by white people in school, but may never see books by people from their own culture except at home.

Learning to appreciate books by, say, African women, or Chinese men, might seem a little daunting. But there are plenty of little steps we can take. We can read outside our favorite subgenres, read books by people of different genders, read books intended for readers of different age groups. The more we stretch our reading habits, the easier it becomes, and soon reading outside of our own culture doesn’t seem so challenging after all. We’ll also write better reviews as a result.

Posted in Reviewing | 2 Comments

Potential Good News For Bookstore Customers

One of the things that has hugely irritated UK-based ebook stores is that, while they have been required to charge 20% VAT on all purchases, multi-national companies such as Apple and Amazon have been basing their European operations in places like Luxembourg where VAT on ebooks is much lower. In order to remain competitive, UK-based stores such as Waterstones (and presumably the Robot Trading Company) have had to swallow the additional tax that they had to pay.

That should now end. As per this report, George Osborne has actually done something to close a tax loophole. In theory, anyone selling ebooks in the UK will soon have to charge UK rates of VAT. I say “in theory” because “soon” happens to be from January 1st, 2015, which leaves Apple and Amazon plenty of time to find a new loophole, or to bribe the government to reverse the decision, but at least it is planned.

Ideally, of course, ebooks should be zero-rate for VAT, just like paper books are. And doubtless this ruling will lead to yet more complaints that ebooks are over priced, and that authors are raking in huge profits (because it is always easier to blame authors than faceless corporations). However, there is potential good news for Wizard’s Tower Books customers.

You see, we are small enough to not have to register for VAT. This costs me a bit of money, but saves me a huge amount of time doing VAT accounts and allows me to offer books for sale without charging VAT. As the EU has recently ruled that the “most favored nation” clauses, used by the likes of Amazon and Apple to prevent other companies undercutting them, are anti-competitive, I should be able to offer books rather more cheaply than you can buy them on Amazon.

From Jan. 1st, 2015. Assuming nothing changes before then.

Posted in Ebooks, Wizard's Tower | 2 Comments

Galactic Suburbia Award

A new episode of Galactic Suburbia went live yesterday. It contained the results of this year’s Galactic Suburbia Award “for activism and/or communication that advances the feminist conversation in the field of speculative fiction.” I was delighted to see that my post, “The Rise and Fall of Grimpink”, made the short list. There are lots of other very fine things listed, and links to all of them are available. Do go and have a read. And a listen, of course.

Huge thanks as ever to Alex, Alisa and Tansy for running this award and for noticing what I do here.

Posted in Feminism | Leave a comment

OK Australia, This Means War

Forget the cricket. That’s just sport, after all. And us Poms seem to rather enjoy losing (though we much prefer losing to West Indies). No, this is something much more serious: whisky.

Last week an Australian whisky was named the best single malt whisky in the world.

Huge congratulations to the Sullivan’s Cove company. I’d say I was looking forward to trying it, but since the Sydney Morning Herald trumpeted the news my friends in Australia tell me that bottles have vanished from the shelves (mostly to re-appear soon after on eBay).

By the way, SMH, I’m afraid I can no longer read the phrase, “puts Tasmania on the map”, without collapsing into giggles.

Scotland: I hope you will step up to the plate here. I entirely understand that jettisoning the embarrassing English people that you so foolishly annexed in 1603 is taking up a lot of your time, but surely this stain on your national honor cannot go unavenged? Being beaten by the Japanese is one thing, but by Australians, really?

Posted in Australia, Whisky | 1 Comment

Now Hear This

CN Lester’s new album, Aether, launches tomorrow in London. CN has issued one track for free as a taster. You are probably all familiar with Billy Idol’s song, “White Wedding”, but you have never heard it anything like this.

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New Airship Review

A review of Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion has appeared on LibraryThing. It is by clfisha, who admits to knowing one of the authors very well. Here’s a brief snippet that made me very happy:

I was very taken with mechanical elephants and soul stealing in a story by John Hawkes-Reed, a tale that not only had great characters but also the best opening line, “I was hiding inside my father’s test elephant when they came looking for me.”

You can read the whole thing here.

Posted in Airships, Books, Wizard's Tower | Leave a comment

Vale, Lucius Shepard

As reported in various places, Lucius Shepard died today. I’ve said many times before that I am crap at writing obituaries, but I can reprint the following review of Shepard’s short collection, Two Trains Running. The original appeared in Emerald City #106, dated June 2004.

Riding the Rails

Lucius Shepard is, I think, a very brave man. There are a lot of dubious things that journalists have to do in order to get stories. I’m not entirely sure I’d want to be in Iraq right now. But I think I would rather be there than do what Shepard did. He was contracted by a magazine to do a story on an organization called the FTRA (Freight Train Riders of America). Talk to certain law enforcement officers and you will be told that this is a well-organized clandestine operation specializing in drug running with close links to the mafia. In actuality they turned out to be more like a dissolute and geographically dispersed biker gang, with neither the money nor the ability to stay sober for short periods that are required to own and maintain a bike. Two things are clear, however. Firstly, in order to gain their confidence and get them to talk to him, Shepard had to be prepared to get as drunk and stoned as the hoboes themselves. And secondly, at any moment one of them was liable to have turned nasty and tried to kill him.

Still, a story is a story, and Shepard duly produced his. What is more, being a writer as well as a journalist, he also produced two more stories, of the fictional type. The whole collection is now available in a single volume from Golden Gryphon called Two Trains Running. And very good it is too.

The non-fiction piece is a fascinating study of a little-known part of American life. Particularly bizarre is the police officer from Spokane who is convinced that the FTRA is the biggest conspiracy since the Rosicrucians and Mafia decided to hook up with Fu Manchu. Having been to Spokane (and briefly to its even less pleasant neighbor, Boise), I can understand this. There are parts of America that would breath a huge sigh of relief if there was a military coup because at last they would be able to get to grips with the fiendish commie subversives in their midst. But the hoboes are fascinating too, particularly the way that they invent new identities for themselves when they begin to ride the rails, as if to protect the core of their being from the person that they must become in order to survive.

As for the fiction, “Over Yonder”, by far the longer piece, won the Theodore Sturgeon Award for the best short fiction of 2002 I am at a loss to know how it didn’t even appear on the Hugo nomination long list. The other piece, “Jailbait”, is much shorter and unpublished. Both of them are fantasy, of a sort, but of course there’s not an elf in sight. Shepard is a great writer. What more can I say?

Two Trains Running – Lucius Shepard – Golden Gryphon – hardcover

Posted in Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Psychology, Animals and the Evolution of Patriarchy

Karen Joy Fowler was in Bristol last night promoting her latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which has just launched in the UK. As ever, Karen had a lot of interesting things to say, and consequently my thoughts rambled over a number of issues.

One of the big lessons of the book is how little psychologists knew back in the 20th Century, and how arrogant they were about what little knowledge they had. Pavlov was able to train dogs. Everything else was assumed to flow from there. The novel is, in a large part, about a psychology experiment that went disastrously wrong. And yet it is also about the malleability of memory — something that we now understand to be very real.

What struck me, listening in the audience is that there are things we can do to each other very easily, such as instill false memories, but there are others that prove hugely intractable. For example, we are unable to “cure” people of their sexuality or gender identity, despite the huge amounts of effort that has been poured into such endeavors, and the strong social desire to make such things possible. Why are some forms of what we rather blithely call “brainwashing” so much easier than we thought, and others so much more difficult?

I asked Karen for her views, and she said she thought it was all about working with what was there. Pavlov trained dogs to do things using behaviors that were natural to dogs (slobbering). The same techniques might have been much less effective had he tried to get the dogs to do things that dogs don’t normally do. She also talked about educational theories that suggest that children’s personalities are fixed at birth. You can teach kids to do all sorts of things, but training a naturally shy kid to be outgoing, or a naturally pessimistic kid to be more optimistic, is very hard.

The conversation also strayed onto issues of animal behavior, and Karen noted that chimpanzee society is strongly patriarchal and very violent. We now know that, in the wild, chimpanzee groups engage in wars of aggression against other chimp groups, something we once thought only humans did to each other. In contrast, bonobo society is matriarchal, and while violence does occur, is it much less prevalent than in chimp society. Apparently we’d see a lot more bonobos in zoos were it not for their fondness for casual sex, which is apparently deemed inappropriate for family viewing.

Now chimps and bonobos are as close as you can get to humans in evolutionary terms. Socially speaking, we seem to be rather closer to chimps than bonobos (though Kevin tells me that genetically it is the other way around). At some point in evolutionary history all three species probably had a common ancestor. So there is an open question as to whether susceptibility to patriarchy is something that is hardwired into human and chimp behavior, or something that we developed as an evolutionary response at some point in the past, and which has become fossilized in our social behavior, handed down from parents to children.

This also reminds me or Mary Beard’s recent London Review of Books lecture on The Public Voice of Women. Mary, being a classicist, made a point of tracing the exclusion of women from political discourse back to Greece and Rome, and for the UK that’s a fair point. But it occurred to me that similarly gendered attitudes are common in societies that owe very little to the classical world. I’ve been told that my voice, being somewhat deeper than that of an average woman, is good for radio because it carries an air of authority. Again, how much of that is hardwired, and how much something we pick up as children?

Finally, Karen talked about our relationship with animals. In particular she noted that small babies are given animal toys, and most books for children feature anthropomorphized animals as characters. Yet at some point we are supposed to “grow out of” such ideas, and to see animals as lesser beings. Why do we do this? Is it some part of how we learn to be those arrogant and ruthless creatures called humans? Is it just a behavior we have fallen into and have lost the original rationale for? It is certainly very odd.

All that from an hour of an author chatting about her work. I do so love listening to clever science fiction writers.

Posted in Feminism, Nature, Science | 2 Comments

Back On Air Monday @UjimaRadio

Ujima Radio chairman, Roger Griffith, has posted on Facebook that the station will be back on air on Monday (March 24th). Thanks are due to The Utilities Warehouse for being willing to work with us to get power restored as quickly as possible, to Mayor George Ferguson for his personal intervention in the case, and of course to all of you lot for asking George for help on our behalf. Well done, people!

Wednesday’s show will be mainly a Women And The Media special. Paulette has arranged for a number of special guests including Christina Zaba, who looks very interesting. For the final half hour, from 13:30 to 14:00, we’ll be joined by Jo Hall and Roz Clarke who will talk about Airship Shape and Bristol Fashion.

Posted in Books, Journalism, Radio, Wizard's Tower | Leave a comment

A Mad, Mad World

Last night much of my Twitter feed was full of people (mostly gay men) discussing Channel 4′s expose of reparative therapy treatments (otherwise known as “gay cures”). A few people had horror stories to tell about aversion therapy, a form of “cure” that basically involves torturing people until they agree to say they are not gay any more. Thankfully most people in the UK these days accept that being homosexual is not a mental illness and cannot be cured.

Meanwhile another substantial part of my feed was taken up with a furious argument between trans people and white, cis feminists (all of them proudly left wing). The feminists were insisting that any trans person who was unwilling to “debate” the ideas that being trans is indeed a mental illness, and that gender reassignment should be banned in favor of reparative therapy, was guilty of “censorship” and was “violently anti-free-speech”. I note that I put debate in scare quotes because it is rather difficult to have a debate about something when the other side’s position is that you are insane and that nothing you say about yourself can be believed.

White feminists, eh? Thank goodness for women of color. People like Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks are very happy to share sistership with trans women. I can’t think of a single high profile cis white feminist in the UK who isn’t a former sex worker of whom I could say the same.

Laverne Cox

Posted in Feminism, Gender | Leave a comment