As best as I can gather from social media, you folks are spending the holiday weekend either at Eastercon, at Norwescon, or at both. (Or possibly you are on Facebook complaining about how much you hate online conventions.) I’m not at any of these, mainly because I’m on call for jury service at the moment and this weekend is one time that I know I can get a bunch of work done without having to worry about being called away. However, I did make an exception for Relampeio, because when you get invited to be a guest at a convention in Brazil you obviously say yes.
As a result, last night I spent a couple of hours online with some fabulous people, and had a great conversation. We did a panel titled, Dissident Bodies in Science Fiction, which covered all sorts of ways in which a body can be viewed as less than human, or as inhuman.
With me on the panel were Samuel Muca, who is a podcaster, literary critic and eco-Socialist activist. He’s also blind. Thiago Ambrósio Lage is a lecturer in biotechnology, a writer, and proudly gay. And Járede Oliver is a lecturer in Social Anthropology. We had a great chat, and it is available for reply on YouTube.
The introduction and farewell are in Portuguese, but the rest of the panel is in English. I understand that that was live translation going on, but we were backstage in StreamYard so we didn’t get to see any of that.
And if you enjoyed that, why not check out the rest of the Relampeio feed, which includes events with Chen Qiufan and Nisi Shawl, plus one this evening with Amal El-Mohtar.
At long last the final piece of my LGBT+ History Month tour has dropped into place. This is the video interview I did with Dan Vo for the National Galleries Scotland exhibition on Ray Harryhausen. The basic idea is that each of Dan’s interviewees would pick a Harryhausen creature and explain how it connected to queer history. My choice was Medusa, and the edited interview is now available to view.
The most obvious thing about it is that I am still really bad at TV and should not be let anywhere near a camera, but at least I have a decent background. I’m pleased to have given a supporting role to Ifor the Dragon.
Also the story is good. There’s a lot in there about African history and Amazons. I also manage to reference Sandy Stone and Dorothea Smartt. If you want to know what they have to do with Medusa, you need to watch the interview.
What didn’t make it into the final cut was my plug for Liz Gloyn’s book, Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture. I did try, Liz. If you want to know why I was plugging it, check out my review on Salon Futura.
My thanks once again to Dan, and to National Galleries Scotland, for inviting me to be part of this series. And now, without further ado, here is the show:
One of the less expected effects of the pandemic is that women have become somewhat more willing to speak out about sexual abuse by men. We’ve had a number of high profile cases in the SF&F community, but up until recently nothing involving people I knew well.
That has now changed. Over the past week or two some horrendous stories have come to light regarding Alan Beatts, the owner of Borderlands Books in San Francisco. This is a shop that I spent a lot of money in when I lived in the Bay Area. The store was also home to many events involving author friends of mine, and it supported the SF in SF readings series, which I have been involved with since it started.
I’m not going to say any more about the stories. They are some of the worst I’ve heard. If you want to know, a local paper has a report.
What I will say is that I am angry.
I’m angry because while this sort of thing is happening, a bunch of self-styled feminists are wasting their time accusing me, and people like me, of being sexual predators rather than focussing on the real dangers.
I’m angry because we have very few specialist SF&F bookstores available and this looks like depriving us of one more.
I’m angry because a whole lot of good people work at that store, some of whom are friends of mine, and they must now be worried about their jobs.
But mostly I’m angry because men continue to try to get away with this shit. And often they do. What do we have to do to put an end to this?
Due to the ongoing health crisis, lots of charities are reaching out for addiitonal support. One campaign that has just been brought to my attention is for SARSAS, the local rape crisis centre for Bristol and surrounding regions (the acronym is Somerset & Avon, but of course Avon no longer exists as a county).
SARSAS is looking to raise £15,000 through the Aviva Community Fund. As to what the money will be used for, they tell me:
There are currently 360 women and girls on their waiting list for support
On average they are receiving 90 new referrals each month — that’s 3 referrals every day
In some areas the estimated waiting time is nearly four years…
Much of the problem is that government doesn’t care about women’s issues, and local councils are being squeezed for cash so that they can’t help even if they want to. Another major problem is that it is now so hard to obtain a prosecution for rape in this country that the Crown Prosecution Service is starting to decline to progress cases because it would be a waste of money. Sexual predators know that they can get away with their crimes, and that emboldens them.
SARSAS are great folks. I have done training for them on several occasions. As a member of the Women’s Equality Party I am, of course, dedicated to ending violence against women and girls. And as I woman I am only too aware of the need. Please help if you can.
On Tuesday next week (12:30 UK time) I will be a guest on a webinar run by Benefex, a company that helps employers make better use of their employees by treating them better. Given the current atmosphere in the UK, I have no doubt that it will be highly contentious. It might even get me on the front page of The Times again. We shall see.
Hmm, yes, I was going to write about stuff. But I got distracted by an online convention. Which I think is a good thing. I love how people are suddenly willing to try all sorts of solutions to not being able to meet in person.
My main news from today is that I have noticed that after 10 weeks in Lockdown I am starting to get distinctly larger. As I don’t want to have to buy a new wardrobe, I have decided that I ought to start taking my government-mandated daily exercise. Besides, tomorrow the Women’s Equality Party is staging a socially-distanced protest march in support of carers and care workers. I need to go out and walk for that, so I got some practice in today. Somewhat to my suprise, my legs remembered how to walk.
I think that’s enough excitement for one day without looking at the news.
In case you missed the announcement on Twitter, yes, the #GiveItUp125 challenge is now underway. I am in Virtual Italy, and I’ll be posting Italian content on various social media throughout the day. There will be music, tourism, books, and of course food. Here, in best Blue Peter tradition, is one that I prepared earlier.
If you like what I’m doing here, please consider donating to One25 who are doing amazing work in Bristol, putting themselves at risk to help those who have nothing.
As you may have noticed, I reached my initial fundraising goal of £250 yesterday. It is great to know that I have something in the bank before I have produced anything. From tomorrow, however, the content should start streaming out, and that means plenty of opportunities to get people to contribute. So I have raised the target to £750.
Now that may seem a lot, but we are 33% of the way there already. And last year I raised £600, so I’m sure we can do it.
You may be wondering why there is a picture of bananas on this post. Well, last year Meghan & Harry Sussex made a Royal Visit to One25 (when they were doing such things) and Meghan decided to write “positive affirmations” on some of the bananas in the centre. That got all over the news. The folks at One25 have been a bit obsessed with bananas ever since, and several of them will be doing this year’s challenge dressed as a banana.
I do not have a banana suit.
But I have bananas. Six of them: one for each day of the challenge. So each day I will be channeling my inner (ex-)princess and writing a message on one (before eating it). For this I need your help. Each day I will be asking for ideas for that day’s message. It needs to be something short enough to fit on a banana, and sufficiently clean to be tweeted out. Tweet me ideas with the hashtag #GoBanana.
I’m delighted to announce that for the California and Canada legs of my tour I will be joined by the wonderful Nalo Hopkinson. Nalo currently lives near Los Angeles, but still calls Toronto home. Tune in to find out what she thinks of both cities.
And finally, when should you do that? Here’s the schedule:
Friday 15th: Italy
Saturday 16th: California
Sunday 17th: Australia
Monday 18th: Finland
Tuesday 19th: Canada
Wednesday 20th: France
Content will roll out here, on YouTube and on Twitter through each day. Enjoy!
My first guests on today’s show were Amy & Lu from One25. Amy explained why the women that One25 helps cannot simply stop doing sex work during the pandemic. Most of them don’t even have homes, let alone any other source of income. Lu then chimined in with details of this year’s fundraiser. I’m delighted to see that I’m now up to 78% of my initial target. What I’d love to see is us hitting 100% by launch time on Friday, and then I can set a new target for the 6 days of the campaign.
Next up was my new academic pal, Maria Gerolemou from the University of Exeter. Like me, Maria as a passion for ancient automata. Those of you who have heard my “Prehistory of Robotics” talk will have a good idea of what to expect. The rest of you, prepare to be astonished.
Finally I welcomed back Subitha from CASS to talk about two new mental health campaigns. You can find out more about the #SleepSoundBristol and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek projects at the CASS website. And do please write in to tell them about someone who has been kind to you.
This week’s show also includes tributes to two tiny giants of the music business who sadly left us in the past week. They were Millie Small, who hit #2 on both sides of the Atlantic in 1964 with “My Boy Lollipop”, and Little Richard without whom the likes of Prince and Elton John would have been very different musicians.
I’m pleased to report that my fundraiser is now more than 33% towards its target. I’m still hoping that we can get to 100% before the official launch, but obviously some people will be waiting to see what I actually produce.
The good news is that I have been doing stuff in advance. I’ve been going through old photos, playing with cookery, and recording chats with Kevin. The latter have been going really well, and that has influenced my decision as to which countries to pick for the final two. They will be…drumroll…
Canada and France
The main reason for this is that they are both countries that Kevin and I have visited, both together and individually. That means we’ll be able to do good chats. It also means that I get to talk about the Museum of Cartoon Art in Epinal, which is awesome.
I expect to be able to announce another guest who has lived in both California and Canada tomorrow.
In the meantime, please pledge. The folks at One25 are hoping to reach £15,000 in total. Obviously there are lots of other people participating as well as me, but it would be good to make a dent in that.
Today’s show began with an hour-long chat with Dr. Donna Drucker who has recently written a great little book on the history of contraception. Our conversation goes all the way from herbal rememdies to cybersex.
Some of you will remember that last year I walked 125 miles to raise money for the Bristol charity, One25. Well, they are looking for help again this year, and this time the challenge is to give something up for 125 hours. Thinking of something was a challenge in itself because we’ve been forced to give up so much thanks to the pandemic, but I have an idea I think that you’ll enjoy. The image above is a clue. More on that later, but first, why One25?
One25 are a charity who work directly with street sex-working women to provide outreach, casework and essential resources for their future. 80% of women who street sex-work are homeless. In the strangest of times we now find ourselves in, One25 remain focused on keeping contact with women as much as possible and continuing to deliver services. They are doing whatever they can to make sure that some of Bristol’s most vulnerable women know that they are loved and not alone.
UK-based readers might remember that last year the Sussexes visited One25 and Meghan wrote on some bananas.
As a trans woman I am painfully aware that sex work could easily have been part of my life. Thanks to a great deal of luck and Kevin’s love, I managed to avoid that, but numerous people didn’t. High profile trans women such as Roz Kaveney and Janet Mock have written movingly about their experiences in the sex trade. Each year, when I help read the names of the departed at the Trans Day of Remembrance ceremony, I am painfully aware that many of those women died because they had no choice but to sell their bodies, and therefore had to make themselves vulnerable.
I have done several sessions of trans awareness training for One25 staff and have been very impressed by their openness and willingness to provide support to whoever needs it.
So, what’s the plan? Well, for the duration of the fundraiser, 1:00pm on May 15th to 6:00pm on May 20th, I am giving up living in the UK. I’ve had enough of this staying at home lark, and by the magic of the internet I am going to travel the world. And I’m inviting you to come with me. For each of the 6 days I will visit a different country. I will check out the tourist spots, talk to local people, try the local food, play the local music and so on. You will be able to follow it all on social media.
I have four of the six countries inked in. Australia and California are obvious choices as I have lived in both countries. Finland is next as I have been there so often. I’m going to do Italy because it gives me an opportunity to talk about Romans (again). The other two are as yet undecided. Croatia and Canada are obvious picks as I’ve been to each of them several times, but I’m open to persuasion to go somewhere else. It needs to be somwhere I can do a decent job of visiting. Suggest somewhere.
If you happen to live in one of those countries and would like to help by suggesting places to visit, things to eat, or music to play I would be very grateful. If you’d like to do an interview I would be over the moon. Do let me know.
In honour of Lesbian Visibility Week I thought I would do a post about lesbianism in Ancient Rome. There are, of course, numerous examples of men having sex with men in Roman literature. There are a lot fewer examples of women having sex with women. That’s in no small part because almost all of the surviving Roman literature was written by men. But the women are there, of you know where to look.
The first thing to note is that sexuality wasn’t a matter of identity for Romans the way it is for us. Sex was something that you did, not something that you were. For Roman men it was far more important to know whether you were penetrating or being penetrated than who you were doing it with. In recognition of that there were at least three different words for effeminate men, though these could often refer to social behavior rather than sexual habits.
For women there was one word, “tribade”. It meant someone who rubs. It isn’t clear whether the Romans actually understood this as having sex, because no penises were involved, but it was certainly something the women might do.
Of course women might have used dildos. They certainly existed at least as far back as Classical Greece. The playwright, Aristophanes, mentions them in his Lysistrata. This is a play about how the women of Athens go on a sex strike to try to bring an end to the Peloponnesian War. It includes mention of an “olisbos” which is made of leather and is used by women when there are no men available.
Mention of Greece reminds us that the Romans would have been familiar with the legends of the Amazons. In an all-female society, women having sex with women would be expected. They would have believed that the Amazons were real as well. After all, they had contact with women warriors of the Scythians who lived north of the Black Sea, with the dark-sinned warrior queens of the city of Meroë south of Egypt, and with the warrior queens of Britannia.
The Romans were also very familiar with the poetry of Sappho of Lesbos. Far more of her work would have been available to them than survives today. In Hadrian’s time, Greek culture was hugely fashionable and it became a thing for upper class women to write poetry “in the style of Sappho”. Sadly this meant writing in Greek and using the same grammatical forms as Sappho. It would be like us writing sonnets using Shakespearean English. It did not mean content.
On the other hand, we know about this at least in part because of some women’s writing that has survived. Julia Balbilla and Claudia Damo were two wealthy Roman women who were part of the entourage of Hadrian’s wife, Vibia Sabina. Their poems have survived because they wrote them (or more likely had them written by slaves) on a rather large statue of Amenhotep III during an Imperial tour of Egypt. Hadrian and his wife had married for political reasons when they were very young and by this time hated each other. Hadrian apparently had no interest in sex with women. It is rumoured that Vibia Sabina had an affair with the historian, Suetonius, but it wouldn’t be surprising, given how much Sappho they were reading, if at least some of the ladies of her court became close to each other.
One place were women might have gathered to have sex with each other is in meetings of mystery cults. These were a strange phenomenon of Roman religious life that we might call secret societies, but which had as their excuse the worship of particular gods. Some mystery cults were more like the Freemasons, which a man might join in the hope of befriending the rich and powerful. Others seems to have been excuses for orgies. Roman men were deeply suspicious of mystery cults that catered to women, on the not unreasonable basis that their wives might be sneaking off to have sex with other people at their meetings. The fresco at the top of this post is from Pompeii and is believed to depict a meeting of a mystery cult.
Some of our most obvious references to lesbian Romans come in works of fiction. The poet Martial wrote about a woman called Philaenis whom, he says, has sex with both boys and girls, allegedly averaging 11 girls a day. Philaenis is also the supposed name of the author of a legendary Greek sex manual, so if this is a real person that Martial is talking about he has probably used a pseudonym, and may even have made her up. However, even if he is exaggerating for effect, it is certainly something that he thinks a woman might do.
However, by far the best example of love between women in Roman literature comes in The Dialogues of the Courtesans (sometimes called The Mimes of the Courtesans) by Lucian of Samosata. This is a satirical comedy in which high class sex workers tell of entertaining encounters they have had with clients. In one of these Leaina tells of a wealthy person known as Megilla who is a client of hers. Although this person is understood to have been assigned female at birth, he dresses like a man and insists on being called Megillos, which is a Greek equivalent of insisting on male pronouns. He even has a wife, a woman called Demonassa.
We need to bear in mind here that Lucian is a satirist. He’s not averse to making things up. He did, after all, write a book about people traveling to the Moon. So while Megillos might sound to us like a trans man, there’s no guarantee that he is based on a real person that Lucian knew. This might be another case of exaggerating for effect.
However, the important point here is not whether Megillos is real, but where Lucian has him hail from. Demonassa, his wife, is from Corinth, but Megillos is from the island of Lesbos. I don’t believe that this is an accident. Sappho lived on Lesbos, and Diodorus Siculus tells us that the island was once an Amazon colony. Lucian chose Lesbos, I’m sure, because although the English word “lesbian” only acquired its current meaning in 1890, as far back as the first Century CE the island of Lesbos already had a reputation of being home to women who loved women.
42 is the answer to the question, “how many days in 6 weeks?”. So that’s how long I have been in self-isolation. I did go out twice to get food, but other than that haven’t left home. I’m not missing the outside world much, though having a garden I could sit in would be nice.
Today was spent primarily at a conference for women Classicists (and allies). I gave a short talk which seemed to be well received. And I learned a lot, particularly about doing online teaching. I have felt for some time that you can’t simply replace a classroom lecture with an online one, and it was good to have that confirmed, and to get some tips for doing online teaching better.
It was an interesting experience spending the best part of 7 hours in an online conference. I thought it went very well, though getting people into breakout rooms in Zoom continues to be an unnecesarily complex process.
I also recorded another interview for the new Salon Futura, and I’ve put a loaf in the bread machine. I think that will do for the day. I’m pleased to see that I appear to have just enough flour for one more loaf. Hopefully it will be possible to buy it again next time I go to Tesco.
I don’t know much about what happened in the rest of the world today, though I gather that the government opened a website for testing essential workers for the virus, and it collapsed after a few hours. That is entirley typical.
The results of this year’s Otherwise (formery Tiptree) Award have been announced. The winner is Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. The Honor List is as follows:
“Dreamborn” by Kylie Ariel Bemis
The Book of Flora by Meg Elison
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
Meet Me in the Future by Kameron Hurley
“Of Warps and Wefts” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Elemental Logic series by Laurie J. Marks
The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya
The Deep by Rivers Solomon
I’m not familiar with Emezi’s work at all, but clearly I should be. Nor do I know much about the short fiction (the Hurley and Motoya are both collections). I have reviewed The Calculating Stars and The Deep. I reviewed Fire Logic and Earth Logic back in Emerald City and loved them both. Both books won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award. Now that all four books are out I have been meaning to re-read the entire series, but of course I have no time. Meg Elison won the Philip K Dick Award with The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, the first volume in the trilogy that The Book of Flora concludes. I have The Book of Flora on my TBR pile, and it has just got a boost up towards the top.
I am, of course, delighted to see so many works with trans themes on the list.
A few weeks back Lee Mandelo asked me to contribute to a mind meld thing for Tor.com on how queer SFF has changed over the past decade. I was deeply honoured to be asked, considering that some of the other contributors are Charlie Jane Anders and Yoon Ha Lee. Tor.com has chosen the Trans Day of Visibility to publish the piece. You can read it here.
Here we go again. Today is the day on which trans people all over the world are supposed to stand up and be counted. Already I have seen a flood of posts on social media celebrating the visibility of trans folks. I’m also seeing posts from trans people saying that they are fed up of being visible; that they are scared of being visible. Part of that is because the world has changed dramatically since TDOV was first concieved, but it is also a matter of how we do TDOV.
A little context is in order. TDOV was created because the only international day that the trans community had was the Trans Day of Remembrance. That’s a pretty depressing, if essential, experience, and it is also one many trans people want kept within the community. It is noticeable that anti-trans extremists now deliberately target TDOR in order to provoke offence and, they hope, mental health breakdowns. We needed a much more positive day.
TDOV is supposed to be that day. However, since it has become popular it has started to have the opposite effect that was intended. That, I think, is because in trying to make trans people more visible, it has ended up as an exercise of They Walk Among Us, which makes us seem different and scary.
Now it is important that trans people be visible. I’m certainly not advocating that we go back to the days of having to disappear into the cis population and fearing that your life will be over if you are ever outed. I’ve been through that fear. It isn’t fun. Not can we pretend that we are “just like everyone else”, because clearly we are not, especially those of us who live far outside the gender binary.
What we do need, however, is to be visible for things other than simply being trans. And there’s no reason why we can’t be, because trans people are fucking awesome. We have to be.
What I would like to see today, therefore, is not just trans people being visible, but trans people visibly doing things in addition to existing. That can be the day-to-day work that they do, but it would be even better to see what trans people are doing to help the community through the current health crisis. I’m sure there are loads of great stories out there waiting to be told. I’ll start.
I’m still working with The Diversity Trust, most recently doing an online talk on trans history for an LGBT+ youth group;
Through Wizard’s Tower I am helping authors continue in business when mainstream publishing and bookselling are collapsing around them;
And I’m still doing my radio show for Ujima. The next one will be broadcast tomorrow.
Over to you, trans community. What are you doing that you would like to be visible for?
And cis folks, if you are thinking of doing posts, please stop thinking of trans people as a downtrodden minority that needs saving, and start thinking of us as hidden heroes whose contributions to society should be recognised.
Today’s radio show sat on the cusp between the end of LGBT History Month and the arrival of International Women’s Day. (International Men’s Day is on November 19th, thank you for asking.) I began the show by looking backward and running an interview with my friend and sometime colleague, Dan Vo, that I had recorded in Cardiff over the weekend. Dan is a professional Queerator, that is, someone whose job it is to go around museums and find queer stuff in their collections that they can use to be more LGBT inclusive.
In the second slot I welcomed Rebecca from Watershed who is part of their cinema team. In particular she has been helping put together their International Women’s Day programme which features the Feminista Short Film Festival. There are also some great women-centered feature films coming up. Rebecca is also involved in QueerVision, the Watershed’s regular celebration of queer cinema. There’s a short film festival coming up for that and she’s looking for submissions.
Slot three should have been a feature on drink spiking featuring Andy Bennett from Avon & Somerset Police, but some sort of operational emergency claimed his time and I had to fill in with the chat and extra music. Hopefully we can do that piece another time.
Finally I welcomed Sian and Laura from the Bristol Festival of Women’s Literature. They have loads of great talent lined up for this year’s event, including the very wonderful Juliet Jacques talking about memoir writing. You can find more details of the programme here.
An event of particuar interest to me is the launch party at Spike Island on the 27th as it is being run in conjunction with the wonderful people from Comma Press who are publishing Europa 28, an anthology of writing about the future of Europe by women from all over the continent. It is political essays rather than SF, but these days the one quickly shades into the other. And of course much of the content is translated.
If you missed the show live it will be available through our Listen Again service for a few weeks. Go here to listen.
The playlist for the show was as follows:
Duffy – Rockferry
Tracy Chapman – She’s Got Her Ticket
Selecter – On My Radio
Rihanna – Only Girl in the World
Janet Kay – Silly Games
The Weather Girls – Its Raining Men
Bat for Lashes – Horse and I
Thelma Houston – Don’t Leave Me This Way
Janelle Monáe (feat. Grimes) – Pynk
Aretha Franklin – Until You Come Back
Sian and Laura, this is the famous Monica Sjöö painting that was one of the inspirations for Janelle Monáe’s video for Pynk.
Because I’m going to be in Canada with Kevin for the first part of April, my next show will not be until April 15th.
I was live on Ujima again today. It was a bit of a scramble getting the show together and huge thanks to those guests who came on board yesterday. Also huge thanks to my old pal Valentin who used to run the desk for Paulette back in the day when I was a trainee presenter. As Ben was on holiday this week, Valentin stepped in to help out. Ben messaged me to say he was listening to the show online, which is incredible devotion to duty, and probably means that we had a listener in Kenya this week.
The first hour of the show was devoted to LGBT History Month events in Bristol. First up I was joined by Claire from Aerospace Bristol. They, in conjunction with The Diversity Trust, OutStories Bristol, and South Gloucestershire Council are putting on an event specifically aimed at engineers, and the aerospace industry in particular. The headline speaker is the wonderful Caroline Paige, and I’m particularly looking forward to the panel with the young people from Alphabets who will be discussing what they want from employers in the future. That event is on Saturday. I will be there with both my DT and OSB hats on. Full details are available here.
Next I welcomed back Karen from M Shed, along with Zoltán from Freedom Youth. I’m not curating the M Shed event this year. We’ve turned the whole thing over to the young people, and they have done an amazing job of putting together a programme. You can find details of their event here. It is on Saturday 22nd, and sadly I will be in Salzburg that weekend, but I hope some of you will go along and let me know how it turned out.
We also mentioned two other great events coming up in Bristol this month. The leading civil rights lawyer, Johnathan Cooper, will be at Bristol University Law School on the evening of the 19th to talk about, “Policing Desire: LGBT+ Persecution in the UK, 1970 to 2000”. Tickets are available (for free) here. Also there is the Black Queerness event that we covered in last month’s show. That’s on at the RWA. It is officially sold out, but there’s a wait list that you can get onto here.
The second half of the show began with my being joined by Coral Manton from Bath Spa University. Coral describes herself as a “creative technologist”, which basically means that she gets to do fun things with computers all day and gets paid for it. One of her projects is Women Reclaiming AI, which looks to do something about the sexist bias in electronic personal assistants.
We all know that most of these things (Alexa, Siri, etc.) come with female-coded voices, and that’s because the companies who make them decided (probably after some market research) that customers wanted a subordinate and submissive identity for their personal assistant. (Interestingly SatNavs work the other way: male drivers won’t take instructions from a female-coded voice.) Because these software constructs are maninly created by men, the personalities that they have are not based on real women, but on what men want their female assistants to be like.
This leads us down all sorts of feminist rabbit holes. Most notably, before Coral and her colleagues could create a “real” female personality for an AI, they had to decide what it meant to be a “real” woman. Part of the process has been running workshops in which groups of women get to have input into the process of creating the AI personality.
It turns out that one of the things that they asked for was that the AI would have the right to decline to help every so often. Real women can’t drop everything and help their families whenever they are asked to do so, so artificial women shouldn’t either. That sounded good to me, though I did have visions of Hal 9000 saying, “I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that”; and possibly of Portia from Madeline Ashby’s vN saying, “NO, you will obey ME!”
I could have happily have talked to Coral about this stuff for the whole two hours. Hopefully you find the discussion as interesting as I did.
My final guests were Ali & Loo from some local mental health charities, and Shani, a poet who works with them. Tomorrow is Time to Talk Day, on which people are encouraged to talk about their mental health issues. There’s a whole lot going on in Bristol tomorrow, and you can find links to it all here. I particularly love Loo’s event making pom poms to support the Sunflower Suicide Prevention Project.
The other event that I had to mention is the one coming up at Foyles in Cabot Circus on the evening of the 25th. That will be Emma Newman, Emma Geen, Liz Williams and myself in conversation with Kate Macdonald on the subject of women in science fiction. I understand that it is sold out, but there is probably a wait list. Details here.
You can listen to today’s show via the Ujima Listen Again service here.
The playlist for today’s show was:
Faint of Heart – Tegan & Sara
So Strong – Labi Siffre
Two Old Maids – The Vinyl Closet
Cream – Prince
Come Alive – Janelle Monáe
Are Friends Electric – Tubeway Army
Dock of the Bay – Otis Reading
I Need Somebody to Love Tonight – Sylvester
And in case any of you haven’t seen it, here is the wonderful video for the Tegan & Sara song. Watch carefully and you will spot Jen Richards and Angelica Ross in there as well.
Talking of Angelica, I see that there are rumours that she’ll feature in the Loki TV series. There have also been hints that Sera, one of Marvel’s current openly trans characters, will be in Thor: Love & Thunder. It is tempting to tie the two together, but what I really want to see happen is for Angelica to play Loki alongside Tom Hiddleston, because it won’t be proper Loki without some gender-flipping and it would be awful if they put Tom in drag for that.