Category: rant

Collated tweets on science and fiction

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I ranted this weekend on science in fiction on twitter–thought I’d collate those into a blog post. Warning: minimal editing (that’s why every sentence is around 140 characters ^^).

I’m getting a bit tired of “it’s not really hard SF” argument, which–oddly enough– often coincides with “this story is written by a woman/POC/other marginalised POV).  (before anyone asks, I don’t have a specific occurrence to point to; it’s just an accumulation of small things).

Thing is: the discourse about what constitutes hard SF–supposedly “real science! ™”–is very normative. It demands certain narrative forms, certain ways of addressing the reader, certain methods of expositing the science to make it sound plausible. Note that I said “plausible”, which means “what people are ready to believe”, which is different from “what is actually true”.

Even ignoring the problem of evolution of science (I’ll come back to that!), I’ve read hard SF stuff that was… er… out of date/inaccurate (I have a general science background, though my area of speciality is the mathematics of computer algorithms; and the H has a PhD in Quantum Optics, so between both of us we can muster passable science analysis). And that inaccuracy/out-of-date character *absolutely* didn’t prevent me or him from enjoying said books, btw–we don’t want to be snobs, and our enjoyment of books isn’t the cutting edge science. (actually, if I do want cutting edge science, I tend to read journal articles–though of course that’s pretty much restricted to fields of science I’m conversant with, so a pretty limited subset of everything that’s published).

I swore I’d come back to the evolution of science, so here goes: today’s science is likely going to be debunked (aka “evolve”) within a few centuries. 19th century science, pre quantum mechanics and pre general relativity, is vastly different from 21st century science. So any books set in, say, the 24th century that still rely on *today’s* understanding of science are a nice fiction. And, again, that’s OK. We’re writing/reading SF books, not journal articles, and requirements are different (real engineering specs make for bad fiction anyway, a bit dry!). 

There you go, afternoon rant. Would be interested to know what people think?

Shopping for baby clothes

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Today is the first day of the summer sales in Paris, so naturally I braved the crowd was foolish enough to drop by a baby clothes’ shop to pick up a hat for the snakelet. The following conversation is depressingly familiar when buying clothes:
Me: “Do you have this model in size 51?”
Saleswoman: “Let me look. It’s for a–” she peers at the hat I’m holding up (red with stripes)–“girl, right?”
Me, biting down on a desire to lecture her on gender essentialism, “Boy, actually.”
Saleswoman, turning to a bin where everything is some shade of blue, “Hum, I’m not too sure–”
Me, pointing to another bin where everything is a shade of pink or red, “Maybe in this bin?”
Saleswoman: “That’s for–”
Me: “I know. Do you have anything?”
She looks at me, at the hat, and at the bin again. “No, everything is pink, I’m sorry.”
At which point I gave up and went foraging into the darn bin for girls’ hats myself. They had another red hat, which was actually the right size for the snakelet–I snagged it immediately.
Seriously. This is for a baby who’s not yet a year old. I can predict some intense frustration as the snakelet grows up…

Today’s amusing cookbook

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A guide purporting to be an encyclopaedia of Asian ingredients. Under fish sauce, it recommends the Tiparos and Squid brands as being the best ones. Maybe, if you’re doing Thai cooking? They’re both Thai fish sauces, and for Vietnamese dishes I have to admit I’ve never found them to be much use (the book doesn’t go into the fact that there are huge regional variations on fish sauces, which is odd because it specifies this for soy sauces…).
Bonus points: under “typical dishes”, it lists “larb (Vietnam, Thailand)”. I have no idea about Thailand, but larb sure as heck isn’t a typical Vietnamese dish (in fact, I had to look it up on the Internet, and Wikipedia tends to suggest it’s a Lao dish. Way to go on mixing up all the countries of the Indochinese peninsula, guys).

On political and value neutral

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Expanded from my twitter feed, because I feel it bears repeating.

Escapism

I’ve been seeing a lot of gender-focused work described as “political”, with a strong negative connotation to the term political–it seems what is meant by “political” isn’t really “relating to the public affairs of one country”, but rather “involved, committed, with a message”. Which in turn is rather puzzling when you think on it–if a work isn’t involved [1], doesn’t have anything to say, then should we still be reading it? And are there really works that don’t have anything to say?

Even “escapist” literature or Hollywood movies have a strong underlying message and promote equally strong assumptions (on the value of escapism, on cultural dominance, etc. I could dissect lowbrow Hollywood movies but don’t have the energy here–maybe for next time!).

I remain puzzled by the assumption that some literature can be value-neutral, as if that were ever possible. It is not. Every single piece of literature/art is embedded in the culture/sub-culture that gave rise to it. I’m not doing cultural existentialism here–it’s not *because* something was produced in, say, France, that it will have X and Y and Z; but something produced in France by a French writer will be infused with *some* degree of French cultural background; same for US productions, etc. Every single piece of literature bears the assumptions and the worldview of its creator, who in turn bears the assumptions of the culture they’re part of  (and, to some extent, the work bears the assumptions of its reader, who might interpret it through different filters than the creator).

There is no such thing as meaningless fluff, because even the “shallowest” of fluffs carries an implicit value of what makes fluff; of what doesn’t challenge the majority of readers; of what kinds of escapism are efficient and “don’t engage the brain” [2]. For instance, going off on adventures away from one’ s family, saving the world and getting the girl might be the majority idea of what constitutes escapism in Western society; it will hardly be the case everywhere. Escapism in ancient/modern Vietnam [3], for instance, has a greater chance of focusing on saving one’s community and one’s elders, and romantic attachments have much less of a place, or at least there’s much less imbalance between those and the other kinds of attachments. (don’t want to do broad sweeping cultural generalisations, but I’d argue that in a system of Confucian-derived values, there is a much larger weight on fraternal/friendship bonds than on romantic love, and yet a larger weight on elder/younger family bonds than on any of these. Works produced *within* that kind of society which challenge those norms tend to do so in a specific and characteristic manner, for instance by elevating bonds of friendship over all other ones; just as mainstream Western works tend to challenge traditional Christian values in specific ways).

Coming back to “gender-focused” work, I think we see the same fallacy: the definition tends to be applied to anything with a cast composed mostly of women. On the one hand, I appreciate the need to qualify stories that challenge the status quo; on the other, there’s something… sticky about the lack of balance there: stories that have an all-male cast are equally gender-focused and promote the patriarchy to an even larger extent than female-focused stories (because it’s much easier to promote the status quo), and not applying this term to them fails to challenge the notion that culturally dominant stories are somehow value-neutral and “invisible”. And I find that bothersome: if we can’t recognise our own set of dominant tropes and how everything is geared to accommodate them, to produce them and to propagate them, then being in a position to recognise there is an (unequal) status quo and being able to challenge it are just going to be that much more difficult. It’s like the air you breathe: that you don’t think of it doesn’t mean it’s not there and doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a *huge* influence on you.

Very disorderly thoughts; I apologise for the mess. But I just wanted to put them out there, because “not involved” seems like a dangerous fallacy to me. Do I make sense?


[1] I know that to some extent this is about the “forcefulness” of said work and how vigorously it tries to get its point across; but that strikes me as the beginning of a slippery slope that looks a lot like the tone argument (anything people don’t want to hear gets tagged as “too vehement”). Hard to know when to draw lines; and I don’t pretend to have easy answers; just putting (rather obvious!) thoughts out there…

[2] Think for a moment on what  “doesn’t engage the brain” implies, and you’ll realise that a necessary prerequite for this is “doesn’t challenge my deeply-held beliefs/doesn’t challenge the majority view I’m used to”.  I’m religious, so anything that is actively hostile to spirituality has a much larger wall to leap in my hindbrain; but this is partly offset by the fact that the (French) society I move is largely atheist, and that I’m thus inured to negative portrayals of religion.

[3]  Bit of a tricky thing to separate influences, as Western culture is so ubiquitous even in modern (and colonial) Vietnam that it has started to bleed quite significantly into the culture/erase non-compliant bits of it. And again, general trends rather than specifics; I don’t want to do cultural existensialism, but equally cultural specifities shouldn’t be casually swept under the rug under cover of “we’re all the same deep down”.

Seraphina, fullblood prejudice and pervasive racial passing

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So… have just finished Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina–I bought it mainly because it was recommended to me as a great portrayal of a mixed-race protagonist: its eponymous heroine is half-dragon, half-human in a world where a fragile peace reigns between the two species. Seraphina is the Music Mistress at the court of the human queen of Goredd, where she passes as human in order to avoid the deep-seated prejudice and fear engendered by dragons (who are able to take human form but are betrayed by their silver blood and their odd smell).

It’s an intriguing setup; but in the end, I’m sad to report I was somewhat disappointed by Seraphina and its portrayal of race relationships.

(rambly musings about prejudice and passing)
Continue reading →

Mixed-race people in SFF

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OK, because I’ve seen one too many %%% storylines about mixed-race people in fiction (expanded for SFF to include the children of humans and aliens/magical creatures, etc.). For your information:

We are not psychopaths, terminally maladjusted, forever torn between two cultures in a way that will inevitably destroy us. We are not freaks or hybrids or mongrels or circus animals, forever exhibited as examples of what can go wrong in human/alien/magical creatures relationships; neither are we featureless saints exhibited as examples of interracial/interspecies harmony.

We are not special, magical or possessed of numinous powers by virtue of our non-white/non-human blood; we are not the tamed Other, made acceptable by an infusion of white blood and white customs, the “safe” option with only a hint of fashionable exoticism and none of the raw difference of “true” foreigners. We are not a handy, non-scary substitute for diversity in fiction.

We do not have pick sides unilaterally. We do not have to share the identity of our mother or of our father to the exclusion of the other parent (and most of us will find it quite hard to completely reject one half of our heritage); and our parents are not perpetually locked in some cultural war in which there would only be a single winner. We can be raised with love and respect and in a meld between two cultures: we do not have to be orphaned/single-parent/neglected/abused to exist.

Our parents are normal beings, and so are we.

If you’re using mixed-race people in your fiction and feature ANY of those tropes, do please think for a moment of what it is that you’re saying (and I wish I could say it’s not the case, but I’ve seen all of these–yes, even the hybrid/mongrel–at some point in recent SFF, either in print or in other media).

ETA: also, in case you’re wondering? The use of the word “half-breed” to refer to mixed-race people is NOT acceptable in any context (except possibly as a slur in historicals). “Mongrel” should also be banned from your vocabulary on mixed-race people. I don’t particularly enjoy being compared to animals, or the long history of prejudice inherent in that term (it’s a bit like thinking “mulatto” or “nigger” are appropriate descriptive words). For God’s sake, think on what it is you are saying before flinging this kind of word around.


Disclaimer: this is based on my experience and on those of friends growing up (mostly in Europe, and most Asian-white mixed-race). I tend to think a lot of it applies elsewhere, though…

Old disappointing favourites

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So, remember Yoko Tsuno, those bandes dessinées with the Japanese electrical engineer I loved when I was a child? [1] As I was saying in that other blog post, they’ve re-edited them with new material which includes author introductions. This is definitely one of those cases where less is more–to learn that author/artist Roger Leloup created the character because he wanted an exotic Oriental character is definitely… not what I really needed to read (the introduction includes a bit where he says that bringing Yoko back to Japan was difficult because she was no longer exotic, and that Japan was hard because he couldn’t make things up. I haven’t tried to reread that actual BD, but it has ninjas and multiple references to samurai honour and losing face as some sort of ultimate deterrent in Japanese culture. Arg arg arg).

Bonus points for his mention that he gave her a Chinese grandmother because he wanted her to combine Chinese sensibility with Japanese efficiency. Arrrrgggg racial stereotyping much, anyone?


[1] Asian geek with a spaceship who was smarter than the boys, the first time I’d seen that kind of character around. Love at first sight for many reasons.

Physical descriptions of Asians

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Reposted from my twitter feed because I think it’s worth saying:

The physical description of your Asian characters to easily ID them as Asian is not the first thing you should be obsessing about. Basically, this is the most Othering version of describing characters of colour–they’re just like white people, except with different physical features! But it’s not only features that make people “different” , and in fact our differences are often much much more than skin-deep. To whit: I can write (and have written) an entire story that features recognisably Asian people, without a single distinctive physical description. So can Rochita Loenen-Ruiz.

(I wonder how much of the emphasis on physical appearance is shaped by our worship of movies/TV series? I sometimes think that Hollywood et al. influence our way of telling stories, not necessarily for the better…)

Science, engineering and large projects: SF in the 19th Century

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And now for something completely different: a few weeks ago, I complained on twitter that the science in SF seemed oddly stuck in the 19th Century, both the actual science research (which seemed composed mainly of individual mad geniuses in their garages having huge conceptual breakthroughs), but also its close siblings, the engineering projects that make up so much of SF (like building space stations, space launchers, etc.), and which seem to bear little relation to anything resembling real life.

I’ve complained about science here, but now for bonus points: engineering projects!

So, exhibit A. This is how a large-scale project looks according to most SF stories I’ve read:
.
Basically, a project manager who is God, or as near to God as matters, with anything from a hundred to thousands of (mostly) nameless, faceless grunts under him doing all the work. The story then tends to be either from the point of view of the project manager as he attempts to solve a pressing technical problem, or, less often, from the point of view of a harried grunt who has to solve a problem before the all-powerful project manager descends on them like the wrath of God (I’ve been nice here and thrown in an Assistant Project Manager, who will provide the necessary dialogue for as-you-know-Bob scientific exposition or provide a sympathetic ear to our grunt’s troubles).

Exhibit B: by contrast, this is what a real large-scale engineering project looks like in the 21st Century [1] (click to zoom):

Yes, it’s rather more complicated. There’s also two significant differences worth noting: one, the bottom boxes of the chart are not people, but team leaders, ie every bottom box still unfolds into your actual grunts. Second, I’ve cut at the level of the project manager to keep both graphs at the same scale, but there’s a significant extra layer at the top, which includes our project manager’s immediate hiearchy (his boss), a committee of peers (who follow the project and determine whether to continue funding it or not according to various Go/No Go criteria), and one or several sponsors (who champion the project within the company and to whom the project manager is accountable). Let’s not forget interlocutors outside of the company as well: the actual customer (ie the person paying for the delivery of the project; for instance, in the case of missile systems, the army is paying; in the case of a space station, you can imagine a conglomerate or a government paying…); subcontractors who have to be monitored, other companies working on related segments of the project (for instance, on a space station project, one company does the infrastructure, one company the climate control…).

So, yes, you’ll notice the same thing as with scientists: no project manager exists in a vacuum. They’re always accountable to someone for something (and when I say “accountable”, I mean all important decisions made are scrutinised, not that they’ll be judged solely on whether the project finishes appropriately. Will come back to “appropriately” in a minute).

Another thing is that responsibility is shared and diluted: note that the second org scheme has divided the satellite into different subsystems like the ground portion, the comms system, etc., and assigned different responsibilities within those subsystems. There is no grunt vs project manager system, but a carefully organised hierarchy of decreasing responsibilities fanning out from the system level, which ensures that everyone knows what they’re doing, and most localised problems do NOT make it back to the project manager, who has way more important things to do than concern himself with every little problem. On that same subject, a project manager is very seldom in the field, and most of their day is spent in meetings and in discussions with people (I always feel like laughing when a project manager on a space station spends their time touring the construction site and offering advice on stuff that most workers would take care of on their own…)

Finally, one thing that bugs me in engineering projects in SF is the lack of tradeoffs. Science tends to be “all shiny”, ie when a problem is posed, there is very often a perfect solution, one that meets all the needs and provides all that is expected. In real life, science is *never* shiny, and is almost always about compromises: things can be infeasible simply for technical reasons (for instance, no radio comms will provide the necessary reliability over the necessary distance), they can be infeasible for cost reasons (radio comms can be provided, but not within the allocated budget), and they can be infeasible because of time reasons (radio comms can be provided, however they will take eighteen months to be developed and tested, and we only have twelve months to deliver the system). In my line of work, we call that a QCD triangle (quality, cost, delivery): you simply can’t have all three items at the same time!

Now, coming back to that “appropriately”: a project is of course judged on whether it finishes on time, with the appropriate features and within budget (incidentally, a lot of SF projects never really seem to worry about either delays or costs…). However… you don’t wait until the project is finished to judge this! In addition to regular progress reports, there’ll be regular “milestones” which correspond to important decisions and/or steps in the project’s life. At those points, the project will come under scrutiny more intensely (by the peers, the hierarchy etc.), and will have to provide quite a few elements of justification for said decisions (and the project manager might well be part of a collegial decision process in those stages).

So, there you go, a short Engineering Projects 101–I’ve had quite a few years working on those by now (though admittedly mainly in a European work culture), and quite a few years reading SF, and so far I’ve been very disappointed by the portrayal of these. I might, of course, be picking up the wrong books/short stories/movies… Have I forgotten any gripes people have with engineering in SF? Are there any pieces that do a decent job of getting to grips with this kind of complexity? Feel free to argue/discuss/disagree in comments!


[1] Fake example for a satellite launcher. I copied it from a blog–not saying it’s a typical org, but it’s most certainly one that could exist and apply to a bona fide project.

Cultural appropriation

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[Warning: this is me in ranty, pissed-off mood. I apologise for picking targets and basically offloading my anger on them, but I honestly feel I can't make you understand what I mean without pointing at specific bits. Many thanks to Rochita Loenen-Ruiz for reading this before it went live]

Apropos of nothing and just for the record: when people complain about cultural appropriation, they’re not all [1] saying that outsiders shouldn’t write cultures foreign to them. However, what I suspect they’re saying [2] is this: some outsiders (rather more than you think) will get cultures egregiously and disrespectfully *wrong*. That, even if a lot of (other outsider) people think that a certain book/story did a great job of introducing them to a fancy new culture, it doesn’t change the orientalist/racist clichés or simply the bad facts that are presented in said fiction.
And when I say bad facts I don’t mean niggly details that would require weeks of research: I mean really, really bad facts akin to calling everyone in a French novel “Dracula” because everyone knows Dracula is a typically French name. Facts that should have been a part of any basic research process, and that make the reader doubt the author really cared about the culture they were so “thoughtfully” depicting. Names. Food. Religion. That kind of thing.

You’ll think that this is a tiny minority; a 0.01% of writers who get things wrong and are rightly excoriated for it. Thing is… this happens WAY more often than you’d think. This is NOT a tiny minority. I’m not saying it’s a 99.99% of fiction either, but cultural appropriation is not a negligible or insubstantial phenomenon. A significant amount of fiction out there makes me doubt much thoughtful research (or much research at all!) was involved.

To take just one example: the last few stories set in China I have read [3]. One of them, set in historical China, mangled the historical timeline so badly I wasn’t even sure it was the real China, and inexplicably forgot to have any kind of ancestor worship, which is a bit like doing medieval France without Christianity. One of them, set in a futuristic China, used the timeworn tropes of Chinese being horrible to their own women (because, you know, Confucianism [4]) and had said women rescued by Westerners (because quite obviously those poor Asians can’t rescue themselves). And the last one, set in what purported to be Ancient China, had a concerted state-supported effort aimed at imprisoning, mistreating and killing dragons (we’ve been over this before, but Chinese/Vietnamese dragons are NOT evil, they’re Heavenly beings. This is a bit like having a historical medieval Europe where kings authorise the chasing and killing of angels. Possible, but a. you’re not going to get very far because angels are way more powerful than humans, and b. you’re not going to stave off the wrath of God for very long…) For bonus points, that story also had an evil character on a quest for immortality that he later renounced because he wanted redemption. Er. No. Quests for immortality are perfectly fine in Chinese thought (see Daoist immortals. That’s perfectly OK, and in fact deeply respected).

Again, I’m not Chinese. But Vietnamese culture has a heck of a lot of overlap with Chinese culture, and none of these feel remotely OK to me. In fact, they feel like Western thought grafted on top of what someone thought were the “cool bits” of Chinese culture. And, without exception, all of these had glowing reviews by people convinced that those were accurate and nice representations of Chinese culture. Newsflash: no, no, and no. When a writer is perpetuating horrible clichés in the course of their writing, when they’re propagating transparently false ideas of what it means to live in a place and/or a time period… This is cultural appropriation, and it’s bad–and whether said writer meant it or not doesn’t change the fact that they’ve egregiously mangled someone’s culture through lack of care. It’s the bit that makes a lot of people angry, and quite justifiably so. [5] It’s not the fact that writers take cultures that aren’t from their traditions that attract people’s ire; it’s the fact that the depiction of those cultures are badly inaccurate on mind-boggling levels.

(there’s an easy way to avoid this if you’re using a 21st-Century culture btw–grab someone from said culture and ask their opinion about the basic stuff in your story)

Anyway, that was my afternoon rant. Apologies again, and thanks for listening. If anybody wants to weigh on how they feel about the subject, I welcome thoughts and discussions!

(also, if any Chinese people are reading this and feel that any of the examples I used aren’t appropriate, I’d be quite happy to be corrected. I would have used Vietnamese culture, which is the one I’m most familiar with, but Vietnam hasn’t been the subject of quite so many books and stories and I didn’t really have enough examples for this…)


[1] Some of them are, and I understand and respect that feeling. Likely, the reason they don’t want outsiders writing about their culture is exactly what I’m going to outline in this post–too many people have been doing it badly, badly wrong.
[2] Again, not claiming to walk in people’s heads. Seen the feeling a lot on the internet though.
[3] I’m not Chinese, as is by now evident; and China itself is huge and multifaceted. However, Vietnamese and Chinese cultures have a lot of points of intersection, especially when we’re talking Ancient China and Ancient Vietnam, since the second was basically a colony of the first. And also, I can spot an Orientalist cliché when I see one.
[4] Not saying Confucianism didn’t do a lot of damage; however, you have to realise that you can’t base a description of modern China/Vietnam on mores that have gone out of fashion or been severely toned down in the 20th Century. Having China follow old-school Confucianism, again, is a bit like having Europe still follow the hard-core Christian mores of the Middle Ages. Er, no?
[5] I very probably committed bad mistakes in the Obsidian and Blood books (well, not “very probably”, I know at least two errors that I wish I could fix), though I did my best research-wise. I do hope none of them are on that egregious level of failure, but if they are, I apologise profusely. I was much less aware of that kind of issues when I wrote Servant, and it shows.