Today’s guest is speculative fiction writer, poetry editor, and filmmaker Romie Stott! She has been poetry co-editor at Strange Horizons, one of this year’s Hugo Award finalists for Best Semiprozine, for over a year, and she also contributes to Arc, a publication from the creators of New Scientist dedicated to speculative futures. Her story “Three Young Men” appears in the recently-released anthology of Biblical horror stories (that may have one of the more memorable titles I’ve seen in awhile) King David and the Spiders from Mars. I’m happy she’s here today to discuss biology as a feminine science and how that impacts its use in science fiction!
The Feminine Science
In middle school, or maybe even earlier, I picked up the understanding that Science Fiction is for boys and Fantasy is for girls. I don’t know whether this is something someone told me, or whether I inferred it from what I was reading: YA fantasy like Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series, which starred a female knight/sorceress/headstrong romantic, and SF like Heinlein, where men are bold, dispassionate explorers and women are soft blankets. Which left me in a bind because I have never had any desire to travel to the past, even a past with magic. Or a present with magic. I like science. I like what it’s done for women’s survival rates. I find it excruciating when someone treats me as though I have feminine intuition.
There were other related things I came to accept, like Math is masculine and Reading is feminine. Not “for boys” and “for girls” — I liked both, and had teachers and friends and classmates of both genders — but masculine and feminine in a semiotic or synaesthetic way, as though the English language is secretly still French underneath. Classical music is feminine. Physics is masculine. Visual art is masculine. Biology is feminine. Chemistry is bisexual and the disreputable stepchild of Physics. (Chemistry was always my favorite.) In all cases, the masculine subjects were indefinably superior, indefinably prestigious, and widely accepted as more difficult.
Science fiction, speaking broadly, has a love for shiny surfaces. (Or these days, gritty pitted surfaces.) Of the poetry submissions I receive at Strange Horizons, where I am co-editor, looking at only those poems I would classify as science fiction and not fantasy, ballpark 90% of them are about astrophysics. 9% are about mechanical technology — robots, spaceflight, internet. 1% are chemistry or number theory.
Bio is not so much in there. I am not sure science fiction people think of it as one of the hard sciences, possibly because it is entangled with medicine, which is not science as much as it is a combination of technology and religion. Yet science fiction people are comfortable writing about technology, and about religion. And cell biology, for instance, should be unaffected by this, but only mitochondria are considered SF-worthy. Bio is squishy. Human bodies are not otherworldly.
It took me a good 10 years past high school to shake off the notion that learning about biology was in some sense “slumming.” This was about the same time I realized that memorizing things comes not from repetition but from linking information to a structure built of other information — that it was a creative act instead of a stockpiling. Until that point, I’d fallen into the google fallacy, a trap of thinking I didn’t need to know things; I just needed to know how to find things. Which is partly accurate, but you have to know enough to know that the thing exists to be found, and you have to be able to describe it well enough to retrieve the data, as anyone knows who has played the game “I can’t think of the word, but it’s kind of like beautiful but not really? It maybe starts with an r, or maybe a g?”
This fallacy underlies a lot of geek culture. The subjects I internalized as feminine were the ones that required a lot of memorization. They seemed dogged and rote, something nose to the ground, as homebody as putting up preserves. The masculine subjects were instead about derivation, a kind of leaping into the air, with the elitism that comes from seeing the world clearly and perfectly because you are brilliant. A genius doesn’t need to remember; a genius can deduce the world from a grain of sand. The problem, alas, with a merit system built exclusively on making the correct inferences instead of the careful work of building up information is that it looks very much like aristocracy, like something you are instead of something you learn.
Coincidentally, that “something you are” tends to reflect light, make expansive gestures, and have no breasts. But overemphasizing the “grain of sand” model of genius has downsides even if you’re not concerned about social justice. When it comes to futurism, the process of inference absent memorization is often misleading. If all you have to go on is what’s in front of you, you have no idea whether the thing you’re seeing is normal; you could base your whole model on a fluke. At its extreme, you could watch someone win the lottery and conclude that she’ll win the lottery tomorrow as well. On the other extreme, you could miss the fact that someone’s slowly starving by assuming he just skipped lunch this one time.
One of my short stories, “The Wishing Hour,” includes a pregnant protagonist, and when it was published I realized that if I told someone it was an SF pregnancy story they’d probably surmise it involved alien invasion/possession/parasitism, because this is a dominant SF trope. I like that trope; I am a huge fan of Alien, for instance. However, something I have noticed when talking to my male friends is, to put it gently, they don’t seem to think of this trope as containing any irony. They really think it has to feel weird and alien and unnatural to be pregnant. (One would hope they are all therefore extraordinarily pro-choice, but as Prometheus would suggest, not necessarily.)
On the one hand, yes, there is a foreign body which has set up residence in a uterus. On the other hand, pregnancy is definitively not alien, by virtue of the fact that it is producing humans. It is also, not incidentally, something half of the human race can do with our bodies. It’s not something we always do with our bodies, and it’s not something all of us do with our bodies, but enough of us do that pregnancy is automatically not alien or supernatural or weird. Although non-pregnancy is now undeniably the base state of most women in the industrialized world, for much of history (prior to modern birth control) when average family size was much larger, many more women spent much more of their time pregnant. In this context, it’s hard to think of the unpregnant body as more de facto authentic.
By the same token, although some women have complicated feelings about menstruating, it’s probably not central to most of our identities. However we might individually feel about it, we recognize it’s a bodily process, like breathing or digesting. But it shows up as a plot point in speculative fiction much more often than digesting does, or peeing, or sweating, usually as a sign that something is horrifying or magical.
There are not a similar number of stories about how erections are alien parasites which use chemical signals to take over your brain, suck the blood out of other parts of your body to feed themselves, and make part of you swell up to a totally wrong size that is horrifying. John Varley did write a penis-as-alien-parasite story, and it is excellent. Tiptree did some work in this area although as far as I know not specifically penis-focused, but these stories are understood by readers to be symbolic, and to portray men in not the best light. Whereas alien pregnancy stories are just telling it like it is. (Probably not coincidentally, Varley and Tiptree were also much more comfortable with sex and sexuality than most SF authors working during the 1970s and early 80s, as pointed out in this entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.)
This is not a scientist’s way to look at a body, which is what I ask for from science fiction. And it’s othering to do this to women’s physical realities while not similarly exploiting uniquely male physical realities. SF in general tends to have a revulsion for the body, a sense that our bodies are something we want to overcome — that we want to be immortal, free of sexual desire, able to make children outside our bodies, able to stretch beyond our senses, able to forego food and breathing. We want to be superhuman or posthuman. The body is a limit; bodily feelings are base drags on pure intellect.
This is not an invalid point of view, and when I say that a physical state is “natural” that doesn’t mean I think it’s better. There’s a lot to be said in favor of transcending the physical self. But it’s important to continue to examine the ideas we’re repeating and advancing, and in this case to look at the ways it can reinforce the misogyny that continues to be endemic to some of our professional organizations, like the cultural narrative that women are deformed men.
Biology, as they say, is not destiny. But it is a science. One that’s a lot more hackable than physics. Not to mention really, really weird. Much moreso than black holes.
Romie Stott is poetry co-editor of Strange Horizons. She recently won Intel and Arc Magazine’s Tomorrow Project with a short story called “A Robot Walks Into a Bar,” and was a top 10 finalist in American Zoetrope’s 2012 screenplay competition. As a narrative filmmaker, she has shown work at the Dallas Museum of Art, the National Gallery (London), and the Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston), and as part of Jonathan Lethem’s Promiscuous Materials project. Her portfolio is online at romiesays.tumblr.com.