Monthly Archives: November 2013

Joanna Russ and the Westinghouse Science Talent Search

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I’ve been thinking a lot about Russ, science, and SF — tried to outsource this work to students, but no one took the bait. 

So yesterday, I had my engineering partner look into this (which turned out to be very easy — google search) and this is what he found. 

Joanna  Ruts Russ was 15 years old, a student at William H. Taft High School in New York when she was a finalist for the Westinghouse. Her project was entitled “Growth of Certain Fungi under Colored Light and in Darkness.” 

You can see her joining a fellow award winner on the third slide of the show with the caption

 “Dr. Alexander Wetmore of the Smithsonian Institute and Milliam Mann of the U.S. National Zoological Park get a lesson in eating buffalo steak from STS 1953 Finalists Joanna Russ and Edward Menhinick.”

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Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Written in 1991 by Karen Joy Fowler. Published by Plume, 2004. 304 pages.

Sarah Canary is one of those books you should sit down and read in a weekend. If you pick it up and put it down, you might be apt to fall out of the confusing haze of localized history and suspended reality this story tends to throw you into as fast as it slaps you out of it. Instead you should sit down for a couple of days and let the moody northwestern saga (and it is certainly that) of magical realism wash over you like the Puget Sound.

The intricately twisting plot of the story falls second to the format and structure of the book and third to the exploration of perspectives of oppression and wrongdoing though dynamic characters. The book is broken up into nineteen chapters, each of which are entitled and introduced with a line or stanza or short poem by Emily Dickenson, thematically relevant to the respective chapter — a self-aware move by Fowler that helps to set the theme and tone for the chapter to come. Most chapters are also preceded by a historical anecdote, generally focused around happenings in the Pacific Northwest. These moments in time progress chronologically with the book, and serve the dual purpose of tying reality (temporally, geographically) to the story, and to teach us about moments in history when power is created, and occasionally overturned. The story shifts perspectives frequently, chapter by chapter, and each shift gives the reader insight into the personal objectives of each character — circulating around their respective need for Sarah Canary.

When the story opens on one of the main character perspectives of Chin Ah Kin, a Chinese railworker during the sprawl of the transcontinental railway, the reader is instantly given a unique socio-historical context to chew on in the background of an otherwise simple set of interactions. In this moment, Sarah Canary (or just “ugly white woman” at this stage in the game) is introduced. An unattractive woman with dark gnarly hair and a large hooked nose, the mysterious emergence of Sarah Canary from the thick woods of the Pacific Northwest begins a long series of interactions between her and Chin – wherein her lack of speech capabilities and generally confused demeanor consistently agitates and incriminates her erstwhile protector.  Chin’s character, for all intents and purposes, acts as the ‘hero’ of this tale, but is repeatedly ignored for his feats and bravery because of his race. He is perhaps the most sane and thoughtful character in the book, and continues to earn no respect, even amongst his own people.

Chin seeks to protect and deliver (to an unknown end) Sarah Canary to whence she came under the assumption that she is a goddess, and according to the mythology of his heritage great wealth could result from his taking on this heroic task. A series of events leads them to an asylum wherein the book’s second (of many) example of institutional oppression is mapped out in the explanation of the psychotherapy practices of that era. During Chin and Sarah Canary’s short stint in the asylum, the third main protagonist, B.J., is introduced. B.J. is an overly-friendly and familiar tagalong who acts in the story not so much as a greek chorus, but as a moral reflection for the other characters. B.J. is introduced as a patient at the asylum, and escapes to continue the adventure with Chin and Sarah Canary. He is psychotic only in that inanimate objects “speak” to him from time to time. His other curious tendencies are reminiscent of Foucault’s madman, unable to view and accept the world exactly as it is presented to him — he distrusts his own perceptions of distance, size, and general appearance, because he has been systematically convinced that his sense of perception is incorrect. It should be noted, that B.J. maintains social superiority over Chin and therefore is the mouthpiece of the mottled duo. He is the first and only character in this story that latches onto Sarah Canary out of purely good will, and thereupon reflects Fowler’s expression of altruism in this story.

The third major character that the group comes across is Miss Adelaide Dixon, a suffragette and independent lecturer who clings to popular social events as a vehicle for her feminist works. Dixon becomes one of Sarah Canary’s protectors upon mistaking her for a recently escaped husband-murderer, and then continues on with her as a sort of point to be made. It is indicated that Dixon may lack the actuality of sisterhood that she preaches. Through Dixon we get to peer out of the eyes of a popularly-opposed suffragette, and similarly we are allowed into the minds of B.J. and Chin, who are struggling to understand the political nature of a woman. Much of the book’s feminist work is appropriately catalysed by Adelaide Dixon, as her influence spreads to the minds of multiple characters and how they view, think about, and treat women. Many other characters of various races and classes are encountered in the book, all of which are meaningfully entwined in the period’s culture, as they are in the complicated ruse of the mysterious Sarah Canary.

Fowler elegantly plays the reader into believing that the point of the story is to figure out Sarah Canary: Where is she from? What is she? What is her objective? What will happen when it is reached? In reality, this book is about every character but Sarah Canary. The question persists in the reader’s mind throughout the story — why, even after these characters learn that Sarah Canary may not be of discernible use to them, do they need her around? Sarah Canary never imposes herself on her protectors, she is instead taken on like a project, an endeavor through which the protectors might find meaning, wealth, love, you name it. Sarah Canary (named as such by patients at the asylum, for her beautiful chirping voice) exists as an ethereal palette on which the dreams and anguishes of the characters of this story can be written. It is a metanarrative of exploitation to the minor stories within, both in each of the character’s lives, as well as in the historical anecdotes Fowler includes before each chapter.

This is the sort of book that could appeal to a multitude of audiences. It can be read from a variety of angles, and provides enough depth to never really touch the bottom. The writing is clear and accessible which allows space for the reader to digest the complex socio-political nature of the story. I look forward to reading more of Fowler’s works in the future.


Discussion about Butler

Just wanted to share this quote from a student’s response, because I think it’s worth talking more about today: “Wow I didn’t realize how much this story has to say about race, I was so blinded by the feminism on my second reading.”

See you soon.


Book Review: The Salt Roads

Published in 2003 by Warner Books, Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads is as rich and dazzling as it is visceral and exhausting. Through the eyes of Lasiren, a Loa, and the three women whose lives become intertwined with her consciousness, Hopkinson leads her readers on a journey many lifetimes long and centuries apart.

The Salt Roads begins, in the most literal sense, on a Haitian sugar plantation during the life of an older slave woman named Mer, but it will cross time and space to show us France during the life of Jeanne Duval, and even more time and space to the journeys of Thais of Alexandria during the Roman Empire. It finds its richest inspiration in Carribean lore, history, and spirituality, but Hopkinson’s novel also pays respect and honor to other African roots – from the Arabic-speaking Muslims to the ancient worshippers of Hathor. Even more than saluting them, Hopkinson embraces them; she melts them into her story to profound effect. But across all the time, space, and culture The Salt Roads traverses, a single thread ties her novel firmly together: the struggle of the Ginen, the enslaved African people. Thus the story begins in its chronological middle, with “matant” Mer.

Mer is a healer, trusted more than the local doctor, and a devout of the Ginen gods and the ancient African spiritual traditions. It is these two characteristics which lead to her being at the river near the plantation in the dead of night, burying a stillborn child while praying to “Mama” Lasiren, goddess of the water. It is that moment that Lasiren says she is “born from song and prayer. A small life, never begun, lends [Lasiren] its unused vitality. [She’s] born from mourning and sorrow and three women’s tearful voices… from countless journeys chained tight in the bellies of ships… from hope vibrant and hope destroyed… of bitter experience… of wishing for better…”

The circumstance of Lasiren’s ‘birth’ sets the tone for the rest of her work in the human world, for her mission in this/these particular incarnation(s). She will do many things in the course of The Salt Roads – manifest herself to Mer, possess Jeanne Duval throughout most of Jeanne’s carnal, tumultuous life, and inadvertently turn Thais into St. Mary of Egypt – but they will all serve her purpose to free, in one interpretation or another, the Ginen.

Lasiren is not always successful (her possession of Mer during a particularly volatile time on the plantation leads to Mer’s tongue being cut out), nor knowledgeable in the way one might expect of a deity (she must learn to control bodies and to influence minds), but her fight is timeless, multifaceted, and earnest. It manifests itself in small ways, like guiding Jeanne through a youth full of suffering and poverty to old age in relative comfort and happiness, and it manifests itself in large ways, like becoming Erzulie Dantor during the Haitian slaves’ battles for freedom. If Lasiren’s character is a symbol for the struggle for freedom, then her power is the embodiment of hope. Through Lasiren’s manifestations, and the salt roads that are the Ginen’s connection to her (and by extension, their heritage), Hopkinson explores a history that is rife with suffering, ornamented with perseverance, and rich in enduring culture.

It’s difficult to summarize the plot of The Salt Roads or to provide a story arc in a conventional sense; there is no climax or traditionally ‘satisfying’ end. Mer does not see freedom in her lifetime, Jeanne dies crippled and decimated by sexually transmitted disease, and the last we see of Thais has her wandering through the desert, possibly forever. But their lives do see minor victories: A few generations after Mer, a successful slave revolt will give rise to the first generation of free Haitian blacks. Jeanne dies at an old age, with a husband who loves her, despite being the black, dancer daughter and granddaughter of a prostitute. Thais doesn’t return to living her life of slavery on her back, and goes down in history as the “dusky saint” of Egypt. All are manifestations of small measures of freedom and escape, of Lasiren’s love for her people.

The message of The Salt Roads is neither an admission of defeat, nor a writ of contentment, but a promise of success to come. It is heartwarming and depressing, at times, in equal measure, and a riveting story. While accessible to those without knowledge of Afro-Carribean culture and lore, appreciation of the artistry of The Salt Roads’s authorship deepens with any amount of it. Hopkinson’s novel is raunchy, vivid, and beautifully crafted; “eat salt” and don’t miss it!

Hopkinson, Nalo. The Salt Roads, Warner Books, New York © 2003.


Using your own photos on Wikipedia

Turns out, this is fine, providing the people in the photo knew they were being photographed.

Here’s what to do:

1. upload photo to Wikimedia Commons. Select that you have the permission to share the photo (you took them).

2. You can choose how you wish to share the photo. Commons will default to ShareAlike, which is probably what you want to do.


Book Review: Brown Girl in the Ring

Nalo Hopkinson’s first novel, Brown Girl in The Ring (1998), a novel published by Warner Aspect, is 256 pages of twists and turns filled with Afro-Caribbean culture that brings folklore and magical realism to life. Her enthralling story was selected as the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest, and accelerated her career as a feminist science fiction author. Since the selection, Hopkinson’s novel has received critical acclaim in the form of a Locus Award for Best First Novel and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1999, as well as approval from renowned author Octavia Butler. Hopkinson is of Jamaican descent and she grew up in Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, the United States, and Canada.

The setting of Brown Girl in The Ring is not utopian in nature. Riots of the past have caused the inner city of Toronto to collapse into a slum of poverty, homelessness, and violence. While the elite and city officials have fled to the suburbs, children are left to fend for themselves and survive on the streets that are ruled by Rudy Sheldon and his posse of criminal thugs. Disappearances and murder are not uncommon, and everyone is left to either fend for themselves or band together to provide support for each other.

Hopkinson then introduces the heroine of the story, and a very different perspective of life in the outskirt of the city is seen. Ti-Jeanne, the granddaughter of Gros-Jeanne, is struggling with very different problems than street survival. Having recently given birth to a baby boy, Ti-Jeanne has moved back in with her grandmother to care for her child as a single mother because the child’s father, Tony, suffers from addiction and is a member of the posse. While she loves her Mami, she has difficulty seeing the importance of her grandmother’s spiritualism and medicinal work, and is frightened by her visions of death. Gros-Jeanne has gone to great lengths in the past to share her culture with her family, but has continuously been pushed away by her daughter and granddaughter.

Paths begin to cross when Tony is called upon by Rudy. Hopes of leaving his criminal life behind and reconnecting with his love, Ti-Jeanne, are shattered due to the threats from the posse leader looming over him. Tony must perform a horrific act of murder to obtain a heart to save the life of one of the city’s elite. The situation only gets worse when he involves his relationship with Ti- and Gros-Jeanne.

The magic comes alive for the rest of the novel when Tony seeks help from the spiritualism of Gros-Jeanne. In attempts to save Tony, Ti-Jeanne performs the rituals alongside her Mami and accepts her father spirit. When plans go awry, Tony makes a rash decision that forces Ti-Jeanne to be the one to save herself and the city from Rudy’s evil spiritual acts.

Ti-Jeanne’s personal growth throughout the novel is evident in her attitude toward her elders, culture, and outlook on life. Through acceptance of her ancestry and culture, she finds power and support to overcome steep odds and end the horrific violence of the posse and their heinous leader, despite her personal connection to the man who took her mother away from her at a young age. The story closes with hope, Ti-Jeanne’s victory is monumental, and the stolen heart possesses the power to permanently change the city of Toronto for the better.

The power of women of color feminism and the use of magic, “Obeah,” or seer women, are major themes throughout this novel. Nalo Hopkinson has done a marvelous job of presenting strong female characters who take control of their fate to make change in the world. Her novel is a work of feminist science fiction because it shows a very realistic perception of the struggles women face as single mothers as well as the struggles women with different cultural beliefs face in society. However, it shows their ability to use their culture, background, and experiences as women to overcome obstacles and show the true strength women possess. In addition, themes of community and systemic economic disadvantage run throughout the scenes with the street children. The compassion and heartache written in those scenes reminds readers that there is strength when we band together for a common goal and to put less focus on obtaining material items to achieve happiness and genuine relationships.

This book is well-written and exciting to read, and I recommend it especially to those who want to experience science fiction through the lens of a different culture. On a personal note, I found the novel to be difficult to read at times due to the Caribbean dialect and use of phonetic spelling when the characters were speaking out loud to one another. My initial frustration though was eased once the characters were more developed and I could see how the conversations and word choices illuminated the type of relationship held between characters. Other than the conversational prose, I found the book to be easy to read and enlightening on folklore of other cultures I was unfamiliar with. The book is unique compared to other works of feminist science fiction, because it draws on the ancestry of a different past and opens up perspectives that have yet to be shared in the science fiction community.


What they said vs. What they are – crucial points for approaching/addressing ignorance

This guy has some other great stuff, so feel free to check out his channel. A lot of it is about race, sexism, etc. (he had some great stuff on the Sarkeesian episode, as well as some Trayvon-related vids). The principles of this one can be applied beyond race, and is a great thing to keep in mind whether you’re talking to someone about cultural appropriation or the use of inclusive language. As the keynote at a Social Justice Summit I attended said, “trust intention, but name impact.”


Ada Test Site

For experiments!

Ada Journal Review

Review site for the Ada Journal

James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award

"Best way to teach flying is to fly." - Joanna Russ

Queer Geek Theory

"Best way to teach flying is to fly." - Joanna Russ

Comments for SF Signal

"Best way to teach flying is to fly." - Joanna Russ

io9

"Best way to teach flying is to fly." - Joanna Russ

Ursula K. Le Guin: New on the Website

"Best way to teach flying is to fly." - Joanna Russ