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An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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social justice

Review of “Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction” (Anthology)

Menial: Skilled Labor in Science FictionMenial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction by Kelly Jennings (editor)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Crossed Genres has released a great collection in MENIAL. Rating an anthology is always difficult, because my ratings for individual stories tend to vary. I would really like to give MENIAL a 3.5; alas, that is not an option, so I’ll go conservative and 3 it is.

Here’s the good. Firstly, I LOVE the theme of the anthology. MENIAL focuses on the people whose lives, hopes, struggles, and dreams would never have crossed the minds of the bridge crew of the Enterprise. They are the common folk, the laborers. The sometimes reviled, but more often ignored. And they are always at the mercy of the exploitation of those at the top of the food chain, and their own vulnerability to the vagaries of chance. Secondly, as with all of what Crossed Genres publishes, MENIAL features characters whose meta-identities are disproportionately ignored or invisible in the greater tapestry of speculative fiction (in authentic ways at least). By these I mean anyone but straight, cis, able-bodied, rich, anglophone, white males. Not that such characters (or writers) are bad or need be eliminated from the genre, I hardly mean that at all. Just that their stories should not be 99% of the stories being told. CG does a fine job of advancing the genre on that front, and MENIAL is no exception.

For the above reasons alone, I strongly recommend taking a look at this anthology, especially if you are a writer. Exposure to the perspectives of the speculative working class and the conflicts of identity presented herein will make your own reading and writing more aware of all facets of the human element.

Here is my complaint. I’m not one who believes that “speculative fiction” means that you can do whatever you want. Believable worlds (even imaginary ones) must be self-consistent, and I believe many of the stories in the anthology fall short on that count. Advancing diversity in the genre should not come at the price of diluted rigor.

Science fiction should most certainly speculate on what we think could be true; and certainly no holds barred on anything we do not know for sure cannot be true. But if you are writing fiction that blatantly violates known laws of physics, chemistry, or biology, there had better be a damn good (and explained) reason. Fantasy is not exempt: superheroes, wizards, and Jedi all must use their powers in particular ways, which are governed by rules that create consistent limitations (and interesting plot points).

As one example, if your story takes place in an asteroid belt (especially ours), then it is ludicrously improbable that one could be suddenly hit by one. The asteroids are hundreds of thousands of kilometers apart, with relative velocities perhaps in the tens of kilometers per second or less. It is highly unlikely that you would even be able to see another asteroid while flying near any particular one, and you’d have days or weeks to see one coming (especially with the level of technology required to have private spacecraft flying around). You’d have to intentionally try to hit one, and it it would be difficult to do so. This is simple math on facts that are not hard to look up. I’ll leave it there with this one example, but I highlighted close to forty instances.

In several stories, it was never really explained why such menial positions exist for humans at all, given the level of technology explicit or implicit in the milieu. Though several of these stories had interesting characters and consistent science and technology, it was hard to concentrate on the story when the engineering part of my brain would remind me every page or two that “we already have robots that could do this… faster, cheaper, and better.” This is of course a hugely unexplored consequence of the future trajectory of the “knowledge economy.” As Pournelle says, if you invent a technology that drives the truck for you, what do you do with the truck driver? No doubt this made writing stories for MENIAL quite difficult.

Props to the following specific stories that I thought did an excellent job of seamlessly integrating the theme into a solid story without sacrificing rigor or consistency:

  • Thirty-Four Dollars, by M. Bernnardo
  • Storage, by Matthew Cherry
  • The Belt, by Kevin Bennet (though I question the effect of one major collision)
  • Air Supply, by Sophie Constable
  • Leviathan, by Jasmine M. Templet<
  • The Heart of the Union, by Dany G. Zuwen (absolutely fascinating projection of nanobot technology into military use)
  • Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

Props to the following specific stories that I thought did an exceptional job of rendering believable, authentic characters who promote diversity in science fiction without being gratuitous:

  • Thirty-Four Dollars, by M. Bernnardo
  • A Tale of a Fast Horse, by Sean Jones
  • Carnivores, by A.D. Spencer
  • Snowball the Rabbit Was Dead, by Angeli Primlani
  • Storage, by Matthew Cherry
  • Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

And double props to the following stories which made at least one of the above lists AND did it through great prose (i.e., the writing itself was also enjoyable):

  • A Tale of a Fast Horse, by Sean Jones
  • Leviathan, by Jasmine M. Templet
  • The Heart of the Union, by Dany G. Zuwen
  • Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

I note that Ember is the only one to make all three lists. I wish it were more science fiction than fantastic, but I can’t argue with how much I appreciated it as a work of speculative short fiction.

I will conclude with a positive as well. MENIAL has definitely been a strong influence on the process of planning a novella/novel I am working on, through which I am attempting to explore social justice issues projected forward into a near-future, space colonization setting. As one of my main characters would probably fit in with many of the protagonists in MENIAL, it’s easy to see how I have this anthology to thank for many new ideas which are now simmering.

In sum, notwithstanding my ranting about consistency, I think that MENIAL is worth the read (especially for the particular stories that I called out) and also to support the diversification of the genre.

View all my reviews



Buddhism and the Social Justice Problem

Something I’ve been struggling with personally as well as in my writing has been trying to tie Buddhism (particularly Theravada), which is at the core of my heritage as a Sinhalese American, to my general sense of practical secular ethics. A major hurdle in this process has been the apparent indifference of doctrinal Buddhism to the issues of contemporary social justice.

Sungtaek Cho at SUNY Stony Brook, in Selflessness: Toward a Buddhist Vision of Social Justice, discusses this notable lack from the historical perspective of cultural imperialism:

Almost all of the ancient philosophies and religions paid scant attention to issues of social justice in the modern sense. […]  it is only from the eighteenth century that social justice emerged as an important issue in political thought and social philosophy in the West. The last three centuries have thus seen the maturation of such key concepts as citizenship, political equality, and the fair distribution of economic resources.

However, the process of modernization that drove the development of social philosophy in the West paradoxically retarded it in the East. Belatedly experiencing modernization as Westernization  initiated by military and economic contact with Western colonial powers, Eastern intellectuals lost confidence in their native traditions, coming to see them as relics of the past without relevance to contemporary problems. As a result, indigenous philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, were neglected in favor of the study of Western thought.

This stunted growth in sociopolitical awareness may not be as acute in majority-Buddhist regions of the world, particularly those in which serious moral and existential questions have been put to the test — say, through civil war. Sri Lanka obviously comes to mind, though I can’t say I am in the loop as to its religious discourse. However I do know that contemporary South Asians of Buddhist heritage but Westernized cultural attitudes (who, by and large, do not speak the academic language of their ancestral nations) run into a huge stumbling block in attempting to access any deeper call to social activism within Buddhist doctrine. Cho again:

The difficulty of developing a theoretical framework for Buddhism in engagement with contemporary social issues is rooted in the very nature of Buddhism as an ontological discourse aiming at individual salvation through inner transformation.

Among the core tenants of Buddhism is that this world of Samsara is illusory and permeated with evil (indeed, the First Noble Truth is that the material world is in fact defined as a state of dhukka, or suffering). In a nutshell, one’s objective is to escape the cycle of rebirth into this suffering by learning to practice nonattachment from the sensual cravings that bind us to this prison of bodily existence — thus liberating the mind and opening the door to achieving Nibbana.

If one accepts this view, then to any socio-politically minded person it begs the questions: Why work to repair a broken world that is to be accepted prima facie, metaphysically and existentially, as broken?  Why try to save a world that is only an illusion from which we are trying to escape? Why take an active role in political, civil, or social advocacy if such matters are seen as petty distractions from the real task at hand?

Francis Story* states the problem this way:

The Buddha did not essay to lay down laws for the conduct of human affairs in any but a strictly personal sense. He gave advice to rulers, as He did to ordinary householders, but did not attempt to formulate principles of state policy, as some religious teachers, with varying success, have attempted to do. His Teaching was for those who wish to liberate themselves from Samsara, not those who desire to improve its conditions.

Story seems to perceive that contemporary western readers will find this lacking, and attempts to follow with an indirect argument:

Nivana may be an individual, not a collective goal, but the Path to it, followed by the individual for his own highest good, has beneficial repercussions on the whole of society. Every man or woman who observes the Five Precepts and conscientiously tries to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, makes it easier for someone else to do the same. One who works for his own highest good confers blessings on all mankind.

This pithy redirection strikes me as hollow at best and dangerously libertarian at worst. I don’t buy it, particularly since this seems to be at odds with the idea of selflessness (or the illusion of a Self that is separate from everything else). Cho, on the other hand, seems to be on a more innovative tack, one that tries to make a doctrinal argument for social action based on the logical consequence of taking the extended view of selfhood in Buddhism to its existential ends.

The Buddhist theory of selflessness, when considered in terms of the individual and his/her place in the community, really becomes something of great social power: an extended interpretation of selfhood. […] namely, the idea that I am everybody in the community.

To put it another way: […] the doctrine of selflessness requires that Buddhists view themselves as being in fact everyone in society. The social implications of this viewpoint are of course powerful: her poverty becomes my poverty; his tragedy, my tragedy. And when combined with the model of active engagement offered by the bodhisattva ideal, in which personal health is achieved by helping others, we suddenly find ourselves with a solid rationale for social action.

A contemporary interpretation of Buddhism based on this principle being the central tenant (rather than the nature of the world sic as suffering) is much more palatable to me, though it would be quite a bit of work indeed to go back through the innumerable pages of the Theravada Canon and produce insightful, clear, and relevant commentary to this effect.

The Copernican revolution, of course, would be that the Four Noble Truths would need to be de-throned from their central “Buddhism 101” position and relegated to a side note, interpreted in light of the new central tenant of Selflessness (or universally-encompassing selfhood). This move might seem like doctrinal heresy. But I would argue that the importance of the Four Noble Truths, at least from what I have read, is mostly found in commentary on Buddhism… not the scriptures themselves. I have read the whole Dhammapada and am about halfway through the Digha Nikaya, and so far I cannot recall any specific mention of the Four Noble Truths. If I am mistaken and indeed there is a doctrinal basis in Buddhist scripture for their centrality from the words of Siddhartha Guatama, then please, as it were, enlighten me.

As radically different from the prevailing discourse as this idea is, I think it is a start, and I think it is foundational to any attempt to articulate a cohesive vision for have Sinhalese American identity is and/or could be. As part of a novel I am working on that explores issues of Sri Lankan American identity in the contemporary United States, I have begun doing some background reading on Buddhism, including a new translation of the Digha Nikaya. The Lakkhana Sutta in particular (The 32 Marks of a Great Man) seems to have some good fodder for thinking about social justice. More later when I finish reading it and digesting.

In the meanwhile, thoughts and comments welcome.

_____

* Story, Francis. (1985). Buddhist Lay Ethics. In: Dimensions of Buddhist Thought, Vol III. Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka.



Boston a Big City? Maybe Too Much So in Some Ways

Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game Of ‘Big City’” runs the headline for a recent article in The Onion. The beloved king of nothing-is-sacred, satirical journalism was hilarious of course. Boston.com ran a good-natured satirical post in response. Not surprisingly, the “Pretty Cute” article also raised some hackles around what is, apparently for some, a sore subject around here.

The satirical back and forth is all in good fun of course, but Tom Keane’s Op-Ed Column in the Globe smacks of something worse than taking a joke too seriously: rose-tinted glasses that see right past serious social problems.

Keane rattles off a number of ways in which Boston just can’t be a truly big city, all of which help paint the lovely image of the progressive “Athens of America”  that Boston projects with such pride. While I have very little doubt that his statements are technically true, they are also maddeningly selective in the story they tell.

You can see Boston’s shortcomings in its wealth and demographics. At over $62,000, Boston’s median household income is above that of New York, LA, and Chicago.

The median is a tricky statistical value; there are so many different income distributions that can arrive at a particular median value that the number in itself doesn’t really tell you much. But what about Radio Boston’s report just over a year ago on WBUR that Boston’s income inequality is among the worst in the United States? Which income indicator is a better measure of how we live up to our stated ideals?

Boston is better educated — as a percentage of the population, more of us have high school, college, and advanced degrees. Again, Boston loses: Real cities should be older, stodgy and a little bit dumb.

Who gets that great Boston education? Lee and Orfield in their 2005 paper “Why Segregation Matters: Poverty and Educational Inequality from the Harvard Civil Rights Project reads

“Our study of metro Boston shows a strong relationship between segregation by race and poverty and teacher quality, test scores and dropout rates. In the entire metro region, 97 percent of the schools with less than a tenth white students face concentrated poverty compared to 1 percent of the schools with less than a tenth minority students” (p 6).

So as not to start a rant specifically on education (though that may come later), I’ll move on. Back to Keane:

Real cities should also be maelstroms of despair and anxiety, filled with poverty and unemployment. Yet with a startlingly low unemployment rate of 5.9 percent, Boston is getting close to the level economists think of as full employment (4.5 percent).

Poverty and employment are related, but not the same thing. People can be underemployed, which means they don’t count toward the unemployment rate but still make less than enough to live on or less than their education should permit — thereby pushing lower-skilled workers to leave the workforce entirely. Or they could be among the rapidly rising tide of the legally disabled, who also don’t count toward unofficial unemployment numbers. Even if Keane had looked at Boston’s poverty rates (which are actually lower on average for US cities), looking at the overall rate misses the stark geographic segregation and ethnic disparities of just who is in poverty here in Boston.

And if being poor weren’t hard enough — the classism in recently exposed exploitation and corruption in the Boston taxi system, with city officials complicit, is but one example of social injustice is systemic, not isolated and extraordinary.

Ok ok, I’ll stop ranting. Look, don’t get me wrong, I love my new city. But it is a love formed (and really, still forming) based on the work I do to help make it, and by extension our shared future as world citizens, better.

If Keane wanted to fire back on the joke with a serious point, I think that he could have at least been balanced about it. There’s no harm in city pride, and I’m sure Keane is well aware of the caveats himself. But there’s a lot of people outside (and let’s admit it, inside) this city that would rather pretend that we live in an affluent yuppie paradise that is the bastion and example of the Democratic Party way.

Columns like Keane’s can give credence to those who’d rather not open their eyes to the ways in which we, unfortunately, are very much like other big US cities. And that’s a comparison we have yet to face down successfully — as a city and as a nation.



Gender Gaps in Engineering and Teaching

Katie Mangan over at the Chronicle of Higher Education has posted an article called In Terms of Gender, Engineering and Teaching Are Lopsided – Diversity in Academe. The article includes a photo and some quotes from me.

I don’t think it comes across well in the article, and this is probably just due to how I phrased things, but it’s not so much that I see myself as a role model for girls to go into STEM careers (for starters, I’m not female).  Rather, I see it as part of my job to ignore what society tells anyone that they can’t do and focus on bringing out what they can do. That includes women in STEM fields, among a vast array of other demographic disparities. Mangan’s article does draw needed attention to this important issues, and I’m glad I had the conversation with her.

To take a step back though and look at the big picture… I think the gender gap in any profession, including teaching and engineering, has a lot to do with the perceived status of the profession. That’s why I got raised eyebrows for my career move (that and maybe the salary hit) — not because engineering is “testosterone-fueled” as Mangan writes. (What does that mean anyway? That engineering requires testosterone to run? I disagree with that perhaps unintentionally reinforcing implication.)

The real question some people were wondering, whether consciously or not, was why would I want to voluntarily move from what society treats as a high status profession to one it treats as a low status one?

By extension then, we see the layer underneath: despite the advances women have made in graduation rates, they are still unconsciously relegated to lower status within almost any profession. It’s not a huge leap to predict from there that our highest status professions (doctors, law firm partners, CEOs, superstar athletes, engineers, etc) are going to be predominantly male. We can claim neo-liberalism all we want, but the statistics repeatedly show that our underlying assumptions and how we have chosen to structure society are still infused with inequities — among them, allowing women to reach their potential in all fields.

We have a long way to go, on so many issues. It starts in the classroom. Which is why I’m here.



Whither Science Fiction?

Science fiction, like so many aspects of the world right now, feels like it is on the cusp of a major shaking up. One year ago, Neil Stephenson provoked a flurry of discussion with his article on the decline of bold and innovative ideas in our contemporary society, and science fiction in particular. More recently, Jonathan McCalmont posted am extensive assessment of a the state of science fiction, provocatively entitled “Cowardice, Laziness, and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future,” which has drawn fire for criticizing the science fiction publishing establishment and some of the most lauded authors in the genre.

I don’t agree with everything in either of those articles, but I do agree that science fiction is due for a makeover. What has been done was brilliant in its way — generations of writers and artists who dreamed of what we could be and warned us against what we could become. But so much has changed about our society and I don’t think that the media establishment, including traditional publishers, have changed with it. Innovation is ultimately driven by and for people, and who we are as a people no longer conforms to where the genre has been.

I am particularly interested in the perceived narrow appeal of science fiction. Why is the stereotype sci-fi geek a particular race, class, gender, and personality? Is it because the genre is inherently of interest only to this set of people? Or could it be that what gets published and awarded attracts only that set, who are the ones that rise up in the genre and in turn become the publishers and awarders?

Put more specifically, does the current portfolio of literary science fiction published in the United States actually reflect the current cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic, and gender demographics of literate Americans? I really don’t think so. So why is anyone surprised that the appeal of the tried and true seems to be waning?

The tide is changing however. New periodicals like Lightspeed Magazine for example are embracing new publishing models, going with solely electronic format and easy mobile web access from the very beginning. They also explicitly embrace diversity in their submissions:

We believe that the science fiction/fantasy genre’s diversity is its greatest strength, and we wish that viewpoint to be reflected in our story content and our submission queues; we welcome submissions from writers of every race, religion, nationality, gender, and sexual orientation.

In a similar vein, The Future Fire has been accepting submissions on an anthology call entitled We See a Different Frontier. They are more blunt about their purpose:

We See a Different Frontier will publish new speculative fiction stories in which the viewpoint is that of the colonized, not the invader. We want to see stories that remind us that neither readers nor writers are a homogeneous club of white, male, Christian, hetero, cis, monoglot, anglophone, able-bodied Westerners.

I don’t know where this is going nor am I sure that it will necessarily be better. But I seem to have discovered a love for writing fiction during a major shift in social attitudes, which has made me think about my experiences and personal perspective in interesting ways.

It’s definitely going to be a writing weekend…

Edit 10/13/12: Repaired the link to McCalmont’s article.



The task of resisting our own oppression does not relieve us of the responsibility of acknowledging our complicity in the oppression of others.

Beverly Daniel Tatum, “The Complexity of Identity”, in Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Adams et al, editors).



A little light evening reading…



The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.

Martin Luther King, Jr.




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