Head to the Spaceport and Book Passage!

Forget Covid. Forget politics. Go outside tonight if you have any kind of clear sky and a view to the southeast and southwest—even if it’s between the trees and buildings. To the southeast, Mars and the Moon are about to fall into a dangerous, non-distancing embrace. They are spectacular together, with or without city light pollution. And to the southwest, Jupiter and Saturn continue to dance brightly (well, Jupiter is bright, Saturn is less so) at arm’s length.

I saw them all while walking the dogs (I couldn’t even see any stars), and was thrown right back to the 1950s and early 1960s, when the solar system was a simpler place, and we just knew that in another fifty years, we’d be able to head down to the Atom City Spaceport and hop on a luxury space-liner to any of those places. Those were the days! The Golden Era of Space Travel (as it should have been)!

Stand by for Mars cover

 

Car, parked.

carOn March 13, I filled the car with gas because we were planning a trip to visit my sweetheart’s mother for her 90th birthday. But the next day we both woke up feeling a little under the weather, so we decided we shouldn’t go.

Four days later, the Bay Area set up a shelter-in-place to slow down the pandemic.

I haven’t put gas in the car since. According to the gauge, there’s about three-quarters of a tank available.

At a rough guess, I’ve driven the car about a hundred miles in the last six and a half months. To put that in perspective, I’ve walked about 850 miles in that same period.

Now it’s not unusual for me to walk more than I drive when I’m not traveling. I live in a very walkable neighborhood. And I’m even driving to run some errands right now; when you buy two weeks worth of groceries at once or are picking up a farm box instead of browsing the booths at the farmer’s market, a car is useful. Continue reading “Car, parked.”

[celebrations] Book Launch Day!

Book Launch Today — Collaborators by Deborah J. Ross

 

Poised on the brink of war, the people of the planet Bandar are stunned by the arrival of a disabled Terran space ship. But the Terrans are even less prepared to understand the politics, gender fluidity, or mob reflexes of the natives. The Terran captain uses increasing force as the only way to ensure desperately needed repairs. Hoping to bring enlightened human values to the natives, a young scientist’s intervention leads to disaster.

After a vicious assault, a pregnant native becomes radicalized. A failed poet sees the Terran occupation as a way to gain the recognition he craves. A widow whose farm is bombed using Terran weaponry journeys to the capital in search of help and ends up facing a firing squad. And a reporter becomes the voice of the resistance, determined to take back his world from the invaders…

As violence escalates, the fate of both peoples rests with those who have suffered the most. Can they find a way to forgiveness . . . and peace?

 Lambda Literary Award Finalist

James Tiptree, Jr. Award 2014 Long List

The “Story Behind the Story” of Collaborators

Collaborators is an occupation-and-resistance story, which at its heart is about
the uses and abuses of power. In order to talk about power, I had to address the issue of
gender. Gender and race inform every human interaction; from our earliest years, we
are trained to respond to others as “like me” or “not like me,” and all too often treat
them either kindly or harshly as a result. Rather than delve into 20th Century human
gender politics (I wrote the book mostly in 1992-95) I decided to create a gender-fluid
alien race in order to highlight the assumptions humans make. I wanted to create a
resonance and contrast between the tensions arising from First Contact and those
arising from gender expectations. What if the native race — inherently “not the same
color/race/ethnicity” as humans — did not divide themselves into male and female?
How would that work – biologically? romantically? socially? politically? How would it
affect the division of labor? child-rearing? How many ways would Terrans misinterpret
a race for whom every other age-appropriate person is a potential lover? Or, in a life-
paired couple, each partner equally likely to engender or gestate a child? Maybe by the
time we achieve interstellar space flight, we’ll have evolved beyond sexism and racism,
not to mention homophobia and religious intolerance. One can only hope.

 

For my alien race in Collaborators, I also wanted sexuality to be important. I
decided that young adults would be androgynous in appearance and highly sexual. Sex
would be something they’d enjoy often and enthusiastically with their age-mates.
However, the intense intimacy created by sex exclusively with the same person would
lead to a cascade of emotional and physiological effects resulting in a permanent,
lifelong pairing. The pairing, a biological bond obvious to everyone around the couple, would lead to polarization with accompanying mood swings, aggression, inability to
focus. Each partner would appear more “female” or “male,” which would inevitably set
up occasions for misunderstanding with Terrans, who think and react in terms of those
divisions. The natives, on the other hand, would wonder how people who are
permanently polarized can get any work done, and react to Terran women as if they
were all pregnant, and therefore to be protected at all costs because their own birth rate
is low. Just as we’ve instituted the canonical talk about the birds and the bees, or sex ed
in schools, so the natives would have traditions of preparing their young people, trying
to ensure that pairing does not have disastrous political or inter-clan consequences. We
know how badly that works in humans, so it’s likely to be equally ineffective with native
teenagers, too. Continue reading “[celebrations] Book Launch Day!”

Time to Make the Doughnuts

Remember the exciting first days of the Pandemic? When the world was new and it was possible to recast everything in the light of an adventure? (Okay, that’s my coping mechanism. It might not be yours.)

In March, I decided I was going to make masks for donation–first off to medical personnel who were dying (sometimes literally) for want of PPE, but then to others who needed them. It was great: as the masks of different sorts got sent off I felt a part of something bigger than I am, and I felt like I was making a contribution, and it felt great. Continue reading “Time to Make the Doughnuts”

Why We Don’t Have Flying Cars

Editor’s Note: I decided to update another post I wrote several years back about the work of David Graeber.

The Utopia of RulesDavid Graeber has a different – and delightful – explanation for why we don’t have flying cars, not to mention Moon colonies and the other futuristic advances we were promised in the 1950s and 60s.

In a word: bureaucracy. Not just the usual kind that we all suffer with on a regular basis, though that’s part of it, but a more intentional kind. Graeber’s theory, set out in his delightful book The Utopia of Rules, is:

There appears to have been a profound shift, beginning in the 1970s, from investment in technologies associated with the possibility of alternative futures to investment [in] technologies that furthered labor discipline and social control.

He rejects the argument that the future we were expecting was unrealistic in favor of one finding an intentional effort to derail the imaginative futures thought up by creative types ranging from Gene Roddenberry to Larry Niven.

And he concludes that one of the results of this shift has been to move science fiction more fully into a “pure fantasy” niche:

Science fiction has now become just another set of costumes in which one can dress up a Western, a war movie, a horror flick, a spy thriller, or just a fairy tale.

Continue reading “Why We Don’t Have Flying Cars”

David Graeber: May His Memory Be a Revolution

David GraeberThe anthropologist and anarchist activist David Graeber died September 2 at the age of 59. For those  of us who loved the way his books and essays opened up our minds and made us look at the world in a different way, his death was a terrible loss.

Fortunately, he had recently finished a book co-written with David Wengrew, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, which will be out next year.

A few years back, I wrote an appreciation of his book Bullshit Jobs, so I’m sharing a slightly revised version of that here.

My favorite passage from Bullshit Jobs comes in Graeber’s description of normal human work patterns:

[M]ost people who have ever existed have assumed that normal human work patterns take the form of periodic intense bursts of energy, followed by relaxation, followed by slowly picking up again toward another intense bout.

Graeber, who was a professor, goes on to note that this is the “traditional student’s pattern of lackadaisical study leading up to intense cramming before exams and then slacking off again” — a pattern he calls “punctuated hysteria” – and argues that this is what humans do if allowed to follow their own devices. Continue reading “David Graeber: May His Memory Be a Revolution”

Wildfire Journey, Part I

First came thunder and dry lightning. Such storms are rare in my area, due to the configuration of the mountains, but this one was extraordinary by any standards. The first storms hit early on August 16, with not dozens but thousands of lightning strikes (estimated 12,000 over 72-96 hours). 

We had watched the lightning for a few hours, flash after blinding flash, and commented that in his last years, our old German Shepherd Dog had become fearful of loud sounds like thunder and fireworks (we dealt with this by immediately getting out his all-time favorite toy and playing with him). Even though we knew of the danger of fires, somehow it didn’t connect. It should have. Over 500 wildfires sprang up in the next few hours, fanned by hot, dry winds. Soon we saw news stories of multiple fires in our county, Santa Cruz, and neighboring San Mateo, that were to merge into the #CZUAugustLightningComplex fire. 

The next day, the air was noticeably smokey, but we’d had smokey air before, from the Camp fire a couple of years ago, and others in Northern California. We kept an eye on the news but otherwise went about our business, mostly staying indoors. But as August 18 went on, the smoke thickened and the extent of the fire at Butano Park, northwest of us, expanded with terrifying rapidity, our mood went from watchful to alarmed. About dinner time, the smoke was as thick as San Francisco fog. 

“We should prepare to get out of here,” I told my family. “Just in case.” For months now, I’d been gathering materials on disaster preparedness, and had checklists and evacuation route maps in a folder on the kitchen counter. Now I got out those lists.

We each went about packing up suitcases, getting cat carriers ready, piling up our binder of important documents and insurance policies, getting out boxes of family photos. CPAPs, check. Jewelry, check. Prescription meds, check. And so forth.

The smoke got worse. The fire got closer. Big Basin State Park, that jewel of old growth coastal redwoods, was in flames. 

“We’re leaving,” I said, and called my dear friend and fellow writer in the East Bay. 

“Of course you can stay with us,” she said.

“But first,” I told my family, “we will have a good dinner.” As I’d planned, fajitas with squash from our garden. The hot, flavorful food strengthened us for what was to come.

We finished dinner, I loaded the dishwasher and set it to run, and then we loaded up the cars, locked the house, and drove off. As it was, our grown daughter and the cats had an offer of refuge south of Santa Cruz, so after some discussion, we decided to split the family. We stepped out of the house into a sea of billowing smoke.

The road into our little town was already filling up with outbound traffic. At the one and only stop sign in town, in front of the volunteer fire department, sheriffs were directing traffic south toward Santa Cruz. “Go, go, go!” the officer in the middle of the intersection shouted, waving cars through. I’d planned on going left, then along a twisty mountain road I knew well to the nearest highway, but followed the course of least trouble for everyone. It meant a somewhat longer drive for me to detour south, then east, then back north, but in the interest of keeping outgoing traffic flowing smoothly and not making more work for the folks who were trying to get us all out safely, I took it.

Shortly thereafter, while I was on the road, we all received reverse-911 texts of the mandatory evacuation orders. Continue reading “Wildfire Journey, Part I”

Gillian Polack Wins Ditmar for Best Novel

The Year of the Fruit CakeTreehouse writers are thrilled to report that fellow resident Gillian Polack won Australia science fiction’s 2020 Ditmar Award for best novel for The Year of the Fruit Cake. The book was published by IFWG Publishing in Australia.

Since Gillian was unable to attend the awards, Yaritji Green and Gerry Huntman accepted on her behalf. The Ditmar Award has been given at Australia’s national science fiction convention since 1969.

Gillian said on Facebook, “I was so subversive in this novel that I still have trouble believing fans voted for it. This gives me a ridiculous amount of hope at a time when hope is not everyday.

In The Year of the Fruit Cake, five women meet up by chance when they end up sharing a table in a café. They are all very different, and one of them — though we’re not sure for a long time which one of them — is an alien from a culture of multiple genders in which the beings change genders several times over a lifetime. On Earth, however, she is trapped in the unchangeable body of a menopausal woman and has a confused mass of memories about who she really is.

The book is available internationally.

Living Quickly

I’m a bit late today. I have had 3 meetings, read a book and worked and … I’m tired. I don’t have many words for you today, then, but my last few days got me thinking. I have so many things to think about right now that it’s hard to settle down to write about just one idea. What is helping sort me out is a letter I received from an editor. It was one of the most lucid analyses of a manuscript I’ve seen in a long time. It told me what my mind was doing. That letter also helped me see what other people’s minds are doing.

We’re all in a strange world and adjusting to it as difficult. This new world has too much quicksand. It’s easy to step onto something secure and discover the ground sucking us in.

COVID changes our everyday in ways we can’t predict. The emotional response to the pandemic and the quicksand changes our emotions in ways we cannot control. What this lucid letter taught me was that I had temporarily lost the capacity to take a step back and to see the world clearly.

In some ways we’re living very slowly right now, and we’re a bit divorced from the world because we can’t walk in it every day.

In other ways we’re living very intensely. In the late 1980s I clipped a cartoon and stuck it on a bookshelf, for it exactly summed up what the world looked like just then. Father Time was playing with a device. “Oops, I hit fast-forward,” he said.

That cartoon is even more appropriate now than it was then, for social distancing and iso and the world talking so quickly and passionately online while our local social networks are temporarily faded makes me think of the TV screen and watching events on it.

In the late 1980s Father Time was metaphorically hitting the switch that affected our lives. In 2020, we are ourselves in Father Time’s seat, seeing the whole world through screens.

Rip van Winkle versus the Spaceship

I’m dreaming of spaceships today. I want to write a story set in one.

I need to write a story. It’s only Tuesday here and my New Year is on Friday and I’m writing your post nearly a week early because of that festival. I was going to tell you all about Medieval Jewish foodways in western Europe and about modem Jewish foodways in Australia and I was going to make you cravingly hungry for honeycake. I’m derailing the whole conversation (one I haven’t yet begun) because of my dream of spaceships.

I won’t tell you the dream itself, for it’s going into a short story, later today. One short story set in a spaceship and I ought to be caught up on all my new fiction for Jewish New Year. What I want to talk about is the alternate path the dream did not take.

Before 2020, I assumed that if someone were inside for months on end, when they went outside, finally, I would have a Rip van Winkle experience. I would emerge to a strange place I did not recognise: the rest of the world would have moved on.

This is not at all what happened when I went to medical appointments last week. Sure, the streets look at bit different. I emerged to a financial recession, after all, where the strict COVID limits on who can do what. Overcrowding is rare and people are more scattered. There are crosses and lines to mark safety.

I knew about these changes, however, before I encountered them. Rip van Winkle emerged to a place he did not know and that he did not understand. While he was asleep, he was out of sync with the outside world.

It would take an active choice to be out of sync right now. Or a second terrible moment, like the wildfires in the US or riots or… a great deal of what’s happening in the world right now. Multiply the peril and one’s focus turns to keeping going. I suspect the US has many Rips right now.

Given my last twelve months, I assumed that this is what would happen to me. That I would emerge into a changed world and I would not belong to it at all. When I found that this wasn’t at all true, I needed another metaphor. Washington Irving failed me. It’s tragic that he did not fail the US.

I explained my situation a bit more clearly to a neighbour’s friend when I put my rubbish out (this was such a big accomplishment! Once this statement would have been sarcastic – right now it requires the exclamation mark.). My neighbour’s friend failed me in a different way when I emerged.

When we told each other what we did for a living and I said I was a writer, he took my earlier admission of disability to mean that I filled in my time writing. He was nice about me turning my disabled state to good use.

This was when I fell out of sync with the world. Had working for a living changed since I last spoke to a stranger? He moved off the ‘occupation for a person with disabilities’ and onto the ‘does this out of passion’ thing. If we meet a few more times, maybe he’ll see the professional side of writing, and understand that being disabled doesn’t actually mean having a lesser life. It’s a life with restrictions and much medical stuff, but it’s capable of being amazingly rich. Mine is that life. I commented to him that I was bored for a whole hour earlier this year and I looked at the boredom and examined it closely and exclaimed in wonder at it and that is when I discovered that I was no longer bored.

This is why I had the spaceship dream.

I was never Rip van Winkle. I’m in a small spaceship. I can talk to other people and am in touch with the whole world of I want to be, but I’m in a spaceship. No dinner parties. No long chats with friends around a pot of tea. No long walks in the spring sunshine. But I know what’s happening and can be a part of it. It’s only my physical presence in a place other than my spaceship that’s not a given.