While I’m thinking of sex, here’s a repost about why Rho studies ducks.

mallard drakeSomeone asked me yesterday why Rho, the protagonist of Advice From Pigeons,  studies incubi in ducks.

Actually, Rho studies incubi in ducks because it is the hot topic in his field. Like a good PI, I steered my character toward a research area with career prospects.

Incubi being the demons of lust, they are intimately involved in livestock breeding; hence the discipline of veterinary lechery. Controlling them is a challenge, though. How do you make an incubus possess one individual animal? How do you make it stay in that animal, until he has bred with all the females? Incubi are flighty, and usually leave their host immediately after sex. Except in ducks.

Researchers have known for a long time that male ducks, particularly mallards, are highly sexed individuals. Male mallards engage in standard courtship, male-on-male activity, and what mundane scientists term ‘Forced Extra Pair Copulation:’ in Davis’ (2002) study, almost half of the male mallards were ‘forcers.’

Mundane scientists try to explain this kind of thing by hormone levels, social position, and natural selection. Veterinary lechers know that these drakes are in fact possessed by incubi.  But do the incubi remain in their hosts throughout the breeding season, or are mallards simply re-possessed immediately after each mating?  Rho’s observations in the field, filming possessed mallards with the camera lucida, settled this question. A significant number of mallard drakes are continuously possessed by individual incubi for entire breeding seasons.

Now Rho’s challenge is to build on this work, finding out why mallards can attract and retain incubi and how we can do the same.  Today’s little man filming ducks from up in a tree may be tomorrow’s viagra millionaire!

Literature cited: Davis, E. (2002). Male reproductive tactics in the mallard, Anas platyrhynchos : social and hormonal mechanisms. Behav Ecol Sociobiol (2002) 52:224–231.

For those of you who are true duck sex fanciers, here’s a link to the famous duck penis eversion video.

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Nature’s Nether Regions

This book is about the evolution of genitalia. In practice, that means it’s largely about penises – as Dr. Schilthuizen readily admits, the field has had a gender disparity problem. That hasn’t prevented scientists from identifying female choice as a major selective force, however, with many fascinating behavioral and anatomical specifics.

Here we find discussions of traumatic insemination and the sperm’s ability to swim around the abdominal cavity, seeking out eggs to fertilize – something which appears to occur in humans as well as more adventurous animals. We find apparatuses for sequestering sperm and controlling its access to the eggs, including sperm dumping. The male equivalent includes post-coital plugs, some created by the most drastic of measures, and ways to remove the previous male’s sperm from a mate and replace it with your own. An impressive variety of hydraulics are described, one kind best-known from sushi eaters’ unpleasant encounters with it. Of course reproduction is key, so I should not have been surprised by the tremendous amount of energy and materials animals devote to these structures. But I was.

The author clearly describes the evolutionary theories devised to explain this exuberant variety, outlining the competing arguments and their criticisms. For me, though, this was the least interesting aspect of the book. Not because any of the theories appeared to be particularly weak, but because I’ve done enough evolutionary biology in my time to know that had the data been exactly opposite, the scientists would just as readily have come up with theories to explain it and make it seem inevitable. For me, the far more convincing part of the book is in the few occasions when it delves into animal husbandry or human physiology and shows us verified predictions.

Reading about the sex lives of animals we’re not shy about underscores just how prudish and willfully ignorant we are about our own sex lives. Research findings we’re glad to apply to breeding pigs but ignore when it comes to humans, those hundreds of proteins in seminal fluid whose function we know nothing of even though we have a multimillion dollar industry devoted to treating infertility – what’s that about? You’d almost think humans aren’t really *trying* to maximize other humans’ reproductive potential…

That’s the way this book makes me think. I love a book that makes me think.

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Bees

First there was Bonsels’  Maya the Bee, which my folks gave me way, way back in the day. I must have been five or thereabouts. I did not notice any of its political subtext.

Then there was The Mother Hive by Rudyard Kipling, with the creepy wax-moth. Even as a child, I had a dim feeling that this was political; but I hadn’t any idea what it was political about. I did get the message that smooth-talking folks who promised to change things for the better while dropping their eggs all around the place were to be avoided; but absent historical context, this can be pointed at any part of the political spectrum.

Now The Bees by Laline Paull, quite different. What an ambiguous hive we’re introduced to, with its anonymous enforcers and sinister priestesses! If Kipling’s wax-worm had written a book about the hive, this is how she would have seen it. She would have championed the ‘defective’ bees that Paull’s enforcers kill.

Paull creates a much better built-up bee society than Kipling, though parts of it troubled me – mainly the division of the bees into familial castes. I found that hard to believe, as I found hard to believe the way the different families are assigned different roles and the protagonist switches between cleaning and other jobs at her own volition or the whim of other bees; I had thought all worker bees switched from job to job as they aged, cleaning at the beginning of their lives, so the intra-hive political jockeying struck me as gratuitous and a bit heavy handed.

Update! This bugged me so much that I’ve been delving into bee research and find that it does indeed appear to be true. The queen mates multiple times, providing genetic variability among the worker bees, and that genetic variability is correlated with behaviors like brood cleaning, mite removal, and fanning. I thought I could not be more impressed with Ms. Paull’s book, but I was wrong.

But most of the book was delightful. The drones, for instance; they are so perfectly drones, and the worker bees’ responses to them so pitch-perfect (“Your maleness!”). The way bees are described as part human and part insect works beautifully, especially when the larvae in the nursery are described as having sweet little faces. The landscape around the hive is well-realized, especially the chilling discovery in the rape-seed field, and the wasps are delightfully wicked.

His maleness

And Paull does much better than Kipling in explaining the bees’ loyalty to the hive, even with all its police-state aspects. The Queen’s presence is so strong you can completely buy into the worker bees’  love for her. The bees have a rich spiritual life, based heavily on smell but also on telepathic communication by antennae.  One of the strongest points of this book, for me, was the way Paull manages to evoke the bees’ groupthink – the term ‘hive mind’ is used without irony – without undercutting it. This is the most important thing in the world to the bees, the unifying force behind their civilization, and she treats that respectfully rather than using it to make a cheap political point (as, for instance, T.H. White did with the ants’ antennal communication in The Sword in the Stone).

This book reads like the final fruit of many happy hours poring over the lives of bees, and it gave me several happy hours and some new knowledge about both writing strategies and insects. I can’t ask for more.

And another update: This book gave my book club our best discussion in living memory. We were diving into it before all the members had arrived, and kept up vigorous, excited discussion all evening – aided by printouts of bee behavior articles, homemade honey, and photos of backyard hives.

Of all the fantasy novels I’ve read in the past few years, I enjoyed this one the most and it’s still giving me tremendous fun as I delve into bee genetics. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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Thoughts from half-way through ‘Let Down Your Hair’

It is nice to read a fairy-tale retelling that is actually a fairy-tale retelling, rather than just being marketed that way to lure people like me into buying it.

Wow, this is the least charitable rendering of feminism ever, so why am I enjoying it so much?

Does any woman really have hairy ankles? And why of all things for the narrator to care about…

Why have I never worked at one of those colleges where the department heads get top-floor offices decorated in velvet?

Plus with a view through the skylight of the figure drawing studio…

The narrator goes from ‘men are potential rapists’ to sex in 60 seconds flat.

She also goes from ‘dowdy whatsit’ to ‘professional model’ in 60 seconds flat.

You can’t say this book is slow, that’s for sure! I’m having fun so far and am not likely to write a more substantial review later.

Here’s the link

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What would non-dominant christianity be like?

There’s this christian blogger I follow now and then, and she posted about forgiving somebody. One of the comments really caught my eye:

…All that said I will not argue against your need to forgive her. I admit forgiveness is a Christian value that I struggle with understanding, but frankly, I don’t need to understand it to respect it.

The more I think about this the more I think “How cool is that!”

Then I think, “Why do you think that’s cool?” and I compare it to discussions I’ve seen of the same topic on other christian blogs, which are discussions I don’t find cool at all; they usually involve a lot of back-and-forth about whether/when a person is forgivable, and whether christianity really requires forgiveness, and lots of inside baseball about what one pope or another said and theory of just war, and perhaps a few passages from the Screwtape Letters, and christians have done way worse than the person in question and why doesn’t the opposing brand of christianity take this issue seriously and tl:dr. That’s what these discussions turn into in areas where christianity is assumed to be the only religion that matters and the arbiter of right conduct. Who gets to define this religion and how they justify their definition become the most important issues.

I’ve decided that what I love about the blog comment is this; it’s someone looking at christianity from the outside, as just another religion. People holding it will do funny things sometimes, but that’s their prerogative. If they want to go round forgiving folk, whatevs. They don’t have to justify being christian, or thinking that forgiveness is one of their religious duties.

A lot of online christians worry about what will happen when christianity loses its stranglehold on the culture and becomes just another religion. I’m a total optimist, so I’m hoping this is an example of what will happen.

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I seem to love stories about bears

I’m half-way through The Secret History of Fantasy and this is the story I’ve enjoyed the most: Bears Discover Fire by Terry Bisson. What a fine story this is! It felt completely real from beginning to end, and like the best fantasies it left me wishing it was real. Terry Bisson’s voice is authentic, his first-person narrator realized without a single false note. I challenge anyone to finish this story and not want to meet the narrator, sit around saying not much with him, and go see those bears.

Then there’s Theodora Goss’s story Sleeping With Bears. Was there ever a more enticing wedding party? By the end of it, we all understand why someone would marry a bear.

There’s something about bears that makes people write fine, fine fiction. People let bears be what they are; bears don’t require that you project anything onto them. They’re just as big as we are and have their own lives without our participation. They carry on right in front of us, as if neither of us mattered that much to one another, and in this set us a good example to follow. And some excellent authors have taken up that challenge.

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It’s not just me, it’s spring

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz weighs in on the state of science fiction and fantasy writing today in a column for Strange Horizons, and I see echoes of not only what I tried to say in  recent posts but of the article I mentioned last week about how accusations of cultural appropriation affect non-western writers.

Words of wisdom from Ms. Loenen-Ruiz’s article:

Science fiction invites us to explore, to engage the world, to consider possibilities—it invites us to play and revel even in improbabilities. It is perhaps the gift that allows us to retain what is childlike in us—that allows us to keep in touch with the wild self that is always eager and curious and wants to know more. It is the genre that allows us to envision possible solutions—that allows us to keep hold of what it is that makes us human.

And yet, when I look at the field today, I find myself wondering.


Just recently, a young writer wrote me to apologize for making use of my culture without asking for permission.

I sat there looking at the email and my heart broke as I thought of the anxiety that must have preceded the writing of this letter.

That anxiety wasn’t just for people writing about others’ cultures. It affected Ms. Loenen-Ruiz herself.

The discussions at that time made me anxious about the way I approached the culture in which I grew up. Should I write about it? Was it right to write about it? If I wrote about it, would I be commodifying my culture?

That’s right,  a writer felt intimidated about writing about her own culture. About how critical voices based in theory – commodifying, anyone? – would judge her for describing her own world. Isn’t that appropriation in a nutshell, when the voice of critique lays claim to other people’s cultures and presumes to judge how those people write about them?

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is a consistently gracious and welcoming voice in the field, and you should read her whole essay. “Do not allow yourself to fall silent,” it ends.

Too many of us let ourselves fall silent in recent years because we were afraid of getting it wrong, of transgressing some rule book and being tarred as hopeless racists. But I’ve come to realize that there is no adequate rule book. When an author from country A, educated in country B, living in country C,  is critiqued by a theorist from country D, educated in country E, living in country F — isn’t it time to get real, and treat them both as individuals instead of lists of boxes to check?

We are in a state of possibility in SFF. I think it would be very hard for anyone to appoint him- or herself sole owner of the moral high ground right now. And in this open space, individual voices begin to pipe up like birds returning in springtime. Varied, vibrant, living their own lives — and singing them — without asking permission or caring about comments.

Do not allow yourself to fall silent.

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Rose Red Review, Winter 2014: response 2

A Ma and Sayap by Kira Dreyer Messell

A Ma just didn’t grab me. The ideas brought up were very interesting, and I would have liked to see them explored further. Where are the other people who became gods? What’s constraining this god’s actions? She doesn’t seem to have tried doing any of the things I would do if I were immortal, and is that because she’s tried them and found out they don’t work?

Perhaps the author was retelling an actual legend, and didn’t feel she could take the license to address those sorts of things. But I have lots of questions about the lives of little local special-purpose gods, once I start thinking they have lives and can do things like joining theatrical troupes.

Sayap was more interesting but way less pleasant, to me. It reminded me of several other creepy stories I’ve read about people trying to create human-animal hybrids, which I also disliked – it’s just a topic that squicks me.

The new girl’s questions and attitude were what kept me going, by giving hope of a satisfying ending. It wasn’t completely clear how that ending linked back to the beginning quote, though. Who will become the daughters? I have an idea, but am not sure of it. The only person actually acting as the madman’s daughter in the story is the narrator.

Actually, thinking about that narrator gives me insight into what stood out most to me about these two stories – the lack of agency in the characters. That’s a common thing in legends, which present themselves as telling you what happened long ago and far away. But it’s one of the reasons I find it so difficult to graft modern, living characters onto legends; we expect to see living characters making choices. So I wonder why the protagonist in the first story hasn’t made a killing in the stock market, and why none of the girls’ families have come after them in the second story, and as the tales go on that kind of wondering grows to take up more and more of my mind until I can no longer enter into the story wholeheartedly.

Enfermos by Raquel I. Penzo was another of those stories where the fantastic element seems to be purely symbolic. Which makes sense – the cloud that follows the narrator, the shadow in the apartment across the alley, seem as good explanations as any for the changes she undergoes. Most of those changes seem to happen off-stage, though, so am I right to think the cloud was involved in them?

I wanted an explanation of it, some hope for overcoming it, so much that it made me realize that there wasn’t any explanation in the other symbolic-fantasy story in this issue. That made me wonder about symbolic-fantasy stories in general, and hope that I’ll develop some overall understanding of them as I read more.

There were some places where different formatting or just a bit more explanation would have helped me understand this story better. The key one was near the end, where somebody speaks to Nana; it was formatted as if the mother was the one speaking, and I confused myself by reading it that way. I also assumed ‘Papi’ was the narrator’s father, and that got me quite disoriented about where she was living at various times in the story. I’ll have to be less impatient with my critique group when they pick on me about things that I think are obvious!

Whose Woods These Are by Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin

This story, I felt on solid ground with! I could identify completely with the protagonist’s feelings, guilt and unwillingness to act, and the story built until I thought I knew what was going on – but, like the narrator, I discovered at the end that I didn’t. And, like her, I wasn’t sure how I should feel about it even after I knew the secret. I’d enjoy reading the next chapter about this narrator and her new responsibilities.

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Paperback Writer!

Double Dragon has now made my books available in trade paperback, via Lulu. I was surprised at the cost, but they are very nice volumes! This is the first time I have actually been able to hold my novels in my hands.

Even though Advice from Pigeons came out in 2011, I feel newly published!

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Galileo’s Middle Finger

It’s been a while since I devoured a book the way I devoured this one, which arrived at my door 4 pm yesterday. And it’s been a while since devouring a book left me with such a feeling of having a lot to digest.

As soon as I unwrapped the book, I sat down on my front porch and started reading it; but I only got about 15 minutes in when some friends arrived for a dinner date. Over dinner we talked about a lot of things, including online bullying and controversy. “I hardly ever sign online petitions any more,” my friend said, “because everything turns out to be a lot more complicated than it was presented to be. I could spend a year trying to figure out the actual facts of the case.” And then, we agreed, the controversies too often turned into exercises in taking sides. But did being cautious lead to not intervening when you really ought?

Galileo’s Middle Finger is basically about that. It’s a call for evidence-based activism, for the need to understand what is actually happening in order to change it. It doesn’t offer any useful tips for the person faced with one of those online petitions, however – and that may be the point.

In the book’s first section, Dr. Dreger outlines the kind of historical research she did to understand the concept of intersex and how it led her into activism against gender reassignment surgery. What surprised me most, I have to admit, is her admission that at the beginning of her studies she didn’t even know that hermaphroditism occurred in humans. What impressed me most was that she had the skills to turn her research findings into successful activism, something which has always struck me as miraculous.

Having this body of information and experience under her belt, she then turned to research on conflicts between researchers and activists. As someone who had been more familiar with the ‘republican war on science’ literature, I was surprised to find how much conflict had occurred between the progressive community and scientists and how adeptly right-wing figures had latched on to whatever parts of that controversy they could use.

Dr. Dreger gives detailed, gripping examples of the kind of fact-checking necessary to make sense of such controversies – reading the references to see what’s actually in them, delving into the archives of professional societies, soliciting old e-mails from ex-members of review boards. But the shadow side is that her enemies, those condemning the scientists she champions, are doing the same things. They, too, are traveling to interview research subjects. They, too, are soliciting information from in-country sources; they, too, find their opponents’ arguments to be nonsense and their opponents’ evidence to be a tissue of lies.

What’s the difference between them, then, for the person not able to spend years looking up every cited article? Well, in the middle of the book social justice rhetoric and overt hostility seem to be pretty clear hallmarks. Folks more motivated by ideology than by devotion to the truth are the ones to distrust. But then, in the last section of the book, Dr. Dreger pulls this rug out from under our feet.

In the last section, Dr. Dreger becomes involved in the case of prenatal dexamethasone treatment to prevent virilization in female infants with CAH – and the book circles back, like a spiral staircase, to where it began but (perhaps) on a higher, more sophisticated level. Because now she is the person attacking a researcher, getting people to sign letters of concern based on her word rather than their own research, using many of the methods she’s been poking holes in.

You’d think that if anybody was qualified to answer the question How do you stop a scientific researcher?, it would’ve been me at that moment. The problem was that my work had only uncovered all the wrong ways to do it. What the hell was the right way? (p. 191)

One of the touchstones Dr. Dreger clings to to distinguish herself from activists who have lost perspective is that she will follow the evidence, in this case the evidence of an FDA investigation; if that investigation finds no wrongdoing, she will accept that she’s been wrong. But when that happens, it doesn’t turn out to be enough to overturn her judgment. Instead, like the other activists who refuse to be convinced earlier in her book, she returns to research, digging deeper – finding conflicts of interest, parsing details of grant proposals, writing articles until critiques of the science in question dominate any google search for it. And while of course I’m on her side – because she wrote the book, and I’m in her POV – I can’t help wondering if this looks one bit better than her previous examples, or one bit more evidence-based, to the scientist involved. And all the advice she gives us throughout the book on how to continue your work in the face of people trying to stop you could be as easily directed to, or coming from, that scientist.

So what does the person trying to make sense of such events do? Dr. Dreger’s advice is clear. Insist on evidence. Do the research. There’s no shortcut to knowledge. I like it! But then I would like anything which tells me I need not act without having written the equivalent of a thesis on a topic. Is this a recipe for quietism, and for ceding power to the folks who can finance multi-year studies or who are obsessed enough to conduct them for free? I remember Bruno Latour’s diagrams of how scientific discourse buttresses itself against the outside reader, and I am not at ease.

From Latour's 'Science in Action', p. 38

The most important thing I take away from this book is a renewed feeling for the duty and obligation one takes on when agreeing to review – especially to review controversial situations. In one of the stories Dr. Dreger recounts,  a professional organization decides that it has to take a ‘piece of sleaze’ attacking one of its members seriously to avoid being tarred itself by the accusations. In another, the person running an investigation is in job negotiations with the journal publishing polemics against the investigation. Undisclosed conflicts of interest stud parts of the story like raisins in fruitcake. This sort of thing cannot be endured, cannot be participated in, by people who care about science or research. What does it cost to recuse yourself from something, for heavens’ sake?

I also see a lesson for the scientific community as a whole. Too many of the scientists in this book went through controversies without any social support to speak of – and whether they are right or wrong, what is gained by isolating people involved in the knock-down drag-out of competing truth claims? Being wrong is part of scientific practice, and we cannot keep science healthy when folks divide themselves into camps of partisans and admitting errors becomes a career-ending surrender. As scientists, we should be more concerned with the health of our field than with positioning ourselves on the ‘right’ side of specific controversies.

Galileo’s Middle Finger isn’t an example of unimpeachable, obvious scientific rectitude. It’s too messy, too ambiguous a story for that. But it’s a rousing reminder from the front lines that there are ideals we have to aim for even if we know we will fall short, and that it’s the duty of the academy and the profession to support its members in the attempt.

What if we came together in the ivory towers, barricaded the doors, and looked at the skies? (p.133)

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