Doing Things with Ideas
Last night after reading the first three chapters of Gore Vidal’s Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, a mannered essay on the framing of the US Constitution, I experienced a moment familiar to science fiction writers. To depict this moment a cartoonist would draw an image of a woman holding a copy of the book, a finger marking her place and a light-bulb glowing over her head. Thomas Jefferson, Vidal remarks, “had a wild attachment, at times, to radical sentiments.” (79) One of the “radical sentiments” Vidal mentions is Jefferson’s advocacy of creating a tabula rasa for government and legal institutions every twenty years:
Jefferson…believed—uniquely—that this world belongs, solely, to the present generation. Hence, every twenty years or so, new laws should be promulgated at a constitutional convention. A grown man, he noted in his best biblical parable style, should not be forced to wear a boy’s jacket. With characteristic tact, James Madison, who had plainly found one constitutional convention quite enough for a single lifetime, pointed out the impossibility of achieving a viable republic if its laws were to be periodically set aside in favor of new ones. In fact, so disturbed was he by Jefferson’s metaphysical—even existential—notions that he made the case against too frequent conventions in the Federalist papers. (15)
Just about any sf writer reading this would be caught up in a speculative fancy. Each writer’s speculations would, of course, be highly particular to their imagination and ideological formation. But the premise on which to base an interesting speculation would be immediately visible to all: viz., a situation in which a country scraps all legal and governmental institutions at regular intervals and creates new ones, ab ovo.
This premise immediately struck me as generative of three possible kinds of stories. First, one could devise a fable in which a wholly imaginary society reinvents itself with every generation. Such a society might, ironically, operate in a highly rule-oriented way, following a host of unwritten traditions to guide itself peacefully through each generational uprooting. Or it might be a disorderly, contentious society in which blood is shed every time the government is reinvented. Second, one could construct a science-fictional future in which technology and social relations had evolved to enable continual political and legal reinvention, such that the society’s philosophical, ethical, and aesthetic structures confirmed and explored every conceivable ramification of such institutionalized reinvention. For me, this would likely be the most interesting and challenging possibility for working out the premise. Third, one could create an alternative history—one in which Jefferson’s idea deeply influenced the group of men known as “the framers.” This alternative history would reinvent the politics and political imagination of the framers and project the consequences of adopting a policy of redesigning the government and legal institutions of the United States every twenty years. The result, I have no doubt, would be to not only illuminate issues that pass unremarked, but also to create an entirely different trajectory for the political history and philosophy and the social mores of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century United States.
Science fiction writers often share “ideas” with one another. But sfnal premises themselves do not matter so much as the particular imagination of the writer deploying them. A dozen science fiction writers would likely come up with a dozen different notions for how to exploit the idea I took from Jefferson’s complaint that “a grown man should not be forced to wear a boy’s jacket.” By Vidal’s account, of all the framers, James Madison’s political sentiments hewed closest to Jefferson’s; he observes that Madison often wrote public arguments supporting Jefferson’s positions. And yet Jefferson’s argument in favor of continual political change and revolution disturbed Madison. I imagine that many people today would be unable to take such an anarchistic notion seriously, or if they did, would excoriate it as dangerous for many of the same reasons Jefferson’s contemporaries did. When writers use controversial ideas as the premises of sf stories, their attitudes bear emphatically on how they deploy the ideas. Someone unable to take the idea seriously would write a spoof or satire that implicitly trivialized it, while a writer who took it seriously but disapproved of it would begin with the assumption that only dire consequences could result. Writers who hadn’t yet made up their minds, however, would likely conduct a sort of thought experiment with it. The writer might try to discover the technological, economic, and social circumstances under which the premise might be made to work in a constructive way, or incorporate the premise into already known circumstances and see what the characters are inclined to make of it.
As a writer who draws heavily on feminist ideas and theory, I would likely seek to illuminate the differences such built-in responsiveness to change could make to the lives of women and the extent of women’s engagement in the public sphere. In an alternative history, I might, for example, speculate that as increasing numbers of white males acquired political rights in the nineteenth century, the laws privileging property owners and corporations came to be eliminated—as well as the electoral college (which to this day prevails in its intended function of preserving the system from the onus of holding direct elections for the two highest offices in the US, so that—as Vidal notes—a Supreme Court justice in 2000 could righteously insist that the Constitution does not endow any American citizen with the right to vote for president).(137) And then I would go on to imagine what a difference the mid-nineteenth-century surge of feminism would have made to the political and legal history of the US. No doubt women would have acquired the vote decades earlier, the conflict with the South would likely have come to a head much earlier (and the Union might even have broken apart in the second decade of the nineteenth century), and Reconstruction (presuming the conflict with the southern states, confronted earlier, still resulted in Civil War) would certainly have taken an altered trajectory. And likely there would never have been a Gilded Age at all.
In short, the alternative history I might craft from such a premise would not envision a history dominated by the same basic players overlaid with a few nonstructural changes, but a radically different world: a world that would be most interesting for what it could show us about how the aspects of our system that we take as givens have never been inevitable but can be regarded as unnecessary baggage weighing us down simply because it’s never occurred to us that we might rid ourselves of it and be that much stronger and freer without it. I would probably call on the thinking of interesting legal scholars like Patricia Williams and Kimberle Crenshaw to give me ideas about which laws it would be interesting to jettison. I’d no doubt spend a lot of time reading the history of women in the early republic. And of course I’d do some refresher reading in feminist political theory.
Although on the most basic level my alternative history would have to work as an engaging story of characters caught up in dramatic conflict, the extent to which it offered provocative ideas would depend on the depth and breadth of the extrapolation of my theoretical speculation. This would be true for any science fiction writer creating an alternative history premised on Jefferson’s idea, regardless of the writer’s ideological position and the character of their theoretical speculation.
In addition to the idea and the writer’s imagination and access to theory, one other important factor comes into play in the creation of sf: viz., the formal structures and conventions of the genre. Every text is subject to the narrative constraints of form, upon which depend its intelligibility as well as its aesthetic quality. Like all other writers, sf writers must negotiate the narrative forms of their genre, striving to imaginatively exploit and expand the potential of the narrative forms rather than be constrained by the limitations of them. Some (though not all) make conscious decisions about which narrative forms to use and how to stretch or alter the limits of their previous uses. The point in the process at which writers become conscious of the formal aspects of the work in progress varies enormously from writer to writer. Sf writers frequently talk the tradecraft of narrative techniques, but I’ve yet to hear other writers discuss this particular subject, and so I can only speak of my own experience.
Taking the Idea into the Subjunctive Tense
Although interest in an sfnal idea or premise drives every story I write, I seldom begin the process of writing the story with the idea itself consciously in mind. Typically a story begins when I hear a distinct voice speaking a sentence or three in my head. The style and tone of the narrative are thus implicit from the first. The first sentences I write lead to my “hearing” more sentences, and almost at once a world begins to be constructed, the world already implicit in the sentences. The sfnal idea itself tends to emerge within the first two or three paragraphs. It is almost always an idea that previously occurred to me, often only a few days before I began writing the story. Once I have written two or three pages, the construction of the story becomes a great deal more conscious. I may question my unconscious selection of certain formal choices, for instance whether the narrative should be in the first person or third person, whether it should be written in present or past tense, whether it needs a frame or even multiple frames, and so on. And I will begin to think in extremely concrete terms about the unfolding of the premise in the world the story has brought into existence.
On the morning of May 3, 1997, the day before I began writing “Living Trust” (first published in Asimov’s SF, Feb 1999), a Reuters news item posted on the Internet caught my attention. The item cited an article in The New Scientist describing research that had been done on imprinted genes in mice. The study originated with the aim of discovering the reason that mammals are unable to reproduce parthenogentically from an unfertilized egg, the way other animals can. The research attempted to create “androgenetic” embryos that bore only paternal genes by transferring the DNA from two sperm to an egg from which its DNA has been removed, as well as “gynogenetic” embryos by similarly uniting the chromosomes from two unfertilized eggs. Although these embryos all had the correct number of chromosomes, in every case they died within days of being implanted in a mouse womb. The androgenetic embryos died because certain vital genes had been switched off by the father, while the gynogenetic embryos died because they had certain other but equally vital genes switched off by the mother. The researchers learned that imprinted genes that are switched on only when inherited from the mother are vital to the early development of the embryo proper, while the father’s genetic legacy is necessary for the normal development of the placental tissues. This discovery that certain genes are switched on or off depending on whether they are from the mother or the father led the researchers to wonder if there are any other genes that operate in this way in mice.
What they discovered is that there are. They discovered this by creating a series of chimera, in which they experimented with different combinations of maternal and paternal genes. They discovered, most interestingly, that if mice chimera were created with mainly maternal genes, the mice grew enormous heads perched on tiny bodies, while mice chimera bearing mainly male genes grew into fetuses with huge bodies but tiny brains. The researchers next mapped the number of cells in six different parts of the brain containing only maternal or only paternal genes. And they discovered that maternal genes are accumulated in what are known as the “executive” parts of the brain—notably the frontal cortex, which is the seat of learning and planning, memory, consciousness, and thinking, while the paternal genes are accumulated in what is known as the “emotional” part of the brain—the hypothalamus and other parts of the limbic (or hind brain) system, which is important for behaviors that ensure survival, such as sex, eating, and aggression.
In my excitement, I reported some of this to a listserv dedicated to discussing feminist science fiction. One member commented that if a similar sort of gene-imprinting proved to be operating in humans, then sperm banks are on the wrong track since intelligence is considered the most important criterion for donors of sperm and physical attractiveness for donors of ova. Although I knew that geneticists had not yet studied whether intelligence in humans is passed on through the maternal line only, as a feminist and science fiction writer I was struck by how deeply embedded the notion of intelligence as inherited from the father is in our society. I could not remember ever having heard anyone question the presumption of sperm banks’ choice of Nobel physicists as the most desirable donors.
On the next day, May 4, I wrote in my journal:
Began a new sf story yesterday. Sketched out the general situation and science-fictional scenario this morning. Need to get hold of that New Scientist article—the one on transmission of genes that control brain functions in mice, such that maternal genes exclusively control cerebral cortex functions and paternal genes the brains tem functions. Plus I need to plow through the article on regenerative work on brain cells in a recent issue of Science—will have excellent sources for the science base of the story. (Another father-daughter story…)
On the following day, May 5, I wrote:
Bulldog News carries New Scientist but didn’t have the new issue yet. Actually, I can get started writing without it. (Though I’ll need it when I’ve gotten to the point of Kate’s looking at the videotapes & documents from the competing research teams.) Today I’ve been mainly accumulating a feel for the background—her relationship with her father, what she does with her time (& money), her father’s house, & how he made most of his fortune (i.e., designing personalities for “computer assistants,” particularly of the personal & professional sort.
I wrote nothing more in my journal about this story except for a few notations indicating that I put it aside toward the end of May and picked it up again in late October. The file of notes for the story contain photocopies of journal articles and handwritten notes dated May, 1997, which confirm my recollection of going to the Health Sciences Library and reading the most recent textbook and journal literature on various types of strokes, their treatment, and prognosis. I knew exactly what medical conditions I needed for the story and therefore searched for the sort of neural catastrophe that would cause those conditions.
And so within one day of reading the Reuters report, the story had already taken a clear narrative shape. It featured a father-daughter relationship in which the richest man in the world, universally celebrated as one of the world’s great geniuses and reviled for having put most teachers, lawyers, and doctors in the US out of work, on learning of new research showing that maternal genes control the transmission of intelligence in humans, is devastated by the thought of not being able to pass on his brilliance to his own child.
Typically, once I’ve drafted the first few paragraphs of a new story, I sit down with a tablet of paper and a pen and stare at the wall and daydream about the characters and their world. The notes I take as I daydream range from sparse to elaborate, but most of the details I invent never make their way into the narrative. Similarly, most of what I learn when I read science articles serve more to inform the language I use in the story and the density of my own understanding of the concepts playing out in the narrative than to provide the kind of info-dumps that appeal to “hard sf” fans.
Often when I write a story—and this was the case with “Living Trust”—I confront my protagonist with an ethical problem and determine in advance how my protagonist will ultimately resolve it. I must then work out how, emotionally and intellectually, the protagonist arrives at that solution—thus tasking my imagination with breaking a new path through an unknown narrative wilderness. If I don’t determine the decision in advance, my protagonist is likely to act in less interesting and mature ways than I want her to. Developing a train of thought and action in a character is more difficult than a non-writer might guess; left to themselves, characters tend to behave the way most human beings do: viz., deceiving themselves, repeating old patterns of behavior, and above all, going along and getting along with the status quo. By setting herself the task of getting to a desired outcome, the writer forces her imagination to go to places where it would not naturally choose to venture.
Kate’s problem, in this story, is complex. Her father has suffered a stroke that has irrevocably damaged his cerebral cortex. Before she can make any decisions, she must determine her father’s medical status. Even in the best of situations this can be difficult for the relatives of desperately ill people to do, since people in such circumstances tend to engage in heavy denial and doctors to lie to patients and their relatives. In the case of Kate’s father, the neurophysicians attending him have a personal, financial stake in seeing Kate make a particular decision about her father’s care, regardless of the outcome. Second, her father has left a living trust asking her to oversee an illegal research project and the illegal creation of an embryo clone of him so that the neurological stem cells of the embryo clone can be used to regenerate his brain. Kate realizes that if such a procedure succeeded she would be faced with the obligation to care for and nurture an infant’s personality and mind in her father’s middle-aged body. Her father has presumed that the blank slate of the regenerated brain would develop into a mind as brilliant as the one that the stroke wiped out. Kate is profoundly troubled by the request—appalled at this use of a cloned embryo, disturbed by the idea of an infant inhabiting her father’s body, and uncertain whether she wants to take on such a heavy responsibility alone. Her true father will be gone, a virtual substitute left in his place.
For me, this story began with the wrenching image of a daughter attending her father’s bedside, unable to dialogue with a man in a coma, his body hooked up to monitors and IV lines and a ventilator, charged by him with terrible, difficult decisions to make. Science and technology in this story reveal that gendered perceptions about the transmission of intelligence are not what everyone assumes—even as the same science and technology appear to offer a wealthy man obsessed with perpetuating his “genius” a means of getting around the unpleasant fact that same science first revealed. Such an sf story can not only speculate on what this use of technology would involve personally and morally, but also help us to imagine what it would mean emotionally to the person most closely involved; and it can also help us to see how the economic and moral structures of the medical research establishment as it exists in the future I’ve extrapolated would likely work when confronted with such a situation. Sf stories can do this because science fiction, as Joanna Russ once put it, is written in the subjunctive tense. And the subjunctive tense, when used in conjunction with plausible characters in dramatic situations, can take the writer to places theory has not yet or possibly cannot ever go.
In writing “Living Trust,” I found myself struggling against the pull of a narrative trajectory in which Kate accedes to her father’s request. For one thing, my protagonist’s being female created an especially gendered pressure for her to put aside her grief at losing her father and devote herself to nurturing an infant mind in a middle-aged body—for the sake of complying with his wishes and (for some readers, even more importantly) for the sake of allowing his “genius” a chance at resurrection. Kate’s being the heir to her father’s vast fortune further loaded the equation. I was warned that many readers would assume her “true” reason for her decision was her desire to become the richest person in the world. For another thing, sfnal biotechnologies that extend an individual’s reach beyond death exercise a powerful fascination on readers, rendering the successful implementation of such technologies almost irresistible to the writer. Not surprisingly, not long after the story’s publication I received email from a reader palpably angry at my protagonist’s resistance, demanding to know my opinion of my protagonist’s decision. The following redacted extraction of the message’s gist makes the reader’s anger at me for his sense of thwarted expectations explicit:
Would you react like the selfish, stupid, arrogant Moralist Kate or would you respect the wishes of your father? I was afraid that your story was intended to be Anti-Biotech-anti-advancement-propaganda, cause that's what it looked like! If your opinion matches the one of Kate, I'd like to get involved into some discussion, cause my opinion nearly matches that of Kate’s father. During the whole of the story it was totally obvious: that way of thinking can only come out of a woman’s mind.
Creating a non-polemical moral imaginary for explicating Kate’s refusal to carry out her father’s expensive but arguably immoral fantasy proved my greatest challenge in writing the story. The only way I found to meet this challenge was to show Kate painfully educating herself on the moral issues involved and negotiating a path shaped by love, grief, guilt, and moral complexity. I used the words “not surprisingly” above when I spoke of receiving an angry email because every time a writer goes against the hegemonic grain she can expect to catch flak. This is why, perhaps, stories feel as if they want to go in the direction that will make the majority of readers comfortable.
Contemporary feminist theory recognizes that political agency and action necessitate that one disentangle and intervene in complex networks and relations rather than focus on preserving the fictitious autonomy of the individual. This is one reason why science fiction offers an attractive medium for feminist thinking. Science fiction is not interested in individual psychology per se, but in the social and ethical complexities of change (especially when the change is technologically-driven). And to the extent that it engages in “world-building,” it depicts a complex social and political context with an explicitness rare in post-19th-Century literary fiction. That is to say, although science fiction takes profound interest in how individuals respond to change, at its richest it takes no interest in preserving the fiction that the individual is an autonomous entity (no matter how wealthy or brilliant he may be). It encourages us to imagine a dense emotional reality that abstract discussions about ethics and social and economic consequences do not.
What Theory Cannot Take into Account
Early feminist critics sought chiefly to refute misogynist assumptions about women. Christine de Pisan (fl 1400), for instance, fought Aristotelian conceptions of women and engaged in open combat against the misogyny of the The Romance of the Rose. Later feminist critics and theorists have attended instead to the omission and trivialization of women’s concerns and experience from and in every area of intellectual thought. As someone who has subscribed to Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy from its inception, I can confidently assert that the repeated failure to account for human experience that lies outside that of the privileged white male traditionally taken for the norm represents a serious shortcoming for philosophy and social and political theory.
When ethicists or economists or sociologists calculate the costs of various choices likely to be enjoined by the implementation of a new technology or scientific discovery, they frequently omit significant aspects that either do not occur to them or seem insignificant because they involve emotions, which though intangible and difficult to predict, matter tremendously (even when they are not considered of importance in and of themselves). Theory and philosophy, of course, draw broad generalizations; the concrete, particular detail and the individual experience figure as corroborating examples rather than illuminating elaboration. But metaphorically, at least, the dismissal of emotional experience from theory mirrors the Cartesian split of mind and body.
Fiction that sets out to speculate on not only what sorts of social, economic, and moral consequences might result from a new technology or scientific discovery would fall flat if it refused to admit emotion into the story: readers expect fiction to create full-bodied characters—even when the fiction in question is science fiction. While the sf narrative focuses on the distilled emotional experience of a few human beings (at most), in the best sf, the emotional components of the story enhance the reader’s understanding of the larger issues raised by the story rather than distract from them. The sf writer elaborates many of the same sorts of social, political, and economic structures as theorists do, but weaves them into the fabric of the story’s world. The difference between fiction and philosophy or theory lies in the writer’s insistence on fleshing out the experiment—making it personal, intimate, and emotionally authentic.
Obviously sfnal thought experiments can only be as interesting as the writers’ scientific and theoretical understanding and the imaginative power with which they extrapolate what is known and understood to what is possible. But in the end, the sf writer’s primary task is to make ideas flesh—to elaborate their implications, to make them emotionally real.
Joanna Russ, “Speculations: The Subjunctivity of Science Fiction,” in To Write Like A Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995, pp 15-25. (First published in Extrapolation 15, 1 (1973).)
Gore Vidal, Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003.
Gail Vines, “Where Did You Get Your Brains?” New Scientist 2080 (3 May, 1997): 34-39.
This essay first appeared as “Doing Things with Ideas” in SciFi in the Mind’s Eye: Reading Science through Science Fiction, ed. Margaret Grebowicz, Open Court Press, 2007.