Trollspace

Every so often you run across something across a commentary on the internet which leaves you wondering not only whether you’re reading the same thing as the author of commentary but even whether you even inhabit the same planet.

The September 29th issue of the prestigious general science journal ‘Nature’ included a short, satirical, science fiction story by Ed Rybicki, a Professor of Microbiology at the University of Cape Town which has provoked a response, in some quarters, not far short of that which greeted Phillip K Dick’s 1974 short story ‘ The Pre-Persons’:

In this, the most recent of the stories in this collection, I incurred the absolute hate of Joanna Russ who wrote me the nastiest letter I’ve ever received; at one point she said she usually offered to beat up people (she didn’t use the word “people”) who expressed opinions such as this. I admit that this story amounts to special pleading, and I’m sorry to offend those who disagree with me about abortion on demand. I also got some unsigned hate mail, some of it not from individuals but from organizations promoting abortion on demand. Well, I have always managed to offend people by what I write. Drugs, communism, and now an anti-abortion stand; I really know how to get myself in hot water. Sorry, people. But for the pre-persons’ sake I am not sorry. I stand where I stand: “Hier steh’ Ich; Ich kann nicht anders,” as Martin Luther is supposed to have said.

Story notes from ‘The Golden Man’ (1980)

In The Pre-Persons, Dick parlays Plato’s theory of the tripartate nature of the soul into a dystopian vision of a future in which abortion is legal up until the point at which children develop the ability to do simple algebra, hence the rather incendiary effect it clearly had on Joanna Russ. Irrespective of where you stand on abortion, its a typically thought-provoking piece of short fiction which – as was so often the case – raised some important philosophical questions; in fact, much the same questions that were recently the subject of debate in the wake of Nadine Dorries’ dull-witted attempts to smear humanists as supporters of infanticide.

Rybicki’s story, which sports the title ‘Womanspace‘* is hardly in the same class of the short-fiction of Phillip Dick but it has nevertheless succeeded in provoking a rather extreme reaction:

*At this point, can I recommend that you follow the link and read the story – but the not the comments under it – before going any further. The story runs to just under 1,000 words, so it shouldn’t take you more than five minutes to get through it.

Dear Nature, You got a sexist story, but when you published it, you gave it your stamp of approval and became sexist too.

Dear Nature,

“Womanspace” by Ed Rybicki is the most appalling thing I have ever read in a scientific journal. When I read the Futures (science fiction) piece you published on 29 September 2011, about how the hero and a man friend were unable to cope with a simple errand and how that led them to discover the existence of parallel universe inhabited by women that naturally endowed women with their domestic prowess, but which women were too dumb to observe until the great men of science made their discovery, I checked to make make sure I was still on nature.com. To my dismay, I was.

The story hearkens back to the “good old” sexist days when men did important things (like write books about virology) and women did unimportant things (like keep their families fed and clothed); when men couldn’t be bothered to be useful around the house and even when women did manage to get science degrees they were better employed as cooks and errand runners. The writer makes the explicit assumption that all of his (and, thus Nature’s) readers are male and have a “significant female other” who helps with their shopping. The story uses a cliched trope that women have an alternate reality, but then adds the extra punch that we aren’t even smart or observant enough to know it. As a woman scientist reading this article, it seems in every way designed to make me feel othered and excluded from the scientific academy.

It’s one thing to write a not-very-funny witty story full of sexism and gender stereotypes, but it’s a completely different thing to publish it with the stamp of approval of one of the world’s leading scientific publications. Maybe the writer is really privileged and clueless enough not to have intended this as an effort to put women in their place, but it’s not plausible that the Nature editorial staff were blind to the way this piece would be perceived. Besides, the evidence suggests that both the writer and Nature’s Futures editor were fully aware that they were courting controversy and perhaps were even doing so intentionally. When the piece was published, the author tweeted “I WILL catch flak for this” and four days later Henry Gee (who claims to be the editor of this section) commented: “I’m amazed we haven’t had any outraged comments about this story.” The outrage did come, and the majority of comments posted on Nature’s website have been highly critical. This week, Nature published two of the comments as correspondence in their current issue, which is how this story caught my attention. I don’t want to read fiction in my scientific journals, but I do pay attention to letters with titles of “Women: Sexist fiction is alienating” and “Women: Latent bias harms careers.

So far I have seen no other response from Nature Publishing Group, on what in my opinion is an atrocious decision to give a broader platform to the author’s sexist views. The Careers section of Nature routinely has articles about the challenges faced by women scientists, maybe now they can write an expose on their own organization? Better yet, Nature should print an apology for the piece and seriously review their practice of approving Futures articles for publication.

Anne Jefferson – Highly Allochthonus

Ouch! As bad reviews go, that’s certainly a stinker but its also one that leaves me with the uneasy feeling we’re not necessarily reading the same story – or rather that we are but we’re reading it in entirely different ways.

My own take on Rybicki’s story can be summarised as follows:

Two nerdy middle-aged guys find themselves bemused by their wives’ seemingly inexplicable ability to perform a task (shopping for a pair of knickers) and via a chain of extremely dubious reasoning which takes them from a common pop-sociobiology just-so story about evolved gender differences to some of the wilder reaches of theoretical physics, the come to conclusion that their apparent inability to locate a viable source female undergarments can only be accounted for in terms of the garments being located in a parallel universe to which only women have access, albeit unconsciously.

So they post their ideas onto the internet, obtain feedback from a lot of men who appear to observed much the same ‘inexplicable’ phenomenon…

…and then they get dumped by their wives, presumably because their spending all their time on the internet debating their own bizarre, quasi-scientific, theories about female shopping habits.

Okay, so its not exactly ground-breaking stuff* but as a mildly amusing satire on male social ineptitude, its a perfectly serviceable way of whiling away a few minutes with a wry smile on your face and hardly deserving, therefore, of the level vitriol of its attracting, even if – as it seems – the editor of Nature’s ‘Futures’ section did indulge in a bit of deliberate troll-baiting in the full expectation of getting an overheated response from some readers.

*If ground-breaking is what you’re after then try digging out a copy of Michael Blumlein’s darkly satirical and retributive take on Reagonomics, ‘Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report’

That being the case, what’s all the fuss about and why has this particular story found itself on the wrong end of the Great Waggy Internet Finger of Tut-Tut, complete with the now obligatory Facebook protest group and Twitter hashtag?

To deal with the obvious first, there’s been a hint or two of good old fashioned intellectual snobbery. Jefferson complains that the story has been given ‘the stamp of approval of one of the world’s leading scientific publications’ and elsewhere there have been one or two comments of the ‘I don’t understand why Nature is even publishing science fiction stories at all’ variety, to which a partial answer can be found in the fact that since it began its occasional ‘Futures’ section in 1999, Nature has managed to attract the occasional marquee name (David Brin, Bruce Sterling, Charles Stross).

There’s also quite a bit of background context to take into account.

The section’s editor, Henry Gee, appears to have a bit of previous form stemming from an incident at science communication conference in which a debate on civility appears to have taken, somewhat ironically, a rather uncivil turn. In light of that particular incident, Even the exact details of Gee’s unseemly spat with another (female) attendee are a little garbled and unclear, he clearly managed to mark his own card at that event which makes the rather obvious trolling for negative reactions in the comments under Rybicki’s story altogether ill-judged, not least because this put Rybicki directly – and rather unfairly – into the firing line.

More generally, sexism in the sciences and, in particular in both the media and academia, remains a particular bugbear as Nature reported in an op-ed column by Jennifer Rohn only last December:

Despite decades of awareness, science is still inherently sexist. Women are vastly under-represented in professorships and in national academies worldwide. This is a familiar problem, but less highlighted is how the discrepancy plays out in the public arena of science — the media.

Male science pundits dominate television, radio and print — including the pages of opinion and comment in this journal. This imbalance cannot simply be explained by the shortage of female professors, as many male pundits are still at an early stage of their academic careers, when genders are better balanced. So what is behind this effective invisibility of women scientists in our media? And why does it matter?

So, there’s a fair bit of eminently justifiable ill-feeling kicking around in the background but, for me, this still doesn’t get to heart of exactly why a fairly innocuous tale of the absurd lengths to which male nerdiness can stretch a dodgy premise has ignited such a vehement reaction, even allowing for the use of bit of cod evo-devo ‘battle of the sexes’ nonsense as a throwawayl premise.

The problem, such as it is, is perhaps best illustrated by this observation in Jefferson’s attempted hatchet job:

The writer makes the explicit assumption that all of his (and, thus Nature’s) readers are male and have a “significant female other” who helps with their shopping.

Sorry, but no – that’s not just wrong, it’s not even wrong.

Drifting away from science and into Lit-Crit for a minute or two, Rybicki’s story is written as first person point of view narrative or, to be even more precise, its written in first person major, i.e the narrator is also the main protagonist of the story.

As a literary device, this makes absolutely no explicit assumptions about the reader at all, least of all that the reader is male and possessed of a ‘significant other’ who helps with the shopping, it merely invites the reader to view the story from the point of view of a character with those particular attributes – and there’s nothing in the ‘rules’ to say that your necessarily have like the view you get when you at the world through such a character’s eyes.

This argument is not just wrong , its patently ridiculous.

If we’re to accept the proposition that the use of first person narrative indicates an assumption, on the part of the author, that his or her readers will automatically share the same traits and attributes as the story’s narrators then we’re effectively arguing that Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the assumption that it would be read primarily by 12-13 year old boys living near the Mississippi, or that Conan Doyle wrote his Sherlock Holmes stories primarily for the enjoyment of retired-Indian Army doctors now working as the sidekick to a master detective, and please don’t even get me started on the kind of assumptions that Anthony Burgess must have made about his readers whiling penning A Clockwork Orange let alone where Joseph Conrad’s head was at during the writing of Heart of Darkness.

You get the general picture – if Rybicki is assuming that his, and therefore Nature’s, readers are all middle aged married men then Ken Kesey must – by the same line of reasoning – have assumed that his audience for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest must have had some kind of experience of being incarcerated in a mental hospital in order for them to be able to make sense of the story.

Or maybe, likes every fiction author, he just assumed that his readers would use their imagination to overcome the gaps in their direct personal experiences.

Ultimately, Rybicki’s story is premised on simple and, to me at least, rather obvious mind projection fallacy. The story’s narrator/protagonist, his fictional friend and all the fictional men who, in the story, send in their own ‘evidence’ is response to posting on the internet, haven’t actually discovered anything at all other than a marked propensity for following idel speculation to a bizarre conclusion which, in case of the story’s two main characters, is enough to persuade their respective ‘significant others’ that its time they found someone other than their husbands to be significant with.

Is that really sexist?

No, the moral of the story seems perfectly clear – if you value your relationship then don’t behave like a complete cock – after all its not as if the story ends with the triumphant male discovery of Slutspace.

Although there are perfectly legitimate grievances kicking around in the background, Rybicki’s story is far from being a suitable vehicle on which to pin those grievances and give them an airing. Even after researching the background to this issue, as someone who has no particular axe to grind with any of those involved, the reaction to this story seems grossly disproportionate to any potential it might have had to genuinely cause offence. Sexist fiction may well be alienating but, on this occasion, I fear that the vitriolic reaction to Rybicki’s story may end up alienating rather more people from some of the legitimate issues that female scientists are trying to raise and address than will have been alienated by the story itself – and that’s not a good thing, however you want to look at it.

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  • Luke Stanbra

    I quote directly from Womanspace:

    “Have you never had the experience of talking to your significant female other as you wend your way through the complexity of a supermarket — only to suddenly find her 20 metres away with her back to you? And then she comes back with something you’ve never seen before, and tosses it in the trolley as if nothing has happened?”
    Given that the question is directed at the reader, I’d say that this does assume that the reader shares certain characteristics with the author, namely being a man with a female partner in a western nation.

    I’m not sure where I stand on your wider points but on this it is quite clear that the author is talking to a specific audience, which for example, does not include me.

  • Anonymous

    Luke:

    It’s part of an internal monologue in a piece of fiction, not an essay or lecture transcript, so that particular question is purely rhetorical and provides an insight into the character’s thinking.

  • I read your blogpost all the way through before going to read the story—and when I did, I pretended it was written by a women instead of by a man. Suddenly it became a hilarious piece of satire commenting on the nature of men as perceived by women. Funny, that. I wonder to what extent the accusations of “sexism” are a result of the readers’ being aware that the author is a man.