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Laurie Penny: John Gray's “all-new” science fiction reading list

John Gray’s article names not a single woman writer, nor any writer of colour.

Science fiction is pertinent, and it is political. John Gray's essay "War of the words", published by the New Statesman this week, is a magnificent and lyrical attempt to rehabilitate science and speculative fiction within the western canon.

It is gratifying that Gray has finally noticed what decades' worth of critics, authors and judges have failed to recognise: that science and speculative fiction is a vibrant and important school of writing whose observations on politics and the human condition "enable us to see more clearly the elusive actualities". This particularly the case in Britain, which has long produced the best science fiction in the world, all of which has been roundly snubbed by the bourgeois literary establishment.

Gray misses the mark, however, in assuming that western culture's loss of humanist principles means that science fiction is "no longer a viable form". On the contrary -- contemporary science fiction boasts exciting novelists like Ken MacLeod, Gwyneth Jones, Geoff Ryman, Cathrynne M Valente, China Miéville and Charles Stross, whose works cluster at the cutting edge of modernity. It is, perhaps, a certain poverty in Gray's own humanism that restricts his reading of science and speculative fiction to such a narrow field of writers.

Reading Gray's essay put me in mind of studying English at university, where learned tutors would open our minds to dazzling new strata of language and ideas before presenting us with a reading list entirely composed of books by dead white males from the early 20th century.

Gray comments that Miéville's astonishing The City and The City makes readers "realise how much of human life -- your own and that of others -- passes by unseen". Unfortunately, what "passes by unseen" in Gray's attempt to reappropriate science fiction to the mainstream is approximately a century's worth of important speculative writing by women and people of colour.

Gray's article lists not a single woman writer, nor any writer of colour -- nor, indeed, any living writers from the 21st-century save Miéville. It is particularly startling that, in his digest of 20th-century dystopian fiction, he neglects to mention Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, an near-future novel set in a brutal patriarchal theocracy, alongside Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley's Brave New World.

"I am really tired of hearing men discuss the field as if there are no women writers," says Farah Mendlesohn, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. "There is not a single decade of science fiction in the 20th century in which there were no women authors. What about Katherine Burdekin's anti-fascist dystopia, Suzy McKee Charnas's challenges to the patriarchy, or Joanna Russ's fierce critiques of liberal politics?"

Women's liberation has always been, in Gray's words, an "impulse of world transformation". Imagining alternative futures in order to create a potentiality of action has been particularly important for women writers and writers of colour seeking to articulate social oppression. Miéville, whose work Gray extensively and deservedly celebrates, said last week that "speculative fiction is about radical moments of estrangement, and about exploring potentiality. It's not surprising that speculative fiction written by people at the sharp end of modernity, whether that's women or people of colour, will reflect especially powerfully on patterns of privilege."

Like radical politics, science fiction seeks to disturb -- and what could be more disturbing than a vision of a world where gender and sexuality are differently constructed? Even the most populist science fiction engages playfully with gender: consider Russell T Davies's relaunch of Doctor Who in 2005 which, along with scary monsters, intergalactic battles and epic quantities of BBC slime, posited the notion that, in the future, being gay or bisexual might not be any sort of social impediment.

At its most powerful, science and speculative fiction seeks to delocalise and make strange the structures of everyday existence. In so doing, it can't help but replicate the strategies of radical politics and identity politics. Gray's assessment of the importance of science fiction is welcome, but his attempt to reconcile the genre with a certain form of redactive literary liberalism was always destined to fall short.

Like feminism, there is something inherently weird about science fiction -- and, whether we like it or not, it cannot be rehabilitated.

Writing Women's Worlds: a reading list by Farah Mendlesohn and China Miéville

  • Margaret Atwood -- The Handmaid's Tale (the classic feminist dystopia, exploring women's lives under totalitarian theocracy. Winner of the first Arthur C Clarke award)
  • Kirsten Bakis -- Lives of the Monster Dogs (a sequel to The Island of Dr Moreau, winner of the Orange Prize)
  • Katherine Burdekin (as Murray Constantine) -- Swastika Night, 1937 (a dystopian vision of Europe under the Third Reich, written before the outbreak of WWII)
  • Octavia E Butler -- Dawn (Xenogenesis trilogy)
  • Suzy McKee Charnas -- Walk to the End of the World
  • Nalo Hopkinson -- Brown Girl in the Ring
  • Gwyneth Jones -- Bold As Love
  • Ursula Le Guin -- The Disposessed and Left Hand of Darkness (the authors couldn't bring themselves to choose just one Le Guin)
  • Judith Merril (as editor) -- England Swings SF, 1968
  • Tricia O'Sullivan -- Maul
  • Joanna Russ -- The Female Man and How to Suppress Women's Writing
  • Alice Sheldon (as James Tiptree Jr) -- Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.