True Life Science Fiction: Sexual
Politics and the Lab Procedural
from: Tactical BioPolitics: Art, Activism and Technoscience:
eds Beatrix da Costa and Kavita Philips; MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts;
The text below, NB, is a draft version, and differs
slightly from the published chapter. Textboxes and footnotes are also
Science fiction writers and "science"
have a dysfunctional relationship. The core audience for science fiction,
especially print fiction, tends to be drawn from those in science and
technology related employment, self-identifying geeks, "anoraks",
coders, nerds. Readers have a high tolerance for details of lab procedures,
engineering problems, high energy physics phenomena, gadget specifications
(astonishingly high, relative to the rest of the fiction audience) -yet
many express indifference to the content of these demanding passages.
"You wade through that stuff to get to the story and the characters",
is a typical comment. Meanwhile the writers, a group that includes many
passionate amateurs, attempt to keep up with the future. Their preoccupation
with "science" is an accident of the twentieth century, their
desire is to be at the cutting edge of everything, dress codes, black
holes, radical politics, melting ice caps. Science fiction writing lives
poised on the edge of now, always about to be out of date. The vital
element that research lab life shares with the genre could be that mood:
the addictive stress of novelty, the pride of stepping out onto empty
The genesis of my novel Life has its background in the nineteen
seventies, when science fiction took on the novelty of the Women's Movement
. It was a paradoxical meeting. Defining feminist sf texts, notably
Monique Wittig's Les Guérillères, Joanna Russ's
The Female Man, were (and remain!) lyrical, intellectual, experimental;
with passages of theory, a painful naming of parts, at once too alien
and too accusing to be ignored. The average recreational sf fan, male
or female, was appalled. Yet the popularisers of this epiphany, the
developers who made the novelty saleable and took the goods to market,
were Ursula Le Guin and the late Octavia Butler -two US writers whose
sheer quality and gravitas has had an immense and lasting impact on
the genre. A third figure, using the pseudonym James Tiptree Jnr (later
outed as a woman called Alice Sheldon, which brought about her downfall),
wrote novels and stories that combined startling sexual themes with
devout scifi convention, and swiftly collected every honour the community
could bestow. It was a Camelot moment, a brilliant anomaly; soon buried.
Iconic female futures speak bitterness. The most
famous, the mainstream novel Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale,
features affluent North American women reduced to the chattel status
of Pakistani peasants by an ultra-conservative administration. Genre
versions had anticipated the same theme of women crushed under the iron
boot of patriarchy; sometimes dragged-up in role-reversal fantasy, sometimes
unrelieved (Suzy Charnas, Walk To The End Of The World); sometimes
in diptych with a sweet Red alternative, (Marge Piercy's Woman on
the Edge Of Time). In the last pages of any of these novels a light
glimmers ahead: but don't go there, our Utopia will sound as fascist
and covertly vengeful as any other; end here, it sounds hopeful. . .
Issues of science and technology permeate these narratives, but the
encounter is tragic. Positive feminist science fiction (Joan
Slonczewski, A Door Into Ocean, Vonda MacIntyre, Dreamsnake,
Kathleen Ann Goonan, Light Music), imagining a ravaged planet
restored by the new; experiments in reproduction and post-humanism,
gender-neutral societies, high-tech symbiosis with the living world,
is far less likely to be known outside the genre; or to be recorded
in the academic canon. Feminism cast as daring scientific endeavour
is not easily read as radical politics: the dissonance is too great,
women are not supposed to occupy this space. And yet, as those writers
of the seventies discerned, as we see all too clearly in this hell-bent,
regressive young century, embracing futurism, assimilating les accidents
de féerie scientifique (if only in art/drama/fiction; it's
a start) is our only hope.
I saw Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975)
in a bookstore in Singapore, where I was living at the time, and walked
past it several times before I picked it up. I found the expression
"Female Man" disturbing, and I did not expect to be disturbed
by the Women's Movement. I expected feminist theory to tell me only
things I knew already. Curiosity got the better of me, I bought the
book and discovered that Joanna Russ was none other than the writer
of "When It Changed" -a new wave sf story, radically feminist
yet impeccable science fictional, that I greatly admired.
The Female Man is a hatchet job. It strips
feminism of all sentimental illusion, exposes the (sf) writer as a daydreaming
schizophrenic; and presents its women-only world as a dazzling high-tech
playground, where duellists strut and genius "IQ" is advisable,
if not mandatory. I was an instant convert to Russ's view of women as
human, dangerous, powerful and fallible. Overnight, the veiled women
in the novel I was writing (set in a far future South East Asia), stopped
being piteous victims and became rulers of the hearth, who had abandoned
the public sphere to their menfolk or "studs" of their own
free will -with disastrous consequences.
Russ appeared to be a disillusioned fellow-traveller
of US (regular flavour, not feminist) underground politics: of urban
terrorism, secret maildrops, layers of deception -a world I deeply distrusted.
She probably ruined my chances of a career in commercial sf, for which
I thank her, sincerely; and she set me the task of stripping down my
own, very different illusions. My writing was a means of naming the
parts, and finding out by trial and error, by building functional models,
what happened when I discarded one unit or another. I produced a series
of novels, reiterating in variant forms the only story feminist sf can
But The Female Man had shifted my focus. I was no longer describing
the battle of the sexes, speaking bitterness and imagining a more hopeful
outcome. I was investigating the causes. What is femaleness, what is
maleness? What exactly happens in the wiring of human sexual behaviour?
Is the dominance of a male-ordered culture (supported by the women,
apparently of their own free will) one of the great problems of our
world? Or am I just deluded? Like Ramone, the perennially angry-young-woman
who shadows the protagonist's career in Life, I did a huge amount
of reading: at first seduced by the blank canvas of the question, increasingly
fascinated by the material itself, the naked equations of sexual difference.
By the mid-nineties the idea of the female man -the
proposition that our treasured difference, the moral identity of women,
cannot survive the success of feminism- had brought my fiction to a
gender-neutral space which many sf feminists considered positively hostile.
I was writing of a future in which the world had divided into two camps,
a global low-intensity war between the Traditionalists, fanatically
intent on preserving hallowed male/female characteristics, and the Reformers,
who were prepared to let "the difference" go into freefall.
A lot of the Traditionalists were women, a lot of the Reformers were
men. The don't-knows had a particularly hard time. There were some aliens
too, who had no conception of the sexual other, the either/or, dark/light
active/passive divide: it was the challenge of their arrival that triggered
the gender wars.
As I came to the end of this project I knew it was time to move on from
sf feminism. I had nothing more to say. But before I left town I wanted
to do something with my research. I'd discovered a collection of articles
from the first conference devoted entirely to sexual difference, in
which I'd read Jennifer Marshall-Graves's original "SRY" paper,
among other despatches from the front line . Drawn by her reputation
among feminists, I had encountered Lynn Margulis's endosymbiotic theory,
and her stubborn fight to break down the establishment's resistance
-on a point of doctrine completely innocent to lay-persons, yet immediately
recognised by the priesthood as a challenge that shook the pillars of
the universe. One meets the same bewildering acuity in all holy wars.
I felt there was a story to be told, which would trace the chequered
career of a visionary woman scientist, and the equally chequered career
of a controversial discovery. It would be a fantasy about something
going on in the human sex chromosomes, the impossible made plausible
by a wealth of technical detail. But crucially, vitally, this change
in sexual molecular biology would turn out be profoundly important for
all life on earth... And it would be nobody's fault, it would be something
inevitable, neither good nor evil, working its way to emergence (it
was nobody's fault that Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter).
There would be no alien invasion, no divine or demonic
intervention, no mysterious Rapture. No single-sex colony on a distant
planet, no Born Again Bronze Age matriarchs, no gender-selective genocide,
no sex-linked plague. I would return ad fontes, to the source of all
modern folklore, whether or not labelled "scifi": science
itself; the marvellous in its street clothes.
Shadowing a Scientist
Ideally, science fiction writers should be scientists, tossing-off bestsellers
in their spare time. Ideally they should be working in theoretical physics,
or engineering: astrophysics, astronomy and branches of computer science
may also apply. This is our long-established male-typic elite, the standard
by which we judge ourselves. (The genre is conservative. Life sciences,
until recently considered more suitable for women writers, are coming
up fast). Even now I feel slightly shocked when I hear that one of their
number has quit to "become a full time writer". What a fall!
The rest of us are camp-followers, groupies, cargo-cultists, collectors
of antique packaging.
I had been writing science fiction for more than
a decade, without ever going near a lab. For the "Anna Senoz"
novel I needed to enlist a scientist, and this was alarming. I had been
working with Richard Crane (now the Convenor of Creative and Dramatic
Writing, at the Centre of Continuing Education, University of Sussex,
UK), on community writing projects. I asked him to be my matchmaker.
Could he find a Molecular Biologist, preferably female, who would be
willing to talk to a scifi writer? Who might even let me come into a
lab, and be a fly on the wall?
My first approaches were not successful. I find an entry in my notebook,
after one phonecall in which I'd been given a short, sharp answer. Here's
the catch. Women in science are likely to be hard pressed. Oh dear,
I've hit the busy people. This isn't going to work, why should anyone
make time for me? Eventually, Dr Jane Davies agreed to see me.
I prefer to do my own research. I read everything
I can get my hands on. I do my best to understand, or at least to capture
the ambience; and then I make it up. Conformity to today's knowledge
base is beside the point in scifi. The Higgs boson discourse will no
doubt have moved on, two hundred years from now; if anybody cares at
all. When I have to call in a specialist, I try to use (and not to abuse)
a personal contact. I don't tend to ask questions, because I fear I'm
too ignorant to think of the right way to frame them. I tell my story,
explain how the device or special effect is supposed to fit into my
plot; and the specialist makes objections. This seems to work. I had
no list of questions with me, no tape-recorder either, when I set out
for Sussex University, my old alma mater, (I had wasted three years
of my parents' and my government's money there, once upon a time) one
morning in November.
At Sussex, four miles from Brighton, on the edge
of the south downs, the Great Divide between arts and science is physical,
and dramatic. Arts is in the green valley; Science occupies a concrete
hillside. I announced myself at the porter's desk in BIOLS, a building
in a part of the campus I had never entered when I was an undergraduate.
I approached the corridor lined with office doors expecting very little.
I thought I'd state my case, go away and wait for Dr Davies's decision.
I was concerned because I was going to have to talk about feminism right
away, or I'd be under false pretences, and I didn't know how she would
react. In my experience successful professional women are often very
wary of that word. It's demeaning.
Feminism? Special pleading, whiney nonsense.Get
out of here!
I saw a woman in a white coat, maybe a few years
older than myself, (but I'll feel childish 'til I die); with a warm
smile. I stumbled through my intro, and Dr Davies showed no sign of
impatience. Unprepared, and babbling I'm afraid, I began to tell her
"The important thing to remember is that Anna
isn't interested in sexual politics, or politics of any kind. She's
not anti-feminist, she'd say she just wants to be treated like a human
being. She's ambitious, secretly and wildly ambitious. When she's an
undergraduate she dreams of finding a missing link -some mechanism to
bridge the gaps in evolutionary theory, giving a better model of life
itself. But that's a daydream, in real life she's an idealist, she wants
to do good. She decides on a career in plant biology, improving food
crops (sustainably of course). Feed the world. But she gets derailed,
by bad luck involving a male student who probably resents her talent.
She ends up in human fertility studies and then she spots something
going on, a tiny change in a sample of male sex chromosomes, which she
sees at once might have a very weird explanation. . .if it's not an
experimental artefact. She checks it out, and is convinced she's on
the track of something, and I'm not sure how, but in the end this will
happen fast, become visible and unstoppable fast, within a generation.
"Is it possible? I know they don't usually but do the X and the
Y ever exchange bases, would it be obvious or could it appear and disappear,
the way I need-? At some point she's forced to sacrifice her career
to her domestic responsibilities-
I trembled every time I had to use a technical term.
Mitochondria, how do you pronounce that? I rambled around, explaining
about taking things apart, identifying er, the basic components, as
if that's what's important... I remember Dr Davies gently prompting
Reducing dramatic situations to their component
parts, isolating them from the real world, is science fiction's most
treasured technique, borrowed from science itself. But Anna's story
had to be natural, complex, full of inextricable connections, like a
novel about real life. And here I was asking a scientist to help me.
I was extremely exposed. All I could do was cling to Anna.
"She keeps coming back
to the thing she saw, and finding it again, and getting more and more
excited. She knows it's the key to a BIG discovery, but she knows, and
it turns out she's right, that the sex angle will be her downfall. It's
what happens to women in science in real life. Because they have children,
or a husband who doesn't like their long hours; or a superior, or a
grants board, tacitly, unthinkingly, marking them down; or because they
make male colleagues feel insecure (though you can never say that).
It's meant to be read doubly: a young woman who wants to be a pure scientist,
and has a very idealistic notion of what that means, but she keeps being
brought up against the sex angle-
I have pages of scribbled notes from this interview,
it was astonishingly successful for me. There are no notes about my
state of mind, but I know how I felt. I'd been trying to teach myself
Molecular Biology, from a half page of misunderstood notes washed up
on a desert island: and was plunged into a masterclass-
A transfer of material from the Y to the X, with some selective advantage?
The X and the Y don't usually exchange recombination, they're too different
in shape, but there is a small area where this male donation could happen-
A benign mutation, fixed in the population for thousands of years?
A tiny change in the amount of Y (more)
Conveying resistance to our increasingly toxic environment?
What's needed is a horizontal transfer
Transposons. What about transpons?
(Transposons were my big idea-)
What do you see? When that happens? A band changes in size?
Spontaneous change causes transposable elements to mobilise.
At least 10/15% of our DNA is made up of transposable elements.
They can act like viruses...
She would note this change, publish a paper in "Trends in Genetics"
a scientific journalist would pick it up from a database
Very bad news if your supervisor doesn't know what's in your graduate
paper. If it's published without her supervisor's name, that's a crushing
I had not decided when my story would start when
I walked into Dr Davies' office. Possibly the near future? As we mapped
out Anna's career for her, as if she was setting out now (a game of
snakes and ladders: that's not going to change), I made an instant decision.
She starts from here- She knows nothing about seventies feminism (although
she's going to meet a ferocious, defiant young feminist). She's eighteen,
proud and brave, and the Spice Girls have just released "Wannabe".
She's disgusted by girl power-
She gets a good first degree
A science department gets a quota of grants
Your supervisor puts you on a project
For three years. It's not enough time.
The nature of lab-based science makes it impossible to survive for the
fourth year. Industry sponsored studentships, for top-up grant support.
Student works w. industrial partner, but no guaranteed employment.
Many supervisors use their students as technicians, you could end up
without much choice of work.
In academic science you can keep going on short term contracts. But
you have to have a permanent job by 35-40. Teaching, administration,
Publish! Publish! Publish!
Her own research is always going to have to give-
Serendipity: I was very lucky to have encountered
someone who was prepared to countenance my proposal: to recognise and
nurture what faint resonance it had with her professional knowledge.
Perhaps even luckier to meet someone -outside science fiction or academic
literary criticism- who grasped the idea of a doubled narrative, where
the information, the sequence of events, is meant to convey at least
two meanings at the same time. Or perhaps that wasn't luck. The genome
is the original complex, layered, looping, interactive narrative. A
gene may "mean" several different things. Depending on the
location, depending on the bases upstream and down; depending on the
weather in the cells. . .
Simplicity as a result of complexity: this is a historical document.
I met Dr Davies in 1996. The human genome project had begun in 1990.
The Y chromosome would not be sequenced until 2003. In 1996, horizontal
transfer of DNA, in a population, between species, was verging on science
fiction, to coin a phrase. I was to spend the next few years, as I wrote
and rewrote this book, rearranging my fantasy science so that it could
live in the chinks between real world discoveries (conditions, current
affairs): my understanding of the complexities growing more sophisticated,
and the surface of my fiction growing sleek as flesh and blood.
Some things certainly haven't changed. In 1996 there were intiatives,
conferences, workshops, on the Women In Science question. The haemorrhage
of female graduates, from both public and private sectors, was being
debated. "Everyone" knew about the hoops women had to jump
through to get grants, the scandal revealed by blind testing of the
funding application process; the dearth of women reaching high-level,
role-model, influential posts. And yet, just as now, girls like Anna,
talented and liberated, were supposed to be having it all. If Equal
Opportunities didn't work for them, there must be something wrong with
(Once, when I was twenty or so, a fellow undergraduate
jumped on me. We were alone in a student rented house, a grimy front
room with a mattress on the floor, posters of Ché and Dylan.
He was one of the circle of friends, by no means a close friend of mine.
What did I do? I fought him off. He came back for more, I kept on fighting.
I did not scream, of course I didn't. I went on fighting, silently,
until he finally quit. But if he had persisted, I would have had to
give in. I would not have called it "rape", not unless he'd
beaten me unconcious or tied me up or something; and I wouldn't have
dreamed of reporting the incident. Girls usually don't. What would you
say, in the face of his convinced denial? It's true, I let him do it.
He didn't rape my body, he raped my mind, he forced me to accept his
version... Nah, better keep quiet. Expect to be insulted, understand
that you always have to be careful)
After about an hour, I took away the ideas I'd been
given, the insights into the feudal relationship between a student and
(her) supervisor; and the promise that I could have a lab visit. My
sense of astonished daring, my feeling that I'd entered a sanctuary,
a holy place where I had never expected to tread, was no part of the
interview. But it was to become part of Anna.
[Extract from Life, Chapter
Two: Anna's first paper]
She spent the lunch break lurking
in the crowd, unmolested. In the middle of the afternoon she presented
herself in good time. Professor Reeves of Computer Science, who was
running the symposium, greeted her distractedly.
"Who are you?" His grey curly hair fizzed with anxiety.
"I'm Anna Senoz, from Parentis."
"Good, good. Now look, er, Anna, we're running late, it's going
to be very unfair on the last group, so could you make it short. Get
through your stuff in fifteen minutes, instead of twenty. Can you do
that for me, love?"
"Good girl! Now where the hell's Eswin? Anyone here seen Terry
She scanned her pages and made instant cuts. It was better this way:
hustled, badgered, no time to think. It would be no worse than talking
to a nearly empty hall, the way she'd imagined. There was no one here
remotely interested in "Transferred Y." This was a rehearsal,
harmless as practicing in front of the mirror. Her heart beat wildly,
she felt like a half-fledged bird crouched on the rim of the nest: "Ca,
mon ame, il faut partir..." Who said that? Rene Descartes,
as he lay dying. My soul, we must go. But she was not dying, she was
being born. She was about to join the edifice, the organism, thousands
of years, to which she had given her life and heart. To speak and be
heard. She checked the OHP, made sure her acetates were in order-and
saw K.M. Nirmal, sitting erect in the middle of the front row. She hardly
recognized him. Her supervisor was wearing a very smart suit. She'd
never seen him except in a lab coat or a shabby sports jacket. He hadn't
said a word about attending the symposium. Her head started to spin.
To speak in front of Nirmal was completely different.
That evolution is still a mysterious process, with many unsuspected
byways, and perhaps she had found an example of one of these. That her
predecessors in sequencing the Y chromosome had worked like this.
That she was analyzing samples of DNA from healthy, normally fertile
contemporary human males and from recovered medieval tissue.
That her technique was like this (including the tweaked modeling program).
That she had repeatedly observed an exchange of the same sequence of
bases, between the Y and the X chromosomes in the modern samples. That
she had found no sign of this polymorphism in human male DNA from a
similar geographic location at an earlier date. (The Huit Bories samples.)
Further investigation was indicated. Was there a female version of "Transferred
Y," passed on by affected males to their daughters?
Meanwhile here was a distinctive genetic variation, apparently fitness-neutral,
that had established itself in a human population in a relatively short
time. How this happened-if it was not disproven by further evidence-and
whether there were other instances of the same mechanism, continued
studies might reveal.
The previous speaker, Eswin Holmes (Bacteriostatic Effects of Food Preservation)
had overrun his fifteen minutes a little. Therefore, after about thirteen
minutes and a quarter, Professor Reeves started making urgent wind it
up!, signals. Anna wound it up. She was pleased with herself for being
in control enough to do that and still more or less make sense. No one
was listening, anyway-except presumably Nirmal. She dared, as she delivered
her final sentence, to risk a timid glance in his direction. He was
staring right at Anna, his eyes blazing with naked fury. As she watched,
horrorstruck, he got to his feet, pushed his way along the row, and
marched out of the hall.
There were no questions.
The symposium had been on a Saturday. Nirmal kept her waiting for a
week before he called her to his office. No one else had mentioned the
symposium except Ron Butler (m), who made an attempt to congratulate
her on breaking her duck. Anna thought the delay was a refinement of
cruelty; she realized later that Nirmal had been giving himself a chance
to calm down. The worst part was that Anna hadn't an idea what she had
done wrong. He'd accepted her Transferred Y outline without comment,
merely telling her to carry on, and she'd been too unsure to ask to
talk it over. She'd handed him a copy of her final draft and waited
hopefully for his input. She'd been disappointed when he failed to make
any response, but it was typical of Nirmal.
The best and worst thing about the interview itself was that everything
became very clear very quickly.
"So, Miss Senoz. I gather that the work we have been doing together
has been far from worthy of your undivided attention. When I suggested
that you give a paper at the Young Scientists' symposium, I think I
had a right to assume that your presentation would focus on the doctoral
project you are undertaking with my supervision."
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"But no. Your mind is elsewhere." He lifted a copy of Anna's
"Transferred Y" paper and slapped it down on his desk as if
he hoped to break all its bones. "If it cannot be distorted into
the service of your much more interesting private preoccupations, your
work in this lab does not engage you at all. I trusted you implicitly!
It was extremely, extremely unpleasant for me to discover, in public,
that you had chosen to present a peculiar hobbyhorse of your own-"
Anna was dumbfounded. It dawned on her that Nirmal had not read her
outline or her paper. Of course, he'd assumed he had read it. He knew
everything she'd been doing on the pseudogenes. He'd assumed she would
be going over that ground. He had not made time to check up on her,
or it had slipped his mind, or he'd let it go because he hated one-on-one
meetings. She stared at her hands, clasped in her lap to stop them shaking,
and wondered, how on earth did someone as allergic to personal contact
as Nirmal get to be a postgraduate adviser? It wasn't because she was
a girl, he was as distant with the male members of the team. Everybody
complained about it.
That's science for you. The better you are at what you do, the more
time you're doomed to spend doing things you're no good at. Her terror
was strangely dissipated. No way was she going to remind him that he'd
told her she could do what she liked. No way was she going to point
out that he'd had every opportunity to find out and had omitted to make
sure he knew what his student was going to say in her first public appearance.
"Until you are free to return to your beloved potatoes," Nirmal
was saying, with withering politeness. "I expect you to concentrate
mainly on the tasks in hand here."
Anna nodded: accepting her lessons. Anything you say in the lab, your
supervisor is going to hear. Anything you do, it is your responsibility
to make sure your supervisor knows about it. Don't take chances with
the natural human vanity of your boss.
"Professor Reeves intends to publish a transcript of the colloquium.
Needless to say, this will not feature. It will never be published.
I cannot consider putting my name to it."
She nodded again. She was no longer devastated. She knew he would not
be unfair in his personal record. Neither of them would say it, but
he knew he'd been neglectful.
"I'm sorry," she said, standing up. "I got carried away.
It won't happen again."
"Good. I hope I can trust you from now on."
She reached for the paper. Nirmal's thin hand came down upon it, the
nails almond shaped and calcined, thick as seashells. He didn't speak,
so she headed for the door.
She quailed. What now?
"This is very good work," said her supervisor dryly, tapping
the Transferred Y paper. "Wrong-headed, even absurd, in the implications,
which you wisely didn't spell out. But bold, original, well-reasoned,
and well-presented. Your technical work is also very good. You have
a formidable talent, young lady. But you must focus. Focus!"
"Thank you," she muttered. "Thank you, I'm sorry, I will."
"A formidable talent," repeated Nirmal. "Don't waste
(I watch the extreme sports programmes on late night
tv, with my son. I see those young men leaping into the empty air, their
preternatural confidence: as if they have an immediate, physical sense
of their place in the whole of this state of all states, this state
of affairs, a path they follow that will never let them fall. The truth
is that they DO fall, crash and burn, smash their elbows, snap their
collarbones. But they don't care. I wonder, is that leap into space
testosterone, or nurture? Is it something I could never learn, or is
it something I could find in myself, an atrophied skill? What kind of
human being am I?)
Blots And Gels
Anna wanted to tell them that when she studied a protein separation
gel, it was like a negative image of the starry sky. She was an astronomer,
a cosmologist, a particle physicist: knowing events by their traces,
through a chain of mathematical inference, never able to perceive her
quarry directly. She wished she could make her friends understand the
vast distances: which was far more important than worrying about vanity
parenting or whether men or women owned the jargon. It is so far away,
you can't imagine how far. We don't exist there. They don't direct us,
no more than the stars direct human affairs. We are part of the same
system, obeying the same laws, but we hardly begin to understand what
the laws are. Maybe we're still waiting for Galileo's telescope...
[Extract from Life, Chapter One ]
Dr Davies had advised me to listen-in to some lectures.
I turned up and snuck in at the back of the theatre, for Janet Collet's
Eukaryotic Genetics, 1996/7. Heritability; Genetic Constraints of Selection;
Recognising, Saving and Using Genetic Resources. The lecturer was a
tall woman with a greying braid, dressed in workshirt and jeans; unpretentious
and kindly. The students liked her, evidently; so did I. My way had
been prepared for me. When I first appeared, someone came up at the
end and asked, "Are you the science fiction writer?" I nervously
agreed, and that was all. I copied diagrams, I made adjustments to the
ideas formed by my amateur reading. I discovered how fluid, how interactive
the genome was becoming, how much unsuspected complexity had been uncovered
by the failure of early attempts at "genetic engineering".
It's not that the processes aren't predictable, they're just far more
intricate, and there are far, far more variables, combinations, feedback
loops, than had been dreamed possible. I pondered on transposons, viruses,
cohorts, methylation, environmental factors.
In the late nineteen thirties (this was before Crick and Watson, before
the dramatic revelation of the structure of DNA) something highly critical
happened to genetics, which until then had been a patient science of
organisms and cells, where the result of a cytology experiment had to
be read in the variegated colour of a flower; in the shape of an insect's
wing. The technology improved and the physicists moved in, notably Max
Delbrück, bringing their mechanistic, reductionist (that word again!)
world-view. For more than thirty years thereafter, DNA was the miraculous
blueprint (this was what they taught me in school, in the nineteen sixties):
changeless as the fixed stars -except when a random mutation, conveying
an advantage at some level, propagated through a population via fitness
selection. It was a beautiful model, pure and simple and essentially
tragic. Every organism, every gene, was an isolated warrior, forging
alone through the ages, ruled by arbitrary fate. And it was wrong.
It was wrong, but inescapable (it remains, with
grudging concessions, "received wisdom"). You believed in
the physicists' version or you didn't work; or if you worked you were
a crank, unpublishable: you were nobody. The heroes of the resistance
(Lynn Margulis, Barbara McClintock), suffered quite horribly, especially
McClintock. It was like being nailed as Un-American, except nobody talked
about a blacklist. I was proud of them. Yet if I had been a female biology
student in the fifties, the sixties, wouldn't I have been very careful
not to associate with anything cranky? Can't be too careful. Wouldn't
I still be wary today? I felt my native caution welling up: if someone
is called a crank, there's usually something in it. No smoke without
fire. Just because I write scifi, doesn't mean I'm gullible. . . But
I took comfort -I take comfort- in the big mistakes of science. Sun
still going round the earth, anyone? There's no mystery as to how a
revolution happens. As long as the accepted theory works, and produces
good results, a few mavericks can easily be ignored. When cracks begin
to show, they are shored-up and painted over. All human structures protect
themselves. The life of the mistake is prolonged by peer-pressure, by
witch-hunts, by more or less wilful blindness; whatever the market will
bear. But sooner or later, the mistake is defeated by its own success.
The bigger and more pervasive the system gets, the more the contrary
evidence begins to mount up too, until a tipping point is reached. "Anyone
can suppress the truth. You can suppress the truth as often as you like.
But there comes a point when you can't suppress the facts, because there
they are! All over the place!". (Life p224).The idea that
gender is all important could be simply wrong. Down among the chromosomes,
among the bases, the science is neutral. Every human body (right now,
no fantasy intervention required) is a mosaic of male and female cells.
If we were to look for sexual identity on that level, we'd be very puzzled
to exercise our apartheid, our decree of either/or. The whole idea that
humanity is divided into two halves could be a chimera. One day it might
vanish, like the Cold War, like the crystal spheres, like canals on
Mars and jungles on Venus. People born with currently recognised X/Y
pair problems would be treated only for the medical ill-effects. Parents
and doctors would be far less concerned to have babies with "indeterminate"
genitals corrected by surgery. There'd be people who felt themselves
to be men getting pregnant; people who felt themselves to be women,
at ease with their penises. People who just couldn't see the problem,
letting their "sexual identity" go into free fall. And then
Better than that. Everyone would be the same as before, or that's what
they'd tell you. Successful revolutions vanish, nobody realises they
Dark they were, and golden-eyed
Random Lecture Notes
The rule is not "if you have a Y you're male"
It's 1X+2sets of autochromes and you're male
2X+ 2 sets of autochromes and you're female.
A molecular mechanism that can distinguish one from two is sophisticated
Triggered by meiosis sorting X from Y or X from not-X
Y in flies, not necessary for male identity, is necessary for spermatogenesis
Environmental cues can also be used to determine sex e.g. reptilians
(temperature); sea worms -an embryo develops as male if near another
embryo that's developing as female.
Genetic determinism = the genotype drives all subsequent behaviours
=wants to ascribe all behaviours to one part of a process
Vast fruit fly chromosomes looking like the Alphabet necklace in "Just
1966 refined specific enzyme assays in plants = wild type alleles were
hugely variant! = we are extraordinarily variable,not only between genes
but inside genes, in the coding systems of proteins
1944 Oswald Avery, Colin Macleod, Maclyn McCarty, identified DNA as
the "transforming principle"; but cautiously hedged their
conclusions. It was in the middle of the war but that's not why Avery
isn't a legend, nobody's heard of him, it's because he wasn't the alpha
male type. discuss
You have to be ruthless and driven to get to top, in science as elsewhere,
but a woman with full domestic support immediately becomes a man -a
man who makes time for his personal life, his family, in the chinks
allowed by lab science.
A Feeling For The Organism
In our first interview, Dr Davies advised me to read Evelyn Fox Keller's
biography of Barbara McClintock, A Feeling For The Organism.
All I knew about Barbara McClintock at that time was that she'd discovered
"transposons" in maize - the jumping genes I'd read about,
and pounced on as a possible mechanism for my "Transferred Y"
idea-; and had won a Nobel Prize. It took me a while to get hold of
the book. When I finally read it, chills went down my spine. The parallels
between the story of this dead woman, scientist of genius, and my "Anna",
Barbara McClintock was born in 1902, and got her Ph.D from Cornell when
she was twentyfive. There were no careers for women in scientific research
in those days. She spent her life on the margins, amassing awards and
honours, collecting fellowships that financed her research: never appointed
to a post to match her reputation in the inner circle; or her achievements.
Her gender was "always there, always intruding" . Male colleagues
acknowledged that she was brilliant, they were in awe of her "surpassingly
beautiful investigations" but considered her "difficult",
if not slightly deranged, when she protested at being passed over for
She became increasingly isolated after the advent of Molecular Biology,
and her discovery of "transposition", announced in 1950, was
dismissed as invention. Her results did not fit into the model of the
gene as a fixed, unchanging unit of heredity. It would be more than
twenty five years before "transposons" were recognised in
bacteria, and the connection with her work was made. She was awarded
the Nobel Prize in 1983. The implications of her work are still expanding,
still causing controversy: perhaps, who knows, she'll be remembered
in the end as the woman who discovered a better model of life itself.
Most biographical summaries, articles you'll read
on the web, gloss over the "delay" in recognising her discovery.
Actually, you see, McClintock was difficult, and more than a
little strange. She saw things nobody else could see, she had ideas
nobody else could concieve. It was no wonder people found her hard to
understand, it was her own fault, really. . . So was Richard Feynman
a little strange, by all accounts. So is Albert Einstein hard to understand.
Don't get me started on Isaac Newton. Didn't do their careers any harm.
They had permission to be extraordinary. And here lies an issue, for
women in science, that I had not suspected and which had no part of
my original plan.
"Keep a cobbler's job", Einstein once
said. But isolation from the mainstream has a high price, especially
in lab science. By the time Barbara McClintock announced her "transposition"
discovery, her vision was so differently trained, she was so preternaturally
expert in the field of one that she had created, that other scientists
literally could not see what she was seeing, through the microscope.
Even modern Molecular Biology is a "black art" (the organism
fights back!). Samples behave differently in different culture mixes,
visual acuity and deft hands make the difference between success and
failure. Talented experimenters can produce perfectly genuine results
that nobody can replicate... I'd walked into Dr Davies's office with
an idea for a story about a woman scientist. I hadn't intended for Anna
to be a "genius". But maybe it's the discovery that makes
the genius, and not the other way round: a compelling insight that gets
hold of a trained mind, and will not let go, and forces that mind to
grow, to become the equal of the thing it glimpsed. . . Because of Barbara
McClintock, and Lynn Margulis too, (and others, the roll call stretches
back) the issue of fame had to become a part of my novel. But at least
Anna was no longer alone. She was part of the ongoing drama in her field:
life science riven by passionate loyalties, cold-blooded feuds, vicious
disputes. She was a samurai serving her lord, she became the handmaid
of a visionary recluse; eventually she was the team-leader of a furious,
sleepless race to be first past the post, with the proof that everyone
in the game was madly chasing-
At the end of January, 1997, I had my last session in the BIOLS building.
I sat in on a team meeting, in Dr Davies's office, keeping quiet, taking
JD: hopes the building work won't be too disruptive. The radiation area
will go, needs a new home at the back of the lab, must have a separate
room, nice surfaces-
Martin: says he needs to upgrade Word on the PowerMac. Can't defrag
the hard drive any more. Is anybody in charge of the computers?
Trying to make antibodies to Shaking B. There's a commercial firm in
Belgium that will make them for us. Martin and Lucy have been designing
peptides for the anti-serum. When David Beckham (not the footballer)
came here he was talking about a wonderful new way to couple antibodies.
Keyhole Limpet haemaocymia
Unfortunately he still hasn't sent us the references-
Tanya is still doing hybridisation, been doing Southern Blots, got v.
high background and can't wash it off-
Do you have enough leech DNA to make another blot?
If you're doing some, give the carcase to Tanya
It's impossible to grind up that elastic skin-
This is how it sounds, looks, this is how things are done that have
never been done before. The Shak-B gene, neurogenesis, gap junctions,
CNS, wonder if I'll ever find out what happened. . . Wonder if any of
these notes will turn up in my book, in any form? I was thinking about
an expert system who was almost, arguably a person (call the Turing
police!), and a storming guardian angel who would keep pestering Anna
to get radical. I was preparing to take away with me, folded down small,
the slightly rank smell of the big warm lab, the calm atmosphere in
here; and a feeling for the vast complexity, the intricacy and individuality
of the very small. Creatures of another world, speaking to us in their
own language. How far away, how far-
I was supposed to go back for an internship, maybe in April 97, but
I didn't. Perhaps I was too busy. I was on the Committee for Amnesty
International UK's Women's Action Network at the time, I was helping
to set up a "feminist" website (short-lived!) for my local
internet provider. There was always something. I have a last note: not
referenced or attached, "you're going to have great difficulty
getting this published." True enough. In 2003, when the latest
rewrite was wandering the Western Seaboard of the USA, passed from hand
to hand, my friend Timmi Duchamp contacted me, and asked if she could
publish it, for her new venture, The Aqueduct Press. In 2004 Life
won the Philip K. Dick award. This year, I was invited to speak on a
panel on Women In Science, at a literary convention; had to field some
entertaining questions. I don't know much about the secondary school
science curriculum. I did my best.
I watch my son's friends. How unaffectedly
physical the boys are with each other, how easily they relate to the
girls; now the segregated years are over. But still the young girls
dress up in spike heels, fragile blouses and tight little skirts. Maybe
it's meant for dominance display (Spice Girl style), I think of the
Chinese proverb, binding one's feet to prevent one's own progress. More
than likely there'll be another Women's Movement along soon. Right now
there's a war on, that's the main story, and permanent warfare isn't
good for women's rights. Or men's rights, really. The story I told in
"Life" is true. I wonder when it will be out of date.
Eppur si muove.
With grateful thanks to Dr Jane Davies, Dr Janet Collett, and the Shak
B team, 1996/7
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