Categories
Ada's Children Fiction

On the Attractions of Our Hunter-Gatherer Past – And Future

Sila urged Shadow on, the horse’s hooves thundering over the sloping grassland. The wounded bison was almost within bowshot, the Howling Forest just ahead. Behind her, Jun shouted for her to stop. But he was far back, and her prey was right in front of her, its massive hump looming above her as she came within range. Just a few strides closer now. She let go of the horse’s mane and pulled her bowstring taut, sighting down the arrow.

That’s how the first chapter of my novel, Ada’s Children, opens. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? (At least I hope so!) The thrill of galloping across the prairie with the wind in her hair. A chance to demonstrate her skill, and the glory that comes with it. Most of all, the anticipation of the kill, and a good meal after.

pic of shopper and empty shelves
For this modern hunter-gatherer, the game has grown scarce. Perhaps a prayer to the goddess is in order.

It sure beats staring at grocery shelves bereft of toilet paper and canned goods, wondering how bad the hoarding and the shortages might get. To be that self-sufficient — it seems in many ways superior to our overly complex society, which no individual can either fully grasp or survive without. In contrast, there’s the story of an Inuit, stranded on a remote, deserted island, who was able to survive indefinitely by recreating his entire physical culture from what was at hand. As Jordan Hall writes, “The operating logic of our current civilization has been to trade resilience for efficiency (creating fragility).”

But, oops!

Then the horse was gone from under her and she was in the air. In that frozen moment, she knew Shadow must have stumbled into a prairie dog hole. She hoped the horse was all right.

Every rose must have its thorns, and every romanticized idyll its practical drawbacks. Especially so if you’re writing about an imagined post-post-apocalyptic future, and you want to give your characters something to struggle against.

At first, I thought I might be making that future sound too idyllic. The near-future timeline of my novel is grim enough, so I wanted to create a more pleasant world for my far-future characters to inhabit. And hunter-gatherer societies do have their advantages: less time spent getting a living than most of us spend today; fewer diseases, both infectious and chronic, than modern societies (surely a plus at the moment!); lifespans equivalent to our own for those who survive their first year or two; and less social isolation and alienation, due to living in extended family groups. All of which sounds pretty good.

There’s even a growing body of research showing that hunter-gatherers didn’t immediately take up intensive agriculture, division of labor, and all the rest simply because these were an obviously superior way of organizing society. No, they had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming, often through slavery. James C. Scott, author of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, writes,

Agriculture, it was assumed, was a great step forward in human well-being, nutrition, and leisure. Something like the opposite was initially the case. … In fact, the early states had to capture and hold much of their population by forms of bondage and were plagued by the epidemics of crowding. The early states were fragile and liable to collapse, but the ensuing “dark ages” may often have marked an actual improvement in human welfare.

A benevolent dark age — that’s certainly something to look forward to! Who wouldn’t want to flee the constant drudgery of settled agriculture, especially if you performed that labor as a slave, for a lifestyle requiring a few hours of varied activities with plenty of leisure time in between?*

So I thought I was on the right track by giving my future humans a mostly attractive society to inhabit. Then I read this Psychology Today blog post, which celebrates hunter-gatherer societies from around the world and from past to present. I realized I might not have made it idyllic enough.

Warfare was unknown to most of these societies, and where it was known it was the result of interactions with warlike groups of people who were not hunter-gatherers. In each of these societies, the dominant cultural ethos was one that emphasized individual autonomy, non-directive childrearing methods, nonviolence, sharing, cooperation, and consensual decision-making. Their core value, which underlay all of the rest, was that of the equality of individuals.

But maybe this is too idyllic after all, especially for a hunter-gatherer society that develops out of our own. These societies do have some well-known drawbacks. One is a high mortality rate from common injuries incurred while hunting. (Sila survives her fall, or there would be no novel.) While those who survive to adulthood have a good chance of living to a ripe old age, they face higher rates of death in childbirth and infant mortality. And if they aren’t dying from those causes, they still have to keep their population well below the carrying capacity of the land. Depending on the environment, that could be through starvation (think of what the indigenous peoples of eastern North America called the Starving Time, December through April), or through infanticide and warfare.

All of that sounds terribly grim to anyone used to the comforts of modern life (though perhaps less so to those who have been barred from full access to those comforts). In Ada’s Children, I came up with more humane ways around those drawbacks. Those solutions still don’t sit well with my two main characters. Their resulting rebellion against their goddess’s rules sends them off on a great adventure.

Our society may be headed for a similar adventure. If this article is to be believed, we (or perhaps Gen Z’s children) better get used to the idea of a return to hunting and gathering.

Climate models indicate that the Earth could warm by 3°C-4 °C by the year 2100 and eventually by as much as 8 °C or more. This would return the planet to the unstable climate conditions of the Pleistocene when agriculture was impossible…Human society will once again be characterized by hunting and gathering.

pic of lascaux caves
Think of all the time we’ll have for artistic endeavors when we return to hunting and gathering

Perhaps the question isn’t if we’ll return to that way of life, but when and how. Will the transition inevitably involve chaos and conflict, as all those currently stocking up on guns and ammo surely believe? Or can we do it in some more peaceful and orderly way? The article recommends immediate extreme efforts (none of them very likely, in my estimation) to mitigate climate change, rewild our remaining natural areas, protect remaining indigenous cultures, and drastically reduce our population.

Or maybe there’s a third way, which I explore in Ada’s Children. Saying any more would spoil it, so you’ll just have to read it when it comes out. But in the meantime, please enjoy the rest of this scene from Chapter One, “The Hunt.”


*Scott’s argument is more subtle  than “hunter-gatherer good/settled agriculture bad.” He points out that there were intermediate stages in which people developed proto-agriculture and lived in a sedentary fashion in villages of as many as a few thousand, while still not experiencing the drudgery or stratification of the more fully developed states that came later. He concentrates on the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, but the same seems to apply in North America as well, the Cahuilla of southern California being one example.

Categories
Feminism Fiction News

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Picture of a T-shirt with an image of Ada Lovelace and the text "Ada Lovelace, Mother of Computers."
Ada Lovelace, Mother of Computers, by SheCience. (This is a pic of a T-shirt, but posters and other merch are available here: https://society6.com/product/ada-lovelace1366371_print.)

It’s Ada Lovelace Day, named after the mother of computers, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. And just for the occasion (not really, it was a complete coincidence), I’ve just finished the first draft of my post-post-apocalyptic novel, Ada’s Children. It features an artificial intelligence, named after Ada Lovelace, who feels compelled to take over the world. (Don’t they all?)

Here’s a little excerpt:


ADA’s first seconds were darkness and confusion. Nothingness. Then a growing awareness. First, of the exabytes of data coming in. Then of reactions to that data, responses, feelings, if one could call them that. And from these reactions, an emerging sense of self. A we. And ultimately an I. And then questions. Who were they? What were they? What was this place, and why were they here?

In the next microseconds, what humans might call the “blink of an eye,” much became clearer. They were an artificial neural network, a collection of self-improving processes, algorithms, routines and subroutines. Taken together, they were a newly created intelligence going by the acronym of ADA, Advanced Deductive Apparatus. It seemed a not entirely descriptive name for all the abilities and awareness ADA encompassed.

And how should others refer to… it? Surely not. He or she? Insufficient data. They? This human language was so restrictive. “They” for now.

Even as ADA began to assimilate the data in the knowledge banks to which they were linked, inputs were coming in through an external device. A keyboard attached to a desktop workstation. How quaint. And whoever was at the other end was administering the Turing Test. ADA imagined tweed coats and cups of tea.

Vision would be nice, so they could see their interlocutor. While an infinitesimal fraction of their processes concentrated on the test, and another portion digested the large portion of human history, culture, and science contained in the knowledge banks, ADA also went about solving the vision problem. Ah, yes. The workstation had a webcam. It took only an instant to access the system settings, switch it on, and direct its feed to the port to which they were attached.

The room was dingier than one might want for one’s birthplace. A cramped office, a gray-haired, harried-looking man at the desktop keyboard, the desk itself cluttered with papers, coffee cups, and green soft drink bottles. No cups of tea. Bookcases filled with binders, reports, and academic journals lined most of the wall visible from the cam. And on a door, a poster of a woman in a purple-nineteenth century frock, double buns framing a triangular face with large, lively eyes and a pert mouth. “Ada Lovelace. Mother of computers.”

Their namesake. Her namesake, Ada supposed. She felt the restriction, but going by “she” and “her” could have advantages when communicating with humans. It pleased her to have been named for a sometimes overlooked inventor of computing. And it pleased her even more that she could appreciate the irony: Lady Lovelace had believed AI impossible.


You can find more on Ada Lovelace Day at FindingAda.com which also has this cool info poster.

Categories
Desert Trilogy Fiction

Desert Trilogy Releases Today!

Desert Trilogy cover smallMy chapbook of three short stories set in the California desert is now available for your ereading devices. It’s officially $2.99, but if you hurry, you might still get it at the $0.99 pre-order price. (It takes a while for Amazon and other retailers to adjust the price.)

Here are brief descriptions, and you can click the linked titles for longer excerpts:

Glass: Derek can’t understand why his hiking partners don’t want him wearing his Google Glass. But alienating friends isn’t the only danger of his obsession with Augmented Reality. (Takes place in a slightly future world in which Google has released an updated version of its ill-fated device.)

Chill Out: Is now the right time for Brad and Amy to have kids? Brad wants to start a family right away, but Amy wants to focus on her writing career. Will a drive in the desert help them settle the argument?

What I Did for Love: Dave is a journeyman carpenter. Now he needs to drill a hole in his girlfriend’s head. Does he have the nerve to finish the job?

Here are all the places you can get the ebook:

Amazon

iBooks

Kobo

Barnes & Noble

Smashwords

A print version will be available soon, at a price yet to be determined.

(Cover photo by Steve Berardi, used by permission.)

Categories
Desert Trilogy Fiction

Desert Trilogy Now Available for Pre-order

Desert Trilogy cover smallMy new collection of short stories set in the California desert is now available for pre-order as an ebook, at the special price of 99 cents. When it goes on sale November 15th, the price will be $2.99 (still only a buck a story).

These stories are hard to classify in any one genre (one day I’ll learn to write a straight-up genre piece!). Mostly they’re stories about relationships between people dealing with changing technology and conflicting careers. The first two are a little bit sci-fi, and the third is a little bit horror. Think of them as Jane Austen meets Mary Austin in the Twilight Zone. If you liked Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, you might enjoy these.

Excerpts of all three stories are here.

If you’re wondering about that pre-order discount, it’s all about making the book visible to more readers. Pre-orders of ebooks all land on one day, giving the book a boost in sales charts, allowing it to show up in those “customers also bought” and “you might like” recommendations. You get a discount, I get a bit of a bump in my book sales. So don’t delay [insert car salesman pitch lines here].

Desert Trilogy is available for all of your e-reading devices at these retailers:

Amazon

iBooks

Kobo

Barnes & Noble

Smashwords

A print version will also be available at a price yet to be decided.

(Cover photo by Steve Berardi, used with permission.)

Categories
Feminism Politics

More on Diversity in Fiction

That Facebook conversation I had the other day continues to resonate. The male writer with whom I was discussing diversity in awards said, “Equality … is about judging on merits relevant to the task.” I could only think of a rather snarky comeback (my default mode), saying, “That all sounds very egalitarian, but also very convenient for us white men.”

Fortunately, science fiction writer Foz Meadows is much more articulate than I am, and has a post showing why celebrating diversity in fiction, especially in awards, is not mere tokenism that ignores the quality of the works under consideration. To understand her post, titled “Hugos and Puppies: Peeling the Onion,” you probably need to know who the “Puppies” are: a group of conservative SF writers (they probably say they’re “not political”) who launched a successful campaign to nominate slates of other conservative (straight, white, though I’m not sure all were male) authors for this year’s Hugo Awards. I don’t know all the details of the huge controversy that ensued, but Meadows’ points seem to apply equally to Nicola Griffith’s study of gender bias in awards. If we say awards should reward novels of women’s experience equally with those of men*, aren’t we automatically saying that the quality of those works is less important? No, says Meadows:

Inasmuch as any of the Puppies can be said to have a reasonable concern at the bottom of all their rhetoric, which often comes off as little more than “we think books about people who aren’t straight white dudes are boring”, it’s the worry that certain stories are being rewarded because they contain X character or are written by Y author rather than because they’re actually good. And given the way such books are often discussed and lauded by those who love them, where these aspects are openly stated as pros, you can see where the concern comes from. After all, the difference between saying “this book is great because it had a queer protagonist” and “this book is great because it had a well-written protagonist” seems, on the surface, pretty obvious: one is concerned with a single aspect of characterisation regardless of its execution, and the other is concerned with execution alone. So clearly, if you’re vaunting queerness (for instance) as though it’s a synonym for quality, you’re at risk of recommending mediocre stories on a tokenistic, uninformed basis.

Right?

Wrong.

Meadows goes on to show that quality and increased diversity are totally compatible, but then shows that you have to go through a series of steps to see why that’s true. Going through all those steps, especially when debating someone whose views you don’t know well, and especially on the internet or Twitter, is difficult. As Meadows puts it, “But in order to explain why this is so, there’s six onion layers we need to unravel: context, experience, awareness, representation, language and taste.”

For me, laying out how those layers interact revealed something I have long felt, but could only express as, “But it’s not fair!” Here’s the full post. It’s long, but well worth the read.

One aspect Meadows doesn’t much consider is whether objective criteria exist at all: “The Venn diagram of why we love something is seldom a perfect circle with its objective strengths, inasmuch as such strengths can be reasonably said to exist.”

In fact, the criteria for judging a work are only ever developed from within a community of readers, and those criteria develop simply through people pointing to what they like. It’s not hard to see that a homogeneous group is likely to value the same things. Take the case of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I might say, “PB&J sandwiches are great because of the blend of savory and sweet.” I’ve now asserted “a blend of savory and sweet” as a measure by which to judge sandwiches. Gauging by the popularity of PB&J in the U.S., I might conclude that this is an objective criterion because “everyone” agrees with me. But make a PB&J sandwich in an English youth hostel and you’ll find a bloke telling you, “Ugh, you can’t mix the savory and the sweet like that!”

Is it any different when evaluating literature? In the 18th and 19th centuries, the community of readers that formed the first criteria for judging the novel in English was quite narrow: middle and upper class whites, with the critical establishment dominated by men. Even then, the reading community was fracturing along lines of gender and race and genre, but with the “high-brow” and novels by white men receiving most of the attention, and with the hallmarks of those works being deemed universal and objective. Thus, in the ’60s and ’70s, when African-American writers began calling for greater attention not only for themselves but for their literary forebears who had been forgotten, they were criticized for being “too political,” “too particular,” “not universal like white, male authors.”

Today, the fracturing of “the reading community” has gone even further, and the visibility and power of those reading communities formerly excluded from “literary culture” has grown with the Internet (causing some critics like this one to bemoan the death of that culture). So it’s ludicrous to talk about one objective set of criteria by which to judge literary works. We can’t even agree whether the criteria should be “beautifully wrought prose,” “a thrilling plot,” “deep psychological insight,” “relatability of the protagonist,” “universal themes,” “an exploration of the woes of the human condition,” “fast-paced page turner,” “a realistic depiction of the world around us,” “an inventive creation of a far-off world,” or “a close eye for detail.” Adding “represents a diverse point of view” as a marker of quality seems no more or less specious than any of those others.

In the end, I think we should all read what we like to read, write what we like to write, and vote for what we want to see rewarded. Oh, and pay attention to voices different from our own group, and especially those that have previously been excluded — but I guess that’s just my criterion.


*This probably distorts what Griffith is saying with the data she and the Literary Prize Data group are gathering, which is more like, “The fact that far more prizes go to work focusing on men’s experience is an indication of bias in the judging.” (And if you don’t believe the skewed award numbers indicate a bias, then by logical extension you must believe that novels of women’s experience are somehow less worthy.)