Sex, Social Systems, and Science Fiction

So, Friday was a good, fairly relaxing day at the convention. Too much walking and being on my feet, but that was inevitable. I don’t think my knee is getting too much worse, so hopefully I’m not setting recovery back in any dire way.

Notable this year, the art show is just top notch. I’m tempted by a whole bunch of items — Judy Peterson’s puzzles among them. She’s doing flat puzzles now as well as the animals that stand up. Also, she shows me more kitten pictures every time we encounter each other, so that’s good. I’m going to miss those kittens SO MUCH.

Lots of other artwork as well, including these rather remarkable shadow-box things made by a person named Dave Howell. He calls them paradox boxes, and I’m not sure how to describe them, except as a sort of pointillist art where you can see different words if you look at the box from different directions. Somewhat to my astonishment, I can’t find any sort of website of his. You’re not allowed to take pictures of the exhibits, so I’m stuck for a way to explain more clearly what these paradox boxes are, except to say that I’m very tempted to buy one that shows you FAITH if you view it one way and REASON if you view it the other way. His biggest box shows about twenty words. I couldn’t find them all.

Most fun panels so far — I liked one on conspiracy theories, I liked one on Really Big Things (megastructures), but, perhaps surprisingly, I particularly liked one on Van Vogt. I’m not even that familiar with Van Vogt, but I liked a couple of his books and think he was an interesting writer. What made the panel was the enthusiasm of the moderator, which is perhaps a lesson to keep in mind. His enthusiasm for the topic was engaging. Knowledgeable panelists who pick up that enthusiasm is also engaging. I’m borrowing a couple of Van Vogt’s books from my brother to read later.

My Friday panel was Sex, Social Systems, and SF, and this was a lot of fun and hopefully struck the audience in much the same way; eg, lots of enthusiasm from the panelists. The moderator was Diane Kelly, the other panelists were Eleanor Konik, Erica Holcomb, and William Tracy. Diane’s idea for the panel was to throw out some unusual reproductive / social system from nonhuman animals and play around a little with how that might look if you created an alien species with something similar and ran that social system forward into a technologically advanced civilization.

We started with lekking — seen in various birds, various antelope, various fruit flies, and so on — a “one-stop shop” where males display in a tight-packed group and females come to that one place to consider the males and pick a mate. Since I prefer mammals as a rule, here’s a description of this behavior in the Ugandan kob antelope.

Then “exploded” or dispersed lek display behavior, as in bower birds — I expect you’re all familiar with bower birds.

Then simultaneous one-time breeding and death, which is called semelparity and is seen in eg salmon, but more interestingly in a little marsupial called Antechinus. Here, we can actually connect to science fiction, via the story Love is the Plan the Plan is Death by James Tiptree Jr.

Then reduced males, such as in the deep sea angler fish, where if a male is lucky enough to encounter a female, he attaches to her as a parasite because heaven forbid he loses her again.

Then species which switch sex, from male to female where egg production matters most (bigger females can produce more eggs), or from female to male where territoriality matters most (bigger males are better at territory defense). This sort of thing is not all that unusual in fish, with clownfish being the typical example. They live in small groups where the biggest individual is female and the rest male. If the female dies, the next-biggest individual becomes female. Yes, this is really, really neat. Of course this makes me think of the Faded Sun trilogy by CJC, where the regul choose their sex as they mature, becoming male or female based on social cues. That’s not the same, but it’s certainly similar.

Oh, we also hit mouth-brooding just for the coolness value. Hard to see how that would work in a civilized species, but I mean, really, mouth-brooding?

Also extreme r-selection, where a female produces thousands of young and shows zero parental care. There are two good examples I know of in science fiction: the crustacean species in Mother of Demons by Eric Flint and the Ilmatarans in A Darkling Sea by Jim Cambias. The funniest moment in the panel was when I said, “And there was this great example in A Darkling Sea by James Cambias; has anyone read that?” and Jim raised his hand in the audience and said, “Well, I have.” Turns out the moderator was Cambias’ wife, which I had no idea was the case.

We didn’t even scratch the surface of this topic. Not even close. Really fun topic and I would love to do more with it.

Anyway, after that panel, Craig and I went out to dinner with a few other people. We went to Vermilion, and I will now describe the dessert Craig and I shared, which we ordered because the description in the menu was so entertaining.

Ceiling Smasher: Vermilion hedonism dense flourless chocolate cake spiced cotton candy ceiling — molten chocolate ceiling demolisher

I mean, that is a completely irresistible description. Here’s how it looked when it arrived, with the cake all but hidden under the cloud of cotton candy:

Here is what pouring the chocolate sauce onto the cotton candy did:

Tasty, too. I definitely recommend Vermilion if you find yourself in downtown Chicago and want a memorable dinner. Everything was excellent. The restaurant describes itself as Indian/Portuguese fusion, and what can I say that tops that? Except I can say that I’m going to try to recreate the curry leaf tamarind paneer. That was so good that I went on to order the blackened chili tamarind ribs, which were also really excellent.

Okay, so, that was Friday! It’s early-ish Saturday now and I’m going back to cutting Tasmakat. I’ve managed to get rid of about six thousand words so far.

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4 thoughts on “Sex, Social Systems, and Science Fiction”

  1. Shout out for “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation”. It’s a very funny book by Olivia Judson on the same topic as your panel. (She also performed in the same role for 4 episodes on BBC.)

  2. Dave Howell has a site, but it doesn’t seem to have the paradox boxes.

  3. Have you read Queer Ducks by Eliot Schrefer? I saw some librarians on Twitter talking about it and gave it a read. The basic setup is that it’s by an author who grew up hearing that homosexuality was “unnatural,” and then became a scientist and was like: wait, bisexuality is kind of the default for most species. Why do people keep using that word “unnatural” when THIS is the natural world?

    He also adds that he doesn’t think anyone should really live their life based on what birds do or anything, but it’s it’s a fun exploration of just how queer the animal world is.

    From a fantasy writing standpoint, especially one who uses real nature facts instead of magic as a hopping off point, it made me realize that I still had a lot of weird cishet preconceptions. If gryphons are like sapient birds and cats, they’re probably a lot queerer than I’ve been writing them.

    Sorry, authors, but if your goose gryphons aren’t bisexual polyamorous icons, your story is failing on the level of basic realism, I guess!

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