Woman Inherits the Earth: Dinosaur Feminism and Virgin Births

Their children will surely be dangerous. Men don’t want them having children. So men create expensive, inefficient, and cruel systems to control the potential for reproduction. This is the secret history of Jurassic Park.

“You want to have one of those?”

There are two primary systems the male scientists use in their efforts to contain the dangerous potential of the creatures on Isla Nublar. One: electrified fences, which keep the animals isolated not only from humans, but from each other. Some dinosaur species are given more freedom than others—look at the wide open plain teeming with brachiosaur and pachycephalus herds, and then at the high-walled, claustrophobic fortress of the velociraptor pen. The more times I watch this movie the odder this enclosure seems: why create this species for the zoo if people are never going to be able to actually look at it? Did they just try every dinosaur species they had cloneable samples for and breed groups of the ones that proved viable? That hardly speaks of a stable technology under its creators’ control.

Control, I believe, is central to this question: it is impossible to imagine a conversation in which male InGen scientists believed they could clone a velociraptor, but chose not to because the creature was too dangerous. Such self-doubt would look too much like cowardice. So they clone not just a single velociraptor—though that would be hubris enough—but a whole pack of them. Even though both Muldoon and Grant tell us—and how exactly does Grant know this?—that velociraptors are most dangerous in pairs. Muldoon’s entirely justified paranoia must have been contagious, though. Later we learn that the raptor pen is not only separate from the perimeter fence but is also almost literally on top of the island’s central power station. The male scientists—no doubt egged on by the imperially-coded, quintessentially patriarchal Muldoon—have placed their most dangerous creation at the center of what they feel is their bastion of strength. It’s a dungeon, plain and simple—and every good storyteller knows that a dungeon primarily exists to be escaped from. The velociraptors have no choice but to break free.

“There is no unauthorized breeding in Jurassic Park.”

The second system of control is medical manipulation. What’s striking about Dr. Henry Wu’s statement in the laboratory scene is how nakedly authoritarian it is: children aren’t conceived in this world, they are authorized. Gender is rigidly policed as an absolute law, in defiance of real biological science (where intersex bodies and ungendered bodies happen all the time). We learn that all the Isla Nublar dinosaurs are designated female—because female animals are presumed to be easier to control, and male animals are assumed to be necessary, but more on that later—while Malcolm delivers his famous line about how life, uh, finds a way and a baby velociraptor hatches from an egg. Hammond is as giddy as a grandfather shoving his way into a maternity ward: “I insist on being here when they’re born…Come on, little one! Very good, push!” But he’s applying human patterns to what is a fundamentally inhuman birth. This baby velociraptor has to bring itself into the world. It has to be its own mother. And it isn’t cute or sentimental: it’s bloody, with eyes and claws and a hissing beak and sinister undertones to the musical cues. The shape of the egg and the sterile laboratory setting are strikingly reminiscent of Alien/s, another franchise obsessed with how feminized reproduction resists male control and containment.

Throughout this early part of the film, Grant is excited to learn what ‘real’ dinosaur behavior is like, but he’s been tricked by an illusion. He’s reading these dinosaurs as authentic, when they are the results of provably ignorant human manipulations. We know now that many of the species on Isla Nublar would have been feathered—imagine the proud cloning scientists watching the growth of their first newborn hatchlings, only to see those babies sprout plumes and pinions and down in vivid, eye-searing colors. Would those men recognize such seeming chimeras as authentic prehistoric animals in truth? Or would they assume instead that there had been some mechanical error in the cloning process, and go through batch after batch tweaking the recipe until they produced something that looked more comfortably reptilian? They’re not so much trying to discover the truth as they are trying to manufacture a species to fit a faulty pattern.

Considering how often scientists get it demonstrably wrong in this movie, it’s a wonder nobody has stepped up to challenge Grant’s later assertion that frog DNA allows adult dinosaurs to change sex to produce offspring. There is a lot of evidence against this hypothesis: it’s time- and resource-intensive, for one thing, and would be unimaginably complex in an animal as big as, say, a fully grown T. rex. Grant observes the evidence of wild dinosaur eggs, but is misled by the interpretive lens of human patterns of reproduction. He assumes dinosaur babies imply the existence of dinosaur fathers. He also assumes human science made this unauthorized reproduction possible, giving InGen's scientists much more credit than I think they actually deserve.

In fact, a much more likely explanation for these wild offspring is that they were created by parthenogenesis, the scientific term that means virgin birth and which describes the process wherein a female animal produces offspring that are genetically identical to the mother (usually) but otherwise viable for survival (more or less). This phenomenon has been observed in captive populations of pythons, cobras, turkeys, Komodo dragons, and chickens.

In other words, I contend that the female dinosaurs in the matriarchal dystopia of Jurassic Park have learned how to clone themselves. Which is not to say Isla Nublar has to remain strictly matriarchal forever: certain types of parthenogenesis can result in male offspring with the capacity to reproduce. Human fixations upon rigid gender and sex categories completely fail to apply to what the dinosaurs are doing as they recolonize their prison. (My dinosaur feminism will be trans inclusive or it will be bullshit.) The process male scientists and capitalists spared no expense struggling to master and control from the outside is something these creatures are naturally capable of. And the humans don’t even recognize this, thanks to what Dr. Sattler aptly terms “sexism in survival situations.” Human civilization has the gender binary and the nuclear family and the cultural narrative that women and children are weak and need male protection. Nature—inhuman, insatiable nature—needs none of these social constructs to ensure a species’ survival. Nature is happy to improvise.

“Dinosaurs eat man, woman inherits the earth.”

Since Frankenstein, male attempts to colonize and control female-coded powers of reproduction have driven countless science fiction plots. It never ends well. But just why should artificial reproduction always turn out so terrifying? Part of it surely is that what’s reproducing itself on Isla Nublar are predator species. But the terror here is not just the fear of death. The dinosaurs we read as villains in the film—the T. rex, the velociraptor, and the dilophosaurus—aren’t killing mindlessly, or for the evil joy of it. They’re killing for food. The fear is not that our characters will die, it’s that they will be devoured. The most notoriously frightening scene in the film happens in a kitchen as two raptors learn how to open human doors and try to make a meal out of two children. This beautiful piece of horror edges beyond butchery and into a realm I’d dare to identify as almost cannibalistic, with overtones of both Hansel and Gretel and Hannibal Lecter. This means the real threat in the film is about being used, or used up. Consumed. Human bodies are reproductive resources: women use men for genetic material (parthenogenesis has yet to be firmly established in mammals) and then women use their own bodies to build children. And we see at the start that Ellie Sattler’s desire to become a mother is explicitly presented as the key thematic framework in which this whole story takes place. Grant is hesitant about becoming a parent—a father—so the story sends him to an island full of monstrous mothers and gives him two human children to protect. As a test of his fitness. Grant’s arc is triumphant not because he has conquered the dinosaurs—he really, really hasn’t—or even (re)conquered Dr. Sattler (he hasn’t—compare this with, say, the reconquering romance arc in Die Hard). Grant wins because he’s learned to accept becoming a father in the human civilization he’s returning to.

We misread this plot arc badly. Distracted by restrictive meta-conversations about characters with agency, we mistake Grant’s busyness for narrative centrality. We watch him slowly warm up to the kids and we know it matters but we never stop to remember why. Grant’s not changing for himself. He’s changing so he can live up to Dr. Sattler’s hopes. The whole point of the whole plot is to get him up to her level. At the end the dinosaurs reclaim the island, and Dr. Sattler smiles approvingly at her newly nurturing partner. The dinosaurs have eaten the men; the mothers inherit the earth.

Astronaut Heroes and Heroines: A Romance Sampler

{Courting Critique is a post series that takes a literary-critical and intersectional feminist look at romance texts — not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because good analysis can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound!} I've been waiting years, actual years, to get my hands on Margot Shetterly's Hidden Figures book (and you've heard there's going to be a movie! Starring Taraji P. Henson and Olivia Spencer and my favorite Janelle Monáe!). The book comes out quite soon now, and I could not be more excited.

Meanwhile, I passed time reading all the astronaut romances I could reasonably get my hands on. We're talking real-world Cold War space-race or contemporary astronauts and cosmonauts -- no astronomers, sci-fi spaceship pilots, or telescope-loving Regency misses allowed (much as I adore those). Naturally, this led to some thoughts about how the role of astronaut is presented in this small slice of the romance genre. I'll let the argument unfold in the same way I found it: chronologically in reading order.

Cover image for Heaven's Time by Susan PlunkettHeaven's Time by Susan Plunkett

Readers who miss the old style of romances jam-packed with plot and melodrama will want to check this one out. Heroine Melissa Fuller is a former foster child turned astronaut, who names the stars after the people who tried to love her but who tragically died. (Her childhood: SUPER rough.) She has shut down all social ties to achieve success in her career, and then when she finally does get into space a meteor shower damages her capsule (this was written decades before Gravity!) and sends her hurtling toward the Earth and her death. She has just enough time to regret never letting anyone get close to her before a giant beam made of greeny-purple magic reaches up from the planet and grabs her.

Meanwhile, hero Rory McCullough is hanging out in the 1887 Washington Territory and has just learned the old Native American woman who's his best friend is actually an immortal wish-granting plot device -- she tells him she must leave because ten years is all she gets to spend with one person, magically rejuvenates herself into youth and beauty, and then says oh yes, and I've found the perfect mate for you and she's on her way but it's going to be a little weird at first. Just be nice to her, okay? I kind of want to read this woman's book, to be honest.

Melissa comes screaming down out of the sky and lands smack in the nearby lake. Rory fishes her out. She's disoriented and battered, so naturally they have tender, vulnerable sex pretty much at once. Then they decide to head to Rory's home north of the city, which is of course when the puma attacks.

At this point we're in chapter three. Later there's a surprising amount of page-time spent on child trafficking in early Seattle, and the heroine spends some time wrongfully imprisoned for a noble purpose. It's that kind of romance.

Science Quotient: 2/10: We don't spend much time in the present, so while Melissa's knowledge of things like modern medicine comes in handy, this book features more tragic orphans than orbital mechanics. The opening scene is solid, though.

Astronaut Meaning: The intensity and time investment necessary for Melissa's career in the Air Force and the astronaut corps explicitly function as a shield to keep other people from getting too close to her. Astronauts have no time for love or a social life; they are aloof, cold, distant, and impeccably untouchable. This is of course The Problem at the heart of her emotional arc. In many ways it reminds me of the heroine from Joanna Lindsey's Warrior's Woman, where the sleek, civilized, tech-savvy (and virginal) heroine is 'saved' by the love of a backwards barbarian hero with sex drugs and fetish wear.

It's always refreshing to see a Wounded Heroine in place of a Wounded Hero, but there's something unsettling about the way all Melissa's hard work and twentieth-century success has to be stripped away to establish her as a heroine of warmth and caring. Maybe she shouldn't have worked so hard, this plot structure implies. Maybe she was too ambitious and ungentle. Maybe she was denying the fundamental squishiness of her essential femininity. I distrust this both as a moral arc and as a piece of story-craft. I distrust gender essentialism. I distrust books that force the heroine to abandon her entire world, and then imply it was all for her own good and isn't she grateful for the loss.

StarDustNew8

Star Dust by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner

This book is the first of the excellent Fly Me to the Moon series (have you read Earth Bound yet? It's magnificent) and features an astronaut hero and a divorcée heroine at a time when the stigma of divorce was still shockingly potent. Kit is a golden boy, a national hero and magazine-cover celebrity. Anne-Marie is a harried newly single mother with trust issues related to her cheating douche of an ex. The relationship starts as just physical-needs sex between two consenting adults, but you all know how that's going to work out in a romance. Then Kit gets to strap himself to a giant explosive and be shot into space, while Anne-Marie frets about safety and drinks super-strong cocktails with the other astronaut wives. This book will make you yearn for a cocktail like you're watching The Thin Man.

Science Quotient: 7/10. This is very much the Apollo 13  of romance novels -- not a dig, I sincerely love that movie -- so there's a strong mechanical/engineering/problem-solving component. Kit is primarily a pilot, as all astronauts were at the time, so the flight sections focus more on the equipment than on the physics behind it. (Unlike Earth Bound, where the math is very much at the center.)

Astronaut Meaning: We're in the realm of The Right Stuff, where astronauts are the best of the best, bursting with American values and idolized by all. Kit is physically fit and trains to stay that way. In a highly gendered contrast to the virginal astronaut of Heaven's Time, there's also a strong playboy/sex champion component to our male astronaut archetype here: Kit is definitely a no-strings-attached kind of guy (at the start, anyways -- this is Romancelandia) and he's thickly painted with the "any woman would want him" brush. Astronaut prestige appears to have a masculinizing effect -- which is a positive for an astronaut hero, but a problem for an astronaut heroine. I'll be keeping an eager eye out for how this trope is dealt with in Barry and Turner's Star Crossedtheir upcoming f/f astronaut romance. (I know! I know! I'm excited too!) And it's interesting to see Kit later become something of an antagonist in Earth Bound, whose engineer hero absolutely loathes astronauts and considers them cocky, immature disasters waiting to happen.

Kit's arc forces him to choose between fulfilling the gendered and public expectations of the astronaut role or finding a more personal, private happiness on earth. At the end -- spoilers! -- he decides not to go into space again, but to stay on solid ground with Anne-Marie. It's a lovely moment and very emotionally resonant, but I have to wonder: Do astronauts in romance always have to stop being astronauts to get their HEA? After all, an astronaut's job is to leave Earth -- any romance novel's HEA is going to have to find a way to grapple with this. You can't have forever if your partner has to leave.

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Blue Sky Guy by Carole Buck

Reader, I was not expecting aliens to actually show up in this otherwise run-of-the-mill Silhouette Desire from 1992.[perfectpullquote align="right" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]An astronaut's job is to leave Earth -- any romance novel's HEA is going to have to find a way to grapple with this.[/perfectpullquote]

Hero Kyle Gordon lived to fly and was thrilled to be selected for the astronaut program -- but before he could make it to space, an injury grounded him permanently. Now he's back in his hometown, bereft and insecure, and being idolized by a preteen plot moppet named Charlie. Whose mom Susan just happens to be the widow of Kyle's childhood best friend and whom he's been secretly lusting after for years.

The emotions in the book are delightfully splashy and vivid -- appropriate to a category romance -- but a lot of the plot arcs don't add up once the book cover's closed. Kyle and Susan were both powerfully attracted to one another from the instant they met on Susan's wedding day, and again on the day of the husband's funeral. They both feel profoundly guilty about this. The book takes a lot of time establishing this guilt, rooting the chemistry. It's a good slow burn. But when Susan and Kyle get together, they never once talk about their feelings in the past. They talk about Mike (the dead husband) in the context of parenting Charlie, but never about how Kyle might miss his friend, or how Susan might have noticed a lack in their otherwise warm marriage. It feels like a red herring rather than an emotional beat.

Also a red herring: Kyle's disability. An inner-ear injury that wasn't his fault and is never really identified. It makes a big notable entrance in the opening chapter and nearly causes him to pass out, but then vanishes from the narrative once we get down to the business of Watching The Man-Whore Realize He Yearns For Commitment. Something serious enough to wash him out of the military entirely should definitely have an impact on his low-altitude life. He's able to speed down the back roads in his Thunderbird just fine, though, even before the aliens magically heal him so he can be an astronaut again. (Yes, really.)

Science Quotient: 0/10. This book is more about wanting to fly than about actually flying. Nobody even gets off the ground -- except the villain. But we'll get to that.

Astronaut Meaning: I wasn't initially sure there would be a lot of astronaut stuff in here to talk about. It's your basic small-town romance until about the 80% mark.

But then the aliens touch down.

Turns out Kyle's uncle, a famous sci-fi writer and SETI-head, was right: this small town is the center of a lot of extraterrestrial activity. Two silver orbs, one found by Kyle and one found by Charlie, turn out to be robot alien babysitters. (Yeah, you heard me.) Fired government alien-hunter Alvin Pettit shows up to be villainous in search of these objects, but until the end the bulk of his villainy seems to consist of having dandruff and being unattractive. It's a terminal case of Evil Makes You Ugly. At the end, the aliens take their robot babysitters back, heal our hero with a magic blue glow cloud (alien ex machina), and offer Kyle the opportunity to go with them into the stars. He turns it down, choosing to stay on earth with Susan and Charlie.

Kyle's uncle then suggests the aliens make the same offer to Alvin, who's right there sobbing at having his ET tech taken away. He's got no family, nobody will miss him, and he's as obsessed with the stars as Kyle is.

Sure, the aliens say, why not. So Alvin gets to go to space. But not before the magic blue glow cloud pretties him up.

No, for real, here's the passage: "The glow finally faded away. The Alvin Pettit who emerged stood straight, had no dandruff on his narrow shoulders and, to judge by the haste with which he discarded his glasses, probably possessed twenty-twenty vision." This is a man who just beat up our hero's elderly uncle, who held the heroine at hostage at gunpoint, and we're supposed to forgive him and root for him to be happy because his posture has improved? Now that he's prettified, the text makes him Kyle's equal and spiritual twin: "'Goodbye!' he called, and snapped off a salute at Kyle. Something more powerful than military training prompted Kyle to return the gesture."

This is taking the idea of astronaut-as-superhuman past the bounds of the reasonable. Kit and Melissa were exceptional and exceptionally good-looking people, but it was presented as incidental to the job -- and in Kit's case, we are shown how hard he works to maintain his muscular physique. Here, being conventionally attractive is so closely tied to the meaning of astronaut that the book has to physically transform the villain, because it's unthinkable to present the reader an astronaut who was not handsome and perfect.

In sum it was a completely bonkers moment and I had to share.

Meanwhile it's implied Kyle goes back to being an astronaut, but we don't see any of it on the page. This is definitely the thinnest, most wallpaper-y use of the astronaut hero in any of our sample books. He could have been any sort of job and the book would have turned out the same.[perfectpullquote align="right" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]Being conventionally attractive is so closely tied to the meaning of astronaut that the book has to physically transform the villain.[/perfectpullquote]

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Space in His Heart by Roxanne St. Claire

Our most modern example -- hero Deke Stockman (yep, he's named after Deke Slayton) is an astronaut and engineer for NASA during the era of shuttle flights and international space stations. Heroine Jessica Marlowe is the PR star NASA hires to try and shine up the agency's creaky image. Jessica decides that what the nation wants from NASA is some Grade-A American beefcake (judging by the way we swooned over Bobak Ferdowski, she's not far wrong), so she picks unmarried Deke as her poster boy. Deke would rather spend his time fixing safety issues before the next launch, so there is much tedious antagonism between hero and heroine: Let me stare at your cleavage while I sneer about how wrong you are. I have to admit I was not in the least convinced by the romance in this book. And don't get me started on the suspense subplot, which has an unfortunate Surprise Secret Killer and is utterly tacked-on.

Science Quotient: 7/10. We see a lot of shuttle flying, and some talk about the medical aspects of space travel. (Have you read Mary Roach's Packing for Mars?) There's a lot of electrical equipment and wiring problems, too, which was neat.

Astronaut Meaning: I'm going to let this book speak for itself for a moment: "Astronauts were a magnificent breed of human beings. Hungry for knowledge, curious, and driven to push the boundaries of earth. It humbled her." This is the heroine's POV, about two-thirds of the way through the book. Jessica's transition from "astronauts are hot and that's useful from a branding standpoint" to "astronauts are a superior breed of human" gives me a terminal case of side-eye -- particularly since Deke himself tends to emphasize the daredevil aspects of the position: "His sudden grin blinded her. 'Because the son of a bitch flies seventeen thousand miles an hour, that's why.'" In his PR interviews he talks about all the tech and knowledge advancements that NASA makes possible -- but he doesn't see the need to clarify that those advancements are made by engineers and scientists, not the astronauts themselves. An astronaut, like a duke or a billionaire, stands at the peak of a hidden pyramid of other people's labor. Jessica feels "humbled" because the book's project is to make her realize her work is less valuable than the hero's.

Jessica's arc is one of conversion to the religion of astronaut idolatry: she comes to believe in the NASA mission so profoundly that she makes it the center of her whole life. So what if we spend several chapters with her missing winter in the city? NASA's in Florida, so she must learn to love Florida. So what if her career is everything to her when the book begins, and she's on the verge of a promotion she's been working toward for years? There's nothing noble about PR, nothing admirable -- it's all trivial, surface work that can only be redeemed by putting it to work for something that is in fact noble. Like NASA.

For Jessica to aid NASA's mission is presented as a moral step forward for her; by contrast when Deke gives an impromptu interview, saving Jessica's job after a disastrous story despite how much he loathes playing the publicity game, this is presented as him doing her a favor. A kindness, not a change of heart about the worthiness of her work. Noblesse oblige. At every turn the hero's job's superiority is emphasized over the heroine's. How convenient that her colleague tries to kill her (sigh) so she has a great justification to quit and work directly for NASA. How marvelous that her skills help advance Deke's career even after he stops flying missions: the epilogue shows him as the space correspondent for CNN, still visible and an authority while Jessica works behind the scenes. Deke gets to keep everything he had before, plus he acquires everything of hers once she's fallen in love with him. It's like colonialism by osmosis.

Although there are many parallels between Deke and Kit, the way their respective books approach the risks of space travel make a clear distinction of meaning. Kit looks at the dangers and decides that facing them over and over would be selfish: he chooses to stay on the ground for the sake of his wife. For Deke, facing fatal danger is by definition selfless, heroic. Naturally he's not going to stop being a hero. This astronaut doesn't have to sacrifice anything -- his heroine does all the sacrificing for him. In fact it's a fairly strong parallel to Melissa and Rory's story in Heaven's Time: no matter which character is the astronaut, the heroine is the one forced to make sacrifices.

This book deals least successfully with the problem of an astronaut leaving -- the opening chapter is a flash-forward that shows Deke's shuttle taking off on the horizon while Jessica worries deeply about him and collapses from an unspecified ailment. The sense of peril in this scene is vivid, and I feel the rest of the narrative failed to fit in with it. (Also, if you guessed her unspecified ailment was pregnancy, give yourself ten internet dollars. I laughed when I saw that they presented it as an emergency when the heroine went into labor two whole weeks early!) Turns out all the fear we felt for Jessica in that first chapter didn't matter, not in the slightest -- it was an easy hook for drama but is ultimately glossed over with a babylogue. If there's one sure way to ruin a romance, it's to make us feel like what we feel about the characters doesn't matter.

So where does that leave us?

It is abundantly clear that the astronaut heroes/heroines in the four books above are strongly associated with physical ideals and perfection, and since we're talking romance, ideals of beauty soon follow. At this point I'd like to remind you that all our examples are also straight, white, cis, and pointedly able-bodied (with the temporary exception of Kyle, for whatever that's worth). This narrowness of representation can hardly be a coincidence.

Earlier I mentioned that astronauts were figures of privilege as much as any duke or billionaire, and the more I think about it the more I feel like that comparison bears further exploring -- dukes and billionaires clearly are about social power and money, respectively, while astronauts are more like, well, a moral aristocracy, a very particularly American embodiment of virtue. They're smart but strong, neither meatheads nor eggheads. The perfect blend of earthy and elite. This contradictory set of strengths strikes me as uniquely American -- like Ron Swanson being a staunch feminist, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg being good friends with Antonin Scalia.

If you can think of any other astronaut romances I've missed, please add them in the comments! Otherwise I'll add another entry to this list when Star Crossed comes out next year.

Space, Science, and the Gender of Perfection

{Courting Critique is a post series that takes an analytic and intersectional feminist look at romance texts — not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because good criticism can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound!} Engineer Eugene Parsons demands perfection. It's the first thing, possibly the only thing, people know about him.

The problem: perfection is unattainable, like a limit in calculus that is never quite reached. The other, less obvious problem: the definition of perfection keeps shifting, especially where gender is involved.

Cover image for Earth Bound. Starry background behind two light-skinned people in a tense embrace. The woman has dark hair, artful makeup, a black dress, and full-length black gloves. The man has a grey suit, intense expression, and his hands on the woman's bare skin.

First, a capsule review: Earth Bound,  the latest entry in Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner's stellar Fly Me to the Moon series, is an absolute gut-punch of a romance between two difficult, critical, closed-off engineers who put their ambitions and the mission above everything else. Oh, and seedy '60s motel sex. I could not have possibly loved it more. Full spoilers from here on out.

The most basic definition of perfection is free from factual or mathematical error. Parsons has good reason to pursue this kind of perfection, as the lives of real people depend on the machines and mathematics used by the American Space Department to send men and machines into orbit: "If the capsule wasn't traveling fast enough, wasn't flying straight up, the massive hand of gravity would catch it and pull it straight back down. It could crash right into a place filled with houses and families" (Kindle location 63). Not to mention that whole Cold War business, which Parsons at times seems to be fighting as though he's out to win it single-handed. The urgency of this mission leads him to look for the very best -- which is how he meets our heroine, computer and programmer Charlie Eason.

Charlie is a perfect hire for ASD -- except that she's a woman.

To clarify, Parsons has absolutely no issue with hiring women. Many of the computers are women (just like in real life: see the wealth of links at the end of this piece). Parsons does, however, have a problem with how deeply attracted he is to Charlie's astonishing beauty. With the other computers their gender is a nonvariable, an unimportant detail he can put aside in the interests of getting the best work from the most competent people. But he can't do that with Charlie -- "his body refused to stop noticing hers" (197) -- and he loathes himself for this failing, even as he insists on hiring her for her undeniable talents. In the classic romance tradition, this self-loathing adds a potent charge to the characters' interactions on the page (Parsons happily avoids being creepy or domineering, or at least not any more domineering than he is with his male subordinates).

Charlie doesn't recognize it's attraction at first, of course. Parsons is a closed book (and locked, and chained, and encrypted…), and Dr. Eason is used to being undermined and underestimated on account of her gender: "It would never be enough. No matter how many papers she authored, no matter how many projects she successfully completed, deadlines she met, or snafus she navigated, all they'd ever be able to see were the breasts" (879). No matter how objectively skilled a woman is, her femininity is read as a flaw when it appears in spaces and roles designated masculine. She will always be imperfect by default. The same is clearly true about race, though the text only briefly glances at this. (Again, links below!)

[perfectpullquote align="right"]No matter how many papers she authored ... all they'd ever be able to see were the breasts.[/perfectpullquote]

Which is not to say there is no standard for a specifically feminine perfection, because of course there is -- rigidly defined and lionized gender roles trouble the course of both hero and heroine. There is an unwritten expectation of purity in the binary gender construct, and a sense that real, flawed humans are constantly falling short of what it means to be a perfect man or a perfect woman. Consider this bit about the astronauts' wives: "Their wives sat among the spectators, looking cool and polished, and in the case of the new Mrs. Campbell, a little bored. She didn't yet have Mrs. Reynolds' expertise in being utterly blank every second of the day" (1508). Blankness is perfectly feminine; polish is perfectly feminine; emotion and thought are to be hidden or erased while attempting to conform to the ideal.

Charlie has the markers of idealized femininity down pat: makeup, polite smiles, skirts and heels, never a sign of anger or hurt. Cool, cool as marble, polished, frozen -- these descriptions surface over and over about Charlie and other women. I feel like I've seen a lot of romance heroines characterized as 'naturally' feminine (contemporaries do this with surprising frequency): in this text high-femme presentation is explicitly a strategy for social leverage, even though it leaves women open for predation (lecherous astronaut Carruthers) and exploitation (shameless magazine photo ops to get good press for ASD): "Yes, she used her looks to gain the advantage in certain situations. But they were her looks and her advantage. She was furious that her face was going to be used to sell ASD to the public. Why couldn't they discuss the mission, the technology, and the sheer wonder of what they were trying to do? Why did it have to be the surface, the glamour, the stuff that meant nothing?" (2033). Having spent so much time constructing that surface in self-defense, Charlie is nevertheless frustrated by people who choose to treat it as the sum total of who she is. It's a double-bind that still feels far too familiar to those of us here in 2016.

Expectations of purity also underscore a beautifully ironic conflict between Charlie's love for computer programming and her parents' romanticization of physics: "For a long time, the conversation had been about Charlie's field of study. Why couldn't you go into physics like Tom? Tom the golden child, who couldn't get enough of splitting and combining atoms -- and whose genitals were the right shape" (290). Charlie's mother even pronounces the word engineering "like she might pronounce shit" (281): in her parents' eyes Charlie's intellectual talents make her too pure for her chosen profession. They believe she is squandering herself on something corrupt and pedestrian: the scorn they heap on her career choices is couched in the language of support and pride in their daughter (why isn't she living up to her potential?) but Charlie can't help but read this as scorn for her as a person -- especially in comparison to her brother, whose gender is part of what makes him the Platonically Ideal Physicist. All this despite the fact that the pure 'secrets of the universe physics' the elder Easons are so enamored with is the actual Manhattan Project. Hardly a landmark of non-applied, non-militarized, above-it-all science.

Meanwhile, Parsons' family offers a contrasting image of masculine perfection in war hero brother George. He's smart, handsome, charming, and brave: the town is literally putting up a statue to him to memorialize his death in combat. Like younger siblings the world over, Parsons feels he suffers by comparison: "I felt like I was this weaker, lesser version of him and could never measure up" (1795). This sense of falling short mixes with grief and guilt (Parsons and George had argued before he was killed) and poisons Parsons' interactions with ex-Nazi rocket scientist Friedrich Gerhardt (clearly a von Braun analogue). Gerhardt's presence not only reminds Parsons of the masculine standards he feels he fails to meet, but he's also an indication that the world itself is the furthest thing from perfect: "The fact that George -- his wonderful, boisterous, heroic brother -- wasn't here and Gerhardt was was all the evidence Parsons needed to know the universe was fundamentally fucked" (1676).

Defining the universe as unfair, perverse, and cruel is absolutely vital in a historical that addresses sexism and misogyny in such a head-on manner. We know -- at least, if we've been reading tons of books about the Cold War and the Space Race and the Manhattan Project, have you not? -- that Charlie's contributions are not only neglected by her contemporaries, but also erased from the broad historical narrative. Like Lise Meitner, Margaret Hamilton, Hazel Ying Lee and the WASPthe Mercury 13, the real-life women of NASA, and countless others, Charlie's battle against discrimination and diminishment will be endless and unrewarded. She'll be written out of the narrative, and that unwriting will be used to deny women spaces and voices in decades to come.

[perfectpullquote align="left"]The fact that George wasn't here and Gerhardt was was all the evidence Parsons needed to know the universe was fundamentally fucked.[/perfectpullquote]

What saves this point of view from being far too harsh to nourish a romance plot is the last and, I think, best definition of perfection: something that is neither too little nor too much, but just right. This is perfection as completion: two satellites meeting in orbit against all odds, the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. What makes this kind of life-saving perfection possible? Love, of course.

If you think I wasn't hearing Origin of Love while rereading this, think again. (Two Plato references in one blog post! It's a banner Thursday.)

An early passage sees Parsons thinking of himself and Charlie in astrodynamic terms: "She was the capsule here, serenely making her orbits, while he was the rocket casing, jettisoned to burn up in the long fall back to earth" (158). Geeky penis metaphors aside (come on, right?), Parsons continually views himself as secondary to Charlie, as a resource who's only there to be used and discarded so she can achieve her proper glorious heights. He's a man who demands perfection, but once he decides she is perfect, his devotion is absolute: "I'll work to get you whatever you need, Charlie. You know that" (1305). This is undoubtedly part of what makes Parsons work so well as a version of the Demanding Boss hero archetype, which usually makes me grimace: the dedication and generosity he displays toward the mission and toward Charlie more than balance out the barked orders and fraying temper.

Charlie recognizes this devotion and even refers to Parsons once as an "acolyte" (916); she also envisions their relationship in terms that echo his : "She didn't think she was perfect, but she thought that together, they might be more than they were apart. Together they might be something like it" (2465). The inevitable crisis in the relationship is paralleled by a crisis in a planned orbital rendezvous mission. Charlie and Parsons have to navigate their way back to one another emotionally even as they maneuver two soaring metal ships within kissing distance of one another. Their final reconciliation is as subtle, tense, and minutely managed as any astronaut's docking procedure.  It's a sublime and elegant piece of work and as an author I am equal parts delighted and envious.

Charlie and Parsons' HEA doesn't make the world perfect -- he's still going to be snappish, and she'll still be subject to plenty of micro- and macro-aggressions --  but it shows they've earned the kind of perfection they find with each other. And what more can a romance possibly offer?

 

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Barry, Emma, and Turner, Genevieve. Earth Bound. Amazon Digital Services, 2016. Kindle edition.

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Further Reading:

  • You know about the Hidden Figures book and movie already, right? Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe? I could not possibly be more excited.
  • But since that's not out until September, here is Rise of the Rocket Girls, a primer on the race to the moon focusing on women's contributions and participation.
  • Also Amelia Earhart's Daughters, which expands the years examined and looks at women pilots in WWII and the Cold War.
  • Something from the Russian side of all this: The Night WitchesMost of the prose in this book about Russian women flying bombing runs in WWII comes straight from interviews with survivors, so it's a little plain prose-wise -- but you cannot beat the level of detail and vividness.
  • Girls of Atomic City. Summers spent driving by Hanford on our way to Eastern Washington campsites kicked off my fascination with the Atomic Age. (You might have noticed this is something of a pet topic of mine, huh?) But Hanford was basically a glorified military base -- Oak Ridge was a whole damn city, with segregated living spaces and sock hops and I swear to God a rabbit breeding club.
  • Also great: 109 East Palace, about a woman who worked as Oppenheimer's trusted secretary (and front) during the early days of Los Alamos.

Lady Robots, Dude Robots, and the Echo Chamber of Gender Stereotypes

In an unexpected follow-up to my brief post about ancient Greek lady robots made of gold who practiced smithcraft, we hear about a clever gender-and-robotics study out of Germany. And now we know that gender stereotypes are really, really easily applied to robots, even if the robot doesn't have a body.

They [the subjects] looked at the heads of the two human-like machines, which were identical except for two details. The “feminine” one had longer hair and a slight curvature of the lips; the “masculine” one had shorter hair and straight lips.

Participants then were given a list of 24 traits and asked the extent to which they felt the robot embodied each of them. Twelve were related to agency, such as “assertive” and “dominant,” while 12 represented communal values including “polite” and “affectionate.”

Next, the students were asked to rate how likely they would be to use each of the robots for a list of possible duties incuding stereotypical male tasks like “guarding the house” and stereotypically female tasks such as preparing meals.

Guess what comes next -- go on, guess:

Participants were more likely to view the short-haired robot in masculine terms, and suggest it was more suitable for such take-action tasks as “repairing technical devices” and “guarding a house.” Conversely, the long-haired robot was perceived as more appropriate for such stereotypically feminine tasks such as household chores and caring for children and the elderly.

Sad trombone for gender equality.

The researchers note their results could be used in two ways. From a social-policy point of view, it might be worthwhile for designers to develop “counter-stereotypical machines,” which could challenge our rigid conceptions of “male” and “female” work.

On the other hand, they note, if the goal is “to facilitate human-robot interaction” and minimize mistakes and accidents, it makes sense to design robots that conform to our human assumptions.

The problem with that second suggestion is that gender-conforming robots -- can I call them cis robots? let's call them cis robots -- won't be merely a compromise with flawed human assumptions. They will instead confirm and reinforce gender stereotypes.

It is one thing for a woman to have long hair and work in a traditionally feminine-coded career like, say, teaching. She's an individual, making the best choices she can to maximize her own position in a system that is seriously rigged against her -- much more so if she's disabled or a woman of color. We all have to put food on the table somehow, and we have to use our individual skills and inclinations as best we can.

In contrast, imagine someone mass-produces teaching robots with long hair and curving lips -- this is a much stronger statement about matching feminine-coded work with feminine-coded appearance. It means someone has made an individual assumption that teaching = feminine, and the hundreds of teaching robots will echo and amplify that assumption. Stereotypes will be reinforced when they need breaking down.

So yes, let's make all the counter-stereotypical robots we can. And then let's give them a classroom of curious third graders, because pretty much everyone can agree that would be entertaining.

*Side note: did you notice that headline? "Sex Stereotypes and the Single Robot" -- 'robot' replacing the word 'girl.' It's an allusion to Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown, who made Cosmopolitan what it is today. We are talking about human-shaped machines to take over unwanted jobs and free us from tedious labor, and the headline equates those human-shaped tedious-labor machines with women. There are not enough facepalms in the world.

The Point of This Quick Post is that Land Crabs are Super Creepy

We here at Olivia Waite like to think we've learned a lot from romance novels over the years. And one of our recent favorites, Carla Kelly's Beau Crusoe, turned out to be more accurate than we knew at the time. Behold: land crabs!

A picture of a small land crab, perched on the threshold of his burrow.

This particular land crab lives in the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor in the British Virgin Islands. (That's the West Indies, to you historical types.) That hole he's sitting in is actually his home. Normally I love crabs and find them fascinating -- not to mention delicious -- but there is something about watching a crab the size of your face scurry sideways into a hole in the ground that is just creepy as all hell. There is the unmistakeable impression that the crab is only waiting until your back is turned and then -- attack!

In sum: we should all read (and write!) more good romance novels with critters that are both real and terrifying.

Leap Day Birthdays And Other Calendrical Shenanigans

When we here at Olivia Waite hear that Leap Day is coming up, surely we're not alone in thinking, "Frederic finally gets a birthday!" Because if anything is always culturally relevant, it's the nonstop patter-filled story of an uptight young British man finding true love after being mistakenly apprenticed to pirates in his youth. Poor Frederic won't be free of the indenture until he turns 21—since he was born on February 29, it will take him about six decades. Pity the poor soul with a Leap Day Birthday!

A recent episode of Parks and Recreation (Knope 2012!) titled "Jerry's Sweet Sixteen" was based on the same premise: perennial joke-butt Jerry Gurgitch was born on February 29, so from a very technical standpoint he's only had sixteen birthdays.

Of course, the Leap Day Birthday does not mean Jerry has not spent sixty-four years on this planet as it revolves around the sun. The Leap Day Birthday is an aberration that reveals the way we culturally build the idea birthdays: you can live however long you want, but the anniversary of the date you were born is the important day, and if that day comes around only once in four years then those years somehow don't count toward your total age. Like dog years, but in reverse and for people.

Annual birthdays of course were invented by the ancient Romans. This is quite true: according to Denis Feeney's wonderful and mind-bending Caesar's Calendar, the fact that Ovid shares a birthday (and a calendar day) with his brother is the first documented instance of the same date occurring with precisely 365 days between. This was made possible by the recent invention of the Julian calendar (which included leap days, and eventually fell to the Gregorian calendar). Before then, the ancient Greeks would celebrate the date of their birth every month, which sounds like a pretty transparent justification to have symposia all the time with your friends. Hey, οινοχορος! Βring me more birthday wine! It's the 15th again!

Before the Romans began to standardize the calendar, each nation, region, or city-state kept its own history on its own time, with its own reckoning. This sounds terrifyingly chaotic—but it bears pointing out that after the Gregorian calendar was contrived in the 16th century, it took centuries for other nations to adopt its use. Which is to say the date varied from country to country during the periods we like to call the Renaissance, Enlightenment (don't forget the French Republican Calendar!), and Industrial Revolution. The US adopted the current calendar just in time to screw with George Washington's birthday, and Greece only changed calendars in—wait for it—1923.

Let me say that again, because it kind of blows my mind: Greece has not been using the Gregorian calendar for a full century yet.

Maybe it's that I'm always kind of obsessed with the nature of time, or maybe I've just been watching too much Doctor Who lately, but thinking too hard about calendar changes and moving dates and adding/vanishing days is starting to make me fundamentally nervous. Wednesday doesn't exist, not really! It's all just a vast conspiracy by popes and world leaders and elite historians and astronomers and, um, people who enjoy being able to make plans in advance, I guess.

Therefore, as a pleasing distraction, and since we've been talking about time and Romans and Doctor Who, here is a picture of Rory Williams as the Last Centurion. Because nothing is more comforting than a devoted geek in Roman garb.

Ah, that's better ...

Less Terrifying And Equally Accurate Asteroid Headlines You Can Use

You may have heard that something really big and made of rock and metal is going to fly really close to earth in just a few days. I learned this from this Huffington Post article, whose lead-in was the following Tweet:

Jesus H. Jones, that sounds terrifying, right? And then you learn that it's going to be closer than the moon and you feel the onset of pants-wetting catastrophe—mass extinctions! Global winter! The possibility of another terrible action movie starring Ben Affleck!

What steps are being taken? You wonder.

Scientists are prepared: they're totally going to give this behemoth the side-eye.

No, really—we plan on looking at it:

So astronomers are taking the rare opportunity to study a hefty asteroid without having to send a craft into deep space.

Good for them. So convenient, having massive pieces of rock just come right up to us like friendly and destructive puppies so you can train your telescopes on them.

And then you learn this exact kind of thing happened in 1976, and will happen again in less than ten years. And as far as I know the Earth was not destroyed in 1976 (though Bohemian Rhapsody was released that year).

So … maybe not as much need to panic as that initial tweet implied?

Please, science writers and others, don't take the cheap and easy headline just for the page traffic. Here are a few suggestions you can use instead:

  • It's Totally Going to Miss Us, So Don't Worry About the Size
  • Scientists Plan on Learning Something New (By Looking at a Humongous Asteroid as it Flies By)
  • It Sounds Scary but People Who Know About These Things are Not Concerned
  • It Will Be Less Painful Than Your Grandma's Latest Kidney Stone—We Promise
  • Giant Asteroids: The Space Version of Darwin's Finches?

You're welcome, journalists.

Robots And Writing And Readers -- Oh My!

Disturbing news shook the book world lately, when it came out that robots have been authoring books and selling them at university-press prices on Amazon. It's as bad as you think: a software program that scours the internet for text (including Wikipedia) and shuffles the results into passable book form. Which doesn't sound particularly pleasant for the reader, tickled though I am by the title Saltine Cracker. (Sidebar: fifty-four dollars?!)

Above a page of black-and-white text, a red robot arm extends a mechanical limb with a pen attachment.

Besides Saltine Cracker, what else might robots be writing?

  • As I Lay Compiling: Southern robot Gothic.
  • 001100010011100100111000001101000000110100001010: for a hint, try this binary translator.
  • Fahrenheit 2750: the melting point of iron provides a title for this bleak dystopian masterpiece about vicious humans who destroy all mechanical intelligence they find.
  • The Technical Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: a clone of the great Victorian detective solves hi-tech crime alongside noted Jeopardy!-winning computer Watson.
  • Speaking of Watson, he's also written the classic robot self-help book, How to Win Game Shows and Decimate People.
  • The Brothers Kawasaki: three different models of robot built by the same inventor struggle to relate to one another.
  • I, Robot: now a compelling autobiography!
  • Aye, Robot: because robots are as susceptible as anyone to the lure of a good pirate story.
  • Bye, Robot: a love story with a tragic separation at the end.
  • Guy, Robot: a love story across taboo boundaries.
  • My, Robot!: slapstick robot romantic comedy in the style of P. G. Wodehouse.
  • Die, Robot!: robot thriller in the style of Stephen King.
  • Lie, Robot: robot courtroom thriller in the style of John Grisham.
  • Spy, Robot: robot espionage thriller in the style of John Le Carré.

 

Pekka Janhunen's Electric Solar Sail

We here at Olivia Waite may have spent our academic life wading through the humanities, but we've got a soft spot for science as well. Even—especially!—the sciences we don't understand. Just ask our college physics professor, poor man. One of our favorite subjects is space—NASA, moon landings, science fiction, anti-gravity, constellations, all that good stuff. We even watched a few episodes of Ancient Aliens before we had to stop because we were yelling at the tv hard enough to break something. (The entire show can be boiled down to that moment in The Core when Aaron Eckhart says the entire premise of this movie couldn't even happen, and megadouche Stanley Tucci cocks an eyebrow and says, despite all logic and reason: "But what if we could?")

And today, idly doing research along the interlinked pages of Wikipedia, we found out about the beautiful, simple, mind-boggling genius of Pekka Janhunen's electric solar sail.

A simple black-and-white line diagram of how the electronic solar sail is designed to work.A primer: the sun is constantly throwing off a stream of positively charged ions in a stream we call solar wind. Regular solar sails are very thin metal or mirrors; because there is no atmosphere in space, the ions push against the thin material of the sail and create force, propelling the spacecraft forward.

So basically: you're sailing on light instead of on wind as Earthbound sailboats do.

As if this were not awesome enough, Pekka Janhunen (hän on suomalainen!) has taken it one step further: his electric solar sail is not a large sheet of material—instead, his design uses a number of long, thin wires tethered to the spacecraft and flowering outward. Electrons are pulled from the wires and fired away using an electron gun, which means the wires themselves are positively charged, which in turn means they repel the ions in the solar wind. Because of the electrical field around the wires, the ions react as if there were an entire sail there instead of just a thin wire outline.

And this is not only elegant and simple and damn brilliant—it is lovely.

A view of space, black and starry, with golden gusts of solar wind in the lower and left side of frame. A tiny spacecraft sits at the center of a starburst of glowing green electric wires, with arrows indicating the direction of ion movement and the pressure of the electron gun.

So beautiful! So poetic an idea! Sailing with invisible sails, on the light from a star, through the vastness of space …

Mary Roach on Orgasms

One of the things that we here at Olivia Waite find most enjoyable about being an erotic romance author is the kind of subjects we get to research. The history of the vibrator! Contraception through the ages! Underwear of generations past! We here at Olivia Waite also love the great nonfiction author Mary Roach. Her books will make you feel like your world is bigger and more awesome than you ever knew it could be. I particularly recommend the chapter of Packing for Mars where she describes the mechanics of sex in space, because it is thorough and plainspoken and has a whole section on whether or not that monkey really masturbated while in orbit.

So when we hear that Mary Roach has a TED talk called "10 things you didn't know about orgasm," we took seventeen minutes of our day to educate ourselves in the name of being a knowledgeable erotic romance author.

And it was fun, and fascinating, and indeed there were many more than ten things we did not know about orgasm.

We were definitely not expecting the bit about the pig.

Enjoy!