Tuesday, May 28, 2013

It's Not Just About Restrooms

You ever think about gender and aliens?

I do, especially when I've been watching Star Trek or playing Mass Effect. Quite often in science fiction, the female aliens have feminine traits that parallel humans. When you think about it, that's a little weird.

Human females--mammalian females in general--share certain traits that make them identifiable as females (more or less--individuals always vary, but I'm speaking to the curve here). Outside of our taxonomic class, though, things are different. Among reptiles, females are often larger than males. And there are spiders where the male is so small he'd make a nice lapdog for his mate. There's also at least one species of fish where the male lives inside the female like a parasite! Size isn't the only thing that can be different: seahorse males carry the babies, not the females (they have a pouch like a kangaroo).

So why is it most science fiction races have a simple male/female distinction where the females tend to be physically smaller than the males, have higher voice pitch, and often display the exact same sexual dimorphism as humans (a sophisticated way of saying their broads are broad where broads should be broad)?

There are exceptions, of course. The Empire of Man series reverses how the genders developed. The humans encounter an alien race where one gender has an, um, apparatus which injects ovum into the other gender, who in turn inseminate the ovum on their body and carry the fetus. Technically speaking, these "males" contribute the egg, so on Earth we would classify them as female. Because the ones who actually contribute the sperm are the ones who get "pregnant" though, they are the ones relegated to the status of second class citizen and homemaker (this particular alien society was not very entitled about gender roles). The humans in the story settle this question by referring to the aliens who possess egg-shooting apparatuses as male, since they go to war, rule cities and just generally swagger around like pricks. Which means the authors simply reversed gender assignment. There were still definable males and definable females--an unavoidable dichotomy with an inherently unfair power dynamic.

This raises an interesting question: if we encounter aliens, should we classify gender by social role or by biological reality?

The truth is that this question is kind of uncomfortable because it brings to light how arbitrary our own social roles are. If the aliens land here first (or are watching our television signals from afar), what must they think about our gender dynamics? Do they nod their head or do they laugh? Do they heap scorn on us or do they envy us?

One thing is for certain: it's going to be (or is) great material for some alien's dissertation.

If there's a sci fi franchise that you think approaches gender from an interesting standpoint, throw it out there in the Comments.

Monday, May 20, 2013


First Flashback:
I'm sitting in the History Office of a certain university. I was on desk duty, one of the many tasks I picked up to pay my way.

Two friends--fellow grad students--drop by to keep me company. They sit on the Big Red Couch and chat about games they've been playing, specifically the latest first person shooter for their consoles.

"God, it's frustrating," one tells me. "These little punks just stomp us. Like you step out of your base and you're dead. It's so humiliating to be killed by a thirteen year old."

"It isn't just being killed by them," the second chimes in. "It's how they act. They taunt you while they're winning. It sends me into a rage. If I could ever find one of those little prepubescent pukes..."

"What makes you think they're thirteen?" I ask.

"We can hear them," the first friend says. "Over voice chat."

The second rolls his eyes. "We'd be able to tell even if they weren't talking. One of the little bastards was called ChiefSlappahoe."

"Wow." I sigh. "Who does that? Who gets to the Log-In Screen and says 'what I really need is a handle that combines misogyny with a pointless ethnic slur'."

"I'll tell you who," one of them says. "A little punk in dire need of a beating."

Second Flashback:
I'm talking to a guy about his son. The lad's taken to playing the X-Box 360.

"But I had to disconnect the internet," he says. "I won't let him play PvP anymore."

"Really?" I frown, because he doesn't strike me as the censoring type.

"You wouldn't believe the language. They say the most hateful things to my son."

"Any reason or were they just being trolls?"

"Oh, well, it's because he kicks their ass. He wipes the floor with them. It's kind of sad, actually."

"Really? Your boy is like seven and he's beating these kids? How old are they?"

"If their voices are any indicator, about thirteen. And they can't stand it when they're beaten by a younger kid."

There's a lot of quotes that might apply: reap what you sow, he who lives by the sword, yadda-yadda-yadda.

I just love to imagine that somewhere a raging tween threw his controller down and shrieked impotent curses through blinking fiber optic tubes at the dead-hand seven year old who carpeted the digital ground with ChiefSlappahoe corpses.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Things You Don't Hear

Living near a busy street can be odd. You get used to the drone of cars. When that drone isn't there, it's absence is palpable, as if the world is holding its breath.

You go out onto your porch and see the cars aren't there. If your neighbors aren't around, the situation starts to get even weirder.

"Where are the cars?" you ask. "This isn't Sunday morning. This is Friday afternoon. There should be cars."

No cars come and the dark voice in your head starts whispering.

This is it. The zombie apocalypse has arrived.

Still no cars come.

Just as you begin straining your ears to hear the pitter-patter of a barefoot madman, the neighbors come out and start grilling. Friendly chatter wafts over the fence with the smoke and you spot the shine of chrome on the street again.

You realize that the apocalypse isn't coming today.

Maybe with a little regret.

Sunday, May 5, 2013


In case you didn't know, I am on Facebook.

If that's your scene, consider giving me a "Like."

I feel I should mention it because Facebook keeps pressuring me to do better, like an angry PE couch shouting at me from the bleachers.

Subterranean Neighbors

It occurred to me that I haven't talked about my neighbors on the Rumba. They live in the hole next door.  Here is one of them on his front porch:

Sometimes, when I wake up in the middle of the night I can hear them. They circle the house and scream in the darkness. It drives the cat crazy, as you can imagine.

Occasionally when it rains, they drop by my front porch (where they are always welcome) and say hello.

Once when I let my dog out in the front yard at night, one of them swept down from atop my mailbox and screeched at him. It was probably just reminding us that I was violating our county's leash laws.

I don't let the dog out front any more at night, which I think is pretty nice of me. I wish they'd reciprocate by using somewhere other than my mailbox to defecate.

Some folks only know how to take.

As I was writing this blog, I discovered that they're being evicted. Apparently the vacant lot isn't going to be vacant anymore. My other neighbors--the human ones--informed me that a team is coming out in June to humanely move them out of their burrows.

So instead of being a happy post, apparently it's going to be a bitter-sweet tribute to them (you know, one of ecological eulogies).

I am going to miss these little guys. South Florida, as I like to say, is an asphalt prison. The sprawl just crushes you. I am a guy who grew up playing manhunt in overgrown orange groves. I remember gleefully scratching my legs up, pushing through razor-edged palmettos to get at the very best blackberry patches. A day was wasted if I didn't come home bleeding and filthy and covered in sweat.

Don't get me wrong--South Florida has tried very hard to have good parks. But those parks, manicured lawns with a background din of car-horns, just can't compare to the oak hammocks, pine uplands, and cypress sloughs of my childhood. I think it's great that the neighborhood kids have safe places to play basketball and tennis. But they're not for me.

Those little owls have been a reminder that Nature is still out there somewhere. The oddest part is that, the species as a whole is a lot like me. Apparently they are largely from the central region of Florida. Development pushed them south where they learned to live in the spaces around canals (and the occasional vacant lot). Like me, they were driven here by circumstance.

I've watched the same family of owls for almost three years now. Every year I see the pair of them come and have children. Or maybe I'm seeing their kids, I don't know. What I do know is that this last year, they had five babies and all of them survived to adulthood, which I thought was pretty amazing. One day I woke up and there were all these feathered golf balls hopping around the entrance to their burrow. Fast forward a few months and the field is now alive with owls. The babies have grown up and dug new burrows all over the field. As I said earlier in the post, at night I can hear them circling my house, marking their territory with eerie cries in the dark. I make it a point to watch for owls when I drive around and I have never seen this many in one area before.

I suppose I should be thankful I got to see them at all. And happy that they prospered and will be removed humanely. But I can't shake the feeling that this is a loss.

Probably because that is exactly what it is.

(click the pic to enlarge)

*I wonder if our culture had encountered burrowing owls first if we would call the other kind "tree owls."