Augmented reality: spec fic from my Hasidic childhood

At Continuum 13, I was on a panel about speculative fiction from our childhoods. We were each asked to speak for a few minutes, so I thought I’d reproduce my talk here (I went a little off-script, but this is the guts of it). It was pretty personal and fun to write, and it seemed to be well received.

I could talk about my memories of my dad reading us The Hobbit, and how proud I was when I read Lord of the Rings all by myself. I could talk about Star Wars, and how I wrote Princess Leia fanfiction before I knew that was a thing. But really, ours was a pretty typical geeky household in a lot of ways. Magic swords and spaceships were normal for us. So instead, I’d like to focus on the context in which our geekdom occurred.

Unlike most, if not all, of you, I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home — specifically, a Lubavitch Hasidic household, and I went to an all-girls’ school of the same denomination. For many people outside that world, their perception is of a closed community involving men in black coats and subservient women.

The truth, as always, is a bit more complicated than that. If I had to summarise the driving force of my upbringing, it wouldn’t be isolation, even though that was a factor. My school offered a comprehensive secular education and encouraged university studies, and my parents never censored our reading (although they limited our access to TV and cinema).

No, the focus of Hasidism is not isolation. It’s a deeply spiritual belief system that seeks holiness in all things. To make the world better by uplifting the mundane into the sacred. It’s what my sister describes as an “augmented reality” — a lens that allows you to see a “spark of Godliness” in everything, if you hold the secret combinations of words and actions to unlock them. Continue reading

Ends and beginnings, 2016 edition

Author with awardIn the spirit of recounting the good things that happened to me in this global annus horribilis, here’s my year in review. In (mostly) chronological order…

My writing year kicked off in earnest (I’m sure I wrote stuff before then, but I can’t be sure) in March, when I attended Contact. Held in Brisbane over the Easter long weekend, this was the 55th Australian National Science Fiction Convention and I enjoyed it heartily.

It featured the first Aurealis Awards that I was involved with (as judge for SF short story category) and much live-tweeting by me. I also won a Ditmar Award for Best New Talent, which was surprising and inspiring to my work since. (Except for the part where I dropped my pin on the floor of the stage, but I am at peace with my clumsiness.) To the Australian speculative fiction community, thank you for welcoming me and honouring me.

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Conversations

I don’t have autism, but in my life I’ve encountered many people who do. On one level, the different ways the human brain can function fascinate me, just as the shoddy science that goes on in this field infuriates me. On another level, some of them, at least, are just my friends.

Shanti is the closest friend with autism I have. She’s high-functioning, smart and funny and she blogs at Platform 25. We’re gig buddies sometimes (you should hear about our adventures at Bob Log III). She’s a talented photographer and a fellow science and science fiction geek. We have a lot in common and we’ve talked a lot about autism as well as many other topics.

Our most recent conversation was on Facebook and Shanti initiated it by asking me about Communication Shutdown. Even though I don’t have autism I wanted to blog about this, and reproducing a conversation (ETA: with permission!) is on one level a very lazy blog post. But on another, it’s perfect. Because it just proves the point that we agreed on. So here it is.

Shanti: What do you think about Communication Shutdown? I think it’s good to raise awareness about autism and have more money for educational services but I’m not sure about the whole ‘cure autism now’ thing. I’m all for curing severe autism because the parents go through so much and services are poor, even in today’s society…. But it does make think that people think that autism is only negative. Even in severe autism they have their own talents.
Then again it does give me a lot of issues. But without it would I be into photography/ physics/ story writing/ astronomy / art at the intensity that I am? No. Everyday I learn something new and that’s great. Then again I do have that ADHD thing.
I think there should be more awareness for autism and unemployment. How about a ‘give your job to an autistic day?’

Rivqa: Well… I see this type of campaign as trite – how can an NT possibly have any inkling of what it’s really like? Not using social networks may be a modest sacrifice, but it wouldn’t give me insight into the communication difficulties that …people on the spectrum face.

As for raising awareness, I’d question the value of that really. Autism is a well known condition now; education about the reality of it is needed, yes, but again, an event like this won’t add much to that.

I agree that the issue of a cure is sticky. It’s also unrealistic for a complex range of conditions and I think it would be better to focus on treatment that doesn’t rob people of their individuality, but that helps them function better. Education for broader society, better services, and high-quality research (Wakefield can shove it).

I think this is exactly what you’ve identified in yourself: there are the good bits of high-functioning autism, and there are the challenges. Employment is a really good measure of function, and that’s far more important than messing with people’s neurons.

Shanti: Also, autistics use social networking to better communicate.
So, you’re more towards ‘Education not Eugenics’ too? I think on Nov 1 we should change our status to that. I’ve got some good material on Eugenics in the 1920’s and not just from… Nazi Germany.
I think if an NT wants to understand what it’s like to be autistic they should lock themselves in their room and not talk to anybody. Then they can try to amplify every sound. Then rub sandpaper all over their skin.

Anyway, I got only 2 hours to find the Andromeda galaxy.

Rivqa: I am, but not in a way that sugar coats what it means to have autism, especially severe autism. Difference is OK. Suffering isn’t.

Take some pretty pictures of Andromeda.

Shanti: Totally agree. I’ve also talked to people on the severe non-speaking end of the spectrum to see what they think about it. One is content to sign or use a sort of net book to communicate. She doesn’t think she’s missing out on being social b…ut she has extreme meltdowns and tactile sensitivity. And I hate my tactile sensitivity and my short tempers. But what I go through isn’t as bad as what she goes through.

I can’t photograph Andromeda. I need more pro equipment but it was good to see it through my telescope, as well as a nebula and Hartley’s comet.



Rivqa: Yes, obviously people are going to want different things. I don’t think any movement should force a cure (if it even existed) on anyone who didn’t want it. But I also don’t think a movement should prevent anyone from taking one if they wanted it.

One day I will visit your neck of the woods so you can show me stuff through your telescope.

Shanti: Yes, you must. And Tania too.

Saying what I mean

I’ve been trying, not as successfully as I’d like, to watch my language, as suggested almost a month ago by Arwyn, a blogger I like very much. In brief, she asked readers stop using colloquial terms for mental illness (insane, crazy, nuts) as slang. It’s really hard to do, and so easy to rationalise as not being so important (seeing as everyone does it).

Initially I took the challenge somewhat nihilistically for that reason, but the idea stuck. And over the past few weeks I got to thinking about language, as I often do. In general, I’m careful about language, although moreso in writing than in speech. I try to think before I speak. I don’t swear that much. I try to be clear (but I often fail).

And when it comes to anything health-related, I have opinions. I dislike the possessive form of eponymous diseases: Alzheimer disease, not Alzheimer’s, because the disease belongs to the person who has it, not the person (usually the man) who first defined it (or decided to name it). I’m careful about not defining people by conditions or characteristics they have: it’s a person with HIV, not an HIV patient. I’m sure most people don’t think of these things day-to-day if at all, but they’ve been part of my work for long enough that they’ve affected how I speak as well.

And then there’s mental illness. Somehow, it’s accepted in our society to take these words, which mean serious, life-changing things for some people, and apply them to trivial issues. I hate how people use “schizophenic” when they mean “multiple personality disorder”, and when it comes to actual names of conditions I would never apply them to anyone or even anything. The slang needs to join them.

I think many people would dismiss this as too PC, but words mean things. And using fewer of them because we’re over-using some inappropriately leaves us all poorer. So for me, that means binning “crazy”, “insane” and “nuts” (they can join “gay”, “retarded” and “lame”) and saying “ridiculous” or “pathetic” or “tiring” instead. It means saying what I mean.

Standing and being counted

I’ve been remiss not posting about the election (or anything), but I’ve also been reluctant to comment too early. While I’ve been waiting, it seems like everyone’s already said it, so this is more a reflection on the past week than brilliant political analysis. (Because I could have thought of it all myself, of course.)

I have a bit of a thing for full disclosure, so here’s my political background. It would be churlish of me to say too much about my family members’ political opinions, so let’s just say that I had more leftish influences than rightish ones while I was growing up, with a fair bit of socialism in the mix. I was not discouraged (much) from my (brief) involvement with Socialist Alternative. Protecting the environment was a no-brainer; it was just obvious that plundering was not the way to go, even before climate change became a mainstream concern. We talked about politics and current affairs, and I developed my own opinions about social justice and other issues along the way.

So that’s politics. Civics, conversely, was murkier. A 10-minute rundown on the Australian political system stuck in my mind because it was delivered by a teacher I admired; this probably stood me in better stead than many Australians. I’ve lived in safe seats all my life and have, in the past, rocked up with opinions but without doing much research. I’ve relied on reading the instructions carefully and how-to-vote cards to get me through.

If Wikipedia serves me correctly, I’ve voted in three state and four federal elections. (I was too young for Howard’s first election and the 1999 republic referendum.) Thinking back on them doesn’t yield much information. I know I tended to favour the Democrats in the Upper House and Labor in the Lower House, but my memories are vague at best. I can’t remember voting in Melbourne at all, but I must have done so at least twice.

This time, I voted below the line, armed with the how-to-vote card I’d made for myself with the help of belowtheline.org.au. I live in a safe Liberal seat so I spent more time thinking about the Senate, but I don’t think I’ll forget putting the Greens first in the Lower House (I don’t think it’s the first time I’ve done so, but the fact that I can’t remember doesn’t please me).  It was kind of (nerdily) cool to look at my electorate’s results on the Australian Electoral Commission’s Virtual Tally Room and think of one of those numbers in the primary votes as being mine.

Maybe the voting age is too low, but 10 years after I was first eligible to vote, I finally feel like I’ve really participated and known what I was doing and what it meant. Or maybe it’s Twitter that’s helped me get my head out of the sand (I’ve blogged about that already), or just having time to “read about it” while breastfeeding. Either way, I’ve somehow become many friends’ election expert, although I haven’t forgotten how little I really know.

Ultimately, though, I’ve had a change in mindset since the last election. A couple of years ago, I laughed at a friend who claimed that Australia collectively made some decisions about which way the country should go by voting Howard out. And I still don’t think that was really true. But in 2007, I was firmly convinced that my vote, at least, didn’t count or mean anything.

But now? I feel like things are maybe, maybe happening and changing and that I’ve had a part in it, albeit a minuscule part. I’ve felt it since Gillard took the helm and I’ll feel it until I’m sure we’re back in the status quo. But I’m hoping we won’t, because this is way more interesting (except for the whole waiting business).