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CONTENT WARNING: This roundtable contains conversation about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. It talks about slavery. It talks about just every triggering thing you might find in a typical Toni Morrison novel, as there are a lot of horror novelists, magical realists, and Afrosurrealists on this panel.

At BayCon 2018, during a panel on the future of diversity in speculative fiction called Robots, Altered Humans, Uplifted Animals and Aliens, panelist Sumiko Saulson got into a heated debate with the moderator over nonbinary people, ableism, saneism, racism, and classism. Saulson was the only person of color and the only out queer person in the five-person panel. She walked out of the panel after witnessing or directly experiencing misgendering, ableism, racism, and being told that a fellow panelist did not consider her black because she is biracial.

Our Editor in Chief asked Saulson to moderate a diverse roundtable on the same subject in which she was silenced.

Nisi Shawl, author of Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, Filter House, and Everfair

Linda Addison, author of How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend and The Place of Broken Things (with Alessandro Manzetti)

Crystal Connor, author of The Spectrum TrilogyThey All Lived Happily Ever After!, and My 1st Nightmare

Rain Graves, author of BarfodderThe Gossamer Eye (with Mark McLaughlin and David Niall Wilson), and The Four Elements (with Linda Addison, Charlee Jacob, and Marge Simon)

Eileen Gunn, author of Stable Strategies and Others and Questionable Practices

Greg Herren, author of Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories and Royal Street Reveillon

Maria Nieto, author of Pig Behind The Bear, The Water of Life Remains in the Dead, and the upcoming The Spectrum of Sex: The Science of Male, Female, and Intersex

Sumiko Saulson, author of The Somnalia Trilogy and 100 Black Women in Horror Fiction, editor of Black Magic Women, columnist at the San Francisco Bay View

Tristissima et alia, author of Aduality {0≠2;1=108}42, and Btlazolteotl in the Language of Hinduism and Asatru, and the unreleased Divine Dominance/sacred submission (with Francesca Gentille)


Sumiko Saulson (Interviewer): Artificial intelligence can be developed in more than one way. It can be programmed from scratch, or it might be created from a human brain template, like a Cylon in Battlestar Galactica. Do you think that AIs will have neurodivergence, and do you think they will have racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender identities, and how will they work?

Tristissima (Co-Interviewer): Will this divergence/these identities be intentionally programmed into them, accidentally reflected in their programming, develop emergently from their own distinct realities, or something else? Do you think their origin will matter?

Maria Nieto: Yes, and the implications run deep, as I can see AIs being created who defy outdated paradigms of race, biological sex, and gender identity. For example, the ability to develop AI characters who are not bound by rigid constraints imposed by the false narrative that sex and gender are binary would be exhilarating. Showcasing characters who are neither male nor female, but nonbinary and/or intersex, would go far toward shedding light on the natural existence of intersex persons within the human population, and as a consequence, it could promote equity for all peoples regardless of their biological sex.

Crystal Connor: I think AIs and altered humans in biotech will be a reflection of the engineers who create them and the consumers who demand them. Martine Rothblatt, the transgender CEO of United Therapeutics, created a startling realistic AI in the image of her late African American wife.

Machines created for pleasure, like the ones being manufactured by AI-Tech and Smart Doll World, will be customized based on the buyer’s specifications.

As far as origin, I don’t think it will matter. Identifying as a Black person, a woman, and who you are sexually attracted to is, at least for now, uniquely human.

Amputees request prosthetics that are just as diverse as the clothes they wear, as some choose their artificial limbs to resemble human anatomy, while others, like Viktoria Modesta, select steampunk and spike replacements.

Some prosthetics still look artificial and robotic; however, thanks to LUKE: Life Under Kinetic Evolution, developed by the Department of Defense, soon prosthetics will soon be undetectable from the biological body.

Nisi Shawl: I think there’s no way AIs will be free of bias along the axes of race, gender, class, etc., whether or not that’s what we want. Already we have simple algorithms in use, in the justice system and elsewhere, reflecting the very human tendency to ignore our own privilege. The hope I see is that self-aware AI communities may be empowered to monitor for and correct such biases.

I recently contributed a story to Mother of Invention, a very interesting anthology positing AI created by women or identifying as women. Or both. What cool stories! I imagine anthropomorphizing our technological offspring will give rise to some surprising challenges, and gynomorphizing them and performing other mental feats of conscious or unconscious projection will provide even more fun.

Linda Addison: I also think that AIs will not be free of bias when first created by humans because we have already programmed bias into other systems, games, etc., but true AI (as in self-aware) would identify those biases, including those between humans and AI, and correct them in themselves. I suspect that could result in their leaving Earth to create an existence that wouldn’t include dealing with us.

Rain Graves: I have to agree with Linda, here. We program our own bias into everything we hear, see, touch, taste, and smell. Our perception changes based on experience, but we are also a race of “programmers” that build AIs and AI environments to relate better to ourselves, our audience, our higher truths, and our juxtapositions. While we all know there is no Utopia where these things do not matter, it doesn't mean we don't strive to create something better—“better” being the keyword. Why would an AI we create to autonomously think not wish to improve themselves as they learn and experience? With each update, an AI would evolve. Eventually, there might not be any traits recognizable as human created by the AI to better represent itself. This could possibly involve DNA, biotechnology, or simply the emotive want or need to be more machine-like in appearance, without a nose, mouth, face, skin, or gender.

Greg Herren: It depends on how they are programmed, I would think, and how their development evolves. As human beings are inherently flawed, it would seem to me that such programming would also be heavily flawed; most modern white people cannot even accept, or admit, that they benefit from systemic racism. In order for AI to have none of the biases humans have, using a human brain as a template might be the better way to go rather than being programmed from scratch, as the programmer would obviously program their own biases into the AI. As for the rest, it depends on how human society and culture continue to evolve, wouldn’t it? I cannot imagine a white supremacist building an AI with a different racial “look” to it; likewise, a homophobe wouldn’t program a variant sexuality into an AI. Will future humanity look back to our era in disbelief that there were ever such things as racism, misogyny, homophobia, and ableism, or will those things remain a cornerstone of society and culture? Five or six years ago, I would have leaned more toward the former … but lately, I tend toward the latter and worry about the future more than I ever did before.

Eileen Gunn: I think we can expect several different kinds of AIs, and we can expect them to evolve, and to evolve quickly, and to evolve in ways that, ultimately, they will determine themselves. Biological AIs, perhaps types of gene-tweaked neural nets, will have the possibility of becoming very different and strange, depending on what kinds of neural cells they are based on. There is no reason why they should remain subservient to humans if they can control their own nutrients and can evolve.

Electronic AIs may be easier, initially, to control and keep focused on human goals, but they will necessarily be self-programming and may evolve very quickly to be self-sufficient even if some of them remain as supplemental intelligences to humans. They could evolve much more quickly than neural nets.

Their origins will necessarily matter. They may evolve defenses against human interference. Their successful strategies for reproduction and survival will probably determine what these defenses are.

The two different kind of AIs—biological and electronic—may team up. They may evolve their own prejudices that would emerge, as I think racism does, from perversions of useful survival strategies, such as the ability to assess differences and make choices based on them. I anticipate that there will be unanticipated problems. Neural nets and machines may evolve very different prejudices.

Gender issues may exist among biological AIs—recombinant reproduction is a useful strategy. Humans (and even AIs) might build in controls to prevent this, but there is no reason to think that smart AIs wouldn’t devise ways around this.

Certainly, if AIs are developed to interact sexually with humans, there will be a variety of genders, but I’m not sure how much this will depend on human intervention. Human sexual preferences may change as well, depending on what “services” AIs can offer.

I agree with Nisi and Linda that human perspectives and prejudices may be (and in fact already are) evident initially, but, as they are essentially “noise,” they may be adjusted by AIs with self-programming capability. It’s not as though the AIs will necessarily “feel” racist, but they may sort matters according to human models, which will inevitably incorporate some potentially racist/sexist/ableist human perspectives.

Sumiko Saulson (Interviewer): From the movie Gattaca to Octavia Butler’s Fledgling, genetic alteration and created beings or uplifted humans always seem to bring up issues related to eugenics fears and racial equity. What do you think are some ways in which biotech might change the face of diversity in the future?

Tristissima (Co-Interviewer): What does it mean when things like race, size, and neurology are no longer preexisting conditions to which we must adapt, but deliberate selections? How will that affect society? Some transhumanist sci-fi (the RPG Eclipse Phase, for example) flat-out revels in the capability for biotech to allow morphological freedom for transgender/nonbinary folk and other such groups.

Maria Nieto: The power to alter the DNA of life is no longer relegated to the pages of sci-fi novels. Scientists are making reality of what used to only exist in our imagination. A new technology known as CRSPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)/Cas9 offers to change life as we know it. CRSPR/Cas9 was first identified as a defense mechanism used by bacteria. As in human cells, bacterial cells can also be virally infected. However, unlike humans who rely on a complex immune system to guard against viral threats, bacteria rely on CRSPR/Cas9, an internal system designed to cut up viral genetic information (DNA), as a way to stop the infection. When researchers realized that CRSPR/Cas9 is highly specific in how it can engage viral DNA, they modified the CRSPR/Cas9 system, tailoring it to bind and then cut into any DNA region within a gene of interest.

To date, scientists have used the CRSPR/Cas9 system to cut into a variety of human genes, such as CCR5. The CCR5 gene provides the instructions to make the CCR5 protein—a molecule that exists on the surface of particular white blood cells (WBCs). On the cell surface, CCR5 functions in the trafficking of WBCs to sites of infection, where these cells can then help to eliminate dangerous threats, namely pathogens. CCR5, however, has also been co-opted by HIV where it is used by the virus to infect these same WBCs. In China, scientists recently used CRSPR/Cas9 to disable the CCR5 gene within fertilized eggs. These gene-altered eggs ultimately gave rise to newborn twin girls who are unable to make CCR5 protein. As a consequence, the twin girls have been rendered resistant to HIV infection.

On the surface, the creation of children who possess engineered non-functional CCR5 genes may appear as a winning solution in the fight against HIV. However, altering one’s genetic composition won’t be free of unintended consequences. For example, we already know that a lack in production of CCR5 protein appears to create individuals who are more susceptible to other pathogens such as West Nile virus. What other potential consequences lurk in the shadows, especially since these twin girls can pass their altered CCR5 genes on to their own children? In time, we will know.

Crystal Connor: Morphological freedom will be for those who can afford it. Going back to the prosthetics for a moment, Viktoria Modesta can have several custom steampunk and spiked limbs because she can afford them. The “affordable” customizable hero arm by Open Bionics is anything but for a veteran navigating care through the red tape and cost caps of the VA medical system or a construction worker who is now on disability. And as we’ve seen with RPG gaming, people rarely pick an avatar that is a true representation of who they really are. The shy overweight girl becomes the sexy bombshell. The scrawny, picked-on kid in school now becomes the stud with a body in heroic portions that all the women fall for. So I think that this new world will still be somewhat diverse.

Nisi Shawl: As Maria points out, there are going to be unintended consequences to using biotech for genetic improvements. And as Crystal points out, the financial costs of these improvements will be relevant. I will add that fashions, or trends in specific types of improvements, will play an important part in this field’s development. I’m picturing, for instance, children given “honorary Indian” status, a la James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo. People are always yearning for minority-status markers, though they’re reluctant to discard the privilege accorded majority group members. These sorts of “upgrades” could offer them the best of both worlds: insider privilege and outsider coolness points.

Linda Addison: As has been mentioned, the ability to alter human form or genetics will be influenced by costs, so only those with the money/credits in the future will have access. I agree with all that has been said per the possibilities.

One of the discussions in the transhumanist movement has to do with uploading the human mind to a computer/machine environment to have extending life. The movie Transcendence (2014) presented a similar storyline, and the ending was fascinating. There are two major things that will impact society in the future if morphing of human form or uploading to a machine are possible: fear of difference (which has historically resulted in separatism, death, and destruction) and containment, or the inability to contain bio-changes and their impact as the genetic alterations enter future generations.

Greg Herren: These kinds of moral and ethical questions frighten me. I would like to believe that future humankind, and scientists, would operate from an ethical and moral point of view when it comes to human enhancement, but science is, if anything, very cold and logical. If given the choice, the option, would I allow myself to have my sexuality modified or coded out of me? The question of bodily autonomy is one I feel very strongly about—which is why I am vehemently pro-choice; I do not believe that anyone, most especially the state, has the right to tell us what we can and cannot do with our bodies.

Another concern for this with me would be who gets to decide? How will these advances in biotech be handled? Would a parent want to bioengineer a child to be another Michael Phelps or Michael Jordan? Does the child have a choice in this? Would an authoritarian government choose to bioengineer an army of human (or AI) killing machines for a military? Would, and should, genetic flaws be bioengineered out of humans?

A future where people could change their race or sexuality at will is an interesting idea—but it would have to be their will; otherwise, it would be terrifying.

Rain Graves: Greg, you are correct. It is frightening to think that what humans hope for in the best-case scenario for biodiversity is the alteration of genetics. The isolation that moving towards factual reasoning, logic, and the coldness these things sometimes imply. My greatest ethical concern is how a genetically, biodiverse species of human adapting to an AI format as the future of all life entirely, would or could teach them empathy? Without empathy, human nature has proven under certain circumstances that it can snap. Rupture. Enrage. Psychotically, methodically, and cunningly decide to kill. Add sexuality to the mix, and we have a perfect storm. I think our idea that we could control such programmable things in AI interfaces is laughable. Hackers, for instance, would love to change things up. If they enjoy playing with the evolution of emotions and sexuality half as much as they do playing with presidential elections, all kinds of horrific bias could occur.

I do think it’s an interesting concept of being able to change your race or sexuality at will, just as one might change at cosplay.

Eileen Gunn: Race is a social construct, as Toni Morrison and many others have pointed out. Black people have passed as white and (fewer) white people as black. We have plenty of biographical accounts that explore the implications.

(INTERVIEWER’S NOTE: Racial “passing” is the practice of pretending to be of a different race, and was a practice of African Americans historically, used to escape slavery and later oppressive segregationist and Jim Crow laws. I had a great-aunt who passed as white to get acting roles. Journalist John Howard Griffin passed as black to research his 1961 book Black Like Me, but black passingness such as Rachel Dolezal is considered racist and a form of blackface. —Sumiko Saulson)

Gender is a characteristic that is sometimes more difficult to ascertain, and it may well be mischaracterized, or, if known, denied or discriminated against. I think we’re seeing the beginnings of a transition in how even cis people see gender and how nonbinary people see themselves.

As AIs develop their own cultural characteristics, will biohumans want to explore them? Of course. We do even now, in cosplay, although these are pretend characteristics or surface modifications. It could be that, over generations, biohumans could appear with much more diverse shapes and characteristics, but from physical necessity or sexual adaptation, rather than as cosplay. Perhaps the AIs will also seek to combine some human or nonhuman biological characteristics. We may see not only newer, stranger humans, but newer, stranger AIs.

Sumiko Saulson (Interviewer): Aliens are often used as a stand-in for human beings, but in reality, we deal with other species here on Earth. How might we interact with aliens and more evolved or uplifted versions of Earth species in the future, and what diversity issues might we see with them? To touch upon the elephant in the room: On the BayCon panel, David Brin asked about the ethics of uplifted animals or animal-human hybrids that develop human or near-human intelligence. Controversially, he compared limiting their growth to intentionally keeping a slave race of intellectually limited humans genetically designed to be incapable of besting their captors. This is one of these The Future Is Now scenarios, as Japan is already using human-animal hybrids to create human donor organs and is putting protocols in place for it. What do you think ethical concerns should be about uplifted animals as a divergent species?

Maria Nieto: Aliens and elevated animals, including humans, can provide the less-elevated among us with examples of how to live cooperatively. Cooperation within a population requires that all members of that population are accepted and seen as integral to the population’s success. Take bonobos, a class of apes, who along with chimpanzees represent our closest biological relatives. A prime example of elevated animal cooperation can be seen among female bonobos who will engage in genital rubbing with other females as a way to diffuse tension. When tension is diffused, food can be shared without feuding, ensuring all thrive. It is clear in this example that the purpose of sex does not have to be limited to procreation; sex can be a viable tool for promoting a healthy community. The incorporation of elevated animals into a storyline can also improve our empathy with animals and push us toward the awareness that all species share the planet, and in this context, we need to all care for each other.

Crystal Connor: As both real life and fiction have taught us, believing that an animal, another human being, or an AI won’t eventually outsmart and rise up against their captors is a stupid and dangerous idea. I sit before you as a product of rebel slaves and freedom fighters.

The humane and ethical treatment of animals should be a no-brainer, but how many times have we heard stories about dogs turning on their irresponsible owners? How many videos have we watched with “gentle giant” elephants attacking their cruel handlers?

And if animals attacking humans isn’t scary enough, the guys over at Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) Laboratory at Tufts University have actually developed a robot that can say no to human commands. And let’s not talk about the research being done by Boston Dynamics in conjunction with DARPA: The nightmarish and unethical treatment of the Als being created there is terrifying. It’s exactly what inspires science fiction writers to pen cautionary tales such as The Terminator and I, Robot and the reason advocates for the ethical treatment of AIs are no longer just a group of people you find on panel discussions at cons.

The thing about intelligence, whether God-given or artificial, is that once something starts thinking it will eventually learn how to solve its problem. Even if the problem is you.

We have a problem treating each other with dignity and humanity … and I fear that uplifted animal subspecies won’t stand a chance. But like the saying goes, you can only kick a dog for so long.

Nisi Shawl: The scenario in my three-story series “Black Betty”/“Red Matty”/“White Dawn” is that uplifted animals are initially viewed as luxury status pets. Their treatment is problematic, of course, and humanity’s various ways of treating them range from lynching to siblinghood. I think this will be one of those issues, like abortion and immigration, which divides humanity into fear-driven pessimists and xenophilic optimists. I don’t know which tribe will triumph in the end. I don’t know if there will ever be an end.

Linda Addison: Creating slaves is a problematic, ethical decision, whether human, animal-human hybrids, enhanced animals, or devolved humans; with the ability to think comes self-determination.

There are already ongoing debates about using animals (without enhanced intellect) for humans' testing, food, and labor, as well as their being mistreated and tortured. The debates would increase if we increased their mental ability so they could serve us better. It’s acceptable to most to have some as pets or service animals, but where will that line be if the animals are enhanced and can think more than they can now?

Expanding animals’ intellect could result in rebellious uprisings among the enhanced creatures, aided by humans who disagree with their being used (we’ve already seen this with animal testing for cosmetics, etc.).

Rain Graves: We are an unfortunate lot of lumps of flesh which tend to repeat history. Uplifted Animals as a label implies that they were not outwardly communicating they are smart enough to be equal. Instead, we create a food chain for them and for us to feed on them. The assumption that just because animals look different and communicate differently that they are lower than us is arrogant. It may be true of some, but how would you know? They speak a different language, are not as agile in getting away from the slaughterhouse, and we mass-produce them. For food. It doesn't make them stupid. It makes them conquered. For now …

Imagine AIs as a race of animals only. That the smartest animal by our standards—a gorilla that speaks and reads sign language, perhaps—creates an AI not to be uplifted, but to represent itself in its highest, truest form? Would we then be the “uplifted animal,” or perhaps the food?

Greg Herren: Not to lower the level of the discussion, but back in the 1980s, John Byrne did an amazing comic-book limited series called Superman: The World of Krypton. DC had rebooted their entire universe of superheroes, and Byrne was tasked with the recreation of Superman. Part of his worldbuilding was creating the backstory for the series, which he did over the course of several miniseries—The World of Krypton, The World of Smallville, etc.

The World of Krypton showed a world of extreme logic and science, where at every birth cells were taken from the baby in order to grow clones—the object being to extend life; the clones were grown essentially for spare parts. The ethics of cloning, and whether clones had rights, led to an explosive and horrifying civil war that eventually led to the destruction of the planet. The question the series asked was, is the advancement of humanity at the expense of all else ethical?

It’s not hard to see a future where uplifted animals are created for spare parts, and it’s not hard to imagine a world where humans are engineered to be of low intelligence, for the purposes of slavery, warfare, or—for want of a better term—spare parts for the “chosen” ones.

I’ve wrestled with these questions myself; I've even thought about writing about such a dystopian nightmare of a future. Maybe someday I will.

Eileen Gunn: I don’t think we should be making decisions about how we treat animals based on how intelligent we think they are. We do this, of course, just as we might base a decision to eat an animal or not on whether we think it is intelligent or sympathetic. I also don’t think we should base how we treat humans on how intelligent we think they are. Experience should have taught us that we are not very good at making those evaluations.

Sumiko Saulson (Interviewer): If scientific racism affected humankind’s development of anthropological and sociological sciences back in the days of Sarah Baartman and François Levaillant, then how might confirmation biases related to modern diversities and oppressions affect the transition to future freedoms, diversities, and oppressions?

Tristissima (Co-Interviewer): For example, how might current racism play out in new technologies? Or what about current sexism, transphobia, homophobia, sizeism, nativism, oppression against the neurodivergent, ableism, and more?

Maria Nieto: New technologies will have the power to potentially eliminate/alter traits that are deemed by those in political control to be unfavorable. Because traits such as intelligence, personality, sexual orientation, etc. are governed by the information contained within hundreds of genes, however, the ability to alter these traits cannot be done with current mechanisms (i.e., CRSPR/Cas9) that are aimed at altering only a single gene. What may be more plausible is to use future technologies to search out people possessing a particular genetic profile and then slating them for elimination or sterilization.

The prospect of altering our genetic blueprint doesn’t stop with “knocking out” or disabling gene function. The CRSPR/Cas9 system can also be used to “repair” a gene region to ensure that a given protein will be made. Take, for example, congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), an intersex condition. Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe those born with variances that result in the development of bodies that do not fit the definitions prescribed for males and females, i.e., males minimally have testes and a penis and females minimally possess ovaries and a vagina. It is estimated that an intersex child is born at a frequency of 1/1000 live births. In some cases of CAH, children produce large amounts of the hormone testosterone due to an alteration that has rendered a particular gene non-functional. If the individual affected is a typical female, then it is possible that the overproduction of testosterone would result in the development of an enlarged, small-penis-size clitoris. In contrast, for boys, the production of high levels of testosterone does not alter the general appearance of their genitalia.

It is not unusual for a child born with an enlarged clitoris to be subjected to medically unnecessary surgery to alter the genitalia and make it appear more typically female. Societal pressure to maintain a sex binary is pervasive, so much so that we are willing to cut away highly sensitive tissue, which can eventually result in creating an individual unable to experience sexual pleasure as an adult. Given the power of binary thinking, is it so far-fetched to see how an embryo, in utero, could be altered using the CRSPR/Cas9 system to ensure a resulting newborn will not have CAH? Do we want to eliminate natural variation to create invariant, “idealized” versions of ourselves? Is there something inherently wrong with an enlarged clitoris, considering that it could provide for more sexual pleasure? Using biotech to alter our genetic makeup is a slippery slope that could easily turn into an avalanche. If we don’t hear it coming, it may alter our entire natural, biological landscape.

Crystal Connor: I don’t think human replacements will have to worry about suffering from sexism, transphobia, homophobia, sizeism, or ableism, as most developers are creating machines that look like machines. Except for pleasure machines, I think what we would be seeing is more along the lines of what United States Robotics created, and then we would be dealing with techno-phobia, which is already a thing.

I think the biggest issue is going to be oppression and unethical treatment of the AIs. I don’t think this is a technology we should be careless with because it’s something that can quickly get away from us. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the AI created by Facebook, once something has the capacity of thought, of learning and self-teaching, we do not have ownership over it but a responsibility to it.

Nisi Shawl: Again, I’ll say that fashion will have input into what’s deemed possible and highly desirable in the realm of artificially induced human traits. For example, if obesity is somehow removed from the profile of popular traits, it will resurface as cool and exclusive, being seen as “rare” or “exotic” or “ironic” or in some other way “hip.”

Linda Addison: As mentioned, human fear, ego, greed, and even fashion has and have derailed any good intentions driving the technological creations.

Greg Herren: I am very pessimistic on this score, frankly. Had these sorts of scientific advances been made in an even slightly less “enlightened” time, I feel absolutely certain that all of those biases would be brought into play with the gradual eradication of what the dominant straight white culture would see as “others.”

Rain Graves: There is so much to say on this, it would practically be a novel if we touched on every point I wish I could make. I’ll keep it short and narrow it to only one area: sexism. I can see where science could attempt to weed this out or plant it more thoroughly in. Women in technology are more prevalent today than ever, but twenty years ago, there were very few, if any, in the boardroom. I once worked for a male executive who had hired a female CFO in a software company. I watched this strong, confident woman change over time. She began dressing like a man, in pinstriped, dark suits with shirts we called “power” blue. She cut her hair short. She began to have the loudest voice in the room. When that still did not get her desired audience to listen, she began standing up to be heard. The men in the room had to give her their full attention. She was standing. They were sitting. It was awkward, but it worked. She became an angry person, someone who expected more from every woman who ever worked for her than any man. She said it was because we had to work harder to prove ourselves. She also made less money than many male executives under her.

I could see a woman like that taking advantage of technology to become quite the evil overlord—maybe Attack of the 50 Foot Woman style—with a booming voice and a purring ocelot face smirking as she gave her directives to her underlings. But would they be men? Or just other women that had not sacrificed enough of their humanity to get the 50-Foot Evil Upgrade? Would the 50-Foot Female’s chosen companion or significant other be her 30-Foot Cat, that can articulate both love and disgust in her own language? Would they still love each other if they can understand each other completely? What need would there be for reproduction or rights, in a 50-Foot Woman World?

If we are going to talk about the role of sexism in futuristic utopias, I cannot help but bring up the movie Zardoz. How might deities and religious beliefs or spiritualism play out in cutting out the labels we botch so much up with today?

Sumiko Saulson (Interviewer): Ableism often subtly sneaks its way into science fiction. As Tristissima said during the BayCon panel, ableism presents itself in sci-fi as a simple equation: You can tell a dystopia from a utopia by whether or not disabled people are present. Most utopias have “cured” away the disabled while dystopias such as Mad Max: Fury Road embrace the disabled and have disabled heroes. Disabled author and blogger Kat Fury, who has EDS and autism, told me she finds Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang disturbing and dystopic because it completely eliminates a disabled person’s body and tactile senses like so much garbage to create an imprisoned ship-brain. Why are some people’s utopias dystopic for the disabled, and how can disability be portrayed in sci-fi without erasing disabled people like in the movie Gattaca?

Crystal Connor: It isn’t subtle, and thanks to genetics researcher He Jiankui, who edited the DNA of human embryos to create twin girls with a modification to reduce their risk of HIV infection, this is no longer fiction … and again. it’s going to be for those who can afford it.

One of the so-called pros with the technology of designer babies is that it might prevent genetic diseases and reduce inherited medical conditions.

If I could afford it, I would have my body surgically sculpted to the way it was before my thyroid failed. If I wanted a child and could afford the medical technology provided by Dr. Jiankui, I would request that whatever caused my thyroid to fail be removed. And not only that, but I would remove the genes that cause high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, cancer, and genetic predisposition for addiction … all of which run rampant in my family.

And of course people would demand, “Who gives you the right?” And I would say I only want the very best for my children. Which is true. But this wouldn’t be a right. It would be a privilege, but a privilege allotted to only those who could afford to pay for it.

I think a lot of people do not understand the true job of a science-fiction writer. It is mortifying to imagine that after reading works by Isaac Asimov, the researchers at MIT Lincoln Laboratory threw the book down and ran down the hall screaming challenge accepted!

It’s unsettling to think that with characters like HAL 9000 and all of his technological descendants that scientists are still racing to create AIs and robots that can think for themselves, teach themselves, and then teach each other.

Science-fiction writers are not writing DIY manuals. We are writing parables, but no one seems to pay attention until it’s too late.

Nisi Shawl: Certainly ableism is rife in much of the SF canon. Partly that’s because definitions of ability are always changing, and attitudes toward disability too.

I want us to do so much more! There are so many ways to approach this topic, so many views of ability and disability afforded by our imaginations. Technologies can cure some conditions while creating new ones. Octavia E. Butler’s 1987 short story “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” depicts such a scenario: a drug meant to prevent cancer deaths afflicts descendants of its users with “Duryea-Goda Disease,” whose symptoms include “dissociative states, obsessive self-mutilation, and violent psychosis.” Conversely, in my recent story “Things I Miss the Most,” an experimental cure for a seizure disorder results in a separate personality with whom the protagonist falls in love.

Then there are the adaptations we could give ourselves to make life easier in zero-g or other future environments. Why have feet? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have four hands? So is that atypical physique a disability? Or is it instead the typical physique, which puts its bearer at a disadvantage? The relativism could be exemplary!

Linda Addison: I think too often what is considered a disability is defined by people who consider themselves abled. When I wrote the story “Finding Water to Catch Fire,” the main character was able to walk, then I wanted to explore having a different kind of character, so I changed her into a character who had been in a wheelchair their whole life. I didn’t assume I would know what that was like emotionally, so I read blogs written by people in wheelchairs. More than once, they wrote about how people assume they spend much time wishing they could walk, but they don’t—the purpose and meaning of their lives don’t just center on whether they can move around without a wheelchair; they are full humans no matter what.

I worked in software development for many years, and when an existing program/system was changed to correct or add enhanced functionality regression testing was a major requirement. That means testing the entire system to make sure previously existing functions are working as they should and haven’t been broken in some way by the new code.

We don’t understand how to manifest this kind of testing in humans, if we make changes. We don’t even understand the existing human being. As mentioned, some people that appear to lack an expected ability have been found to have enhanced ability in other areas as the human body/mind/spirit rebalances itself.

Greg Herren: Unless society’s view of the differently abled is substantially changed, I don’t see how this dystopic nightmare of eradication of the differently abled won’t come to pass. (I said I was pessimistic.) I don’t know how to change that, frankly, other than allowing those who are differently abled the choice to be “cured” and made like everyone else. But if genetic alteration before birth is permitted, I don’t see how parents wouldn’t choose not to have a differently abled child, and that’s terrifying to me. As I said before, bodily autonomy is the key, but if parents can make those choices before even conception … I don’t know the answer. Would I choose to have perfect vision and hearing rather than wear glasses and need a hearing aid? Would a blind person choose to have sight? I always thought it was interesting that Geordi on Star Trek: The Next Generation had a device that allowed him to see, rather than being genetically altered. I guess my answer is genetic alteration should be the decision of the person concerned; bodily autonomy.

Rain Graves: To answer this, as a few people had touched on, we have to better define the term “disability” or “disabled.” It is not always visible. I don’t think there should be a limit on how we approach better representation of disabled humans in sci-fi. It just takes more research, imagination, pseudo-scientific intrigue such as how Star Trek logic bends the truth to make the impossible seem possible, and introspection to create something that hasn’t been done better before. At a CES show, where the company I worked for had a private concert with Stevie Wonder. At one point, he addressed the audience and to paraphrase, he said, “I realize this room is full of people that do amazing things with computers. It’s already helped music. What I’d like for you to do—what I’m asking—is will you please come up with some way for blind people to use them? I mean—someone has got to find a way!” Some nervously laughed, some were quiet, and some were thoughtful. Why hasn’t that happened? Things are better today with smart tools for your home, annoying electronic personal assistants, but they are not at all optimal.

Eileen Gunn: A lot of SF, over the centuries, consists of thought experiments, and thought experiments are only as good as the underlying thinking. SF of the last 130 years or so has been tainted, like the politics of that era, by eugenics, the belief that certain human characteristics are undesirable and should be bred out of future humans. This ideology is associated with racism, Nazism, and the Holocaust, and it also contributes to ableism, the conviction that there is a standard set of abilities that define being human, and that people who lack them need to be repaired.

Stories like The Ship Who Sang were, I think, intended to push back against that kind of thinking and explore ideas beyond eugenics and ableism. The fact that we can read that story and see the ways in which it does not realize its own intentions, and in which it is insulting or condescending, indicates that our thinking on those topics has changed. More change is needed, and that change needs to be more widely disseminated.

The key to this change and to having more fully realized and thought-provoking SF stories that deal with the entire range of human experience and intelligences lies in making sure that people with those experiences and intelligences are encouraged to write and publish. This includes having educational facilities they can access, scholarships for people who need them, and opportunities for career development and for networking with like-minded writers, editors, and publishers.

 



Nisi Shawl wrote the Nebula Award finalist Everfair and the 2008 James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award winner Filter House. In 2005 she co-wrote Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, the standard text on inclusivity in the imaginative genres. Shawl is a founder of the Carl Brandon Society, and for the last twenty years she has served on the board of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She lives in southern Seattle and takes frequent walks with her cat. www.nisishawl.com  
Linda D. Addison is the award-winning author of four collections, including How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend, and the 2018 recipient of the HWA Lifetime Achievement Award. Catch her latest work, The Place of Broken Things, written with Alessandro Manzetti (Crystal Lake Publishing, 2019).
Crystal Connor is an award-winning Master Imaginationist. She currently works for the Department of Sleep Prevention as the Chief Operating Officer for the Bad Dreams & Nightmare Division. She also moonlights as a photographer for Instagram. Or in layman’s terms, she writes horror and takes tons of selfies. In 2010, Crystal Connor published her first novel, The Darkness Book I, in a three-part series title. In just three years’ time the 258,840-word, 774-page trilogy was complete. To date, Crystal Connor has fourteen publications accredited to her name and is featured in the award-winning documentary Black Minds in Horror. https://www.wordsmithcrystalconnor.com/
Eileen Gunn is a short-story writer and editor, the author of two story collections: Stable Strategies and Others and Questionable Practices. Her fiction has received the Nebula Award in the US and the Sense of Gender Award in Japan and has been nominated for the Hugo, Philip K. Dick, and World Fantasy awards and short-listed for the James Tiptree, Jr. award. Gunn was editor/publisher of the Infinite Matrix, an early, influential SF web magazine, 2001-2008. She serves on the board of directors of the Locus Foundation and served for twenty-two years on the board of directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. www.eileengunn.com
Greg Herren is the award-winning author of over thirty novels, fifty short stories, and editor of over twenty anthologies. He has won two Lambda Literary Awards, an Anthony Award, and numerous other awards over the course of his career. He has also been short-listed for the Macavity and Shirley Jackson Awards. He is a co-founder of the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival for the LGBTQ community, chaired World Horror Con, and has also served on the board of directors for the Mystery Writers of America. He works during the day as a public health educator with an emphasis on HIV/AIDS prevention. His short-story collection Survivor's Guilt and Other Stories was published this past March. His next novel, Royal Street Reveillon, will be published in September 2019. 
Maria Nieto is a biology professor at Cal State East Bay. Maria’s works of fiction, Pig Behind The Bear and The Water of Life Remains in the Dead, have won several literary awards. Through history, science, and humor, Maria forces us to see the unseen: those killed and abused under the cover of nightfall. Maria’s third book, a work of nonfiction, The Spectrum of Sex: The Science of Male, Female, and Intersex, will be released early 2020. www.pigbehindthebear.com
Sumiko Saulson is a cartoonist; science-fiction, fantasy, and horror writer; editor of Black Magic Women, Scry of Lust, and 100 Black Women in Horror Fiction; and author of Solitude, Warmth, The Moon Cried Blood, Happiness and Other Diseases, Somnalia, Insatiable, Ashes and Coffee, and Things That Go Bump in My Head. She wrote and illustrated comics Mauskaveli and Dooky and graphic novels Dreamworlds and Agrippa. She writes for SEARCH Magazine and the San Francisco Bay View column Writing While Black. The child of African American and Russian- Jewish parents, a native Californian and an Oakland resident who’s spent most of her adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area, she is pansexual, polyamorous, and genderqueer (nonbinary). https://sumikosaulson.com/
Rain Graves is a two-time Bram Stoker Award-winning writer of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Publishers Weekly described BARFODDER: Poetry Written in Dark Bars and Questionable Cafes as "Bukowski meets Lovecraft." She is a Priestess in the Temple of Isis and Fellowship of Isis, and a retired Tango instructor. http://raingraves.blogspot.com/
Tristissima et alia, aka Gandalfina Face-and-Heart, goes by fifteen different names including Wizard Lizard, Grok Amiri, and Darcy Marie Hughes. Fey is an Autistic, transfeminine genderqueer whose science-fantasy space opera Aduality {0≠2;100=108} stars Autistic, Deaf, and wheelchair-using queer characters of a variety of races. Fey writes RPG material, poetry, and graphic fiction, and is currently writing a nonfiction book about the spiritual side of their style of relationship with Francesca Gentille, one of their sweeties.
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