a place for the curious

A matter of gravity: women in space

Last week, The Mary Sue had a small piece about the dull and quite insane question of ‘periods in space’.

In typical Mary Sue form, their approach was both tongue-in-cheek and appropriately dismissive. Their story refers to a longer NPR article about the same question. Neither of them are, in reality, about answering the question. They’re about women, NASA and feminism.

In fact, the NPR article is so focused on NASA’s culture, it seems to skip over the fact that a woman first went into space in 1963: Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. That’s not to say the Soviets were sending women up every other month. After they nabbed this important ‘first’, it was another 19 years before any more woman cosmonauts were launched into space – for the curious, that was Svetlana Savitskaya.

In the article, there’s a snippet from a NASA report in 1971:

“The question of direct sexual release on a long-duration space mission must be considered. Practical considerations (such as weight and expense) preclude men taking their wives on the first space flights. It is possible that a woman, qualified from a scientific viewpoint, might be persuaded to donate her time and energies for the sake of improving crew morale; however, such a situation might create interpersonal tensions far more dynamic than the sexual tensions it would release.”

– NASA technical memorandum, 1971

This snippet reminds me of a scene in an old Heinlein story; All You Zombies. Written more than 10 years before the NASA report, it too talks about sexual tensions:

“It was when they first admitted you can’t send men into space for months and years and not relieve the tension. You remember how the wowsers screamed?—that improved my chance, since volunteers were scarce. A gal had to be respectable, preferably virgin (they liked to train them from scratch), above average mentally, and stable emotionally.”

– All You Zombies, Heinlein, 1958

Both story and snippet in turn remind me of a fierce and angry piece by science fiction author Alice Sheldon – James Tiptree Jr. Her short story ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’ was republished in a collection, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’. It focuses on a young woman with a disfigured face. Her name is CP. Her nickname is far worse. It’s this scene about CP that came to mind as I read the NPR article:

“And to these tinderboxes you want to add an even reasonably attractive woman, sonny? We know the men do better with a female along. […] But on board a long flight, what we need sexually is a human waste can.”

– With Delicate Mad Hands, James Tiptree, Jr. 1981

I won’t quote any more. The words are ruthless. Tiptree at her best. Written 10 years after the NASA report, the sentiment is clear. When Tiptree wrote, she wasn’t extrapolating. She was responding. She always was. Her fiction is as harsh as the truth.

I read Tiptree as a young woman. I would sometimes find her in a pile of other stories about space and space adventures that were mostly written by men. I knew she was different. Her words filled me with fire. It wasn’t until much later that I realised she was a woman and a fierce and unrelenting feminist. I imagined that much of what she wrote was as a response to the other stories being told at the time. But snippets like this NASA report make it clear it wasn’t only in response to fiction. It was to the world.

The question, the extract, the stories. None of them are funny. They aren’t happy. And they don’t end well. They just are.

It’s good to take a moment and remember why all of this matters. Why people matter. People, refugees, women – any and all of us.

Better‘ isn’t good enough. It’s better, and that’s all.

Staying blue

two types of cyanotype images on paper - one pale, washed out blue, the other a vibrant cyan blue

feeling a little blue

A bit of backyard science

A few weeks ago I was experimenting with a different sort of cyanotype – a digital image of an underground tunnel, printed on a clear transparency. I had captured the slow steps of someone moving through the low, dark space. I’d hoped to use it in a group ‘thing’. Unfortunately, it failed terribly. That is to say, the chemicals failed.

I’m used to photos not successfully translating to cyanotype, but this image seemed to have the right stuff. After waiting through a week of rain and sunless sky, I was at last able to set up. I painted my paper, watched for a longish moment of late-winter sunlight and exposed the cyanotype in the usual way. A raindrop or two got caught with the sun, but as it’s a ghostly and indistinct image, I figured it would be okay. It looked beautiful. I rinsed the paper and let the chemicals wash away… and with horror watched the lovely blue image wash away too. I had managed to produce a damp, wrinkled, blank piece of paper.

A couple of weeks later, when the sun reappeared, I tried again in the somewhat futile hope that I’d mixed the solutions incorrectly. But, no. That image washed away, even after a 40 minute exposure – longer than needed in Australia at that time of year. There was no more than a hint of an image.

It turns out that the unmixed liquid cyanotype solutions have an end shelf-life. The best information I could find was ‘it should last a few months’. I did my googling, as any good internet citizen would, but couldn’t spot anything more definitive.

In case you’re one of the few who want to know, I’d kept the two solutions in separate bottles in a dark cupboard for about six months. One week they were working pretty well. A few weeks later, not so much. Obviously, I’ve had to discard the solutions. New chemicals have been ordered and I await their blue-toned arrival.

Next time I prepare the solutions, I’ll put a date on the bottles and track what happens. I’ll do one test strip a month, and keep a record of the date and changing sunlight. I’m sure can get a better idea than ‘a few months’. Data, baby. That’s what I want. Data. Failure is okay, so long as you learn from it and try again.

And that, my friends, is my little bit of backyard science. Science in the sun. Cool, huh?

Free-range thoughts

Etching of frog in front of toadstools


There’s a lot of stuff going on in here [taps head] at the moment. Ideas come and go. They burn bright and rush away. Thoughts loop around. And around. And around. It’s like a somewhat faulty fireworks display.

There’s advice everywhere about how to write more, or find new photos, or set challenges to create new things. That’s not what I need. I need a way to shut out all the new stuff, so I can find a more meaningful image or write a better story. It’s pinning the damn things down that’s the problem.

How do you do it? A mind bubbling over with great swags of free wheeling notions might sound like a good thing. But it ain’t always so. The question so often posed is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ A more apt one might be ‘how do you stop them from getting in?’ How can you concentrate on just one thing?

That’s not to say I’m coming up with mind-blowing and original concepts. To say that would involve a level of ego I don’t even wish to aspire to. But a couple of them aren’t half-bad. What a shame that they’re buried in the clangor from a swarm of half-crazed, babbling gnats.

I’ll tell you one thing that I do, if you like. I may as well. There’s no getting anything done in this head right now.

I go outside. I sit in the sun. And I stare vacantly at the horizon. Sit, gaze, repeat. Then maybe, when everything is still and quiet, I find I can pick out one single thing. An intriguing notion or idea. Then I treasure it. Give it my full attention. And a little love. But I never, ever give it a deadline. I give it time.

Will this work for you? I can’t say for sure. Does sitting in the soft winter sunshine do you any harm? Nope. So, go on. Get outside. Take a moment from your day and set out to achieve absolutely nothing.

The well

a mountain in cyan blue

Dark and brooding:
Curman’s Los Molinos

I’m occasionally surprised by how dark my storytelling can be. As often as not, I’m happier when I write about a brooding, towering mountain than a little, yellow duck. When I open the big book of writing, there’s often a dank, mossy well to draw from. It’s deep and it’s far from pretty.

I sometimes wonder where my ideas come from, but I really haven’t a clue. I doubt anyone does. I guess it’s a matter of ‘take life, stir and turn up the heat’. What boils over isn’t reality. It’s something else and when it arrives it’s barely controlled. It’s easy to go too dark. Just as it’s easy to get too silly.  However good or bad I am at this, I know that telling stories isn’t merely about trying to come up with ideas. It’s about control. Watch the beast grow, give it a name in the night and see it come to life. A realistic life. Does it look real? Can you smell it? Taste it? Touch it?

If you can you see the strings, I’ve probably done it wrong.

Every creative endeavour seems to be a little like this. There’s a freedom and beauty to creativity, but there’s also a lot of precision. Capturing the moment just once might take no effort. But do it again. And again. That’s what they call practice. Ultimately, it’s also a fine-tuned level of control.

Next time the ideas come calling, be they dark, be they feathered, be they scaled, I’ll be there. And one day perhaps I’ll even be ready.

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