Artificial Intelligence And Gender In Science Fiction

I didn’t get to doing a Keycon recap this year, but one of the panels I was moderating was Women in Speculative fiction, and that was the panel where I had the main guests of honour. One of them was Tamsen McDonough, who is the voice of the ship’s AI in The Killjoys.

I watch the show, so I was familiar with the character, and was terribly amused to learn that the ship’s character was originally written to be a motherly, caring sort of character, but Tamsen thought Aaron Ashmore was hot, and got flirty with him in the ship’s dialogue, and the director ran with it. The ship, Lucy, likes her female captain less, but they avoid the jealousy trope by not having the ship get jealous when Ashmore’s character gets a girlfriend, and by giving her some girl chat mutual compliments moments with another female character, Clara. Those happen in season two, so it seems the writers made an effort to adapt the character dynamics in a positive way, which is one reason I love the show.

But since I had her on the panel, I brought up the gendering of artificial intelligences.

My main observation is that when you have an artificial intelligence that’s supposed to provide information or assistance to the human characters – who plays the human’s servant – the AI is typically voiced by a female, or otherwise gendered female. Lucy from the Killjoys is only one example – there’s also Romy from Andromeda, ship’s voices from star trek, hell, the maid in The Jetsons.

If it’s an AI who’s created to be some kind of enforcer – a police or soldier robot who’s intended to be obeyed by human characters – then the AI is voiced by a male. Examples include the combat droids in the Star Wars prequels, the I-robot AI’s, and the police bots from Chappy.

This is also a real-life phenomenon. Siri is voiced by a female. Most GPS devices are voiced by a female, though other voices are now available. Studies were done and they found that both men and women preferred a female voice.

In an aircraft, systems that provide information to the pilots typically have a female voice deliver that information. If a system needs to deliver an instruction that the pilots need to follow, the instruction is typically delivered in a male voice.

But it goes further than that. If an AI is supposed to be a character we sympathize with, if the writers are trying to make us see the character as human, and worthy of human rights, then the AI is gendered male. Examples – Data from Start Trek, the child AI from AI: Artificial Intelligence, Bicentennial Man, and the titular character from Chappy.

There’s less of the converse, but the example that bothers me the most is the AI from Ex Machina. Spoiler alert: I’m not sure if the writers intended to dehumanize the female AI character or not in turning her into a human murdering robot in the end. It feels like they were trying to warn the audience of the dangers of AI’s getting out of control, but what I saw was an AI reacting exactly as one might expect a severely abused woman suffering from PTSD might react when she’s reached a point of no longer being able to discern ally from abuser. I think that’s what the critics were picking up on when they said the ending felt muddled – it’s hard to tell who the sympathetic character was supposed to be.

Of course there are exceptions. C-3PO and Jarvis are gendered-male servant AIs. Cameron from the Sarah Connor Chronicles also breaks the mold, being a badass fighter robot with a female outward appearance, and the android from Dark Matter is a gendered-female android being humanized.

And you’ll hear the anti-SJWs whine that they’re machines, what does it matter what gender they’re made to look? Well queue my eye roll, because humans make the robots and the AI’s and it sure as hell matters to us. I always enjoy seeing stereotypes busted – it makes a story more interesting than seeing the same old same old all the time.

Book Review: The Operative: Gerald Brandt

The next installment in the San Angeles Trilogy – that one with the Final Fantasy VII style tiered city and dystopian cyberpunk setting. (Waiting for the part where the corporations bomb the support columns to drop one level on top of another and blame it on the freedom fighters…)

It starts with Kris having changed her name for privacy reasons. Mixing up the letters of your boyfriends last name to come up with your new last name Kris? Why don’t you just tattoo his name across your chest like all the other cool girls?

Anyway, she’s in training to be an operative for ACE now, the secret rebel group that’s trying to fight the corporations, when the training facility is attacked. I was glad to see the plot got more twisty after that, with Kris getting information leading her to doubt whether or not ACE was actually everything she’s been told it is.

All the while she’s got another survivor of the attack in tow who suffers from some pretty severe PTSD. I liked this character, and the fact that Kris gets to have some female companionship while she tries to track down her boyfriend.

Ian gets to be the damsel in distress for most of this book, and I’m willing to bet there’s going to be some whiney male readers who don’t like seeing a male love interest given treatment typically reserved for female love interests. Screw ’em though. Torture porn content warning.

Plot wise, The Operative I think did what it needed to do in a sequel. Book one had Kris just focused on not dying, and book two would have been boring if it was more of the same. Instead her goals get to expand to keeping her boyfriend from dying, and finding out the truth about ACE. The scope of impact of her actions grows too, from simply slipping out of the Corporations’ grasp, to doing some real damage.

This was more of the fast paced action of the last one. Trilogies usually go one way or the other – either each book gets better, or they peter out. This one is definitely getting better as it goes along. You can tell the author’s making an effort towards getting some diversity into it, even more so with book two than book one, and even in book one there were a number of female side characters and it wasn’t just a “Hey look, female protagonist” and then no other female character in the entire book like some books. Book two had a gay couple and several new female characters to replace the ones that didn’t make it to the end of book one. And the Chinese guy who was a background character in book one steps up into a main supporting role.

And it’s set up well for the sequel. I hope Kris gets to go to the space station or something; that would be cool. I wonder how many characters will still be alive at the end of book three!

Gearing Up for Keycon

I can usually only manage one con a year, and last year I hit When Words Collide in Calgary, but this year I’m broke, so hometown con again this year.

The good news is I’ve been emailing back and forth with the programming committee, pushing for more serious writing related programming. There was some talk of not wanting to get too technical and have the panels end up not being of interest to non-writers.  I pointed out that the two need not be mutually exclusive, one can have the fluff panels and fan panels for non writers, and the nitty gritty technical panels for the writers. I also mentioned that there have been complaints about there not being enough serious writing panels in previous years, as well as the amount of positive feedback programming committees have received in years when they have had a good amount of serious writing panels. They were easily convinced and literary paneling this year is looking fantastic.

So, the panels I will be on:

Religion and SF & F with Lindsay Kitson, Sherry Peters and Daria Patrie: From Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality to David Webber’s Honor Harrington Series, from Michael Carpenter in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files to Bobby Dollar in The Dirty Streets of Heaven, and many more novels, religion has played a key part in SF&F literature. What part does religion have in the world building process? How has religion been used as a central theme or as an allegory in SF&F? How are religions portrayed? Should writers and readers alike be concerned about cultural appropriation when some religions are used in a book?

Alternative Aviation in Science Fiction with Timothy Gwyn: From Autogyros to Zeppelins: a catalogue of unusual aircraft past, present and future. A look at the strengths and weaknesses of each, plus how much technology is needed to build them, and how well they fit into different sub-genres of SF. Examples from noteworthy fiction, and how they played a role in plot or worldbuilding. Do you need air transportation in the age of steam, or on an alien world? Alternative aviation may hold the answers you’re looking for. Remember: getting there is half the fun! (I’m not so much on this panel, as manning the projector and heckling.)

How to Edit Your Own Work, and Why You Need an Editor with Lindsay Kitson, J. Boone Dryden, Diane Walton and Daria Patrie: The trick to writing is re-writing. Our panelists will share a few tips on editing your own work, and will go over what an editor will do with your work. Also, is the editor always right? What happens if you disagree with your editor?

Point of View with Gerald Brandt, Melinda Friesen, Lindsay Kitson, and Daria Patrie: What writing point of view is most often found in SF&F literature and why? How does point of view change the narrative or style of the story? Is it more difficult to write a certain point of view?

Women in Speculative Fiction with Kelley Armstrong, Tamsen McDonough, Lindsay Kitson, and Van Kunder: Join our panelists as they explore how female characters have been portrayed in books and on film in the past and present, and how women have been involved in their respective fields over time. Is Speculative Fiction on the leading edge of equality? Or is there still a long way to go?

Critique Group Survival with Lindsay Kitson and Daria Patrie: So you’re ready to share what you’ve written with others and get feedback on it. How do you find a critique group? How do you know if you’ve got a good one? How do critiquing meetings go, and how to you contribute effectively? And when is it time to move on to a different group? Bonus content: How to start your own critique group!

Aviation and Believable Airships and Aircraft in Science Fiction with Timothy Gwyn and Lindsay Kitson:. An interactive session with two pilots who are also writers. Lindsay Kitson and Timothy Gwyn tackle the credible and incredible in aviation fact and fiction. Learn how getting aviation right can enhance your story. Some pointers on how to keep it real with aircraft and airship scenes that actually work. (This one’s going to be fun, and there will be at least one signed pre-release copy of Tim’s book, Avians, as a prize for whoever gets the most questions right!)

The timetable is tentative and incomplete so far, but this is the earliest I recall them ever  having it available before the con, so that bodes well for how organized they are this year. What they have so far can be viewed here. Looking over it, I can see some other panels already that I’d like to hit.

Looking forward to seeing everyone there!

Avians – Cover Reveal

You might recall I mentioned one of the members of my critique group was getting published, and I promised to post more when there were further developments. Well it’s getting closer to his publication date, and he’s got a cover reveal post on his blog right here. 

I read this in it’s infancy a few years ago, and while it needed work at that point – every novel does at that stage – I whipped through it as fast as I used to read authors like Lloyd Alexander and Monica Hughes. Actually, I think Monica Hughes would be the author I’d compare him to – YA, but with serious themes and without the preoccupation with romance that a lot of YA fiction with female focal point characters seems to feature these days.

And I can’t say 100% for sure that I didn’t read it that fast because it revolved around aviation, but that can’t have been the only factor, because I’ve picked up some other books revolving around aviation, and not devoured them that quickly. The characters and world are engaging and imaginative, the plot had a solid foundation, and meaningful themes. It pulled me in, even at the stage I saw it, and I look forward to seeing it again in it’s polished form.

If you like aviation and YA books, or if you have daughters you’d like to inspire with a book that’s about young girls having adventures and not obsessing over boys, check it out!

Also, Timothy will be at Keycon this coming May, as will I and my close friend Daria Patrie, who is a Master in Creative Writing, so come see our panels. I’ve been in touch with the programming committee and it sounds like the writing panels will be exceptional this year.

Taking The Plunge – New Job

My call centre job is one that pays decently well, so I’ve known for a long time that whenever I ended up getting a job in the aviation industry, it was going to be a pay cut, and a fairly massive one. Which is scary, with a lot of debt, but I’m very grateful that my Dad is in a position to help me out so I’m not afraid my husband and I will end up on the street or anything while I transition to a completely new industry.

So it’s scary, leaving my decent wage job for something minimum wage, and I wanted to wait until I’d passed all my tests before starting to search. Which I’ve done now.

Most pilots don’t get their first job in the industry flying. Usually they start by getting their foot in the door with a company by taking a job on the ground, typically either working the ramp, loading cargo, fueling planes, etc, or dispatching.

Apparently I interview well. Most of the time, if I an get an interview, I get the job. I was taught basic manners and stuff and that goes over well.

I put out a bunch of resume’s and after all of a week of searching, a friend passed my resume on to management at a local Medevac company, and they called me in for an interview for a position dispatching.

Now, at least in this setting, the dispatcher is kind of the central nervous system of the company, responsible for knowing where all the planes are at a given time, receiving estimated arrival times and passing them on to parties who need them, relaying details of trips to pilots and medics to send them on their way to pick up patients. A lot of responsibility for an entry level position.

I remember years ago, I was working back at EDS, another call centre, and a call came out for applications for a position within the project called “Incident Problem Management”. My manager suggested I apply.

I hadn’t even considered it. It didn’t sound like anything I was qualified to do, though I really didn’t have any clue what was involved. I was just a phone monkey – in no way whatsoever, did I think I had a chance at getting that position; for sure there was someone more qualified than me.

But they interviewed me and gave me the position. Now, in my head, they sat down in a room and went, “You know what? I think we should take a shot on Lindsay – give her a chance, what do you think?”

My friends, who have worked with me in the past told me the conversation likely went more like “Lindsay’s demonstrated she’s competent and doesn’t slack off, we want her.”

My duties turned out to be monitoring ticket queues and acting on patterns I saw that could indicate a major problem, and facilitating communication between departments in order resolve issues in the company’s IT environment as they arose.

I did do well, and when the company lost the project to a lower bidder and the position disappeared, I soon got a supervisor position in another project within the company based on my performance in the IPM position.

Fast forward to now, interviewing for the dispatcher position, which is a job with huge responsibility, despite being an entry level position. But I listened to the description of the job and realized, I can totally do this. In fact, I’m literally their ideal candidate, and when I described by previous job experience, I got the sense the manager interviewing me realized that too.

So I was offered the job on the spot, and now I’m dispatching for Sky North.

Writing About Aeroplanes: You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

I started writing stories about pilots before becoming an actual pilot myself, which is kind of an interesting contrast to Timothy Gwyn, who started writing after establishing a career in aviation. I imagine he didn’t make a lot of the silly mistakes I did.

Part of the problem is when you start researching planes and flying, there’s lots of talk about design, and neat things like, I learned early on how the radial engines gave way in design to the sleeker in-line positioning of the pistons to reduce drag, and I’d learned how many crew were needed in a Lancaster Bomber and what their positions were from when the Lanc visited Winnipeg last. But when it came to the basics, I had learned about the Bernoulli principle, and I understood the control surfaces and how they worked, that the rudder was controlled by pedals, while the elevator and ailerons were connected to the stick or control column.

That was…it.

So I go off on my merry way writing my novel, and then I bring it to a critique group where one member had got his private pilot’s licence many years before, and he pointed out some of my incorrect assumptions about how planes work.*

Oh. Well that is very helpful. It was one of those things, I just would never have thought to ask.

I tried to do more research, but I kept finding that the basics were hard to find resources on. The information online about aviation tends to be geared towards people who already know how to fly a plane and the info presented only builds on that. I could have looked up the answers to specific questions, but I didn’t know enough to know what questions to ask.

Fast forward to where I had decided I was seriously going to make a go of becoming a commercial pilot and I’m out at St. Andrews for my first ever flight, and we’re doing the walk-around, and my instructor is pointing out all the plane parts. I’m like, I can tell you all the things I know about airplanes – ok, propeller, fuselage, rudder, elevator, ailerons. That’s it. Oh, wheels! Yep, those are wheels.

Good job, she says, except those aren’t the ailerons, actually, those are the flaps.

The what? In all my reading about aeroplanes, this term had not come up. Or if it had, it wasn’t explained, and I just assumed it was some kind of auxiliary fancy thing that the big planes had. I’d been on jets, you know when you look out the windows at the wings and there’s these little squares that lift up on different parts of the wing?**

I had always intended to hunt down a pilot to help me edit my story, and it turned out I didn’t actually do that badly – fixing my mistakes didn’t break my novel’s plot, it was just touch-ups here and there.

But as a pilot now, the amount of knowledge I have to pour into a novel about pilots affects the type of stories I’m telling now. It’s not just a mode of transportation, or a mount to ride into combat anymore – they’re complex and I have a way more detailed understanding of how I can use these things to almost, but not quite kill my characters.

That and an understanding of the diversity of aircraft and features available, and enough knowledge to not put a feature on an aircraft that’s unrealistic. I mean, a Cessna 150 is not going to have autopilot installed. It is possible to have a plane without flaps, but I know enough not to make it a large one, and know what that means for the plane. I know the differences in ground handling between tricycle and conventional landing gear now and can throw that into a story, or simply portray it accurately. I know enough to describe accurately the characteristics of a good versus a bad landing.

I know what’s dangerous, and what seems dangerous but isn’t actually a big deal. Like, you see videos of WWII planes being started by hand-swinging the prop so often you’d think that wasn’t big deal, but that’s one of those things that kills people or takes limbs if you aren’t careful. Whereas, doing spins was something so easy to do and recover from, I was doing it in my first week of flying, and doing it solo in my first hundred hours with my instructor’s blessing, but it’s something that people think must be horribly dangerous.

There’s just so much to know about aviation, and I’m still a rookie low-hours pilot looking for my first job.

So how do you get that base level of knowledge if you want to write about pilots without becoming a pilot yourself. Well, there will be snobs who will say, just go get your private license, but not everyone has that kind of money kicking around.

One great way would be to take a ground school course. Most schools offer it in a classroom setting, but there are online versions as well – my school’s online ground school is Transport Canada approved. There are textbooks available too – the one my school uses is called “From The Ground Up”. It starts assuming no knowledge of aviation. There are others, and this one is specific for Canada, though that’s mainly only relevant for the air law side of things.

The other thing you can do that’s not horrifically expensive is most schools offer a “Discovery Flight”, which is just an introductory flight that goes over the basics, they take you up in the aeroplane and let you fly it, show you some of the basic maneuvers. There’s some real danger in going this route though – huge risk you might realize you love it and need to get your licence. Take precautions.***

On that note, I can confirm my attendance at Keycon this year. Timothey Gwyn will be there too, and I hope to do at least one panel covering a lot of these sort of topics for writers who might be interested in writing about aviation. Hope to see you there!

 

*Apparently, planes taxiing are propelled by their propellers, same as in the air – there’s no power transfer to the wheels to move them on the ground. Who knew.
**Ladies and gentlemen – those are spoilers. The flaps, incidentally, are the things that extend and curl downward in preparation for landing.
***Just kidding, do it, it’s amazing!

Multi-Instrument

Last year was a rough year. MIFR has taken a lot longer than I planned on it taking, and on the one hand I tend to be the first one to blame myself, but in truth, there’s been a lot of shit thrown in my way this year.

I’d been waiting for call volumes to go down and scheduling to be more flexible forever. At the beginning of the year I finally decided that I couldn’t keep waiting and hoping things at work would get better – I had to pick up flight training again, or I would never get out of my current job.

So I called up Harv’s Air and started sim training about once or twice a week. It was coming along, though my work schedule was  unrelenting, but my spirits were up because I was finally back to making progress.

And then I pulled into the parking lot at Harv’s and looked at my phone before I went in, and got the message that my Grandma was dying. I rushed back home to be there when she died. Her death hit me hard – it wasn’t like most people losing a grandparent – this Grandma was a parent to me.

I got all of three days bereavement leave off work and went straight back into sim training, and right away after, started my multi rating. We had weather, and we had plane maintenance, and I was exhausted with my schedule at work, and I was ready to pull back and take a break. I was far enough into my multi rating though that my instructor said it was a bad time to take a break. I made it through my multi flight test.

So next was some brushing up on IFR, and then back in the plane for multi-engine instrument training. There was more weather. Planes went down for maintenance. But I had vacation coming up, and that was when I was planning on doing the last big push to finish up.

My vacation came – Somewhere in there I wrote the instrument rating written test and passed it. But I was running out of time. I asked my work for more time off. Unpaid now. I got it, two weeks, in fact.

Then the first of the two multi-engine aircraft the school trains with went down for maintenance, not just for a fifty hour inspection – something had to be done with the engines that involved them being sent away for maintenance. Two months of downtime. Which meant all the students booking on the second plane. The second one at one point was also down for a week for other maintenance issues.

And we needed to get the IFR cross country trip done. lol…

Anyway, between my work schedule, weather, and plane maintenance, losing my Grandmother, among the biggest things but among a multitude of other stressors, I’ve been feeling very much like something just doesn’t want me to succeed. Like the end of the movie “The Labyrinth”, where David Bowie starts frantically sending everything he can to stop Sarah from making it the last little way to the castle.

Losing my Grandma affected me is ways I didn’t expect. But I was just less emotionally resilient than I normally am, and it made it harder to fight the inner voices one gets from having been a past victim of abuse. The fact that my work schedule isolated me from being able to spend time with the people I draw emotional support from made it worse.

But it’s not my instructor’s responsibility to be my therapist, and I did my best to not make excuses. I worked my way past it the only way I know how – stubbornly ploughing through head first.

I remember before I ever hopped into a plane to learn to fly, thinking about whether or not I was ready to do this. Because I was used to the way my life was – used to just never getting anything I want unless I’m ready to give it everything I’ve got and just refuse to give up.

I don’t know if it’s God, or the fates, or whatever, who’ve decided they don’t think I’ve been through enough, tried hard enough, worked hard enough, but I have something to say to them: I’m not the wilting teenager I once was that had so little confidence she would never have considered embarking on this journey in the first place. I look back on my teen age years and think, hell, I made it though that, I’ll make it through this too. If you want to break me, you’ll have to do better than this.

Multi-Engine Instrument test is done and passed.