It's been a while since I sent out a newsletter, but I'm back to bring you irregular updates on current scientific and historical discoveries, as well as my own work. Today, we've got a little bit of both.
The anniversary of 9/11, marking twenty years of the U.S. "war on terror," drowned out news of the latest salvo in another war -- the war on reproductive rights, whose kinetic force was felt keenly in Texas after the Supreme Court allowed a state law banning nearly all abortions to stand. What's unique about this law is that it essentially turns citizens into bounty hunters, allowing them to sue anyone who "aids" people seeking abortion more than six weeks after they've gotten pregnant. Successful suits will result in payouts of $10,000 or more. Essentially, Texas is creating a new army of mercenary surveillance troops, paid to spy on their neighbors' private medical procedures.
It's not the first time the struggle for reproductive rights has turned citizens into mercenaries. In my novel The Future of Another Timeline, I describe how the nineteenth century anti-birth control crusader Anthony Comstock perfected the "citizen's arrest" for obscenity. As Amy Werbel describes in her incredible book Lust on Trial, Comstock and his followers dragged more than one woman into New York police stations in the middle of abortions. They also arrested people who published information about birth control and abortion -- many of those people, including birth control educator Ida Craddock, killed themselves rather than face long prison sentences. My characters, time travelers from the present and future, are fighting to bend the timeline toward reproductive justice. But how do you win against a force of anonymous mercenaries, emboldened by laws designed to undermine the autonomy of women and pregnant people?
Above, a 1906 political cartoon from Puck magazine shows Comstock as a monk, quailing in terror before scantily dressed mannequins.
This isn't just a question faced by time travelers in fiction -- nor is it limited to struggles over reproductive rights. It's what activists in the U.S. have dealt with for centuries. As UC Irvine law professor Michele Goodwin pointed out on a recent episode of the podcast Amicus, bounty systems maintained the U.S. slave system too. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, southern states created gigs for slave catchers by offering lucrative bounties to anyone who kidnapped Black people in free states to deliver them back into enslavement. And in California during the same period, white settlers were given bounties for turning in the scalps of Indians they'd killed for the crime of crossing the ill-defined boundaries of reservations.
Paying citizens to oppress each other is how we do it in the United States, and therefore it's not much of a surprise that this tactic has returned with a vengeance in 2021.
I wrote The Future of Another Timeline in 2018 and published it in late 2019 -- at that time, it was becoming obvious that alt-right culture warriors were taking their fight out of subreddits and into Congress. Knowing that this war stretched back centuries, I wanted heroes who were linked across time, taking direct action in the twentieth century, the nineteenth century, the first century, and long before that. They had to use tactics that would reverberate across the culture, across millennia, challenging the actions of ordinary citizens as well as their leaders. If you want to find out how these activists used belly dancing, geology, and ancient priestesses to help their cause -- luckily, the e-book is on sale for $2.99 anywhere e-books are sold until the end of September!
Other stuff I'm up to ...
I recently wrote for the New York Times about how internet fandom is changing pop culture -- mostly for the better.
I write a regular monthly column for New Scientist (sadly behind a paywall for now!) and I was particularly excited about a recent one focused on whether we need a health warning label on social media -- this is an idea that Safia Umoja Noble and many others have advocated, and now the US surgeon general likes the idea too.
On the podcast I co-host with Charlie Jane Anders, Our Opinions Are Correct, we recently did a fascinating episode about how gender essentialism warped the scientific process, and changed science fiction too.
Things I'm obsessed with at the moment ...
I'm gobbling up the CBC podcast "This Place," hosted by Rosanna Deerchild and based on a graphic novel anthology, which explores 150 years of indigenous history in the region today known as Canada -- plus there's a peek at the future, too! A mix of storytelling and history, this series is emotionally intense, funny and thoughtful. A perfect companion to the utterly brilliant and hilarious streaming series Reservation Dogs, about a group of indigenous teens in Oklahoma, created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Watiti (folks in the States can watch it on Hulu).
I'm also finally watching everybody's favorite Canadian cult comedy Letterkenny. I can't believe this show exists. It is honestly one of the weirdest things I've ever watched, and that's a compliment.
I was honored to be one of the judges for this year's Otherwise Award, and I loved every single story that made the honor list. Like all the judges, I was absolutely blown away by the spellbinding winner, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki's “Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon." Check that out, as well as the honor list, in our jury statement. If you're looking for some kickass science fiction that deals with gender, I recommend picking a title from our honorees.