Nanotechnology Education and Gender in American Popular Culture. Kathleen Goonan’s "Queen City Jazz", Neal Stephenson’s "The Diamond Age" and Other Nanonarratives

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

27 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Towards a New Paideuma? Education and Female Scientists in Nanonarratives. An Introduction

2. General Notes regarding Nanonarratives and the Role of Women in Science Fiction
2.1 Nanotechnology and Science Fiction - a complex relationship
2.2 Women and Science Fiction - a short overview

3. Nanotechnology Education and Gender - An Analysis of Kathleen Goonan’s Queen City Jazz and Sunflowers, Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age and Michael Flynn’s Remember ’ d Kisses
3.1 Gender, Society and Culture - Analyzing the Pre-educational Circumstances
3.2 Pygmalion Revisited? Nanotechnology Education and Emancipation
3.3 Results of Nanotechnology Education: The Alien, the Sorceress and the Goddess

4. Conclusion. Of Gender, Love and Nanobots

5. Bibliography

1. Towards a New Paideuma? Education and Female Scientists in Nanonarratives. An Introduction

In his Guide to Kulchur (1938), the American poet Ezra Pound suggests a “new paideuma”, defining it as a “conscious renovation of learning”, which is using the ideas rooted in a certain period in order to create a “new civilization”. (Pound, 85.) With reference to Pound’s statement, the literary scholar Brooks Landon has rightfully indicated that science-fictional texts dealing with nanotechnology often try to imagine such an renewal of education by exploring the possibilities of new ways of learning through nanotechnology. (Landon, 141- 143.) Even Richard Feynman, the founding father of nanotechnology, has already hinted at this in his famous after-dinner speech There ’ s plenty of room at the bottom (1959) by mentioning the prospect of using this new science to write “the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin”. (Feynman, 130.)

What Brooks Landon does not notice is that the subjects who are going to be educated through nanotechnology in nanonarratives always seem to be female: In Michael Flynn’s short story Remember ’ d Kisses (1988) a drug-addicted beggar woman is turned into the protagonist’s dead wife, receiving her intelligence along with her personality by taking mysterious pills. (RK, 58-98.) Similarly, in Kathleen Ann Goonan’s short story Sunflowers (1995) a little girl and her mother both equipped with nanotechnology enhancing their brain functions are affected by a nanotechnology virus that alters their sense of time. (SF, 117-152.) Often, the goal of nanotechnology education in those stories seems to be for the female pupils to become scientists able to deal with nanotechnology. In Neal Stephenson’s novel Diamond Age (1995) and in Kathleen Ann Goonan’s first novel out of her Nanotech Quartet Series, Queen City Jazz (1994), there is a lot of evidence that the heroines are going to change the future of the envisioned civilizations by using their ability to handle nanotechnological devices. (DA, 463. QCJ, 462-463.)

Understanding gender - like Judith Butler - not as a “kind of being” that is “responsible for certain kinds of behavior” but as a performative act defining womanliness and manliness, I will try to find out, why women are always linked with nanotechnology education in popular culture. (Butler 1989, 258.)1 By concentrating mainly on the novels Queen City Jazz and Diamond Age - but also including the two short stories by Flynn and Goonan mentioned above in the analysis - this research paper’s focus lies not only on the way in which the female pupils are educated, but also on how womanliness is defined and connected with nanotechnology. However, in order to be able to analyze in what way the notion of gender is connected with nanonarratives, it is important to define the special characteristics of science fiction dealing with nanotechnology and to describe the role, which women play in this traditionally masculine genre.

2. General Notes regarding Nanonarratives and the Role of Women in Science Fiction

2.1 Nanotechnology and Science Fiction - a complex relationship

Nanotechnology is a term whose definition is not as easy as it looks on the first sight. Although the prefix ‘nano’ just refers to the scale of the materials with which this new science deals - one billionth of a meter - there are two different main approaches to nanotechnology. (Hayles 2004, 11.) The top-down approach - taking small nanoparts in order to create something as done in photolithography - is already possible, contributing to different kinds of industries. The bottom-up approach on the other hand - self-assembling devices such as nanomachines that could be programmed to split and put together molecules and therefore could let us built everything we want - is a technology that has yet to be developed. (Bhushan, 401.)

Especially the latter definition of nanotechnology contributes significantly to the status of this new science as a “potent cultural signifier”. (Hayles 2004, 11.) Since Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation (1986) - in which the scientist depicts a “future of wonders” where eternal life and the end of world-hunger will be possible through nanotechnology - the descriptions of nanorobots in scientific texts are strongly connected with visionary, utopian imaginations. For the first time in human history, a technology promises humans to dominate the material world by becoming its master-builders. (Drexler, 221.) With the intention of “[b]ridging the gap” between the fact of the not yet achieved creation of self-replicating assemblers and the hopeful conjunction of possibilities connected with these nanomachines, many scientific texts about nanotechnology use strategies similar to science-fiction novels. In order to hide the fact that the bottom-up approach to nanotechnology is considered impossible by many researchers, they often imagine the consequences of the nanotechnological revolution in length and present them as unavoidable, instead of concentrating on the scientific progress, which has yet to be made. (Lopéz, 129. Milburn 2004, 110-113.) Regarding the multitude of potential applications of nanotechnology, it is not surprising that many science-fiction novels and movies - especially in the 1990s - have started to deal with this new science, too. Like the nanowritings of scientific researchers, these products of popular culture try to look beyond the “singularity” - described by the scientist and science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge as a radical change of civilization and the human condition triggered by a new scientific development that fundamentally alters reality, as we know it. (Vinge, Web.) By using what Colin Milburn has called “Nanovision”, these novels, movies and short stories envision the future after the “blind spot” of the nanotechnological revolution. They compare this new era with the “technological present”, thus creating an impression of a „participatory evolution of ‘becoming’.“ (Milburn 2008, 13-14.) The increasing risk consciousness of modern societies - which the sociologist Ulrich Beck has pointed out in his book Risikogesellschaft (1986) - not only implies the shifting of authority in matters of science from the actual researchers to governments or mass media, but also leads to a notion of responsibility in nanonarratives, which describe the potential as well as the dangers connected with nanotechnology. (Beck, 6-7.) The latter are especially associated with ‘gray-goo’ scenarios - as described in Crichton’s novel Prey -, in which the world is consumed by self-replicating assemblers. (Marshall, 147-154.) Connected with the already mentioned possibility of enhancing human intelligence, the posthuman is a recurring topic in these texts, as nanorobots - according to Drexler - can “change [people’s] […] bodies in ways that range from the trivial to the amazing to the bizarre”. (Drexler, 296.) “Nanologic” - a term that Milburn has coined - blurs the boundaries between biological and technological matter, especially because nanotechnology in science fiction texts naturally includes the insertion of nanomachines in the ‘cyborgian’ body. But “nanologic” does not only question the notion of identity by making never-thought-of transformations possible, but also by envisioning the building of the exact same human in a more exact way than cloning, thus making the definition of what makes the personality ‘special’ a whole lot more complex. (Milburn 2004, 123-128.) Similar to the posthuman, which was already a popular theme before the advent of nanotechnological science fiction - but in another way, as the former promising technology of ‘virtual reality’ for example implied a new human being that consisted entirely out of information or data - other important topics of science fiction also play a great role in nanonarratives, slightly altered according to the new possibilities of nanotechnology. (Hollinger, 268-269.) However, not only old-time fantasies of science fiction - such as first contact stories or dreams of technological transcendence - reoccur in these prose texts dealing with nanotechnology. (Landon, 134-5.) Well-known notions of women in science fiction novels and short stories of the 19th and 20th century equally influence the way in which the female characters are presented in these nanonarratives.

2.2 Women and Science Fiction - a short overview

As William Bainbridge states in the article Women in Science Fiction, published in 1982, science fiction has traditionally been a “male literary subculture”. (Bainbridge, 1081.) Although the battle of sexes was always an important topic, women in science fiction narratives were generally depicted as inferior to the other sex. The victory of the male hero has always been presented as “a victory of nature, and so the battle may be won without intelligence, character, humanity, humility, foresight, courage, planning, sense, technology or even responsibility.” (Russ, 2.) Especially roles - such as the powerful female ruler or scientist - that did not befit the female stereotypes were depicted as problematic in these science fiction texts. (Russ, 2. Roberts, R. 2000, 279-280.) A change of science fiction’s notions of gender occurred with the rise of feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. Women like Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ursula Le Guin, Doris Lessing or Joanna Russ began to write feminist utopias and dystopias, in order to express feminist values - such as hatred of war, the belief in intimate bonds with nature or the rejection of the traditional male hero. (Donawerth, 218-9. Aisenberg, 159-186.) According to the critic Charles Platt, the emphasis on human values and the absence of the technological background in feminist science fiction has led to a Rape of Science Fiction (1989). His complaints about a ‘softening’ influence of women in this field show how negative this female intrusion in a traditionally male genre was viewed by many. (Larbalestier, 169.) With postmodernism’s denial of any natural essence of self, however, gender was increasingly considered as a construction, altering the idea of maleness or femaleness in science fiction once again. (Donawerth, 220-1) Since Donna Haraway’s Manifesto for Cyborgs (1985) - in which the researcher describes a dream about a post- gender world filled with cyborgs of many different sexes beyond the simple differentiation between male and female - transgender figures as the cyborg, the transvestite or the androgyne have played a greater role in science fiction. (Haraway, Web. Donawerth, 221.) The success of feminist narratives also has lead to an increasing appearance of individual heroines in popular culture of the 1980s and 1990s in general. Women only presented as objects of men have been replaced by strong female characters with masculine features - e.g. in science fiction movies like Alien (1979) or Terminator (1984). (Helford, 293-296.)These developments towards a more feminine coinage of the science fiction genre surely are partially responsible for the frequent appearance of heroines in nanonarratives in the 1990s. But as ideas of sex as a natural, biological fact clearly have not disappeared by the end of the twentieth century - Lee Heller even speaks about a heterosexual crisis through which the essential difference between ‘Men from Mars’ and ‘Women from Venus’ has been rehabilitated - the following chapters try to analyze the role of female pupils in science fiction stories centered around the topic of nanotechnology education. (Heller, 227-230.)

3. Nanotechnology Education and Gender - An Analysis of Kathleen Goonan’s Queen City Jazz and Sunflowers, Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age and Michael Flynn’s Remember ’ d Kisses

3.1 Gender, Society and Culture - Analyzing the Pre-educational Circumstances

In their book Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (1977) Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron emphasize the fact that education reproduces values and ideas from the cultural and social system to which the individual institutions responsible for teaching belong to, thus underlining the deep connection between culture, society and education. (Bourdieu, Passeron.) Due to this interdependence, it seems necessary to analyze the structure of the mainly futuristic societies and the heroines’ place in it. Taking the importance of pre-school “socialization patterns” - especially analyzed by anthropologists of education since the 1960s - into consideration, this chapter focuses especially on the social circumstances of the heroines before the start of the nanotechnology education, in order to get an idea, why the writers of the science-fiction scenarios chose to make their pupil a female one. (Heath, 62.)

Starting with Stephenson’s Diamond Age, the story takes place in the 21th century in a post- singularity scenario, where nanotechnology has become the dominant technology: After the breakdown of nation-states, the futuristic society in Diamond Age is now divided in different tribes, also called phyles. (DA, 272-273.) The member of these phyles - a term reminding of ‘files’, a method for the categorization of information - are not determined by their belonging to a certain territory, but by ethnic, ideological, religious or racial factors. (Ryan, 332.) With Nippon, referring to the Japanese, Han, consisting of Chinese people, and New Atlantis - so- called Neo-Victorians, who orient themselves towards the morals and practices of the British society in the 19th century - being the three largest phyles, the futuristic society obviously has many problems, despite the advantages of being able to use nanotechnology. (DA, 321.) The Feed - a system producing resources through nanotechnological devices - is rigidly controlled by the Victorian phyle, which is leading to an extreme inequality of wealth distribution. Echoing the relationship between Chinese and British in times of colonialism, especially the Chinese Han Celestial Kingdom is exploited by the Feed. (DA, 456-458) Not arbitrarily is the setting of Diamond Age around Shanghai, where the Coastal Republic’s territories acclaimed by the Victorians remind the reader of this historical allusion to the late 19th century. (Brigg, 117.) As indicated above, the past generally plays a great role in Stephenson’s Diamond Age. Whereas the Han rely largely on the philosophy of Confucianism, i.e. a philosophy right out of the 5th century BC, with its values such as personal and governmental morality; the New Atlantis phyle copies the social structure of Victorian society - with its lords, ladies and gentlemen - as well as the behavior and manner of speech of this period. (Brigg, 119, 123.) Not surprisingly, these various links to former times in Diamond Age, also affect the notion of gender in the society described in the novel: As the female Neo-Victorians in the novel - e.g. Mrs. Hackworth or Mrs. Matheson - are either teachers or unemployed house-wives, the reader is led to assume that the role of women in New Atlantis is very similar to the actual Victorian Age and mainly restricted to these areas of ‘profession’. (DA, 34-35, 263-264. Gilmour 1993, 188-9.) Moreover, the Chinese people in Diamond Age even top this patriarchic practice by assuming the general worthlessness of girls - underlined by the fact that a quarter of a million girls are abandoned by their families. (DA, 168-169.) The selection of little female pupils as the main object of nanotechnology education in the novel thus serves to mark the specialty of the project in this patriarchic society. Created by the Neo-Victorian Hackworth and Equity Lord Finkle-McGraw, the educational device called the Primer - a wondrous adaptive interactive book made possible through nanotechnology - has the goal to produce subversive thinking in the New Atlantis phyle. Yet, the only ones who definitely already had this perspective - i.e. “interesting lives” - before the project are obviously Neo-Victorian males. Therefore, the fact that the Primer is only entrusted to little girls of thete, Neo-Victorians or Chinese origin actually stresses the innovative quality of the interactive book. (DA, 18-25, 81-83.) The pre-educational circumstances of the female main character additionally hint at other ways to understand this strictly gendered nanotechnology education. Obviously in order to prove the main thesis of the Diamond Age - i.e. that it is wrong to believe that “all the human mind could accomplish […] [is] determined by genetic factors”, but that “cultural factors” are the ones that really matter - the most successful owner of a Primer is not only a child, born from a criminal and a morally dubious women named Tequila, but also a girl and therefore literally the ‘lowest of the lowest’. (DA, 321, 1.) But this is not the only interpretation worth noticing: The name ‘Nell’ - a clear reference to Dickens’ novel The Old Curiousity Shop (1840), in which the heroine Nell Trent, an angelic, good-natured girl, dies because of the hardships due to her miserable financial situation - makes the reader wonder, what would have become of the little girl, if she had not received the Primer. (Dickens, Web.) Nell, raised in the Leased Territories - a territory resembling modern slums - is a thete, i.e. not a member of any phyle, and unlike Fiona Hackworth or Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw she clearly does not grow up in a protected environment, but in a ‘Darwinian world’ where physical strength and survival skills are still important. Whereas her father Bud, a “caricature to masculinity and aggression” (Kendrick 67. DA, 3-7, 25-33.) and Harv, Nell’s brother, manage to get by resorting to violence, (DA, 97-105.) the little, defenseless girl is already object to physical abuse and sexual harassment by her mother’s boyfriends (DA, 46, 68.). With the Primer being the only way out of this nightmarish childhood, preventing the prospect to become like Tequila in the future - a maid depending on a number of abusive and criminal men - Diamond Age therefore uses the stereotype of the helpless needy woman, in order to stress the positive features of nanotechnology education, making it possible for Nell to escape a terrible future. Interestingly, this pattern reoccurs in most of the texts analyzed in this paper.

Accordingly, the reason for the gendering of nanotechnology education in Flynn’s short story Remember ’ d Kisses seems to be a very similar one: Although the setting - New York of the 1980s - is a present-day scenario, where women obviously actually are able to achieve higher positions, the female pupil of the scientist Henry Carter is anything but a successful careerist. (RK, 63.) The bag lady chosen for the educational project is attacked by three young males in her first appearance, and as pitiful as a human being can be: Heroine-addicted, stinking of “sweat and booze and excrement”, lingering around in “Hell’s Kitchen” and even unable to utter a single sentence, Sadie the Lady is the embodiment of female helplessness in every respect. (RK, 66-67.) However, whereas the scientific experiment of nanotechnology education in Diamond Age is definitely positively connoted, in Remember ’ d Kisses, the same female stereotype renders the educational project at least partly dubious, exactly due to this lack of free will of the pupil in the pre-educational state. Goonan’s short story Sunflowers, stresses this ambiguity even more, as the focus of brain-altering through nanotechnology lies on the three year-old Claire, who is the victim of the attack “in the name of the Republic of New Hong Kong” by a women that is obviously herself a casualty, having been forced to live on an “experimental dumping ground.” (SF, 120-123.) The reasons behind the fact that nanotechnology education is reserved for females in Goonan’s novel Queen City Jazz - however - are again more complex, thus resembling Stephenson’s Diamond Age. Set in a definitely post-simularity America after the collapse of the golden era of nanotechnology, the remnants of nanotechnology still affect everybody’s live - especially in the so-called Flower Cities like Cincinnati, the Queen City. (QCJ, 341-345, 358-386.)


1 In the Preface to Gender Trouble Butler explains the complex term of performativity, the ‘doing of gender’. (Butler 1999, pp. xiv-xv.)

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Nanotechnology Education and Gender in American Popular Culture. Kathleen Goonan’s "Queen City Jazz", Neal Stephenson’s "The Diamond Age" and Other Nanonarratives
University of Bayreuth
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nanotechnology, education, gender, american, popular, culture, kathleen, goonan’s, queen, city, jazz, neal, stephenson’s, diamond, other, nanonarratives, analysis
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Carola Katharina Bauer (Author), 2010, Nanotechnology Education and Gender in American Popular Culture. Kathleen Goonan’s "Queen City Jazz", Neal Stephenson’s "The Diamond Age" and Other Nanonarratives, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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