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Dec 12, 2013
Alex Dally MacFarlane

10 Books That Influenced Me

There’s a fun meme on Facebook at the moment: list the 10 books that have most influenced you, the 10 that first come to mind not the list of 10 you might carefully craft to show the world. I’ve variously seen it as the books that specifically influenced you as a writer, or more generally influenced you as a person. My list is a mixture of both approaches.

10 Books That Influenced Me

1. Enid Blyton – The Famous Five

The whole series, not just the first book. It was my first(?) introduction to the idea that a girl could want people to think she’s a boy, which had a huge impact on me in a wide variety of ways. I’ll summarise it as: I am called Alex, not Alexandra, because of George.

2. Lylat Wars (for the Nintendo 64)

It’s not a book, but rules are for breaking. I can’t talk about influences on me as a writer or a person without mentioning this game! (Called Starfox 64 in non-European territories.) It’s what started me writing, before I ever saw the word “fanfiction” – I discovered the internet a year or two later and was delighted to find other people writing stories about Starfox. It’s key to my love of science fiction. It’s also one of the fox-related narratives I adored as a child, which has had obvious consequences for my fiction and poetry.

Then, in my teens, I started to lose interest in fantasy or science fiction. I’d go to that section in the bookstore and be utterly bored by everything I noticed, which was dominated by things like Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind and other names. The backs of their books bored me so much. (I never even liked Tolkien! That kind of fantasy has never been my idea of fun, and that’s all I was seeing.)

Around 2006, I stumbled across some interesting writers.

3. Andreas Eschbach – The Carpet Makers
4. KJ Bishop – The Etched City
5. Catherynne M Valente – Yume no Hon
6. China Miéville – The Scar
7. Nalo Hopkinson – Midnight Robber

Thanks to them, I started writing fantasy and science fiction again. It could be weird, beautiful, thought-provoking; it could be about things beyond the Tolkien-style fantasies or Star Wars.

I also expanded my limited literary reading into work that ignores the literary/SFF boundary that a lot of people are fond of, that stands with its feet in many genres. Of these books, the most memorable I’ve read remains the following, but there are others I could name.

8. Milorad Pavić – Dictionary of the Khazars

Aside from Anne McCaffrey, I’ve read very little older science fiction and fantasy, which included Le Guin until fairly recently.

9. Ursula K Le Guin – The Wild Girls
10. Ursula K Le Guin – Always Coming Home

The Wild Girls is, of course, quite a recent work of hers, but it prompted me to read more. It is such a perfect, beautiful, angry, cutting story. Meanwhile, Always Coming Home is the construction of a huge body of cultural output from a group of people in a post-apocalyptic near-future: poetry, plays, prose, histories. It’s affected what I want to do with the Tuvicen stories and poems I’m gradually assembling.

Dec 9, 2013
Alex Dally MacFarlane

JOY!

Directed by an email, I logged into student records late last week to find the following:

MA-distinction

A sequence of happy gifs would not do it justice. I am happy beyond gifs. I worked very hard and, after seeing the preliminary mark for my dissertation – a merit – I feared I would not get a distinction. My dissertation is indeed a merit (a good one), but all three of my coursework modules are distinctions. COURSEWORK VICTOR.

I got an average of 76 for Alexander’s Afterlife, which makes me want to see the essay-by-essay breakdown. (Fellow UK students will know why that’s quite good.) I got a 70 for S&M – no, not that S&M, calm down, it stands for Sources & Methods – which means my personal reception of Psáppho essay must have got quite a good distinction, or that the one I wrote in two days and finished at 4am on the extended deadline was not as terrible as I thought at 4am. Or both. (I never had the courage to look at the preliminary mark for that one. I am not a good academic writer at speed, but I am perhaps not a terrible one.) I don’t have an average for the Ancient Near East module yet because it was done at UCL, not KCL, but my lowest preliminary mark was 68 and my highest 77 (for the essay on elite Neo-Assyrian women’s roles in the textile industry, whee!), so it’s going to be around 73 or so?

I did well.

I will raise every glass of Champagne/sparkling wine over the holiday period to this distinction.

Dec 2, 2013
Alex Dally MacFarlane

Sale of “Because I Prayed This Word”

I am so pleased to say that my story “Because I Prayed This Word” has sold to Strange Horizons, to be published in early 2014.

“Because I Prayed This Word” takes its title from Anne Carson’s translation of Psáppho’s fragment 22. The word is: I want. It is about (reception of) Psáppho and much more. I wanted to write about some texts I read while working on my MA, for an essay about personal reception of Psáppho and for personal interest. There is so much literature about love between women in history! Try to define that love, try to determine if genitals ever touched, and you completely miss the point. So much love! I’ll write a longer post about its sources (with bibliography) when the story is out, but for now: so happy.

Another reason to be happy is that it will appear for free online: more accessible. At the amazing “Better History = Better Fantasy: Writing Outside the Binary” panel I ran at Nine Worlds, panellist Hel Gurney talked about the importance of making queer history accessible, when so much of it is locked away in journals and expensive books – or un-researched. (Like Hel, I really need to write up thoughts from that panel!) I hope that “Because I Prayed This Word” introduces people to literatures and women they might not otherwise have known.

Nov 29, 2013
Alex Dally MacFarlane

Diversity in SFF Magazines

This evening on Twitter there was a lengthy discussion about diversity in SFF magazines, the SFWA raise of the minimum qualifying payment to 6c/word, percentages of diversity, editorial practice and more! The people involved included Sabrina Vourvoulias, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Sean Wallace and me. I assembled a storify of it because it got rather long and a lot of people wanted to be able to read it.

This is a relevant time for me to link to a post I wrote about editing Aliens: Recent Encounters, where I said the following:

This cannot be a passive act. An editor cannot sit at their desk and say “Oh, I hope I get lots of diverse stories!” and wait for them to appear. Not all authors see calls for submissions, not all authors think their stories are appropriate or good enough, not all authors are sure the editor is interested in their kind of work. (Some editors aren’t interested in true diversity, despite statements to the contrary.) …the only way to get a diverse set of stories in an anthology is to have a large, diverse pool of authors and stories to sift through, and the only way to get that is to work.

I do not think the 6c/word rate is going to change the diversity situation in SFF magazines. I think the situation will continue as it has been: slowly improving. I think it is important to pay diverse writers as much as possible. I think the key issue is – as it has been – editorial choices.

Nov 26, 2013
Alex Dally MacFarlane

there’s a room where the light won’t find you

I got bored and downloaded Instagram. It’s really fun! There are so many filters and I find (you may disagree) that they give low quality tablet photography a certain charm. So far I’ve taken photos of (1) the stack of contributor copies I received in 2013 (2) the view from my window this evening, when the sky stained the estuary water pink at the shore (3) amazing fox paperclips I bought in Brighton during WFC (4) reaching 40,000 words of edited still-titleless YA novel. Another 10,000 words remain to be achieved in the next 4 days, which will not mark the end of editing (the novel is about 60,000 words) but a significant milestone. I’d like it to be done in the near future so I can shift to other projects. I’d like to give it a title. I need to go through the Turkmen women’s folksongs again for something a little less cumbersome than “Selin That Has Grown In The Desert”, the name of the story from which this novel grew.

contributor-copies

thames-estuary-sunset

fox-paperclips

nanowrimo-40k

Nov 17, 2013
Alex Dally MacFarlane

WFC2013 and Harassment

Twitter was alive before World Fantasy Convention 2013 with disappointment, unhappy amusement and anger at the emails sent by the convention committee to attendees, which can best be categorised as patronising and thoughtless, summarising badly thought-out policies: £75 for a replacement badge (they were not made of gold or the feathers of a mythical mountain bird), £5 for a Kaffeeklatsch to pay for the biscuits (a whole packet of nice M&S biscuits is not even that much), a very minimal statement about harassment. The latter of these is, obviously, a lot less absurd and a lot more worrying, although the classism inherent in the first two is not to be overlooked. Post-convention refunds for the Kaffeeklatsches are all well and good, but that refund was not adequately advertised before the convention, so many people did not bother signing up (and some authors opted out on principle – not even they knew the refund was forthcoming). PS: I am not voting for your convention book that was so pointlessly heavy that I didn’t bring it home. (Yes, in their latest email, they asked for award nominations/votes for their book. Really now.)

I want to talk specifically about the harassment part of WFC2013′s failures, because they’ve sent out a post-convention email and it is appalling.

Here is the relevant quote in full:

“Regrettably, we learned of one small harassment incident that occurred on the Saturday night when an extremely drunken fan made a nuisance of himself in the hotel Lobby. Unfortunately, he was not reported to either of the professional Security guards who were on duty at the time or any member of the con committee. As a result, by the time we had found out about the incident and ascertained the details, the individual concerned (who was not attending the Awards Banquet) had apparently already left the convention. The person affected did not wish to pursue the matter with either the hotel or the police and, for legal reasons, we cannot publicly identify the individual responsible. However, after full consultation with the Hilton management and our Security team, we have passed the name of the nuisance-maker on to the organisers of next year’s World Fantasy Convention, who will decide on any appropriate action to take.”

Let’s take that to pieces.

“one small harassment incident”

I am not happy to see any harassment described as “small”, as it makes it sound like it is not a big deal. The only person who can determine whether it is/isn’t a big deal is the person harassed. How hard is it to write “a harassment incident”.

“an extremely drunken fan made a nuisance of himself in the hotel Lobby”

1. Why is his drunkenness relevant? Many people got drunk at WFC2013, despite the price of drinks in the bar, and the vast majority did not harass anyone. Drunkenness is a behaviour, not a force of nature, not ever a reason – an excuse – for harassment or any other harmful behaviour. The only reason it is brought up in discussions of harassment is to in some way explain – ie: excuse – events.

2. The word “harassment” has been dropped in favour of “nuisance”. Someone making a nuisance of themselves while drunk is someone, I don’t know, singing harmless songs loudly in the corridor: annoying, but not a huge deal. Harassment is never a “nuisance”, it is harassment. Call it harassment. Always.

“Unfortunately, he was not reported to either of the professional Security guards who were on duty at the time or any member of the con committee.”

1. I am not the only person at WFC2013 who didn’t even notice that there were security staff in the lobby. I saw volunteers during the daytime, providing very helpful guidance through the clusterfuck of a badly signposted hotel, but I never noted security staff. If I had been harassed, how would I have known to go to security?

2. More importantly, someone who has been harassed should not be obliged to report their harassment immediately. Their number one priority is probably going to be their safety, which probably entails getting out of there a.s.a.p. Whatever their personal priority is, that is their priority and they should not be shamed for doing it.

3. Someone who has been harassed should be given support if they choose to report, whenever that is. Note the “if” and the “when”. It can take time to decide to report, because reporting is stressful: it involves being blamed for what happened; being told the harasser was drunk and made a nuisance of himself, nothing more. It involves recounting the incident multiple times. Many people do not report harassment and they should not ever be shamed for this. If it takes time for someone to decide to report, they should not ever be shamed for this.

It is not unfortunate that someone did not report their harassment immediately. It is unfortunate that they were harassed.

It is unfortunate that this email from WFC2013 – hopefully unintentionally – acts as if not reporting immediately is something they did wrong. Intent, however, has little relation with consequence. The WFC2013 email is upsetting and unsupportive.

“we have passed the name of the nuisance-maker”

Fuck off.

The words you’re looking for are “the harasser”.

We then come to the issue of the “one” in “one small harassment incident”, as I heard on twitter shortly after WFC2013 that there had been three incidents of harassment. To quote @LR_Lam on twitter today:

More important information comes from Cheryl Morgan, who has written a lengthy post about the running of World Fantasy Conventions, including specific reporting from WFC2013. The comments are worth reading for even more information. In it Cheryl reports that the WFC2013 twitter account posted on Sunday Correction: it was posted on the display boards in the lobby:

“It’s Sunday. No one has lost their badge and no one has been harassed.”

Not only is this infantile passive aggressive bullshit, but it’s factually wrong. People reported harassment on Saturday night.

Even if no one had reported by Sunday morning, it’s awful to say that, because what about anyone harassed and still considering reporting? That is not a lot of time to make that decision. What about anyone harassed who never reports? Their experience should not be erased by assuming it doesn’t exist.

Blithe updates and dismissive official emails indicate little to no compassion for people who have been harassed at WFC2013. That is exactly the kind of environment in which people do not report harassment – and harassers know they are safe to harass. They know that harassment is not a serious issue for the people running the con. They know that the reports that are made will be minimised to a single report in the official email. Whatever the intent of the person who wrote that display board update and the person(s) who wrote that email, the consequences are this: WFC2013 was more safe for harassers than people who were harassed. This is not a proud legacy. This is not a safe legacy. This continues after WFC2013 finished, as anyone harassed at WFC2013 who reads that email – people who reported, people who did not – will know who is safe and who is not.

I want an apology from WFC2013 and a statement that all future World Fantasy Conventions will be run with the safety of attendees as a major priority. (Also: ACCESSIBILITY.) Look to Readercon as an example. It’s not fucking difficult, the only reason not to do it is that you don’t give a shit.

Nov 11, 2013
Alex Dally MacFarlane

Secret Histories and real history

A few days before WFC, I went to a panel hosted by The Kitschies about Secret Histories, with Tim Powers, Kate Griffin and Lavie Tidhar speaking. It was a fun evening, well worth the slight slog on trains disrupted by the previous night’s storm. (I want to take a brief moment to note that the storm was called St Jude, after the patron saint of lost causes. Meanwhile, the Scots named their storm last year Hurricane Bawbag. The English: “fancy way of expressing our misery”, the Scots: “aw, balls”. I like this island.) Errant branches and heavy rain conquered, I secured a chair and listened to the conversation.

There was plenty of discussion about historical research methods, the interest in alternate/secret histories, the fun in making the “secret” parts of history (ie: created) seem real, and so on.

My favourite remark came from Lavie Tidhar, who raised the point that a lot of real history is “secret” for a variety of reasons, and that rather than create history, he’d rather make real history more real. An unexpected example is that, when researching Hitler, he discovered that Hitler had received manuscript rejections when submitting Mein Kampf. It’s the kind of fact that you don’t really know what to with it! (Well, if you’re Lavie, you do: you write about it.) History is far weirder than fiction, a lot of the time. Far vaster, too.

There are many parts of history that remain widely unknown and that would make an excellent basis of a story or poem or novel, which has been my driving interest when writing historical fiction. (Fittingly, I’m currently using NaNoWriMo as an incentive to rewrite the 19thC Turkmen YA novel – and it’s working! In a week I’ve edited 15,000 words, which is about a quarter of the novel.) It’s not that I’m opposed to the alternate/secret history approach, but that I’m far more interested in historical fiction that attempts to tackle the question of “real” history. This is usually very difficult, given the limitations of surviving sources. Nicola Griffith’s new novel Hild, out tomorrow, and which I highly recommend, fills in many gaps around the figure of Hild. (It’s brilliant women-centric historical fiction. I loved it.) When I write about the relationship between people and foxes about 16,500 years ago, I have only burial remains to go on. When I write about 19thC Turkmen women, the closest I can get to their voices is a book of translations of slightly later written recordings of their folksongs.

Talking about the “real” in history is incredibly difficult, and there are many possible ways for historical fiction to approach the “real”. All we can ever do is give a voice to the past – giving, rather than receiving – as I’ve discussed before and done in poetry and prose. My interest in how we do this continues to grow.

Anyway, it was a good panel, and having really enjoyed Lavie Tidhar’s historical-inspired story “Dark Continents” in the excellent post-colonial SFF anthology We See A Different Frontier – as well as what he said on the panel – I’m now very curious about his new novel The Violent Century and how approaches the “real”. And how other writers do it. (Nicola Griffith’s Hild. I can’t recommend it enough.)

Nov 4, 2013
Alex Dally MacFarlane

World Fantasy Con 2013

I was at WFC 2013 this weekend and had a fantastic time, in spite of rather than because of the con program. The panel descriptions were laughably basic: Style vs story? Should YA books have sex and other naughty things in them? Ebooks are rather new aren’t they? Women write fantasy?? I assume that some panellists ignored the descriptions and had worthwhile discussions, but I couldn’t be bothered finding out the hard way which ones didn’t. I did go to a few readings: Delia Sherman, Genevieve Valentine and Rochita Roenen-Ruiz. All were delightful, especially Genevieve’s story of bugs and tattoos and a sister lost in the desert. I can’t wait to read the rest when it’s on Tor.com next April.

I spent the rest of my time talking to friends and good people, too many to name. Lots of good food too (I particularly recommend Street Thai omgyes).

And there were books!

WFC2013-books

Five free, four purchased. I also got the China Miéville chapbook, which I forgot to add to the small book tower, and a sampler for Sarah Lotz’s The Three.

I’m really looking forward to reading Shimon Adaf’s Sunburnt Faces after getting the chance to talk to him at WFC (and if you missed me mentioning it last week, I do recommend his conversation with Lavie Tidhar at Strange Horizons), as well as Jonathan Oliver’s pleasingly diverse anthology End of the Road.

Then there was the art room, which had some of the usual titties-and-spaceships of convention art rooms, but also had an art installation by Tessa Farmer that was just stunning. Bees hanging on see-through wire, tiny ant-human skeletons riding them, riding seahorses, riding a lizard-skin, climbing over bone-shell-wing-conglomerates and brandishing seeds. All hanging. Moving with the breath of its viewers. I went back to it several times. I showed it to Tessa Kum, who has shared this photo of it, which is just a small glimpse of its wonder. I remain in awe.

I was also very pleased by the number of people excited by my anthology projects: people who enjoyed Aliens: Recent Encounters and people looking forward to The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, which will be out in late 2014 (and is currently open to reprint submissions). It’s really satisfying to know that people enjoy my work!

In conclusion: some terrible (wheelchair-inaccessible registration and poor-looking accessibility to program areas should not be happening, especially after so many years of people talking about accessibility needs) and baffling (the program itself) choices made by the con’s organisers, but a great con for me because so many friends were there.

Oct 30, 2013
Alex Dally MacFarlane

Lackington’s Magazine

I’m very pleased to say that my story “An Orange Tree Framed Your Body”, originally published in Sybil’s Garage 7 in 2010, will be reprinted in the debut issue of the new semiprozine Lackington’s Magazine early next year.

Lackington’s describes itself as:

“This place where prose does more than get the job done. Where it shakes out its feathers or tries on outrageous costumes. Where it recalls tradition or flouts it completely. Where it’s a character in its own right. Where it expands its chest and breathes. This place, where prose itself speculates, is here.”

Needless to say, this is my kind of zine. I really look forward to reading the rest of the debut issue next year, as well as sharing my story “An Orange Tree Framed Your Body” with a wider online audience. I remain very fond of it. (Oranges! Clones! Depression!)

They’re currently open to submissions for the second issue. They also take donations from those with spare cash who want to support beautiful speculative fiction.

Oct 29, 2013
Alex Dally MacFarlane

Poetry in SF

There’s a really interesting conversation between Lavie Tidhar and Shimon Adaf on Strange Horizons this week. It covers a lot of subjects – Israeli fiction, publishing, the relationship between biography and fiction, the relationship between speculative fiction and poetry. The latter is what most fascinated me, personally, and I’d like to quote one or two bits on that (though I do recommend reading it all):

Shimon Adaf: For me the affinity between speculative writing and poetry is a fact of writing. And I think that for you as well. You also started by writing poetry, in Hebrew, and you integrate poetry into your novels, mainly using the heteronym Lior Tirosh. How do you see the connection between these two modes of expression?

Lavie Tidhar: That’s true! For me, poetry was a revelation, that you can do things with words in a way I never thought you could. … In a way, when I look at my early Hebrew poetry, I think I’ve lost that part of me. They’re expansive, they’re not fully controlled, but the poems feel fresh to me still, they come from a place I may have lost. These days I mostly work poems into the novels and short stories, knowing no one is ever really going to make much of a reference to them.

Shimon Adaf: … I mean, for me, it started by trying to write kind of sci-fi poems. I was influenced by Samuel R. Delany’s work back then. I love the way he is able to fuse the epic spirit of poetry and the lyrical one in his work. I think that SF/F literature can serve as the true heir of the epic form of poetry in our era. But I can never forget the lyrical aspect that has to do with basic expression of the self, emotion, and experience. So I’m trying to marry the two in fiction through merging genres: injecting the fantastic into my autobiography and following where it leads, or vice versa, starting with my autobiography and letting it open to the encounter with the fantastic.

This is a good moment to link to Lavie’s own story “The Long Road to the Deep North”, also in Strange Horizons (and one of my favourites of the stories I’ve read this year), a science fiction story which contains poetry in Bislama. It’s integral to the story: to the very personal approach taken by the story, and to the future it posits, one in which many more voices are heard than in most SF.

Another science fiction story with poetry is the novel Always Coming Home by Ursula K Le Guin, which is full of poetry (and screenplays, and tales, and fiction, all contextualising the narrative of the woman Stone Telling) and which I love. There’s also Eleanor Arnason’s story “Knapsack Poems”, which I reprinted in Aliens: Recent Encounters, and Aliette de Bodard’s excellent “Scattered Along the River of Heaven”.

This makes me think of something I said at Stone Telling about poetry last year: “I like the poetic potential for voice — for direct speech or song. Due to the length I tend to work with in poetry (much shorter than my prose), it can be a very precise, very pointed voice, a direct statement or exclamation or confrontation. There’s no reason that prose can’t be or contain this too, but for me, poetry is a way to whittle down to this direct voice, to make it the only thing — to amplify it by way of having nothing else around it. To make it loud and impossible to ignore.”

The poems in Tidhar’s, Le Guin’s, Arnason’s and de Bodard’s works are not standing alone the way a poem published on its own page is, but in their contexts they speak, they are voices reaching out from the text. There’s a quiet, personal power there, and I wonder if that’s a power of poetry that’s been lost in English-language speculative literature in the fantasy pastiches of Tolkien’s poetry. There is more to poetry than terrible rhymes about elves! I would like to see more of it in all types of speculative literature: poetry as voice, speaking out from the text. I would certainly read it.

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