• “Written on the Hides of Foxes” got rejected, alas. Seeing as I’ve figured out something I want to change about it, it’s waiting until I’m done with The Bone Queen and then I’ll make the amends and send it to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. (It’s a 10,000-word secondary world story – it’s made for BCS, in my humble – and often-wrong – opinion.)
• The Bone Queen won’t be done by Easter, but soon. Sooooon. I’m not upset about missing my self-imposed deadline because I’ve come so far and the end really is in sight. All in good time.
• I’ve been working on The Bone Queen this evening and then, suddenly, poetry: 2 new poems and a redraft of a poem I drafted on my phone while walking on the snow-covered hills by my parents’ house in February. Well, excellent! And now back to what I’m supposed to be working on.
• Got another novel idea. *resigned sigh* Onto the list it goes.
I was reading the description of a recently released space opera novel and feeling very indifferent about it, when I realised something.
I’ve stopped taking space opera or any other far-future science fiction seriously if the people are not majority POC or mixed race.
This is probably the most – certainly the first – iconic Western SF cast:
One black woman, one Asian man, one alien (pale-skinned) – and a bunch of white people.
Despite its age, the crew of the original Star Trek is not strikingly less diverse than most SF shows or books I am aware of today. Firefly, for instance, manages to have one black-Latina woman (Zoe), one black man (Book) and one South American woman (Inara) – which is great, but then the rest of the main cast are white. Despite the show’s claim to be set in a mixed American-Chinese future, none of the main cast are Chinese. Apparently the creators planned to make Kaylee a Chinese woman, until a white actress caught Whedon’s attention – but even if Kaylee was Chinese, that wouldn’t be good enough. If the Americans and Chinese are equally dominant in this future, why aren’t several characters Chinese? Why are the main two characters (Mal and River) white?
I know that TV (and mainstream film) in the West is limited by not just the creators’ lack of imagination (or outright racism) but by the racist notion that characters have to be white for everyone to empathise with them. (See: the Dragonball and The Last Airbender remakes.) If Whedon had wanted, say, four of the Firefly crew to be Chinese in addition to the other three non-white characters, he might have struggled to find a buyer for the show due to lack of “mainstream appeal”.
The thing is, I am not aware of Whedon wanting any more than one Chinese main character.
And in SF novels, which do not seem to suffer quite the same level of racist gatekeeping as SF tv/film, there are still a lot of space opera and far-future worlds teeming with white people and only lightly dotted with POC or mixed race people. I am seeing writers like Nalo Hopkinson (Midnight Robber), Nnedi Okorafor (The Shadow Speaker, Who Fears Death), Maureen McHugh (Mission Child), Kameron Hurley (God’s War, Infidel) and Geoff Ryman (Air) publish SF books where sizeable percentages – sometimes 100%! – of the main cast and the wider population are not white. It is possible to publish SF with lots of POC in it! So why are numerous other writers still writing white-centric futures?
Look, I don’t know if everyone realises this, but the future isn’t going to look like that picture above. It’s going to look more like this:
By the time we have mastered interstellar travel and settled on many worlds, white Western is not going to be the dominant cultural majority and it certainly won’t be the numerical majority (it isn’t now). People of all Earth countries and ethnicities will be living and working and travelling and fighting between the stars. They are doing those things today, on Earth, and always have been. I highly doubt that human habitation of the planets and moon in our own solar system is going to be Western-led, or solely Western-led. China? India? Russia? Brazil? To name just a few important countries. The world economy is going to look different in just 50 or 100 years’ time, let alone many hundreds of years in the future. Racism might be a long time dying in the West, but Asia and the Middle East and Africa and South America and Eastern Europe exist – and the people of those continents/regions are not twiddling their thumbs and waiting for the West to sort its shit out.
White-centric SF? Pfft, whatever.
There’s only one reason for someone to think the future is going to be majority white: racism.
And another post about writing, this time poetry, as Rose Lemberg has announced the cover for The Moment of Change, the first book of feminist speculative poetry ever, due to be launched at Wiscon (which I will be at).
Having recently seen the proofs, in which I have read some of the poems and the introduction – let me tell you, this is going to be amazing. I can’t wait to hold it and read it all under that beautiful cover. Here, in case you need the reminder, is the Table of Contents.
End of May. Mark your poetry diaries.
I forgot to add to yesterday’s post that “Selin That Has Grown In The Desert” has recently received two more positive reviews, which makes me very happy.
The first is a brief mention at Requires Only That You Hate, who reviewed the whole anthology:
“Alex Dally MacFarlane’s “Selin That Has Grown in the Desert” tells the story of Dursun, a girl who loves girls struggling to deal with the expectation of heteronormative marriage, the objectification she faces as a potential bride, the obligations of family. It stands out for, among other things, delicious language.”
The second is a longer review by Bogi Takács, who reviewed my story and points to her appreciation of the setting, the relationship between steampunk and imperialism, and the presence of an asexual character, all of which I was hoping to get right – I’m really glad it’s worked for at least one reader. In conclusion, Bogi says:
“Overall there’s a lot going for this story – an interesting setting, important themes – and it’s also a good read, not didactic or lecture-ish, presenting the intimate struggles of a young girl from a sympathetic perspective. The author is planning on turning it into a novel; I wish her all the best with her endeavor and I’m looking forward to reading the results!”
Well, yay! :>
• I’ve finished and edited “Written on the Hides of Foxes”, my story for Biblioteca Fantastica, which closes to submissions at the end of the month. (Until just this moment, the story was called “Bound in the Hides of Foxes”, but “Written on…” just jumped into my head as fitting better.) (Yes, foxes. You’re shocked.) It’s the full 10,000 words permitted by the guidelines and demands that I turn it into a whole novel.
• Once I’ve submitted “Written on the Hides of Foxes” tonight, it’s back to The Bone Queen. I recently got to the end of it; now I need to go back and tidy up everything I added and changed. The end is in sight.
• I have seen the proofs for Rose Lemberg’s The Moment of Change. So excited about this.
• After working on “Written on the Hides of Foxes”, I can’t wait to get The Bone Queen done so I can spend several months just writing short stories. (Hopefully shorter stories.) My head is starting to get crowded with them. I look forward to tilting my head and letting them all fall out like sea-water.
Also, though it’s not writing-related: Korra Korra Korra Korra Korra Korra Korra Korra.
A few days ago, Paolo Bacigalupi wrote a piece about the absence of gay characters in YA dystopias. His argument is that it’s not particularly shocking to put gay people in a dystopia because they’re already in one. After listing a few good reasons why being gay is still not easy or normal, he says:
“It’s actually difficult to think of many dystopian novels that persecute their protagonists to this extent. And that’s the real horror. We are a dystopian society, and we don’t even notice. We’re the evil state, crushing the individuality out of everyone who doesn’t conform conform conform.”
While I can’t really argue with this assessment of our society (and we harm a LOT more people than just the gay ones; see Trayvon Martin’s murder for just one example), I can and I will argue that this in any way prevents an “ordinary” dystopic narrative from having a gay lead.
Bacigalupi goes on to say:
“For me, the real objective in writing a dystopia about being gay would be to rattle a shockingly complacent straight readership into something approaching empathy.”
Well, my off-the-cuff response to this is “Fuck. Off.”
If Western civilisation collapses and we live in a horrible dystopia, whether suppressed by a new (even more) totalitarian regime or scavenging on the remnants of our society, gay people will be there. Gay people will be forced to fight in the Hunger Games. Gay people will have monitors installed in their homes a la 1984. Gay people will be breaking up ships for scavenge alongside the straight protagonist of Bacigalupi’s own Western-set dystopia, Ship Breaker. Being gay will not make their narratives any more special or strange or different, at least along the axes of oppression/the struggle to survive (unless the system is specifically anti-gay, which it is not in, say, Bacigalupi’s own Ship Breaker).
These are ordinary dystopic narratives: the struggle to survive, the struggle to change the system, the struggle to get out of the system, etc.
Saying that gay people don’t belong in these narratives because they’re not about gayness (or not about making straight people realise that homophobia is bad, mm’kay) is saying that gay people don’t belong in ordinary narratives; instead, they only belong in narratives about gayness.
I totally agree that “Dystopias should be insurgent. They should force readers to question who they are, what their society is like, and what they take for granted.” But gay people benefit from many of the privileges of Western society too, such as getting to vote and eating decent food (if they aren’t poor) and not being forced into gladatorial combat, so putting a gay protagonist in an “ordinary” dystopic narrative still lets you comment on all the failings of Western society just like if your protagonist is straight, because there is nothing inherently different about how gay people are going to face the collapse of Western civilisation.
It also lets you say “I am not a homophobic shit-guzzler”.
Gay people don’t have to exist only in narratives about gayness. Gay people are not your educational tool. Gay (and bi) people are ordinary. Or so we’re still trying to convince the straights.
You are probably not aware of this, even if you are British, but the Government is currently trying to push through a bill that will take a major step towards privatising the NHS. Chances are very high that they will succeed.
Almost no one is reporting it. Go the BBC News homepage right now. Unless they have suddenly uploaded a story, it’s not there. My beloved BBC News, who I have trusted for years to actually tell me about important events taking place at home and around the world, is silent on something that will affect the entire nation. (ETA: Ha, just as I post this, the BBC tweets that the Speaker grants an emergency House of Commons debate on the bill tomorrow. Maybe this will work? I don’t know. I’m not very hopeful.)
This Saturday I joined a protest against the bill. We blocked Whitehall, we marched up the Strand and blocked that too. We held up signs and chanted and discussed the issue among ourselves. We were 100% peaceful. There were elderly people, disabled people, middle aged people, families with their infants and small children, young people and students, all joining together peacefully to protest a bill that could lead to our lives being completely changed. One woman had a cross-stitched sign. Anonymous showed up but mostly hung around with their masks off, as peaceful as everyone else. The Socialists handed out signs saying SAVE OUR NHS and LANSLEY MUST GO. It was a depressingly small protest. It was full of frightened and friendly people, welcoming to all who wanted to join. As I said, there were the elderly, the less able-bodied and children in prams.
The protest was intimidated, repeatedly kettled and broken up by riot police.
Cai Wingfield, a friend who was at the protest with me, has written this post about it. Another angry woman has also written a post about it. Please read these. So far, these participant posts are the only coverage I have seen of the protest.
I repeat: The media has remained almost entirely silent about the bill that could begin privatisation of the NHS. The media has also remained silent about a peaceful protest against the bill and about the police suppression of that protest.
Here we are, doing what we could:
Photo credit: Cai Wingfield
But the police and the media have silenced us.
If this silence doesn’t terrify you, what will? I could give you some horror stories about the US healthcare system, which is what we’re in danger of heading towards. I could tell you how people let themselves die rather than go to hospital because they can’t face the five-figure (or higher) bill. I could tell you how people have to pay for their own ambulances. I could tell you how insurance doesn’t even cover everything. While we’re not facing the wave of Christian extremism that’s fuelling the war on women currently taking place in the US, the potential for other patterns of abuse in a privatised, business-run system is so much vaster. The US is not a beacon of civilisation, it is not a model that anyone in the world should be aiming for.
As Charlie Brooker says in “The future of the NHS? Cough up, fleshbags” at the Guardian website:
“The theory is that introducing an element of competition will improve the level of quality and range of choice for patients. And it doubtless would, if businesses behaved like selfless nuns, which they don’t. Any business that wants to succeed has to cut corners somewhere to turn a profit. It also has to juggle a strange set of priorities, which means if you entrust your health to a corporation, the cost of your kidneys could end up being weighed against the spiralling cost of the CGI budgerigar voiced by Joan Collins they want for their new TV commercial.”
I can’t think of many scarier things to do my healthcare system that let it be run by businesses. Given the state of the Western economy right now, surely we can agree that there is something wrong with our capitalism. David Cameron makes wishy-washy hand-motions towards an idea of “better capitalism”; even he acknowledges that capitalism is broken! Well, how about we fix that before we trust our lives to a broken system?
The Lib Dems are worried that dropping their support for the bill will mean a Labour victory. To quote someone on Twitter, ARE WE IN A FUCKING PLAYGROUND? This should not be about the Lib Dems clinging to the scrap of power they’ve been given like 7-year-olds who’ve inexplicably become friends with the bully. This should be about what’s good for Britain. Politics should be above brattish antics – but it’s not, it’s never been, and there’s nothing I can do to change that.
Mediocre Dave really sums up how I feel right now when he talks about why we shouldn’t feel guilty:
“To lay the blame for this toxic legislation at the feet of those who have tried to oppose it, or those who didn’t know it was happening at all, is dull and obnoxious. The government (in collusion with private health firms) wrote this bill, they are forcing it through, they are to blame. … All of the forms of protest we have available to us to stop a piece of legislation being passed can be boiled down to simply asking the people with the power to act in as we want them. If they choose not to listen (as they have done, consistently), we have no further way to compell them.”
This is why I’m getting increasinly disappointed with the kind of democracy we have in the UK. Yes, we have the privilege of being able to vote from the age of 18 without harassment and assault, and I don’t want to belittle the efforts of the reformists and suffragettes who suffered to get me that vote but I really don’t feel that my vote makes a difference. I love this song and video, turning Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” into a really fucking moving summation of the suffragette movement in the US, but I watch and I think “Then what?” The first-past-the-post system means our votes can amount to nothing. I grew up in what was once the safest Tory constituency in the country. It’s still a Tory stronghold. My Green or Lib Dem or Labour vote does nothing to change the smug Tory git who allegedly represents me. I still vote, because I want to honour that ability, but it doesn’t amount to anything. And then the Government that I didn’t elect goes to war without my agreement and puts through life-changing bills without my agreement – and without the agreement of the nation – and we call this democracy? Really? We’ve got it better than a lot of places around the world, sure, but to say we’ve got it right is a big fucking joke. To attempt to spread our “democracy” to other countries is fucking sick.
Look, I know the idea of every single person getting a voice isn’t possible. My head is not up in the clouds. There are millions of British people and we can’t run the country on committee. I am not in principle opposed to the idea of elected representatives making decisions on my behalf. I’d just like to, for once in my life, feel that they are actually working for anyone’s interests but their own thirst for power.
I was actually right about crossing the mid-point of The Bone Queen: everything is suddenly a lot easier! I’m still having to re-do some chapters/scenes, but it’s finding new words to say essentially the same thing rather than needing to say something different. I’m still making tweaks in every chapter. The big-scale changes are over, though, and I’m now getting through chapters at a decent pace!
Sokka says it best:
So this is what I have to do.
- Finish reading every chapter, making tweaks where necessary. (Tweaks are either keeping things in line with earlier changes or improving the prose.) I have about 10 chapters to go.
- Re-read the entire book. Neaten the newly written bits. Polish.
There’s still some way to go. =D But I feel renewed optimism about getting this done by the end of the month, or very soon after.
I also want to write a short story by the end of the month for the interesting anthology, so what I’d really like to do is finish the current read-through and tweak of The Bone Queen, pause to write the short story by/before 31 March, then go back to do the re-read of The Bone Queen. Eastercon has always been my slightly extended deadline for The Bone Queen, and that I think I will make.
(Yes, I will be at Eastercon! Saturday and Sunday, most likely. Definitely Sunday, because I’m on a panel that evening. More information to come.)
I can do this!
Because I felt almost silly with happiness as I walked home from the station in the last of today’s wondrous sunshine, here is a silly picture I drew while relaxing in my brother’s flat in Russia:
THE LAST FOXBENDER.
No, I don’t know why she has alarmingly long arms, but I do know why she’s a stick figure: I can’t draw bodies for shit. She also has lines for eyes because I can’t draw those either.
I will not be giving up the
dayjob writing any time soon. =D
Speaking of, back to The Bone Queen! Which is going excellently. This may also have contributed to today’s happiness.
About a year and a half ago, I stumbled upon an article in The Times entitled “Mean Girls: can women ever be bosom buddies?”
Just… ponder that for a moment.
While I did not go on to actually read the article (I hope you’ll understand why), its title left me with a bitter taste in my mouth that still hasn’t gone away. Because, yes, of course women can have meaningful friendships, what the fuck?
But there is this idea of women’s relationships as these catty things where we want to stab each other in the back all the time – over men, naturally, because men are the sun that our volatile Mercury-selves must revolve around – and I really hate it. People sometimes ask me however did I survive 5 years in an all-girls school? Wasn’t it so horrible with all the bitchiness? Not really. I was socially awkward and mostly friendless, but I did okay. This obviously isn’t every awkward girl’s experience, but it was mine, and I hate how the assumption is that all the girls were hateful to me – while the boys at the co-ed schools were lovely, I suppose?
Getting treated to sexist “jokes” on a daily basis and being regularly groped by one of the boys was awesome, yo. Go co-ed.
I want to talk about this idea of female friendships specifically in relation to SFF fiction, because SFF is such a major part of my life – and so are female friendships – and SFF really badly fails to represent these.
Rose Lemberg recently wrote a fantastic essay about the need for a greater diversity in the representation of women, and I think one of the biggest problems we face with female representation is the Smurfette Principle. If you didn’t watch The Smurfs as a kid, the basic idea is that there’s this village of blue dudes and one of them’s smart, one of them’s dorky, one of them’s moody – and one of them’s a girl. A while back I read an excellent essay by Max Berry about this, so I’ll just quote him because it’s perfect:
“I have been told that this [the Smurfette Principle] is a good thing for girls. ‘That makes girls more special,’ said this person, who I wanted to punch in the face. That’s the problem. Being female should not be special. It should be normal. It is normal, in the real world. There are all kinds of girls. There are all kinds of women. You just wouldn’t think so, if you only paid attention to … Smurfs.”
YES PUNCH THEM ALL IN THE FACE.
When you have only one girl in a sea of boys, she starts being defined by her girl-ness – rather than her intelligence, her fear, her love for chemistry, her musical talents, her combat skills, her anger, her calmness, her motherhood, her choice to be childfree, and all the other things that make her an individual person with individual passions and strengths and failings. And when you have this, you automatically don’t have a diverse range of women/girls. You have The Girl. So you define her by major Girl tropes, rather than writing about individual women. When Rose asks for all sorts of women, what she’s implicitly asking for is that more stories have more than one woman in them. Because then you get the neurotic Professor and the disabled botanist and the warrior balancing war with a child and the artist who has no interest in children, and you stop getting The Girl.
And what you also get, when you have multiple women, is friendship between women.
I’m sure most – if not all – of you know about the Bechdel Test? It’s where a movie/book/etc has:
- At least 2 women
- Who talk to each other
- About something other than a man
So, so many stories do not have this very basic thing. They have The Girl in a sea of dudes. And they have male friendships. Men talking to each other about guns and heating bills and the weather and all the things real people talk about. You have only to look at the power of the bromance to see how much people – and not just men – love male friendship. I love it too! It is one of the major reasons I re-watch the Sherlock movies – their bromance is the best crack ever. It makes me all giggly and fangirly.
But where the fuck are my sromances?
Where are the women who mess each other about but, at the end of the day, are absolutely devoted to each other? Where are the women who tear their friendship apart in horrible ways, but work hard and fix it back together again? Where are the women who mourn the loss of a friendship? Not lesbians or bi women in sexual and/or romantic relationships (though I’d love to see more of those too!). Friends.
These things exist in the real world. Really. I know, you’ll need a moment to get over the shock.
I have done that second scenario. I have fucked up a friendship, very badly. I have talked to the friend and listened to what she said and worked hard at changing my attitudes – and it was so worth it, because she’s important to me and I want that friendship to be as excellent as it deserves to be.
Are there parallels to this kind of relationship process for women in fiction?
With men. Generally speaking, romantic relationships with men.
No no no no no. Fixing that friendship was as important to me as fixing a romantic relationship (more so, actually, as I’m yet to be in a romantic relationship I want to fix as much as I wanted to fix that friendship). There is nothing lesser about a serious friendship. Romantic relationships are only one type of relationship (and some people don’t want them at all!) but, if most fiction’s to be believed, they’re the source of all our happiness and grief, and they’re the only type of relationship we can have that’s worth devoting time to. Women’s relationships with men in fiction are improving to the point that we can be friends with them and not want sex/romance, but what this still omits is the fact that we can be friends with women too. Our female friendships can be among the most important relationships in our lives.
I want, so much, to see more SFF where the friendships between women are given as much time and attention as any other relationship. It does happen, but it’s still far too rare. I want women forging alliances. I want women as enemies, too. I want women grappling to understand each other across privilege and cultural gulfs. I want women having lots of friendships with other women. I want lonely women who long for friendships with other women. I want women with vastly different interests finding common touch-points. I want women bonding over fibre crafts and sport and science and children and war and travel and stand-up comedy and books and internet memes and everything else that women bond over in real life. I want women helping each other to survive in the direst of situations. I want women saving one another. I want women being horrible to each other – because of course women are also horrible to each other in real life, but it’s not some kind of special female superpower. I firmly believe that the only reason it becomes gendered is societal. SFF gives us the opportunity to go beyond that! SFF also gives us the opportunity to examine that in careful, nuanced detail. What I don’t want is women being horrible to each other because that’s “our nature”.
I want, as Rose does, for SFF to treat women as it does men: as a massive range of totally different individuals. And I want those women to have all sorts of relationships – including all sorts of friendships with other women.
I think that a lot of what I’ve said here also applies to other under-represented groups: people of colour, queer and genderqueer people (I’ve talked about men and women here, because that’s the outdated dichotomy this particular problem usually manifests in, but I really want to see more genderqueer people in SFF too), disabled people, people of various religions and cultures and linguistic groups, people of all social classes, and all other people whose voices and experiences are not depicted often or well or ever. They too should appear in greater numbers in SFF, with friendships and other important relationships with characters other than the white cissexual people. Alaya Dawn Johnson suggested the Johnson Test, which applies the same principles as the Bechdel Test but with people of colour talking to one another about something(s) other than white people. The same should apply to all people. And, of course, female friendships overlap with the above; I would love to see more women than just otherwise-really-privileged white women.
And, no, of course every story does not have the space for every type of person. But when the default is white straight males – when there is a default at all – there is a big problem. No one should have to scour every crevice of every novel to find people like them in relationships like theirs.
As one of the women in Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” says: “We sing a lot. Adventure songs, work songs, mothering songs, mood songs, trouble songs, joke songs, love songs – everything.” Everything.
THE OTHER HALF OF THE SKY
Read my novelette:
"Under Falna's Mask"
Aliens: Recent Encounters
I'm the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters, a reprint anthology of science fiction stories, coming in June 2013 from Prime Books.
People I Read
- Ambling Along the Aqueduct
- Astrogator's Logs
- British Museum Blog
- Brooke Bolander
- Erzebet YellowBoy
- Goblin Fruit
- Hyperbole and a Half
- Invisible Games
- io9: archaeology
- J M McDermott
- Kameron Hurley
- KJ Bishop
- Molly Tanzer
- Papaveria Press
- Rachel Stark
- Requires Hate
- Silence Without
- Silver Goggles
- Small Beer Press
- Stone Telling
- Terri Windling
- The Daily Cabal
- The Streets of Bangkok
- The World SF Blog
- Urban Ghosts