Browsing articles in "Writing"
Jan 29, 2014
Alex Dally MacFarlane

Civility and Comments Sections

I recently launched a column at about post-binary gender. So far the introduction has gone live. Go read, if that’s your sort of thing! I hope to do awesome things with this column: talking about books/stories I’ve read, both recently published and older, talking to other writers and readers about the subject, broadening my own horizons while (hopefully) broadening other people’s too.

I opened the introduction by saying: “I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories.”

I really truly do! I’m not being hyperbolic to kickstart discussion. I really want an end to the default of binary gender, which apparently I need to translate for some people: I want there to be no default does not mean I want there to be no binary-gendered people in science fiction. There are many binary-gendered people in the world! This will no doubt continue to be the case.

I also said: “People who do not fit comfortably into the gender binary exist in our present, have existed in our past, and will exist in our futures. So too do people who are binary-gendered but are often ignored, such as trans* people who identify as binary-gendered. I am not interested in discussions about the existence of these gender identities: we might as well discuss the existence of women or men. Gender complexity exists. SF that presents a rigid, unquestioned gender binary is false and absurd.”

This is not an opinion. This is a fact. Non-binary people exist. Not including non-binary people is false. Barely including non-binary people is false. No, there isn’t a magic number of non-binary that you need to include (haven’t we already discussed how no one is calling for quotas when they call for diversity?) but there does need to be a feeling, when I read about a future, that it includes people of all genders, even if the individual story is focused on a cis man, or a cis woman. Needless to say, sometimes non-binary people should be the focus. But not always!

I didn’t think this was an especially confrontational or controversial demand, but hey! The internet is here to prove me wrong.

Larry Correia wrote a long post about how I’m wrong! damnit, so wrong! and only in my twenties! and stuff like that, which Jim C Hines took apart so you don’t have to, for which I am grateful. Jim’s post nicely shows how Larry circles around the same strawmen while calling himself a fascist for misgendering me. Thanks, Jim!

Then Jim got comments.

NEVER READ THE COMMENTS! you shout. TOO LATE! I lament. Actually, the comments are really interesting, because there’s this regularly raised idea of being “civil” or “polite” or “reasonable”. Some commenters complain that people’s comments got unfairly deleted from my post despite being reasonable, which amuses me because I know one comment got deleted for saying that non-binary people are just insane, so BULLSHIT. Indeed, a moderator stepped in to explain why comments got deleted. But here’s another thing: let’s take a look at the comments Jim got.

EXHIBIT 1: “You see, when you are struggling to survive these are lesser concerns. Nowadays, at least in Europe, the US, Canada, etc., people have the leisure to worry about whether they were born with the right sex organs, etc. Or whether people can marry their sofa.” quoth Mike Murley

1. Equating trans* and non-binary gender rights to marrying a sofa is transphobic and cissexist.
2. Equating equal marriage to marrying a sofa is homophobic.
3. Non-binary and trans* people existed throughout history.
4. Non-binary and trans* people exist in the contemporary “third world”. Here’s an example: Thailand is the leading country for SRS (re-assignment surgery) and has people of non-binary gender (kathoey). The idea that only in the West do people have the “leisure” to be trans*/non-binary is racist, Western-centric bullshit.
5. Piss off.

EXHIBIT 2: “First, yes, there are people out there that list their “gender/sex” however the heck you want to say it as other than male/female. Whoopdeedoo. Basic biology is… for evolved life forms on planet earth, there is male and female. There is not computersexual, there is not barcoloungersexual, there is not magazinesexual. There are just two.” quoth Rick

1. I’m so glad you’re our biology teacher today! What with your utter ignorance about biological sex. Read up on intersex people, then on genital and chromosomal differentiation more widely. The biological binary is bullshit.
2. Equating real genders and biological sexes to computers, barcoloungers(?) and magazines is gross.
3. Piss off.

EXHIBIT 3: “There are, in Terran-based biology, two sexes (usually misidentified as “genders” – nouns have genders, people are one of two sexes). Male and female. This is reality. There are a significant number of human-based sexual preferences and gender identifications, which have become increasingly more apparent due to a larger number of humans having their basic needs met and having the leisure time to concern themselves with these (in first world societies, if we use the out-dated World Bank definition).” quoth Mike Murley, again

1. What is it with Terran-based cis people and the faulty biology lessons?
2. See above, re: racism.
2. Piss off.

EXHIBIT 4: “The vast majority of people want the characters to be just men and women. Sure every now and then its good to expand your horizons but that doesn’t require and end to the defaults. Its like getting rid of the english default on your computer. Sure every now and then a customer wants something like klingon or farsi but most people just want to play video games and surf the web and so the default english works for them. Do you really think the majority of twilight fans want Bella to secretly be a dude dressed as a girl?” quoth Demetrias

1. Saying that real people’s lived existence, ie: the existence of non-binary people, is an exercise to “expand your horizons” is cissexist.
2. Not everyone’s keyboard has English default. Did you know that some keyboards have Farsi as a default? Or one of several language settings? Klingon is not a language beyond Star Trek. Equating it with Farsi is racist.
3. Baffling transphobia seals the deal, I guess?
4. Piss off.

That’s enough of that.

Tell me more about how cissexism, transphobia and racism are “civil” and “reasonable” and “not insulting”. How the fuck is this shit okay to say? How the fuck can you hide behind words like “reasonable” because you didn’t, what, call me a bitch or threaten to harm me while you were spewing your hateful, bigoted words all over Jim’s comments section? The idea that you are being civil in comments because you’re not being aggressive or using slurs or threatening violence is a fascinating one. It is not reasonable to be bigoted. It is not civil. It is not “not insulting” to say that non-binary and trans* people don’t exist in non-Western countries and that there are only two sexes and lol r u computersexual.

Closing comments on this one. Don’t actually tell me more about your bigotry. Piss off.

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 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.)

Oct 1, 2013
Alex Dally MacFarlane

Families in SF

Today I can also be found guest-posting on Liz Bourke’s Sleeps With Monsters column at Writing Families in the Future.

It’s about families in science fiction: how narrowly normative they are, how there are some (very few) awesome examples of variety, how I would like that variety to replace the norm.

Go read! Then go create more families in the future!

Jul 8, 2013
Alex Dally MacFarlane

Nine Worlds!

There’s a mini interview with me today on the tumblr of the Queer Fandom track at Nine Worlds, in which I talk briefly about current projects and recommend some genderqueer SFF.

Nine Worlds is a new SFF convention in the UK – with an entire track dedicated to Queer SFF. I will be a guest on that track and leading a panel called “Better History = Better Fantasy: Writing Outside the Binary”, which will talk about the existence of queer people throughout history so that a) people writing historical/history-inspired fiction can actually include us, and b) anyone who wants to hear about queer people in history can learn new things.

I’m really looking forward to Nine Worlds (an SFF convention with an entire queer track is going to be a breath of fresh air, and is a much welcome addition to the SFF conventions in the UK) and I hope I see lots of awesome people there!

Jun 26, 2013
Alex Dally MacFarlane

Readercon schedule!

My essays are done! I have been working on fiction and slowly starting to think about my MA thesis (due in mid-September) and enjoying a bit of that marvellous thing known as a holiday.

In mid-July I will be at Readercon! I will be on a lot of awesome panels (SOCIOLING OMG). Look!


9:00 PM – ME – The Endangered Alien.
Andrea Hairston, Robert Killheffer (leader), Alex Dally MacFarlane, Phoebe North, Bud Sparhawk.
Science fiction sometimes becomes enamored of a theme for several years and then nearly abandons it for various reasons: microcosms in the 1920s, psionics or mutants in the 1940s and 1950s, etc. In recent years, aliens seem to have become less common. Novels by Paul McAuley, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Alastair Reynolds, and anthologies like Jonathan Strahan’s Edge of Infinity, confine their action to the solar system, with little credible possibility for intelligent alien life. The classic alien-as-hideous-enemy and alien-overlord tropes have largely migrated to movies and TV. When aliens do appear, in novels like China Miéville’s Embassytown, Peter F. Hamilton’s Great North Road, and Malinda Lo’s Adaptation, how are authors treating them? What purposes do they serve and what roles do they play?

(Funnily enough, I have some things to say about recent alien fiction!)


1:00 PM – RI – Speculative Poetry Workshop.
Mike Allen (leader), Margo Lanagan, Alex Dally MacFarlane.
Speculative poetry can be defined a number of ways. One is that a speculative poem uses the trappings of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or more unclassifiable bends in reality to convey its images, narratives, and themes. Speculative poetry can unfold with the same subtlety and power that speculative fiction does, with considerably fewer words. Come prepared to write.

7:00 PM – ME – Sociolinguistics and SF/F.
John Chu, Rose Lemberg (leader), Alex Dally MacFarlane, Anil Menon, Sabrina Vourvoulias.
Sociolinguistics studies the ways in which language intersects with society. It looks at issues such as interactions of language with power, prestige, gender, hegemony, and literacy, bilingualism and multilingualism, translation, language birth, and language death to name but a few. We will look specifically at the kinds of tensions that are created in societies where people speak different languages or dialects depending on social and racial/ethnic status. We will also discuss genre books in which those topics have been explored, and consider sociolinguistics tools and concepts that may be useful to writers.

(OMG. I am going to read about Emesal and Ancient Near-Eastern language shifts for this. And listen to the other panellists say fascinating things.)


10:00 AM – G – Intellectually Rigorous Fictional Data: Making Up Facts That Are True.
Debra Doyle, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Margaret Ronald, Ken Schneyer, Harold Vedeler, Henry Wessells (leader).
How do you make up convincing fictional primary sources? No, not for purposes of seeking political office, but because you need to know the facts and how they underpin the world of your fiction and the lives of your characters. Imaginary books and letters are just the beginning, even if they never appear in the narrative. Which fictional data sources matter? How much is enough to make a narrative feel resilient and whole?

(As a historian, I have opinions about the constructions of documents, nonfictions, histories!)

12:00 PM – RI – The Works of Maureen F. McHugh.
Nathan Ballingrud, Dennis Danvers, Gavin J. Grant, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Charles Oberndorf (moderator).
As Jo Walton said in a review of Mission Child, Maureen F. McHugh’s work explores “chewy ideas rather than shiny ones.” This is true of her novels, such as the Tiptree Award–winning China Mountain Zhang; her intense short stories, each of which contains an astonishing amount of narrative and conceptual complexity; and her alternate reality games, including the groundbreaking “I Love Bees.” McHugh’s work introduces the reader to communities large and small (families, subcultures, towns, nations, planets) and describes them with compassion, affectionate humor, and honesty. This panel will endeavor to give her rich, nuanced writing the close reading it deserves.

1:00 PM – G – Authorial Metanarrative.
Leah Bobet (leader), Lila Garrott, Theodora Goss, Glenn Grant, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Sonya Taaffe.
A number of authors build in subtle links between otherwise unconnected works. A link may not be something as literal as a common character or name; perhaps, instead, there’s a repeated trope or event. Leah Bobet, discussing Patricia A. McKillip’s works in a 2011 blog post, described this as writing “epic poetry, and the whole of [McKillip’s] output is the poem.” How do such links affect a reader’s interpretation of or approach to a body of work, and what motivates authors to link their works together?

3:00 PM – NH – Mythic Poetry Group Reading.
Mike Allen, Leah Bobet, C.S.E. Cooney, Gemma Files, Gwynne Garfinkle, Andrea Hairston, Samantha Henderson, Nicole Kornher-Stace, Rose Lemberg, Shira Lipkin, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Dominik Parisien, Caitlyn Paxson, Julia Rios, Romie Stott, Sonya Taaffe, JoSelle Vanderhooft.
Over the past decade, speculative poetry has increasingly turned toward the mythic in subject matter, with venues such as Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit, Mythic Delirium, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Jabberwocky, and the now-defunct Journal of the Mythic Arts showcasing a new generation of poets who’ve redefined what this type of writing can do. This reading will feature new and classic works from speculative poetry’s trend-setters.

7:00 PM – ME – Women’s Bodies, Women’s Power.
Athena Andreadis (leader), Alex Dally MacFarlane, Kate Nepveu, Vandana Singh, Sabrina Vourvoulias.
In many times and places, cisgender girls and women have been evaluated by their bodies, including their choice of dress, sexual behavior, virginity, and fertility. Juxtaposed with this are the mystification and taboos surrounding menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause. This outlook has migrated wholesale into speculative literature. It’s still standard fare in fantasy for women to lose (or be thought to lose) any extranormal powers they possess when they first have penetrative sex, menstruate, or become pregnant, from André Norton’s Witchworld adepts to Zamia in Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Athena Andreadis will explore the tropes and assumptions around this issue, including variants applied to trans* and non-binary characters.

Jun 23, 2013
Alex Dally MacFarlane

On SFWA: Making Bigots Unwelcome

I will admit that joining SFWA was never a major milestone for me as a writer. I joined because I had the spare dollars, I had heard good things about Griefcon and I wanted to nominate and vote for the Nebula Awards. I’ve been watching recent events with a rising sense of I am so fucking sick of this, and now my MA essays are done I have time to put some of my thoughts in words.


The recent problems are widely known. The SFWA’s professional magazine, the Bulletin, has contained sexist material: suggesting that women should have “quiet dignity” like Barbie (a good woman is seen, not heard!), then suggesting that women who protest about that suggestion are “liberal fascists” committing censorship! (A certain type of American likes to enthuse far more about free speech than about not being a piece of sexist shit.) (It was especially amusing~ to me that some white American males were crying about fascists when actual fascists were marching on the streets of the UK, attacking mosques and Muslims. Not to mention what’s been happening in Istanbul, say. That is fascism. That fear and violence. Not someone saying “Hey it’d be great if you didn’t suggest women should never speak.”) There’s a good link round-up here, as well as a much-needed international perspective here.

Then Theodore Beale, a member known for being a racist skidmark, used a SFWA Twitter feed to promote a post in which he used exceptionally foul, violently racist language against N.K. Jemisin, a black woman. Amal El-Mohtar rightly called for his expulsion from SFWA. As I write this, a decision has not been announced. Rumours do not bode well, although I hope the rumours are wrong.

While SFWA deliberates on whether to punish someone for violently racist language against a black woman, the people speaking up in support of her – especially other women of colour – are receiving threats of violence and murder. The forums of SFWA remain, as always, off-limits to those of us who are not white men: we will be dismissed, verbally abused. (Be quiet, like Barbie!)

SFWA is more than its racist members, of course. I know many people in the organisation want Beale out, want change: want SFWA to really be for everyone, not just a 1970s-era crowd of old white straight American dudes. A lot of this change takes time. Kicking Beale out? Not nearly as much time.

SFWA and the wider world of science fiction are not unique in their racism and sexism. Sexism is everywhere. Racism, likewise. But I am sick of SFWA-related bullshit, nonetheless.)

Here is what I’m sick of:

I’m sick of an organisation in which bigots feel welcome. I’m sick of forums in which bigots feel welcome, while anyone else is warned right from the start to steer clear. I’m sick of the fact that Beale’s language was not universally condemned, that reaching a unanimous decision to kick him out of SFWA is not proving to be easy. I’m sick of bigots having no consequences for their actions, while people speaking up in support of the people they hurt are harassed, upset and afraid. I’m sick of soft-footing in bigots’ favour.

No one can stop Beale from being a racist. No one can stop people from saying that it’s a bit too extreme~ to kick him out of SFWA.

Here is what can be done: create an environment in which racism and sexism and all other forms of bigotry are not welcome. Create an environment in which racist and sexist words are removed, their speaker banned from the forums, eventually banned from the organisation. (Yes, this needs a careful process of warnings and investigation and the potential for people to learn and change. Duh?) Otherwise bigotry will continue, bigots will continue to hurt and threaten people.

This is the beauty of being a closed organisation: it’s a closed environment, it can be shaped. It can be better. Racism and sexism and homophobia and Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and ableism and all other bigotries are not matters of opinion. They are not. I am fucking sick to fucking death of them being treated like they are. I am fucking sick of an American idea of “free speech” in which bigotry is not stamped out. (I won’t claim the British hate speech law as it currently stands and is utilised is perfect, but fuck, the idea that there is such a thing as “hate speech” and that it’s unacceptable is such a good fucking starting point.)

So this, SFWA, is what I want. I want Beale out. I want bigots unwelcome.

The other beauty of a closed organisation is that I can choose not to be a part of it.

I want an organisation in which bigotry is unwelcome. Otherwise it’s worthless.

I see no purpose in demanding less.

Oct 30, 2012
Alex Dally MacFarlane

SF: why there are no women

There are a lot of far-future SF stories where the military characters are 100% male, where they extoll the splendour of their family’s military pedigree (families that seem to only contain men), where women don’t even get a mention.

I just want you to know that whenever I read this, I think of this. ← NOT SAFE FOR WORK. (If you cannot click that right now, let me describe it to you: a group of men have kept their bloodline “free from woman’s taint” by breeding among themselves, with some men getting pregnant and giving birth to male babies from their arses.)

SF: full of arse-babies.

Aug 7, 2012
Alex Dally MacFarlane

let’s sing a song about a woman’s rage

I semi-jokingly mentioned wanting to write hypatia fanfiction (derived from Umberto Eco’s Baudolino) in a previous post. I know there’s nothing to stop me writing fanfiction and posting it here – but what about getting it professionally published? Am I allowed to do that?

I ask because this opening paragraph pretty much wrote itself right now:

“We lost our names on the journey to our new home. We could not say where: not on the stones of Alexandria as we fled, not in the long reaches of the Sassanid lands, not on the shores of the Sambatyon, the river of stone. Oh, how it churned. Oh, how it pulverised anything soft that fell in it — but we did not cast our names into those stones like an offering.”

And there is a title: “We, the Hypatias, Have a Story to Tell”.

I suspect I will write it whatever the answer is, but I would like it to get more exposure than just here, if I’m allowed.

Jun 16, 2012
Alex Dally MacFarlane

Science! Asteroids! Magnets!

I dropped all sciences at school when I was 15, due to the high ratio of boring topics (nearly everything) to interesting topics (space science), so one of the most fun parts of writing scifi with some science behind it is learning about science! Specifically, the cool bits of science. I read news articles about space quite a lot and watch documentaries, but I think we all know how nuanced and accurate those sources are. Now I’m reading wikipedia, which is one step up, I guess.

I’m currently working on a short story set in an asteroid belt, so I’ve been reading about asteroids and asteroid mining and such things. (Amusingly, I learnt about the true gap betwen asteroids from that venerable source of scientific information, tvtropes. Protip: Meteo from Starfox 64 is not accurate.)

Asteroids are pretty cool! Here are three fun things I’ve read so far.

1) Moons! Asteroids have them. That was a pretty big WELL DUH moment for me, but for some reason it’d never occurred to me that asteroids could have moons. But look!

That’s 243 Ida and its moon Dactyl. How fucking cool is that.

2) Magnets! According to wikipedia, this is one theorised method of mining: “Magnetic rakes. Asteroids with a high metal content may be covered in loose grains that can be gathered by means of a magnet.” MAGNETS. Always with the magnets.

3) Asteroids could have really huge amounts of valuable materials on them. They could, you might think, make miners rich! And then economics shows up. “Although Planetary Resources say that platinum from 30-meter long asteroid is worth 25-50 billion USD, an economist remarked that any outside source of precious metals could lower prices sufficiently to possibly doom the venture.”

In addition to the above, I think I’ve learned enough relevant science to get on with writing this story. I’d like to draft it reasonably quickly so I can return to the SF novella, but whether my brain will co-operate with me is an entirely different matter. Onwards!


Out now!

"...the 33 stories that MacFarlane has gathered for this volume dazzle with the virtuosity of their contributors’ talents."

- Publishers Weekly: STARRED REVIEW

"Works from around the world, some in translation, provide an invaluable snapshot of this moment in the genre as well as some tremendously enjoyable reading."

- Publishers Weekly: Best Books of 2014

"The stories range widely in scope and form — from prose poems to metafiction — to capture a dynamic, forward-thinking genre that plays with history, myth and science."

- The Washington Post: Think science fiction is dominated by men? Think again.

"...ground-breaking and superbly conceived..."

- Nina Allan: Strange Horizons: 2014 In Review

Aliens: Recent Encounters

"...this [anthology] blew us away more than any other. Mostly because of the sheer volume of greatness contained in these 32 stories... These are classic stories of alien encounters, from some of the best science fiction writers working today."

- Best Books of 2013

Short Stories