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.
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.
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!
I am so fucking angry at this idea some editors seem to have that the best science fiction stories are those written by men. White men, naturally. Straight. Western. It goes hand-in-hand with my anger at how so much SF, even the far-future kind, is white-dominated and features gender/sexuality binaries and societies that wouldn’t trouble a diehard Republican – because this is what these men whose stories are repeatedly published and reprinted are writing, this unimaginative, backwards-looking dreck.
I was browsing Waterstones on my lunch break, as I often do, and found a new anthology in the SFF section: The Mammoth Book of SF War, edited by Ian Watson and Ian Whates. Because apparently I’m a masochist, I cracked open the Table of Contents.
Unless I have misgendered anyone based on their names (for which I deeply apologise), I count 22 male authors and 3 female authors. That’s 12% female authors.
And, you know, I wouldn’t be so fucking angry about this if it wasn’t that almost every damn time I open a Mammoth Book of SF Stuff or an anthology edited by these two or Mike Ashley or any other big editor over here, I find this kind of ratio. (The one that’s just a Mammoth version of the Dozois Year’s Best does better. If we’re counting Sean Wallace’s Mammoth Book of Steampunk as SF, then that’s got a great ToC. But this should not be fucking exceptional.) Mike Ashley even managed to get an anthology of SF Stuff that’s 0% women, because apparently no woman has ever written a mindblowing SF story or something.
Oh oh but they’re just choosing the best stories, aren’t they! Funny how EVERY FUCKING TIME the best stories are almost all by men. Funny how that sexism works.
To really drive the point home, there was also a copy of War and Space: Recent Combat on the shelf. It’s edited by Rich Horton and Sean Wallace. It’s got a strikingly similar theme to that Watson and Whates anthology, AND YET through some kind of fucking miracle process (I think it’s commonly called “not being sexist fucknuts”) they’ve managed to find stories by 11 male authors and 9 female authors, making it 45% female authors.
Meanwhile I’ve been reading several SF anthologies lately and yet again am struck by the sheer quantity of SF stories that are: Western-centric, featuring token non-white people (if that), set in societies that look not very different to our own, with gender/sexuality binaries and family structures that a Republican would love. (Also shitty aliens, but that’s not faily, that’s just dull.) What the fuck is wrong with people’s imaginations that they are writing this shit? What is wrong with editors that they are not seeking out work that goes beyond these backward-looking ideas? (Obviously editors cannot control (much) what they get in slush piles, but when soliticing stories, can they not specify that authors activate their imagination?) It’s not just about the gender and race of the authors – although that is incredibly important – but about the kinds of stories that are published and reprinted and amplified to the world. Diverse stories by diverse authors about diverse futures are sorely lacking.
So the cry of all sexist types now will, after the initial “BAAWWWW!” or “How dare you call me sexist, I have a wife and/or a daughter, I must love women!”, be that I do something about this! Yes! It is my responsibility to fix other people’s shit!
But I actually DO want to help fix this problem in our genre.
If anyone wants to cry “Why don’t YOU edit a SF anthology and see what YOU think the best stories are!” – I’d fucking LOVE to edit a SF anthology, whether reprints or original stories or both. I’d want there to be sufficient money involved to make it worth my while (and worth the contributors’ time, especially if they’re writing original stories) and for the publisher to have decent circulation, so that narrows the possibilities somewhat, but look: if anyone who can meet those criteria wants me to edit a SF anthology that actually treats the future as the future and acknowledges that women and non-white people and queer people can write awesome SF, I’m here.
What I also want to note is that there are stories doing this right, and I want to draw attention to them, because they tend to slip unremarked into the abyss while the aforementioned dreck gets the accolades and multiple reprints. I have a tablet now (yay!), which means I’m going to be reading a lot more online short stories, so I plan to recommend the great ones I find. I’ve only had my tablet for a couple of days, so there’s not much to rec yet, but get started on two fantastic stories by Aliette de Bodard: “Immersion” and “Scattered Along the River of Heaven”. I also really like Nnedi Okorafor’s “Spider the Artist”. Offline, Catherynne M Valente’s “Golubash, or, Wine-War-Blood-Elegy” remains one of my favourite SF stories. I also strongly recommend you look at the Science and Science Fiction issue of Stone Telling, to see many visions of the future in poetic form.
And I am writing the kind of SF I want to see, too, but that’s obviously a long-term process.
In the meantime: SO FUCKING SICK OF THIS SHIT.
Powerful words from Catherynne M Valente, talking about writing the second Fairyland book:
“I have tried to write stories that go into the underworld of myth and bring out life and fire—where the old world looked at a woman alone and immortal and said: she must long to die, I have tried to say: look at her live!”
The state of various projects/life things:
The Bone Queen
Sent back to the agent who was interested in it.
Hopefully he will think it works now. If not, I will need to dig up my spreadsheet of agent submissions and see who I haven’t submitted it to yet. I like this book far too much to let it languish. (Arguably I could re-submit to agents who have seen it, because I’ve made some substantial changes, especially to the first half – but hopefully it won’t come to this anyway.)
Anxiety, hello. Ahhhhhhh. I want so much for the book to be good enough. Ahhh.
ETA: Very quick reply from him to say that he’s incredibly busy for the next 6 months. This gives me several choices, which I will consider when it’s not midnight.
The classes ended in March, but I still have to do the final assignment. This is due before the end of the month. Hopefully I haven’t forgotten how Akkadian works in all this work on bones and deserts and stories and no šumma.
Sadly the intermediate Akkadian course isn’t being offered next academic year – but Sumerian is being offered instead! I am obviously going to do that. :>
This is the one set among the same people as in “Sung Around Alsar-Scented Fires”, several generations later when the problems have worsened. I have 2,000 words so far. Tentative title is “Under Falna’s Mask”, as the protagonist, Mar-teri, is in dialogue with the kind of story that Falna’s song tells.
Mar-teri is interesting to write, because she’s young, but she’s dealing with adult concerns – and, prior to the novella, has made a decision that might be called her growing-up decision. Now she’s finding that even adults have an ongoing learning process, especially ones who have to lead a group of people to safety. Getting the perfect balance for this isn’t easy, but it’s fun. It helps, of course, that Mar-teri is competent and passionate and a bit flawed but mostly good at her role.
I’m going to enjoy writing this novella.
So many stories to work on! I have two that need small edits before being sent back out on submission. I want to have another go at the SF story I’ve been calling “Spices in SPAAAACE”, which I had critiqued at Wiscon back in 2008 but was unable, at the time, to fix to my satisfaction. It’s set in the same future as Falna and Mar-teri, but several centuries earlier and in a different part of their star system. (I really want to be writing and publishing more SF. I hope this story will be a strong step in that direction.) I need to research the historical period in which people lived with foxes so I can write a story about that. I also need to research my currently vague idea for a historical and/or SF story about propaganda posters. (Research, research, research! I need more some story-ideas that won’t become entire projects – except that the heftier they feel in my head, the better I suspect they will be.) Then there’s a weird Fox Confessor IN SPAAAACE retelling that I started…
And that’s just the stories I want to work on immediately.
And now I can actually work on them instead of imagining them! I was hoping to be able to do this at the beginning of April, not the end, but oh well. Stories! And a poem that needs rewriting! And stories!
I think it’s a joke to expect that I’ll be less busy now that I’m no longer editing The Bone Queen. XD
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.
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.
At some point I want to write a proper piece about my issues with steampunk and the way it often ignores the incredibly complex, usually deeply horrendous realities of the 19th Century in favour of some kind of exotified London or Wild West with gears! and cogs! and steam! and not a whole lot of engagement with issues like sexism, imperialism, the attempted eradication of the Native peoples of North America, and so on.
But I’m really busy at the moment, so here’s a link to one specific thing that I saw today.
Take a read of those anthology guidelines. Pay particular attention this line:
“they want to see Victorian globetrotting adventurers and wild technologies in the Wild West.”
1) Victorian. Globetrotting. Adventurers.
Well, that’s a new way of describing explorers who at best unintentionally – and at worst, and far more often, very intentionally – brought with them the forces of colonialism and imperialism to vast swathes of the world. Look, you cannot talk about the “romance” of exploration without talking about colonialism – they are far too tangled up to pretend otherwise.
2) The Wild West is this whole area of steampunk that I side-eye like whoa because do you know what was happening in the “frontiers” of North America in this era? Do you know about how the Native peoples of the continent were being systematically robbed of their lands and murdered? Wild West fiction seems to be about how these white people had all these exciting adventures in a big open landscape conveniently empty of Native peoples, and that’s fucking gross.
Steampunk has this awesome potential to tear apart the 19th Century and examine its dirty innards – and re-arrange them in new ways – but things like this remind me of why I don’t actually read much steampunk.
A few interesting things I’ve read lately:
Excavations at the site of Kharaneh IV are providing archaeologists with a new perspective on how humans lived 20,000 years ago. Although the area is starkly dry and barren today, during the last Ice Age the deserts of Jordan were in bloom, with rivers, streams, and seasonal lakes and ponds providing a rich environment for hunter-gatherers to settle in.
….“Inside the huts, we found intentionally burnt piles of gazelle horn cores, clumps of red ochre pigment and a cache of hundreds of pierced marine shells. These shell beads were brought to the site from the Mediterranean and Red Sea over 250 km away, showing that people were very well linked to regional social networks and exchanged items across considerable distances.”
Prehistory is in danger of becoming my next love.
On the SFF side of things, Ekaterina Sedia has translated a ToC for a (sadly) non-existent collection of intersectional feminist essays about Harry Potter from Russian fandom. It’s amazing. Essay titles include:
Hermione Granger on Liberal Feminism
Ridicule of Victims of Violence as a Form of Demonization: Moaning Myrtle
Good Homosexual is a Well-Educated White Men with No Sexual Liaisons: Albus Dumbledore
Ariana Dumbledore: Murder of a Disabled Person as a Social Necessity
Flitwick and Hagrid: Ethnic Minorities Will Always Clean Up After You, or Uncle Tom in Hogwarts
Professor Vector, or Anonymity of Women in Mathematics
…I could just go on quoting these. Go read the rest! They’re just as excellent.
I was also linked to an older blog post written by Sedia, in which she talks about the exoticism of foreign languages as they’re depicted in popular media. You know when two characters will be speaking a foreign language, translated for the reader’s benefit into English, but the author will inexplicably drop some of the other language’s words into the text, not because they’re untranslatable but because they’re ~decorative~? Yeah, that is a form of Othering.
This is really making me check the ways I write non-English languages (and, for that matter, other forms of English, which is a related issue I’ve been thinking about recently after my own reaction to an American’s mangled attempt to write Brit English).
On the subject of giving thought to serious issues (or not, as the case may be), the World SF blog talks about some of the recent idiocy on the part of Bakker, Watts and Rothfuss, and also quotes Jesse Bullington being thoughtful and acknowledging the position writers are in:
It wasn’t my intention to offend, and the source of the offense was in the (attempted) service of writing something that played against stereotypes of what a black heroine could be…but that doesn’t invalidate said reader’s emotional reaction to what I wrote. The bottom line is I’ll never be able to undo the hurt that I caused her, however inadvertently, which, yeah, is a shitty feeling, and one that I have to own–and acknowledge that my having my widdle progressive author feelings hurt is a good deal less sucky than encountering awful stereotypes about yourself on the page, the screen, etc. on a regular basis.
Ekaterina Sedia speaks similarly at Maurice Broaddus’ website:
Finally, I do realize that my insight is limited, and the book is really much more about the immigrant experience – something I do know about first-hand. And this is something I spoke a lot to my friend about. He was very supportive of the book, but he also said, “You do realize that some Zimbabweans will not like this book because it was written by a white woman.” And yes, of course I do realize that, and you know what? It’s a valid position. I think it’s an important thing, to accept that you won’t have a unanimous approval, and to not be hurt about it. Westerners writing about other cultures either seek validation or just default to “haters gonna hate so screw them, I’ll write what I want” positions. So for me, I think it’s important to do one’s best, but not expect that everyone will love you for it. I mean, I myself am wary when Westerners write about my culture, so who am I to expect a different treatment?
All food for thought.
Aliens: Recent Encounters
I'm the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters, a reprint anthology of science fiction stories, out in June 2013 from Prime Books.
Coming in 2014
The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women
I will be editing an anthology of powerful, important science fiction stories by women, showcasing the unforgettable contributions made to the genre in recent decades.
Out in late 2014.
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