When You’re Prepared to Give Up Name and Face

I’ve known for a very long time that I want to write for a living. Been writing since childhood, y’see, and at some point it occurred to me that being a writer was the most sensible thing to do for a person who was decent with words and wanted to be lots of things. A writer can vicariously be whatever they damn well please. A writer can spend all day every day fantasizing, and get paid for it.

So yes, I knew by my teens that I wanted to be a writer. And I began doing all of the things necessary to become one. Literature classes. Creative writing classes. Job in book store. Change name.

Oh, yes, the name change was essential. I share my legal last name with a well-known retailer. It isn’t the done thing to crack your adoring public over the head with your latest hardcover for cracking jokes. And a character of mine had filched my first name and refused to give it back. And stalkers. And I wanted to be taken seriously. That, I thought, required picking a male pseudonym – or at least masquerading by initials.

It amazes me now just how I took for granted that women aren’t equal to men in SF. I’d absorbed that lesson to such an extent that I saw talented women as anomalies; if a woman’s name was on the cover, I automatically assumed the contents would be pink and fluffy and not at all as good as the stuff by the men. So what if some of my favorite authors were unapologetically female? They were exceptions to the rule. Just like I would be. If anyone gave my writing a chance, anyway, and didn’t dismiss it on the automatic assumption that it could be safely discarded due to having been written by a girl.

And so I planned for my future in the genre by spending hours shuffling combinations of initials with potential last names, searching for combos that wouldn’t give my gender away.

Then there was the great face debate.

Author Details Unknown

Author Details Unknown

The whole smoke-and-mirrors with initials would be for naught if I plastered my picture on the back of the book. This mug o’ mine ain’t exactly masculine. So at first, I decided that particular personal touch would have to be avoided. I don’t remember thinking so far as which pronouns to use in the author bio, but of course one misplaced “she” or “her” would give the game away. I’m not sure I’d have risked it. Granted, it wouldn’t be so obvious as a girly name or photo, but still, if people had paid attention, the jig would be up and I’d be back to trying to get a fair hearing despite being female.

I knew it wasn’t fair. But hey, you can’t fight reality, right? Do what you gotta do, and don’t be a pathetic whiner about it.

My reluctance to put myself forward as a female faded gradually. I got older, and perhaps braver, and definitely less inclined to accept the world as-is. I chose the name of a goddess – although not an overtly feminine name, I didn’t dismiss it because it didn’t belong to a male, but reveled in the fact that it belonged to a kick-ass goddess who was mother to a whole people. A bit later, I decided I’d do a photo. I figured it was time to join the ranks of unapologetic women who were demanding people acknowledge that SF wasn’t just a man’s genre. I started paying attention to the gender mix in my stories: I’d always had a strong female lead, but struggled to overcome a heavily male-skewed supporting cast. I started battling the tendency within myself to give women authors automatic short shrift – and it’s a good thing, considering the number of women doing excellent work.

A lot of things have gone in to undoing a lifetime of cultural conditioning against my own gender, but this questioning a previously unquestionable status quo, and the encouragement of those writers within the SF community to address gender bias in both authors and characters, certainly contributed much of the initial momentum. I still haven’t wrestled my birth name back from the character who filched it, but at least I’m not ashamed to have a woman’s name and a woman’s face on my work. I won’t give them up again.

Moi at Monterey Bay Aquarium. Image courtesy Cujo 359.

Moi at Monterey Bay Aquarium. Image courtesy Cujo 359.

Some interesting articles while we’re on the subject of women in SF:

Ask Nicola: A shocking UK sf ‘favourites’ score: men 500, women 18 .

The Guardian: The incredible shrinking presence of women SF writers.

Fantasy & Science Fiction: Women Writing Science Fiction: Some Voices from the Trenches.

NPR’s Monkey See: Women, Men And Fiction: Notes On How Not To Answer Hard Questions.

Wikipedia: Women in speculative fiction.

Answering an Aspiring Author: What I Loved

A friend o’ mine is about to embark upon a program of self-loathing and torture a bit of sci fi writing. He turned to me for advice. A few questions have been asked, and I figured answering in public may perhaps be useful in case anyone else in the cantina plans to embark upon the same soul-destroying madness career.

"This artist concept illustrates how a massive collision of objects perhaps as large as the planet Pluto smashed together to create the dust ring around the nearby star Vega." Alternatively, it describes the brain of a speculative fiction writer. Image and part of the caption courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

“This artist concept illustrates how a massive collision of objects perhaps as large as the planet Pluto smashed together to create the dust ring around the nearby star Vega.” Alternatively, it describes the brain of a speculative fiction writer mid-novel. Image and part of the caption courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

One of the questions was this: “What kind of stuff do you like to write?”

Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say like. Love is a safe word. It’s the right word for the kind of tempestuous, tumultuous relationship a writer has with their fiction. Like is too mild, too constant a word for this passion we share, this rollercoaster of high and low and in between emotion. So. What do I love to write?

I don’t actually know.

"The planet GJ 1214b, shown here in an artist's conception with two hypothetical moons, orbits a "red dwarf" star 40 light-years from Earth.... Astronomers have confirmed that this alien world has a thick atmosphere, but can't yet determine whether the atmosphere is primarily hydrogen or a steamy soup of water vapor." Rather a bit like my fiction writing feels at the moment, that is.  Image and part of the caption courtesy CfA/David Aguilar (NASA)

“The planet GJ 1214b, shown here in an artist’s conception with two hypothetical moons, orbits a “red dwarf” star 40 light-years from Earth…. Astronomers have confirmed that this alien world has a thick atmosphere, but can’t yet determine whether the atmosphere is primarily hydrogen or a steamy soup of water vapor.” Rather a bit like my fiction writing feels at the moment, that is. Image and part of the caption courtesy CfA/David Aguilar (NASA)

We’ve been experiencing a separation of over a year now, fiction and I. I’m shacking up with non-fiction at the moment. It was a polyamorous relationship, but we got a bit exclusive and froze fiction out. I haven’t time to devote to both. And when that changes, and fiction once more returns for some smouldering nights of amore, it won’t quite be the same, as we’ve both changed.

So, to rephrase the question along the same lines, but this time answerable: “What kind of stuff did you love to write?”

Um… things… and stuff…

I loved to write things one might classify more as fantasy than science fiction, but although it contained things like special powers and beings like unicorns and dragons, I did try to ground some of it in science. (Hence the current freelance career as a science writer. Research rather took over there. Heh heh heh whoops.)

"Dear Moon" by Haflinger-Sama.

“Dear Moon” by Haflinger-Sama.

I loved to write about trying to save the universe. Well, don’t we all, right? Few things more exciting to write about than the universe in peril and the plucky people trying to save it.

I loved to write about good and evil and how you can’t tell them apart at a glance sometimes.

I loved to write about how things got to be the way they are. I loved delving the past of my story worlds, searching for the origins of civilizations and relationships, and conflicts and such.

I loved to write about people. Sometimes they weren’t human people, but they were people nonetheless. I loved to write about good people trying to do the right things, and bad people bad ones, and just when we thought we knew them and could figure out what they’d be up to next, I loved watching them do something unexpected and sometimes seemingly out of character. Because people and situations are complicated, and you can’t always predict them, and you haven’t always got them right.

Dragon Sphere. Image modified from Sneinton Dragon by N Harrison.

Dragon Sphere. Image modified from Sneinton Dragon by N Harrison.

I loved to explore relationships: between people, between civilizations, between enemies and friends, between folks and land, and folks and objects.

I loved finding out why things were the way they were, and people were, and worlds were.

I loved exploring worlds, and showing their wonders, and why they might just be worth dying for. I loved speculating about what different worlds would look like, and what relationship people might have to their universe when their sky had two (or more) suns, multiple moons, a different hue.

"This artist’s impression shows a sunset seen from the super-Earth Gliese 667 Cc. The brightest star in the sky is the red dwarf Gliese 667 C, which is part of a triple star system. The other two more distant stars, Gliese 667 A and B appear in the sky also to the right. Astronomers have estimated that there are tens of billions of such rocky worlds orbiting faint red dwarf stars in the Milky Way alone." Many worlds - many civilizations? Image and part of caption courtesy ESO/L. Calçada.

“This artist’s impression shows a sunset seen from the super-Earth Gliese 667 Cc. The brightest star in the sky is the red dwarf Gliese 667 C, which is part of a triple star system. The other two more distant stars, Gliese 667 A and B appear in the sky also to the right. Astronomers have estimated that there are tens of billions of such rocky worlds orbiting faint red dwarf stars in the Milky Way alone.” Many worlds – many civilizations? Image and part of caption courtesy ESO/L. Calçada.

I loved asking hard questions, like what is good, and what is evil; what’s right and wrong, real and unreal, and all sorts of other things that may seem black and white and simple, but turn out to be grayscale and fiendishly complicated.

I loved writing about art and literature and wine and wonderful things that make life full and rich and amazing.

I loved writing about things I didn’t know about, because learning them was a majority of the fun.

I loved writing about myths, and things influenced by myths, and putting a twist in the myth.

And all of these things, I’m sure, I’ll love writing still. But I’ll certainly love writing about science more. And some of the things I assumed, I’ll have to question, because my perspective on a great many things has changed.

But above all, I’ll love the speculation, the what-if and could-be and not-utterly-impossible-but-very-improbable; and I’ll love the fantastic characters; and I’ll love the raw power of writing worlds into being. Which is rather what SF is all about.

The pulsar planets PSR B1257+12 b, c, and d are all that remains of a dead solar system. They are constantly beamed with intense radiation. (Artist's concept) Image and caption courtesy NASA.

The pulsar planets PSR B1257+12 b, c, and d are all that remains of a dead solar system. They are constantly beamed with intense radiation. (Artist’s concept) Image and caption courtesy NASA.


The Joye of Ancient Literature

Literati observing me as a youngster might have despaired. I had no real interest in musty old tomes. For a long time, my tastes ran to mysteries and Westerns. Then I became addicted to fantasy and science fiction. I still adore all that stuff, and I believe some of the best fiction ever written is genre. Michael Hann and his ilk would faint at the idea. These, mind you, are the very same people who wouldn’t be ashamed to see clutching Homer in public – a patina of age, apparently, puts a suitable shine on monsters, demigods and other tropes of fantasy.

The poor buggers will need a fainting couch when I tell them it’s a Western writer who helped get me hooked on ancient literature. But it’s true. Louis L’Amour wrote The Walking Drum, which brought some very old texts to vivid life. I’ve sung that book’s praises more than once, and I’ll sing them again: it was one of the best books I’ve ever read.

While the Michael Hanns of the world clutch their Trollope and Proust, I’ll turn to my fantasists, thanks ever so much. Guy Gavriel Kay. Susanna Clarke. That’s all I’m saying. Oh, and these folks, too, among about a billion others. I’ll put the best SF authors in a ring with your literary greats any day, and I know who I’m putting my cold hard cash on.

So yes, I loves me my modern SF, and quite a lot of genre (excepting most romance, although there was that one book by Catherine Coulter that I picked up and read because the blurb contained this aside: “What is a marten, you ask? A marten is a sable; a sable is a weasel. What is a weasel, you ask. See marten.” And I figured anything that snarky couldn’t be half bad, and it actually wasn’t). But there are times when I love to immerse myself in ancient literature.

I love snark, and while schools try to carefully conceal the fact, ancient authors could be quite snarky. Lucian made a career on snark. I’m reading a collection of his works just now and adoring every minute, even the footnotes necessary to understand the in jokes. And for a little while, now, I’m walking alongside him, sniggering at the philosophers and socially pretentious, marveling at his command of language. Well, his and the translator’s – I can’t speak much ancient Greek.

Sappho? Oh, my darlings, I am such a sucker for Sappho. Go read A.S. Kline’s translation of this poem. Then sample the rest of his site – the words there will intoxicate you. I’ve talked about Sappho and her friend Alcaeus before. Rhapsodized, really. I love them both dearly. And dear Father Locks, Abu Nuwais, who probably couldn’t be taught in school without some stern censorship, because heaven forfend we should tell the kiddies it’s okay to get all lyrical about drinking and sexuality – even homosexuality.

I love words that seem like they couldn’t have been written by a mortal, deep words, powerful words, such language! But I also love words that use all of those elegant and graceful stylistic tools to speak of the human condition. Not the noble, not the elevated, but the ordinary things, the things we’ve been taught to avert our eyes from. Clay feet are nicely set off when framed in gold, aren’t they just? And the ancients, they knew how to do that. So do the moderns, truth be told, but there’s just something about reading the words of writers thousands of years dead and seeing ordinary people. You could lift some of them out of their context and set them down right here. Once they got over the culture shock and learned how to navigate our technology, you’d have a full population of pompous asses and internet trolls and worrisome children and interfering parents. You’d have your truly good, situationally good, and not really good at all. You’d have your quacks and charlatans. You’d have your rednecks and your metrosexuals. You’d have people who understood “You’re So Vain,” and people who’d probably think that song was about them.

That was the thing I didn’t get through much of high school. Literature is taught as this great and solemn thing. It’s approached with the white gloves and reverence. It seems to have no relation to a modern life. Now, I’m a book nerd. I didn’t have to be told to like Shakespeare, but it sure as shit helped the addiction along when Mr. Vail, our British and Senior English teacher, took me aside to show me some educational contraband. If you read that post, you’ll also discover Mrs. Putman, who got a whole bunch of hormonal teenagers hooked on French literature that year. It wasn’t required reading, but the local bookstore ran out of copies of Les Miserables. The unabridged edition, mind you.

You know why we loved that stuff? Because the humanity hadn’t been stripped from it. It hadn’t been sanitized. And it wasn’t presented as something we should read because it was Great Literature, but because it was all about well-written stories.

That’s what’s been so wonderful about getting out of school. I’m not reading things considered inoffensive to Good Taste, but stuff that survived because people enjoyed reading it. Uncensored. Complete, whole and gorgeous, warts, double entendre, fart jokes and all.

What really amuses me about people with literary pretensions is that they so often laud Shakespeare, who wrote for the unwashed masses. I wonder just how much of the literature we venerate today was yesterday’s popular entertainment?

It’s certainly entertaining to me now. And there’s nothing quite like going back to the old works. Let me tell you, if you haven’t touched an ancient writer since being forced to pick one up in high school, or found yourself limited to only the venerable old farts sanctioned by the people in charge of providing as inoffensive an education as possible, you’ve missed out.

Wash the stodgy old dust of neutered texts out of your mouth. Get your Xenophon on. Go hang out in the clouds with Aristophanes. And tell us about the ancient delights you’ve discovered.


Why SF Is Important

Last Sunday, I posted my own thoughts on the importance of speculative fiction. Okay, yes, it was a rant. I do that sometimes, when things get up my nose.

We’re going to follow up here today with a fantastic post that inspired me to post that one. It’s called In Defense of Geekery: Why Society Needs SF/F. It’s written by Becky Chambers. I want to buy her a drink. I want to buy her several. Because she managed to say what I needed to say in far fewer words:

The other kicker is that our stories are ones that could be, not ones that are. This is a vital distinction. If I tell you a disturbing story, and I say, “this is how it is right now,” you may be motivated to do something about it. More likely, however, you will end up like me and my friends, picking at fries and feeling hopeless. You’ll feel pessimistic and disillusioned. You’ll feel like our species totally sucks.
But if I show you a fantastical place – even a scary one – that lights up all the little imaginative parts of your brain, and I tell you, “this is how it could be,” that opens up a whole new realm of possibilities.

“This is how it could be.” That’s exactly what we writers of SF are telling folks, only we’re not bawling it in their faces, but whispering it in their ears. We’re giving them a delicious tingle down the spine. We’re giving them ideas. We are, in fact, inspiring them.

Here, for me, is the money quote, one I may have to have printed on pamphlets to distribute in venues where Very Helpful People may approach me to advise I am wasting my life and my talents writing fantasy when I could be writing something useful instead:

But what about fantasy? Fantasy can’t exist, no matter how we may long for a dragon heartstring wand or a dire wolf pup. What value can there be in exploring an impossible world?
Well, what if we frame the question differently? What if we ask, “What value can there be in exploring character studies in heroism, friendship, creativity, perseverance, and bravery?”
…yeah, that’s not even a question.

It’s really not.

And the brilliant thing about what we SF writers do is this: we change lives and minds, inspire people to do great things (read the whole of Becky’s article, and you will see how Star Trek gave a little girl the stars), perhaps even save the world, and we do it whilst entertaining the hell out of them.

There are some great jobs in this world. I personally think being a geologist is near the top, and there’s stuff like firefighter and astronaut and cake decorator that are a damned lot of fun and make people’s lives better. There are many careers a person can have that are fun, rewarding, and necessary.

But I personally can’t think of one I love more than SF Author.

People With No Understanding of Fantasy Probably Shouldn’t Review It

I have now, like every other fantasy fan with tits on the planet, read Ginia Bellafonte’s risible review of HBO’s adaptation of A Game of Thrones.

I’ve spent most of the week now trying to determine which planet she’s from.  I’m still not sure.  It hasn’t got the same color sky as mine, and the fact that she seems to think rape, incest and other varieties of less-than-romantic sex are thrown in to Martin’s harrowingly gritty books just to give the ladies something to love frankly concerns me.  I have to question the psychological health of a woman who thinks that’s the sort of erotica women go for en masse.  But never mind that.  What’s even more ridiculous than her bass-ackwards ideas of why GOT will have sex scenes is her insistence that Martin’s epic is somehow about global warming.

Yes.  Really.  Here, for those who don’t want to give her the satisfaction of another page view, is her take on the whole thing:

Here the term green carries double meaning as both visual descriptive and allegory. Embedded in the narrative is a vague global-warming horror story. Rival dynasties vie for control over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros — a territory where summers are measured in years, not months, and where winters can extend for decades. 

How did this come to pass? We are in the universe of dwarfs, armor, wenches, braids, loincloth. The strange temperatures clearly are not the fault of a reliance on inefficient HVAC systems. Given the bizarre climate of the landmass at the center of the bloody disputes — and the series rejects no opportunity to showcase a beheading or to offer a slashed throat close-up — you have to wonder what all the fuss is about. We are not talking about Palm Beach. 

I have to wonder why Blogger doesn’t offer Comic Sans as an option, because any passages quoted from Ms. Bellafonte’s review deserve to be in said font.  Who here has read Martin’s series and thought it was about global fucking warming?   She obviously hasn’t.  Read the series, I mean.  And after that bizarre last sentence, which upon fourth reading still makes no sense, she drops the global warming question all together and instead asks why the show’s even on HBO.

Because, Ms. Bellafonte.  It is an epic series conducive to adaptation, popular with huge swathes of male, female and otherwise-gendered people.  It’s such a gripping story that even those of us who hated it – literally hated reading it – had to keep reading, and are ready to beat George R.R. Martin bloody (sparing his hands and skull) if he once again delays the release of the next book.  Some people at HBO, David Benioff chief among them, believed in its potential and saw the project through.  And HBO stands to rake in the cold hard cash, because, and this is important, not everyone is a sneering, fantasy-hating, too-avante-gard-to-live genius-in-her-own-mind lackwit with culturally piss-poor female friends such as yourself, Ms. Bellafonte.

I mean, seriously.  Not one of your female friends could clue you in?  You have never met one single, solitary woman who would prefer The Hobbit over the latest navel-gazing based-on-the-author’s-pathetic-excuse-for-a-life schlock offered up by book clubs that only seem to exist in order to make people who like good books cry?  Not even one?  Do you even leave your house?  Do you even talk to other women?  I have to wonder.

You apparently belong to that pathetic subset of the human population who think it makes them unbearably hip to bash fantasy at every possible opportunity.  You see armor and dwarves, and you’re in instant sneer mode, too busy looking down your nose to look beneath, at questions of what it means to be human and what morality is and how twisted society can be that would make your hair curl.  Fantasy can be brutal.  Fantasy can be uncompromising.  And it can make us think in ways we never would have been able to think if the issues had been presented through any other medium.  Unfortunately, it can’t get through to the likes of you, Ms. Bellafonte, because you seem to be operating under the assumption that this isn’t something good girls should like.  Your fucking loss.  And believe me, it is a loss.

Upon rumination, I can only come to the conclusion that your review is the result of a pathological hatred of fantasy combined with a serious lack of insight into the vast majority of your fellow females.  It seems to me to be a cry for help.  You should meet some new people.  People like me and my lady friends, who think nothing of spending an evening geeking out over shows like Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, and (oh, yes) Game of Thrones.  Speak to women who would move to Middle Earth in one second flat if given half the chance.  Listen to women whose bookshelves groan under the weight of more fantasy tomes than can be listed in one small blog post.  Your sample size has been skewed by the fact your head has been firmly lodged up your posterior.  There are legions of female fans of fantasy and science fiction.  And two things you should have realized before penning something so incredibly stupid from start-to-finish:

1. We don’t appreciate being told we don’t exist.  And

2.  Trying to review a genre you’re clueless about leads only to humiliation.

Keep this in mind the next time you plan to heap scorn upon a show you’re reviewing.  Especially if HBO decides to do a Thursday Next series.  Because, while Martin’s fans can be brutal, Fford ffans are just downright terrifying.

P.S. I get the impression from your article that you must have obtained a college education of some description.  Were I you, I’d be asking for my money back. 

For further entertaining dissections of one of the dumbest reviews in the history of television reviews, see:

George R.R. Martin’s brilliant response (and delightful shout-out to his fangirls).

Annalee Newitz explains why the show’s actually targeted at women only.

Geek With Curves demonstrates why you should not piss off someone whose next tattoo is inspired by Joss Whedon.

Margaret Hartmann demonstrates the art of the short, sharp smackdown.

And our own Stephanie Szvan digs in, plus bonus story!

I’m sure I’ve missed about five gajillion.  Pop your faves into the comments, and/or any ranting you feel moved to.  Epic length comments welcome.  We are talking about fantasy here.