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As you should all be aware by now, from my review on Monday of The House of Binding Thorns among other intimations, I am incredibly fond of Aliette de Bodard, both as an amazing human being and as an incredibly good writer; before The House of Shattered Wings, she provided a blog post here on the topic of diversity and gender roles in her Fallen Paris setting and her writing more broadly, which I greatly enjoyed. So when she asked if anyone would like to host a post on the topic of motherhood in fiction, and further intimated that the stunningly excellent artist Likhain had provided an illustration for the piece, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. It’s a brilliant essay, and I am so glad to have the honour to share it with you:
Horrific pregnancies and dead mothers: motherhood in fiction and how I learnt to love my pregnant character
You know where you stand with mothers in fiction and media.
They die in childbirth, they die of illnesses, they’re dead long before the story starts, allowing the main character perhaps a modicum of angst, perhaps a touching memory of safety–allowing for danger and conflict, for which it would seem that peculiar loss of safety is a prerequisite. And it’s mothers specifically–fathers tend to be a source of interrelational conflict, because they tend to have those fascinating jobs and lives–because they have an existence outside their children, whereas mothers’ jobs seem to stop somewhere between giving birth and raising their kids (a job that incidentally is devalued as being natural and easily accomplished when it’s anything but!)
Laura’s mother and mother-figure Gabriela both die in Logan, Peter Quill’s/Star-lord’s mother likewise in Guardians of the Galaxy. The mothers in Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are both dead before or shortly after the story starts. Queen Amidala dies in childbirth at the end of Star Wars III. And that’s just the first few examples I could think of, off the top of my head!
And, if mothers have a rough time, pregnant women have it even worse. Births in SFF tend to be monstrous or holy. Ripley in Alien incubates an alien that will erupt out of her body and kill her. Melisandre in Game of Thrones gives birth to a horrific demon. Pregnancy is body horror, a twisted, dreadful experience exploited for viewers kicks.
At the other end of the spectrum, pregnancies can be sacred: necessary for the accomplishment of prophecies, the only hope of devastated worlds and oppressed people: the vampire Darla gives birth to Connor in Angel, an impossibility fated to kill a powerful demon; Kee is the only pregnant woman in the world in the movie version of Children of Men, the symbol of hope for mankind. Someone, after all, has to carry the chosen one, but Heaven forbid they should actually matter. They’re a vessel whose own bodies don’t belong to them, a thing to be worshipped and protected; an abstraction on the way to some more important story (Darla in Angel literally kills herself to give birth).
When I started writing my novel, The House of Binding Thorns, I was onto my second pregnancy, and beyond annoyed.
The book is set in an alternate Gothic turn-of-the-century Paris, a city devastated by a war between magical factions and where the powerless struggle to survive amidst political and magical intrigue. I wanted one of the main characters (Françoise, a queer Vietnamese/Annamite who is the lover of Berith, a Fallen angel, and expecting her child) to be pregnant, because pregnancy is an important part of life for some of us–and because I wanted to tackle families and motherhood in this book.
It turned out to be a hard balancing act. I wanted the pregnancy to be dangerous, because it was disingenuous not to acknowledge childbirth as a major cause of trauma and death for women; and I wanted it to be magical because it was a dark fantasy book–and I had to do all this without turning it into body horror or chosen one narrations!
It turned out the trickiest one to avoid was the sacred pregnancy. I was simultaneously pregnant while writing the book (a very weird experience but one that allowed me to be reasonably confident I was describing symptoms and mindset of the character reasonably accurately), and it was my second pregnancy, so body horror was very far from my thoughts. Though I did wait until after I gave birth to research particular life threatening complications: it turns out that in a 19th Century setting without antibiotics or healing magic the main difficulty is finding pregnancy/birth complications that don’t actually kill the character!
The messiah aspect of the pregnancy was harder to avoid: because of the unusual family structure (not so much the queerness, which is par for the course in the universe, but the Fallen/mortal lover dynamic which is very unusual in-universe) it was rare and therefore precious, and it’s a short step from there to “awe-inspiring”, especially in a post-apocalyptic city of broken streets and destroyed monuments, where it takes on the heft of hope without any deliberation or effort on my part.
I tried to avoid that by making it matter to the characters, so that neither Françoise nor Berith were reduced to mothers of the special child, and by making them, not the child, be the target of political intrigue. In fact, at one point a character explicitly says that the child is not a problem, because “who would teach (them) vengeance?”
Berith and Françoise have to navigate the tricky waters of expectant parenthood and adjust to becoming parents while having their own lives and their own communities. And I’ll only mildly spoil the story by saying that they both survive–that they’re not fridged as some sort of sacrifice for their child’s survival (which is doubly significant as they’re queer in a stable relationship, and we all know how these ones have a tendency to end in media: badly). They can have all the time to discover that the trickiest thing may not be carrying the child to term or giving their life for them, but rather the long, long years of actually raising said child.
But that’s a story for another day!
Art by the truly fantastic Likhain, aka Mia Sereno, whose work you really ought to check out either by clicking through earlier in this sentence or on the image itself. Seriously, support an amazing artist!
Now for the giveaway! I’ve got two copies of the beautiful Gollancz mass-market paperback edition of House of Shattered Wings to give away to two lucky winners, so enter here…
Aliette de Bodard is one of those fantastic writers whose short fiction has won huge plaudits, but whose first novels – the Obsidian and Blood trilogy – largely sank into obscurity due to publisher mishandling; she is also someone I hugely admire and am a friend of. Her new novel, The House of Shattered Wings, came out from Roc in the US yesterday and will come out from Gollancz in the UK tomorrow; I reviewed it last week, and absolutely loved it, especially the politics of the novel. Aliette is herself currently at Sasquan, but her publicity blog-tour continues apace – and I asked her to write about one of the things dear to this blog: gender and diversity…
I’ve been trying to write several versions of this post and always found myself staring at the screen. Writing a blog post pointing out all the ways that my book is diverse feels very embarrassing to me: I’m a basic not-loving-the-limelight introvert, and the previous drafts of this all sounded far too smug and self-satisfied for my personal taste–as in “see how wonderfully diverse my cast is and how progressive I am?”
And hum. I just can’t.
So I’m just going to talk about process, and about diversity and me.
I was a voracious reader as a child, consuming books from the library at a rate that had my parents torn between pride and alarm; and devouring everything from historicals to mysteries to SFF, without making many distinctions of genre.
It took me a long, long while to realise that what they all had in common, and the narrative that they were engraving into my brain, was that people like me did not get to go off on adventures, or to feature much in stories. And when they did, it was often in stories that didn’t quite speak to me: I love Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, but as an allegory of the Vietnam War it falls flat, because my Vietnam War, the one in family memories, isn’t a grand rebellion against cruel colonists, but a confused and half-untold story of conflicting loyalties and difficult choices on the way to independence, of families torn apart and exile, and of a litany of heart-breaking losses. So, even if you do have nominal diversity, narratives and stories can widely vary depending on who is telling them.
When I started writing SFF, for the longest time I had to fight against myself. Against that narrative that white people, white males, white Westerners, were suitable heroes, and everyone else was not. And I wish I could say all I had to do was be aware of that to overcome it, but prejudice is like the air you’re breathing: it’s really really hard to set aside; and you can have the best of intentions and still perpetuate a harmful or thoughtless narrative.
I had to go about it piecemeal: to have women characters and protagonists, to have POC characters and protagonists, to have Vietnamese characters and protagonists (that was a big hurdle to clear: it’s hard to describe the sheer stomach-clenching terror of getting these wrong, of giving everyone a wrong impression of the culture, and of being taken to task by my family for making a mess out of it); and to tackle other axes of marginalisation I’m less intimately familiar with (queer characters, …).
I don’t write stories with checklists of “ooooh let’s have a woman here and let’s have a POC here etc.” I want to write stories that speak to me (especially to ten-year-old me, who sensed something was missing and couldn’t put her finger on what!). But equally, I’ve become aware that it’s very easy to fall back into prejudice. If I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing, my characters revert to my mental default.
When I was writing The House of Shattered Wings, my novel of a devastated Paris with Fallen angels, magicians, alchemists and witches, one of the things that I tried to pay particular attention to was gender roles. I know I have a tendency to revert to “type” (aka cliché) when not giving some thought to what’s happening. Due to years of schooling myself, I now tend to have all my primaries default to female: I saw nothing wrong with having Selene, a political leader and head of a major House of Fallen angels and magicians, be a woman who usually wore men’s clothes (and to have this situation be so usual), and nothing wrong either with Madeleine, my House alchemist and resident geek, being one. My third main character, a Vietnamese immigrant and ex-Immortal, was originally called Isabelle, until I realised this was a really skewed gender balance, and switched her with a male Fallen angel named Philippe. Other female notable characters included two further major political leaders, and a badass archivist with a key plot role (and long-time lover of Selene!).
So I had this slightly smug feeling that my cast was female-dominated; in fact, a quick head-count showed that it was about 70% male and 30% female, because whenever I needed a character who appeared only for a few scenes, I would reach for a male one! I had to hastily rewrite the entire secondary cast to switch genders here and there: the end result is about balanced (but note that I still had the feeling my cast was overwhelmingly female. It’s a known effect of prejudice: anything that strays from the default appears to loom larger than they really are).
One of the things I also wanted to do with the novel was to have a universe in which there was little sexism, because prejudices fell mainly on axes of race (white/non-white), magical nature (Fallen angels vs mortals; within Fallen angels, how powerful they were; within mortals, whether they were good at magic or not) and power/safety (who had safety in a devastated city, and who could offer it to others). So I had to check, once again, that I wasn’t perpetuating sexist ideas that came from our universe: Selene, the head of the major House, struggles in her leadership role and doubts herself, and I had to make very sure she wasn’t doing that because she was a woman, but rather simply because she was young, untrained, and trying to do justice to her powerful master Lucifer Morningstar. She’s in a tense relationship with many of the other heads of Houses, and again, this couldn’t be because she was less powerful than them (another cliché of women being weaker and less competent than men): she’s actually in a dominant (though increasingly unsteady) position, and she knows it.
All of this hopefully feels natural and unforced in the novel: a lot of it was forethought, and pulling out clichés by the root when they occurred (and relying on kindly beta-readers to take me to task for my prejudices!) . I won’t say I’m 100% happy with the way it turned out: already, I can see places where I would do things differently, and I’m of course not totally sure that my best intentions didn’t result in some horrible misstep.
But that’s as it should be: because diversity is a process and not a state, and because I’m always, always learning; and hopefully doing slightly better every time!
House of Shattered Wings is out from Roc as of yesterday, and from Gollancz as of tomorrow; my review & the blurb:
Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.
House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.
Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires’ salvation. They may be the architects of its last, irreversible fall…
Max Gladstone is the author of the amazing Craft Sequence, the first-or-fourth installment of which came out on Tuesday, titled Last First Snow. Since Dr Liz Bourke turned me on to the series, back with Three Parts Dead, I’ve been a huge admirer of the diverse, brilliantly-executed, fascinating, urban economic-legal fantasy that Gladstone has been writing, so I jumped at the offer of a guest-post from the man himself when offered it.
On asking Twitter what the topic of the post should be, the overwhelming response was “bees”; as an alternative, I asked about Gladstone’s choice to write from marginalised viewpoints (most notably, a disabled trans woman of colour in Full Fathom Five). It turns out that, as only a writer of his calibre could, he managed to meld both topics into one in this essay…
I suspect most people feel more or less the same when they’re being chased by bees.
So, no shit, there I was, in rural Anhui province, in China. After a relatively sedentary first year in the country, I’d taken up running, inspired and a bit intimidated by my roommate Wyatt, fresh off the cross country team at college. I never reached Wyatt’s lofty peak of fitness, but every other day I’d dutifully don shorts and sneakers and plod out through the canola fields behind the school, over the little ridge past water buffalo and cabbages, and carry the circuit around ’til I reached the main road again.
That spring, the canola fields bloomed into a carpet of yellow, and I discovered that the local beekeepers brought their hives to gather pollen from those flowers. Right along my running path.
Now, I’m not allergic to bees, but I had some bad bee-related experiences as a kid, and I’ve been nervous around the critters ever since. But I knew better now, I told myself. Bees smell fear, and a smooshed bee releases a pheromone-type chemical that attracts other bees. So don’t be afraid, and don’t smoosh bees, and you’ll be (hah!) fine.
The first day after the hives arrived, I breathed through my nose, and ran right past. A few bees buzzed around my head for a while, but the swarm did not descend. I’d grown as a human being! I’d survived!
The second day, I ran past again, and again the bees showed little interest. By the fourth run, the whole deal seemed old hat.
My fifth run took place on one of those hot and viciously humid days I’d had too much of growing up in Tennessee. I didn’t want to run, or do much of anything except lie in the shade. I even showered, thinking, it’s cool, I’ll skip the run today. But then Wyatt came back from his run, smiling and cut and flush with health, and, fine, dammit, on go the shorts and shoes and out the door go I. Down the hill. Out the front gate. Off the main road, and through the canola fields.
It turns out my shampoo smells like flowers.
The bees noticed.
At first a few buzzed over, turning tighter circles around my head than they had before. That’s fine. I’m cool. I’m cool.
More came, their wings a high-pitched whine in my ears. Ten, maybe. This is, um. My skin’s crawling. Twenty. Forty. Bees land and wriggle in my hair. By reflex, I try to brush them away—and by accident, smoosh.
Have you ever heard two dozen hives notice something all at once?
To me, they sounded like Hells’ own Angels revving up to kick my ass.
The next, it can’t have been more few seconds, felt like much longer. I’ve never run that fast in my life, and I was running ahead of a dust storm made of bees. I was stung. A lot. I couldn’t run faster than they could fly. Just as the cloud was about to pass me, I dove off the road into a bush, crouched with my head covered, and hid.
This makes no sense—I know it makes no sense—but I remember the bees flying right past me down the road, in a coherent black phalanx. Maybe the Bee Goddess took pity. Maybe I’m making that bit up. I don’t think I am. I was in, at the time, let’s dignify it with the expression “a heightened state of consciousness.”
When the bees passed by, I picked the dead ones out of my hair and their stingers out of my skin. I limped home, tended my welts, and found an alternate running trail until the hives moved on. I did not die. Had I been allergic to bees, I would have been in trouble—but I was just stung, and afraid. Probably people with more traumatic bee experiences in their past might have been more afraid; probably people more hard-core than I would have been more level-headed about the whole affair. But I suspect that (controlling of course for allergies) different folks’ experience of that situation would have fallen along a psychological axis that isn’t much dependent on, say, their sexual orientation, gender identity, or racial background.
We live in a cool moment in fiction, especially speculative fiction: people are standing up and demanding to see more of themselves in books, and taking issue with stories that get their experiences wrong. As someone interested in justice, and as someone who has always read stories from a wide range of authors, backgrounds, and cultures, I love this moment. I’m seeing more books drawing from more wells than I ever remember. These conversations and developments draw us closer to a true literature of liberation. (Or ‘escape,’ if you’d prefer.)
So what can I do to help, as an SF practitioner? Privilege, I have it—my only competition in the Privilege Olympics is my demographic clone who happened to grow up capital R rich. For Christ’s sake, I’m a straight, white, cissexual, heterosexual, monogamous Yale man. Cole Porter wrote whole musicals lampooning people like me. I can—and do—boost, and promote work I love by people the system slants against. I can be an activist and advocate. But I’m worse at all that other stuff than I am at writing books. And if I did all that other stuff better, but focused my books on people who look, speak, screw, and believe exactly like I do, well, I’d be using my greatest powers—skills I’ve spent my whole life developing—to be part of the problem. And to make matters worse, I’d be writing about a world that does not exist, a fantasy within a fantasy. Young writers are told time and again in this business that they only get one big conceit per novel, and I’d rather mine be “wild fantasy magic with dragons and stuff” than “depressing monoculture.”
So, what does that leave?
Well, let’s start with what I can’t do. Where I am now, being who I am, I can’t write Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I can’t write Song of Solomon. I haven’t lived the life to write those books. I could try—maybe—but it would take immense research, enormous compassion and negative capability, heroic effort, very patient beta readers, and I’d still probably screw everything up.
But I know what it feels like to be chased by bees. And I know what it feels like to grind at a problem for weeks and break through. I know what it feels like to get the shit kicked out of me. I’ve loved. I’ve fallen. And I’ve seen enough of the world, I’ve spoken with enough people, I’ve read widely enough, and I’ve seen enough sympathy in enough different folks’ faces when I describe my Great Bee Race, to trust my intuition that, while different people from different backgrounds may handle the same situation differently, or describe it differently, there’s a lot we humans have in common.
It helps that I like writing thriller plots—setting characters tense challenges of the “find the murderer” / “stop the disaster” / “figure out the truth” variety, and chasing them around the proverbial map. Those plots aren’t that different from a swarm of bees, if you think about it: stakes are high, consequences immediate, and as a result, differences between people tend to get compressed. It’s still, of course, important to get those differences right—choices made under pressure reveal and unwrap character. But immediacy helps bridge the gap between people, too. The swarm of bees, the ticking bomb—they’re not universal, but they help.
When I was first spinning the ideas that became Three Parts Dead, I read some heated discussions online about how few black women main characters there were in fantasy; those informed Tara, no doubt. Thinking the challenge through I felt like I was up to writing a young black woman who was brilliant, ambitious, desperate to get out of her hick home town, confronted with an overwhelming job—I have personal experience with most of those things, and as I embroiled her in a thriller plot, I felt more confident about writing the parts of her character my experience didn’t cover. That’s not enough, but no one book is, or can be, enough. I can write someone awesome, though, and hope it helps.
The same approach informed my development of a non-anglo culture in Two Serpents Rise, melding authoritarian dynamics I knew from my time in China and environmental issues from Los Angeles and religious and cultural signifiers from Mesoamerica. Ditto for Full Fathom Five, in other ways. And by Last First Snow, my most recent book, I found I’d filled a world with people who were not me!
None of the folks in my books “just happen” to be the people they are—I research, I listen to people, I beta my manuscripts widely, I develop compassion and negative capability, I ask, I listen. I work hard to get right the experiences that are beyond mine. I hold my books up to the light when they’re done, and try to ask, honestly: what am I doing here? When I build a character who differs from me in some significant facet, I try to respect those differences; if I don’t, I’m just being a bad writer.
And then, once I have my characters, I set the bees on them.
Last First Snow came out from Tor Books on 14/7/2015. My review of it is forthcoming. The blurb:
Forty years after the God Wars, Dresediel Lex bears the scars of liberation–especially in the Skittersill, a poor district still bound by the fallen gods’ decaying edicts. As long as the gods’ wards last, they strangle development; when they fail, demons will be loosed upon the city. The King in Red hires Elayne Kevarian of the Craft firm Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao to fix the wards, but the Skittersill’s people have their own ideas. A protest rises against Elayne’s work, led by Temoc, a warrior-priest turned community organizer who wants to build a peaceful future for his city, his wife, and his young son.
As Elayne drags Temoc and the King in Red to the bargaining table, old wounds reopen, old gods stir in their graves, civil blood breaks to new mutiny, and profiteers circle in the desert sky. Elayne and Temoc must fight conspiracy, dark magic, and their own demons to save the peace–or failing that, to save as many people as they can.
Elizabeth Bear has long been one of my favourite writers, as readers will know; her upcoming novel, Karen Memory, is one of the books I am most looking forward to in 2015, and comes out on February 3rd. Given Bear’s outspoken feminism and her tendency towards female protagonists, I’m delighted to be able to present to you a piece by her on the strong female protagonist, and the problems thereof.
Hi. I’m Elizabeth Bear, the author of Karen Memory, a new steampunk Weird West novel out from Tor. And I’m here to talk about failure modes in the theory and practice of creating the “strong female character,” specifically as it relates to female protagonists in science fiction and fantasy.
Or possibly, to rant about very concept of the “strong female character,” because it’s a catchphrase I’m starting to get really tired of. (I think Kate Beaton sums up why pretty well here)
Specifically, my problem is that the idea that a female lead must be a “strong female character” leads to a whole complex of other problems. So here’s an inexhaustive survey of some of them, and some suggestions on how to avoid the traps.
There’s the “She’s not like other girls” problem. (One of the things that I liked very much about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that while the protagonist is a Chosen One, part of the point of the narrative is that she is like other girls. She just, you know, has superpowers. I have other problems with the show, but that’s neither here nor there.) This is related to the Smurfette problem—where there’s only one female character in a male ensemble, and so that woman has to be all women, and exemplary in every way. (There’s usually one black guy, too, who stands for all black people everywhere.)
These characters never seem to have female friends, somehow. Possibly because they just can’t relate to other women with their hair and their nails and their silly giggling.
Then there’s the brittle-and-mouthy problem, which is particularly epidemic in urban fantasy, and has to do with writers attempting a sarcastic noir voice and a hard-boiled protagonist who takes nobody’s nonsense—and winding up with somebody who you would chew your arm off to get away from at a cocktail party. Except they would never be invited to a cocktail party, because they tend to provoke a fight in any conversation they get into, since it’s a cheap way to generate tension. These characters wind up making most of their own problems, frankly, because their only means of interpersonal communication is getting in people’s faces.
These characters never seem to have any female friends, either. Or maybe one. Somebody who enables their undiagnosed and untreated personality disorders.
(It is perfectly possible to write a female character with an attitude problem and have her work quite well. Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski leaps to mind as an example: she’s defended and sharp-edged and patrols her boundaries ferociously. But she’s also capable of realizing what she is doing and making a conscious effort to step the hell off. Self-awareness fixes a lot of characterization ills. And she has a number of female friends. 😉 )
Next on the list, there’s the thing the internet has dubbed Trinity Syndrome, which ranks as the characterization trope I hate most in the world. It’s generally identifiable when a totally cool woman shows up in the first act, is awesome and competent, mentors the ineffectual male hero, is generally better-suited for his job than he is… and by the end of the third act has lost all purpose in life except to hang on his arm and step aside so he can have her job. It’s the GIs coming home after WWII all over again. How to Train Your Dragon II, I’m looking at you!
These women never have any female friends because they are usually the Smurfette, too.
Last but not least, there’s the ever popular madonna/whore dichotomy, where women are either pure and innocent and defined by men, or self-actualizing and evil to the core. You can google that one if you want more information, because even typing “madonna/whore dichotomy” makes me tired to the bone.
They never have any female friends either, unless they’re mothering them.
So. You want to write about women, and you want to avoid falling into these traps. How does a well-meaning person go about it? (And it’s not easy! These roles and tropes are ingrained into the very fabric of our society, into the stories we grow up learning how stories work from. They feel superficially satisfying because we’re programed to expect them on a deep cellular level! No blame, as the I Ching says.)
Well, to escape the trope, we must learn to interrogate the trope. We have to stop thinking of our female characters as Strong Female Characters and let them be people. And more, let them be people on equal footing with the male people—in terms of agency and desires, at least, if not in terms of social expectations. (Heck, one way to show a woman’s strength is to show her dealing with the exhausting nonsense and the extra work that comes as part and parcel of being a woman.) (And heck, let’s see some roles go to strong characters who are trans, or who reject gender binary completely.)
There’s no particular magic to writing a Strong Woman that doesn’t apply to writing all people. The end.
Let’s have Strong Characters, by which I mean strongly characterized characters, people with foibles and strengths and bad habits, regardless of their gender and their sex.
Thanks Bear, for that amazing piece of writing, and excellent guide to how (not) to write female characters!
Elizabeth Bear was the recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2005. She has won two Hugo Awards for her short fiction, a Sturgeon Award, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Bear lives in Brookfield, Massachusetts.
Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.
Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.
Karen Memory came out February 3rd. My review is forthcoming.
Benjanun Sridungkaew will likely have come to most people’s attention over the last 18 months for her prolific, wonderful, non-Western-centric short fiction that has taken in virtually every subgenre there is; she has been published on Tor.com, Giganotosaurus, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, reprinted in various year’s bests – hell, just go and check out her bibliography; and this year she was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award. She’s finally graced the world with her first novella-length work, which I loved; so here is Benjanun Sridungkaew, on Scale-Bright!
When I came across this lovely art of Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing – the white and green snake, respectively – I had a giggle when I read the description: like me, the artist thought ‘the guy the White Snake married’ (Xu Xian, though I often have trouble remembering his name, I think we all do) was… not perhaps the most exemplary hero. In the original legend, he comes across as gullible, weak-minded, and a little boring, being prone to fainting and being deceived. He is, to be charitable, not particularly worthy of Bai Suzhen (one wonders: what is he worthy of? Hm).
Which is to say, I could have told the story of the White Snake finding the reincarnation of her husband in modern Hong Kong – that would be how some writers might have done it – but, really, why would I? It doesn’t seem like much of a story, and if he failed her so badly back then it doesn’t seem likely he will be much more sensible a few reincarnations later. I would have been bored trying to whip that material into something that’d excite and interest me. Maybe she could look for her son, who would presumably have been born half-demon? That has a bit more promise, but it’s still not quite right. It’s lacking something. Fun. Excitement. When I write, I want the story to excite me first.
But I really liked the White Snake legend. What was one to do?
By that point I had already written the stories collected in The Archer Who Shot Down Suns, centered around the archer Houyi and her wife Chang’e. And I wanted to do more with those characters – and so tying them all into the same thing emerged as the likeliest choice. I would get to continue the thread I built up through those three short stories, and play with another favorite myth at once – and I really like efficiency! The best part is that I didn’t have to change anything about the original – with Houyi I made a particular, significant deviation from the source material, but here I built on what is already there. The legend of the White Snake already centers on two women bound as sworn sisters, who do all the things – having adventures, fighting, knowing what they want and going for it against all odds.
What I am taking a long, long way about to saying is that I think it matters what stories we choose to tell, the direction of narrative we take. Ana Grilo, reviewing Scale-Bright, says that the mythical story threads are ‘important in their reshaping the imagining of the world from a very feminine point of view’ – and I was so delighted to see that, it’s definitely one of the objectives I set out to accomplish. Yes, I could have woven the story around Bai Suzhen searching for her son, her husband, or both; another writer might even have made a reincarnation of Xu Xian or her son the lead of the book – or kept Houyi’s gender from the legends, brought ‘him’ into modern Hong Kong as a wuxia hero in leather jackets. Those could have been good stories, I imagine, but they are not the ones I chose. I’m faithful to old legends that I love, but I don’t think we should be totally shackled to them. Storytellers get to modify, leave out, expand.
In my book, Houyi is a woman. She has a wife and wears dapper, and loosely follows an internal code similar to that of wuxia heroes. Chang’e is not a frivolous ditz (as some of the variants portray her); she is an equal partner to her wife, as capable as Houyi and striving as hard to be an aunt to their niece Julienne. Xiaoqing is notorious for having seduced peasant girls in ancient China, and the demon’s realm is populated by beings who are unfettered in romance. The various story threads in the novella are held together by a depressed young woman, who gets to have adventures and find herself worthy of herself.
These narrative choices don’t come out of nowhere. Whom we choose to center is as important as whom (or what) we leave out. We make the choices of whether face-punching occurs in the stories we tell, or whether the shoes we make are comfortable for everyone to wear and don’t flood the waters with weird, awful chemicals. And personally, I feel much more comfortable not going around punching people in the face or pumping toxic waste into the waters. Hooray for nice, clean waters!
Kameron Hurley, way back when this blog was a baby, was one of the authors willing to write a guest post for me; back then it was about having her debut series finally picked up in the UK. Now, with her fourth novel releasing tomorrow in the UK and the first in a new epic fantasy series, she is back on another of her awesome blog tours – and I highly recommend going through the whole thing, Kameron is such a phenomenal writer, who deserved both her fan-writing awards at the Hugos this year. This time, with an epic fantasy I simply raved about, which does so many interesting and nontraditional things while still embracing a highly traditionalist genre, Kameron is here to talk to us about one of those nontraditional things… her approach to gender. So, without any more suspense, I am honoured to present to you…
Beyond He-Man & She-Ra: Writing Non-Binary Characters by Kameron Hurley
While browsing a flea market not long ago, I sat down to take a rest and found myself watching an old crossover episode of He-Man in which She-Ra makes her first appearance. I’m often amused by the sheer batshit crazy of the old 80’s Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and this one was just as wild as I remembered, with folks with swords flinging themselves between planets, people turning into birds, talking cats, and the transformation of our hero and heroine from regular old prince and princess to buff guy and hot gal.
It was in looking at that transformation – you pick up the sword and if you’re a guy, it gives you more rippling muscles, a loin cloth, and a tan, and you pick it up as a woman and you get longer hair and a shorter skirt – that amused me most (the fact that his mantra is “by the power Grayskull” and hers “for the honor of Grayskull” is equally amusing). Because here we were in this bizarro universe where cats could talk and women turned into cats, but men were still Men and women were still Women, and princes were princes and princesses were princesses.
It was as if the crazy, drug-infused imaginations of the cartoon writers hit a brick wall when it came to the acceptable presentation of gender of their characters. He-man needed to look strong, and She-ra needed to look hot. Forever and ever, amen.
I see this failure of imagination again and again in the fantasy and science fiction I read. Folks will go on for pages and pages about new worlds and the intricacies of far-future tax laws and terraforming, but at the end of the day, the men are Men and the women are Women and the only variety you see outside of explicitly feminist work is some aliens who have sex with everybody.
So when I sat down to write my new epic fantasy novel, The Mirror Empire, I decided I wanted to do better. I wanted to create societies I hadn’t seen before, especially not in fantasy. When I decided one of the primary societies in my world, called the Dhai, were a consent culture, it opened up a lot of interesting possibilities about how consent and autonomy and gender identity worked too. If it was impolite at best, and criminal at worse, to lay a hand upon another without consent, how did that society view one’s self-expression of gender? It made perfect sense that it would be the individual, not the society, who chose their own gender, and in Dhai, they had a few to choose from: female passive, female assertive, male passive, male assertive, and ungendered. It made sense that individuals could choose to use different pronouns according to how they self-identified throughout their lives, which meant that someone could, in theory, self-identify as all five genders over the course of their lifetime. It also means, of course, that the outward physical presentation of biological sex of any Dhai character cannot be determined merely by the pronoun I use for them in the book. To make things easier on readers, I made the decision to use only “she” and “he” without passive or assertive markers in this first book, making the gendering look simpler than it was to the casual reader. In the second book, Empire Ascendant, I introduce my first ungendered characters, whose pronouns are simply expressed as “they.”
The nomenclature I used: “passive” and “assertive” was also a bit of a reader shorthand. I have a lot of sympathy for readers tossed into the world of The Mirror Empire – I realize there’s an incredible amount of new and different stuff we’re not used to in it, as so many of us having grown up on endless iterations of Tolkien that perpetuate the same pseudo-medieval societies and mythology, but I really did work hard to simplify things here. Passive and assertive gender types, both male and female, do come with their own expected modes of dress and behavior, as does the neutral gender. But I wasn’t going to spend half the book going into the intricacies of that. In Dhai, assertive tends to have the more negative connotation, as they are those who seek to stand out, to stand apart; the freewheeling liberals out to buck the system. Those more passively gendered are the more conservative, the more reserved, adhering more to tradition – it has nothing to do with who wants to get into a fight or not, as violence is abhorred by all Dhai. As for the female/male associations with those assertive/passive choices, they are completely untethered to our notions of biologically prescribed sex; sexual expression is messy and complicated, and has never been binary. We constructed it that way to make it easier to put folks in boxes, and in Dhai they have many more boxes to choose from. But at every turn, I sought to handwave a lot of this as I wrote, making it as digestible as possible the first time through.
The Saiduan, too, the northern neighbors of the Dhai, have non-binary conceptions of gender, with a third gender, the ataisa, making an appearance throughout. I have two secondary characters in The Mirror Empire who use the pronoun ze/hir, which has become… immensely more complicated in book two now that one of them is a POV character. I used this third pronoun very subtly in the first book, knowing that the deeper folks got into the trilogy, the longer I had to get them used to it. By the time we get to our ataisa POV character I’m hoping folks will be used to it. As to how that particular gender marker in Saiduan expressed itself, or was chosen, I wanted them to have a single gender that meant “the between people,” so that if one wasn’t comfortable with the male or female gender, one would get bucketed into the third. The difference between the Dhai and Saiduan, though, was the consent of this – the society itself chose who became which gender, and though individuals could still insist on or fight against a particular identity, because the Saiduan were less egalitarian and not at all a consensual culture, it made more sense that one’s identity there, like our own in many places here, was thrust upon them.
Finally, not being content with six genders, I also have a character who identifies as none of them. Because as we’ve learned in our own messy culture, our categories and boxes for people will never be an entirely good fit for everyone. We tend to messily choose the about-right-sort-of-I-guess-approximate box to work ourselves into, and the fewer the boxes, the harder it is for us to squeeze into them. In the case of this particular character, they are also able to shift their physical expression of biological sex throughout the book, often shifting pronouns to match that expression, but not always, because why bother, when none of them fits anyway? This character’s struggle with their own gender, and trying to fit their physical expression of biological sex with their pronouns, and still being dissatisfied, knowing they only fit in the seams between things, as someone else, was one of the more heartbreaking characters for me to write. What happens, when the world built up around us does not even have a proper word for us?
Throughout the books, writing about characters of all sorts of genders, was fun for me, and I hope, will be fun for the reader, too. Because the truth is that when you write societies where gender and the physical presentation of a particular sex are divorced from one another you, as the reader, only know their gender. You don’t get caught up in what’s underneath their clothes because it simply doesn’t matter unless and until it matters to the story. I’ve heard a few people say that Dhai having five genders doesn’t matter at all, because it’s not made a big deal in the first book. Yet the politics infused in the five genders of Dhai was not a first-book task I was going to take on. Not yet. And don’t forget to go back over everything I’ve said here, reread some of those character descriptions, and start interrogating who has been explicitly said to have the gender and biological sexual expression you expected as you read the book… and whose was never mentioned at all, because it was no business of the story’s, as yet.
Perhaps it won’t matter, when we peel the world back and folks you assumed acted one way because of their gender were not, in fact, expressing that behavior for that reason at all, but simply because they are who they are. Our genders are not Dhai genders, or Saiduan genders, or even the violently feminine and passively masculine genders of the Dorinahs. How they express themselves, and how they expect to be treated when they present themselves, are far different than what we have here. But there is only so much a new reader will take before their head bursts and they throw away a book in confusion, and I get that. I’ve been very conscious of it throughout.
Whether I succeeded in luring in new readers this way, with this careful measuring out of just enough information but not too much, has yet to be seen. But for those hoping for more, I can say this:
Be patient, dear readers. Things are going to get much, much more interesting.
If that amazing essay doesn’t make you immediately rush out and buy not only Mirror Empire but also God’s War (whose sequel I’ve reviewed) I honestly don’t know what will. This is unlikely to be knocked off the top of my Hugo slate for next year, and I can’t really praise it highly enough.
Liz Bourke has written for me before, reviewing Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, and of course I mentioned her as one of the better writers on diversifying fantasy in <a href="https://intellectusspeculativus.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/queering-the-genre-a-personal-project/" my post last Monday introducing the Queering the Genre project. I was also privileged to stand in for her at Satellite4 losing out to Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook for Best Nonfiction. So, as she says, I asked her to write me something about queer speculative fiction, and being an amazing friend, she obliged!
Dan asked me to talk about queer speculative fiction. Of course, I said yes; but a request to talk about queer speculative fiction is an odd thing for me to receive. My personal genre categories contain no overarching category of “queerness,” no particular group of works that I think of primarily in terms of their gender-bendy-ness.
When I think about it, I can come up with any number of works that involve queerness, or that challenge set gender roles: the oeuvre of Joanna Russ; Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; the oeuvres of Elizabeth Bear and of Melissa Scott (alone and in collaboration); others, like Nicola Griffith, Ellen Kushner and Tanya Huff, in both short and long form; but with the exception of Joanna Russ – because Russ never lets you forget – I’ve never really thought of them primarily in terms of their approaches to gender and orientation, but rather in terms of the wide variety of stories they choose to tell.
(Which probably goes to show that queer characters are characters first.)
There are groups of texts that I categorise by the gender and sexual orientation of their protagonists: but “lesbian SFF romance” and “entertainingly bad lesbian SFF romance,” while running counter to the narrative priorities of the heterosexual economy, are only as queer as their protagonists. They form a separate subcategory of texts, and one that is rarely discussed in any major consideration of queer speculative fiction. Indeed, it is noticeable that the figure of the lesbian, outside some of the specifically feminist texts of the 1970s and early 1980s, is a latecomer in discussions and works involving queerness in speculative fiction. I’ve heard more about Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett’s Point of Hopes (works which feature queer men) than I ever did about Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite (which is all about women): it is only, it seems to me, in the last decade, and especially in the last five years, that lesbian protagonists and main characters have entered the mainstream of science fiction in any numbers.
This isn’t to say, of course, that those numbers amount to any great sum, but they are a noticeable increase.
I started reading lesbian SFF romance by accident. I didn’t realise that Jane Fletcher’s books were about women in love with other women. But they were, and it was a rather mind-cracking-open moment for me.
As this post points out, women have a hard time thinking about a female sexuality that doesn’t involve men. Women aren’t brought up to see female bodies are normal, as normative; lesbian sexualities threaten the heterosexual economy and the male-dominant penetrative model of sexuality in ways that gay sexualities may not necessarily do.
Since my first introduction to SFFnal lesbian romance, I’ve made a habit of seeking it out. There are a handful of really interesting, good, or fun writers working in this subgenre: Heather Rose Jones, with her debut novel; Sophia Kell Hagin; Andi Marquette; Jane Fletcher; Barbara Ann Wright; but with all my heart I wish this sort of thing could be more common in the mainstream of SFF. Because it is the literature of speculation, of testing ideas to destruction – and the heterosexual economy is an idea whose destruction can only lead to the telling of more interesting stories.
Stories that reflect a wider variety of human experience.