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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.
What do a disabled superhero, a time-traveling Chinese-American figure skater, and a transgendered animal shifter have in common? They’re all stars of Kaleidoscope stories!
Kaleidoscope collects fun, edgy, meditative, and hopeful YA science fiction and fantasy with diverse leads. These twenty original stories tell of scary futures, magical adventures, and the joys and heartbreaks of teenage.
Diversity is an increasingly strong theme in discussions of the state of the genre, and the inculcation of that diversity, but rarely are practical steps taken. Rios and Krasnostein decided to take a practical step through Krasnostein’s Twelth Planet Press publishing business, and with the help of Pozible (a crowdfunding site), Kaleidoscope was born!
I have to declare a certain interest here; Kaleidoscope is dedicated to me (in the Acknowledgements section – flip to the back and check!), and I have consistently supported the project and cheered as Krasnostein and Rios brought a host of voices both veteran (Garth Nix! Karen Healey!) and new (Sofia Samatar!) to bear on the broad theme of “diversity”, an idea that the fan community is coming to terms with but that is still seen as too “PC” a theme for an anthology by some. Kaleidoscope is an excellent artistic rebuttal of that.
Entirely made up of original fiction, Kaleidoscope covers themes from trans narratives (though not the narrative you’re expecting!), ablism and the perception of the disabled, and neurodiversity (two stories centre on OCD, one on schizophrenia) through to immigration, class issues, racism, and a lot of sexuality; it’s impressive to see the broad scope of “diversity” Rios and Krasnostein have embraced in collecting and curating this anthology, and the avoidance of some of the common, awful tropes that tend to reoccur in stories. There are no magically fixed people here, and indeed magical fixing as a theme is interrogated quite harshly; there is no sudden cathartic moment of universal reconciliation, and no utopias of perfect acceptance. Instead, the fantastic is used as a lens to interrogate our own prejudices, our own ideas of normalcy.
There is a wide range of types of storytelling on display here, from Samatar’s tragic and beautiful ‘Walkdog’, in the form of a book report, through Susman’s archival compilation of emails, phone transcripts, application forms and more in the stunning and unexpected ‘The Lovely Duckling’, and achronological chapter-sectioned wonderfully self-referential myth in El-Mohtar’s ‘The Truth About Owls’. The table of contents also boasts a lot of more conventional stories, including Roberts’ ‘Cookie-Cutter Superhero’, a truly wonderful subversion of superhero narratives and brilliant satire of the comics of the Big Two all at once. Indeed, to highlight every story here that is a stand-out beauty would take too long, and involve listing every single one; this is an anthology of what would be highlights in any other anthology, truly superlative work.
There is, unfortunately, one misstep in Kaleidoscope, and it is Flinthart’s ‘Vanilla’. ‘Vanilla’ is the sole story that discusses nonbinary genders (there are multiple stories about trans characters, but all within the gender binary), and it situates that nonbinarism in its aliens; that is, literal, non-homo sapiens aliens. Indeed, the story includes the idea that even without gender, the being carrying the child is made female by the act; that femininity is defined by the ability to give birth. Now, it’s inevitable that one story in the anthology would be problematic, and ‘Vanilla’ is, in its discussion of immigration and integration, amazing, but it feels rather unfortunate that the problems in the story punch me in the face.
That said, Kaleidoscope is overall a wonderful, monumental achievement and a really stunning collection of good fiction quite apart from Rios and Krasnostein’s efforts to foster a sense of diversity, empathy and understanding. If you can, buy this book. If you can’t, ask booksellers to order it in so you can buy it. Give it to teachers, to teenagers, to educators of all kinds; to politicians, to friends and family, to community leaders. Kaleidoscope deserves to be distributed far and wide, and its message needs to be distributed far and wide.
And it really is that good.