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Nineworlds is, this year, one of the most major convenions in the UK, what with taking place a week before WorldCon in London, and therefore sharing a reasonable proportion of guests and attendees. It’s also a very special convention, especially in a year where the venerable feminist science fiction convention WisCon is being rocked by serious problems around harassment and how to deal with it: Nineworlds is an actively inclusive, progressive, social-justice-oriented convention. With (separate) tracks on Geek Feminism, Race & Culture, and LBGTQAI Fandom on top of the more traditional tracks like All The Books, Doctor Who, Podcasting, Fanfic, Cosplay, Knitting, and Food Geekery (that’s not an exhaustive list of all the tracks on offer), Nineworlds isn’t just a matter of having something for everyone, it’s also looking to have something to *welcome* everyone.
So, my Nineworlds experience.
I went into Nineworlds with a plan for the panels I wanted to see, largely more than one at any one time; my plan didn’t survive contact with the convention, of course, but there was a lot of spontaneous socialisation, which helped! Panels started at 9am on Friday, and I was in one by quarter past after registration; “Archaeological Exploration of Fantasy Worlds”, a fascinating topic, led by H Grünefeld. Unfortunately, Grünefeld’s talk was less about the idea of how archaeology can help us approach fantasy worlds generally, or how the techniques of archaeology can be applied in our reading and writing for a deeper understanding of these worlds, and more about the ideal dig in a series of fantasy worlds including Middle Earth and Westeros; while moderately interesting, I had hoped for a more analytical approach. The Geek Feminism track’s “Geek Culture Needs Feminism Because…” open session was rather glorious; the modified slogan was, of course, on a number of whiteboards for completion and photographing. It was also here that I first ran into Laurie Penny, whose feminist writing I am rather a fan of; I got to shake the (truly diminutive) intellectual powerhouse by the hand. “Suffering Sappho: Queer representations in superhero comics” followed; while an interesting discussion in some respects, and which undoubtedly came out with some great recommendations and fascinating thoughts about why queerness is more commonly found in villains than heroes, the panel largely wandered far and wide without any real moderation or serious engagement with the topic; instead fanfic ideas were more heavily featured than any discussion of existing queer characters and their presentation (for instance, Batwoman or Young Avengers). The “Superheroes and Superhuman: exploding the myth of the superwhathaveyou” panel, featuring among others Stephanie Saulter and Nick Harkaway, was one of the best discursive panels of the weekend; the panellists moved from discussing comic book heroes to the idea of normality, through posthumanism, discussion of what makes a hero (and indeed what makes one super), and the impact of the absolutely out of the ordinary on the everyday. The discussion was brilliantly moderated by Jenni Hill, and it moved from point to point with such a level of intellectual debate and fascinating ideas that it was a real highlight of the con. The evening’s entertainment, by contrast, was less so; “Only A Moment” (or “Just A Minute But The BBC Says We Can’t Call It That”) only works when the participants are all confident, know what they’re doing, and are very up for the silliness of the game. As it was, while Laurie Penny got into the swing of it over the course of the session, the rest of the panelists really didn’t seem terribly up for it, unfortunately. On the other hand, seeing the Bear-and-Lynch show in the bar afterwards was fantastic, the first of a number of times that weekend; both are warm, friendly, funny and interesting people, and excellent conversationalists, with Lynch’s particular strength being his raconteurship.
Speaking of which… but before we get to that, the first panel of Saturday, on “Rule 63: Gender and subversion in history, popular culture and fandom”. Moderated by Alex Dally MacFarlane, who of course has interesting thoughts related to this subject for Tor.com, the discussion felt a little stilted but still interesting, largely looking at the way the idea of Rule 63 reinforces the binary in ugly ways and how that could be fought back against, including the raising of a reworded version replacing “opposite gender” with “different gender”. There was also fascinating discussion of how Rule 63 allows fans to explore gender experiences outside their own that otherwise they might be unable to experience; that tied in brilliantly with personal anecdotes from the panellists themselves. The panel that followed rather threw it into the shade and was the most purely entertaining part of the weekend; “Dragons vs Werewolves vs Vampires vs Warlocks: the ultimate deathmatch smackdown”, with Elizabeth Bear representing dragons, Gail Carriger representing werewolves, Joanne Harris representing vampires, and the effusive Scott Lynch representing (or possibly being one of?) warlocks. In this panel we learned that dragons are the baddest motherfuckers in the valley, werewolves are great if you’re into kinky sex or beastiality, vampires are responsible for all culture ever including the Kardashians, and that warlocks will claim responsibility for everything ever. The panellists were brilliant, and really played off each other, in the most wonderful ways; the joyfulness of the panel really permeated the room brilliantly. After a break from formal conventioning for a few hours, I followed it up with the most impassioned of the panels I attended, “Monsterclass: Post-Colonialism”, led by Fabio Fernandes. The small room when I first arrived was sparsely populated, leading to a little worry on my part; but by the time we started, it was packed to the point of people sitting on the floor, and Geoff Ryman reclining on a sideboard and half-concealed by the whiteboard. Fernandes opened with a brief-ish introduction to the issues, before we had an excellent discussion around the idea of “post-colonial literature”, and the problems with it; Tade Thomson and Rochita Ruiz were particularly fascinating on this point, and Stephanie Saulter’s thoughts about the problems of the monolithic nature of the term given widely varying experiences of colonialism were brilliant. The whole panel made me think in a new, better way about literature from the global South and how we should understand it. Inevitably we then decamped again to the bar, where I continued the discussion with Rochita and Anne Lyle; the beauty of cons is of course that this is possible, and the passionate discussion that ensued (I’m afraid I may have spoken rather too much) was notable for its nuances, especially going on as it did until nearly midnight.
Sunday opened with that most enjoyable of topics… rape. Specifically, a panel titled “Assaulting the Narrative: rape as character motivation”, with panellists who had either written or written about rape; Sophia McDougall, for instance, stated she thought she was there because of her Rape of James Bond post. Mind you, that didn’t mean she had nothing to say, if anything the opposite; McDougall and Cara Ellison, a games writer, dominated much of the discussion which was fantastic, infused with feminism and brilliantly sensitive on the topic. Den Patrick and Tom Pollock, the other participants, also pulled their weight; they let the women speak, but also had points of their own to make, largely about sensitivity and necessity; both acknowledged their limitations in writing about rape, derived in no small part – as McDougall highlighted – from their lack of fear of it. The pace of discussion was brilliant and the thoughts exchanged really give me hope for the death of rape as thoughtless, easy character trope. There was a degree of crossover in the discussion of historical figures in my next panel, too; “Writing Historical Fiction and Fanfic: Is RPF okay when the person is dead?” discussed sensitivity to the individual, to those related to them, but also more broadly to cultural harm. Aliette de Bodard’s raising of the issue of the harm that RPF, historical fiction and similar things can do to other cultures, especially those not largely represented in the mainstream narratives, was powerfully expressed and heartily picked up by the rest of the panel. It was a good, nuanced, thoughtful discussion, and the different media and genre the panellists represented really brought an extra something to the panel. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of “X-Punk: punk as suffix, genre and state of mind”, whose panellists were perhaps rather too inexpert on cyberpunk and steampunk, either in their origins or their current forms, to really discuss anything but the broad-stroke categorisations and the theoretical ideas they held of these. The discussion was rather quotidian, unfortunately, and more about trying to understand what the suffix “punk” does without really looking at how it is used. The last panel of the day provided a good contrast; as a fantasy reader, “Epic Fantasy: the panel of prophecy!” was always appealling, and with Bear, Lynch and Gaie Sebold among the panellists, it also promised significant amusement. And so it delivered; Den Patrick’s moderation, focused heavily on discussion of the tropes of epic fantasy and how the panellists engaged with and used them, meant that the panellists built up an idea of the ur-form of bad epic fantasy, and demolished it utterly. The discussion of tropes was brilliant, and their various dissections by especially Scott Lynch, who has a lot to say on the topic, were hilarious.
And that was my weekend; exhilerating, enjoyable, educational, friendly, and bloody brilliant. Bring on Nineworlds 2015!!!
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.
Liz Bourke is one of the more outspoken bloggers and reviewers in the genresphere, with her work published by Ideomancer, Strange Horizons and Tor.com among others, as well as on her own blog. Between all this, she found time last year to present a paper on representations of the Minoans at the Science Fiction Foundation’s conference on the Classics in Fantastika, which is where we met after long discussions of the subject on Twitter.
After reading Niall Alexander’s review and seeing his criticism of the role of women in Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, I asked her to review the novel; she agreed and sent me this…
Brian Staveley’s 2014 debut from Tor Books, The Emperor’s Blades, is in some ways an interesting snapshot of recent trends in the epic fantasy subgenre: a subgenre that continues to splinter and diversify at an ever-increasing rate. If Joe Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin represent one direction, Trudi Canavan and Glenda Larke another, and Elizabeth Bear and N.K. Jemisin different directions still, Staveley falls somewhere between Canavan and Abercrombie: reaching for the alienating power of brutality while playing it safe, even rather traditional, in terms of characters – and, ultimately, in terms of the overarching narrative.
I’ve lately taken to looking at cover art for what it indicates about – or how closely it parallels – the novel’s contents. Richard Anderson’s atmospheric watercolour features three human figures and a menacing giant raptor in harness. The rightmost human is a female figure, slight, occluded: though she looks directly at the viewer, her presence is overpowered by the central shaven-headed man, armoured and robed; while to the left, a warrior stares at the ground, overshadowed by the misty figure of the raptor, his sword angled down and to the right. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but for me the male figures evoke the over-the-top masculinity of Zack Snyder’s 300 films…
…which means the cover art is a pretty decent indicator of The Emperor’s Blades, after all. Staveley is capable of imagining a world where giant raptors can bear the weight of five or more armoured humans, and where an emperor may send both his heirs away from his capital in their childhood to training that may prove fatal, but he cannot depict a world in which women occupy roles apart from “killer” or “whore.” Or in one instance, the daughter of an emperor – one who’s fairly terrible at being a political animal, for a woman allegedly raised at the heart of an imperial court.
None of the politics here make sense, and the failings of The Emperor’s Blades in this regard are more noticeable for my having read it between books that treat their political logics much more logically.
The emperor of Annur has two sons and a daughter. No woman can inherit his throne, but while Adare remains in the capital, his two sons have been far removed from it for years. The elder, Kaden, is training with the monks of Shin in a remote monastery, undergoing beatings and privations to inure himself to suffering in search for vaniate, “Empty Mind.” It is a harsh training, in which novices sometimes die. The younger son, Valyn, is in training for Annur’s equivalent of the SAS, the Kettrals, who deploy in five-person teams borne by giant raptors. Kettral training begins in childhood, and many of the cadets die, or are crippled, before their training is ended.
One begins to wonder how the empire of Annur lasted more than a generation, if all its emperors are so careless of their heirs.
I want to say that The Emperor’s Blades opens in the wake of the emperor’s death by treachery, but that’s not entirely accurate. The Emperor’s Blades opens with a three-page prologue, in which Crapsack World Grimdark Elves (“Csetriim”) murder human prisoners. Eventually, over the course of the novel itself, it becomes clear that the prologue represents Ancient Times… but it is very late in the novel before it becomes clear whether or not Ancient Times have any relevance to the events of the plot, such as it is.
In the wake of the emperor’s death, Valyn continues his training with the Kettrals, but a series of events cause him to fear for his life and to suspect a traitor among his commanders. The only person in whom he dares confide is his friend and fellow-cadet Ha Lin, a woman to whom he is also attracted. (The Kettral teams are also the only branch of the military in which men and women may serve together – indeed, in which women may serve at all.) Kaden, ignorant of his father’s murder, is kept busy running up and down mountains and being buried alive by his monk-teacher, while some strange beast stalks the monastery’s herds. Meanwhile, in the capital, Adare –
– I was going to try for a tone of distant objectivity, but I can’t. The plotline with Adare, raised on her father’s death to the position of Minister of Finance, makes the least sense of any of the narrative strands, while also taking up the least space in the narrative. She’s never shown doing anything related to her position, and for a politician or a court lady, she is really bad at politics. And, ultimately we discover that the deceased emperor suspected treachery, but rather than bring his daughter into his confidence while he was still alive, he deliberately put himself at risk alone, leaving only a note behind… which Adare conveniently discovers only after she’s fallen into bed with the best candidate for chief traitor.
Staveley’s style is readable, although his pacing is unbalanced. For a time I thought, despite his failure of imagination on the killers/whores front, the lack of good logic, and a rather unfortunate fixation on breasts, that he had written a book I could nonetheless enjoy. That changed when he killed off Ha Lin and used her death as an extra spur for Valyn’s plot arc: it feels rather too close to a classic case of fridging.
The grand climax is a thing of confusion and slaughter. The brothers are reunited. Valyn exacts his revenge on the people who killed his friend. It is revealed that the Murderous Not-Elves are still around and probably behind the plot against the emperor and his heirs, because Magic Reasons.
Looking back, the novel as a whole, for all the readability of its prose, seems more like an excuse to describe people subjected to sadistic training regimens in extended, loving detail than anything else. Suffering: the suffering of men, filled with meaning, directed towards a higher purpose.
Which is nonsense, because the kind of suffering Staveley depicts as turning his two princes into heroic killing-machines is the kind of suffering than ruins healthy bodies and leaves an unpleasant legacy of mental trauma in its wake as well.
On the whole, it fails to make sense. And speaking for myself, I’m not really inclined to give it sufficient benefit of the doubt to read a sequel. Perhaps Staveley’s next trilogy – if this is, indeed, a trilogy – will prove a more thoughtful exercise.
Thanks again, Liz! That lets me know this one’s worth avoiding, then…