December 2012 Archives

Over on The WELL, John Lebkowski and Bruce Sterling are doing their usual open-ended review of the state of the world in 2013; it's a fascinating read, as always (they do this every year), but I can't help thinking we'd get a different result if we chewed the fat on that topic over here. So consider this an invitation to discuss the Big Issues we can expect to be faced with in the new year ...

What do you think they're going to be? And what, in particular, do you think our major media outlets are overlooking?

Dear X______,

Thank you for purchasing our premium product, the year 2012! As you know, 2012 has been a market leader, with more satisfied customers living the dream than any previous calendar year. Your 2012 is coming to an end shortly, and we hope you will choose to renew your subscription to the up-coming 2013 release! We can promise you lots of exciting new memories in 2013; we're sure you'll find Living The Year™ the most consistently fascinating and challenging Quality Experience℠ of a lifetime.

As a valued customer we cherish your continued brand loyalty. To help our products continue to engage with your needs, we would like to offer you the opportunity to participate in our on-going quality feedback program! Simply complete the free-form feedback box below with your gripes, groans, and happy memories from 2012, along with any suggestions you wish to make to ensure future years could better meet your needs, and our team of time elves will leap into action to ensure a better 2014 for all! FREE PRIZE DRAW: Entrants will be entered into a prize draw: the winner will receive a Surprise℠ free extra Year™ added to the end of their life! (offer invalid where prohibited by law: terms and conditions apply: winners will be registered at our Head Office but Surprise℠ award may not be disclosed to recipient prior to delivery.)

Happy Newtonmass! (Yes, today is the anniversary of the birth of our rationalist saviour, Sir Isaac Newton.)

I have a personal tradition of always putting in some working hours on December 25th — not being Christian, and being a bit of a curmudgeon, it seems important to do so (even if I subsequently drop round on some friends and eat and drink far too much). I can just about categorize blogging as work (it's marketing/communications, dammit!) so this is my work for the day.

Because I'm a curmudgeon (the "G" in my initials is short for "Grinch"), the Christmas spirit thing really irritates me. A big part of it is the saturation-level advertising that crops up at this time of year: it leverages the winter festival to convey the message, "you will get into the festive spirit and Buy Our Stuff, otherwise you are socially inadequate". I do not care to be lectured about my social inadequacy by big box retailers: I especially dislike being defined as socially inadequate because I don't follow someone else's religiously-ordained festive tradition. Consequently, Christmas puts me in a contrarian mood. As a contrarian, right now nothing would cheer me up like a nasty, mean-tempered flame war — just to prove that the turbulent masses (this means you) haven't suddenly been turned into insipid, saccharine carol singers chorusing goodwill to all and peace on earth.

But I couldn't make up my mind whether today's blogging should be "gun owners: evil or wicked?", or "abortion: if you oppose it, you are murdering women"; I'm sort of in donkey-starving-to-death-between-two-mangers mode today. (Normally I try to avoid starting flame wars. Turning to the dark side, I suddenly find myself in a target-rich environment!) So I decided to go with something a little less controversial; why Jesus Christ bears such a remarkable similarity to Osama bin Laden that by 2312 there may well be a syncretistic religion worshiping him as the second coming ...

Reader reviews: we get them. And, mostly, we ignore them; because, like all other forms of fiction, 90% of book reviews are junk. And reviews by regular readers, as opposed to professional critics, are like the publishers' proverbial slushpile: a seething, shouting mass of logorrhea in which a few gems may be submerged, if you can bear to hold your nose for long enough to find them.

But for an author to make a habit of ignoring feedback is pretty much the first step on a slippery slope down into a mire of self-indulgent solipsistic craziness.

So how should you approach reader reviews in order to separate the ones you should sit up and listen to from the background noise?

My take on the subject is that if you're an author, you can get some useful clues to the relevance of your reviews by psychoanalyzing the reviewers.

Some of you may have been wondering why I've been doing so little blogging lately ...

Just when you thought you were rid of a Bad Penny. I turn up again. Mwhahahahaha! Actually, Charlie asked me to continue because things went so well, and the situation is mutually beneficial. I won't be here every day, but I will appear at least twice a week, maybe more for as long as Charlie wants me. I'll check the comments once a day too, maybe more--depending upon how much of my own work I get done. Don't worry. Charlie will be back. You aren't stuck with me. During my stay here I've wandered into quite a few sensitive subject categories.[2] Ignoring problems doesn't solve them. Discussing them, does. The more complicated the issue, the better off we are in talking about it. Like anything important, there's a balance to it, mind you, but Charlie did a brilliant job of creating this space, and the moderators do fabulous work keeping it that way. Sooo... let's talk about... violence.

I've been attracted to the whole warrior thing since I was a little kid--I wanted to be one. I'm not sure why. Most little girls don't.[3] Maybe it's due to being female and living in a world where female is not the norm? All things male are considered more desirable, after all--even literature is dominated by male interests. (Write about female interests and you're likely to end up ignored or ridiculed.) I very much didn't want to grow up to be like Mrs. Clever on the  Leave it to Beaver re-runs. I wanted  to be an independent human being with a personality of my own. I wanted to have adventures. I wanted to do stuff. I was also very thin, tall, and shy. So, I was bullied.[4] Early on, I went through an extensive King Arthur period. I blame Camelot. That whole "might for right" thing was coooool. Therefore, I wanted to be knight when I grew up. (Among other things.) However, the Vietnam War was happening at the same time. I remember the anti-war protests. I remember the students being shot for having the audacity to declare themselves in favor of peace. I remember returning soldiers being spit upon too. (Our next door neighbor served in Vietnam.) Add to this the fact that when I was seventeen a student shot and killed another student in my school cafeteria. Note: my school was one of the affluent, "safe" schools in the area.[5] I wasn't scheduled for lunch until after it happened, mind you. It still hit me pretty hard. All of these experiences taught me that violence is terrible, and violence should be a last resort to the point of not being considered an option.

After studying NI for years, I've come to the conclusion that there is an economic factor to violence. When a nation's economy bottoms out an escalation in violence occurs. America has been in an economic decline since 2000. Reading about the latest mass murder spree in Connecticut--America's seventh in 2012 alone, depending upon how many casualties one uses to determine the use of "mass murder." One thing is for certain, two of the bloodiest such incidents in American history occurred in 2012--within months of one another. If you ask me, we are beyond the point of needing stricter gun laws. Clearly, making semi-automatic guns available and guns in general easier to purchase has worsened the problem, not lessened it.[6] I do not believe that arming citizens is the answer because of the research that I've done about human beings in emergency situations. Statistical data indicates that those trained to perform under emergency conditions are known to harm innocent bystanders and their own team members. (Ah, friendly fire.) What makes anyone think that an untrained individual could perform better, is beyond me. That said, the easy availability of guns in America isn't the only factor. I believe the economy is as well, and we need to address it. (Austerity isn't the answer. If it were, Greece would be great shape.) As I keep saying, the problem is a complex one. If it were as easy as restricting guns or having them be more available, then violence wouldn't be a problem. Period.

That said, I do believe in stricter gun control, and it's past time Americans did something about it. However, I find it interesting that no one seems to have snapped to the economic factor in violence.

-----------------------------

[1] Because I'm listening to Rory Gallagher this morning. And, you know... Rory Gallagher.

[2] Politics? Check. Religion? Check. Feminism? Check. There are only two more I can think of and that's violence and sex.

[3] And every time I hit that part in Hogfather when the little girl asks for a castle, an army and a sword I grin because that was me all over.

[4] Strangely, if someone bullied other kids, I often screwed up what little courage I had and stood up for the kid in question. But if I was the target I rarely did anything about it. Although, there was one time that a kid did push me way too far, and I punched him. Luckily for me, the bus driver only saw the bully poised for retaliation. (So the driver said, anyway.) The bully got busted. I didn't. He also stopped picking on me.

[5] Our school was almost 100% white too. I don't view that as a good thing. My freshman year we had zero persons of color in my school. My junior year, we had one POC student. My senior year, we had two. I felt sorry for those kids. The crap they endured was massive. America likes to pretend we don't have race issues. That's bull crap.

[6] Yes, that's a hippie magazine. If you don't like what it has to say, try here, or you could go here but the government's data is out of date.

A discussion about humanity and progress in one of the discussion threads inspired an epiphany. (Which is totally cool!) Add to this the fact that I'm currently listening to an audio book of Sir Terry Pratchett's Hogfather because it's the holidays, and well... I do that kind of stuff, and we have today's winter holiday-ish topic.

I think philosophy and belief is an important part of being human. Although some people are capable of living without it to varying degrees, I've watched these same people cross their fingers when rolling dice. (D&D players are among the most superstitious when it comes to dice.) I'm not making that statement because I think that Atheists are bad or wrong. (They aren't.) I'm merely making the observation that human beings need belief. Again, if you've read the scientific studies on perception you'll understand what I mean. We're hardwired to create patterns for ourselves whether or not the pattern is actually there. Frankly, we'd be in serious trouble within minutes without it. So, this ability to see patterns is important to survival.[1] However, like anything, moderation is key. Perceive too many patterns that aren't there and well... it's a sign that something is wrong. 

Ultimately, I feel we each need to find our comfortable place in regards to belief. There's not one solution for everyone, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Where we often get into trouble is when we insist that everyone must think exactly the same--or be thought stupid, or delusional, or made to starve, or be jobless, or dead. History has shown that the insistence that everyone not have religion is just as deadly as insisting that everyone have a specific brand of religion. Thus, I believe that it's fanaticism and absolutism that is the problem, not religion or belief.

Anyway, I like what Sir Terry Pratchett had to say about belief in Hogfather:

Death: Humans need fantasy to *be* human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape. 
Susan: With tooth fairies? Hogfathers? 
Death: Yes. As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies. 
Susan: So we can believe the big ones? 
Death: Yes. Justice, mercy, duty. That sort of thing. 
Susan: They're not the same at all. 
Death: You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet, you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world. As if there is some, some rightness in the universe, by which it may be judged. 
Susan: But people have got to believe that, or what's the point? 
Death: You need to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become?

And now we get to the mystical snowflake epiphany part of my essay. My personal philosophy or belief is that life is about education. This ties into my beliefs about mistakes.[2] Therefore, because I try to be careful of repeating mistakes it means that I often see repeating patterns of behavior within myself and others.[3] I've always seen it on a more personal scale.[4] I never thought of it on a macro scale before--that humanity as a whole repeats patterns until it learns the associated lesson. That thought makes me feel better about seeing this renewed fascination with things that went out of fashion after the Gilded Age ended. I can only hope that, like snowflakes are unique in pattern, our repetition of previous mistakes is varied because it marks that we've learning something as a whole. Go us.

Mind you, I do believe that everything cycles. Winning out and making forward progress isn't guaranteed. There are no guarantees in life other than death. However, sometimes sideways progress is what's needed--a more thorough understanding of the repeated problem, and that gives me hope for humanity.

I'm not sure that makes sense outside of my own brain. (Sometimes my husband says he has to pull a Jackie Chan to catch up to my train of thought.) Nonetheless, it was (for me) a nice winter holiday thought--a light in the darkness as it were. Thanks, y'all. It was a nice wrap-up for me.[5] I hope you got something out of all this. I sure did.

Happy Hogswatch, everyone--or whatever form of winter holiday you celebrate or don't. Or something.

--------------------------------------------

[1] I'm talking about the evolution of sight and perception. Blindness doesn't mean instant death. I know. However, I did most of my studies in perception during a time when sightlessness wasn't an aspect of the studies performed. That may have changed.

[2] Nobody is perfect for a reason. The way I see it, we're designed that way. You see, mistakes bring experience, and experience brings wisdom. So, I try not to sweat making making mistakes. There are a couple of personal rules that go with that. The first being that one must admit to the mistake and own it before one can learn from it. The second being that it's important to try not to repeat the same mistake. Be efficient. Be smart. Try to learn from it the first time around--if you can learn from others' mistakes and skip that particular mistake altogether? W00t!

[3] And that's why my characters will repeat behaviors. The smart ones learn and respond differently.

[4] Which is why I enjoyed the film Defending Your Life so much. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defending_Your_Life

[5] However, I haven't gone over yesterday's thread yet. Ha! With ninety comments appearing overnight, I'm hoping it isn't evidence of a smoking ruin.

This is my second to last guest post. After Friday, a (hopefully) well-rested Charlie takes back the blog wheel. I've had a wonderful time with y'all. You are a lovely bunch of people. I shouldn't have been nervous, that's clear to me now. It seems we have a great deal in common and not just a love for Charlie's work. Anyway, if y'all have any questions for me outside of the blog topic, you have today and tomorrow to ask them. Who knows? Your question might inspire tomorrow's post.

With that, I'm going to bring up a subject a bit more... touchy: female characters in SF and Fantasy.

One of the things that impressed me about Charlie is how he writes female characters. I believe he does an excellent job, and Mo is one of my favorite female characters in SF and Fantasy. Mo is powerful and quite obviously Bob treats her as an equal.[1] She's believable in an unassuming way.[2] I like that. I could see myself running into her at a friend's party. She is a whole person and not just the sum of one or two characteristics. That's important. One of my favorite stories about non-default (that is, non-white-male) characters in SF involves the actress Nichelle Nichols, Rev. Martin Luther King and Star Trek. I'm sure you've heard it.[3] I was lucky enough to hear Nichelle tell it once. The take-away for me was that non-default characters need to be treated as people--not as a representation of their minority group. It's one of my "character tests" that I run for myself. "Can I insert a default (white male) character in this place and get the same result?" It helps me see problems in my writing. Writing female characters is tricky--and not just for male authors. Although I'm a female, the misogynist program was installed in my brain too. And because female characters are infrequent in our genre there are certain problems faced by all writers. One of the biggest issues is that when creating female characters in a female character-sparse environment the exception can become the rule in the reader's mind. That is, whatever you do with your female character is viewed as a stand in for all female characters. It sucks, but it's true.

NOTE: I'm keeping the following discussion a bit vague in order to avoid spoilers. If you wish to discuss specifics in the comments, please do me a favour (and the others too) and note that your comment contains spoilers.

For example, there has been some controversy over what I've done to a certain female character in my first book. That's understandable. However, I was taught that a writer was free to use whatever story device was necessary for the telling of the story, including genre tropes. Whatever is best for the story is the top priority. However, a good writer never employs a story device without purpose, especially genre tropes. Whether or not it was done effectively (and that can and will be argued,) I had a reason for employing that specific trope. The biggest hint is in the order in which that event is repeated. That is, it happens to a male character first. Then I place the event in its traditional context to demonstrate what is wrong with that trope. Mind you, anytime you employ a trope--particularly when it involves a minority group--you're going to get flack for it even if you're a member of the minority group in question. Your intentions won't matter to some readers. That's just how things are. Reading is an individual and interactive experience. I'm not in favour of authors dictating to readers what their experiences should be. That said, there have been strong reactions to what I've written. Frankly, that's a good thing. My intent was to upset the reader. However, I didn't do so merely to punch the reader in the face for the sake of punching the reader in the face. As stated elsewhere, I don't believe in that. I also don't believe in making rape titillating. So, when I write about such things I'm very careful about which details I dwell upon. Mind you, I made mistakes when I wrote those two books. No work is perfect. However, I don't consider those areas to be mistakes. [shrug]

That said, I believe that the question "Can I insert a default (white male) character in this place and get the same result?" is an important part of the writing process. I was taught to switch out roles this way in order to spot sexism and racism. And while I'll continue to make mistakes my hope is that it will cut down on the number of times I repeat that one. For the record, I'm not a big fan of the Strong Female Character stereotype.[5] I believe that women are people. Oh, and also for the record, I think Liam's mother is a strong female character. She has beliefs, and she sticks to them whether or not they are advantageous in a selfish sense and whether or not she's ultimately correct. Kathleen is complicated and real. I love her for that.

So, with all that in mind, what are some of your favorite female characters in SF and Fantasy? Why do you like them?

----------------------------------

[1] I really enjoyed the bit in The Jennifer Morgue when I realized who was the Bond Girl and who was Bond, by the way.

[2] I found it very difficult to get into the Charlie's Angels remake mostly because I had a hard time believing those stick figures could punch. I liked the idea. (And I did like where Drew Barrymore was headed. I can't wait until she makes more films.) I'm just not sure Charlie's Angles did women any favours by making it seem that female heros require wires and special effects in order to be effective.

[3] Just in case you haven't I'll give you the short version. At one point Nichelle decided to quit Star Trek. She didn't feel her character (Uhura) was all that important to the show, and she decided to move on with her career. Not long after she'd resigned, she went to see Martin Luther King. As fate would have it, Reverend King turned out to be a big fan of Star Trek.[4] He told Nichelle that Uhura was his favorite character and wasn't it wonderful and important for her to be in the cast? She said she didn't think so. "Anyone can do what my character's job. I'm not that important. So, I quit." Reverend King said, "But don't you see? That's what's so important about that role." In other words, Uhura was a person. She wasn't merely about being a person of color. Reverend King convinced Nichelle to take back her job, and to Gene Roddenberry's credit, he told her he hadn't really accepted her resignation anyway. 

[4] Which, frankly, only makes me admire him more.

[5] That is, Hot Young Thing with Gun who is usually dressed in skin tight clothing--usually leather. It isn't that there's something wrong with that particular straight male fantasy. The problem is that there's so little variety.

My Dad's birthday is today! Happy Birthday, Pop! He probably won't see this, but he'll get a kick out of it anyway. While he wasn't supportive of my writing initially--he's extremely supportive now, and I appreciate that a great deal. I love my Dad very much. He taught me about cars, ships, fishing, computers, and SF. He's the reason I discovered Ray Bradbury at such an early age. He watched Star Trek with me too sometimes. While my mom read Peter Pan aloud to me, Pop read Something Wicked This Way Comes to me.[1] With that in mind, I thought we'd talk about Horror, and its influences on SF and Fantasy. Do you read Horror? Do you see its influences as a positive thing for SF and F?

For me, I don't only have Ray Bradbury to blame as an influence, but Stephen King and NI Irish Crime fiction as well. When I cut myself off of Fantasy I turned to Horror and King in particular. I started with The Stand. To this day, I adore almost everything about that book except for the end.[2] Then I moved to 'Salems Lot and Carrie. Stephen King taught me (among other things) that I was allowed to let music have an influence on my writing. Of course, so did Nancy A. Collins's Sonja Blue series.[3] Both use music to help with the setting. (King does even more so in Christine.) I didn't hit punk or goth until late in life and not necessarily with the first wave either. Nonetheless, the music is huge for me. I've a tremendous music collection. (And one day it'll be organized like my library.) Like many writers, I create soundtracks for my work. It's been said that my writing style has a punk music feel to it, and to tell you the truth, that makes me happy. Also from Horror (and King specifically) I learned that I enjoyed the psychological side of storytelling.[4] It's why I incorporate those aspects into character building. The psychology of a character is a science all its own. It provides logical motivation when you're writing about someone who is different from yourself and who makes very different choices from your own.

And then we have our host's work. Horror features a great deal in The Laundry series in particular. It's one of the many reasons I love it so much. Strangely, I'm not into Lovecraft. I find him dull. At the same time, give me a work based on Lovecraft (like Resume with Monsters by William Browning Spencer) and I'm all over that.

All in all, Horror is about psychology. It has to be at some level, or it falls flat. The moment you delve in the things that terrify us as human beings you're in Horror territory. I think this is why Horror and SF are such a good marriage -- Fantasy too. As we saw yesterday, so much of SF deals in darkness. The future is unknown, and we fear the unknown--or at the very least, are made uncomfortable by it. Still, the unknown is a very powerful place from which to work. Fantasy has surrealism as its base, and what could be more dreamlike than a nightmare? 

I've named a few of my favorites. What are yours? 

--------------------------------------

[1] That was another huge moment that I neglected to bring up earlier. I reread that book every year at Halloween. Every year I notice something new. It's a masterpiece.

[2] I feel King painted himself into a corner. So, I don't really blame him there. Endings are tough enough when you don't have to deal with the baggage involved in using existing belief systems as part of a story. That's really easy to screw up. It's also really easy to wander into preachy-land. So, while The Stand is one of my favorite novels, I'll admit that it's flawed. Again, all things are. We're all human--even Stephen King. [gasp]

[3] For the record, vampires are not my favorite horror monster. They never have been. (That would be the werewolf.) I'm not big on zombies either. So, I'm super picky in both those departments for much the same reason that I'm finicky about Fantasy. I've read a lot of it. In the zombie fiction department, much less so. However, that doesn't change the picky.

[4] And this is why Liam demonstrates a severe case of PTSD. I researched PTSD too. Yes, I'm a touch OCD, but I suspect most authors are. You kind of have to be detail driven to write well. It's one of those things.

And now that I've infected you all with a Monty Python tune that isn't likely to go away without assistance... you're welcome. Did I mention I might be a tiny bit... evil? Mwhahahahaha. [cough]

Today, I thought we'd talk a bit about SF's current love affair with all things dark. Is it really all that current? Does it spell the end of the genre as some folks seem to believe? Does dark SF corrupt the young? And why are they so obsessed with it? Whatever happened to the happy days of happy SF? Really? All these questions have been discussed before, I'm sure, but a comment about the age of SF as a genre made an interesting connection for me.[1] Not long ago I read a BBC article about how happiness changes with age. According to the article, when we're children we tend to be happier, and we tend to see the world more positively. As we reach middle age we tend to view life through a darker lens. However, if we manage to survive into old age our perceptions tend to return to positivity. The whole thing maps out in a giant U shape. Which brings me to the question I had: what if SF's attraction to the darker subjects is a sign of the genre's maturity as a whole? Or might it be only a symptom of fandom's aging? Should any of this be considered alarming?

Mind you, I don't believe in the idea that SF had a purely happy period. Any time I have this discussion, I've been able to point to popular, darker works written during the same era. Speaking for myself, I've always been attracted to the darker stuff. My reasons are many, not the least of which is that staring my fears in the face makes them less scary. I think it's important. One cannot resolve problems that one doesn't admit exist. If anything, for me, SF is a genre that is all about asking questions--even hard questions. So, in my opinion, this focus on the dark side of things is a positive thing. However, I understand that images sketched in monochrome are tedious. In art class, I learned that it takes at least three tones to make an image pop: dark, middle, and highlights. Thus, if you ask me, we need all three.

I don't believe that SF is dying out either. SF gets new readers all the time. Having worked in the teen fiction section at BookPeople for six years I've seen them. I can't help thinking of younger readers. I believe that the availability of dark fiction to younger readers--particularly teens--is a healthy thing. Teens are practicing adults, after all. What better way for them to explore dangerous subjects[2] than in books?

I suspect that the ability to discount the relevance of undesirable information to the self in younger and older audiences is a factor in the complaints about SF being too dark. (Again, I don't believe that SF was ever 100% optimistic.) Consider the age of the person complaining. Might that not be the case? And before someone launches off on another round of how delusional optimistic people are I'd like to state that studies indicate that people with positive outlooks tend to live longer and fuller lives.

---------------------------

[1] I like that y'all's responses inspire posts like this. It makes my job a lot easier. Unfortunately, that means it takes me a while to get to the guest post part. But hey, it's a system that works. I'm going with it.

[2] And let's face it, they're going to explore dangerous subjects.

... sticking screw drivers into things - turning them - AND ADJUSTING THEM![1]

I mentioned before that I wanted to be a scientist at one point.[2] Biology and genetics have long been interests of mine. The reason I didn't major in genetics is because I failed Human Anatomy and Physiology at the university level--not just once but twice.[3] I aced genetics class, however. To this day, I'm interested in stories about genetics. Say what you like about Michael Crichton's work, but Jurassic Park was a great book, and so was The Andromeda Strain. I also very much enjoyed C.J. Cherryh's Cyteen. It's just as well that I didn't go into the field as I suspect my politics would've caused me big problems. The patenting of life (and genes) is an issue that I find to be particularly worrisome. First, I strongly believe in biodiversity. Second, the ethics surrounding owning a life--especially a faceless corporation solely motivated by profit owning a life--make me extremely twitchy. I've recently written a short story one the subject--my second only real and official SF story.[4] (We'll see if it sees the light of day.) The concern regarding science versus ethics is as least as old as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Isn't it funny that we inevitably end up there? At the same time, science is pretty wonderful and has done so many amazing things. How can you not write about it? But the truth is, I find writing SF intimidating. Long term, I just don't let such things stop me. To quote Theodora Goss's note to herself: "Everything you want is on the other side of fear." If you let fear limit you as a writer, you might as will quit writing. And hey, if I can write about the IRA, I can certainly write SF. Plus, I met Julie Czerneda early in my career, and she's extremely inspiring.

Still, SF is daunting, and I'm hesitant to venture into it. It's not terribly welcoming. I suspect I'm not the only female writer who feels this way. Fantasy is comfortable--it's hard work, mind you, but it's comfortable, and surrealism (in the sense that fantasy has a dreamlike quality) is just... fun. I've always been drawn to surrealism--surrealist art in particular. That's why I prefer writing fantasy in realistic modern eras.[5] Of course, my obsession with music dovetails better with dark Urban Fantasy. Well... there's that. Come to think of it... that explains why I enjoyed Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash so much. It combined that punk-rock feel that I love with technology near perfectly. 

Anyway, I keep hearing readers wonder why there isn't as much new SF as there is new Fantasy these days. I think everything cycles--even literature has its fashion cycles. Look back, and you'll see the pattern.

What are your thoughts?

-------------------------------------

[1] Okay. That was a MST3K reference for non-USians. It was also kind of obscure, I admit, but I can't think about technology and science without hearing Tom Servo's cheesy radio announcer voice. It's not a bad thing, really.

[2] Luckily as a pro SF/F writer, I get to be all of the things I wanted to be when I grew up.

[3] I'm very stubborn. To this day I don't understand why I didn't get through it. I'd memorized every human bone in the eighth grade, after all.

[4] The first was for Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Last Drink Bird Head.

[5] Not that I intend to let that limit me either.

Sorry about today. Family things cropped up. It happens. Anyway, a comment from tarkinlyon sparked today's topic. So, let's blame tarkinlyon if this doesn't work out. (I'm joking, of course. We can still blame Charlie for leaving you in my hands. Oh, okay. I guess you can blame me. If you really want to.)

Tarkinlyon asked which Fantasy books took me away to another place? Since I'm a habitual reader--I don't go anywhere without a book on my person--the list is vast. However, there were a limited number that were life-changers. So, I'll talk about those. Also? I'm not going to limit myself to Fantasy. I'm getting the impression that y'all seem to think women don't read SF. Or maybe it's just that you feel I don't? I'm not sure which. Nonetheless, here goes...

Learning to read wasn't easy for me. It wasn't until I understood that books were actually tickets to new and interesting places and adventures I couldn't otherwise have that I actually got interested in reading. The very first book to open the way for me was a biography of Helen Keller published by Scholastic Books. I knew that if she could do all the amazing things with her life that she did, I could do the same. I identified with her for a whole host of reasons. Then came A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. I think it was the first SF novel I ever read. It blew my mind. Not only was the main character a female, but Meg's mother was a scientist. It was the first time I saw a grown woman in SF Doing Things. Combined with Mrs. Peel and Uhura on Star Trek, I got the idea that I really could do anything I wanted. I even fantasized about being an astronaut or a scientist. L'Engle hooked me on SF books as Nichelle Nichols did Star Trek.** I read SF like mad after that. I think it helped even more that it felt like contraband.

The next book that really affected my life was The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I became obsessed. I read everything about Tolkien and Middle Earth that I could get my hands on. I liked to draw. So, I spent hours drawing different characters. I re-read the books over and over. I read The Silmarillion at least three times. (That's hard core as anyone familiar with Tolkien's work knows.) That was when I started writing. My parents grew worried that I was turning into some sort of demonic, mental, freak. My books started vanishing from the shelves. I got lectured about my reading material. I was told I shouldn't write. (Girls can't grow up to be writers, see.) Finally, they consulted the family priest. Father Mulvihill, a Jesuit that taught High School, laughed and told them to calm down. "She's reading Tolkien? That's wonderful! She's fine. Tolkien was a nice Catholic writer. Here," Father Mulvihill said, handing them a boxed set of books. "Have her read C.S. Lewis next. She'll love it." I never got into C.S. Lewis. He was too preachy for me, but I never forgot what Father Mulvihill did for me. (And if you want to know where Father Murray comes from, it's Father Mulvihill.)

After that, I went through a phase where I didn't read anything but Fantasy. However, it started to get repetitive. <cue bored tone> Male [secretly royal] character goes off on a journey to find a [ring/stave/wand/gem-pick one save others for the rest of the series] of extreme power. While on the road he collects several friends [all male] who just happen to have abilities he might need in the end. Male character acquires magic item and incidentally picks up a princess somewhere in a treasure room. The End.</cue bored tone> After the 57th such mindless book, I dumped Fantasy and never wanted to go back. I read SF. I read Horror. I read Mystery. I read Classics. I did not ever read Fantasy.

I went through a Heinlein phase before I discovered he didn't seem to be even passingly familiar with the alien creature called "woman." (This, in spite of being able to imagine all sorts of alien creatures and understand them.) Dune was huge for me. (Except for the hokey ending.) I re-read the first book quite a few times. (My then Southern Baptist boyfriend was horrified. OMG! Spice might = drugs!) I read Omni magazine too. Later, I subscribed to Wired magazine when Omni went away. The only comics I would read were Gaiman's Sandman. I was serious about my SF.

And then I met my husband, Dane, who attempted to introduce me to this terribly nice Fantasy series called Discworld. I wasn't having it. Nope. No. More. Fantasy. Ever. "Okay," Dane said. Dane is--luckily for me--ever the patient man. "You like Neil Gaiman, don't you? Here, read Good Omens." Yeah. Good Omens was (to steal an expression from a punk friend) like having a bomb go off in my brain. Little did I know that Gaiman was a gateway drug into Terry Pratchett. With that, I discovered what I was missing by being so judgemental about Fantasy and even humor.

Now I read everything.

--------------------------

* For those unfamiliar with the term, it's a reference to a type of Disneyland ride

** I did get into Jonny Quest and Dark Shadows first, however. I blame Jonny Quest for giving me the impression that girls didn't have adventures. They never bothered explaining what happened to Jonny's mother from what I recall. She simply didn't exist and never had. No one missed her. It was as if Jonny was some sort of mutant hatched from an egg in his father's lab. That, combined with my truncated experience with Peter Pan*** gave me the impression that girls weren't welcome in Adventureland.

*** Mom stopped reading at the part where Wendy is shot down by the Lost Boy and is entombed in that mausoleum er... the little house for daring to fly to, let alone set foot on, Neverland. Yeah. Yikes.

Sorry to be so late this morning. I'm still recovering from Dane's company's holiday office party and a post-party party,* and well... I like to go over the previous posts to see if there's anything needing a response. This needs to be repeated: y'all are a wonderful community--intelligent, engaging, and fun.** Thanks for making me feel so at home. [pause] I mean 'at home' in a good way, of course. Be warned. I'm still drinking my morning coffee. (Tea is for snuggling up with later in the day, see.***) Anyway, today I wanted to chat about something less weighty. Let's start, shall we?

Hi. My name is Stina, and I'm a habitual pen and paper RPG gamer. Specifically, Dungeons and Dragons. I was hooked [cough] I mean... I started playing a very long time ago. I ran a D&D group (as the DM) for sixteen years. (Nine years with a four year break and then seven years. Consecutively and with the same set of players.) I've said this before but running a campaign for that long taught me a great deal about writing, but role-playing has also taught me a great deal about gender culture and life in general. That isn't shocking information in this crowd, I'm thinking. However, I remember being asked repeatedly (back in the day) why I would spend so much of my time at an imaginary activity? Me, I see pen and paper role-playing, like reading, as an important means of experience expansion.**** The social sciences have employed role-playing as a tool for a very long time.

Regarding writing, RPGs taught me a great deal about story pacing, characters, and dialog. When you have immediate feedback from players, it's easy to see when you're boring them. They start chatting with one another. They text their friends. You can see by their expressions whether or not you've got their attention. I think it's a good thing for all writers to experience. RPGs are a great place to experiment with characters too. Paul's question from yesterday about how much of an anti-hero can we get away with before you lose your audience? You can get a pretty good idea from an RPG group. Mind you, the test audience will have a bias, but it does help. As for dialog, writers need to be observant people. Listening to how real people speak is the best way to learn about dialog. If you get a chance to observe a group that really gets into the role-playing aspects of the game, I highly recommend it. You can catch non-verbal cues between their actual personality and the one they've assumed. You can do this with theater and film too, but it's far better if you actually know the person. I tend to watch poker players for similar reasons. It's fascinating.

RPGs were vital in teaching me life lessons too. Like one of the greeting cards currently tacked to my office wall says: Before you criticize someone you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away, and you have their shoes.

Er...

At the risk of sounding like a Monty Python old person (cue the shoebox in the middle of the road quotes now) -- when I started playing D&D there weren't many women who played RPGs, let alone DM'd. I had to be twice as tough on my players as male DMs were in order to get respect from male players. (When I think about it, this is why I was so damned rough on Liam. It's how I was trained to tell stories.) Once I got their attention, I learned right away that I had to portray convincing male characters. This came with it's own set of deeper issues that I'm likely to get into here, but it did have the advantage of teaching me a lot of finer points regarding the cultural differences between white straight males and white straight females. People respond to you differently when you present yourself as male versus female. Beyond the obvious reasons there are a million subtle things I can't even begin to describe. While we have many things in common, Male is a very different head space than female. One isn't better than the other. It's just different. Role-playing male NPCs brought all sorts amazing new insights when female players finally joined the group. To this day, I feel my relationship with my husband is a lot smoother because I have a certain understanding about the male experience. He likes to say that I've earned a "man badge." (I wish men could earn a "woman badge." I think it'd be an eye-opening experience.) Interesting thing? I started actually playing (instead of running) a D&D group and one of the male players who knows me from my DMing days has a hell of a time remembering that the character I'm playing is male. I find that confusing since he definitely didn't have that trouble when I was wearing my DM hat. There have been times when I've become frustrated with his unspoken assumptions regarding my character's competency--something he'd have never done when I was a DM.

Lastly, I mentioned in one of my replies on an earlier post that I'm a basically shy person. Again, most writers are introverts. You kind of have to be on a certain level. Writing is a solitary profession. You probably won't believe this but I used to be so frightened of strangers that I found it difficult to call a shop and ask for their hours of operation. Answering the phone was scary. (I was bullied as a kid, but a lot of kids are.) As a result, I had an image of myself as a cowardly and weak person. D&D totally changed that. My first DM emphasized that in RPGs you could be whatever hero-type you wanted to be. So, my first character was a fighter-mage.***** Over the course of that game I came to discover that courage wasn't about not being afraid. Courage was about being afraid but doing what you had to anyway. It was a huge lesson for me--life-changing, in fact, and if there's one thing I'd thank Gary Gygax and company for, it's that.

I bet I'm not the only one.

----------------------------

* Too much whiskey was consumed. I won't say by whom. Ahem.

** No shit. I know. This is Charlie's blog, and 'like attracts like' as they say.

*** I love tea. I've an enormous collection of tea, vintage tea cups, tea spoons, and a number of tea pots.

**** I'm making a distinction between pen and paper RPGs and computer RPGs here because in pen and paper RPGs you have actual other people present. Computer games are just as fun and valuable but for other reasons.

***** I've played nothing but fighter classes ever since. Paladins are my favorite at the moment. Before that it was Rangers.

Originally, I'd intended this to be kind of a fluffy week because I was concerned about messing things up horribly. (I still am, mind you, but I'm less frightened about it now.*) This community likes the thinky stuff, obviously. (I love that about y'all. A lot.) Anyway, several questions from yesterday got me thinking about a new topic. (An excellent sign, if you ask me.) And it's related to a subject I'd blithered about on my own blog a few days ago. It's also a private conversation I've had with a few other authors, and a concept that I think is worth exploring more thoroughly. Forgive me if y'all have discussed this before. (I wouldn't be shocked to hear that you had.) So, here goes. Oh, by the way, feel free to ask me questions in return. I'll get back to you as soon as I can.

Is there such thing as an off-limits topic for SF/F writers?

After considerable thought, my personal stance on this is: there isn't. HOWEVER, the author is responsible for handling the topic in a thoughtful manner. They owe this to their readers and to the sensitive topic in general. (Primarily, the people associated with the sensitive topic.) As I said before, I believe that talking about the tough stuff is SF/F's purpose in literature. Mind you, others read SF/F for different reasons and escapism is valid. The beautiful thing about our genre is that there's something for everyone--or should be. Anyway, my favorite SF/F deals with the psychological/ethical/philosophical problems humanity faces. (I suspect that this is because I read so much Ray Bradbury and Stephen King early in life.) While I like technology** I don't read SF for the gadgets.*** 

SF/F (the good stuff version) often deals with the concept of oppression in one form or another. There's a reason for that. It's one of humanity's biggest, most horrific problems. That's why I read non-fiction books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown as part of my research. My goal is not simply to entertain (although, that's part of it) but also to spur the reader into thinking about how one resolves this complex problem. Mind you, I don't propose an answer. That's not my job as a SF/F writer. If it were, my job title would be 'propagandist.' That's a totally different critter. My duty (as I see it) is to help the reader to come up with their own answers. The way I look at it, you all are far more intelligent than I am. I'm optimistic that you all will come up with the answer one day. Frankly, the answers are beyond my skills. I'm just here to make it okay to think about the sensitive stuff beyond the surface level and from different directions. Ultimately, I believe we're on this planet to learn how to heal, and I have no idea how one heals this kind of... evil. There isn't another word for it. It seems to me that it's human nature to take advantage of those that are deemed 'lesser.' (And that's not a good thing.) It doesn't matter the group. Looking at history, oppression is a system that is employed in consistent ways. The groups in question don't really make a difference. The steps employed are the same. Depending upon how long it goes unchecked the result is the same as well. Religion obviously isn't the answer. It gets used as an excuse to oppress every bit as often as racism and sexism. Being a member of an oppressed community doesn't make you exempt either. Righteous anger gets turned into oppression every bit as often as religion does. We've mindlessly repeated this pattern so many times it's just... awful. Maybe with communication and technology being what they are now we'll finally learn? I have my hope. But I have my doubts too. As I've learned in a university perception class -- we're hardwired to fear Other. On the other hand, I don't believe that destroying that part of us is the right answer. That instinct protects us from danger. That's the issue. Oppression is deeply connected to our need to protect.

Oppression isn't a simple problem, folks. It doesn't have a simple solution.

----------------------------------

* That's a sure sign of doom ahead, isn't it? 

** Oh, my gods, do I ever get gadget envy-not that I use all the functions of the gadgets I do own, but that's another story.

*** Although, I did watch James Bond films almost entirely for the gadgets. As a straight female, it was just about the only aspect of enjoyment available to me. Bond is a male power fantasy. For the record, there's nothing wrong with male power fantasies. And hey, Aston Martin. Mmmmm. Shiny. Oh, and thank you, GB, for The Avengers. Seriously. Yay, Dianna Rigg! She didn't just stand there and look pretty. She did stuff!

Since several commenters have been asking about my books, let's talk about the novels. There are currently two in The Fey and the Fallen series: Of Blood and Honey is the first, and the second is And Blue Skies from Pain. (I'm working on a novella pre-quel right now.) The series is set in the 1970s in Northern Ireland. The main character is Liam Kelly, a Catholic born in Londonderry/Derry. Local rumour has it that his father was a Protestant who left or died (depending upon the source of the gossip) before Liam was born. However, Liam's father is actually a púca named Bran who is one of the Fianna and a nephew of Fionn mac Cumhaill. Liam doesn't understand that he's half shape-shifter. Eventually, he gets involved in The Troubles and becomes a wheelman for an IRA bank-robbing unit and then things go really, really bad. That's the elevator pitch.

In addition to the fey, there's also a group of Catholic priest-assassins who are charged to protect humanity from fallen angels and demons. They don't make a distinction between the fey and the fallen. To them, the fey are fallen angels. Therefore, Liam is caught up in multiple wars.

Now, there are some things that need to be said. First, I wrote these books for Americans. They were sold to an American publisher. The British rights haven't sold. Hence the not so great availability outside the U.S. and certain Americanisms in the text. (I couldn't do otherwise without confusing Americans--my audience.) The reason I wrote about The Troubles was because I saw a lot of similarities between what was going on in the U.S. at that time (George W. Bush was still president when I started writing) and certain elements of The Troubles. In addition, some Americans were using the word 'terrorist' without any idea of what it meant. Personally, I've always believed that it's important to learn from history,* and I didn't want to Americans to repeat the same mistakes others made.** Most Americans haven't a clue about Irish history. History coated with fiction has been my favorite form of storytelling. The history tends to stick in my brain better that way. I thought it might help others understand. Also? My favorite SF takes on the big questions facing humanity. To me, that's what SF is for.

Second, I studied The Troubles for three years before I finished writing Of Blood and Honey. I realised that it was a sensitive subject, and I didn't want to be one of those Americans that blunder into other people's business and make judgements without any consideration or knowledge. I'm very clear that I'm an American.*** When this story came to me I didn't feel I had the right to tell it. In fact, I originally told it to piss off, go away and find an Irish writer to tell it. Needless to say, it didn't. With that, I committed to doing everything in my power to tell the story the best I could. I studied Irish language because I had a hunch that it affected how Irish people used English. (I'm still studying it.) I listened to audiobooks of Irish crime novels written by Irish writers and tried to focus on Northern Irish authors in particular. (Adrian McKinty is my favorite, but Gerard Brennan is a close second.) I actually slept with those audio books playing on my iPod at night, every night for years. I read extensively--thank goodness for the availability of books through the internet--not just non-fiction history books and fiction but memoirs as well. I watched films and collected photographs. I interviewed people who'd lived in West Belfast at the time and others who'd visited Londonderry/Derry. One of them kindly vetted the books. Nicholas Whyte also read both books. (Unfortunately, he wasn't able to read the first before it was published. He did go over the second book with me.) Please understand that the only reason I didn't visit Northern Ireland is because I was unemployed and absolutely couldn't afford it. Also, in spite of all that work I don't view myself an expert. That would be the people who lived it.

Finally, please understand I want to be as respectful as I can. I've been to England. I like British people. A lot. I had no intention of making light of the subject. The books aren't jingoistic either. Subsequently, my novels aren't easy books to read and a lot of readers who come to them with the idea that they've picked up a fluffy Urban Fantasy end up quite upset. There are errors. There will be. I'm a flawed human being, and I can only do so much. However, I did put forth my best effort. It's all a person can do.

Oh, by the way, I'm dyslexic. It's possible some misspellings will slip through on my blog posts. I'm sorry about that. It's 2am here, and I'm tired. I'll catch up on comments as soon as I can.

----------------------------------

* For the record, I believe that mistakes are important. Human beings learn via trial and error. We need to make mistakes and learn from them. They say that mistakes bring experience. Experience brings wisdom. Therefore, I'm all for making mistakes--ideally, not the same mistakes over and over. It's even better if you can learn from mistakes that others have made. Make sense?

** No one is perfect, by the way. We're all human beings. America has made its own set of terrible mistakes. I'm reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown right now.

*** I'm not of Irish descent either--not that I believe that is one in the same as being Irish. It isn't. Anyway, I'm not American Irish. There's a lone MacGowan way back on my mother's side of the family, but he hardly counts as that was in the 1740s. My mother's side of the family is mainly English with some German. My father's is German with some French and American Indian. All of that is meaningless since my family has been in the states since the 1700s on my mother's side and World War 1 on my father's.

Hi. You've probably already noticed that this isn't Charlie. (At least I hope so.) I'm Stina Leicht, and I wrote a couple of books published in the United States. Yeah, yeah. We went over that yesterday, I know. So, hopefully we're past the nasty surprise part of this morning's post.* Just so you know what you're in for: I like smart crime fiction, action films, whiskey, mysteries, fantasy, myth, history, books, music, sf, martial arts, horror, silly romantic comedies, feminist politics (we won't be chatting about that) and cars -- old muscle cars to be exact.

Oh, and I swear a bit. Just so you're forewarned.

When I started writing Of Blood and Honey I knew right away I had a lot of homework to do. My main character is a get-away driver. (Among other things.) Luckily, I've friends who are into rally racing. So, a good friend of mine named Sondra took me to a rally track. She asked her good friend the track owner to use her boyfriend's Porsche and show me the basics of rally racing. The track owner drove slowly at first, explaining as he went. Once I was familiar enough with the track and the basics of rally driving, he warned me that things might get scary and then he let loose. Being a bit of an adrenaline addict, I couldn't do anything but laugh. It was the best thing EVER. When we were done Sondra handed me the keys and said, "Have a great time." Me being me, I couldn't bring myself to go over 50mph. I was terrified I'd wreck it, you see. So, I took it around the track a few times and then tried to hand over the keys. Sondra folded her arms across her chest. "Oh, no you don't. I said drive it. I was watching. You didn't drive," she said. "I don't want to see you back here until you fucking drive that thing." I told her that I'd lived in houses that had cost as much as that car. She still wouldn't take the keys back. "Have you seen Jack drive?" She knew I'd seen him slide off the track into the dirt and up a hill sideways at least once. However, I told her it's Jack's car. He can wreck it if he wants to. I can't replace it. She smiled. "Jack loaned that Porsche to his 16 year-old niece last month, Stina. I promise you won't do anything to it she didn't do already." And with that, I drove and subsequently went home with a grin cemented onto my face that didn't dissolve for two whole days. Did I mention that I have amazing friends?

I have to say, I've been a big fan of Charlie's work since my husband handed me a copy of The Atrocity Archives a few years back. I think he's wonderful. (Charlie, that is. I think we can assume that I think my husband is awesome since he recommends fantastic books--among other things.) And I'm trying very hard right now not to feel as if Mo has just handed me her violin and told me to play a scale. I mean, sure. I've been practicing on my own 'violin' for a while but... damn. That said, I'm hoping we have fun this week. Because I really do want to play the shit out of this thing. How often do you get an opportunity like this?

Because the big bads are only asking for it, you know. ;)

---------------------------

*I'm in Texas. It's still morning here. I'll try to get tomorrow's post up at an appropriate time for the U.K. crowd. Ah, time zones. Sorry about that. I'm a bit nervous, see. Although, we can agree to blame the Texas Goth thing and pretend I don't do mornings. Er... something.

I am going away for a long weekend on Thursday. I shall take an iPad with a stack of ebooks, movies, and games, and a portable keyboard for emergency email, but nothing that would act as an enabler for actual work. (Because I need a vacation, and those things don't happen to me very often: when I travel, it's usually to an SF convention or on business. So: it's off to snowy Deutschland, to drink beer, wander round the Christmas markets, and decompress after writing a Laundry novel in 10 weeks.)

Alas, Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition doesn't look like it'll be out in time to come along me. Bah, humbug. Maybe it'll be out by Newtonmas ...

Anyway, this is by way of saying that I will not be blogging. So instead, allow me to introduce guest blogger Stina Leicht:

Stina Leicht is a fantasy writer living in central Texas. When she was small she wanted to grow up to be like Vincent Price. Unfortunately, there are no basements in Texas -- thus, making it difficult to wall up anyone alive under the house. Alas, she'll have to resign herself to going quietly mad while wearing a smoking jacket. Too bad Texas is hot, she doesn't smoke and therefore, doesn't own a smoking jacket. Her debut novel Of Blood and Honey, a historical Fantasy with an Irish Crime edge set in 1970s Northern Ireland, was released by Night Shade books in 2011 and was short-listed for the 2012 Crawford Award. She's also a 2012 Campbell Award nominee. The sequel, And Blue Skies from Pain, is in bookstores now.

(Actually, I think it wouldn't be too wrong to describe her as a Texan Goth. But she's also an interesting person, which is why I'm handing her the mike for the next week. Enjoy!)

(#1 in an irregular series of minor apocalypses.)

A couple of days ago, I was on the phone (mobile) with an elderly relative, when the phone (land line) began to ring. I glance at it and see a number I don't recognize, Birmingham area code. Pick up. "Hello Mr Stross, I'm [XXX], calling from [mumbled company] about claiming your free—"

That's what I just typed.

(It's only a first draft: I need to go through it again with fire and the sword before it's ready to send to my editors. But it's a completed first draft, at 116,000 words, which means there will be a fifth Laundry Files novel on the shelves in mid-2014.)

I am now exhausted. So I am going to hoist a couple of pints tonight and take a day or two off work to recover (I averaged 1700 words per day, including weekends, a broken foot, and a chest infection). And I'm off for a long weekend in Germany next week. But I'll try to resume normal blogging again from tomorrow.

Specials

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from December 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

November 2012 is the previous archive.

January 2013 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Search this blog

Propaganda