YAY Dystopia!

Whenever I see the phrase “YA dystopian”, it scans as “Yay! Dystopia!” in my head.

I say this because I am perhaps not the best person to write dystopian stories. For one thing, I’m generally a cheery soul. For another, I don’t really believe in most of what SFF posits as dystopia. All societies have good and bad aspects, and any society that proves stable for the long term is one that works for the majority of its people, however horrific it might seem to outsiders. One person’s nightmare is another person’s Tuesday. That’s the thing, though; most dystopian fiction doesn’t depict the kind of society that would be stable in the long term — not without some sort of artificial engineering of human sociology or external pressure keeping it going. Most of the dystopias I’ve read are so unrealistic, so extreme, that most of their citizens would be miserable; no one would put up with that. There’d be a revolution, for good or for ill. So sometimes I write dystopias that feature artificial/external pressures — like human colonies struggling to survive on a hostile planet, in the case of my story “Bittersweet” (which unfortunately seems to not be posted at Abyss & Apex anymore… I’ll post it here shortly if I can’t find a way to link it there). Most of the time, though, I write dystopias set right here in America, or in recognizable variations on future America. “Valedictorian” is an example of the latter. It’s also my first YA dystopian, and it appears in After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia (eds Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling), which is out today.

Cover of anthology. Person's silhouette against image of a burning city.

“Valedictorian” is set in an ordinary high school in a middle American town, and it follows an ordinary teenage girl, Zinhle Nkosi, as she strives to become the top student. Except, no one else is striving against her. There’s a reason for that.

Zinhle earns top marks in all her classes. The teachers exclaim over this, her parents fawn, the school officials nod their heads sagely and try not to too-obviously bask in her reflected glory. There are articles about her in the papers and on Securenet. She wins awards.

She hates this. It’s easy to perform well; all she has to do is try. What she wants is to be the best, and this is difficult when she has no real competition. Beating the others doesn’t mean anything because they’re not really trying. This leaves Zinhle with no choice but to compete against herself. Each paper she writes must be more brilliant than the last. She tries to finish every test faster than she did the last one. It isn’t the victory she craves, not exactly; the satisfaction she gains from success is minimal. Barely worth it. But it’s all she has.

AFTER has gotten a lot of positive buzz already, including an elusive and rare positive review from Kirkus. Last Short Story also did a podcast review of the anth, with some intensive discussion of several stories — including mine! — along with an overall review. So check these out. Also, for those of you who are in the NYC area, I and some of the other authors in the anth will be doing a reading/talk at Books of Wonder on Thursday night.

And then if you’re feeling all “Yay! Dystopia!”, buy it — and tell me what you think!

Wealthy is she who has such friends

So I had a little shindig this weekend:

Panorama image of people at party

I don’t usually celebrate my birthday on my actual birthday. That’s ’cause I work in education and September is to us as April is to accountants — an extended fugue-state of overwork and chaos that can only be endured, never eliminated. (And that’s why I haven’t updated the blog much lately; sorry.) This year, tho’, was many things: my 40th birthday, my 5th year in NYC, etc. I’d been hoping to take advantage of the beauty of a New York autumn and have a rooftop party. So I asked my friends Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman if I could borrow theirs. (Also, a cup of sugar.) They live in a building whose rooftop is made for parties and has an awesome view of the Hudson and the lower Palisades; if the weather had cooperated, it would’ve been perfect.

But. The evil demons of construction intervened! And sadly the rooftop was closed off for surprise renovations. I contemplated cancelling the party, as I didn’t really have time to scout around for an alternate location. However! D&E, wonderful people that they are, offered instead their gigantic, elegant, fantasy-author’s-dream apartment, which is full of fascinating little tchotschkes and busts of creatures that never existed and numinous depictions of perfectly ordinary things and surprise poems by Neil Gaiman. So I decided to proceed. And it. Was. AWESOME. There was wine (oh so much wine), and music, and a sticky toffee pudding as birthday cake, and hilarious conversation. The photo above was taken using the “panorama” setting on my camera, which I totally didn’t know existed, and which takes and overlays three pictures on top of each other which is why my father looks like a ghost and I have three hands. But still. AWESOME.

It’s nice to have friends.

(Also, I received three submissions in my call for tattoo art — thank you! I haven’t had time to do more than look at them and wibble over how cool they are, but they’re all excellent. It’s hard to choose! More on this later.)

Shameless Begging for Presents

My birthday is in one week. I’ll be turning the big 4-0, and yeah if you’re wondering I’m having a party; if you’re a friend of mine and in NYC you’ll get the invite soon. (Dayjob madness means I never celebrate the big day on the big day; it’ll be closer to the end of the month or early October.) But in addition to a party, I’m doing something else to celebrate: I’m gettin’ a tattoo.

I mean, most people have their midlife crisis at this age, right? I got mine out of the way at 30, when I looked around and realized I was miserable in Boston, in debt up to my eyeballs, and nowhere near my dream of becoming a published author. So I got a new job and moved to New York, tried to manage my finances better (and eventually got out of debt), and started making a serious effort at getting published (which worked). I’m actually pretty content with my life these days, so I’m not sure what else I can have a midlife crisis about. But that’s OK! I can still pretend to have one, at least superficially. I’m not much interested in getting a sports car — you know how much parking and insurance costs in NYC? And I wouldn’t say no to some cute young thing, provided he likes the right books and although my definition of “young” includes fortysomethings so I’m not sure that fits the midlife crisis paradigm. But the tattoo? That I can do.

And I’ve always wanted to get a tattoo based on the Gatherers’ tats in the Dreamblood. Specifically I want a stylized blue lotus on one shoulder, and a black rose on the other. (Yes, Nijiri and Ehiru’s Gatherer marks.) In my head, these symbols are a cross between Adinkra and Egyptian hieroglyphs — thick black lines, simple, elegant. But since the world of the Dreaming Moon isn’t Earth, I didn’t want to just mooch actual Earth symbology. I’d like to make something new. The problem, though, is that I can’t draw. But some of you can.

So I guess this is a kind of contest. If you are so inclined, send me an image file (under 1 mb, please) with your rendering of what these two symbols would look like. If I like your design, I will a) showcase it here, b) send you your choice of any of my books, signed, or give you a raincheck for a future book, and c) have it driven into my skin with surgical needles. Cool?

Of course, if you just want to wish me a happy birthday (in a week), that’s cool, too!

Forthcoming Stuff

Apologies for the relative silence on the subject of writing lately, folks. I’m still hard at work on book 1 of the new trilogy I’m writing for Orbit, which as yet still has no real name other than “Untitled Magic Seismology Project”. It’s going slow, as all my new worlds are wont to do when I’m first creating them, but steadily — I’m at 25K words now. Hampered by the dayjob a bit, since it’s the beginning of the school year and I am working ALL THE HOURS, but there’s always the weekends. More on this much, much later.

Review copies of AFTER have been sighted in the wild! And you can preorder it now! The apocalyptically awesome ToC is here, if you don’t remember.

Cover of anthology. Person's silhouette against image of a burning city.

Also, been working on a seekrit project lately. I got invited to participate in the forthcoming 2013 Fantasy Pinup Calendar being put together by Pat Rothfuss’ Worldbuilders charity, with artist Lee Moyer. I have to admit, I’m a little iffy about pinups. In principle they’re a great idea, and beautiful when they’re done artfully enough… but in practice pinups have traditionally focused on white women to the exclusion of all others. Being the sort of woman who prefers beefcake to cheese, I initially thought about asking the artist to insert Nahadoth — though I would’ve left the choice to him as to whether to make Naha male or female, in deference to Naha’s nature. But then the artist and I talked, and I tentatively mentioned that being a pinup spread didn’t really fit the personality of any of my characters*… except one. Oree — snarky, hedonistic, unselfconscious thing that she is — would totally be tickled by the idea. But I’ve never seen a pinup with a black woman. They did exist — trigger warning on that link for some ugly racist remarks, and also borderline NSFW — but they were rare, and seen almost exclusively in publications aimed at the black audience, on the assumption that no one else would want to see a black woman looking hot. Which is painfully ironic considering all the ways in which black women have historically been sexualized in every other aspect of life. I worried, even as I suggested Oree, about contributing to the stereotype of black women as sexually voracious, etc.… but done tastefully, I think an image of Oree being sexy could be a positive thing. The problem with the stereotypes is their exaggeration of normal sexuality, and their transformation of ordinary women into caricatures of people. Maybe depicting an ordinary woman — one my readers will know, having “lived in her skin” for awhile — enjoying her perfectly normal sexuality, can help to combat that.

So I got to chatting with Lee, and talked about Oree’s personality, and how she doesn’t notice anything else when she’s painting, and how she really doesn’t care what other people think of her; she’s very self-contained, so to speak. She just wouldn’t give a fuck if people see her naked or nearly so; physical beauty means little to her, and modesty even less. She also doesn’t think like a sighted person; she’ll wear something because it’s made of nice-feeling cloth, or because it smells good, regardless of how it might actually look. Lee sounded so excited as we talked that I got excited too! So I’m really looking forward to seeing her. I’ll post the image here when I receive it. In the meantime, here’s the calendar cover — and check that list of contributors. ::wibble:: I’m in good company!

Cover of 2013 calendar

So, that’s things in Noraland. How’s it going for you?

* Nahadoth would’ve worked. But then Nahadoth is pretty much an eldritch abomination that just happens to be in humanoid shape; that kind of sexy has a serious side of creepy, and not everybody finds that a turn-on.

Things People Need to Understand, issue 223.2

For the past few days I’ve been engaged in a series of conversations on Twitter and Facebook about SFF fandom and its safety/egalitarianism — or lack thereof. I’ll just share some of what I’ve already said there, here:

Some bits of a conversation on Twitter that started with me generally ranting about how unsafe I feel at Worldcon and progressed to an argument with someone who said s/he spoke for the SMOFs (“secret masters of fandom”, i.e. convention organizers). I basically pointed out that if fandom wants to change, the resources to assist with doing so have been around for years. At this point I’m tired. I’m not interested in further talk until I start seeing some action.

Then from a conversation about Heinlein and the racism that has always been visible in his work, and lately has been made explicit through his letters:

Marc, the larger literary continuum in which Heinlein’s work existed was both created by *and contributed to* that flawed society. Heinlein’s work is one of the reasons why SFF has spent years calling itself progressive, and utterly refusing to listen to complaints about the racism embedded in the genre’s bones. That resistance is one of the things that’s made my career a greater struggle than a white author’s might be. The reason I read FF in the first place was because, when I first got active in SFF fandom and tentatively complained about some stuff that bothered me in the first Heinlein works I’d read, Heinlein fans yelled at me that he wasn’t racist or sexist, and Farnham’s Freehold was the proof of that. After I read that book I realized two things: a) that Heinlein was racist as *fuck*, and b) most of science fiction fandom was too.

Now, don’t get me wrong. SFF is where my literary muse takes me, so I’m committed to this genre; I care for what it’s done and where it’s going, if only out of intelligent self-interest. But I’m very aware of not only how flawed it is from an artistic standpoint, but how utterly hostile it has been to me and people like me. So this cannot be an abstract thing to me; the bigotry in SFF does not merely passively reflect that of US society. It is an active, ongoing, threat. It has done, and is still doing, real harm. So I’ll read it, but I’m not even going to pretend to love it. The best I can manage is love for its *potential,* and loathing for most of what it’s actually done.

Now here’s something I attempted to post as a comment in response to this blog post hyperbolically lambasting complaints about sexual harassment at cons as “plunging all fandom into war” (because demanding safety is just like attacking another country, killing soldiers and civilians, etc.):

You’re downplaying what actually happened. I don’t know whether you’re doing so intentionally or out of ignorance, but this is a situation that can only be understood in context, and you’re leaving out or ignoring a lot of the context that matters. I will attempt to explain.

No one has said Walling is a rapist. He has, however, been accused of repeatedly harassing women — and by “harassing” I mean stalking and groping and attempting to coerce into sex — not just at Readercon but many cons. He’s done it to at least two authors (including Valentine), to con volunteers and staff, and more. When Valentine came forward, these other women did, too — enough to show that Walling has a demonstrated pattern of doing the same thing everywhere he goes. People want him banned from Readercon simply because that’s what Readercon’s rules said. But this is why people want him banned from all cons: because he cannot be trusted to behave at any of them.

Then you complain about the behavior of Valentine’s friends. But you don’t mention that Walling’s friends have not only protected him from con rules enforcement, but they’ve gone after some of the women who’ve complained about his behavior in the past. Some of the authors haven’t been invited to other cons as guests, some of the con staffers have been marginalized until they quit. In other words, Valentine’s friends are hurting his reputation, but Walling’s friends are hurting women’s careers. Women cannot feel safe at any con Walling attends in part because of Walling himself, and in part because Walling is surrounded by (relatively) powerful people who’ve proven more than willing to use their power to harm others on his behalf. And he’s also protected by a throng of random bystanders who decry any complaint about sexual harassment as a “lynch mob”.

(Yeah, because asking a con to adhere to its own printed rules is totally like beating, raping, torturing, dismembering, and stringing someone up. Also, this is nowhere near “war”.)

It’s lovely that you’ve felt safe at cons. You’re very lucky. But your luck does not mean that less-lucky women are imagining things. Or that their unwillingness to tolerate being groped — even though it didn’t bother you when it happened — means they’re overreacting.

Sadly, the level of vitriol around this incident can set the general egalitarianism in fandom back by decades.

There is no egalitarianism in fandom.

There is a belief in egalitarianism. But it has mostly been used to support the usual suspects — the straight white men at the core of SFF — while marginalizing the usual targets — women, people of color, anyone the straight white men don’t like or want to objectify or want to own. When the usual targets complain about their treatment, they have to listen to what I like to call The Egalitarianism Speech. That’s the speech that goes, “Can’t we all just get along? Shut up a little and we can. Stop asking for change and we can. Everything was fine before you started complaining. We’re all equal here, after all.”

We are not. But we can be, eventually, if things change. What is necessary to bring about this change is sometimes, yes, vitriol, because polite discussions have already been had — in spades — and they haven’t worked. Walling has apparently been Talked To before; it didn’t stop him from pulling this again. Readercon’s no-tolerance harassment policy came out of a previous incident and discussion and they ignored it. Only vitriol made them follow their own rules. All the anger right now is because politeness has been tried, and all that’s done has been to protect and enable more bad behavior. The anger, however, seems to be having a positive effect.

So there’s your context.



I write science fiction and fantasy. I write other things too, but I can’t claim to be a mainstream writer; that’s not where my muse goes. It’s here. And I both love and despise this genre.

I love it because I’ve met wonderful people, and because through SFF I’ve been able to imagine things that I couldn’t have if I’d kept my focus on the here and now. I despise it because SFF is just as flawed as the rest of the world when it comes to bigotry and marginalization — but unlike the rest of the world, SFF thinks it’s progressive. Embraces the idea of its own progressivism with such fervor that I’d call it religious, if the field weren’t so full of atheists who would never be caught dead preaching doctrine or shunning unbelievers or anything like that. (That was sarcasm. The atheists have their own problems right now.)

We have to shed this idea that SFF is somehow special. That it is perfect. That it is in any way better than the mainstream society from which it derives. It isn’t. And in fact, SFF’s manifest unwillingness to examine itself is one of the things that makes it worse than the mainstream.

I and people I care about keep getting accused of having some kind of agenda, whenever we express a demand for some kind of positive change. So OK. You know what it is? Lean close. Here’s the secret. Here’s the goal of the big shadow conspiracy. I’ll whisper.

We want nearly everyone to have fun.

I say “nearly” because, well. Some people’s idea of fun is other people’s non-fun. But for anyone who doesn’t think “fun” means hurting, frightening, or stomping all over someone else? They should all be welcome under this tent.

That’s it. That’s the conspiracy. And it really doesn’t seem that much to ask.

Flipping the scrip: Can we? Should we?

So since last week’s debacle, a lot of people have asked me whether it’s even possible to write a discrimination reversal that isn’t chock full o’ bigotry. Not really sure why they’re asking me; it’s not like I’m some kind of expert on the matter. But they are, so what the hell, I’ll share what I think.

I think a workable discrimiflip is possible. Hell, I may have done one, depending on how you look at it — in the Dreamblood books, Gujaareh and Kisua are societies whose darkest-skinned denizens hold the greatest power and prestige, while people who are more visibly multiracial or white are viewed with varying degrees of tolerance (which is not the same thing as acceptance, note). But while that’s a flip from the society in which I was raised, and certainly a flip on what’s usually seen in English-language epic fantasy, it probably doesn’t count as a true flip since the book’s societies were modeled on places in our world where, probably, that’s how it really is/was. I’ll leave that for the reviewers to decide.

Among other writers’ work, I’ve read and heard of a few discrimination reversals that succeeded. Many people have recommended to me Steven Barnes’ Lions’ Blood and Zulu Heart, as well as Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses… but I haven’t read these books yet, so I can’t assess for myself how well they work. I’ve read a number of feminist reversals, including Sherri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country and more recently Rachel Swirsky’s Nebula-winning novellette “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window”; the former is another problematic example that worked in one way (gender) and failed mightily in others (eugenics, race, homophobia), while the latter was probably the most successful reversal I’ve so far read. But I’ve read other discrimination reversals that were not just unsuccessful, but whopping insults to vast swaths of humanity — to the degree that I kind of have to agree with this slush reader: discrimiflips are a dime a dozen, but rare is the one that actually succeeds. In fact, the flips that get held up as examples for the rest of us to follow are the most colossal failures I’ve seen — Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold, for example. I can’t tell you how pissed I was when several people recommended that one to me as an example of SFF that successfully tackles the issue of racism. (Here’s a clue, if you haven’t read it: it’s not.)*

Which brings up a question people haven’t asked me: should discrimination reversals be written? The easy answer is yes, because I believe nothing can be off-limits if art is to serve its purpose. Art can be a way to say things that society won’t hear in any other context; a way to shift the status quo, fight the power, etc. But here’s the thing: discrimination reversals are nothing new. This is an election year in the US; I’ve heard lots of discrimiflip language and ideas being tossed around lately, some of it in “dogwhistle” code and some of it dangerously overt. Historically, we see these kinds of narratives appear wherever a dominant group starts to fear the loss of its dominance, especially if the perceived threat comes from whichever group(s) they’ve been treating most like crap. In this context, reversals usually stand as none-too-subtle messages of warning from dominant-group members to other members of their own group: do everything you can to keep oppressing these people, or we’ll be the ones getting screwed next.

So here’s the hard answer to the question of whether discrimiflips should ever be written: when a discrimination reversal serves to reinforce rather than fight oppression, it shouldn’t be done. That’s when the reversal isn’t daring or challenging or unique; that’s when it becomes just another tool of white supremacy (or homophobia, or Christian dominionism, or whatever), harming real people in the real world. I’ve had to struggle for acceptance as an SFF writer for my entire professional life, as have most other writers of color within this genre — and one reason for that struggle is that narratives in which people like me are depicted as drugged-out rapist cannibals are a much-lauded part of SFF’s literary canon. But I’ve gotten off easy; fear of a brown planet has been used to justify campaigns of terror and murder all over the world. Given all this it’s hard for me to see that kind of discrimination reversal as merely artistic expression. It’s propaganda. It’s a weapon. It kills.

So. Let’s go back to how it can be done, assuming the goal is to not cause harm in the real world. I tried to think about the flips I’ve read that have worked, or the workable parts of problematic flips, and I came up with a few suggestions for a hypothetical how-to guide:

  • First check your own privilege. If you’re a member of a privileged group, and you’re writing a fictional reversal in which your group ends up oppressed by people who are marginalized in real life, ask yourself some serious questions. Like: Am I really doing anything different from what the worst fearmongers in my own group usually do? Why does this possible world seem so frightening to me? and Am I depicting all the people in this society in a realistic way? Or are any of them stereotypes — even “good” ones? And, of course, Should I write this?
  • Decide who your real villain is. Here’s the biggest problem with Victoria Foyt’s “Save the Pearls” mess: it purports to be anti-racist, but in the actual book it’s pretty clear the enemy is not racism, but people of color. That’s the dys in her topia: black people in charge. None of the characters in this story are presented in a well-rounded or nuanced fashion, but Foyt fleshes them out with a textbook’s worth of racial stereotypes: Fragile Flower of White Womanhood, Mandingo, Jezebel, Kung Fu Master, Noble Savage, White People Are Smart/Brown People Are Stupid, you name it, Foyt’s got it. But what if Foyt had made all of her characters complex? People, instead of caricatures. Say she’d written them all as good people in some ways, ignoble in others, all with goals that might be in conflict, all just trying to get by in a system that depends upon the exploitation of some for the comfort of others. Then it might have been clear that the racist system — not any particular race — was the dystopian element of the story.
  • Decenter it. So you want to write a world that’s all about (say) the gay, with straight people struggling on the margins. But consider one of the most insidious, yet powerful, ways in which our society centers the experiences of one group and marginalizes others: most stories are told from the PoV of the powerful. So! Increase your readers’ sense of disjunct! Center your narrative on a lesbian — since in our world, lesbians rarely get to stand in the spotlight. And since she’s one of the people in power, be sure to have her display all the little privileges that (say) straight men show, in our world. Because if you flip your worldbuilding but then just center your narrative on yet another straight person, you haven’t really done anything different from what your readers see every day.
  • Decenter the flip itself. Think about our society. What’s the driving impetus for our way of life? Is everything we do intended solely to oppress people of color, marginalize the disabled, villify the poor, etc.? All those things are an effect of the way we live — and possibly an unavoidable effect, as long as our society remains constructed the way it is — but even on my most cynical days I don’t think the Founding Fathers built the US for the sole purpose of keeping the queer disabled black woman down. Likewise, no fictional society should exist for the sole purpose of tormenting and enslaving its most downtrodden. Most real-world societies are fixated on trying to one-up their neighbors, make the majority of their people happy, etc. Your society should be too.
  • Use subtlety. Everyone recognizes oppression in forms as blatant as slavery, or a caste system a la Jim Crow or apartheid. But blatant stuff is only a small part of how oppression really works — and writing a flip in which oppression takes only overt forms will automatically peg you as somebody who doesn’t understand the complexities of discrimination and privilege. If you don’t get this, you shouldn’t be writing a discrimination reversal.

OK, that’s all I can come up with. What other suggestions would you have for someone who wants to write a discrimination reversal that doesn’t fail? What are your thoughts on whether it can be, or should be, done?

* And I don’t recommend reading it. If you do attempt it, trigger warning for some of the most nausea- and rage-inducing racism I’ve seen in this whole genre. It so offended me that I will never touch Heinlein again even if my life depends on it, and I now give the big hairy side-eye to anyone who tries to hold up Heinlein as proof of SFF’s progressivism. (The salient bit starts on p. 55 and rambles on for quite awhile.) And if anyone in the comments suggests that I read Heinlein’s Sixth Column, I will banhammer you into another dimension where people with good sense and literary taste RULE THE WORLD.

This is how you destroy something beautiful.

This is how my Monday morning began: with a slap in the face, courtesy of new Weird Tales editor Marvin Kaye.

If you haven’t been following the “controversy” over author Victoria Foyt’s self-published novel Revealing Eden, here’s a good analysis of it with links to others. I put air quotes around controversy in this case because there really isn’t one. On the one side of the discussion you’ve got the author and a handful of defenders — many of whom seem to be sockpuppets of the author herself — insisting that the book isn’t racist because… something. On the other side you’ve got several thousand readers saying OMG WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT RACIST MESS I JUST SAW. That’s not a controversy, it’s an object lesson in How To Be Wrong On The Internet.

I haven’t talked about the Foyt book much because I didn’t care. At the start of this I read the first chapter of the book out of curiosity (you can download a sample on Amazon); it’s really not very good at all. It also falls prey to the usual problems that occur whenever someone who’s not very educated on how racism actually works — and who’s clearly unwilling to learn more — tries to address it. Foyt’s characters adhere to every racial stereotype you can imagine, for example, in this supposedly not-racist book. But poorly-written books are a dime a dozen, and so are racist texts; I saw no point in giving additional attention to this one versus any of the thousands of others. I also tend not to negatively review other authors’ works in general, since there’s really no way to avoid the appearance of unprofessionalism and/or grudgewank in the process. There are times when it’s worthwhile to burn those bridges, but that one wasn’t one of them.

This, however, is.

Some context here. Weird Tales is a magazine with a long and checkered history. I didn’t follow it back in the old days when it was all! Lovecraftian! All! The time!, simply because I wasn’t interested in that sort of thing. In its more recent years it published some names I actually cared about, like Tanith Lee; I read an issue or two to sample it, but again — not my thing. In 2007, however, Ann VanderMeer, Stephen Segal, and some other folks decided to revive the old Weird Tales brand and evolve it beyond its classic roots. When their issues started coming out, I read a sample and was blown away by the fiction selections, the layout, the sheer collective beauty of the thing. I started buying it, and I also immediately started sending story submissions there. Most of them got rejected, although usually with nice notes encouraging me to keep trying. And I did. Then finally I sold one: “The Trojan Girl”, which was published in WT #357 in early 2011 with lovely, eerie illustrations by Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein. I was so proud, ya’ll.

And then last year something bizarre happened. New owners Marvin Kaye and John Harlacher bought the magazine — and promptly fired the team that had earned it its first Hugo award. Okay. That was stupid, but businesses do stupid things all the time. The new folks made a vague effort at damage control afterward, so I chose to hope that the new ownership would get its shit together and get back to the business of putting out a high-quality speculative magazine. I didn’t have a subscription — I buy on the newsstand, ’cause I actually like browsing newsstands — so it didn’t do me any harm to wait and see. They’d bought a magazine with an invaluable reputation that had been years in the building, after all; I figured no one would be stupid enough to piss that all away.

I was wrong. They’ve shat it away. And pissed on the steaming pile afterward.

It’s more than the fact that the editor has chosen to introduce the revamped magazine with a diatribe against evil anti-racists, or evil people with no sense of irony, or something. It’s more than the stunningly poor judgment that he displays by hitching his magazine’s new applecart to this spavined old horse. It’s also the fact that they’re going to be publishing the first chapter of this hugely problematic book in Weird Tales. What the hell is that about? In all the furor over this book, no one is defending it as high-quality literature. It’s not even “weird”, in either the old-school pulp sense or the VanderMeer-era modern sense; it’s a slushpile-stock discrimiflip with implausible science and banal writing. This is a book whose author self-published it — perhaps because the publisher of her previous novel saw what a mess it was — and then promoted it via self-reviews on HuffPo and a bunch of vanity awards. Now I’m wondering whether she paid WT to publish this excerpt. Maybe she even bought Kaye’s editorial. Or maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe Kaye just thought it was a great idea to start his new regime with a bang. Any publicity is good publicity, right? Right?

How much does a good reputation sell for, I wonder? Hope Kaye got a good price.

All my pleasure and pride at having been published in WT is gone. Goes without saying that I won’t be submitting there again, ever, but at this point I’m ashamed to have my name associated with the magazine at all. And that pisses me off especially, because something I really cared about has been destroyed. I was willing to give WT’s new owners the benefit of the doubt after the regime change; sometimes change can be a good thing, after all. But this editorial, and this decision to publish such poor-quality fiction on misplaced principle, makes it clear that WT’s reputation is now meaningless. By this gesture Marvin Kaye hasn’t just slapped me in the face, he’s slapped every author the magazine ever published, every hopeful author who’s submitted during and since VanderMeer’s tenure, every artist whose illustrations ever graced its pages, and every fan who voted for WT to win that Hugo.

Slap me and I’ll slap you back. I can’t revoke my Hugo vote and I don’t want to; Ann and the gang justifiably earned that award. I’m just sorry the award is now attached to a magazine that’s clearly going to be shit from here forth. WT #357 is a print magazine and nothing can un-print it, but here’s what I can do: I can do my damnedest to make sure the new owners don’t profit in any way from my work. They’re still selling back-issues of the magazine, and the story I published there has thus far only been reprinted in audio form. So on the thin chance that anybody reading this was thinking about buying a back-issue in order to read my story in it, no need. I’m reprinting it here now for free. Enjoy.

ETA: The publisher has backtracked on WT’s brave commitment to racism, go figure. Damage done, I say.

Daughter of ETA: Artist Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein has graciously given me permission to repost her art with The Trojan Girl. Yay!

Sister of Grand-niece of ETA: WT has taken down Kaye’s initial statement. (Good grief, don’t these people have any clue how not to handle an internet controversy?) Here’s a cached version.

Friend of Cousin of Oh Fuck It: Jeff VanderMeer weighs in, with some deep-twitch-inducing insider info on how this debacle began.

The Trojan Girl

First published in Weird Tales #357 (2011), and reprinted in Escape Pod in audio. Note that everything on my blog is under a Creative Commons Attribution/Non-Commercial/No Derivatives license.

If you’re curious, this is part of a story world I’ve been noodling for awhile, and might one day revisit as a YA novel. Another short story of mine (“Valedictorian”), to be published in 2012 in the AFTER anthology, is set in the same world.

ETA: And the artist whose illustrations ran with the Weird Tales print has graciously shared those images here! Click images to embiggen, and visit Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein’s site for her full portfolio.

Continue reading ›

Beasts of the Southern Wild

You guys! You gotta see this movie.

I’ve said this before and will say it again: New Orleans is the only city besides New York to ever win my heart. There’s something different about that place — something indefinable and liminal. Everyone who lives there for long feels it. I’ve tried to capture that sense of magic myself in fiction, and I don’t know if I succeeded because it’s hard to encapsulate something like that in a narrative. I’ve seen lots of other books and visual media attempt this and fail. But now, for the first time in quite a while, I’ve just seen another film which does the trick.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is overtly fantastical. The story is framed through the imagination of Hushpuppy, a little girl growing up in “the Bathtub”, a poor community that has literally been forgotten and left to drown by the rest of the world. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina the residents of this community band together and seek solace in laughter, but Hushpuppy knows that something is out of true. What’s happening to the Bathtub is merely a symptom of greater malaise, and she sets forth on an epic quest — both real and imagined — to save the father she loves more than anything in the world.

This movie is beautiful and terrible — and both of those adjectives are good. The cinematography is just about perfect, capturing everything from the ethereal beauty of a bayou sunset to the raw ugly poverty in which the residents of the Bathtub live. You can see why the people of the Bathtub mistrust authority, because authority comes with stark white uniforms and walks down sterile blue-tinged hallways and destroys souls with efficient, industrialized detachment. You feel the power of Hushpuppy’s fears because they come thundering down from the Arctic; you taste her hopes, sucked down like sweet boiled crawfish. The actors are all unknowns, but they take the script and beast it (see the film). Such was this movie’s power that I started crying at about the halfway mark, and I just. Didn’t. Stop. Even though I was laughing at the same time.

It’s not without problems. Even though the film fictionalizes the forgotten poor of the Gulf Coast, I’ve met enough of the real poor there to know that what’s depicted here edges closer than I like to caricature at times. The denizens of the Bathtub choose to stay through the hurricane, for example, and the film treats this overtly as sheer stubbornness and pride — but implicit is the fact that these people have nowhere to go, and they’re too poor to get there even if they did. I can easily see some filmgoers missing the implicit message and using the overt to (yet again) vilify the people who couldn’t move out of Katrina’s path. Also, the filmmakers attempt a few metaphors that fail, sometimes badly. All the women in the film, including Hushpuppy, are treated as innately magical, for example. This is something that happens over and over in depictions of bayou folk, especially women, and it annoys me — but I’m willing to forgive it in this case because the film didn’t run afoul of any of the other usual stereotypes (e.g., Scary Voodoo People). It also helps that these “magical negresses” were balanced out by their realism in other respects.

But all of these are quibbles about a film that is, save for one or two strokes, a masterpiece. So go see it. But hydrate first, OK? Your eyes will thank you.

Identity should always be part of the gameplay

This is sort of a tangential response to John Scalzi’s “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting. Good article; you should read it… and the comments. Yeah, I know, I usually say don’t read the comments. But I think they’re illuminating, if frustrating, in this case. If you’re not a straight white male, it’s a good idea to understand how even the most liberal of them think. If you are a straight white male, Scalzi’s talking to you; listen.

I’ve been playing the hell out of Dragon Age and Dragon Age 2 on the Xbox 360 lately. This is partly because life’s been busy and killing electronic monsters and assholes is great stress relief. More than that, though, these are just incredibly good games. I’ve been something of a snob where it comes to RPGs in the past, preferring Japanese over Western-made RPGs because the Western ones usually sucked on the criteria I care most about: characterization and plot. I suspect Western eRPGs were originally made to emulate the fun of playing tabletop RPGs, within which nonlinearity, customization, and identification (“you are the character!”) are the main goal. In tabletop games, players are expected to provide most of the energy for plot and characterization themselves. Since 99% of the Western games I’ve played up ’til now have made it very clear I’m not the character — if I’m lucky, I might get to play as a white woman — the identification component has never been much of a draw for me. And as someone who spends her professional life churning out worldbuilding, plot, and characterization every day… well, I’d just rather sit back and let someone else do the heavy lifting when I’m trying to relax. Fortunately the DA games break the Western RPG mold in some really nice ways.

The “identification” component is still a problem in the DA games, because the best I could do for trying to assemble a character who looked like me was a sort of burnt-sienna-skinned woman with naturally straight hair. It’s frustrating that I couldn’t be black unless I somehow assumed that some kind of magic hair-straightening process existed, and every brown person used it. (I suppose it’s not a far stretch from dragons to sodium hydroxide. ::sigh::) Still, Bioware tried, which is more than most game companies have done, and they did it on more than a superficial level. I was thrilled to see that my DA2 character’s whole family turned brown along with her, and that there was one other playable character at the dark end of the spectrum*. There were also lots of characters of color in the background — not as many as I would’ve expected in DA2, which takes place in a port city; in our own world, port cities have historically been very heterogenous — but enough to have a real presence. That made it clear the dark skin option wasn’t just an afterthought.

I also liked the fact that I didn’t have to create a character like me, if I didn’t want to. I could be several flavors of white, which wouldn’t exactly be a novelty — but somehow it feels better when it’s a choice. I could be vaguely Asian or Middle Eastern; both of these options had the same limitations as the vaguely black model, but the option was there. I could be male or female. Better still, both games incorporated relationships with other characters as a game mechanic. I could be nice; I could be an asshole. I could pursue a romantic relationship or be “just friends” with everyone; I could have a completely non-sexual romance or burn up the bedrolls every time we hit camp. If I chose sex, I could settle down monogamously or jump every playable character in the game. (With frustrating exceptions. I can’t be the only one who thought Varrick was hot.** Le sigh.) And much has been made of how players can pursue these romances regardless of their own sexual orientation, or the other characters’ gender. Hell, that’s what ultimately made me give these games a try.

So at this point I’ve played as a vaguely black female rogue, a vaguely brown male mage, a vaguely black female elf warrior, and — in my most recent playthrough — a white guy. (Ah, what the hell.) I’ve romanced men as a woman, men as a man, and women as a woman; I’m currently debating whether I feel like making my white guy romance a woman, but since that would feel like every other game I’ve played ever I think I’ll stick to the men. Or maybe I’ll just skip the romances altogether this time around.

All these options have a real, meaningful impact on how the game’s story unfurls. Drive away a character by being carelessly rude, and a life-saving endgame option might not appear. Butter up the wrong woman and suddenly you’re embroiled in an interspecies war. And all along the way, other characters’ reactions to you are highly colored by what you are, not just your choices. Mages are second-class citizens in this world, so if you’re a mage, you can never become king/queen even after you save the world — and if you try, you might eventually be imprisoned or lynched. If you’re an elf — another maligned group — every merchant will assume you’re penniless; society ladies will clutch their pearls if you pass too near; and you’re doomed to a life of scorn and oppression no matter how much money and glory you accumulate. If you’re a refugee from a nation that was recently devastated by war, you can immigrate to a safer city… where you have no rights, everyone preys on you, and if you don’t do every dirty job you can find, you’ll starve or be sold to slavers. If you’re a man, serving in the priesthood is off-limits to you, though it’s clear this society is fundamentally patriarchial. If you’re a noble, you’re bound by a rigid set of social rules that you cannot violate without potentially losing everything.

So basically, the DA creators have had the sense to acknowledge that the non-optional demographics of a person’s background — her gender, her race, the class into which she was born, her sexual orientation — have as much of an impact on her life as her choices. Basically, privilege and oppression are built in as game mechanics. I can’t remember the last time I saw a game that so openly acknowledged the impact of privilege. Lots of games feature characters who have to deal with the consequences of being rich or poor, a privileged race or an oppressed one, but this is usually a linear, superficial thing. The title character in Nier, for example, is a poor single father who’s probably too old for the mercenary life (he looks about 50, but via the miracle of Japanese game traditions he’s probably only 30), but he keeps at it because otherwise his sick daughter will starve. His poverty is simply a motivation. No one refuses to hire him because they think poor people are lazy. He meets a well-dressed, well-groomed young man who lives in a mansion at one point, and the kid doesn’t snub him for being dirty and shirtless. (In fact the kid falls in love with him but that’s a digression.) His age and race and class don’t mean anything, even though in real life they would. So even though I love Nier — great music, fascinating and original world — I like the DA games better. Even in a fantasy world, realism has its place.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion in the SFF writing world about how to write “the other” — i.e., a character of a drastically different background from the writer’s own. It’s generally people of privileged backgrounds asking the question, because let’s face it: if you’re not a straight white able-bodied (etc.) male, you pretty much know how to write those guys already because that’s most of what’s out there. So right now I’m speaking to the white people. One technique that gets tossed around in these discussions is what I call the “Just Paint ‘Em Brown” technique: basically just write the non-white character the same as a white one, but mention somewhere in the text, briefly, that she’s not white. Lots of well-known SFF writers — Heinlein in Starship Troopers, Clarke in Childhood’s End, Card in Ender’s Game — have employed this technique. I’ve seen some books mention a character’s non-whiteness only as a belated “surprise” to the reader (near the end of the book in the Heinlein example). The idea, I guess, is that the reader will form impressions of the character sans racialized assumptions, and therefore still feel positively about the character even after he’s revealed to be one of “them.”

This technique is crap. For one thing, the reader does form racialized assumptions about the character; the assumption is just that he’s white. For another, the whole thing treats race as the punchline of a joke. A writer who does this doesn’t need to make any effort (e.g. researching history, meeting people, learning about social systems) to create verisimilitude between the character and the worldbuilding. The writer just writes the character as white, then “paints” him brown with a few words. Worse, this technique not only assumes but supports the reader’s racism. Characters of color are assumed to be so unacceptable to white readers that they cannot be named as such from the outset (even though in a visual medium or real life that’s practically the first thing most people would notice) without making the book unreadable. CoCs can be “tolerated”, though, if a) their race is treated like an afterthought, because b) they read like white people the rest of the time.

There’s nothing challenging about pulling this stunt. It’s lazy characterization on the writer’s part and lazy engagement on the reader’s part. A black person is not a white person painted brown, a woman is not a man with tits, and identity isn’t an afterthought or a trick. So why the hell do so many writers think this technique is a great idea?

(Rhetorical question. I know why.)

Better to do things the DA way: acknowledge the ways in which what we are affects what we can do — and how easy it is to do those things, and who we’ll get to do them with. Treat identity like something real, not a gimmick. Understand how the systems built around identity — many flavors of bigotry and privilege, socioeconomics, even science and history — impact every aspect of life from careers to relationships to survival, and don’t tiptoe around this reality. Your story will thank you for it. Your readers — all of them — will, too.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll get back to seducing Anders. I hate the guy, but what the hell; it’s just a game.

ETA for clarity. Wrote this pre-coffee, ya’ll.

* Although I had some issues with Isabela’s characterization. Woman who loves sex and does it lots, yay! Woman who does lots of sex being the only brown woman in the game? Argh, stereotype. (Still slept with her, tho’.)

** and the Arishok oh God I can’t believe I said that