Go#$%!$ Hollywood!

YOU CAN’T DO THAT. YOU CAN’T TELL A NUANCED, COMPLEX, INTERESTING STORY ABOUT BIGOTRY AND USE BIGOTRY TO DO IT. YOU WILL SHOOT YOUR OWN MESSAGE IN THE FOOT AND RUIN AN OTHERWISE EXCELLENT MOVIE. DOES THIS NOT OCCUR TO YOU? ARE YOU INCAPABLE OF THINKING FOR TWO MINUTES DURING THE SCRIPTWRITING? DO YOU JUST NOT SEE THAT SAYING “RACISM IS BAD” DOESN’T WORK IF YOU’RE PERPETUATING IT YOURSELF?! WHAT THE EVERLIVING HELL — ?!

::Stops. Takes deep, calming breath. Goes for bike ride, reads something, seeks the peace within herself, etc.::

Okay. Let’s try that again.

I went to see X-Men: First Class last night. I actually really, really liked the film — much better than the last two with their increasingly obsessive focus on Wolverine (probably my least favorite X-Man), and their increasingly muddled attempts to tell a good story vs just blowing shit up. I can blow shit up at home on my XBox; when I pay $13 to see a movie in the theater, I want something that engages more than just my adrenal glands. This film did that, with excellent acting on the part of its three male leads (including Kevin Bacon here), good dialogue, good pacing, all that. It was a genuinely good film. (I have some issues with the female leads’ acting, but that’s a rant for a different day.)

But. (Spoilers, and more profanity, from here forth.)
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I’m a-doin’ the Write-A-Thon

I’ve never been to a Clarion. Or any six-week workshop. Never worked in the kind of career field that would permit it, and never had a fortuitous conjunction of money and unemployment in between careers. Still, I like the idea of the whole thing — creativity boot camp, total immersion in ideas and discipline with the isolation necessary to foster the imagination to its fullest. It’s something I get in smaller increments with my writing group, particularly when we go off on our annual retreat — but how cool is it to go on a massive, six-week-long retreat with guest instructors? ::wistful sigh::

Alas. At this point in my career I could probably still get something out of a Clarion, but it wouldn’t be fair for me to go. The whole point is to help aspiring writers improve themselves enough and make the professional connections that will help them break in — and while I’ve got a long way to go before I achieve my personal goals, the one I can safely say I’ve met is yep, done the breaking-in thing. So I couldn’t in good conscience take a seat from someone else who might use a Clarion workshop to springboard into a published career. (Not to mention, got no time anymore.)

But I can still support a venture I think so highly of — which is why, even though I am not a Clarionite, I’ll be participating in this year’s Clarion West Write-a-Thon.

Gods know I’ve got enough to do: the final pass edit of The Broken Kingdoms, the second-pass revisions of the two Dreamblood books, and I’m working on an outline and test chapters for The New Book. So, you wanna encourage me? Maybe add a little positive pressure to produce more — and do a good thing for other people in the process? Sponsor me. My page is here, and I’ll let you know when the Write-a-Thon begins. Donations pay for things like keeping the workshop affordable for those who can pay, and providing scholarships for those who can’t. And Clarion West is particularly and explicitly committed to diversifying the SFF field — something that’s obviously near and dear to my heart.

So help me out, and help them out. I think it’s gonna be fun.

Some points of general interest.

This is not addressed to anyone in particular, though it is triggered by a comment or two — not necessarily negative ones, if you’re wondering, mostly just perplexing ones — that I’ve seen or heard in places, about me and mine. And me being the kind of girl who points at the giant stinking elephant in the room and says, Dear gods, what is that thing? — well, I felt the need to explain:

1. My editor did not know I was black when she bought my novel. She found out the first time we met in person — after she’d bought my book, when we had dinner in order to start getting to know each other and discuss the editing/marketing. I’m not actually sure she knew I was female until we spoke on the phone (to make plans for dinner), given that I use initials. She probably did, because my agent doesn’t try to use gender-neutral pronouns or anything, but I don’t know for certain because I never asked — I don’t care.

2. I also learned for the first time that she was a woman of color when we met for dinner. I certainly didn’t know she was (at the time*) the only editor of color in SF/Fdom — hell, I hadn’t realized there were any.

3. I do recall thinking, “Whassat, Greek?” when my agent told me my new editor’s name was Devi Pillai. That was about as much thought as I gave it, beyond WOO HOO WOO HOO WOO HOO and a bit of OMGWTFBBQ I’M GONNA BE PUBLISHED. (She’s not Greek.)

4. My agent submitted the book to something like six different editors, none of whom I’d met before. (I have met some of them since.) I don’t think any of them knew I was black. All the editors my agent submitted the book to were her choice — though we did discuss them — and I don’t know why she picked them. I don’t honestly care. I trust her judgment on stuff like this; that’s why she’s my agent.

5. I have, if you’re wondering, asked my agent not to share information about my race unless a potential publisher asks — not because I’m trying to hide it, but because I don’t want my race used to pigeonhole me (you may recall that I don’t like that). This doesn’t happen much in SFF as compared to other genres, but I just didn’t want to go there. It’s pretty much irrelevant now, but back when I was unpublished and not very public, it was helpful to me to know who asked, and who didn’t. (And also if you’re wondering, nobody’s asked thus far.)

6. Orbit did not buy my books after, or as a result of, RaceFail. Anybody who can count and read a calendar should be able to figure this out, but to make it clear — RaceFail was in early 2009. The Inheritance Trilogy sold in early 2008. Stuff in publishing takes a looooong time. If there is any publishing-related fallout from RaceFail that we can see and parse as such, it won’t start to appear until this year at the earliest, most likely next year or the year after. The changes I’ve seen thus far are more intrinsic and subtle.

Just in case anybody was wondering.

* The other that I know of is DongWon Song, also at Orbit, but he was hired after I contracted with them.

The obvious vs the oblique

You may have noticed that I’ve been a little quiet lately. Sorry! It’s the whole two-fulltime-jobs thing; doesn’t leave a lot of time for extras. So in the spirit of maximizing efficiency, this is a two-birds-with-one-stone post: I’m going to talk about writing, which I haven’t done here for awhile, and I’m also going to plug a new novel that rocked my socks off. The novel is Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, which has already gotten some nice press. It deserves more.

When I first started out as a short story writer, I had a rough time of it. Some of it was just stubbornness on my part; change is hard. The rest, though, was that I kept making the novelist’s mistake: instead of writing short stories, I just I tried to write shorter long stories. Then, finally grasping that short stories are something different, I went to the opposite extreme. My next attempt was a story full of complex ideas and character interactions in a very strange setting — and no explanation of any of it. Explaining would’ve taken up too much space, I told myself at the time. I’d read several stories at that point which didn’t bother to explain things, so I thought that might be the trick of short story-writing: write it all in media res, toss in some technobabble or magicobabble, bam, done.

My writing group at the time justly smacked me for inflicting the resulting mess on them. “Don’t be afraid to be obvious,” they said (among other choice things). And I realized they were right: I was leaving stuff out not because it improved the story, but because I was afraid. The plain fact of the matter was that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing as a short story writer, so I’d busted out the Handwavium in an effort to conceal my beginning-writer clumsiness and utter ignorance. It didn’t work. So I trunked the story and tried to write something else. Awhile later — after I’d had time to read more short stories, experiment with new techniques, basically grow up a little — I revised it, did a better job this time, and finally achieved my first short story publication.

This was an important and necessary lesson that I had to learn. But lately I’ve come to realize that the lesson was incomplete — or maybe I’m just finally experienced enough to grasp the subtext of don’t be afraid to be obvious. Sometimes it’s equally necessary to not be obvious, after all. Storytelling, like all communication, is sometimes as much about what’s not being said as what is. Consider a simple statement like, oh, “He went to the store.” Straightforward and clear, right? But imagine that the person saying it rolls her eyes, or bursts into tears as she says it. Or imagine that the apocalypse has come and gone and there are no more stores. Is it still straightforward and clear then?

This revelation struck me, again and again, as I read Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique. On the surface it’s the straightforward tale of a mechanical circus in a postapocalyptic world. (Or as straightforward as that gets.) The Circus Tresaulti travels around a land locked in perpetual war, offering battle-weary, hardened survivors a few hours of escape and wonder as they watch tumblers and aerialists perform while wearing — ostensibly — fake clockwork prosthetics and other devices. The clockwork parts are real, of course. But there’s a wealth of unexplained story right there in the premise: why a circus? Why mechanical? Who created it, and what drives it to keep performing in a world so hopeless and broken-down? What is this war about, and why doesn’t it ever end? The story answers some of these questions immediately, others much later, and some of them go unanswered altogether. It quickly became clear to me that the unanswered questions are the most important of them — and the ones that least require an answer, by the end of the story.

For example. The circus is run by Boss: a mysterious woman who seems to have no other name, perhaps because no other name is relevant. She’s the boss; that’s what matters. But there’s a more subtle meaning to Boss’ lack of a name. Boss has mastered the skill of binding human flesh to metal in ways that should seem familiar to science fiction (or rather, cyberpunk) readers, although here it’s done for almost purely aesthetic purposes. The aerialists of the circus leap and whirl through the air better because they have hollow copper bones replacing their human bones. The strong man is all the more impressive because he has turbine engines in his back, powering his feats of strength. Only gradually does it become clear that the power which created them is as much magical as technological. It doesn’t make sense in any hard-SF way; no one should be able to survive having their skeleton replaced, especially not when the operation is performed without high-tech equipment and in unsanitary conditions. And clockwork doesn’t work that way. But it works because Boss is the boss — because she literally wills it to work, and because her will is what binds the circus together. And it works because “getting the bones” has unexpected side effects — like granting effective immortality to anyone so transformed. The reader may immediately leap to logical conclusions here: immortal, super-agile, super-strong cyborgs in a war-torn world = invincible super-soldiers. Someone else in the novel — the antagonist called only “the government man”, also unnamed because what matters is his power — leaps to this conclusion as well. He hunts down the circus, and Boss, in hopes of creating an army that can end the war for good, and usher in a new golden age (of his making, of course). But over the course of the story the government man, and the reader, learns that it isn’t the magic or the technology that makes the performers of the Circus Tresaulti so formidable. Their strength comes from their personalities, and the peculiar relationships that bind and divide them, far more than mere flesh, blood, and metal. This too is never stated explicitly, but because it’s the inevitable conclusion that the reader draws from the story, the point is that much more powerful when it finally sinks home.

I’m not doing the story justice, frankly. Mechanique is a layered tapestry, rich and knotted, full of characters who aren’t likable but whom the reader nevertheless loves, and settings and themes that are horrific but nevertheless beautiful. I can’t even define the story’s genre, because it feels more like a glancing reflection rather than a specific nailing of any one: steampunk but futuristic, cyberpunk but curiously Victorian, weirder than New Weird, a not-quite dystopia, beautifully baroque horror. For me, Mechanique is also an object lesson in the power of oblique storytelling. I’ve played with a few of these techniques — Yeine’s unnamed grandmother, for example, in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. She’s unnamed (“Beba” is just a term for grandmother, like “Baba” in Russian and “Obaasan” in Japanese) because what matters is that she’s Yeine’s grandmother, and because she represents the Darren lineage and legacy that Yeine has striven all her life to fit. But I don’t think I did as good a job as Valentine has with her unnamed characters. By leaving them unnamed, she has reduced them to nothing more than a role or a cipher for some higher idea (in “the government man’s” case, he is Authority — all the things that governments do for, and to, their people). But she’s also managed to keep these nameless characters three-dimensional and human, somehow. It’s a skill I have yet to master. But that’s OK, because in this novel I get to watch a master at work.

Go check out Mechanique.

In FRANCE

Using all caps because it’s FRANCE and holy crap FRANCE I’m in FRANCE how ’bout some FRANCE with those FRENCH fries? (Which for some reason here are called “amusing fries”. I fail to see the joke.)

Anyway, am here for the Imaginales festival in a town called Epinal in eastern FRANCE. I’m posting photos and updates on the trip over on my Facebook page for those who can see it (I friend everybody that doesn’t appear to be a spammer, if you’re wondering, so it’s OK if you don’t know me personally).

That’s it. Just wanted to let you know I’m in FRANCE.

No Nebula this year

I didn’t win, alas. That said, if I gotta lose, losing to Connie Willis is the way to go, lemme tell you. And I had a great time at Nebula Weekend, though I was only there for Saturday and Sunday (it started Thursday). I have pictures, but they came out very dark for some reason, so I won’t post them. (If anyone was there and has better pics, please send them to me!)

And while I’m aware that “it’s an honor to be nominated” is a cliche, that really is the case here. The other authors in the Best Novel category were no shakes, and I know and/or am friends with several of them, so there was really no way I could be disappointed. And given that this was my first novel, and I’ve got lots more in me, well — there’s always next year.

So for the winners: congratulations! And my fellow nominees who didn’t win, I’m thrilled and humbled to be among you. Let’s all celebrate!

…and then it hits me.

I’ve been nominated or shortlisted for (or won) nine major awards. Nine. Awards. Nine.

  1. The Hugo (Nominee)
  2. The Tiptree (Shortlist)
  3. The Prix Imaginales (Nominee)
  4. Gemmell Morningstar Award (Finalist)
  5. Locus Awards (Finalist)
  6. Nebula Award (Nominee)
  7. Goodreads Readers’ Choice Awards (Nominee)
  8. Romantic Times Book Reviews Award, Fantasy (Winner!)
  9. Crawford Award (Shortlist)

::bogglety:: I kinda don’t know what to think about this. I’m astounded. Awed. Humbled. A little scared. A lot giddy. (And the Virgo in me keeps wanting it to be ten, just to make it a nice round number.) It’s an honor to be nominated for even one of these things, but all of them? Holy guacamole.

I’m leaving tomorrow for the Nebula Awards weekend down in DC, which is already in full progress — but since I’m off to Imaginales after that, I’ve got to husband my vacation days carefully, so only doing an overnighter. The ceremony is tomorrow evening, and I don’t think they’re doing an online simulcast this year (which they did in NYC last year, and which I attended), so I’d recommend watching Twitter for a play-by-play on who’s winning what.

But looking at the list above, I think I’ll have a hard time being disappointed if I lose tomorrow. I mean, ’cause… wow. (Also ’cause the other nominees are kickass folks, and I love many of their works and voted for them myself.) So anyway, wish us all luck!

After

Just sold another short story! This one has gone to a forthcoming YA dystopian anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, to be called After. As it was described to me, the premise is to focus on the dystopias that might result long after an apocalypse, not the immediate aftermath, and explore what life is like for teenagers in this setting.

My own contribution is called “Valedictorian,” and it’s set in the same cybergothy universe of “The Trojan Girl”, which got published earlier this year in Weird Tales. “Valedictorian” is set an undescribed amount of time later, and is written from the other side, so to speak. A taste:

When she earns the highest possible score on the post-graduation placement exam, Ms. Threnody pulls her aside after class. Zinhle expects the usual praise. The teachers know their duty, even if they do a half-assed job of it. But Threnody pulls the shade on the door, and Zinhle realizes something else is in the offing.

“There’s a representative coming to school tomorrow,” Threnody says. “From beyond the Firewall. I thought you should know.”

For just a moment, Zinhle’s breath catches. Then she remembers Rule 2 — she will not live in fear — and pushes this aside. “What does the representative want?” she asks, though she thinks she knows. There can be only one reason for this visit.

“You know what they want.” Threnody looks hard at her. “They say they just want to meet you, though.”

“How do they know about me?” Like most students, she has always assumed that those beyond the Firewall are notified about each new class only at the point of graduation. The valedictorian is named then, after all.

“They’ve had full access to the school’s networks since the war.” Threnody grimaces with a bitterness that Zinhle has never seen in a teacher’s face before. Teachers are always supposed to be positive about the war and its outcome. “Everyone brags about the treaty, the treaty. The treaty made sure we kept critical networks private, but gave up the non-critical ones. Like a bunch of computers would give a damn about our money or government memos! Shortsighted fucking bastards.”

Teachers are not supposed to curse, either.

No deets yet on publisher (there is one) or release date, cover art or anything else — I’ll keep you posted — but Ellen did send out a preliminary table of contents. Note that this is “so far”!

Genevieve Valentine
Susan Beth Pfeffer        
Cecil Castellucci
Carol Emshwiller             
Katherine Langrish        
Richard Bowes 
Matthew Kressel           
Beth Revis                    
N. K. Jemisin                
Carrie Ryan                  
Steven Gould                
Caitlín R. Kiernan

This is also my first published YA. I’ve been noodling a novel in this universe, which would be YA, so in a way these short stories are proof-of-concept exercises — me testing the waters of a new genre. Glad to see this one at least succeeded in finding a home. Whether it’s a success will have to wait for when you can read it!

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’s Exotic Locales

More smart stuff from other people. Rising star of the SFF genre Shweta Narayan posted this hilarious (but also sadmaking) homage to Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland — the Tough Guide to Fantasyland’s Exotic Locales. She explains,

My cold-addled brain has been sort of fixated on context, of late, namely the racist/Orientalist/fetishizing contextual stew that Secondary-world Fantasy inherited from the Romantics, and Regency fantasy and Steampunk implicitly take on as part of their world-view unless it’s explicily undermined; and I’ve been wondering how to talk about it without shifting the focus to individual examples. (Which isn’t to deny the value of calling out examples of fail, just that it’s the general underlying tropes I’ve wanted to talk about. ETA: And maybe the colonial/evangelical agenda wrapped up in their origins, but I’m really not clueful enough to say much about that so I dunno…)

These are all genres I love, and honestly I love plenty of books that fall into the racefails I’ve been thinking of, so I’m part of the problem too. That’s what makes it a general issue — it’s the air we breathe.

And then examples include (in spot-on DWJ style):

Fanatic Caliphate: Identifiable by desert settings, male Natives in Long Robes and Turbans (or Headdresses), and Veiled or hidden female Natives. Food will be Spicy. Harsh Punishments will include cutting off body parts, public flagellation, and slavery. Female Tourists be warned: female Natives will chide your Independence here, and male Natives will harass you. Everyone will sneer at monogamy. Patriarchy and Polygyny are aspects of the same unshakeable Oppression here (unlike Fantasyland proper, where Patriarchy can be challenged and isn’t constantly reinforced).

The FC is always ruled by a Tyrant, who has a Harem. This bears no relation whatsoever to historical female quarters in the Tourists’ home world, but derive rather from Victorian fever-dreams about such. The Harem will generally contain one Oppressed Native Girl, who must be Rescued.

Comedy — and anti-colonialist — gold. Go check out the whole post!

Futurestates

I was given a heads-up on this by unusualmusic over at the Racebending blog, and was so wowed by what I saw that I want to share. With everybody.

I blog a lot about how frustrated I am by the lack of social realism in SFF. If even half the energy SFF creators expended on getting the science right could be put into getting the people right, I think the genre would be taken more seriously — both by those who are already fans and by those who scorn us. But leaving aside what greater social realism might do for SFF’s cred (and my sales, as an SFF writer), there’s the fact that IMO it simply makes for better art.

Case in point: Futurestates TV. Futurestates is basically a series of potential TV series pilots done by independent filmmakers grouped around a single theme: what will America’s future look like? The results have been by turns funny, poignant, and in a few cases horrifying. But they’ve also been consistently plausible from a people standpoint. These are futures in which people of color, the poor, the queer, the disabled, etc., have not been conveniently wiped out by aliens. Futures in which the social problems of American society have not been handwaved away — though in many cases, thanks to our failure to deal with those problems now, they’ve gotten worse.

I’m working my way through all of them, but this one is currently my favorite: “Remigration”, by Barry Jenkins.

I would love to see this get turned into a series. It’s clear that (spoiler)
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