N.K. Jemisin

Out now!

The Killing Moon

The Kingdom of Gods

In the desert city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Along its ancient stone streets, there is no crime or violence. Priests of the dream-goddess, known as Gatherers, maintain order: harvesting the dreams of the citizens, healing the injured, and guiding the dreamers into the afterlife. . .

When Ehiru-the most famous of the city's Gatherers-is sent to harvest the dreams of a diplomatic envoy, he finds himself drawn into a conspiracy that threatens to drag the dreaming city into war.

Learn more.

Continuum GoH Speech

Apologies for not posting this sooner, folks; my schedule as a GoH is packed almost solid, and I just got a free moment to upload. I ad-libbed a bit, but this is the text of my speech from earlier today at Continuum. Might miss some emphases and other formatting; no time to check it right now.

Warning for profanity.

My father was afraid for me to come to Australia.

He mostly made jokes about it — “Good, you’ve got dredlocks, maybe they won’t think you’re Chinese”, stuff like that. But I know my father, and I know when the jokes have a serious undercurrent. Now, mind you, I travel alone all the time, and I’m not always traveling to places that are friendly to Americans, or women, or black people. I’ve walked past trucks in Japan blaring “Gaijin go home” on loudspeakers, underneath billboards featuring a black man in an ape costume who was somehow selling breakfast cereal. I’ve sat on a public bus in Italy while a Somali woman was refused entry. I don’t speak Italian so I couldn’t be sure why, but the fact that everyone turned to look at me as soon as the bus pulled off was kind of a hint. And mind you — I live in New York. In Brooklyn, in a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood called Crown Heights, which is internationally famous for a series of racial clashes between white Hasidic Jews and black Carribbeans; nowadays both groups have largely been driven out, replaced by wealthy young hipsters. But the cause celebre in New York right now is a police policy called Stop-and-Frisk, which gives the cops pretty much the right to search anyone they deem “suspicious” for any reason — and which in practice has resulted in a tremendously disproportionate targeting of black and Latino people for basically the crime of walking around while black or Latino. 95% of those stopped have been found to have committed no crime.

And both my father and I grew up in Alabama — he in Birmingham, dodging dogs and fire hoses turned on him and other Civil Rights protestors by infamous police Chief Bull Connor; me in Mobile in the 1980s, when the Michael Donald lynching — the last “traditional” lynching of a black man in the United States, with a noose and a tree and everything — occurred around the corner from my grandmother’s house. I remember my grandmother sitting in her den with a shotgun across her knees while I cracked pecans at her feet; I was maybe nine years old, had no idea what was going on. She told me the gun was just an old replica; she’d brought it out to clean it. I said “OK, Grandma,” and asked whether she’d make me a pie when I was done.

I say all this so you will understand the context of my father’s fear, when I told him I was going to Australia.

See, I just have a typical American education. When I took “World History” in high school, I think we spent three days on Australia — which, all things considered, is three times more than we spent on the entire continent of Africa. And though I’ve made an effort to educate myself further in the years since in a number of areas, I will admit that Australian history hasn’t been very high on the list. But my father has studied civil rights struggles everywhere in the world. He understood that a nation which classified its indigeous people as animals less than fifty years ago might not be the safest place for a woman like me… with brown skin and a big nose and a tendency to tell people to fuck off when they get on my nerves. Even in the depths of the Jim Crow era in the US, black people were people. Inferior ones… but people.

And now that I’m here I have spent the past three days — coupled with the three days in school, that’s twice as much as the average American! — visiting your museums and talking to your fellow citizens and just walking around observing your city streets, and I know now that Dad was right to worry. This is not a safe country for people of color. It’s better than it was, certainly, but when the first news story I saw on turning on my first Australian TV channel was about your One Nation party’s Pauline Hanson… well. Still got a ways to go.

Now. Before you tar and feather me, let me tell you something else I’ve come to understand in the past three days. Australia may not be the safest place for someone who looks like me… but it’s trying to become safer. And Australia may have classified the peoples of the Koorie and other nations as “fauna” until very recently, but Australia has also made tremendous strides lately in rectifying this error. I’ve listened in fascination to the Acknowledgements of Country made at nearly every public event I’ve attended since I’ve been here. I’ve marveled that indigenous languages are offered as courses for study at some local universities. I am awed that you don’t shove all of your indigenous history into a single museum, where it’s easy for people not of that culture to avoid or ignore, because that’s what happens in the US. So as horrified as I am by the nastier details of Australian history… I am also heartened, astonished, inspired, by the Australian present. You’ve still got a long way to go before Reconciliation is complete, but then again, you’ve started down that path. You’re trying.

I want you to understand: what you’ve done? It will never happen in my country. Not in my lifetime, at least. Right now American politicians are doing their best to roll back voting rights won during our own Civil Rights movement. They are putting in place educational “reforms” which disproportionately have a negative impact on black and brown and poor white kids, and will essentially help to solidify a permanent underclass. Right now there are laws in places like Florida and Texas which are intended to make it essentially legal for white people to just shoot people like me, without consequence, as long as they feel threatened by my presence. So: admitting that the land we live on was stolen from hundreds of other nations and peoples? Acknowledging that the prosperity the United States enjoys was bought with blood? That’s a pipe dream.

I want you to understand that what you’ve done makes me want to weep with envy, and bitterness, and hope.

So: segue time. Let’s scale down. Let’s talk about the community — the microcosmic nation — of science fiction and fantasy.

For the past few days I’ve also been observing a “kerfuffle”, as some call it, in reaction to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ of America’s latest professional journal, the Bulletin. Some of you may also have been following the discussion; hopefully not all of you. To summarize: two of the genre’s most venerable white male writers made some comments in a series of recent articles which have been decried as sexist and racist by most of the organization’s membership. Now, to put this in context: the membership of SFWA also recently voted in a new president. There were two candidates — one of whom was a self-described misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and a few other flavors of asshole. In this election he lost by a landslide… but he still earned ten percent of the vote. SFWA is small; only about 500 people voted in total, so we’re talking less than 50 people. But scale up again. Imagine if ten percent of this country’s population was busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges, not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.

Just ten percent. But such a ten percent.

And beyond that ten percent are the silent majority — the great unmeasured mass of enablers. These are the folks who don’t object to the treatment of women as human beings, and who may even have the odd black or gay friend that they genuinely like. However, when the ten percent starts up in their frothing rage, these are the people who say nothing in response. When women and other marginalized groups respond with anger to the hatred of the ten percent, these are the people who do not support them, and in fact suggest that maybe they’re overreacting. When they read a novel set in a human society which contains only one or two female characters, these are the people who don’t decry this as implausible. Or worse, they simply don’t notice. These are the people who successfully campaigned for Star Trek to return to television after 25 years, but have no intention of campaigning for Roddenberry’s vision to be complete, with gay characters joining the rainbow brigade on the bridge. These are the people who gleefully nitpick the scientific plausibility of stopping a volcano with “cold fusion”, yet who fail to notice that an author has written a future earth in which somehow seventeen percent of the human race dominates ninety percent of the characterization.

Unlike the ten percent, these people do not overtly hate me, or people like me. But they are not our friends, either. And after all: what is hatred, really, but supreme indifference to the suffering of another?

And here’s the thing: women have been in SFF from the very beginning. We might not always have been visible, hidden away behind initials and masculine-sounding pseudonyms, quietly running the conventions at which men ran around pinching women’s bottoms, but we were there. And people of color have been in SFF from the very beginning, hiding behind the racial anonymity of names and pseudonyms — and sometimes forcibly prevented from publishing our work by well-meaning editors, lest SFF audiences be troubled by the sight of a brown person in the protagonist’s role. Or a lesbian, or a poor person, or an old person, or a trans woman, or a person in a wheelchair. SFF has always been the literature of the human imagination, not just the imagination of a single demographic. Every culture on this planet produces it in some way, shape, or form. It thrives in video games and films and TV shows, and before that it lived in the oral histories kept by the griots, and the story circles of the Navajo, and the Dreamings of this country’s first peoples. People from every walk of life consume SFF, with relish, and that is because we have all, on some level, contributed to its inception and growth.

We tread upon the mythic ground of religions and civilizations that far predate “Western” nations and Christianity; we dream of traveling amid stars that were named by Arab astronomers, using the numbers they devised to help us find our way; we retell the colonization stories that were life and death for the Irish and the English and the Inka and the Inuit; we find drama in the struggles of the marginalized and not-quite-assimilated of every society. Speculative fiction is at its core syncretic; this stuff doesn’t come out of nowhere. And it certainly didn’t spring solely from the imaginations of a bunch of beardy old middle-class middle-American guys in the 1950s.

Sadly what the SFWA kerfuffle reveals — and MammothFail before that, and MoonFail, and RaceFail and the Great Cultural Appropriation Debates of Dooooom, and Slushbomb before that, and so on — what this reveals is that memories in SFF are short, and the misconceptions vast and deep.

So I propose a solution — which I would like to appropriate, if you will allow, from Australia’s history and present. It is time for a Reconciliation within SFF.

It is time that we all recognized the real history of this genre, and acknowledged the breadth and diversity of its contributors. It’s time we acknowledged the debt we owe to those who got us here — all of them. It’s time we made note of what ground we’ve trodden upon, and the wrongs we’ve done to those who trod it first. And it’s time we took steps — some symbolic, some substantive — to try and correct those errors. I do not mean a simple removal of the barriers that currently exist within the genre and its fandom, though doing that’s certainly the first step. I mean we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone.

I think to some degree this process has already begun. Discussions like the one that’s been happening in SFWA for the past week are the proof of it; not so very long ago, there would have been no response at all to that kind of casual sexism or racism. All this anger, all this sturm und drang — these are good things. Signs of progress. What I am proposing, however, is that we take things to the next level. Maybe it’s time for a Truth in Reconciliation commission, in which authors and fans speak out about their misconceptions and mistakes, and make a commitment to doing better. Maybe we need practical reconciliation efforts such as encouraging more markets to accept blind submissions, demanding that more publishers depict diverse characters on book covers. At the same time, let’s have some self-deterministic reconciliation, since women and people of color and disabled folks and the like certainly haven’t been shy about offering their own suggestions for change. Incidentally, if you did not follow RaceFail when it occurred or if you dismissed it as too much to handle, try. It’s all still there; just Google it. Hundreds of people poured millions of words into articulating what’s wrong with this genre, and how those wrongs can be made right. You owe it to yourself to read some of what they wrote.

I’ve been in this country three days, and I love it. The things that have happened here are in many ways far more horrific than what happened in my own country — but you as a people have shown a stunning willingness to progress beyond those wrongs, and to transform and improve yourselves in the process. Now, I do not mean to belittle what has happened here by the comparison; no one has died in SFF for its failure to acknowledge and embrace its own diversity. No lands have been stolen, no children kidnapped. But careers have ended, in some cases before they began. Opportunities have been stolen, dreams kept segregated. A potential richness of content has been hoarded and hidden from the SFF readership. So I am asking you, Australian fans, to share what you have learned about how to be a multicultural society, with the world. We can learn from your mistakes and your successes. This is what science fiction and fantasy need to do, if they are ever to truly become the literature of the world’s imagination.

Thank you.

ETA: Got pointed out by several folks that the little space between “trans” and “woman” is important; whoops. Fixed!

Off to the other side of the planet

Australia, that is, where I’ll be guesting at this year’s Continuum in Melbourne. It’s my first trip Down Under, and I’m kinda giddy about it — though not so much giddy about the 20+ hours of air travel I’ll need to get there. But that’s why I’m heading there a bit early, so that I can recover, play the tourist a little and become vertical again, and say something more than “Blergh” to the people I meet there.

If you’re Melbourne-abouts, drop in and say hi! If you’re closer to my usual side of the planet, though, don’t feel bad — another announcement I haven’t gotten around to making here is that I’ll be one of the Guests of Honor at next year’s Wiscon, so maybe you can make it there.

OK, back to frantically packing, and playing Mass Effect 2 to calm my nerves.

You CAN win the Kobayashi Maru.

Gonna keep this brief, ’cause it’s 1:30 am as I’m writing this, and ’cause tomorrow I’m taking a 6-hour flight to Cali to attend the Nebulas and hopefully either win, or cheer while someone I really like wins. It’s a win-win, so no need to wish me luck; if anything, wish me safe and stress-free travels.

Anyway. Just saw Star Trek: Into Darkness, and I have some thoughts. Those thoughts will require spoilers, so beware, anyone reading past this point. Also, spoilers for a brief mention of Iron Man 3.

Continue reading ›

Recent Developments

Hi, all. Still neck-deep in Deadline Hell, though beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel. (And please don’t take my mashup of three metaphors in one sentence as a measure of the quality of my writing right now.) But all novel, all the time does not a sane girl make, so here’s a little of what else I’ve been up to lately:

Let’s All Go to the Science Fiction Disco: Here is how this project was described to me initially: Would you like to write an essay about Janelle Monae? To which I replied “[expletive] YEAH WHAT THE [expletive] DO YOU THINK” and some other gibberish along those lines. This is part of the anthology series Adventure Rocketship, exploring the strange region of space where science fiction, pop music, and counterculture meet. Contains essays by me, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and others, interviews with China Mieville and Michael Moorcock, and short stories by Liz Williams and Lavie Tidhar (along with many others). It’s awesome stuff.

Fantastic Erotica: The Best of Circlet Press 2008 – 2012: Speaking of awesome stuff. This anthology features my short story “The Dancers’ War,” along with a whole lot of other steamy stuff from a whole lot of other writers.

Speculative Fiction 2012: a compilation of essays and blog posts from SFF writers (including Yours Truly) over the past year. I’ve read some of the essays collected in it; good stuff. One of the anthologists (Justin of Staffer’s Book Review) talks more about it here.

OK! Breath taken. Now to dive back into Deadline Hell. See ya!

Catchup Time!

I am in crunch mode right now. The first book of the UMSP is due in May, and I’m going to have to grind like a grindy thing to meet that deadline. My writing goal right now has been upped from 3000 words/weekend (my weekends are my only solid writing time, and my normal production rate is about 1500 words/day) to 5000 with 250 words/night on as many weeknights as I can manage. Can’t always manage the latter; I work long days, in a job that’s sometimes psychologically exhausting. But I’m gonna try, so wish me luck. As a result, I’m going to be blogging less, and a little less social.

All that said, I’m going to be plenty social this weekend, at Vericon up in Boston, for those of you who are near enough to the yard and want to drop in and say hi. I’ll be there Friday and Saturday, finishing up with a signing at the Harvard Bookstore. It’ll be nice to be in the old stomping grounds for awhile, and see old friends from the writing group I had there (the BRAWLers) and newer ones like Seanan McGuire. (Who I am totally gonna yell at for the end of Blackout, which she wrote as Mira Grant! I’m still crying, dammit.)

And speaking of crying… I mentioned this on Twitter awhile back, but I haven’t felt like talking about it much, so I’m just getting around to mentioning it here; sorry. But Besame Mucho — yes, the cat I adopted less than a year ago — passed away the Sunday before last. She was frail from the get-go, painfully thin as I noted in her introduction post, and despite a mostly healthy appetite she never managed to gain weight — lost it, actually, despite my and the vet’s best efforts. (And the vet, Dr. Quim, made an heroic effort. I really need to send the whole clinic some flowers or something, because I think her death hit them just as hard as it hit me.) Anyway, finally that weekend she just stopped eating, and there just wasn’t much to be done. Hazard of adopting an older cat. ::sigh:: But I’m glad I could make her last year, after being abandoned the way she was, safe and cozy.

Still, I wasn’t quite ready to lose another cat in so short a space. It’s hit me surprisingly hard — possibly because I had NukuNuku for 15+ years and that’s what seems normal to me, abnormally long as that was. I’m still wrestling with whether I want to adopt again. Certainly not anytime soon, but probably. …Ah, who am I kidding? I’m a cat person at heart. And my little house seems a lot quieter without someone around to go meow.

Anyway, until I’m ready to be a cat mama again, let me steer all New York-area folks toward the Prospect Park Animal Clinic, because they do good work, and they really care, and they always have abandoned and found pets available for adoption who could use a good place to live. Even if it’s only for a little while.

On Fanworks

There’s been much debate in the blogosphere over the years about FANFIC: Threat or Menace?!?!?1! I haven’t participated in most of that debate, mostly because a) before four years ago, I had no “professional author” dog in the fight, and b) I was busy, mostly producing dogs for the fight.

But I also haven’t participated because my thoughts on the subject are fairly simple. I think fanworks = flattery + free publicity. I’m not going to limit things to fanfiction here, because the issue is really derivative art in general (including filk, fanart, fanjewelry, whatever), and I’m not going to go much deeper into it because lots of other authors have already said smart things on this issue, and I don’t feel like retreading the ground. Also because this particular ground has been paved for centuries anyway, so I’m not sure why it’s even an issue.

Yeah, I’ve heard the Marion Zimmer Bradley myth. Yeah, I’ve seen a dozen-odd Authors Behaving Badly over fanfic, defending their right to police other people’s imaginations with tooth and claw — I don’t agree with those authors, but if they want to draw a line in the sand over it, that’s their business. And yeah, I’m aware that the potential for litigation exists if somebody thinks I stole their idea, particularly in the area of fanfiction since writing is something I actually do. (Never mind that ideas can’t be copyrighted. I’m an American, and if there’s one right us Americans treasure, it’s the right to sue the pants off anybody for completely nonsensical reasons.) I’m also aware that people might do squicky things to my characters. But there’s a very simple way for me as an author to avoid the problems (if any) associated with fanfic, and that’s for me to ignore it. If you write it, don’t tell me. If you post it, don’t show me. If I blunder across it, I won’t read it. If you pull a Clockwork Orange on me and strap me to a chair with my eyes wired open while you flash it on a screen before me, I’ll pretend I didn’t read it. (And then I will probably sue you, at minimum.)

If we’re talking something other than fiction — say, fanart or filk — that’s less of a risk to me (if any). Frankly I have no talent whatsoever for visual art, sculpture, music, or anything else, and no interest in ever pursuing projects in any of those arenas, so I won’t actively avoid those… but. I also won’t go looking for them. Because fanworks are for fans, after all, not for me, and I know it can be a little unnerving to fan-creators when the author suddenly shows up in the comments, even if it’s just to squee. (And I do squee when I see something I like.) So if this is causing you to lose sleep at night, let me assure you: you don’t have to worry that I’ll go trolling the web someday, find your stick-figure drawing or experimental-theater script of the tentacle sex scene in 100K, and pitch an epic hissyfit. If I see it at all, I’ll probably just pull one of these:

Will Smith looking confused, caption: THE FUCK?

…and move on.

And that right there is pretty much all I can state as my policy on fanworks. Any questions?

Fantasy Fans: Where’s Your Outrage?

This is hurriedly written and unedited; gotta take Besame Mucho to the vet in a few. Apologies for typos/inclarities in advance.

If you didn’t know, something relevant to your genre happened last night. Beasts of the Southern Wild, a fantasy film I’ve been raving about, got nominated for four different Oscars — yeah, they didn’t win any last night, but getting nominated is still awesome. One of those nominations was for the film’s star, Quvenzhané Wallis, who also made history for being the youngest-ever Oscar nominee. She’s 9 years old.

Here’s the part that happened last night: half of Hollywood decided that it hated her.

The reasons for that hate vary. Some of it’s just… Hollywood, land of the unbelievably hateful people who tear each other down to build themselves up. (Where I come from that’s called bullying, and it happens most often in a schoolyard.) There’s a billion snickering comments and articles online right now about the fact that one of the Oscar winners tripped. This is a professional culture of 12-year-olds.

Well. Except. Most of the ones with power are old white guys. They just have the sense of humor of 12-year-olds.

Here’s some things they did:

Oh, and it wasn’t just Hollywood misbehaving. The better-known chunks of the feminist community got in on the act, calling her “disgusting” and “insufferable” in the comments. Those people are getting told by quite a few people, but just goes to show you that even (sometimes especially) feminists can be racist fucks.

And what terrible things did Ms. Wallis do to invite this kind of vitriol? Oh, just stuff like this:

Quvenzhané Wallis doing a little fist-pump in celebration.

Just be herself: talented, happy, pretty, and proud of her achievement. She didn’t misbehave, she didn’t snark at anyone the way winner Jennifer Lawrence did (and Lawrence was awesome for doing so, but it’s interesting how white girls can get away with being confident more easily than black girls. Isn’t it?). Ms. Wallis committed the crime of being confident while black and female. Hey, it happens to all of us, often starting around puberty; I guess Hollywood just decided to start the shaming and systematic tearing-down early.

::sigh::

So here’s the thing: I’ve seen a lot of outrage over this from folks on my Twitter feed, which includes a lot of people in the genre community. It’s heartening to see that. But I can’t help thinking that there should be a lot more outrage than I’m seeing. After all, a fantasy film just came very close to winning an Oscar for Best Picture — yet I don’t see the community even embracing this as a fantasy film, let alone leaping to the defense of one of our biggest stars. I wonder about that. Really, I do.

Here’s what I’d like to see: more people talking about this, in social media and other places. I’d like those people to unfollow The Onion, if they’re following it, and un”like” it on Facebook — because social media capital is valuable these days, and doing these small things is the equivalent of a boycott. You can also write the Onion and tell them what you think of this. I know people are looking up lists of their advertisers even as we speak, so when there’s a list of Onion advertisers to write to, I’ll add that to this post.

But aside from that, what I’d like to see is some good old-fashioned geek rage. I mean, seriously, ya’ll. Geek rage is an awesome and beautiful thing when it gets behind a cause of worth. This one’s worthy.

And I’d like to see it because I was this girl, once. Oh, not famous, but just that cheerfully focused on a goal — in my case, becoming a published novelist. And I’ve had my share of people trying to tear me apart for daring to want such a thing. Like I said, it happens to a lot of us. But a little support goes a long way.

ETA: Closed some open tags, linked to the article about the anon Oscar voter who said he wasn’t voting for her b/c of her name.

Daughter of ETA: The Onion has apologized.

Spoiled Niece of ETA: Apparently people are playing silly buggers, reporting me for spamming my own website. Apologies for the brief downtime, and hopefully it won’t happen again. Note: I hotlinked the “fistpump” gif because I can’t seem to get it to upload on my site. I got it from here, tho’.

Three Things Make A Post

Except I can’t count.

State of the NoJo: plugging away slowly on the UMSP still. The ash has begun to fall and the world is changing; this novel’s got a very eerie, surreal quality to it that’s making me wonder if I’ve got some latent horror writer inclinations in me somewhere. Diverted a bit to work on a short story in the 100Kverse; more on that later. Because…

The Killing Moon has been nominated for a Nebula!! I got the call about it this weekend, but had to sit on the news ’til the official announcement today. This is my fourth time being nominated (first was for a short story, second and third were for books 1 and 3 of the Inheritance Trilogy) and as I said on Twitter earlier today, it never stops feeling awesome.

Not sure yet whether I’ll go to Nebula Weekend. I love San Jose, but I’d meant to minimize my travel this year, since I’m not actively promoting a new book for the first time in forever. ::sigh:: Well, we’ll see.

Equally important to me: I have finally scraped out a little free time to read books again! Apologies to those of you who’ve sent me books to blurb, and whatnot; I just haven’t had the time. :( And as it is, I’m reading very slowly — basically only on my commute to and from work in the mornings, provided the train’s not too crowded and the subway preachers aren’t too loud. I also read a bit in the evenings, preferably in the bathtub — which, since a lot of my reading is via ebooks these days, actually puts another damper (ha ha damper get it) on my reading time. I should probably buy a waterproof skin for my S3. Anyway, just having the time to read at all is a big thing for me, thus the announcementizing.

Stuff I’ve enjoyed lately:

  • Kate Griffin’s Stray Souls, first in a new series set in the same universe as her Matthew Swift books, which you guys know I love. This one’s so many flavors of awesome. Sharon is London’s newest shaman, and she’s not quite sure what that means yet — so she uses Facebook to start the group “Magicals Anonymous”, assembling the most hilarious collection of magical misfits ever seen, to try and figure it out. There’s the hypochondriac vampire, the necromancer with self-image issues, the troll gourmand, the druid with allergies… individually they’re a bit sad, but together and under Sharon’s leadership they’re unbelievably awesome. I want to see a BBC TV series based on it.
  • Ben Aaronovich’s Midnight Riot, released in the UK as Rivers of London. Continuing my British urban fantasy kick — people have been recommending this one to me for a year, and I kept putting it off even though I had a copy, because I am apparently stupid. Holy shit this book is awesome — it’s a deeply creepy thriller, a police procedural that actually seems to have something to do with real police work, and a hilarious day-in-the-life story for the hapless young constable Peter Grant, who happens to be London’s newest wizard apprentice. He’s up against a magical serial killer, and the bureaucracy , and it’s not clear which is the greater threat.
  • After, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. I’m not plugging this anthology just because one of my short stories (“Valedictorian”) is in it, but also because I’ve finally finished reading it all the way through, and the stories in it are genuinely awesome. Seriously — there wasn’t a one that didn’t leave me thinking deeply or reverberating with emotion. Usually I consider an anth a good purchase if it’s got maybe 40 or 50% good stories; this is closer to 100%.
  • Not a book, but an old flame rekindled: Elfquest is back! A new adventure, drawn by Wendy Pini, is running over at BoingBoing if you haven’t been following it. They’re posting a page a week on Mondays, which is toooooorturous, but worth the wait.

Total sidenote: I discovered the whole Harlem Shake meme about 12 hours before the media declared it “over”, but this one from my cousin’s show is my favorite. Contains the actual Harlem Shake, at the end!

And that’s all the news that is news, here in Noraville.

From the Mailbag: The Unbearable Baggage of Orcing

Awhile back I got an email from a reader which asked, “When are you going to write some real fantasy, y’know, with orcs?”

This is a paraphrase, because I didn’t get the reader’s permission to quote (I asked, no reply). But I’d say it’s pretty accurate as to its tone and implications, since the email went on to explain that the reader really really liked me and thought I was a good writer, but hated the fact that the stuff I write is labeled “epic fantasy” when it doesn’t resemble Tolkien much. In fact, the reader felt that this was why my work has been less successful than that of other epic fantasy writers who do resemble Tolkien more. (There was a list of writers who fit this criterion.) So the reader, being helpful, wanted to suggest some things I could do to remedy this gaping disjunct. Just add orcs, a dragon, some runes and maybe elves to write them, shake don’t stir… instant bestseller. Oh, and it went without saying that I should at least consider writing a novel set in a nice comforting medieval Europeish setting — though of course the reader hoped I would still put my own “unique spin” on it.

There’s a lot of things I could say about this letter. So. Many. Things. But I’ll stick to the part about the orcs.

I have a problem with orcs. I’m orc-averse, you might say; even orcophobic. I know, I know, orcs are everywhere in fantasy; from Tolkien to Warhammer; by saying I hate orcs I invite the wrath of… well, the fannish horde. (Groan. Sorry.) But here’s something I want you to think about: what are orcs?

Seriously. In most of the fantasy works I’ve consumed, orcs are violent, mindless or less intelligent than human beings, brutal and thuggish and Always Chaotic Evil. But these are adjectives, not nouns. All mythological creatures have a real-world root. Dryads are trees + humans + magic. Mermaids are fish + humans + magic, or maybe porpoises + magic. Unicorns are deer or horses + magic, maybe with a bit of narwhal glued on. Dragons are reptiles + magic, or maybe dinosaur bones + magic – paleontology. So again: what are orcs supposed to be?

Tolkien gave several explanations for his orcs, and the one Peter Jackson built into his film adaptations seems to be the one most fans espouse: elves + bad magic. Elves themselves can be viewed as humans + magic, or humans + divinity as the case might be; find a Tolkien scholar if you want to get into the nitty gritty of that. Tolkien himself drew on European history and mythology, so there’s a number of possible sources from which he might have drawn the inspiration for orcs — like the old Norse nithings, and of course the scarier, grittier parts of Celtic faerie folklore. Bottom line: in nearly every iteration of orcs that occurs in fantasy, orcs are meant to be a warped mirror of humanity. They’ve got all the stuff that’s in humans — emotions, a degree of intellect, sometimes free will — but it’s all wrong. They’re corrupted by evil magic or environmental degradation or their own hubris. In some iterations orcs are sexually perverse, so we’ve got bad genetics to consider too. They are human bodies + bad magic – the essence of humanity, for whatever value that essence might hold: a soul, a mind, aestheticism, whatever. And therefore, in most fantasy settings in which I’ve seen orcs appear, they are fit only for one thing: to be mowed down, usually on sight and sans negotiation, by Our Heroes. Orcs are human beings who can be slaughtered without conscience or apology.

Think about that. Creatures that look like people, but aren’t really. Kinda-sorta-people, who aren’t worthy of even the most basic moral considerations, like the right to exist. Only way to deal with them is to control them utterly a la slavery, or wipe them all out.

Huh. Sounds familiar.

So maybe now you can understand why I’m not very interested in writing about orcs.

Now, I’m aware that there have been some attempts to reclaim or reinvent orcs as “just misunderstood” in the past few years, and I commend those efforts — although I don’t think I’ve seen one yet that really worked for me. I love the fact that for awhile, “orcing” became slang for SFF fans of color getting pissed off at authors’ racefails… but there’s a reason that slang caught on, and there’s a reason it was as painful as it was funny when we used it. It was a reclamation, but also an acknowledgement. Thing is, when orcs are pulled far enough from their European folkloric roots — or more modern associations with same, like Tolkien’s — I can enjoy them, at least for awhile*. Until I start to think about what I’m doing. Then I realize the whole concept of orcs is irredeemable. Orcs are fruit of the poison vine that is human fear of “the Other”. In games like Dungeons & Dragons, orcs are a “fun” way to bring faceless savage dark hordes into a fantasy setting and then gleefully go genocidal on them. In fiction, even telling the story from the dark hordes’ PoV, or explaining why they’re so… orcish… doesn’t change the fact that they’re an amalgamation of stereotypes. And to me, that’s no fun at all.

So if orcs are what’s necessary for me to be considered a “real fantasy” writer by some readers, then I guess both they and I will just be shit outta luck for the duration of my writing career. Oh, well.

* But the reason I liked Dragon Age: Awakening is because it interrogated the whole concept of darkspawn-as-mindless-horde as introduced in DA:Origins. The gameplay allowed for a real question as to whether these creatures — which in the DA universe are derived from sentient, free-willed beings tainted and controlled by a vengeful god — could have their own goals or want to be free of the compulsion that drives them. And the reason I liked Dragon Age 2 better than both previous games is because the darkspawn weren’t the enemy at all.

Gamefail bluescreen

Apologies, ya’ll. I know you haven’t heard much from me lately. Partly it’s that I’ve been busy; this is the time of year when my day job ratchets up, and since I’m still plowing full speed ahead on the UMSP, I don’t have a ton of spare brain. What little I’ve got has mostly been channeled into stress relief — hanging out with local folks, long meditative walks on snowy evenings, and among other things, gaming. But lately the gaming has been… shall we say, less than fun?
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