Looks like it’s going to be another pretty decent day in paradise.
Hope you’re all doing fine. I’ve got a chapter to write, and then, you know. Hawaiian things to do.
Looks like it’s going to be another pretty decent day in paradise.
Hope you’re all doing fine. I’ve got a chapter to write, and then, you know. Hawaiian things to do.
I’m in Hawaii! Which is good. I still have daily word count to hit, however, which is while bad is not great. On the other hand, this is where I get to do my daily words while I’m here, which is pretty great.
Back to it for me.
Hey, I’m mostly gonna be out this next week. I might pop in briefly on the 13th (on account it’ll be the 18th anniversary of Whatever), but otherwise don’t expect too much; I’m planning to be mostly offline. I expect you’ll be fine without me.
See you later!
Some very fine books and authors in this week’s stack of books and ARCs. See something here that is begging for your reading attention? Tell us about it in the comments!
In his Big Idea about his most recent novel, Jay Kristoff says it began (more or less) with an argument about vaginas. The anecdote is great. The context, on a broader scale, is the story of my life. As it turns out, having—or not having—a vagina informs the names, epithets, expectations and arguments set for me.
I don’t like boxes. And neither does Necrotech’s protagonist—a type of woman whole sub-sections of societally-minded folk remind us don’t and shouldn’t exist.
Riko is a splatter specialist (that’s Tarantino level of gory mess, in case the title wasn’t clear) with all the agency of a man—and in being this, she tests the boundaries of what a woman in a book is supposed to be in this enlightened age of women’s rights. She is not soft. She is not tender. She would prefer to put a boot in your teeth instead of “work it out”, she lacks all maternal instinct, and her flaws are loaded for bear. With all the swag of a street thug, a policy of pleasing herself first, and a piss-poor temperament for emotions, she’s nobody’s idea of a good girlfriend.
She tends to somewhat proudly think of herself as a bad boyfriend.
And she came from a space of deeply engrained social erasure.
I am Necrotech’s Big Idea. Me, and the people like me who are so often told that we can’t, don’t, shouldn’t. That what we are, what we present, is problematic for the greater society. The cause. The fight.
I am a person with a vagina who will not play the game. Whose choices are decried by those who demand I do.
I am a sexuality too straight for queer and too queer for straight.
I am a body too feminine for masculine respect and a mind too masculine for feminine acceptance.
I am caught in a tangled web of expectation. Whose behaviors and needs and identities are policed by a majority—or a very, very loud minority—and who has finally, finally decided that enough is enough. So I wrote about it.
The Riko we meet at the beginning of Necrotech is ten years past that epiphany, street-hardened and gleefully independent. She lives the life she pleases, and she rolls with the decisions she makes. She makes her choices with zero interest in what she is supposed to do.
It’s a lesson fifteen years in the making. A book informed by a lifetime, and wrapped in the trappings of a future I see coming; the bastard hate-child of Transmetropolitan and forward-facing remnants of vintage cyberpunk. It’s grit on grit, a world trapped in its own technology, a city teeming with the vermin of the human population, and busily enacting the terms of its own demise.
Maybe that much is fluff—albeit fluff made from shattered glass and razor blades. Maybe the scope of Necrotech is bigger than one woman, one Idea. Anyone reading it might think that the real Idea is one of humanity’s obsession with technology, with its own limitations, with the need to breed and squat and defile, or that it’s about our need to feel as if every day is an achievement, encouraged by apps that give gold stars every few moments for every step.
If you read Necrotech and think it has nothing to do with this woman-who-acts-like-a-man, that’s okay. There are enough Ideas in the book, in the series as it will be play out, to talk about, think about, embrace or reject.
Maybe you’ll hate Riko, maybe you’ll love her.
Maybe you’ll hate or love me for writing her, this person with a vagina who has been scarred by the expectations of the world she lives in and is giving a giant middle finger to it all.
I know why I started writing this woman who does not care what you think of her. Whatever else the overarching themes, I know why Riko is the heart of it, the voice of it, the eyes seeing it all unfold.
I am Riko—with my snarl in place to warn away any asshole who wants to tell me how I should behave, my finger upraised to everyone who ever told me I was doing it wrong, my heart wrapped in diamondsteel where nobody can reach it to re-program what is mine. Like Riko, I’m not exactly bulletproof, but I can take it with a bloody smile and still come back to kick ass.
My name used to be Karina Cooper. I wrote what was, in so many ways, expected of me. And when I started Necrotech, I defied every expectation. And because I did, it suffered every rejection—until I realized that the ‘me’ that had been cultivated was not the me I was. That I had spent my life thinking I was strong and individual and independent, only to learn that I was so very wrong. And most of all, that the book I’d written wasn’t Karina’s story to tell.
Now my name is K. C. Alexander. Riko may be me incarnate—cranked to 11—but I like to be called Kace.
My problem has always been that I was not womanly enough for the world that demanded I be.
My Big Idea is that it’s a feature, not a bug.
I’m genderqueer. Both and neither. I am feminine and I am masculine, pansexual and nuanced, and I know women like Riko exist. That they should be allowed to exist, encouraged to exist, written with authority and with sincerity by the people who understand what it is to cross the borders laid down so sternly by gendered gatekeepers.
One of Necrotech’s Big Ideas is that we don’t have to be what we are told we are.
I am an unlikable heroine. An aggressive protagonist. An irredeemable hero.
We exist. We have stories to tell.
Enjoy the bloody gonzo ride.
So, yesterday, after engaging on Twitter with some particularly low-wattage racists who were exercised about, you know, jackass racist things, I made the following observation:
Which these fellows, because they are, as previously mentioned, low-wattage racists, who also apparently don’t understand how language works, took to mean that I was fully endorsing the idea of white genocide.
Well, this was news to me — as a general rule, I don’t endorse genocide of any sort, it just seems rude — but on the other hand I didn’t want to disappoint. So, today I thought I’d give white genocide a try. Here’s how it went (some of these are in reply to others’ questions about the white genocide; click on the tweet for the question).
Having scheduled the white genocide, I went off to attend the rest of the day.
And then it was time!
Seriously, I’m the worst white genocider ever. Sorry.
My YA novel The Cat King of Havana is a tale of salsa, lolcats, and revolution. There’s the Cuban secret police, there’s dangerous dancing, there are kittens with jetpacks. But the Big Idea that propelled the book had nothing to do with any of that. Here it is:
Geeks don’t have to be klutzes.
If only I had believed that as a kid.
In junior high, I read five SF books a week, spent my afternoons playing video games, and worked on a novel about a tribe of dwarf magicians who arrived through a portal in Stonehenge to address the United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan. I was also a total klutz who sucked at every sport, didn’t know how to talk to people, and got bullied.
I bet that last sentence doesn’t surprise you. It certainly didn’t surprise me.
Society and mainstream media told me repeatedly that geeks were klutzes with no social skills. Geek-friendly media as well as well-meaning adults confirmed that geeks were klutzes with no social skills — and it was okay, because we were each a unique individual with incredible potential, and one day we might change the world. But almost no one seemed to question one key assumption — that geeks had to be klutzy and awkward.
I have friends who started out as nerdy, bullied kids and became not just accomplished runners, roller derby stars and parkour masters but also well-socialized doctors and lawyers — and even schmoozing politicians. Talking to these friends, though, I hear the same story a lot. How they had to fight against incredible opposition — from others’ stereotypes as well as their own self-beliefs — to achieve personal transformation.
I’m not saying all geeks need to get athletic or fire up their social skills. I support a broad spectrum of geeky life choices — whatever makes you happy. I wasn’t happy as a kid, though, and not just because of the (reprehensible) bullying.
I didn’t like sucking at sports. I didn’t like not knowing how to dress well or how to make friends.
I simply didn’t believe I could change.
Developing that belief took years, the encouragement of good friends, and many small, frustrating steps. With The Cat King of Havana, I wanted to help someone develop this belief a little faster.
I knew that preaching — well-meant advice to “just exercise”, “just go out there and meet people”, etc — wouldn’t work. Instead, I set out to portray one kid’s fumbling journey to change as frankly and honestly as I could.
Rick Gutierrez, the Cuban-American teenage protagonist of Cat King, is an SF-quoting, comics-reading cat video tycoon. His site http://www.catotrope.com gets 30% of all non-YouTube cat video traffic. Known as “The Last Catbender” online—and as “That Cat Guy” at school—Rick isn’t cool and he knows it.
When his girlfriend dumps Rick on his sixteenth birthday because she doesn’t want to stay indoors with him all day, he decides she has a point. He no longer wants to live the geek loner stereotype. He wants to be cool.
That’s a tall order for anyone.
In writing Rick’s journey, I kept three points front and center:
1) Change is hard.
Having resolved to try new things, Rick becomes obsessed with salsa dancing. And he really, really sucks. The kind of suck where you trip on your own feet. The kind of suck where girls look panicked when you invite them to dance. For months, he hardly gets any better.
How do you keep going in a situation like that? Everyone’s answer will be different. To me, the important thing was acknowledging that change can be painfully hard, and that it is still worth it.
2) Those around you will resist you.
Rick’s classmates make fun of his new interest. They mock him and post derogatory Facebook comments. If anything, the bullying he faces intensifies.
The people around him have their own idea of who Rick is, and they won’t let it go. It takes a lot for Rick to believe in himself in the face of that.
Well, in fact, he doesn’t always. But he manages to keep going.
3) You will screw up.
Physical klutziness isn’t a geeky boy’s only challenge. Rick also falls for a new girl. Ana Cabrera, smart as well as cute, is one hell of a dancer. And she’s not that into him.
Rick invites Ana to spend a summer with his family in Havana, claiming he just wants to be friends. Under the influence of his cousin Yosvany — a successful ladies’ man ready with a hundred Pick Up Artist tricks — Rick tries every ploy in the book to “get the girl”.
Ana’s tough and smart, and will have none of it. In the process, Rick realizes he’s becoming a dick. He has to deal with the consequences — and figure out what kind of man he wants to be.
I know from personal experience that this kind of growing up can be exquisitely painful (certainly this is not a problem limited just to us geeks). For a boy with limited social skills, figuring out how to form genuine and respectful romantic relationships can be far harder than getting in shape or learning to dance.
Mortifying mistakes are easy to make. These can quickly lead to frustration and self-protective anger. As we can see with the disturbing rise of Gamergaters, MRAs, self-styled “incels” and other men-in-denial, from there it’s just a few steps to objectification and outright misogyny.
In my book, without condemnation or moralizing, I tried to model a different path to male adulthood.
The Cat King of Havana is a story of salsa, lolcats and revolution. It’s also the story of a boy struggling to become a fully-realized, decent young man.
Nothing about Rick’s transformation is easy. Going against societal expectations and limiting self-beliefs is never easy. But if I’ve done my job well, my readers will believe it can be done.
Shakespeare is often reinterpreted, reinvented and remade — but for her novel As I Descended, author Robin Talley discovered that revamping a tale from the bard was not as simple as just slapping on new clothes and modern language. There was a whole lot more going on.
As I Descended is the first book I’ve written that actually has a convenient elevator pitch. “It’s a lesbian retelling of Macbeth, set at a haunted boarding school,” I could say, were I ever in a situation where I was actually expected to describe my book in an elevator. Which hasn’t happened yet, but I’m glad this time around I’m prepared. My first two books both took a paragraph or so to sum up, so they didn’t lend themselves as well to elevators. Or tweets, for that matter.
And maybe this isn’t a coincidence, but this time around, the concept for the book came to me a lot faster than usual, too. I knew I wanted to write a retelling ― I’ve always loved retellings of classic stories, from West Side Story to Malinda Lo’s Ash to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries ― and once it occurred to me that the Scottish Play would work beautifully at a modern high school, the basic pieces of the plot fell into place quickly.
I almost couldn’t believe no one had already written a YA Macbeth with girls in both of the leading roles. The story is a perfect fit for today’s overachieving high school culture, in which so many girls consider themselves failures if they aren’t valedictorian, sports team captain, Prom Queen, student body president, and every other achievement they can dream up all rolled up into one ― while of course also maintaining a “perfect” body and a vibrant social life. And all while making crucial decisions about which absurdly competitive colleges will lead them into the highest-paid hedge fund careers available.
I decided early on that my main characters would be Maria, the second-most-popular girl in school, and her roommate and secret girlfriend, Lily, who dreams of a grand future for them both. Instead of witches, Maria would be manipulated by a team of vindictive ghosts who haunt the 17th-century Virginia plantation that has been remodeled into the exclusive boarding school the characters attend.
(I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts, by the way, but they terrify me all the same. When we moved into our old house, my wife had to actively work to convince me that the front bedroom wasn’t inhabited by the spirit of the old woman we’d been told died there a few decades before. To be honest, I’m still not completely sure my wife was right about that one, but thanks to her efforts I did manage to live there without panicking every time the bedroom door opened on its own. (Which it did, by the way. Constantly.))
Those elements came to me right away, but the rest of the book wasn’t so straightforward. I got tripped up on a lot of the specifics of retelling the original story. For example:
For months, I carried around a paperback Macbeth that rapidly grew tattered as I constantly flipped through it, searching for relevant lines and pouring over dialogue and soliloquies to figure out exactly what Lady Macbeth was getting at what she muttered that aside, and what Greek myth that weird metaphor about blood referred to. This play has so. Many. Blood metaphors. Dude.) I watched adaptations, too, trying to wrap my head around the way various actors played Macduff, the character I had the hardest time connecting with in the play (though my version, Mateo, wound up being one of my favorite characters in As I Descended by the time I was done writing).
Of the books I’ve written, this one was by far the most fun. I got to indulge my inner lit-major geek. I got to go to the library and read critical essays interpreting the Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow speech. I also got to write scenes that scared me so much I had to turn on every light on the second floor of my house before I could force myself to edit them at night.
For my next retelling, though, I might stick with a comedy. Less blood. More banter.
Unless it turns out I’ve developed a lingering taste for my characters’ demises after all…
The Scamperbeasts came to us on November 1, 2015; at the time we were assured that they were eight weeks old, i.e., old enough, just barely, to be taken home to us. Working back eight weeks from November 1, took us to this week in September for them being born. So, somewhat arbitrarily within the confines of that week, we’ve decided that today would be the day we mark as the Scamperbeasts’ birthday. Happy Scamperday, you adorable monsters!
Today being their first birthday, it’s also the day the Scamperbeasts graduate from being kittens to being cats, with all the rights and privileges that accrue unto, which really are no different from the rights and privileges they had yesterday, since they already get free room and board and roam the Scalzi Compound at will. And honestly, the Scamperbeasts neither know or care that it’s their birthday. It’s just another day at the Compound for them. As it should be. They have a good life, and are good cats.
Be that as it may, I know that at least some of you will be excited by my kittens graduating into catdom, so I hope you celebrate this auspicious day in the manner that seems most appropriate to you. I suggest petting your own cats or other pets and telling them you love them. They may or may not care, depending on species and personal inclination. But it’s still a nice thing to do. The Scamperbeasts, I’m sure, would approve.
Nisi Shawl’s novel, Everfair, began as a bit of dare — a fine reason for a story to exist. But as Shawl details below, it’s not enough to write something for the challenge… because sooner or later, you’ll need people to want to read that story, too.
I want to subvert your mind. In a good way.
The impetus for writing Everfair came out of a 2009 World Fantasy Convention panel I was drafted onto. The topic was steampunk; the other participants were Liz Gorinsky, Ann VanderMeer, Michael Swanwick, and Deborah Biancotti. What I didn’t understand going into the panel was why, with my love of Victorian literature and my self-admitted gear kink, I didn’t groove heavily on this genre? The answer I discovered and propounded to the audience: disgust caused by steampunk’s cozy relationship with colonialism. Enough with the be-goggled pith helmets and offscreen resource extraction already, I declared—I was going to write a steampunk novel set in the Belgian Congo! Egged on by Swanwick’s shudders and eye-rolling I added:
“And I will make you beg to read it!”
Then I had to figure out how.
My first glimpse of a way forward came in the form of a reference to an abandoned “Utopia” in Brazil called Fordlandia. Fordlandia was Henry Ford’s capitalist experiment in community building. The US automaker wanted to monopolize Brazilian rubber production, and rubber was what drove King Leopold II of Belgium in his shameful tyrannizing over central Africa. So there was a very visible connection between the two men behind these different projects… but what if people who wanted to create a real Utopia had set one up too? Britain’s Fabian Socialists, with whom I was familiar due to my aforementioned fondness for all things Victorian, were likely candidates. What if they’d bought land from Leopold, feeding his greed with the funds that in actuality they used to found the London School of Economics? What if U.S. Civil War veteran George Washington Williams, author of the scathing “Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Léopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo,” had lived a long, activist life instead of dying soon after his investigatory visit to Boma?
As I wrote along the lines these inquiries suggested, I also paid attention to my usual favorites: sensory cues (What does a crashing dirigible sound like? How does a warehouse full of tea and bauxite smell?), characters’ voices (Who asks lots of questions? Who never hears anyone’s answers?), and complications (Would arranging for this one to get what they want mean that one’s dreams were indefinitely deferred?). Because I wanted people to immerse themselves fully in the possibilities of Everfair.
Though millions of people died during Leopold’s brutal reign, many of them horribly, I wanted readers to want to read what I was writing. I wanted to sneak past the defenses we all have in place against pain and suffering, even—or maybe especially—suffering perceived at third or fourth hand. One of my most trusted secret weapons in carrying out this infiltration was Lisette Toutournier.
The model for Lisette, arguably the book’s main character, is my favorite author, Colette. While Colette’s work often conveys the sensual pleasures of nature, I’ve endowed Lisette with my own gear kink. In her sections there are loving descriptions of train engines and steam bicycles and so forth. Lisette finds a tour of a ship’s coal hold a much more romantic gift than a lacy negligée. After indulging with her in the delights technology offers, my audience would be willing to thoughtfully consider the price we pay for those delights. I hoped. Feedback from early readers indicates this ploy is a success.
Now to try it on you.
She’s clearly not laboring at the moment. Nor should she be! For not laboring is what Labor Day is about!
How’s your Labor Day coming along?
How cool is this: For the second time in less than a month, I’ve captured a picture of Mercury, the most elusive of the classical planets. It’s the bright spot up and to the left of the setting sun. Mercury is hard to spot precisely because it’s so close to the sun, and it’s often covered up in the sun’s glare. And indeed, I didn’t see Mercury here with my own eyes — I snapped a picture of the setting sun and found it hanging out there. The camera’s sensor and lens have a much wider aperture than my own eyes and picked it up pretty easily. Also captured: A duck, to the far left. Truly, a fine sunset picture.
Because I like taking pictures of my wife, that’s why.
Hope your Labor Day weekend is coming along nicely.
As we head off into Labor Day weekend, here’s some food for thought from K. Tempest Bradford and a number of other writers, all instructors of the Writing the Other series of online classes, developed to help writers do a better job at writing people whose experiences are not like theirs. In this piece, they’re looking at examples of how writing the other didn’t work, and what you can learn from those.
K. Tempest Bradford:
Writing the “Other” seems like a daunting task to many writers, especially writers who are white, or male, or able-bodied, or are in some other major way part of the mainstream, the majority, and who exist in some part of the “Unmarked State.” There are a ton of pits to fall into, and it feels like there’s always a group of people out there waiting to pounce if you get it wrong.
Is it even possible to get it right?
Yes. Because, as poet Kwame Dawes has said: “Racist writing is… a craft failure.” Any writing steeped in stereotype, prejudice, or bigotry (unintentional, unexamined or not) is a craft failure. And authors should always strive to improve their craft.
But before you can attempt to get it right and do better, it’s important to understand where writers and creators go wrong, as they so often go wrong in some of the exact same ways. To that end, I asked some of the smartest media critics I know to talk about particularly memorable fails around writing the “Other.” Not-coincidentally, these are also the people teaching a series of online seminars to help writers improve their craft in this area.
Debbie Reese on J. K. Rowling’s Magic in North America:
In March of 2016, J.K. Rowling released Magic In North America, which is a series of stories about a school of magic located in North America. Most of her fans were ecstatic. Her Native fans, however, were stunned. Many expressed a sense of betrayal that a much-loved writer had taken–and badly used–spiritual aspects of Native cultures. It was, in short, painful to see Rowling repeating the appropriations and misrepresentations that characterize depictions of Native peoples in children’s and young adult literature.
That body of misrepresentation is the norm in American and British society. In most people, it passes as “knowledge” of Native peoples. The thing is, it isn’t. Native people know it isn’t. But for most people, that “knowledge” of Native peoples is so ingrained in society that it didn’t occur to Rowling (obviously) or her editor (again, obviously), or to most readers (sadly) that what she did in Magic In North America is wrong.
Where, specifically, did she go wrong? We could start with her use of “the Native American community.” Written that way, it suggests there is one community of Native Americans. It may sound OK, but the fact that it sounds OK points to the first problem. There is not one Native American community. At present, there are over 500 federally recognized sovereign nations in the United States. Amongst them, as one might imagine, is tremendous diversity of language, spirituality, history, and material culture. By using the singular, Rowling sets readers up to accept and, indeed, embrace troubling stereotypes that are harmful to the well-being of Native youth and their sovereign nations.
Native spiritualities are not the stuff of folklore, though they’re presented as such. In fact, they deserve the respect accorded to stories rooted in Christianity. Most people recognize those stories as sacred. Ours are, too, but visit your local library. You’ll find Native creation stories shelved with folk and fairy tales. They ought to be shelved with World Religions.
Rowling is far from the only writer that has failed in depictions of Native peoples. Children’s and young adult books are cluttered with failures, and so is film and television! Society is inundated with problematic representations of Native peoples.
Much of this can be interrupted if writers would, for starters, see us and our cultures as we are–in the depth and breadth of our existence–past and present. It may require that you erase what you think you know about us. If you’ve got Native peoples on a pedestal for their noble way of life or some idea that we revere the earth? You need to get rid of that pedestal.
Debbie Reese, founder of American Indians in Children’s Literature, is an enrolled member of the Nambé Pueblo Tribe and holds a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Illinois.
Ashley Lauren Rogers on (Re)Assignment, directed by Walter Hill
It was announced recently that Michelle Rodriguez (Fast and Furious franchise) would be playing a male hitman “who is tricked into undergoing gender reassignment surgery by a “rogue doctor” (Sigourney Weaver) who turns him into a woman. After the apparently violent surgery, the newly female Kitchen goes on a hunt for revenge.” This is the type of story which stigmatizes body confirmation procedures and the people who receive them. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were an Adam Sandler flick starring Nicholas Cage, but everyone involved are folks who take their craft seriously.
Let’s start by saying trans people should be playing trans rolls, especially in the case of Rodriguez who has tweeted transphobic crap in the past (Come to think of it, it makes sense Rodriguez is doing this movie…) but from a writing perspective we’ve heard this story before. “Mad scientists,” or “Rogue,” doctors in this case, forcing genital modifications on people that don’t want them because we all know that’s what they mean when they say “turns him into a woman.” This doctor didn’t go rogue to file an official change on Kitchen’s birth certificates. This also frames Rodriguez’s character and their sense of being around their genitalia. Which is a huge misstep when it comes to writing about the trans experience, and in this case the “Body horror, forced feminization,” narrative that this movie is actually peddling.
All of this could have been avoided if, legit, they asked any trans person. If this piece wasn’t focused on “The Surgery,” and was focused on anything else all of this could have been avoided. If it were portrayed by a trans person… it’d still be problematic as hell but, if they also hired the trans person as consultant, they might have found ways to suggest changes that weren’t so “Body horror revenge,” and more “Revenge.” I would have rather heard Laverne Cox was playing a detective who’s partner (Romantic or detective-wise) was murdered while she was recovering from some surgery since it takes some time to do. Admittedly that still frames the plot around the trans woman’s body but it puts the control in her hands and allows for her to have one of those “I can’t blame myself for what I had to do… But I can get my revenge,” type moments.
Ashley Lauren Rogers is an actress and playwright with a Bachelors of English Literature and Theatre degree from Fitchburg State College.
Lauren Jankowski on Sirens, USA Network
Whenever someone thinks of a failure of the portrayal of asexuality, most times they’re expecting to hear about the now notorious episode of House, which will probably go down in history as the most offensive and damaging portrayal of asexuality ever committed to celluloid. However, it was so genuinely terrible that it’s just a little too easy to point at it and declare, “But at least I didn’t do that!”
No, no, no, let’s try something a little more tricky to spot: Sirens, the short-lived USA series that featured a supposedly openly asexual character who went by the nickname Voodoo. I write supposedly because the only thing that distinguished this character as asexual was that she referred to herself as such. Even when on screen, she was basically just another love interest.
Putting aside the fact that Voodoo was a traditionally attractive cis white woman (which the media seems convinced is the only sort of asexual out there), Voodoo was never shown with her friends. The only relationships in her life that were shown on screen were her romantic ones, always with men. Her asexual identity was played up as a joke among the other characters or as an obstacle that Brian, a heterosexual cis-man coworker who was in love with her, needed to overcome. Voodoo basically existed almost solely to show what a great guy Brian was.
All of this could have been avoided if there had actually been an openly asexual writer in the writers room. Or at least someone who knew what the heck asexuality actually is. There is nothing wrong with portraying an asexual person in a romantic relationship, but when it’s written as the only or most important relationship in his/her/their life, then it becomes a huge problem. Voodoo must have had some friends, some platonic relationships in her life–why didn’t they write her having a girls night out? It would have been amazing to show an asexual woman with strong platonic relationships that were just as important as the on-off romantic relationship she had. Instead, Voodoo was a flat one-dimensional character who could have been replaced with a sexy lamp.
This show made no attempt to humanize Voodoo. Instead, it put her through the “how asexual is she” test, including an episode where Brian asks where whether or not she masturbated. Hey, allos, don’t freaking do that! It’s super gross. If you’re putting a character through a “okay, he/she/they say they’re [X], but really, how [X] are they?” test, you’re doing a really poor job of writing.
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry on Daredevil, Netflix
In multiple episodes of the television show Daredevil, Matt Murdock is seen flinging his white cane – an important tool for blind people – away from himself so that he can go fight. The writers don’t use the cane as a weapon (which it can be adapted into), and they don’t bring his adaptive tech into the 21st century. The whole series relies on the idea that Daredevil’s powers basically make him not really blind, even while pretending to be. Blindness becomes the Clark Kent glasses of Matthew Murdock, and that’s not acceptable. It gets so bad that fans of the show will tell blind people that he isn’t “really blind” in defense of the show.
All of this could have been avoided if the writers treated disability as part of a person, and not as a personality quirk or a costume people can take off.
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a half-blind, half-deaf, half-Scandinavian horror & SFF writer, editor, historian and theatre professional with a BA in Theater & History and an MA in Women’s History from Sarah Lawrence College.
Cynthia Ward on Bones, FOX Network
I have seen so few specifically identified-as-atheist (as opposed to coded-atheist or generically secular) characters that the fail is more in our absence than in our misrepresentation. I’ve only seen a few episodes of House, whom I gather is our Poster Boy, and Bones, which I guess has our Poster Girl. However, in the episode of Bones I saw I did note one of the common tropes associated with atheists and skeptics.
The episode, “Harbingers in a Fountain,” shows a skeptical scientist and self-proclaimed atheist developing a credulity-snappingly quick acceptance of purported psychic powers on remarkably thin evidence. While not all atheists would be familiar with probability or science, a skeptical atheist scientist would be familiar with how common “unlikely” coincidences are (cf. Littlewood’s Law, not to mention be familiar with reproducibility and the rest of the scientific method. Given she’s a skeptical atheist scientist (forensic anthropologist and kinesiologist), Temperance “Bones” Brennan is neither a likely nor a believable atheist character in this episode.
To my experience, when an explicitly atheist or skeptic character turns up in fantasy literature, it’s in a story where the atheist/skeptic discovers s/he’s wrong, the end.
I would guess that a non-religious publisher presenting stories in which a Christian or Jewish character discovers s/he’s wrong, the end, would receive a lot of flak (and deserve it), but do this to an atheist or skeptic character and it usually goes not only uncriticized, but unremarked.
I’m not saying no one should ever write such fiction about atheists or skeptics – I have, myself. I’m saying such an experience for an atheist or skeptic isn’t the end of the story. It’s the beginning.
It’s also not the only role or plot available to the overtly atheist character. Atheists have full lives, we have families, friends, morals, ethics, loves, hates, hopes, dreams, fears, and everything else other humans have. We can fill every character role available to the believer and to the agnostic. And if you’re thinking “Well, except for man/woman of God,” can I introduce you to my partner, the atheist minister?
Cynthia Ward [http://www.cynthiaward.com/] is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and, with author Nisi Shawl, developed and has taught the Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction seminar for over fifteen years.
K. Tempest Bradford:
Want to avoid falling in the many Failholes outlined above? Want some specific help learning how to do that? Then you’re in luck, because this is happening:
Writing Deaf and Blind Characters with Elsa Sjunneson-Henry – September 10th, 2016
Writing the Other: Comics and Graphic Novels with Sara Ryan – September 10th, 2016
More than Eunuchs and Extraterrestrials: Writing Positive Portrayals of Asexual Characters with Lauren Jankowski – September 11th
Writing Native American Characters: How Not To Do A Rowling taught by Debbie Reese (this seminar already happened, but the video and resources will be available to purchase soon).
All the classes but one still have spaces available right this second. You’ll not only get a chance to learn more about what not to do and what you should do, instead, but you also get to ask each of these smart, talented people specific questions. You then improve your craft, get better at writing, and create art that doesn’t contribute to cultural toxicity. Isn’t that worth striving for? (Spoiler alert: Yes.)
Samurai vs. robots. It sounds like the Rule of Cool gone bad, right? For instant awesome, add disgruntled ronin, droid assassins, and folding swords.
Oh, I had other ideas I wanted to explore in this story – free will, messing with Three Laws tropes, fear and its role in the greater good – but the truth is that this story started out as “What if Meiji Era Japan had androids instead of guns and there were robots fighting samurai and also a detective and a murder mystery and wouldn’t that be so cool!”
But as much as I swear by the Rule of Cool, relying on that by itself would lead to a weak world, a dull plot, and – if I wasn’t careful – the appropriation and disrespect of an entire culture. I… don’t enjoy writing stories like that.
In order to make this work, I needed artificial intelligence in the 19th century. Gibson and Sterling provided a template for that in The Difference Engine, in which Babbage had succeeded in creating his difference engine, inventing computers a good century before we did. I took that even further. What if Babbage kept improving upon it? What if he collaborated with Darwin on ideas of evolutionary computation? What if logicians of the time codified reasoning as mathematical deduction, and formalized concepts we know under the Church-Turing Thesis? What if – by evaluating competing programs and designs against each other, by revising them at an accelerated rate with advanced analytical engines – 20th-century technologies and even artificial intelligence were invented before their time?
And what if someone created a machine intelligent enough to evaluate and revise its own designs? You’d have the beginnings of a robotic singularity.
Meanwhile (and true to actual history), Commodore Perry shows up in Edo Bay, forcing an end to Japan’s isolationism and catalyzing the events that would lead to the Fall of Edo, the end of the samurai class, and the rise of the Meiji Restoration. But in this world, instead of sparking an industrial revolution, imported Western technology sparks a cybernetic one.
I had a world. Now what about the story? I figured, since I had a nation in love with robots, I should focus on someone who despised them. Shimada Itaru is a former samurai who grew up when the shogunate fell, who was a skilled swordsman when the government made it illegal to carry swords (androids made weaponized humans obsolete, after all), who fought against the androids – and lost everything – in the failed Satsuma Rebellion.
When the Satsuma samurai fell, Itaru didn’t surrender or commit seppuku like most of his kin. He ran. He hid. He forged a new life for himself, despising the droids who’d stripped his sword, his honor, and his country from him. When his son was later killed as the result of an android malfunction, Itaru’s enmity turned into outright loathing.
I put Itaru in a situation where he had to work alongside an android in order to get his life back, and bam. Story.
How to respect history and culture? That will always be an ongoing process, one in which I’m sure I will make mistakes (and God-willing, learn from them). But the main thing I know is this: damn well get it right. I spent a crapload of time – more time than I spent actually writing the book, I think – studying Meiji Era Japan, reading Mikiso Hane and James Clavell, researching historical Tokyo wards, scrolling through hundreds and hundreds of pictures circa 1900, and more. Any mistakes in the book are a result of my humanity, not carelessness.
I still worked in a folding sword, though. Physics shmysics, man, those things are cool.
So long, August. See you in a year, more or less.
And Entertainment Weekly has the scoop! So go there for details, including a link to pre-order. Note the cost. It’s not a typo.
EW has the scoop, but I will now add a few answers to additional questions I think you might have.
Is there going to be a print edition? Yes, there will be, from Subterranean Press, which includes some amazing artwork. Audible has the novella as an exclusive for a certain amount of time, but SubPress will have it after that window expires. Expect it in 2017. More details when I can give them to you.
Does this mean you’re not working with Wil Wheaton in audio anymore? No, it just means we went with someone else for this particular project. If I have my druthers, Wil and I will be collaborating again, and often. But, you know. I already work with other narrators (including William Dufris, Tavia Gilbert and Amber Benson), and Wil of course works with other authors, including Ernie Cline. We have an open relationship, as it were.
Whoa, Zachary Quinto is cool. That’s not a question, but I agree. And I think he’s going to be just about perfect for The Dispatcher. I can’t wait for you all to hear this one. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s pretty good.
Any additional questions? Drop them into the comments.
And Athena is ready for it!
This is Athena’s senior year, and this year she’s doing something a little different; basically, having exhausted the possibilities of her lovely but very small local rural high school, this year Athena is taking classes at the local community college. She’ll be getting credit toward her high school graduation and also, as I understand it, getting transferable credits for whatever four year college she attends next year. Or something, I’m honestly not 100% clear on this. But, the point is: She’s a senior, she’s off to her first day of classes today. Thus begins another school year. Indeed, her final school year before college.
I’ve been doing these “first day of school” pictures since Athena’s first day of school in the first grade (see below), with a couple of years missed when I was off on a tour (we also missed the first day picture for Athena’s second grade year, on account she was at Disneyland that day; I think it’s a good excuse). It’s a little odd to think that this is the last one I’m likely to do — I’m very unlikely to be there on her first day of classes for college, and I think we all agree this is probably a good thing. I wouldn’t call the moment bittersweet, since time passing is a thing and that’s all right. But it is a reminder that time does pass, and that just as there is a first time for everything, there is also a last. One chapter of Athena’s life, and ours, is coming to an end this school year. Time to get ready for the next chapters. I think they’ll read just as well. I’m excited to get to them.
Last week the University of Chicago caused a bit of an uproar by sending out a letter to incoming students telling them not to expect intellectual safe spaces or trigger warnings when it came to critical inquiry. This caused celebration in some quarters and consternation in others, in both cases in no small part to the use of the phrases “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” which are apprehended in different ways by different general audiences, cutting roughly but not exclusively along US liberal/conservative lines.
I am a University of Chicago graduate, and having come out of its classically liberal educational ethos, I have some thoughts on the letter, and on the general matter of intellectual inquiry, and on safe spaces and trigger warnings and so on and so forth. Note that a lot of this follows on (and may repeat) what I’ve written about free speech and other related topics before, so some of this may seem familiar to you.
1. In a very general sense, as a graduate, what I understood the University of Chicago letter to mean is this: “When you get here, your previous notions are going to be confronted and challenged and sometimes this process might be deeply uncomfortable for you. We find this to be a feature, not a bug.” Which I find to be a largely unobjectionable sentiment, when it comes to education and the development of the individual. You have to be confronted, you have to be challenged, and you have to learn the skills that allow you to robustly defend your point of view and to abandon that point of view when it is not tenable, and come to a new understanding through the process. This is all very Hegelian — thesis, antithesis, synthesis — which means it’s very Chicago, where Hegel might as well be the school mascot.
2. I thought the Dean of Students did a less than 100% excellent job in conveying this particular point, choosing to spice up his letter to the kids with lingo to show how he’s hip and with it, or something, in the process letting shouty people drag the letter out and wave it about for their own purposes. So, yeah, well done, there, dean. Additionally, I’m not entirely sure that that message in that particular letter was necessary. This is the University of Chicago, guys. Is anyone who actually intends to attend unaware that the university prides itself on rigorous examination, discussion and debate? Basically, I found the letter a bit silly. If I were an instructor (or an editor), I would have sent it back with the instruction to tone down the posturing and just get to the meat of the letter sooner.
3. I think it’s good and fine and necessary that an education requires confronting one’s own thoughts and beliefs, subjecting them to the crucible of inquiry and discussion, and thus tempering the quality of one’s own beliefs as a result. What is equally important — and what in my experience Chicago was good at, and a thing not conveyed very well by the letter — is that those leading these excursions, the professors and other instructors, work the room. Which means not only leading discussion but also focusing and shaping it and creating an environment in which every student can be a component of the discussion. Which can mean anything from making sure a couple of egotistical loudmouths don’t just drone on every goddamn class session, to drawing out those students who might otherwise feel like there’s no percentage in making their own points. You can only robustly interrogate beliefs and assumptions when everyone who is there to learn knows they can speak. That’s on the instructors, and professors, and on the University as a whole. I believe Chicago does that — or did, when I was there — and that’s something I wish was better articulated.
4. Likewise, the educational process is more (and better) than some sort of Intellectual Thunderdome where the validity of a point of view is decided solely through trial by combat. Robust interrogation of one’s point of view by others is a thing, and a necessary thing, but is not the only thing. There are all sorts of ways to learn, to acquire knowledge, assess and reassess one’s ground assumptions, and come to a better understanding of the world therein. My Chicago experience had a lot of me squaring off against some other student — or a professor! Screw you, Dr. Whoever! I have points I’m gonna make and I will fight you on them — but just as much if not more of my education was spent doing other things, from quiet reading to co-operative participation to just shutting up and letting someone more knowledgeable and experienced than I was show me something I didn’t already know.
5. Over on Twitter the other day I noted the following:
Which made a lot of conservatives on Twitter really rather foamy, bloviating about how they never ask for safe spaces, harupmh harumph, gwaaaaaaaar. Which I found pretty funny. First because I found it non-responsive to the point that Chicago’s policy means that all points of view will be open to interrogation, which will include conservative points of view that new students might bring in. Having seen more than a couple of young conservatives at Chicago walk into a moving fan blade of people as smart as they were, with better command of facts and rhetoric, and coming out rather upset and angry with the experience, I’m not at all convinced every young conservative is ready to have their own baseline assumptions challenged. I expect some will assume Chicago is an implictly “safe space” for them, like, as it happens, most of the rest of their world. Which of course is the point: when (some) conservatives like to brag that they never ask for safe spaces, that’s very much like a fish bragging that it never asks for water.
Let me suggest a radical idea (which is to say, it’s not really radical at all), which is that the ability to take a challenge to one’s fundamental precepts of the world, and the enthusiasm to engage with those who oppose those precepts, is largely orthogonal to one’s political views. There are liberal-minded folks who love to walk into a room full of people ready to hate them and bellow, bring it, suckas; there are conservatives who are the most special of special snowflakes who ever wafted down, weeping precious and icy tears. And vice-versa, and the same no matter where one plots one’s self on a multi-dimensional political chart.
I might suggest a salient difference between liberal and conservatives in this regard is that many of the groups that traditionally comprise the liberal coalition — minorities, women, LGBTQ+ — don’t have the baseline assumption of safety in the world that generally white, generally straight conservatives do. This makes it easier for (some) conservatives to pretend that don’t in fact expect to have their worldview coddled and allowed for every bit as much as they accuse liberals of doing. And when they run into a buzzsaw that shreds their worldview — as they will at Chicago, almost guaranteed — their perhaps previously unrealized assumption that Chicago was “safe” for them, intellectually, is going into the hopper.
6. With respect to the University of Chicago specifically, it’s been suggested that one reason for the letter is a bit of institutional territory marking (see this Vox article) basically telling the kids that the sort of protesting that works at other schools isn’t going to fly at Chicago, so don’t even bother. While I’m not at all convinced that this is really what the letter was about, it is absolutely true that institutionally speaking the University of Chicago doesn’t take kindly to protesting. When I attended Chicago, I wrote an in-depth series of articles about when, in the 1960s, Chicago students, like other students at elite universities, took over the administration building as a protest (in the case of Chicago, for a popular teacher being dropped). Chicago’s response, basically, was to wait out the protesters, discipline a stack of the students for being a nuisance, and then never speak about it again (the teacher was not rehired, either). This last year, the president of the student government at Chicago barely escaped with his degree after he allowed students into the administration building for a different protest (seriously, don’t screw with the administration building. They get annoyed and they will punish you).
But again, I don’t think the letter was a warning so much as a poorly expressed declaration of intellectual intent. Yes, the school and/or students will occasionally bring in people to speak whom you hate. No, your protests won’t stop it. Deal. Which again is a very Chicago thing to do.
7. How do I personally feel about safe spaces and trigger warnings in a general sense? With regard to the latter, I think they’re fine, and often courteous. I think the world has come to place where we understand people have their various sensitivities, and if it would be a kindness to give people a heads up that something involves violence or racism or whatever, sure, why not? It’s not censorship to make people aware they should prepare (which ironically, means you could say that silly letter was a trigger warning letting students know about their future lack at the school — in which case, very sneaky, Chicago).
As for safe spaces, my own understanding is that it’s also generally fine and courteous to give people space to despressurize and relax and be themselves, often without me around (or at least, if I am around, with me following rules others set). This is, I will be the first to admit, a very simplistic approach to what the concept of a safe space is. But it’s the foundation on which I build out complexity regarding the subject.
Also, you know. I don’t feel obliged to pretend “trigger warnings” are a liberal phenomenon; when they’re basically conservative, they’re usually called “ratings.” Movie, TV and video game ratings, content advisory notes on music, etc — none of which in the US are currently dictated by the government, incidentally — they’re pretty much so people don’t get triggered (or get triggered by their children seeing something inconvenient for them as parents). I don’t really have an opposition to ratings either. I mean, hell, back at the turn of the century I ran a video game site specifically calling out game elements ranging from violence to drug use to racism to nudity so people could decide whether or not to get a game, or get it for their kids, or be prepared for that content when it happened (here’s one of the reviews). You know, kind of like trigger warnings. Conservative folks loved the site. But that’s different! Well, no. It’s really not.
Likewise I can think of several places online and off which qualify as “safe spaces” for non-liberals, where like-minded people go to rest and relax and not have to feel like they always have to be looking over their shoulder for the politically correct thought police, etc and so on, places that have rules that you have to follow, set by moderators or owners or whomever, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door. Whether they’re called “safe spaces” or not is neither here nor there. Apply the duck test to it.
And that’s fine too — with safe spaces and trigger warnings, however you choose to label them, everyone needs their gathering holes and has their sensitivities and desires companionship with others whose journey is similar to theirs. Sometimes you need a respite from the world, because very often the world is work. It’s courteous to let others have them, and if necessary, to offer them. It would be lovely if people stopped pretending they don’t exist all across the human experience, including across the political spectrum.
8. I don’t believe the Chicago approach, or that silly letter, means fewer liberals (or conservatives! Or any other political orientation!) are going to come out of the school, a belief buttressed by looking at the rather wide cross-section of political positions and opinions that its alumni espouse. A school that counts both Saul Alinsky and Milton Friedman among its graduates can encompass a wide scope of thought; the alumni issuing forth from it since the heady days of the tenure of Alinsky and Friedman appear similarly varied in their politics. This is good for the school and it’s good for the people who attend it today — they are going to meet up with people not like them, and argue with them, and hopefully come away with a better understanding of opposing positions, and their own. And who knows? Maybe they’ll even become and remain friends with people who don’t think in lockstep with them. It happens. It happened to me. And that is a definite positive of a Chicago education.
To send you off into the last weekend of August, here’s another very fine stack of books and ARCs. What looks good to you here? Tell us in the comments!