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The Big Idea: G.R. Macallister

When you sense something is lacking in a genre you love, how much effort does it take you as a writer to address it? For G.R. Macallister, quite a lot — and in writing her novel Scorpica, she learned that sometimes it means digging down into the language itself to make the story sing.

G.R. MACALLISTER:

Fantasy is the genre that lets us imagine whatever we want. So why don’t we imagine more worlds with women in charge?

As a kid, I’d been an active fantasy reader. In junior high and high school, my brother and I played D&D, subscribed to Dragon Magazine, and devoured each of the Dragonlance Chronicles the moment they hit our local Waldenbooks. (Oh, Raistlin!) But over the years, my reading habits shifted. Fantasy felt less and less relevant to my life, especially when I started to notice that so many fictional fantasy worlds were male-dominated, repeating instead of re-imagining some of the most troubling aspects of our own real world.

When I finally achieved my dream of becoming a published author in 2015, it was with a historical novel called The Magician’s Lie, soon followed by more historical fiction set in 19th-century America. My books highlighted the fierce women of history—some drawn directly from the historical record, others more loosely inspired. I wanted to bring these women’s stories to light, but the more I drew on history, the more I kept bumping up against how the patriarchal, puritanical society of that time constrained women’s choices.

By the summer of 2018, I was dreaming again of fantasy’s unlimited possibilities. Like millions of other people, I had watched some but not all of HBO’s splashy, big-budget adaptation of Game of Thrones, and while there were some things I loved about it, others gave me pause. While George R.R. Martin’s female characters as interpreted by D.B. Weiss and David Benioff were often clever and interesting, they were also frequently subjected to sexual violence as a plot point. Martin’s argument that rape and sexual violence belonged in A Song of Ice and Fire because “rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought” is, of course, historically accurate—but in a fantasy world, is historical accuracy really our highest aspiration?

So I decided to see what else fantasy might have to offer. I went in search of the type of big, juicy doorstopper of a fantasy novel I’d once loved, but this time, I wanted one set in a matriarchal world. After all, thirty years had passed since the only options for me to choose from at my local library were Piers Anthony’s Xanth series and the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. There had to be a bunch of matriarchal fantasy novels by now, right?

Turns out that there were not, in fact, a bunch.

And none of the ones I read were quite what I was looking for. A matriarchal society, I realized, wasn’t enough. I wanted a world run by women that was neither a utopia nor a dystopia. I wanted a world where women were in charge because that was the way it had always been. A world that was female-default in the way our current world is male-default—a simple change on one level, but one that also ripples through culture, economy, language, and every other aspect of society.

Because a female-default culture wouldn’t be just the opposite of male-default culture, just as matriarchy isn’t just a flipped version of patriarchy. I wanted to read about a society where women’s concerns were primary, leading to not just different models of female power but different family structures, different models of child-rearing, different prejudices and judgments. What would marriage in a culture like that look like? Who might rule them? What gods would form their pantheon?

And as with so many authors, because I couldn’t find the exact book I wanted to read, I ended up writing it.

In Scorpica, the first book of the Five Queendoms series, you’ll get to meet a lot of women. Ruthless queens and tender-hearted warriors, bandits on the make and healers on the run, nameless girls stolen from their homelands and ageless magicians brooding in exile. There are male characters, too, of course, but I didn’t feel a lot of pressure to give any of them a starring role. Nor did I choose to include any aspect of the “real world,” like rape or slavery, that I didn’t want to include. I got to tear our male-default language apart and rebuild it from the ground up, removing words with -ess endings, inventing new profanity, and shifting idioms to reflect different cultural attitudes (“soft as a scrotum.”)

I was surprised, actually, how hard it was to really interrogate our language down to its roots. For the first dozen drafts, the first page of Scorpica included a brief mention of a “headstrong prince,” and it took me far longer than it should have to recognize that the existence of princes in this world would imply the existence of princesses. Now the Five Queendoms has queenlings and kinglings, along with its gods and priests and warriors. Gender-neutral words can apply equally to women and men (as well as those who don’t identify as either), and if it takes readers a moment to determine who’s who, well, that’s part of the journey.

Each choice I made shaped the world I created, but each of those choices could also have been made differently and been entirely valid. As an author, I’m absolutely thrilled to be able to introduce readers to the world of the Five Queendoms and the women who run it. As a reader, what would thrill me even more would be an explosion of novels set in matriarchal worlds, each one shaped by a different author making their own set of decisions. Again, fantasy is the genre of unlimited possibility. A women-led, female-default society, fantasy or not, would certainly have many of the same problems that our current world does. But wouldn’t it be fun to see how they might arrive at different solutions?


Scorpica: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

Visit G.R.’s website or follow her on twitter.

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

10 replies on “The Big Idea: G.R. Macallister”

Well, dang. Now I have a new comp title for my query letter. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do, except from a science fiction perspective. Down to the fact that such a society would not just be a mirror-image version of a patriarchy…

Fortunately, any good big idea is big enough to be tackled from multiple perspectives.

I became disillusioned with sci fi and fantasy for the same reason- if you are making up a world from whole cloth, why replicate the bad parts of this world? I’ve gone back into the genres, but I’m more inclined to try works by female authors, and I’ll quickly abandon them if they are too off.

Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake, around about 1980, opened my eyes to the possibilities.

Reminds me of two things — Six Moon Dance by Sheri Tepper and the episode of Sliders where they ended up in a matriarchal society — but the women just acted like men, which made me despair.
I’ll be buying this.

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