I seem to love stories about bears

I’m half-way through The Secret History of Fantasy and this is the story I’ve enjoyed the most: Bears Discover Fire by Terry Bisson. What a fine story this is! It felt completely real from beginning to end, and like the best fantasies it left me wishing it was real. Terry Bisson’s voice is authentic, his first-person narrator realized without a single false note. I challenge anyone to finish this story and not want to meet the narrator, sit around saying not much with him, and go see those bears.

Then there’s Theodora Goss’s story Sleeping With Bears. Was there ever a more enticing wedding party? By the end of it, we all understand why someone would marry a bear.

There’s something about bears that makes people write fine, fine fiction. People let bears be what they are; bears don’t require that you project anything onto them. They’re just as big as we are and have their own lives without our participation. They carry on right in front of us, as if neither of us mattered that much to one another, and in this set us a good example to follow. And some excellent authors have taken up that challenge.

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It’s not just me, it’s spring

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz weighs in on the state of science fiction and fantasy writing today in a column for Strange Horizons, and I see echoes of not only what I tried to say in  recent posts but of the article I mentioned last week about how accusations of cultural appropriation affect non-western writers.

Words of wisdom from Ms. Loenen-Ruiz’s article:

Science fiction invites us to explore, to engage the world, to consider possibilities—it invites us to play and revel even in improbabilities. It is perhaps the gift that allows us to retain what is childlike in us—that allows us to keep in touch with the wild self that is always eager and curious and wants to know more. It is the genre that allows us to envision possible solutions—that allows us to keep hold of what it is that makes us human.

And yet, when I look at the field today, I find myself wondering.

Just recently, a young writer wrote me to apologize for making use of my culture without asking for permission.

I sat there looking at the email and my heart broke as I thought of the anxiety that must have preceded the writing of this letter.

That anxiety wasn’t just for people writing about others’ cultures. It affected Ms. Loenen-Ruiz herself.

The discussions at that time made me anxious about the way I approached the culture in which I grew up. Should I write about it? Was it right to write about it? If I wrote about it, would I be commodifying my culture?

That’s right,  a writer felt intimidated about writing about her own culture. About how critical voices based in theory – commodifying, anyone? – would judge her for describing her own world. Isn’t that appropriation in a nutshell, when the voice of critique lays claim to other people’s cultures and presumes to judge how those people write about them?

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is a consistently gracious and welcoming voice in the field, and you should read her whole essay. “Do not allow yourself to fall silent,” it ends.

Too many of us let ourselves fall silent in recent years because we were afraid of getting it wrong, of transgressing some rule book and being tarred as hopeless racists. But I’ve come to realize that there is no adequate rule book. When an author from country A, educated in country B, living in country C,  is critiqued by a theorist from country D, educated in country E, living in country F — isn’t it time to get real, and treat them both as individuals instead of lists of boxes to check?

We are in a state of possibility in SFF. I think it would be very hard for anyone to appoint him- or herself sole owner of the moral high ground right now. And in this open space, individual voices begin to pipe up like birds returning in springtime. Varied, vibrant, living their own lives — and singing them — without asking permission or caring about comments.

Do not allow yourself to fall silent.

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Rose Red Review, Winter 2014: response 2

A Ma and Sayap by Kira Dreyer Messell

A Ma just didn’t grab me. The ideas brought up were very interesting, and I would have liked to see them explored further. Where are the other people who became gods? What’s constraining this god’s actions? She doesn’t seem to have tried doing any of the things I would do if I were immortal, and is that because she’s tried them and found out they don’t work?

Perhaps the author was retelling an actual legend, and didn’t feel she could take the license to address those sorts of things. But I have lots of questions about the lives of little local special-purpose gods, once I start thinking they have lives and can do things like joining theatrical troupes.

Sayap was more interesting but way less pleasant, to me. It reminded me of several other creepy stories I’ve read about people trying to create human-animal hybrids, which I also disliked – it’s just a topic that squicks me.

The new girl’s questions and attitude were what kept me going, by giving hope of a satisfying ending. It wasn’t completely clear how that ending linked back to the beginning quote, though. Who will become the daughters? I have an idea, but am not sure of it. The only person actually acting as the madman’s daughter in the story is the narrator.

Actually, thinking about that narrator gives me insight into what stood out most to me about these two stories – the lack of agency in the characters. That’s a common thing in legends, which present themselves as telling you what happened long ago and far away. But it’s one of the reasons I find it so difficult to graft modern, living characters onto legends; we expect to see living characters making choices. So I wonder why the protagonist in the first story hasn’t made a killing in the stock market, and why none of the girls’ families have come after them in the second story, and as the tales go on that kind of wondering grows to take up more and more of my mind until I can no longer enter into the story wholeheartedly.

Enfermos by Raquel I. Penzo was another of those stories where the fantastic element seems to be purely symbolic. Which makes sense – the cloud that follows the narrator, the shadow in the apartment across the alley, seem as good explanations as any for the changes she undergoes. Most of those changes seem to happen off-stage, though, so am I right to think the cloud was involved in them?

I wanted an explanation of it, some hope for overcoming it, so much that it made me realize that there wasn’t any explanation in the other symbolic-fantasy story in this issue. That made me wonder about symbolic-fantasy stories in general, and hope that I’ll develop some overall understanding of them as I read more.

There were some places where different formatting or just a bit more explanation would have helped me understand this story better. The key one was near the end, where somebody speaks to Nana; it was formatted as if the mother was the one speaking, and I confused myself by reading it that way. I also assumed ‘Papi’ was the narrator’s father, and that got me quite disoriented about where she was living at various times in the story. I’ll have to be less impatient with my critique group when they pick on me about things that I think are obvious!

Whose Woods These Are by Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin

This story, I felt on solid ground with! I could identify completely with the protagonist’s feelings, guilt and unwillingness to act, and the story built until I thought I knew what was going on – but, like the narrator, I discovered at the end that I didn’t. And, like her, I wasn’t sure how I should feel about it even after I knew the secret. I’d enjoy reading the next chapter about this narrator and her new responsibilities.

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Paperback Writer!

Double Dragon has now made my books available in trade paperback, via Lulu. I was surprised at the cost, but they are very nice volumes! This is the first time I have actually been able to hold my novels in my hands.

Even though Advice from Pigeons came out in 2011, I feel newly published!

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Galileo’s Middle Finger

It’s been a while since I devoured a book the way I devoured this one, which arrived at my door 4 pm yesterday. And it’s been a while since devouring a book left me with such a feeling of having a lot to digest.

As soon as I unwrapped the book, I sat down on my front porch and started reading it; but I only got about 15 minutes in when some friends arrived for a dinner date. Over dinner we talked about a lot of things, including online bullying and controversy. “I hardly ever sign online petitions any more,” my friend said, “because everything turns out to be a lot more complicated than it was presented to be. I could spend a year trying to figure out the actual facts of the case.” And then, we agreed, the controversies too often turned into exercises in taking sides. But did being cautious lead to not intervening when you really ought?

Galileo’s Middle Finger is basically about that. It’s a call for evidence-based activism, for the need to understand what is actually happening in order to change it. It doesn’t offer any useful tips for the person faced with one of those online petitions, however – and that may be the point.

In the book’s first section, Dr. Dreger outlines the kind of historical research she did to understand the concept of intersex and how it led her into activism against gender reassignment surgery. What surprised me most, I have to admit, is her admission that at the beginning of her studies she didn’t even know that hermaphroditism occurred in humans. What impressed me most was that she had the skills to turn her research findings into successful activism, something which has always struck me as miraculous.

Having this body of information and experience under her belt, she then turned to research on conflicts between researchers and activists. As someone who had been more familiar with the ‘republican war on science’ literature, I was surprised to find how much conflict had occurred between the progressive community and scientists and how adeptly right-wing figures had latched on to whatever parts of that controversy they could use.

Dr. Dreger gives detailed, gripping examples of the kind of fact-checking necessary to make sense of such controversies – reading the references to see what’s actually in them, delving into the archives of professional societies, soliciting old e-mails from ex-members of review boards. But the shadow side is that her enemies, those condemning the scientists she champions, are doing the same things. They, too, are traveling to interview research subjects. They, too, are soliciting information from in-country sources; they, too, find their opponents’ arguments to be nonsense and their opponents’ evidence to be a tissue of lies.

What’s the difference between them, then, for the person not able to spend years looking up every cited article? Well, in the middle of the book social justice rhetoric and overt hostility seem to be pretty clear hallmarks. Folks more motivated by ideology than by devotion to the truth are the ones to distrust. But then, in the last section of the book, Dr. Dreger pulls this rug out from under our feet.

In the last section, Dr. Dreger becomes involved in the case of prenatal dexamethasone treatment to prevent virilization in female infants with CAH – and the book circles back, like a spiral staircase, to where it began but (perhaps) on a higher, more sophisticated level. Because now she is the person attacking a researcher, getting people to sign letters of concern based on her word rather than their own research, using many of the methods she’s been poking holes in.

You’d think that if anybody was qualified to answer the question How do you stop a scientific researcher?, it would’ve been me at that moment. The problem was that my work had only uncovered all the wrong ways to do it. What the hell was the right way? (p. 191)

One of the touchstones Dr. Dreger clings to to distinguish herself from activists who have lost perspective is that she will follow the evidence, in this case the evidence of an FDA investigation; if that investigation finds no wrongdoing, she will accept that she’s been wrong. But when that happens, it doesn’t turn out to be enough to overturn her judgment. Instead, like the other activists who refuse to be convinced earlier in her book, she returns to research, digging deeper – finding conflicts of interest, parsing details of grant proposals, writing articles until critiques of the science in question dominate any google search for it. And while of course I’m on her side – because she wrote the book, and I’m in her POV – I can’t help wondering if this looks one bit better than her previous examples, or one bit more evidence-based, to the scientist involved. And all the advice she gives us throughout the book on how to continue your work in the face of people trying to stop you could be as easily directed to, or coming from, that scientist.

So what does the person trying to make sense of such events do? Dr. Dreger’s advice is clear. Insist on evidence. Do the research. There’s no shortcut to knowledge. I like it! But then I would like anything which tells me I need not act without having written the equivalent of a thesis on a topic. Is this a recipe for quietism, and for ceding power to the folks who can finance multi-year studies or who are obsessed enough to conduct them for free? I remember Bruno Latour’s diagrams of how scientific discourse buttresses itself against the outside reader, and I am not at ease.

From Latour's 'Science in Action', p. 38

The most important thing I take away from this book is a renewed feeling for the duty and obligation one takes on when agreeing to review – especially to review controversial situations. In one of the stories Dr. Dreger recounts,  a professional organization decides that it has to take a ‘piece of sleaze’ attacking one of its members seriously to avoid being tarred itself by the accusations. In another, the person running an investigation is in job negotiations with the journal publishing polemics against the investigation. Undisclosed conflicts of interest stud parts of the story like raisins in fruitcake. This sort of thing cannot be endured, cannot be participated in, by people who care about science or research. What does it cost to recuse yourself from something, for heavens’ sake?

I also see a lesson for the scientific community as a whole. Too many of the scientists in this book went through controversies without any social support to speak of – and whether they are right or wrong, what is gained by isolating people involved in the knock-down drag-out of competing truth claims? Being wrong is part of scientific practice, and we cannot keep science healthy when folks divide themselves into camps of partisans and admitting errors becomes a career-ending surrender. As scientists, we should be more concerned with the health of our field than with positioning ourselves on the ‘right’ side of specific controversies.

Galileo’s Middle Finger isn’t an example of unimpeachable, obvious scientific rectitude. It’s too messy, too ambiguous a story for that. But it’s a rousing reminder from the front lines that there are ideals we have to aim for even if we know we will fall short, and that it’s the duty of the academy and the profession to support its members in the attempt.

What if we came together in the ivory towers, barricaded the doors, and looked at the skies? (p.133)

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Who’s allowed to write about what?

The day after I write a post comparing rules for writing female characters to pickled fish in a jar, Amanitta Forna compares the activity of categorizing writers and deciding what they’re allowed to write about to collecting butterflies.

As dead things, pinned to a board, the butterflies were beautiful but they were not interesting to me. A living butterfly that soars and flies is a magical thing. I want my students to let their imaginations fly and soar beyond themselves and their own experience, towards new horizons and into new worlds.

Her article is about accusations of cultural appropriation, how the issue pigeonholes writers, and where her latest novel should be shelved. Some more quotes:

I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer…

So where should a bookshop shelve a novel set in Croatia and written in English by a Scottish Sierra Leonian author? Over the years I have posed the question of classification to many writers about their own work and the answer is invariably the same: in bookshops, fiction should be arranged in alphabetical order.

She asked her Facebook friends how it had come about that writers were supposed to be categorized.

The Pakistani-British writer Kamila Shamsie, whose novel Burnt Shadows featured a Japanese character, agreed: “It’s about authenticity. When I was at uni in America in the 90s there was a lot of criticism around the idea of ‘appropriating’ other people’s stories. What started as a thoughtful post-colonial critique of certain types of imperial texts somehow became a peculiar orthodoxy that essentially denies the possibility of imaginative engagement with anyone outside your little circle.”

Most enlightening to me were the authors reporting that this kind of criticism was aimed more at non-western writers than at western ones. That makes me re-think my whole picture of cultural appropriation debates, and want to hear even more from a non-western perspective.

Read the whole thing here.

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Rose Red Review, Winter 2014: response 1

Living up to my demand that bloggers actually review SFF instead of just telling us how it should be done. Though I am not good at the straight review, more at musing about things… anyway, the boom in SFF short story publishing has apparently not been accompanied by anybody paying the slightest bit of attention to the stories once they are published. So I think it’s important for those of us who read neglected journals to post something about what we found there, even if we’re not the world’s best reviewers.

The winter issue of Rose Red Review contains 6 short stories, one piece of flash fiction, and ten poems. I had no idea fantasy poetry was such a big deal nowadays!

I’ll divide my reviews into several posts, because I am long-winded. And I get off-track and wonder about things that have nothing to do with the stories, so perhaps these should be taken as responses rather than reviews.

Image by Sakimori, from The Art of Animation

Nova and the Moon by Ani King – I read an essay last month that claimed modern fantasy was very heavy on stories that used fantasy as symbolic representation of everyday emotions. Say what? I thought, and then I picked up this story, which the essay could have been written about. That’s not a criticism, as the fantastic elements worked very well to evoke the dreamy, springtime feeling of youth.

This story made me think of Prairie Home Companion, with its deftly sketched small town characters. I don’t often read fantasy set in grocery store checkout lines! I especially liked the forcefulness of the shop owners. Without them I would have lost patience with the two lovers, who definitely needed several good kicks to get them started.

The only fantastic element in this story that couldn’t be viewed as symbolic was the shop owners’ feathers, and they didn’t seem to play a major role in the story – which made them a little uncomfortable-feeling. That element bugged me, because if it were real it would be important and the world would be different.

What did I take away from this for my own writing? Definitely the use of fantasy tropes to evoke the wonder-filled, romantic feeling. But also, that fantasy isn’t a good in itself. Nothing was gained, for me, by putting something in that only served to say ‘yes, this really is fantasy.’ It just raised questions and expectations that had nothing to do with the story’s main point.

The Fire People by Rebecca Harrison – This story interested me from the beginning, since I’ve just finished a novel in which tale-telling is a major point. The child’s response to stories here seemed completely authentic. What struck me most was that the grandmother’s stories aren’t described as having plots, only settings. They evoke the night wind, the slice of desert laid out on a green field. And what the children draw from the stories is also settings and objects, rather than plots. They wait for statues to come to life, or for hidden passageways to open.

I found this tremendously true to my own experience – that stories were more about what was in the world than about what it did. As a child, I felt I could supply all the plot needed if only that passageway would open! And indeed, these children do supply the plot when the fire people they’ve dreamed of actually appear.

The gradual appearance of the fire people is what’s stuck with me a month after reading this story. The hints and sightings, the period when they hovered at the edge of reality…

The second half of the story, the adventure, didn’t entrance me as much as the first part. It had more of a classic fairy-tale feel to it, the clever girl’s plan working without any explanation of why she thought it would work. This gave me a lot to think about, because that is definitely a potential weakness of the fairytale format. In this case, it made the second half of the story feel a little less real than the first half.

This is something I see so often in fantasy, both in written and graphic form. The parts of a story or picture based on our own world are often clearer and more beautiful than the actually fantastic parts. In this story I could see the shafts of sunlight in the weaving room far more clearly than the firelight inside the glass palace. Of course, that’s because I had less memory of glass palaces to draw on, but how can a writer compensate for that most effectively?

Both of these stories reminded me that what we want from fantasy is that sense of something rich and strange, that the wonders of the world are not closed off from us. And that a big part of that sense, at least for me, comes from uncertainty and longing. The tone of a story changes when the fantastic becomes real and has to be dealt with.

Perhaps this is why there are (if there are) so many stories nowadays in which fantasy is mainly symbolic. Perhaps we are trying to re-enchant this world, rather than get out of it into another one?

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You’ve told me how, now show me why

pickled fishes in specimen jars

I am the only person who was ever inspired to go snorkeling by this image (from the Australian Museum)

tank of tropical reef fishes

This, on the other hand, inspires everybody. 'Reef tank' by Janine. Used under Creative Commons License.

In the last two weeks alone, I saw three articles on blogs I follow about how to write realistic female characters. But how many of those bloggers review books that contain realistic female characters?

This seems to be a pattern. I wrote to a blogger who waxes large about the need for feminist SFF, asking her to review one of my works, and she responded that she never reviewed feminist novels. Blog posts ask for recommendations of genderqueer fiction, but are the suggested works ever mentioned again?

The fact is, the business of telling writers what to do seems to be way, way bigger than the business of celebrating writers for having done it. So we end up with lots of talk about feminism in SFF, and a whole generation of female SFF writers who have been dropped out of the field’s history. We have people whose image of reading non-traditional authors is based on categories rather than on enthusiasm, who respond to the suggestion that they read non-white-male authors as if they were being asked to slog through social science textbooks rather than being invited to open a new chest of treasures.

And why shouldn’t they feel that way when the articles they see keep presenting the same basic writing advice over and over, as if people can only write diverse characters by laboriously ticking off boxes on a checklist and making sure to avoid problematic tropes? When we keep hearing what we ought to do, instead of how much fun it was to read a book that had done it?

I want everyone who writes an article about how we should be writing women, or any other kind of character, to also write at least two reviews of books that exemplify that skill. Not just tacking on a list of recommended books at the end of another advice column but seriously engaging with one of these works, making it the focus rather than just a tossed-off example of the real topic of the article, paying more attention to the actual characters in all their specificity and variety than to theories and analytic structures.

( Something like this, from nerds of a feather. Now, didn’t that make you want to read something?)

Actually reviewing the books is the only way to convince authors like me that we have anything to gain from heeding all this advice, and it’s the only way to convince skeptical readers that books with diverse characters in them are really enjoyable.

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And to make it even worse…

I was the only person at my club’s discussion of The Worm Ouroborus who thought its ending was horrific. Everyone else had a nice discussion about the history of fantasy and Norse mythology and mountain climbing, while I sat in a corner bleating “But what about all those poor peasants?” at intervals.

I’m still disgusted with the book. Somebody has to have written a follow-up about peasants caught in some noble’s dream of endless warfare, and how they got out of it.

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Cue Bitter Laughter

Well, I did it. I persevered all the way through The Worm Ouroborus, though it seemed endless (yes, I know what I did there).
I said to myself, ‘The writing is so beautiful, and eventually this stupid war nonsense has to end and he will tell us a story worth reading.’
You may all laugh at me now.

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