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Archive for the ‘Science fiction and fantasy’ Category

As a long-time wishy-washy people-pleasing nicey-nice female blogger, I have something to say about the tone argument.

Last week, the latest SF/F brouhaha began with an article by K. Tempest Bradford: “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year.” The headline is the most incendiary thing about it, and honestly, it’s not all that shocking or offensive, especially in this age of clickbait headlines. In it, Miss Bradford discusses the value of conducting reading experiments to increase the diversity of what you read. She even includes some helpful lists of books to get you started.

Some people got upset about this article, and some of these upset people brought out the tone argument. Miss Bradford should have been nicer in her article (even though it is completely professional, mind you). Miss Bradford should have suggested reading some diverse authors, but should never have suggested reading all diverse authors (even for a limited period). Miss Bradford should have been helpful by giving the reading list but not suggested a reading challenge at all (even though the idea of a reading challenge is neither new nor particularly subversive at this point. At least theoretically.) Miss Bradford should not have been an asshole in talking about a diversity reading challenge (she is apparently an asshole because her reading challenge excludes a certain kind of writer, ie the most privileged, most published, and most well-read kind). And on and on.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about privilege and how it works at play here, as well as some confusion as to how widespread any adoption of such a reading challenge is likely to be. (The answer? Not very.) But what I want to talk about right now is the tone argument, because I feel particularly qualified to comment upon it.

Photo Credit: Elodie R-S via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Elodie R-S via Compfight cc

When you are nice, when you bend over backwards to avoid offending every single person, when you water down your message, when you take on everyone else’s issues along with your own, when you speak quietly and mildly and sweetly…NOBODY LISTENS TO YOU.

Believe me, I know. People might say they respect you, but they certainly don’t act like they respect you. They probably won’t listen, and if they do, they’re less likely to remember. They dismiss you at the first opportunity. Not only that, but they tend to walk all over you. And if you’re trying to engender change, well, forget about it.

THIS IS NOT EFFECTIVE WRITING.

I wrote about my own PoC Reading Challenge last year. I did everything people said Miss Bradford should have done. I didn’t issue a challenge to my readers to follow my example. I gave a list of books written by people of color. My own personal challenge was less “extreme.” I was super nice about the whole thing.

And guess what? Nobody read that post. Nobody talked about that post. Really. I’ve looked at the stats. The post did quite badly. And while I bring up my experience with that reading challenge on a semi-regular basis in conversation, no one ever brings it up before I do, asking me about how it went or what I learned. Nobody read it, and the people who did read it don’t remember it. Why not? Because the post wasn’t effective and compelling.

Miss Bradford, on the other hand, wrote a highly effective post. She had a headline that meant people would both read and remember her post. She had a strong call-to-action, and she didn’t water down her message or try to avoid making people uncomfortable. Nor should she have, because the discrimination prevalent in the publishing industry today is, quite frankly, not comfortable. She maintained a professional attitude while discussing her own personal struggles and process.

This is what a good blog post looks like. This is a blog post that has a chance of making a small difference in the world.

Do I think it’s cool when people spew rage-filled rape and death threats at other people? No way! Am I on board with personal attacks and name-calling? Again, no. But this blog post is not that. Not at all.

Jaym Gates makes an excellent point in her response to all of this: “Wendig and Sykes have a loud, fun, wacky internet presence, and are loved for it, but a female, queer, or POC author who has *one* outburst, or makes a mildly incendiary post (like this one), gets piled on.” We are imposing a double standard of presentation and behavior here. I mean, seriously. Can you imagine someone saying, “Oh, Scalzi, you should have been nicer when you talked about that controversial subject?” Because I can’t.

The same kind of thinking that is behind the tone argument is what kept me silent and stifled and miserable for years. Don’t have opinions. Don’t have emotions. Don’t say what you think. Don’t take a seat at the table. Don’t demand the respect you deserve. Play it safe, and don’t take chances. Don’t be a voice for change, it’s too risky. Don’t be authentic. Don’t show people who you really are. Not ever. If you’re nice enough, and patient enough, and sweet enough, you’ll eventually get your chance and be treated with respect and have a voice.

For the record, I did not get my chance and be treated with respect and have a voice until I stopped being so nice.

Which is to say, the tone argument is complete bullshit. Be nice and no one will listen to you. Be courageous and loud and true, and they just might.

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I have a lot of books on my coffee table. I used to try to clean it off before anyone came over, but over time, I have become lax. Also, I have an excuse: I’m a writer. Of course I have books on my coffee table!

My friend was over the other night, and he asked about the book on top: Stiff, by Mary Roach. “Oh yeah,” I said. “I’m supposed to read that for research for my book. I should actually do that.” And then I was struck by an idea. “Ooh! I wonder if Mary Roach is a person of color.”

A quick flip to the back of the book and the author photo nixed that idea. “No. White, white, white. Gah!” I threw the book back on the coffee table in disappointment. (Okay, I didn’t actually throw it. I am physically incapable of throwing a book. But I set it down with gusto.)

My friend laughed at me, but it’s true. Since I started my POC authors reading challenge last year, this is my reaction upon finding out a book isn’t written by a person of color

The reason? Because almost all the books I have just lying around, or that I’ve heard buzz about, or that I pick up and want to read at the bookstore, or that I’ve selected to read for research are by white people. The number isn’t a hundred percent, but it’s close enough to be really freaking appalling.

The most important thing I learned from my POC reading project last year is that reading books written by authors of color takes real effort and mindfulness. This is because of the way publishing works right now, and let’s not beat around the bush, because of racism.

Fewer authors of colors are published than white authors. A LOT fewer. Books by authors of color are not given the same publicity campaigns. They are not reviewed as often. They are sometimes shelved in the wrong category, making it difficult for readers to find. They are not put on as many lists. When they are talked about at all, authors of color are often talked about for being authors of color instead of because of the merits of their work. They are placed on panels about race instead of panels on other subjects on which they are experts, which means they don’t reach as large an audience at conventions. And this is just a scratch on the surface of what’s going on here.

All of this means that when we don’t read mindfully, we’re a lot more likely to not read very diversely. And when we don’t read diversely, publishing can continue to tell the same old story about how diversity doesn’t sell, and nothing will change.

My reading project wasn’t really about setting a quota for myself. It was about challenging myself and stretching myself outside of my reading comfort zone. It was about trying different authors and different books to see if I would enjoy them (and the answer in many cases was a resounding yes). It was about reading more diversely so my reading experience would be more reflective of the world around me. It was about choosing new experiences for myself. It was about building my own awareness of how institutionalized bias was affecting me personally.

So every time I metaphorically throw a book down because it’s by yet another white author, that’s a victory. Not because there’s anything wrong with reading books by white authors. I do it all the time. But because now I’m aware of the imbalance. I’m aware of the problem.

And it is through awareness that change becomes possible.

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I’ve long harbored a suspicion that, were I to write about dating here on the blog, it would prove to be quite popular. And it looks like I was right. I don’t know what, if anything, I’m going to do with this information, but I was very pleased at the high quality of the comments on my dating post, both here and over on Facebook. Thank you for being thoughtful and interesting commenters.

My friend Ferrett read the same post by Rahul I did, and he had a different response that is worth checking out.

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I saw the movie Another Earth last weekend. In spite of its plot holes, I liked it as a metaphor. Also it was pretty. Also I had my first cream soda float while watching it, and it was delicious.

I kind of want to see the new time travel movie Predestination, but it’s only playing at one theater in my area, so whether I’ll have time to check it out is up in the air. If you’ve seen it, let me know what you think

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My friend shared this amazing photography series by Sacha Goldberger. Entitled Super Flemish, it is a mash-up of superheroes (and other fictional characters from Star Wars and Alice in Wonderland amongst others), Flemish painting, and Elizabethan fashion. I wish I could go see an exhibition of this, but happily all the photos are available for perusal on the web.

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Any excuse to use a Stormtrooper photo is a great excuse! Photo Credit: Kalexanderson via Compfight cc

Any excuse to use a Stormtrooper photo is a great excuse! Photo Credit: Kalexanderson via Compfight cc

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In other news, I’m off to my favorite regional science fiction convention this weekend, ConFusion, in Dearborn, Michigan. Here is my panel schedule for the weekend:

Friday 6pm: What We’re Reading Now Southfield

Writers are almost always avid readers, and being in the business sometimes allows more insight into new and exciting authors, series, or just ideas that different people are playing with. If you’ve looked around and wondered what’s good that’s out now and in the near future, this panel may give you a new slew of books to track down.

Saturday 10am: How to like problematic things Erie

Lord of the Rings. A Song of Ice & Fire. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Many of us like things that are deeply problematic! Liking these works doesn’t (necessarily) make you a jerk. How can we like problematic things and not only be decent people, but good allies and activists? How does one’s background matter? How does one address the problems? This panel will discuss how to own up to the problematic things in the media you like, particularly when you feel strongly about them.

Saturday 1pm: Romancing the Vulcan Southfield

Emotionally restrained heroes were popular in the age of reason; after Romanticism swept Europe, Jane Austen’s Darcys and Knightleys were the only emotionally Vulcan-esque heroes left in media for quite some time. From Darcy/Lizzie on the page, to Spock/Uhura on the screen and Spock/Kirk in our fanfic, we love human passion rubbing up against Vulcan reason. What are other models of this dynamic? What’s so appealing about loving a Vulcan… or being one?

Saturday 5pm: Effective Role Playing (TEEN FUSION) Windsor

How do you stay in character during a RPG so that the game progresses and you have fun at the same time?

ConFusion is always a very busy convention for me, but please feel free to come up and say hi!

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Yay, more talk about books! Sometimes I wish I read faster so I could talk about books on the blog all the time.

So today I’m going to talk about adult fiction (and by adult fiction, I mean fiction marketed to adults as opposed to children or teenagers). I read a few memoirs and a few really strong nonfiction titles this year as well, but I have so much fiction to talk about, I’m going to stick to that for now.

Books that got a ton of buzz this year and I liked but I don’t need to talk about:

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. Definitely memorable. Fun to compare the movie and the book.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie. Won the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Clarke this year.

Mainstream and classic novels I read and enjoyed:

The Awesome Girl’s Guide to Dating, by Ernessa T. Carter. I haven’t read much chick lit in years because I got kind of bored with it, but this one felt fresh and different, focusing on careers as well as relationships and concerned with actual emotional issues and how they can be changed. Also had many different POV characters, which I liked.

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer. I’m not quite sure what to say about this book. It begins with a group of teenaged friends at an arts summer camp, and then it traces their history together through middle age, told from the perspective of one of the friends who thinks she’s the least interesting. Sometimes it’s bleak and other times it’s uplifting, and I guess it’s kind of like real life. Even the arcs feel kind of like real life.

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. So this is a classic, and from a narrative perspective, it’s also kind of weird, and features stream of consciousness, and jumps in interesting ways from point of view to point of view. The language choices are stunning.

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. I feel like most of the people I know wouldn’t like this book because it is bleak and the characters are all pretty awful and unsympathetic, but I thought it was great, which I guess tells you something about me.

Dangerous Liaisons, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Okay, these characters are also awful and unsympathetic, but in this case, they are SO MUCH FUN. The movie version with Glenn Close and John Malkovich has been one of my favorite movies for a very long time, and the book, an epistolary narrative from many different perspectives, is just as wicked and fun and thought-provoking, if not more so.

Older SF/F that I completely adored:

The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse. I bought this book a few years ago and finally got around to reading it this year. And I thought it was incredible. It’s very dense and kind of dry on purpose because its framing story is being a kind of academic text. As such, it also sometimes requires reading between the lines. It is not an easy book, or a fast book, or a plot-driven book. And it is very much a product of its time in that there are no named women characters, I don’t think. It explores several key themes with great depth and insight, and the game itself, along with the culture that has built up around it, fascinates me.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I don’t usually include re-reads on this list, but this is one of my favorite novels of all time, and it had probably been ten years since I’d read it. And now I can appreciate the mastery of the writing even more than before. This book is dark and powerful and freaking brilliant. And reading it again was a kick because I could see ways in which it has influenced me as a writer.

Books books books!

Books books books!

More recent SF/F that I really liked:

S., by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. People asked me if this was good, and I couldn’t really tell them. But if you like experimental and strange metafictional stuff, I recommend this. It’s several stories woven together into one book, using the actual text of the novel, the footnotes, and notes in the margins of the pages, along with various post cards, letters, etc. tucked away between the pages. Definitely unlike any other reading experience I’ve ever had.

River of Stars, by Guy Gavriel Kay. I love Guy Gavriel Kay’s work. I’ve only read three of his novels, and each one of them is like a multi-faceted, highly polished jewel.

The Last Policeman trilogy by Ben Winters. Told from the POV of a new police detective during the last few months pre-apocalypse, the first of this trilogy is basically a procedural (and a solid one at that). But Ben Winters shifts this structure as the trilogy continues to good effect. This one caught my imagination and ends up being a surprisingly deep exploration of the meaning of life. Highly recommended.

Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord. I didn’t like this book all that much at first because it was in an unfamiliar style. I forced myself to continue reading, and I’m glad I did, because by the time I got to the end, I was enchanted.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. Is this SF/F? In my opinion, no. But it is charming, very well-written, and deals with some deep questions. It also involves dysfunctional family dynamics (among other things), and you know how much I love those!

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North. This reminded me a bit of Kage Baker’s Company books with its conspiracies and shadowy organizations. The premise is different, however; in this one, there are people who live their lifetimes over and over again on a repeated loop. They can retain their memories from one lifetime to the next, though, thus being able to make changes and thus making the highly interesting premise of this book.

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi. This retelling of the Snow White fairy tale is unexpected and creeps into your mind to stay. I feel like I’m still processing it. It deals with themes of race and gender and passing and appearances, and also with trauma. It’s kind of maybe magical realism, or some kind of liminal fantasy thing. I had trouble fitting the ending with everything that came before, but still well worth the read.

On a Red Station, Drifting, by Aliette de Bodard. This is an amazing science fiction novella that was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards last year. Novella, for those of you who don’t know, means it’s a bit shorter than a standard novel. This story has it all: an intriguing plot, strong world building, compelling characters, and themes explored in a meaningful way. I really loved it.

My Two Favorite Adult Fiction Books of the Year (both are SF/F):

Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi. This book is hard to talk about. It is also brilliant. Its structure is unusual, in that it is a series of stories that are being told (kind of) in collaboration between two characters, and there are some characters that recur and there are resonances between the stories, but sometimes more than others. You see, I told you it is hard to talk about. Pretty much as soon as I finished it, I wanted to read it again. There is a lot of darkness in this book, and violence, particularly against women, that is carefully examined. Fairy tales dwell on its pages, sometimes overtly and sometimes only in echoes. Here is a more detailed review.

The Drowning Girl: a Memoir, by Caitlin R. Kiernan. I think about this book and I want to swoon, that’s how good it is. Powerful, evocative writing; an unreliable narrator who has schizophrenia and really isn’t sure what is real and what isn’t; liminal fantastical elements shimmering on the page; psychological horror with so sharp a blade you won’t notice you’re bleeding. Oh, this book. I can’t stop thinking about it. Also, if I had a Christmas list, this special edition of this novel would be at the very top; I could never justify purchasing it for myself, but it is so very beautiful.

What I’m looking forward to reading next year:

Falling Sky, by Rajan Khanna

The Ultra Thin Man, by Patrick Swenson

The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley

City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace (just started this one on Monday!)

Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

The Southern Reach trilogy, by Jeff Vandermeer

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Flex, by Ferrett Steinmetz (out in March 2015)

And yeah, again, I could just go on and on and on. My to-read list is immensely long at this point. This strategy seems to be working out for me, since I can’t remember the last time a year of reading has been this inspiring and interesting and wonderful. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for 2015!

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Life is going forward at a breakneck pace, and I’m feeling kind of tired. So let’s talk about Star Trek today, shall we?

I have very little exposure to Star Trek in my past. The original Star Trek series aired right after the Brady Bunch when I was quite young (maybe around six?) so I saw a few episodes, which didn’t make much sense to me. At some point in my childhood, I also saw the Star Trek movie that has whales in it. In college, I saw a few episodes of Voyager. And this was the extent of my knowledge until the movie reboots came out, at which point I also took it upon myself to watch The Wrath of Khan movie.

Yes, I’ve always been a Star Wars person.

My sparse Star Trek knowledge came up at a party this summer, and a few friends and I hatched a plan to expose me to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Since the beginning of September, we have watched the highlights of Season 1 and are now a few episodes into Season 2.

And suddenly I understand! I’ve heard about the world of Star Trek before, but I’ve never seen a replicator in action. With the little bit of Star Trek I’d been exposed to, it hadn’t really sunk in that it was set in a post-scarcity society. I didn’t know this Enterprise could break into two different ships. I hadn’t thought carefully about the implications of the Prime Directive. I knew Wil Wheaton from Tabletop.

And now that I know them, I’m beginning to notice the references being made to Star Trek around me. They were probably always being made around me and just flying right over my head. This week I met a guy who described what he’s working on as being like the communicators in Star Trek. Before I would have nodded but not really had any image of what he was talking about, but now I know! Someone else referenced some characters from the show, and I got all excited because I knew who they were talking about! It’s like a whole new world of cultural references has been revealed to me.

(And I can’t wait to see Galaxy Quest again because I’m sure there were so many references I completely missed.)

I was afraid I wouldn’t like TNG because it’s pretty much episodic (at least so far), and I tend to enjoy shows with larger arcs. And, um, the plotting (at least so far) is not really all that. It’s pretty predictable, problems are generally solved pretty easily (which, I mean, of course they are because there’s only forty minutes to do it in), and for most of the episodes, I don’t feel a lot of plot-driven tension.

But I reckoned without the characters, the ideas, and the general tone. I don’t know if these are the reasons why other people watch this show, but they certainly are my reasons. Because it is optimistic, and that’s nice to see. And sometimes it’s ridiculous and random and silly (any of the Holodeck episodes, pretty much), and I enjoy the characters’ enjoyment even while I appreciate the absurdity. I love Captain Picard’s speaking voice because how can you not enjoy that diction with that dialogue? It is simultaneously wonderful and hilarious.

And I’ve completely fallen in love with Data. I would watch The Data Show, I really would. I love his expressions, I love his idiosyncracies, I love his desire to understand humanity and become more human himself. It is pure joy to watch him.

So yes, I’m more than twenty-five years late to this party, but even now it’s a great party to find.

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I was approached by a few people who read my last blog post and were concerned that bad things had happened to me on my vacation.

On the contrary, friends. On the contrary. I had an amazing trip.

The plan was as follows: to begin in East London at WorldCon, to move to central London to enjoy a week of blissful London time, and then to end with a few days in southeast Wales. This turned out to be an excellent plan.

I had an emotionally challenging summer. Any time your best inspirational words are “things get worse before they get better,” you know things aren’t going so great at that particular moment, however optimistic you may feel about the future. My hope was that my vacation would give me a chance to clear my head, gain perspective, and get some emotional rest. And it certainly succeeded at giving me all these things.

For me, travel, whether it is recreational or to a convention or a combination of both, takes me outside of my familiar, everyday world. I see people I normally wouldn’t see, I have conversations I normally wouldn’t have, I learn about things I wouldn’t normally learn about, I spend my time differently. Not only does this refill the creative wells, but it also serves in a larger sense as a reminder of what is possible.

I think this is always valuable, but when you are having a difficult time, it becomes even more so because it shows you potential ways forward. It encourages movement instead of paralysis. It encourages analysis with an eye toward positive change instead of hopelessness. It gives new context to old problems.

It allows space to imagine a better world. Or at least a healthier life.

Why is this important? Because you can’t move closer to that life unless you can see enough to know what direction to take. It’s difficult to make choices based on your priorities until you are very clear on what those priorities are. And sometimes they need to be reaffirmed several times before they become truly internalized.

The other helpful ingredient for imagining a healthier life is hope. And WorldCon delivered big time on this one. I cried at the Hugo ceremony. Okay, I always cry at the Hugo ceremony, but this time was different. Kameron Hurley and her double win for Fan Writer and for her brilliant essay “We Have Always Fought” meant a lot to me. This recognition from my community for such important work gave me hope. The respect and support of my colleagues gave me hope. The steps forward I had been making in recent months, however difficult, began to give me hope too.

So yes, it was a wonderful vacation indeed. And I’m looking forward to what’s coming next.

At the Hugos.

At the Hugos.

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I’ll be attending WorldCon in London next week, and I was persuaded to participate in the programming, so here are the details of the panel I’ll be on:

 

Friday, August 15 10:00 – 11:00, Capital Suite 8 (ExCeL)

Swords that go schiiing! as they’re drawn, hay bales lying around in medieval times, and flames in a vacuum: just a few examples of factually erroneous writing. The panelists will look at the most anachronistic and scientific blunders and descriptions that just don’t make sense, but continue to be used over and over again. Do these obvious errors serve a purpose within the larger context of story? Are they comforts from which an author can build discomfort?

Ian Nichols (M), Andrew Barton, Amanda Kear, Alison Sinclair, Amy Sundberg

 

This should be an interesting panel, if only because I am one of those readers who often doesn’t care about these sorts of factual mistakes. As a writer, however, I do want to get it as right as I can, because perfectionism, but I also care a great deal about the story and about everything working together in service of telling that story. So perhaps we can find a way to make this panel a little more lively and less predictable than simply a list of all the stuff writers always get wrong. We’ll find out next week, when I will be in all my jet-lagged glory!

In the meantime, I should probably crowdsource and discover more of these factual mistakes that I often overlook  but that drive other people nuts. I’d love to hear about your factual pet peeves in science fiction and fantasy. What would you like me to spread a little awareness about next week? I’m looking forward to referencing Kameron Hurley’s “We Have Always Fought,” for starters.

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