Writing about a wizard called Shiv, and understanding why representation matters.

A while ago I got an email from a Tales of Einarinn reader, enthusing about the wizard Shiv. This is not unusual; he’s a very popular character. Let me tell you a bit about him. As I’ve said many times since The Thief’s Gamble was published in 1999, I wanted to write a high fantasy adventure challenging the more tiresome clichés of the genre in the 80s and 90s.

Shiv and Livak, art by Andrew Hepworth

So Shiv’s a wizard, and he’s a talented one, but not a pontificating greybeard who never actually does much magic. He’s got a sense of humour, he’s not afraid of a fight, and he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and get the job done by whatever means might be necessary. He’s alert, intelligent and a loyal friend.

Oh, and incidentally, he’s gay. That’s because I encountered a conundrum in the story I wanted to tell. I was determined to avoid all those fantasy romance clichés of Our Heroine doing all her brave deeds for the love of A Good Man. I was much more interested in friendship and mutual respect as motivation. So Livak and Shiv were never going to fall into bed together. However, I did want Livak to have a sex life that wasn’t yet another romantic cliché. The thing was though, given the choice between Shiv and the alternatives…?

Okay, I thought, that’s not an issue if Shiv is gay. I’ve always had gay and lesbian friends, and I was aiming to make Einarinn a realistic world, so no problem there. Could I think of other gay characters in SF&F back then? Bear in mind I was writing the first draft of this book twenty one years ago. Not many and all too often that sexuality was coupled with unpleasant character flaws. So that was definitely an ill-thought-out and over-used cliché that deserved a kicking.

Okay but… how, as a straight mother of two, could I write an honest and emotionally realistic gay character without leaving my gay and lesbian friends wincing or giggling? As it happened, I was at a crime and mystery fiction conference in Oxford when I was writing the first draft of Thief, and the crime writer Val McDermid was there. Val happens to be gay. We’d both been going to this conference for a couple of years and became friends, so I asked her advice back then.

She said ‘make no more of this character’s sexuality than you would of any other character’s.’ Which is one of those things that’s so blindingly obvious when someone says it, but until someone says it, it’s can be very hard to see! It was the key to writing Shiv for me.

Since then, I’ve discovered he’s a character who’s had far more impact on people’s lives than I ever expected. Since The Thief’s Gamble was first published, I’ve had letters and now emails from readers, telling me just how much they have valued encountering a positive example of a likeable, loyal, quick-witted, and when necessary bad-ass man who happens to also be gay. Far more younger male readers than I could have imagined, found reading about Shiv offered them a helping hand as they came to terms with their own sexuality, amid all the other complexities of teenage life.

Then there are the others, far fewer but also significant. Young men who’d been raised with unthinking homophobia, who were prompted to rethink those ideas after encountering Shiv. Young men who decided to leave such prejudices behind, as they concluded someone’s positive personal qualities are what really counts.

This is intensely rewarding as an author and also genuinely humbling because I never set out to Do Good in my writing, but merely to write honestly about emotionally realistic people caught up in fantastic events. But that’s the thing. This isn’t about me. A book is never only about the writer.

Readers see all sorts of things in fiction’s magic mirror which the author never expected or intended. All sorts of readers should see themselves reflected there. This is why diversity and representation in fiction matters. This is why what I’ve learned thanks to Shiv continues to inform my own work.

Guest post – Jeanette Ng on the inspirations for “Under The Pendulum Sun”.

Meeting Jeanette at Nerd East in Durham, I found her great company and really interesting to talk to. Accordingly, I kept an eye out for her debut novel, now released. In Under the Pendulum Sun, Catherine Helstone’s brother, Laon, has disappeared in Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae. Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her soon – but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.

One thing that particularly interested me about this premise was this depiction of Faerie alongside Victorian England, since that was the very era when fairies were denatured from Shakespeare’s eerie menace to sickly-sweet little things dressed as flowers. So, I asked, what prompted her to write a book set in that period?


What Drew Jeannette to the Victorian Era

Under the Pendulum Sun began very Victorian. I had picked up a Victorian missionary manual from the university library and as we started reading it in my living room. Having no television, our evening entertainment occasionally involved reading things aloud to each other and discussing the texts afterwards. It was from those discussions that I had thoughts of “what if they met beings actually as alien and as strange as they describe in these books?”

I had then toyed with basing it in other eras of missionary work. It was at the ruins of St Paul in Macau that I thought of the conviction of their early missionaries and martyrs. They set sail without sparing a single moment and it was only after they arrived that they wrote to the pope to ask for “permission”. I also read about the lonely Bishop of Beijing and Kublai Khan’s request of a hundred priests[1] to come to teach Christianity to his empire. In the end, only two friars braved the journey and even then, they did not finish it. I was also very familiar with the rapid conversion urged on by apocalyptic fears around the year 1000 in Northern Europe. There are undoubtedly stories there still, waiting to be told.

But none of it felt quite right, for all that I was more familiar with the historical eras. I wrote a great many false starts and I kept coming back to the passages that first inspired the project. I wanted to use them and recontextualise their words and with that I was locked in. There is also something very pleasing about it being Victorians meeting horrid fae since it is also the same era that is largely responsible for popularising very twee and tiny fairies.

I chose the year 1847 because it was the year Jane Eyre was published [2] and I was drawing so very much from the life and work of the Brontës. For all that Jane did not go with St John Rivers to India, Charlotte Brontë clearly greatly admired the work of a missionary. She wrote a poem titled The Missionary, which was one of the axed chapter epigraphs:

“Though such blood-drops should fall from me

As fell in old Gethsemane,

Welcome the anguish, so it gave

More strength to work≠more skill to save.”

Thinking back, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were some of first “adult” novels I read. I still remember carrying around Jane Eyre with an absolutely massive dictionary, looking up all the words I didn’t know in it. And there were very many. My little notebook of vocabulary was absolutely full by the end[3].

That memory is what gave birth to the dedication of Under the Pendulum Sun. I grew up reading the Brontës and they remain to me, and are still to many, part of that esteemed Western Canon. I see literature as a culture conversing with itself, rewriting and revisiting stories of the past. I’ve loved Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Jasper Fforde’s Eyre Affair, to name but a few of the Brontës’ literary descendants. I wanted Under the Pendulum Sun to be, on some level, part of that pantheon. It is me placing my own apocrypha among the stories of my childhood, a metaphor that is itself a theme within the text itself.

My approach to writing the half-real owes also quite a lot to Jorge Luis Borges, whose literary forgeries made a deep mark on my teenage mind. I adored his reviews of nonexistent books, translations of fictional texts and mostly true biographies of real historical people. He would use facts and details of our world that are just absurd enough to be false (or at least seem false) as a bridge into the fantastical. Having myself a magpie mind that loves historical trivia, they all became natural hooks to pull me into the story.

Which all makes my approach a little different from steampunk, a genre that has now come to be synonymous with Victorian fantasy. Under the Pendulum Sun has been tagged as such in its brief life and I have no real objection to such labelling, people use these words to help them navigate the wilds of fiction. Being of a rather academic background, I do see the driving impulse of steampunk being that so-called Victorian optimism at the future of technology. It is where steam power provides the sense wonder instead of magic. All of which is rather absent from Under the Pendulum Sun.

I am, of course, not without precedents. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a beautiful novel with strange fae written in a distinctly Victorian voice. Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to The Crown also gloriously deals with faeries and themes of colonialism, but in dramatically different fashion to myself. Mary Robinette Kowel’s Shades of Milk and Honey rather famously uses only words Jane Austen herself used to tell a restrained tale of domestic Regency magic. Marie Brennan’s Natural History of Dragons is set in secondary world but has both a very Victorian voice and a genteel lady explorer. All of which I sincerely and absolutely recommend.

[1] I always loved this story as it seems to highlight how the Great Khan simply thought on a whole different scale to the leaders in Europe.

[2] It became a sort of memory aid for me. I’d forget when my book was set and would look up when Jane Eyre was published. For a historian, I am really appallingly bad at dates.

[3] I never did read another book that way, looking up words as I go. I was taught the magical trick of just ignoring it and letting myself be pulled in by the story.

Jeannette Ng is originally from Hong Kong but now lives in Durham, UK. Her MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies fed into an interest in medieval and missionary theology, which in turn spawned her love for writing gothic fantasy with a theological twist. She runs live roleplay games and is active within the costuming community, running a popular blog.

Why I want to write about someone on Mars in ZNB’s next anthology

As someone who’s been reading SF for over forty years now, I’m fascinated by the different ways life on Mars has been portrayed over the decades. My earliest encounters were through books like Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet, H.G Wells’s The War of the Worlds, and in my early teens, C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet. Alongside such fiction, I remember reading about Mariner 4 in my grandfather’s National Geographic magazines. So I already knew that real scientific discoveries meant these enthralling stories were impossible. That didn’t matter. Mars fascinated me.

That’s still true today, as books on my shelves by Alastair Reynolds, Andy Weir and James Corey attest. The film of The Martian and the TV adaptation of The Expanse series are merely the latest depictions of Mars that I’ve enjoyed on screen, from Flash Gordon through Doctor Who to Babylon 5. I’m still reading National Geographic, and any articles I see elsewhere discussing the real practicalities of sustaining human life on our near neighbour. Then there’s the ongoing exploration of Mars by the Opportunity rover. Go robots!

So now I want to write my own story set on Mars. It’s the ideal setting for me to explore a notion that’s been coming together in my imagination thanks to several recent popular-science articles that I’ve read. The last piece I needed was the invitation to write a new story featuring the Ur Bar, the eternal, time-travelling tavern from the ZNB anthology ‘After Hours’.

So now all I need is this year’s ZNB anthologies Kickstarter to fund. At the time of writing, we’ve got a week to go, and we’re just over two-thirds funded, so there’s $6333 still needed. Do take a look, if you haven’t done so already, and flag the project up to friends who might be interested. There are three anthologies to choose from, and to consider submitting something to, if you’re a writer yourself. You can get involved for as little as $7.

If you’re really keen, there’s a tuckerisation up for grabs. Do you fancy giving your own, or someone else’s, name to my story’s protagonist?

A thought on world building – remember that pre-industrial doesn’t have to mean primitive

I’ve just included a bit of equipment which I saw in a museum in Malta, into the River Kingdom novel that I’m currently writing. It’s a library lamp from the 17/18th century. As you can see, it has four wicks to maximise the available light plus an adjustable reflector for positioning to direct as much light as possible into the page. Those chains attach a snuffer plus a pair of tweezers and a pair of scissors for trimming the wicks. This particular example could do with a bit of a polish, we saw others in museums where photography wasn’t allowed in highly polished silver and brass which would have reflected even more light. So no, there was no need to be squinting over a book by the light of a single candle, not for the wealthy and educated at least.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

We need to remember this, when we’re creating non-industrial worlds. It’s all too easy to get suckered into a positively Victorian mindset that sees the modern age as the pinnacle of human achievement, in some pseudo-evolutionary fashion, which therefore demands that anything that came before us is by definition inferior. No, pre-modern and pre-industrial solutions to the same problems that we face may well be different but that doesn’t mean lesser.

Human ingenuity has been around for untold millennia and it’s worth doing the research to find examples of solutions to problems, because the history that ‘everyone knows’ is frequently at best only half the story, and at worst it’s downright misleading. ‘Everyone knows’ that Henry Ford invented the production line, right? Actually, he invented a particular mechanised version of an approach to manufacturing that’s been around since the Bronze Age. There’s an archaeological site in (if I recall correctly) Turkey that I read about some while ago, flourishing in the 8/9th century BCE where carved hollows and troughs in the rock have recently been rescued from that all-purpose archaeologist’s explanation of ‘ritual purposes’. Someone realised that these shapes looked familiar and went away to check. Yes, these troughs and hollows are the outlines of the component parts of a chariot; specifically those long pieces of wood and elements of wheels that experimental archaeologists have established could only have been shaped by steaming the wood, somehow clamping it and allowing the wood to cool into a new form. These chariot builders weren’t using clamps but the rock itself to make the components that were then assembled by specialists in mass-production.

I have a particular advantage here in that I’m married to a mechanical engineer. He spends his working life designing car assembly lines with dozens of robots now doing the work done by hundreds of men when he first started his apprenticeship, forty-plus years ago. So he’s very good at working out how things work, and at identifying how approaches to the same problem change over the years and centuries. He also has a solid appreciation of the issues around for instance, moving massive slabs of stone to build monuments from Stonehenge, to the pyramids, to the temples of Hagar Qim on Malta, dating back to 3600-3200 BCE. This would be an engineering challenge today. For people using stone rollers, wooden levers and some sort of rope? No one who could manage that deserves to be called primitive, as far as he’s concerned.

So from the small scale items for day to day use, to major building projects in our imagined worlds, we need to remember that non-industrial societies could get along perfectly well without all our modern conveniences. And we don’t only find such things in museums and archaeological sites. Fantasy world builders should take a look at the ingenuity and practical skills of our fellow humans currently living in what can all too often be patronisingly called ‘developing’ countries across Asia, Africa and the Americas.

I remember seeing a TV programme where a group of Andean women build a suspension bridge to cross a river gorge, only using grass and their bare hands. Yes, really. First they made string by twisting the long strands together, then they combined those strings into cords and then made those cords into ropes, and the ropes into cables, all twisted and counter-twisted at every stage to create strength through tension. The village women on the far side of the gorge were doing the same. When they had enough cables ready, someone fired an arrow to carry a string across the gorge. That string was tied to a cord which pulled a rope which pulled a cable to be secured across the gorge. Three cables gave them one to walk on and two hand rails on either side which were joined together with more grass-rope struts which formed a framework for weaving solid sides. By the end of the day, they had a new bridge.

So please don’t make the mistake of thinking that life in your pre-industrial fantasy land has to be nasty, brutish or short. Anymore than you underestimate people who don’t happen to be white and westernised in our own world today.

Recent articles well worth reading for writers – link post

I’ve come across some thoughtful and thought-provoking pieces recently. Sharing them on Twitter is all very well but that’s both a fleeting and a hit-and-miss way of reaching people, so here’s a round up for you to refer to as and when suits you best.

Do Literary Agents Reject Your Submission After Reading One Line? – Mary C Moore, author and literary agent.

I remember being appalled the first time I heard an editor say they can tell if a book’s any good in the first 500 words, and being left speechless when a literary agent said that was generous, they’d say 50 words. Twenty or so years later, I understand what they meant.

Picking Stories for an Anthology: A Guest Post by Joshua Palmatier

As yesterday’s post makes clear, I’m a great fan of anthologies and this new era of ebooks makes them viable in a way we haven’t seen before. They give writers like me opportunities to try out new ideas and to offer our work to new readers. Aspiring writers gain valuable experience and a track record to offer potential agents and editors. So how do you maximise your chances of acceptance?

Disability Erasure And The Apocalyptic Narrative by Shoshana Kessock

As regular readers will know, I’m keenly interested in issues around diversity and representation in SF&F writing. Thus I’m very aware that the further someone’s lived experience is from my own, the less likely I am to understand the issues they face without listening to their perspective. This article is a case in point, and I will be keeping it in mind for my own writing purposes for a long time to come.

That’s enough to be going on with, so I’ll close with a reminder that you can find other articles about writing, by me and by other folk here.

New for you to read, new for me to write – anthologies from ZNB

The mass market edition of The Death of All Things is now available, and as those who backed last year’s Kickstarter can attest, having already had their copies, it’s an anthology full of excellent stories.

So do take a look over at your preferred e-retailer, whether that’s Amazon UK or somewhere else, for tales taking on the Grim Reaper with explorations of the mythical, fantastical, and futuristic bonds between life and death. Learn the cost of mortality, the perils—and joys—of the afterlife, and the potential pitfalls of immortality …

The authors are – K. M. Laney, Andrea Mullen, Faith Hunter, Kendra Leigh Speedling, Jason M. Hough, Julie Pitzel, Shaun Avery, Christie Golden, Leah Cutter, Aliette de Bodard, Andrew Dunlop, Juliet E. McKenna, A. Merc Rustad, Ville Meriläinen, Amanda Kespohl, Mack Moyer, Fran Wilde, Kathryn McBride, Andrija Popovic, Jim C. Hines, Stephen Blackmoore, and Kiya Nicoll.

Are some of those names unfamiliar? They surely will be, because one of the many good things about these anthologies from ZNB is the editorial team’s dedication to including new voices by offering slots to unpublished writers, via an open call for submissions once the Kickstarter funding is secured. If you’re an aspiring writer, do keep your eyes open for the submission guidelines for this year’s new projects, and take note that ZNB is now a qualifying market for SFWA membership requirements. Meantime, Joshua Palmatier has written this in-depth post for File 770 on what he looks for through the selection process.

This dedication to new voices is just one reason why I and other writers keep coming back to be part of ZNB projects. Others include (but are not limited to) their high standards in editorial feedback and book production, and being paid a professional rate. ZNB may be a small press but they’re thoroughly professional when it comes to creating books worth having for the reader, and worth doing for the writer, whether you’re not yet published, just starting out, or an established author.

While you’re browsing, take a look at the other ZNB anthologies out this month. All Hail Our Robot Conquerors harks back to SF of the 1950s and 60s and the era of evil robot overlords, invading cyber armies, and not-quite-trustworthy mechanical companions. Submerged turns its back on deep space to stare into deep water. Do dark monsters swim unseen beneath the waves? What ancient wonders lie hidden, waiting to be discovered? What sirens call …?

I mentioned this year’s new projects earlier. Here’s the Kickstarter page with all the information you’ll be looking for.

I’m signed up for SECOND ROUND: A RETURN TO THE UR-BAR, alongside Jacey Bedford, C.E. Murphy, Kari Sperring, Kristine Smith and Gini Koch. This is going to be great fun, since the 2011 publication by DAW Books of AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE UR-BAR, was the very first anthology edited by Patricia Bray & Joshua Palmatier. That’s what started them down the road which eventually led to the formation of the small press Zombies Need Brains. So I’m looking forward to returning to that legendary time-travelling bar with all-new stories set throughout the ages. Let me repeat that – “all new” means none of us are returning to the era we visited before, as the immortal bartender Gilgamesh serves up drinks mixed with magic and a dash of intrigue.

What will I be writing? Well, provided this year’s Kickstarter gets funded, I can tell you this much. It’ll be a SF story set on Mars a couple of centuries from now. Writing SF for the Eve of War anthology, and for Novacon, last year seems to have whetted my appetite…

This also gives me the opportunity to offer up a Tuckerisation as a reward at the $250 pledge level. Fancy seeing your name – or someone else’s – in print as a character in my story? I’m also offering a signed set of the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution trilogy as one of the $90 pledges. There are a whole lot of other incentives and add-ons, so do check them out!

Brief memories of Brian Aldiss

I was sorry to hear of Brian Aldiss’s death at the weekend. Like almost everyone else I know in SF and Fantasy circles, his writing was an early discovery to draw me into the genre and an influence thereafter, from his short fiction to his Helliconia books and beyond. I also had the great good fortune to meet him and hear him talking about well, life, the universe and everything else on various occasions over more than thirty years.

The first occasion was as an undergraduate, when he was a guest at the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group annual dinner. He had been instrumental in founding the society, along with C.S. Lewis. He explained with withering sarcasm how the Powers That Were at the time refused to allow it to be called a Science Fiction club, in case the word ‘science’ misled anyone into thinking there would be serious, academic discussions and pursuits involved. It was very apparent he did not suffer fools gladly.

Hearing him give a talk or being interviewed, it was equally apparent he was wholly unsentimental about his early life, the ups and downs of writing and publishing and indeed, about old age. One of the last times I saw him was when we did an event in support of a local library six years or so ago, where we talked to a packed audience about our respective careers and approaches to writing SF and to writing Fantasy. Sharing a stage with Brian Aldiss on that basis? Imposter syndrome – I had it!

Anyway, given where we both lived, I was happy to help out the organisers, by going to pick him up, drive him to the venue, and take him home afterwards. So after he’d invited me into his home to show me a new piece of art he was very excited about, we chatted in the car all the way there and later, all the way back. Among any number of other topics, he told me with great animation about the display the Bodleian Library was planning about his life and work, so he couldn’t possibly die before that. Then there was the new book of articles and such coming out, An Exile on Planet Earth, so he couldn’t possibly die before that. That was the secret to living as long as possible, he reckoned sunnily; keeping the diary full!

Unsentimental and not suffering fools gladly? If that makes him sound unapproachable, nothing could be further from the truth, certainly in my experience. At that library event, he was genuinely and keenly interested in everything I had to say about my own approach to writing, comparing and contrasting his experiences and my own. There was no hint that he considered SF in any way superior to Fantasy. Good writing: that was the thing, regardless of genre.

Subsequently, he sent me an invitation to the launch party for An Exile on Planet Earth where I had the great pleasure of meeting many of his friends, family members and admirers. That was a busy evening, at the end of a very long day for him. When I went to get my copy signed, he greeted me with a charming smile and said, ‘now, my dear, you’ll have to forgive me, I am an old man. Remind me who we are to each other?’ I cannot think of a more straightforward and gracious way of handling that moment when you can’t quite place someone. He wasn’t going to bluff or dissemble, that simply wasn’t in his character. So I smiled back and mentioned the library event we’d done. ‘Oh, yes!’ he said with enthusiasm, going on to ask how I was getting on with various writing projects we’d discussed in the car.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to have spent such time with him.

First Chapter Friday – Eastern Tide

Here’s where you can read the first chapter of Eastern Tide.

This fourth volume wraps up The Aldabreshin Compass, bringing our hero Kheda full circle, as he realises no matter how far he travels, he cannot leave his obligations and responsibilities behind.

On the other hand, everything he has seen and experienced means he’s a very different man to the warlord he was when his domain and the Archipelago first came under attack. How can he resolve that particular conflict?

And once again, Ben Baldwin did a superb job with the new ebook edition cover.

Cover reveal for ‘The Death of All Things’ anthology

Here’s the eerily beautiful cover for the next Zombies Need Brains anthology THE DEATH OF ALL THINGS, edited by Laura Anne Gilman and Kat Richardson. You can preorder the Kickstarter edition or ebook at the ZNB online store and get the anthology early. (While you’re there, why not check out the other upcoming anthologies?) The general trade paperback edition will be available on September 1st.

I’m one of twenty-two writers considering the Grim Reaper through mythical, fantastical, and futuristic portrayals of what we may encounter between life and death, and what may lie beyond. What does that teach us about the lives we live first? My own story is called ‘A Constant Companion‘.

Personally, I can’t wait to read the other stories from: K. M. Laney, Andrea Mullen, Faith Hunter, Kendra Leigh Speedling, Jason M. Hough, Julie Pitzel, Shaun Avery, Christie Golden, Leah Cutter, Aliette de Bodard, Andrew Dunlop, Juliet E McKenna, A. Merc Rustad, Ville Meriläinen, Amanda Kespohl, Mack Moyer, Fran Wilde, Kathryn McBride, Andrija Popovic, Jim C. Hines, Stephen Blackmoore, and Kiya Nicoll.

Cover art by Justin Adams. Cover design by C. Lennox Graphics, LLC.

As sharp-eyed observers will note, there’s some redesign going on…

Issues with WordPress and its technical underpinnings mean we need to do some updating and rethinking hereabouts.

Bear with us, as Cheryl deals with my inability to visualise things until I can actually see them, or the lack of them, and thus make up my mind…

We will endeavour to have everything sorted and stable as soon as possible.