Posts belonging to Category culture and society

There’s a point to ‘rainbow sprinkles’ for writing and ice cream.

Apparently the latest ‘jokey’ sneer about books with a range of racially, culturally, sexually diverse characters – when there’s no compelling plot reason for people having such differences – is to call this ‘adding rainbow sprinkles’. No, I haven’t bothered tracking this idiocy back to its source. Why waste my time? Anyone who thinks this snide soundbite is any kind of wisdom has clearly led a very sheltered, not to say blinkered and limited life. I doubt we’d have much in common.

For a start, they’ve never been in an ice cream parlour with small children. They really didn’t think this through, did they? Why do kids add rainbow sprinkles, caramel or strawberry sauce, chocolate flakes or chopped nuts to their dessert? All of them at once if they can get away with it. Because it makes things so much more interesting!

Plain vanilla is perfectly fine ice cream but it’s a one-note dish. And after you’ve eaten it the first time, you pretty much know what you’re going to get the next time. There’s only so much difference between premium brands using hand-picked authentic Madagascan vanilla and Sainsbury’s Own. So let’s see what happens if we add something else!

Why stop at putting something on top of plain vanilla? Take a look in the freezer section the next time you’re in a supermarket. Neapolitan. Tutti Frutti. Raspberry Ripple. And those are just the store brand flavours where a mix of different flavours is integral to the enjoyment. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have built a global corporation on expanding ice cream lovers’ taste horizons. Their ice creams have blueberries, cherries, brownies, peanuts, pecans, pumpkin – yes, really, I’ve been looking at their website.

Plain vanilla isn’t the whole or only story, any more than it’s the whole or only story walking down any High Street. We live in diverse and varied communities, whether or not those differences are instantly visible. Even I do, here in the depths of rural England, specifically the Cotswolds. In a district where school inspectors add notes to their official reports to highlight this is an area of very limited cultural diversity. Even here you’ll see black, brown and Asian faces when you’re out and about these days. Granted, not very many but their presence no longer turns astonished heads – which was absolutely the case when I first moved here thirty years ago. And there’s a Polish delicatessen now.

So why this ongoing insistence in books, TV and films that the white, male point of view is the only one there is and the only one that matters?

Cultural inertia. Everyday sexism. Institutional racism. Call it what you like, we all know it when we see it. And if things are going to change, we have to call it out and challenge it whenever we see it.

Intent is irrelevant. ‘We didn’t mean it like that,’ doesn’t matter. The small child in the ice cream parlour assuredly didn’t mean to knock their bowl of ice cream onto the floor when they weren’t paying attention. It still makes a mess that someone has to clean up. So we point out how the accident happened and encourage that kid to be more careful, so they don’t do it again. That’s how children learn. It’s not hard.

Maybe not for five year olds. Some older people seem to struggle. Let’s consider this week’s news about the new UK passport design with its ‘Creative United Kingdom’ theme, featuring William Shakespeare, John Constable, Anish Kapoor, Sir Antony Gormley, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Charles Babbage and John Harrison – along with Ada Lovelace and Elizabeth Scott. Seven men and two women. One person of diverse heritage. (Anish Kapoor’s background is fascinating.)

Institutional memory has evidently forgotten the bank notes row.

And how has Mark Thomson, director general of the Passport Office responded to criticism?

‘It wasn’t something where we said ‘let’s set out to only have two women’,” he said.

“In trying to celebrate the UK’s creativity we tried to get a range of locations and things around the country to celebrate our triumphs over the years, so there we are.”

Asked about the omission of female icons such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, he said: “Whenever we do these things there is always someone who wants their favourite rock band or icon in the book.

“We’ve got 16 pages, a very finite space. We like to feel we’ve got a good representative view celebrating some real icons of the UK – Shakespeare, Constable and of course Elisabeth Scott herself.”

The decision to include two women and seven men was signed off by ministers, and the figures included were a “good representation” of artists and designers, he added.

(via the BBC)

Which shows just how those people, primarily privileged white men, who are making key decisions which shape the cultural landscape around us, can miss so many vital points by such an astounding margin. Anyone with the relevant Bingo card can pretty much score a Full House before the end of that article.

Absolutely no one is saying this was done deliberately. But it still reinforces the thoroughly Victorian idea that history, culture etc are only about the great deeds of great white men. With women and visible ethnic minorities very much the exception. And apparently the Welsh who seem to be completely unrepresented in any of the images chosen for this new passport.

Which completely misses the point that these great white men were also the exception. Almost everyone lived and lives thoroughly unexceptional lives. What made the difference to people’s achievements historically was not gender or race itself but access or not to the opportunities which were inextricably tied to race and gender. Even so, women and those from minority communities still managed to do remarkable things. Feel free to flag up your favourite examples in comments.

Moreover, that was then and this is now. If we are serious about commitment to equality of opportunity in real life, we need to show equality and diversity in our cultural background noise. So that what was once considered so astonishing that people genuinely stopped in their tracks to stare, like seeing a black person walking down a Cotswold High Street, becomes no longer worthy of comment. It becomes just the way things are. So no one gets the subliminal message that access to and participation in any area of life is somehow simply not for them.

And to go back to ice cream, those who don’t like different flavours don’t get to sneer at the rest of us who enjoy them. I can’t actually eat anything from Ben & Jerry’s since I have a cow’s milk protein intolerance. That doesn’t give me the right to insist that everyone only ever eats the same soya iced desserts as me. Even with sprinkles and as many different flavours as I can find.

This piece owes a good deal to insightful comments on a Facebook discussion. My thanks to all those who contributed.

Let’s hear it for the quiet girls

Sue Lloyd Roberts has died this week. For those of you who didn’t know her or her reporting, she was a pioneering journalist who secretly filmed and thus exposed human rights and other abuses in some of the world’s most brutal and dangerous regimes. There’s an excellent feature here on the BBC website, written by Lyse Doucet, one of the many women who’ve followed her into such vital work. Do check out the selected reports linked at the bottom of the piece.

Sue was also a Hildabeest; which is to say, she was a graduate of St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Through my work with the Alumnae Media Network, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting her several times and hearing her astute and amusing insights as she contributed to Network events discussing careers in the media, including particular issues for women. While she was very clear on current gender challenges, she was able to point out that things have improved. As a new trainee for ITN, with all the analytical skills honed by her Oxford degree, ready to make her mark contributing to the nightly news – her first job was standing ready beside the camera with the glass of whisky demanded by newscaster Reginald Bosanquet as soon as the end credits rolled. Just that. Nothing more. A suitable job for a woman.

So how did she end up filming ground breaking reports from inside Burma, North Korea and Syria while her male colleagues ground their teeth in frustration at closed borders? By quietly and calmly keeping her nerve as she posed as an unremarkable, unthreatening woman in a variety of occupations. A quiet girl who could readily be dismissed by those in power. More fool them. By being one of the first journalists to see the potential of small, tourist-friendly video cameras – disdained by those of her colleagues enamoured with the latest in hi-tech toys. More fool them. As she got older, she calculatedly and gleefully took advantage of the social invisibility that descends on middle aged women.

We need such women in fiction as well as in fact – and in books for all ages – as evident in comments in various places on my contribution to Alyx Dellamonica’s exploration of heroines last week. In particular, I was reminded of the number of strong-minded, capable and effective women I know who identified first and foremost with the quiet girls in their early reading; Lucy and Susan in Narnia, Beth in Little Women, Anne in the Famous Five, Peggy Blackett and Susan Walker in the Swallows and Amazons. Quiet girls who nevertheless always make a contribution, even if it’s largely doing the cooking, and they are certainly essential to the group dynamic.

The tomboys in these stories who so enthralled me as a child held no such interest for my friends. Would they have stopped reading these books without having someone else to identify with? Would that have hampered the development of their love of reading that’s carried them through to academic and other careers where they’ve made significant contributions to other people’s lives and wider society? Only they can say – but time and again, when diversity in fiction is discussed, the importance of representation in fiction for everyone comes up time and again. So let’s not dismiss the value of these quiet girls.

Thinking about my own writing, a good few of these same pals – and other fans – have told me how the quiet girls in my own novels are some of their favourite characters. Allin, in the Tales of Einarinn; Risala in The Aldabreshin Compass, Branca and Failla in The Lescari Revolution and Zurenne in the Hadrumal Crisis. Do I pride myself on my cleverness in creating them? Hardly. I needed other people to point out such characters’ potential before I could start to consciously work with quiet girls, to explore different aspect of my own preconceptions as much as readers’ assumptions.

Allin started out as no more than a writerly convenience in The Thief’s Gamble, even if she is a magewoman. The pompous wizard Casuel needed someone to talk to, in order to inform the reader of various bits of background and plot development. As my editor at the time pointed out with a grin, an author can only get away with a man musing as he shaves, gazing into a mirror, once in a career. Given Casuel’s so warped by personal insecurity, Allin needed to be meek enough for him to feel superior enough to loftily explain key aspects of life and magic to her. Or as we’d put it nowadays, mansplain.

The thing is though, Allin turned out to be so much more useful to me as the author by the time I was writing The Assassin’s Edge. Because a quiet girl who isn’t out there taking action and provoking reaction is still listening, watching and thinking while she’s doing the darning. When people dismiss her, they don’t care what they say around her. Which means she can end up being the one who has all the pieces of a particular puzzle. Knowledge can be power that’s just as decisive as force of arms. Risala knows that full well, as she travels the Archipelago, doing her very best to stay unremarkable and unnoticed. No one could call Charoleia unremarkable but the foundation of her wealth and influence is everything she learns from the likes of ladies’ maids and scullery girls going about their work unnoticed.

Does this realisation come naturally to the quiet girls, even if I was slow on the uptake as a writer? No, it doesn’t. It takes Zurenne three volumes of The Hadrumal Crisis to throw off a lifetime’s expectation that she would be dutiful and biddable and yield to male authority. The current focus on everyday sexism in everything from pay gaps in Hollywood to media obsessing over a female politician’s shoes instead of discussing her policies shows us the challenge of entrenched attitudes facing today’s young women. Which brings us back to the need for role models in fiction who show the quiet girls there are other routes and strategies which will work for them, even though they lack the tomboy’s inclination for toe-to-toe confrontation. As well as role models in real life.

Let’s celebrate Sue Lloyd Roberts’ life and work as we mourn her loss, and let’s make very sure we honour her legacy. Let’s hear it for the quiet girls.

Bristolcon, and the Universal Monster Template Theory Reprised

This weekend saw this year’s Bristolcon, and it was another excellent event, thanks to the hardworking team behind what’s now established as an outstanding regional convention in the UK calendar.

I heartily recommend it; both for long-time fans and also for those more recently come to SF&F who’re wondering about investigating the convention circuit. It’ll offer the former an interesting and entertaining programme that’s very much not the usual suspects and subjects, as you’ll see from this year’s website. At the same time, it’s a compact, friendly and very accessible event that’s not going to be overwhelming for a first-timer in the way that, potentially, a big convention like an Eastercon can be.

Next year’s event is on October 29th, with Guests of Honour Fangorn (artist), Ken McLeod and Sarah Pinborough (authors). Mark your diaries and make your plans accordingly.

Anyway, back to this year’s convention, I thoroughly enjoyed contributing to discussions on censorship and to a wide-ranging exploration of alternate history within speculative fiction. It was also great to catch up with friends as well as to meet new, interesting and enthusiastic readers and writers – not least to remind me that my life really isn’t going to be all about EU digital VAT for ever and a day. It was also fabulous to find so many people sharing my enthusiasm for the new Southern Fire ebook cover.

The last panel I sat in on, in the audience, was ‘Here be dragons’, discussing mythological creatures in fantasy and going far beyond dragons to discuss ones that have been overused and those which deserve more exposure. On a personal level I was pleased to see heads in the audience nodding as the panel pretty much agreed that today’s friendly, conversational, telepathic and pet dragons have gone as far as anyone needs to in denaturing the original scary beast. Because if anyone’s looking for devasting dragons, The Aldabreshin Compass ebooks should be just what they’re wanting…

There was also some discussion about humanity’s enduring fascination with and relationships with monsters, but as is invariably the case, there were so many interesting threads to the conversation that not all could be fully explored. I immediately thought of The Universal Monster Template Theory – but with time at a premium and since an audience member expanding at length on something tangential to the panel’s main discussion is bad convention manners, I held off sticking a hand up. That’s what blogs are for, after all.

So for those of you who didn’t come across this when I blogged about it before – because checking back, I discover that was in 2007! – here’s the Universal Monster Template Theory Bearing in mind that I’m summarising from a talk I went to given by cryptozoologist Richard Freeman who was in turn summarising the presumably considerable quantities of thought and argument that went into developing this.

Cryptozoologists are always interested in myths, since they seek out mythical creatures, and it has become apparent to them that wherever one goes in the world, there are common themes in monster myths. The six universals are giant hairy humanoids, little people (often magical), big mysterious dogs, big dangerous cats, giant snakes and flying predators – which are variously expressed as birds or dragons which also encroach on the giant snake theme.

One puzzle about this is while fear of enormous lizards or predatory cats may be perfectly reasonable in areas where crocodiles or tigers are part of the local fauna, these six archetypal monsters crop up everywhere, including in places that have never had even faintly relevant animals. And anyway having myths developed from local animals still doesn’t explain the persistence of giants and little people in folk lore.

At which point, we move to Madagascar, a place of considerable interest to cryptozoologists on account of its unique wildlife, its extinctions (or not) and its rich mythical culture. One puzzle there for zoologists, crypto and otherwise, is a particular behaviour of lemurs, which are, please note, a primitive primate, and as such, creatures whose overall behaviour is primarily instinctual rather than learned.

As I discovered recently visiting ‘Monkey World’ primate rescue centre in Dorset, lemurs and tamarinds can still successfully parent offspring even if their own prior treatment has been appalling and they were captured or separated from their own parents too young to have observed their own kind raising infants. Unlike the higher primates like chimps, orang-utans and gorillas; those seized as infants and separated from their own kind prove incapable of successfully mothering their own offspring.

Bear that in mind as we focus on the specific lemur behaviours which fascinate cryptozoologists. If something blots out the sun, be it a cloud or a plane or anything, lemurs will freeze and exhibit classic prey-animal-not-wanting-to-be-eaten reactions. But there’s nothing flying around Madagascar that is remotely big enough to carry off a lemur, and certainly not one of the largest species, but even the biggest animals exhibit exactly the same response.

But recent fossils discoveries have shown a truly massive eagle once lived there, umpty-thousand years ago. So it’s suggested that this prey-animal behaviour in lemurs is a very ancient instinct, carried over from the days when something could indeed swoop out of the sky and eat them.

So we return to the persistence of the six universal monsters in human myth. The theory goes that all these stories have grown out of humanity’s common subconscious because Homo Sapiens still has primitive instincts lurking in the most basic bits of the brain.

When we were Australopithecines living in the African savannah there were indeed other hominids/primates bigger and smaller, who didn’t make the evolutionary cut. There were creatures akin to Gigantopithecus as well as little hominids like Homo Florensis. Those Indonesian discoveries happened since I heard this talk, and I imagine had cryptozoologists hopping up and down with excitement.

At about 4’6″, our remote ancestors were certainly preyed upon by big dogs, big cats, giant snakes and big eagles all quite capable of carrying us off – these megafauna are in the fossil record along with the humanoid variants that similarly died out, and together with plain evidence of Australopithecines being eaten by such things.

That’s the theory anyway. Make of it what you will. I certainly find myself wondering what role this might be playing in the ongoing mythmaking about monsters which still goes on around us today. Does this lie behind the enduring belief in the Beast of Bodmin and other such creatures? Has Gigantopithecus morphed into Bigfoot in the popular imagination while instinctive fear of small hominids has evolved into tales of alien greys?

And have a rather wonderful picture of a lemur from our visit to Monkey World.


Are those who don’t follow Science Fiction condemning the rest of us to live it?

I’ve been experiencing a weird sort of déjà vu lately. A lot. Most recently, watching news footage of thousands of desperate refugees walking along a Hungarian motorway hard shoulder. I keep recalling a BBC drama film ‘The March’ from (as a little research shows me) 1990, in which thousands of Africans fleeing climate change walk to Europe. Their challenge to richer nations is help us or watch us die. Those richer nations don’t know how to cope…

I also recall at the time that film was dismissed as unnecessarily alarmist and melodramatic. Oh, no, they said, that could never really happen. How’s that opinion looking now?

Then there’s the US elections. I keep thinking back to John Brunner’s ‘The Sheep Look Up’ (first published 1972). I must have read that when I was a student, or certainly some time in the 80’s, because I remember considering the buffoonish, soundbite president ‘Prexy’ and thinking well, at least Ronald Reagan isn’t quite that bad. But now? Donald Trump? Yes, I can easily see him talking such gibberish while the world goes to hell in a handcart.

Not that we in the UK have any room for complacency. Who else is watching the media attacks and distortions surrounding Jeremy Corbyn and recalling A Very British Coup? Both the 1982 novel by Chris Mullin and the first TV adaptation for Channel 4 by Alan Plater, with Ray McAnally playing the lead; Harry Perkins is the unabashed socialist elected to lead the Labour Party, committed to challenging media bias, American hegemony and pro nuclear disarmament. Goodness, the Establishment cannot possibly have that…

I could go on. Ken Macleod’s ‘The Exection Channel’ is another title that springs to mind with unnerving regularity when I’m watching the news or reading the papers these days.

I suppose I should just be grateful that (so far) we’ve escaped the dire fate predicted for us all in Threads; another BBC film from 1984 dealing with the aftermath of nuclear war.

Anyone else experiencing anything similar? Anyone got other titles to add, from books, films or TV?

And how the hell do we get the politicians and decisions makers to start reading or watching this stuff and thinking about more than their own short-term careerist interests?

Well, we can at least make a start by using our votes and making the effort to write to our elected representatives. If there’s one thing that losing most of this past year to campaigning on EU digital VAT has shown me, it’s that enough single voices really can make a difference.

Let’s do it.

Online life for authors. The good, the bad and the ugly.

Three unrelated things last week have prompted a series of related thoughts on aspects of life online, particularly for authors. Because while the good is self-evident, in terms of interaction with readers and other writers that’s never been possibly before, it’s by no means an unmixed blessing.

The first thing was an author whom I’d don’t propose to name or link to, posting an explanation for cancelling a particular engagement. Not a guest of honour gig or something like that, just explaining their absence from an upcoming event. Because that author was forced to explain in order to quell successive waves of speculation. Simply saying, ‘unfortunately I won’t be there’ wasn’t sufficient. The author had tried that, only to find people were attributing this absence to a particular controversy tangentially involving them. No, the author said, it’s nothing to do with work, it’s a personal matter. Cue another round of speculation about possible domestic discord and such things. No, nothing like that, but a medical matter in the family. Oh no! Is it—?

At this point, the author chose to explain that a close family member is undergoing a challenging medical procedure that now clashes with the aforementioned event, and the author wishes to be on hand for their relative at that time. And rounds off that blogpost with a fervent wish that those reading this information will now forget it, since explaining has involved giving details about the family member and their condition which would otherwise have remained known only to close friends and relatives.

Which is why I am not linking. If you know the author, you don’t need telling. If you don’t, you don’t need to know who they are in order to think about the level of intrusion that’s increasingly hard to avoid when authors are now routinely expected by publicists and fans alike to live their lives online. Just to be clear, there’s no question that the vast majority of that concern for this author stems from positive motives. People wanted to know what they could do to help, what support they could offer. And that’s by no means a bad thing. All of us will be able to think of instances where online support, whether we’ve been offering it or receiving it, has been invaluable in the midst of some sort of strife, on or offline.

But managing how and when to draw demarcation lines between public and private life is becoming increasingly difficult.

On the other hand, there are some crucial things which an author is very much expected to never go public with. I’ve been thinking about that since last week’s second thing. A journalist contacted me asking what I thought about the Society of Authors campaign for fair and enforceable contracts for writers in their dealings with publishers.

You won’t be surprised to learn I’m all in favour of this. Because, since signing my first contract in 1997, I’ve seen attitudes among publishers to contracts that simply wouldn’t be tolerated in any other industry. By no means all publishers and certainly not all of the time, but things which have been clearly agreed are not infrequently completely ignored, from supposedly guaranteed time for a writer to review edits and proofs through to print runs being cut back or clearly contractually agreed editions of a book being cancelled without warning or recompense. I recommend having plenty of time and strong drink to hand before starting any conversation with an author about their experience of trying to get their rights in a book reverted.

Sometimes a publisher will offer a justification, invariably based on their business interests and unconcerned about the damage to a writer’s career. At other times the protesting author gets the email equivalent of a shrug and ‘if you don’t like it, lawyer up’. Right, because that’s something very few authors can ever afford to do.

And there’s always the implication, mostly unspoken though on occasion mentioned as a barely veiled threat, that an author who goes public with anything like this will be tagged as a troublemaker whom other publishers won’t ever want to work with. Because the book trade is a pretty small world.

It’s getting worse. These days, non-disclosure clauses are starting to crop up in publishers’ contracts, notably for anyone dealing with Amazon’s in-house imprints. This is a very worrying development. How exactly is a new author supposed to find out whether or not they’re being taken for a fool, if they’re not allowed to compare notes with better informed and more experienced writers?

So we’re expected to live our lives online, including sharing aspects which we’d personally rather keep private, as a trade off for the undoubted benefits we get – while at the same time, there are business matters vital to our own interests which we’re very firmly discouraged from openly discussing.

Obviously, writers do chat about such things privately and discreetly, but that’s not much use to anyone outside those confidential circles. And this silence definitely does nothing to help eliminate the persistent sharp practise which most readers would be horrified to learn of.

One way around such problematic aspects of online life is the pseudonym, especially for whistle-blowers dragging bad practice into the light. Except that can be highly problematic as well.

The third of last week’s unrelated things relates very much to that aspect of online life. A blog post went up revealing the real identity of the thoroughly unpleasant person who’s presented herself at various times as Winterfox, Requires Hate and most recently as Benjanun Sriduangkaew. Who has assiduously taken advantage of online anonymity for many, many years, to be calculatedly vile to people, so that’s the ugly right there.

I’m not going to link to that unmasking post – googling will find it for you fairly easily if you’re that curious. Firstly, the post includes serious accusations unrelated to online activity by RH/BS within SFF, about events of which I have no knowledge, or any way to verify, so that’s a cause for concern as I’ve no wish to risk spreading misinformation. Secondly, those who have linked to the post, predictably, have been assailed online by RH/BS and her acolytes with exaggerated and downright false accusations. The RH/BS clique have also done their best to play the victim card with obfuscating deliberations over what does or does not constitute doxxing. I have far better things to do with my time than get dragged into such tedious games.

Lastly if you google the name itself, you only get a handful of not very informative posts. While these serve to confirm her background of significant wealth and privilege, this has long been suspected by astute observers of things she’s let slip. The key identification in this saga has been tying the fake innocently sweet masquerade of Benjanun Sriduangkaew to Requires Hate’s now-well-documented history of spite.

For the purposes of this discussion, the fact of this unmasking is sufficient. For me the question’s never been if the prime mover behind RH/BS would be revealed, but merely when? Because even someone as diligent in deleting their internet history is going to leave some traces, and when someone’s behaviour is as sustained and vicious as hers has been, sooner rather than later, someone who’s been on the receiving end is going to be sufficiently provoked to do the necessary investigation and circulate their findings as widely as possible.

And unfortunately, that goes both ways. There are plenty of instances of people acting with the best of motives, for whom online anonymity has been a vital protection, who have been unmasked by those with hostile intent, with serious consequences for them personally and professionally.

So what do we do? How do we allow people the privacy they should reasonably be able to expect and the protections of anonymity which individuals may sometimes need, as well guarding against the consequences of people being pressured into silence and defending those subjected to anonymous malice?

Because at the moment, the balance seems skewed and the Internet’s not going to go away any time soon…

Thoughts and comments are invited and welcome, though please do not post links to either of the posts which I’ve chosen not to link to.

Hugo and Puppy thoughts

I’ve not blogged about the whole mess that’s been made of the Hugo Awards this year by overlapping cabals of the narrow-minded and entitled along with a clique of politically motivated, spiteful wreckers. I am extremely busy and besides, I’d largely be repeating the main points from this post on the Great SFWA Uproar of 2014.Why the SFWA Shoutback Matters

Also, a great many other thoughtful and engaged writers continue to explore the issues here. Two recent posts that I found particularly worth reading are

What’s the Point? Human Minds and Sad Puppies by Matthew M Foster, who shows remarkable level-headedness, considering this ego-driven exercise in malice and pique has effectively destroyed any chance of a posthumous Hugo for his late wife, Eugie More on that here.

BREAKFAST OF BULLSHIT: FUTUREPHOBIA, THE HUGOS AND THE INVENTION OF SF’S PAST by M D Lachlan – an emphatic deconstruction of the bogus arguments underpinning this nonsense – which have left so many of us utterly bemused and wondering just what SF these Puppy people have been reading and watching because their experience is light-years away from our own.

And now, back to my own work.

A quick glance at Waterstones recommended reading in June

Just in case you’re wondering I am still keeping an eye on Waterstones and gender bias issues. At some point I will do another analysis of their monthly promotional emails.

The latest for June will certainly help those statistics – a quick and dirty count shows ten books by female writers promoted alongside twelve by men.

There are still issues – apparently women don’t write history/non-fiction as all those titles are by male authors.

But detailed analysis will have to wait as I contemplate the best way to tackle digitizing the Aldabreshin Archipelago map :)

Musing on the Half-life of Humour

I’ve been reading ‘A Slip of the Keyboard’, a collection of non-fiction by the late and so very much lamented Sir Terry Pratchett. It’s an interesting read on many levels. There’s one trainee journalist I know who definitely should read it. But that’s not what this is about.

There’s reference made in passing to ‘Spem in Alium’, a famous piece of English choral music by Thomas Tallis, composed in 1570. I am incidentally a great fan of such choral music and sang in a very highly regarded church choir in my teens, got my Royal School of Church Music medals and we once sang in Salisbury Cathedral. But that’s not what this is about either.

The thing is, as an erstwhile Classicist, I can’t read ‘Spem in Alium’ without mentally translating it into ‘Hope in Garlic’ and inwardly giggling, as an inveterate fan of puns. It’s actually ‘Hope in Another’, for those of you who don’t have the Latin, as the late Peter Cook would say. (And how old do you have to be, for that reference to make any sense?)

Given I’m reading Terry Pratchett, I immediately think what a great Discworldian motto ‘Spem in Allium’ would make for a family of vampire hunters! Until they met the Count de Magpyr – but that’s a different story. ‘Carpe Jugulum’ to be precise. Which is another Latin based joke, of course, riffing on Carpe Diem.

So now I’m wondering, how long will these jokes be funny now that Latin is no longer taught in any widespread sense? Satirists like Flanders and Swann in the 60’s could get a roar of laughter in a packed theatre when they’re talking about newspapers on the ‘At the Drop of a Hat’ recording, and translate ‘O Tempora! O Mores!’ as ‘Oh, Times! Oh Daily Mirror!’ Could that happen today?

And this goes beyond Latin and indeed goes beyond humour. Just as Classics courses at universities now offer places to those with no Latin or Greek and include intensive language study from the start, so English Literature faculties are now including texts like the Bible in their first year courses because they can no longer assume that students will arrive with sufficient ‘cultural Christianity’ to engage as fully as possible with Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example. Is that a good thing, or a bad one? Or is it simply a thing to adapt to and move on?

What does all this mean for popular or indeed, high-brow culture? Who knows? But we can definitely see this shift taking place.

Not that this is a recent phenomenon, as evidenced by a conversation I had a few months ago with a Son. Son was passing through the lounge, where I was reading and there was a concert playing on the telly.

He halted, his attention caught by the music. ‘Oh, I know this – what’s it called?’
Me, not looking up. ‘Elgar, Nimrod.’
Son, affronted. ‘I only asked.’
Me, glancing up, slightly surprised. ‘And I only answered.’
Son, still indignant. ‘You didn’t have to call me a Nimrod.’
Me, putting book down. ‘What are you talking about? It’s the name of the piece – Nimrod, the mighty hunter. It’s by the composer Elgar.’
Son, baffled ‘How did that end up meaning a stupid person?’
Me, now equally baffled. ‘What on earth are you talking about?’

Well, it turns out that for the sons’ generation, ‘Nimrod’ is indeed an insult and they have no knowledge of the Biblical reference to contradict it.

For that, believe it or not, we can thank Bugs Bunny. Back in the 1940s, he would refer mockingly to Elmer Fudd as ‘poor little Nimrod’, ‘what a Nimrod’ and so on. US cinema audiences began using it as an insult for buffoons like Elmer. With any knowledge of the Biblical origin? Who can say – but the mocking term was soon standing alone without any need for explanation, certainly in American English.

Given the exponential proliferation of pop culture these days, I am wondering where future writers, humorous and otherwise, will find sufficiently common references to draw on? What will they do, when there’s a distinct possibility that only a handful of people will get a particular joke? Use it or lose it?

What about the people who don’t get the joke? How will they feel? For instance, in the first Avengers movie, the use of a quotation from Ezekiel instantly identified those few of us who laughed out loud as the ones in the cinema who’d also seen Pulp Fiction. How distracting was that for the rest of the audience? Realising they’d missed something but having no idea what it might be. I still wonder.

I don’t have any answers. Anyone got any observations or thoughts?

Well, if BBC Radio 4 says I’m a fantasy novelist, it must be true!

Did anyone get the memo saying this was going to be the week for folk listening to me talk? I must have missed it…

Today sees the broadcast of an episode in the BBC Radio Four ‘A History of Ideas’ series where I was invited to contribute.

Philosopher Jules Evans is exploring Jung and the shadow inside all of us. Including archive contributions from Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud; plus Mark Vernon, author of Carl Jung: How to Believe – and me.

(another nice reminder that life isn’t all EU VAT!)

Welcoming Omenana – Africa’s New Speculative Fiction Magazine

This looks really, really interesting! Wole Talabi tells us –

As someone who has been reading stories from foreign spec-fic mags since I was a young teenager, I’m very pleased to have my own story Crocodile Ark published in the first issue of this new African Spec-Fic Zine – Omenana – edited by Mazi Nwonwu and Chinelo Onwualu.

I know many Africans who have been trying to write spec-fic without any clear sense of the genre and its forms (I also tried to do it with my now defunct The Alchemists Corner column on TNC but I was undirected and the audience wasn’t quite right). Mazi and Chinelo have now taken a small but supremely significant step with creating Omenana; giving a place for all the scattered, isolated pockets of African writers that venture into spec-fic in their blogs, skirt it in their books, and occasionally publish it in other magazines, to converge on and call home.

Click through to his blog to read the full article

Initiatives like this are absolutely central to enriching the SF&Fantasy genre with new voices and new perspectives. How often have you heard someone who’s drifted away from SF&F saying, ‘well, yeah, it got to be just the same old stuff coming round again…’ Honestly, it’s not about ticking political correctness and salving our liberal ‘Western’ consciences (yes, I do know Europe is to the north of the continent). It’s about finding genuinely new, different, exciting and thought provoking things to read. And along the way, learning that the view of Africa we see through the mass media is woefully simplistic, even when it’s not downright wrong (and often insultingly so).

So let’s get behind this! Click here for the pdf of Issue One! Trust me, you want to see that cover art…!

And look! A post that’s not about European VAT!

Oh, hang on…

This digital age is wonderful for giving a voice to writers like this – especially as new technology is enabling Africa to leap forward straight into online reading and distribution, which is so vital given the lack of infrastructure on that continent for transporting hardcopy reading material, from magazines to vital textbooks.

Digital… er, hang on, does that mean African writers are going to get caught up in all this awful VAT mess, if they’re going to try to sell digital downloads into Europe. Y’know, where most of their customers will be, especially for the Francophone countries…?

Shutupshutupshutup! Not everything is about bloody VAT, Jules, even if it’s taken over your life!

No, hang on. This really is a thing. So far we’ve been talking about how it might affect UK and US sellers and those from other more developed countries across Europe. It’s time we started talking about the impact on initiatives like this. It really matters.

So if you have any way to flag up this to organisations who can help us make a noise about the far reaching and damaging implications of these new EU VAT rules on initiatives in the developing world, please, do so.