Posts belonging to Category culture and society



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.

The Classics, Science Fiction and Fantasy

It’s not only the fantasy end of the speculative fiction genre that owes an awful lot to history. So does science fiction – something recognised by the Science Fiction Foundation when they put together their 2013 conference “Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical World”. The most recent issue of the SFF journal ‘Foundation’ includes a selection of papers from the event. As you can imagine, being a Classics graduate myself, these are of considerable interest to me.

What can looking backwards contribute to our understanding and enjoyment of the literature of the future and of imagined, secondary worlds? Granted, all contemporary writing ultimately has its roots in the Classics but surely the arrow of time should be pointing us in the other direction, to see where creative developments will take us? Not so. As far as I am concerned, a Janus-headed approach offers far more benefits.

Authors of prose fiction, graphic novels and those writing for the screen, large and small, continue to draw on the Classical myths and motifs that can so often provide points of contact and a common frame of reference for readers and viewers widely separated by geography, educational systems and life experience. This alone is argument enough for the continued teaching of Classical literature in our schools and not merely the works of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Where readers (of all faiths and none) can pick up an author’s subtle references and allusions, thanks to a working knowledge of writing from the Bible to the Epic of Gilgamesh, this significantly enhances their depth of understanding and thus their enjoyment.

Then there are two ways of looking the use of such myths and allusions. Firstly we can see how a writer adopts and adapts Classical motifs and find insights into their creative process and its evolution throughout an individual career. We can also trace their contribution to the development of archetypes such as the hero and the villain, both within SF and Fantasy and in wider literature.

Secondly we can analyse a writer’s choice and use of Classical elements in the light of their own life and times. Academic or amateur, every historian learns how interpretation of sources, from potsherds to plays, says at least as much about the onlooker’s where and when as it does about the material in hand. For instance, for more than a century, authors have used the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to explore problematic aspects of cultural and political hegemony from the heyday of British Imperialism to the Cold War and beyond. Of course, Science Fiction and Fantasy have always done this; using somewhere far, far away and long ago or far ahead, to stand outside the world we live in and thus gain a clearer perspective.

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. That much is true. However studying the Classics and Speculative Fiction alike shows us time and again, that however different externals like hemlines and hairdos might be, humanity’s concerns remain constant and eternal. Love of family. Longing for security. Fear of the Other and of the Unknown. Tensions as to when the needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few.

In the midst of our current uncertainties, with so many selfishly seeking to exploit political, cultural and religious differences for short-term gain, we can all benefit from the seeing how much more unites us than divides us, through the storyteller’s eye.

Remembrance. Of those who couldn’t speak of war and of those who told me vital truths.

It’s a bit odd to see all the Centenary of the Great War commemoration this year when I can remember talking to men and women who lived through it. Granted I was a very little girl when my Great Uncle Harold explained he’d been in the Royal Flying Corps, in the skies above the Western Front.

I’m pretty sure I was five, which makes sense because the twenty-fifth anniversary of D-Day in 1970 would most likely have prompted me to ask what he did in ‘the war’ as we walked to the paper shop one sunny summer morning, when we were visiting my grandma’s elder sisters in Rustington on Sea. So Great Uncle Harold explained he’d been too old for the war when Grandpa had been in the RAF but he’d been in the war before that in the RFC. No, he hadn’t been a pilot. He’d been a bomber, in those open-cockpit bi-planes, which meant sitting in the back seat, setting the fuses and literally dropping bombs by hand over the side. I remember him talking about seeing the trenches – on both sides – so far below, with the men scurrying like ants and all looking exactly the same. I vividly remember him pausing, looking away into the middle distance and saying with heartfelt passion, ‘Poor devils.’ Then and now I don’t believe he was making any distinction between English and German forces.

My grandma and grandpa were seven years old when the Great War broke out, so they only remembered it as children. My grandpa recalled seeing zeppelins going over Felixstowe where he lived, heading for bombing raids on London. My grandma remembered her eldest brother, Albert, coming home from the trenches where he served from 1914 to 1918. Her mother saw him at the front gate and ran to hug him, only for him to say, ‘Don’t touch me, Mother, I’m crawling with lice.’ So the gardener had to set up a bath in the greenhouse where Albert could strip off and scrub himself down with carbolic soap. Grandma was naturally sent well away. Equally naturally she crept down the garden later, so see what she could see. Albert’s uniform was burning on a bonfire and she couldn’t even see the water in the bath for the layer of vermin covering it.

That’s all she learned about life on the Western Front because Albert never spoke of his experiences to anyone in his family. He gradually lost contact with them, especially after he became involved in the Spiritualist Church. Since then I’ve learned how many people turned to mediums through the 1920s, hoping to make contact with those who had died in the war. It’s impossible to know what Albert experienced but we can guess at some lifelong trauma. He died before I was born, not least from the lingering effects of being gassed.

We know of at least one traumatic experience which my stepfather’s father, Grandpa Joe, suffered in World War Two, but only because sorting through his effects after his death turned up the Distinguished Flying Medal and its accompanying citation. He would tell a few war stories, like borrowing an American jeep in Paris after the Liberation and driving it through the Arc de Triomphe. But he never told anyone, not even his wife, about the day when the Lancaster bomber where he was a radio operator, took such heavy fire that everybody was killed apart from him and one of the gunners. Between them those two young men flew the plane full of their dead comrades back to England and landed it safely. Whatever he thought of being called a hero, he took that to his grave.

Someone else who went all through the Great War in the trenches was Mr Brown who lived a few doors up from my grandparents. He never spoke of those four years either, according to my grandfather who was his friend. Not that I ever spoke to Mr Brown beyond saying hello if our paths crossed when I was walking the dog. He would smile and tip his hat to me and say good morning or good afternoon. He always wore a hat because he was Jewish; I knew that long before I had any clear idea what being Jewish meant. Because grandparents can’t tell war stories to a child like me without being asked ‘but why?’

Well, I never did understand who Kaiser Bill was or what he’d wanted until much later on, but the Nazis were more straightforward. There had been a second war because the Nazis wanted to invade and kill all the people they didn’t like. People like Mr and Mrs Brown. Why didn’t the Nazis like them? Because they’re Jewish. What’s Jewish? Apparently that meant only reading Old Testament stories from the Bible, going to somewhere called a synagogue instead of a church on Saturday instead of Sunday and if you were Mr Brown, always wearing a hat. Which did no harm to anyone and was no one’s business but their own. So that was clear enough. The Nazis had to be stopped from killing Mr Brown just because he was Jewish!

The Nazis, not the Germans. That was a distinction I was very clear on, from as early as I can remember, thanks to stories like how Mr Marsden won his medal. He was my grandparents’ next door neighbour and even as a small child, I remember him as a little man, short and slightly built, among the other grown-ups. Presumably this was why he was a clerk in the Pay Corps rather than a front line fighter in World War Two. That didn’t stop him being sent to Normandy in the week after D-Day. I realised the army’s inexorable logic as I grew older; someone had to update the records of all the dead who wouldn’t need their next pay packet.

Somehow or other, Mr Marsden got separated from his unit and ended up wandering round Normandy on his own as the shadows lengthened. He turned a corner in a country lane and came face to face with two young Germans about his own age, none of them over twenty. They all looked at each other. No one reached for a gun. Who knows who said hello first but he spoke a bit of German and they spoke some English. That was enough to establish that no one wanted to kill anyone. Since it was getting dark, they found a dry ditch where they could spend the night without getting shot by soldiers from either side. He had some chocolate and they had some bread, so they shared that all between them and showed each other family photographs and talked about their lives.

At some point they realised they’d better have a plan for the morning, so no one got shot, either as an enemy soldier or for fraternisation. So they decided their story would be the heroic capture of a prisoner or prisoners, depending which side they met first. Meantime, they exchanged names and addresses, agreeing to write to each other whenever the war finally ended, if they got home safe. Dawn came and off they went to find the Second World War. The first soldiers they encountered were an American unit and so the German lads were safely taken prisoner and Mr Marsden ended up getting a medal for capturing two enemy soldiers single handed. He found that very amusing but the most important thing to him was exchanging letters after the war and knowing those two young men got back to their families, just the same as him.

So this is why I wear a poppy and pause to mark Remembrance Day, for the sake of ordinary young men who found themselves in extraordinary and often appalling situations, which marked them, one way or another, for the rest of their lives. For the sake of their stories, retold in hopes that young men like my own sons, and everyone else’s children, won’t ever see such history repeated.

Requires Hate, aka Benjanun Sriduangkaew, is a multiple, serial & proven bully, liar & manipulator.

This is my considered opinion, formed over several years of watching her(?) antics under a variety of false internet personae, of which Benjanun Sriduangkaew is merely the most recent and, I firmly believe, as calculatedly fake as the rest.

I read the Requires Hate blog from time to time, over a relatively short period some years ago and didn’t see a single post of merit. Nothing that qualified remotely as valid criticism. I saw deliberate and targeted spite, often very carefully chosen to hit the latest SFF ‘hot button’ issues – along with a puerile glee in obscenity and deliberate offensiveness. I didn’t see anything of the ‘satire’, ‘performance anger’, ‘justified rage’ and similar excuses which her(?) apologists made to try and excuse her(?) excesses.

Every so often, she(?) would butt into a Twitter conversation I would be having or following with further viciousness and derailing abuse. I went from simply not following that RequiresHate account to actively blocking it. I ended up blocking a few other people who persisted in retweeting her malice.

I had my own run in on LiveJournal with one of her(?) many other fake personae, where she(?) came crashing into a discussion about the Celtic experience of oppression and attacked me with an argument that basically ran – White people are racist. You are white. Therefore I have proved beyond all argument that you are a racist – and will now proceed to hurl capslocked abuse at you and anyone who tries to support you.

At the time I expressed my opinion in various places that Winterfox/Requires Hate/Whoever the hell this vicious troll might be was a manipulative bully – and found that won me further accusations of racism, bullying, arrogance based on white privilege from her(?) enablers and hangers-on.

I decided to ignore all of them from then on.

Others have not been so fortunate.

Laura J Mixon has done sterling work gathering evidence on the duration, breadth and persistence of the campaigns of abuse.

Here is Rochita Ruiz’s latest post on the subject

The campaign against Athena Andreadis

There are more posts emerging as I write this one. I’m sure googling will soon find them for you.

So all this is why it is my considered opinion that Requires Hate, aka Benjanun Sriduangkaew, is a multiple, serial & proven bully, liar & manipulator. I do not believe a single, solitary word of the so-called apologies posted a few weeks ago when these two names were first publicly linked.

I don’t believe a single thing we have been told about ‘Bee’ as she likes to call herself, not least because the admission that she is/was Requires Hate makes so many of Benjanun’s statements to this point quite simply and demonstrably lies.

I am not interested in any arguments trying to excuse of defend her(?). I am not interested in reading any of her(?) work or any arguments that we should somehow acknowledge the supposed merits in her(?) writing, never mind what her(?) personal failings might be.

There is more than enough good, insightful, diverse SF and fantasy out there to be read which is written by people who are provably not multiple, serial & proven bullies, liars & manipulators hiding behind fake names.

Why am I saying this? Because one thing that has become very apparent, not least thanks to Requires Hate/Winterfox/Whoever’s assiduous habit of deleting offensive internet activity and locking down posts, blogs and twitter accounts, that a great many of her(?) victims have felt isolated, disbelieved and friendless.

Not least as so many folk within SFF have ducked the issue of tackling all this unpleasantness… not for the first time…

It’s in this situation that we should remember Dr. Martin Luther King’s words “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

I choose not to be silent. Requires Hate, aka Benjanun Sriduangkaew, is a multiple, serial & proven bully, liar & manipulator. Those who’ve been targets of her malice should consider me a friend and ally.

Waterstones? Yes, I’m still watching…

Back in July, with the help of generous folk willing to spare their time surveying display tables, and analysing the promotional emails to loyalty card holders, I looked at the gender balance in the books Waterstones was promoting. As the last national chain bookseller in the UK, the picture they present to readers of what’s available and who’s writing it really matters.

You can read that post here.

Since then? The monthly ‘Books To Read’ email to loyalty card holders – Aug/Sep/Oct – has featured a total of twenty four books, sixteen by men and eight by women, so a two to one ratio. Books of the Month? Four by men, two by women, so once again, a two to one ratio. Backlist promotions? Two men to, er none. No women at all.

Well, that’s only a three month sample, so let’s really, really hope things improve over the rest of the year. Though I’m not hopeful unless and until the ‘Staff Picks’ and ‘What We’re Reading’ sections are restored to these emails. Those always used to help redress the balance but are currently suspended as part of a website/online presence redesign.

Other promotional emails? Two flagged up the latest half price offers on new titles, highlighting a total of eight titles by men and five by women plus a book by/with/about the pop group One Direction. One highlighted the Booker Prize shortlist – with four men and two women. Anne Rice got an email all to herself, flagging up her new novel for pre-order.

One flagged up Super Thursday when the publishing trade pushes its hoped-for Christmas bestsellers and featured nine books by men against three by women. Those by women were two focused on romance and relationships and one children’s book. Of the twelve in total, four were autobiographies, two of sportsmen, one comedian, one rock star, so that’s quite a skew in itself.

Add those numbers up and the overall ratio remains two to one in favour of men over women.

Any good news? Well, I was in my local branch and saw this display featuring five new SF&F titles by women writers, so that was cheering.

five women SFF

Mind you, Cheryl Morgan was at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and saw their SF&F table which featured one, count her, one female writer out of twenty two titles – at least until Margaret Atwood had done her signing and doubled the total. Sigh.

The thing is though, Waterstones can’t be held solely responsible. Not if they’re picking titles to tie in with the festival’s programme as is standard practise for such events. The Lit Fest had what sounds like an excellent panel on dystopias (do read Cheryl Morgan’s report here) with Jane Rogers, Ken Macleod and Christopher Priest (so maintaining that two to one ratio…). However the Celebration of Sci Fi and Fantasy event featured Ben Aaronovitch, Joe Abercrombie, Mitch Benn and David Barnett alongside Sarah Pinborough. Fine writers all and interesting, entertaining talkers as I can personally attest. But that’s really not going to do much to counter the prevailing – and incorrect – idea that SF&F writers are predominately men. Especially if neither Jane nor Sarah’s books were actually offered for sale.

Of course, that’s not just an issue for bookshops and literature festivals. In our local Cineworld cinema this past weekend, I picked up a leaflet and saw they’re now promoting forthcoming films as ‘girls’ night out’, ‘boys’ night out’, ‘date night’, ‘fun for the family’ selections rather than by genre. Yes, SF is firmly tagged for the boys. Sigh.

Here’s something else that’s new. When it comes to local bookselling, Waterstones are now the only game in town as far as West Oxfordshire is concerned. Redesign in our local WHSmith has seen their selection of paperbacks drop from two hundred titles to seventy five while Sainsbury’s locally seem to be getting out of books in any meaningful fashion. They’ve reorganised their layout and are now carrying a total of twenty paperbacks, compared to the seventy five they used to offer.

I’ve been saying for a while that one way for bookstores to compete with the supermarkets would be to offer a more diverse range of titles. If the supermarkets are getting out of bookselling now, what are the chances of that happening? While we wait to see, I’ll be very interested in reports of any other supermarkets cutting back on their range of books, if you’d care to take a look while you’re buying your groceries?

Creativity Within Constraints

Over the weekend, I read Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey. This is one of The Austen Project books, wherein half a dozen very fine writers are (re)writing contemporary versions of Jane Austen’s novels.

I don’t mind saying my first reaction on hearing this was ‘but why?’ What could possibly be the point? The original books are there, readily available for reading, and by general consensus, are some of the finest writing in the English language.

Well, okay, not according to my stepfather. As a schoolboy in the steel and coal communities of South Yorkshire in the 1950s, being made to study Pride & Prejudice for O Level left him with a lifelong loathing of Jane Austen, the Regency, Bath – pretty much anything tangentially linked to a fiction that was so far removed from anything in his own daily life to that point and his primary interests in science. No, he’s not dumb – he went on to get a doctorate in Chemistry and more besides. The book just wasn’t for him.

So is that the point? Would a modern version be more relevant to him – or his current equivalent – and somehow get Jane Austen’s genius for unpicking human relationships in under the radar? Maybe so, but what’s in it for the likes of me, who’ve known and loved the originals for decades? I simply couldn’t see it, and honestly, only picked up Northanger Abbey because I’m such a great admirer of Val McDermid’s work. I started reading mostly in hopes of finding out what could possibly have convinced her to do this.

Wouldn’t it be just like one of those pointless shot-by-shot remakes of a popular TV show? For instance, I cannot see what’s to be gained by remaking Broadchurch as Gracepoint, even up to the point of using David Tennant with an American accent? Where’s the creativity in that? Though I’m equally down on remakes that diverge from their source material. I watched the first dozen episodes of The Killing and the further it diverged from the original which had held me so enthralled, the crosser I became. If they wanted to tell a completely different story, why not do something properly new?

On the other hand… I’ve watched both versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Swedish and English, and enjoyed them very much in different ways, while being very familiar with the book as well. Each production followed the source material closely, adapting it intelligently for visual rather than written story-telling, while the variations in performances did bring out different nuances and explore different aspects of that original. Somewhere in the multiverse, there’s the world that got the ideal version with Daniel Craig and Noomi Rapace…

Besides that, I know for myself that finding the room for creativity within constraints can be great fun, as well as a worthwhile test of a writer’s skills. I’ve written a couple of short stories for licensed properties; Doctor Who, Torchwood and Warhammer 40K. Those projects come with huge amounts of established detail and guidelines which you absolutely cannot break as an author. The challenge of doing something genuinely, satisfyingly new within those boundaries of characterisation, tone, background etc, is considerable – and that’s what makes it so rewarding.

The fun of working within the constraints of a theme is one reason why I’ve been involved in anthologies from Tales of the Ur-Bar, The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, Legends – just to name a few. It’s why I’m really hoping Temporally Out of Order reaches the Kickstarter’s stretch goals, so I can write up my idea… I’m also really pleased that open-submission slots are available for that anthology, because working within these sorts of boundaries can often be a valuable learning experience for new writers.

Well, I won’t spoil this new version of Northanger Abbey for potential readers. I will just say that my reading time was emphatically very well spent. This retelling is great fun and so well crafted on many levels. A reader won’t need the least acquaintance with Miss Austen to thoroughly enjoy an excellent contemporary story. Most impressive of all for me, there are twists to surprise even those of us familiar with all the ins and outs of the original.

Language problems for time travellers – the ones we don’t see.

I’ve been thinking about time travel, in particular questions of communication. This is something we’re used to seeing glossed over for the most part. Occasionally someone turns up from Elizabethan England saying things like ‘forsooth, varlet!’ but that’s about as much of a nod as it gets. This has always irritated me, after having studied Chaucer in the original at school. Drop me in 14th Century England and I’d be reduced to communicating by writing things down in Latin, always assuming I could find someone who could read Latin.

On the other hand, there are obvious issues for storytellers, where being accurate about linguistic barriers is going to throw massive obstacles in the way of smooth narrative. I’m reminded of the TV series, Stargate SG-1, where they did try to avoid the whole ‘universal translator’ cliche in the early series, thanks to the polyglot Dr Daniel Jackson. That faded away pretty soon, I’m guessing as script writers, actors and directors alike simply found it too unwieldy.

The thing is though, this wouldn’t be the whole story by any means. Even if people are conversing in mutually recognisable English (or any other language), there are still going to be misunderstandings around slang and pop-culture references. Here’s an example. A few years ago now, I was sitting in the lounge, reading a book. There was some music playing and a son came into the room. We had the following conversation.

Recognising the music, but not quite able to place it, Son: ‘Who wrote that?’

Mostly concentrating on my book, Me: ‘Elgar. Nimrod.’

Mildly indignant Son: ‘Okay, I only asked. No need to be rude.’

Looking up, slightly bemused, Me: ‘Sorry, what? You asked about the music and I told you. Elgar wrote it. It’s called ‘Nimrod’.’

Incredulous Son: ‘He called a piece of music, ‘Nimrod’?’

Now definitely confused, Me: ‘Yes, Nimrod, the mighty hunter.’

Curious Son: ‘So how did it come to mean ‘stupid person?’

Closing my book, Me: ‘It means what?’

Okay, we subsequently established that, at least according to the Internet, ‘nimrod’ became a term of derision thanks to Bugs Bunny. That’s what he repeatedly calls Elmer Fudd, in ironic fashion but presumably younger cartoon viewers didn’t get the literary, Biblical reference and simply went with the insult. Which does make me wonder what happened in the RAF, since that was the name of one of their planes through the 70s and 80s. In my experience, aircrew are much more likely to be familiar with Looney Tunes than the Book of Chronicles. But I digress.

I’ve been trying to think if I’ve seen this sort of thing ever covered in SF&F. The closest I can come up with is Janet Edward’s ‘Earth Girl’ trilogy (highly recommended YA SF) which isn’t about time travel at all but is set in the future where linguistic shift has seen ‘butt’ become a taboo swearword.

Oh and I think there may have been a few one-liners in the TV series ‘Quantum Leap’ but it’s so long since I watched that I may well be misremembering.

Can anyone else flag up a book, TV programme or film that’s tackled this sort of thing, well or badly?

At least this wouldn’t be a problem for gadgets finding themselves Temporally Out of Order. Or could it be? I wonder if we’ll see any stories along those lines in the anthology we’re hoping to write. Excuse me while I go and see how well the Kickstarter’s getting on today.

Why that Facebook ‘Ten Book Challenge’ was impossible for me…

I’m sure you’ve seen it, and mostly likely been tagged – and unsurprisingly it turns out that was in service of Facebook generating a ‘news’ story. Which is harmless enough, as far as it goes. I didn’t not respond by way of any principled stand against being manipulated or exploited or anything. I just didn’t get round to writing a list because every time I tried, my brain just stalled. Hung. Locked up. Needed a firm ctrl-alt-delete.

“List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes, and don’t think too hard. They do not have to be the ‘right’ books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way.”

I don’t have to take a minute to come up with twenty or thirty titles. A couple of minutes? Then I’ll have a hundred and then I’ll realise that I’ve still left out a vast chunk of my lifetime’s reading experience. There’ll be crime and SFF and historical – but no literary fiction, no comedy… And what about non-fiction? Biography? Memoir and diaries? Some of those have made a great impression.

Looking at the bookcases here was no help. Seeing one title would instantly remind me of five others just as memorable in their own and differing ways. I simply could not dash off a superficial selection without instantly regretting it.

On the other hand, I have found reading other people’s lists very interesting, by way of insight into them and their work, offering some surprises along the way. And being tagged by people doing that, it does seem a little rude not to respond in kind.

So I have come up with a list of books that have stayed with me – not any sort of definitive list, not the most memorable books in my life or even the most significant. For a start, I’ve limited myself to fiction. But these are ten books which have a significance for me and my own reading and writing, where each one is an exemplar for any number of similar works.

(and yes, this is consciously gender balanced list because what possible justification could there be for it not being so, given the thousands of books I’ve read in my life thus far?)

The Horse and his Boy – CS Lewis – the first Narnia book I read on my own with themes of being true to one’s own self that will still draw me into a book today.

The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien – for an introduction to epic grandeur which never loses sight of the human (or halfling or dwarven) costs of heroism.

The Ogre Downstairs – Diana Wynne Jones – for child-centered drama acknowledging that life isn’t fair, that everyone, old and young, makes mistakes and the only thing to do is tackle all that and move on. Also magical chemistry set!

Something Fresh – PG Wodehouse – for an introduction to the insights into the human condition that can be so very effectively conveyed through comedy.

Warrior Scarlet – Rosemary Sutcliffe – showing me that the past is a different country and they do things differently there, thus inspiring me to learn more about history while exploring how far the essentials of life and love stay the same.

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – introducing me to the popular fiction of decades gone by. Reading needs depth as well as breadth.

Brat Farrar – Josephine Tey – an introduction to just how much a crime/mystery novel can offer beyond the puzzle of Whodunnit.

Dragon Prince – Melanie Rawn – my personal favourite of the game changers writing epic fantasy in the 80’s, showing just what the genre could now address.

Vanishing Point – Val McDermid – showing how a genre novel can equal the very best of so-called ‘literary fiction’ and then go far beyond it in commenting on contemporary society.

Intrusion – Ken Macleod - informed, engaged, political, thought-provoking, giving the lie to any notion of SFF as ‘mere escapism’.

And now I’m going to hit ‘post’ before I start arguing with myself again about ones I’ve left off, but how am I supposed to choose which of these ten to chuck over the side…?

Ctrl-alt-delete!

“Challoner, Murray & Balfour; Monster Hunters at Law” – my new ebook out today.

As established fans may remember, I’ve had three stories featuring these characters previously published; one in the BFS ‘A Celebration’ anthology and two in Murky Depths magazine. If you’ve read those, you will recall one tantalizing loose end. What becomes of poor Bertie? Well, now you can find out. As well as those three earlier stories, this little collection includes a whole new story, The Fate of the Villiers, in which the hunt continues…

Artwork by Nancy Farmer

Artwork by Nancy Farmer

You can find the book here at the Wizard’s Tower Press shop and it’ll be rolled out to other ebook retailers over the next few days.

But hang on, I’m an epic fantasy writer. Why am I writing adventure stories set in the 1890s with supernatural monsters and steampunk apparitions? Well, first and foremost, I write to entertain; to engage and thrill my readers. I can do that just as well in late Victorian England as I can in Einarinn. Because one of the great things about writing SF&F is the immense freedom it offers.

Wait, what? Surely that’s a bizarre thing to say about writing in a genre – any genre. Isn’t the whole point of genre following the rules? Well, yes, and no. Bear with me.

When I’m writing epic fantasy, I’m looking to honour that particular genre’s core traditions while at the same time examining, testing and driving those traditions forward to ensure the genre still stays relevant to the world today and readers who live in it. Which is why aspiring fantasy writers really should be reading Robin Hobb, Kate Elliott, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Stephen Deas (among many, many other excellent current writers) as well as Tolkien, CS Lewis and Lord Dunsany – to see how the genre develops.

Er, how is this relevant to a book with a werewolf in evening dress on the front? Because as well as appreciating the roots of speculative fiction in Tolkien, Lewis and similar works, aspiring writers will also do well to read the classics of Victorian and Edwardian popular literature by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, H G Wells, H Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. These are at least as much a source for modern SF, Fantasy and Horror as anything Tolkien or Lewis wrote. They are as much part of our literary heritage as anything by Dickens, Hardy or the Bronte sisters – and written to be enjoyed in an age before artificial genre boundaries arose. Indeed CS Lewis was a passionate advocate for the values and virtues of popular reading, as his letters to FR Leavis reveal when the latter was determined to embed literary snobbery in university English degree courses between the wars.

So I wrote these stories – and may yet write more featuring these characters if this collection proves popular – to honour these other forebears of our genre. Also, as you’ll discover on reading, I wrote these tales with an eye to both recognising and challenging some of those forebears’ less palatable assumptions about men, women and their respective roles a hundred-plus years ago. Because such debates are still relevant today.

Because it is never enough to merely revisit our literary sources. We should all aim to be breaking new ground, not merely trailing after well-trodden footprints which will only bring us back to our starting point. That’s where the real challenge – and the most fun – lies in writing genre fiction.

(And once you’ve written it, if you’re as lucky as me, you’ll have the immense fun of seeing your creations envisioned by a talented artist, in this case Nancy Farmer.)

Is it time for a Women’s Speculative Fiction Prize?

I’m heading into London later today for the David Gemmell Legend Awards. No, I have no idea who’s won. But I can tell you one thing for certain. All the prize winners will be men because the shortlists are all male this year. No, I’m not criticizing the DGLA administrators for that, or scolding the thousands of fantasy fans who take the time to nominate and vote for their favourites each year, and I absolutely respect and admire the shortlisted authors, hard-working professionals all.

But this does nothing to help the ongoing problem of lack of visibility for women writing epic fantasy.

Yes but, I can hear someone saying, this is just one award. Look at the progress towards gender (and other) equality in other areas.
Three of the last four winners of the Arthur C Clarke Award have been women.
The Nebula Awards were dominated by female authors this year.
The British Science Fiction Association best novel award has been won jointly by Ann Leckie and Gareth Powell.
The Hugo Award shortlists are encouragingly diverse, despite blatant attempts to game the system by die-hard sexists (and worse).
Even the British Fantasy Society is offering a wide-ranging slate for 2014, including a Best Newcomer shortlist that’s all women after so many years dominated by male nominees and a definition of fantasy heavily skewed towards horror.

All that’s absolutely valid. And that means this whole issue is worth a closer look rather than simply deciding it just means these Gemmell Awards are an unfortunate aberration.

Look closer and you’ll see all these recent awards and shortlists I’m citing come from Fandom with the active participation of juries in many cases. These are driven by the high-volume readers (and writers) who actively engage with genre debates and developments through conventions and online venues, blogs and forums. This is where so much recent change to broaden diversity and inclusion within SF&F has happened and continues to be driven forward, not without difficulty at time and with profound thanks to the determination of those who refuse to be silenced.

By contrast, the Gemmell Awards are a popular vote and as such, these shortlists reflect the entirety of fantasy readers, the majority of whose tastes and purchases are driven by what they see in the shops, what they see reviewed in genre magazines and blogs, and such like. Where male writers dominate. I’ve written repeatedly about the gender skew in Waterstones (and a full blog post on that is forthcoming) and just this week, I got a ‘Top Fantasy Titles’ email from Amazon, offering me fifteen books by men and just one by a woman writer. Female authors are still consistently under-represented in genre reviews and blogs.

Why? Because of conniving hard-core sexists upholding the patriarchy? Er, no. Because retail is a numbers game and that means it skews towards repeating successes rather than promoting innovation. To revisit an example I’ve offered before –

When a non-fan bookseller, eager to capitalise on Game of Thrones, is making key decisions about what’s for sale, and all the review coverage and online discussion indicates a majority-male readership for grimdark books about blokes in cloaks written by authors like Macho McHackenslay – that’s what goes in display, often at discount, at the front of the store. So that’s what people see first and so that’s what sells most copies.

Six months down the line, the accountants at head office look at the sales figures and think excellent, Macho McHackenslay is one of our bestsellers – and the order goes out to ask publishers for more of the same. Now, chances are, some editor will be dead keen to promote the second or third novel by P.D.Kickassgrrl. Unfortunately her sales aren’t nearly as good, because her book’s on sale at full price in the SFF section at the back of the shop or upstairs, where retail footfall studies have proved people just don’t go to browse any more, especially now that booksellers don’t routine carry authors’ backlists.

When it’s a numbers game like retail, that passionate editor will struggle to get a hearing, however much he insists the body count and hardcore ethics of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s excellent book will surely appeal to Macho McHackenslay fans – especially when that bookseller won’t have seen any reviews of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s work to prompt him to stock it at the front of the shop – because genre magazines and blogs have the same skew towards conservatism, on the grounds that ‘we have to review the books people are actually buying, because those are the ones they’re clearly interested in.’

And so the self-referential and self-reinforcing circle is complete. Which how we end up with all male shortlists for the 2014 Gemmell Awards.

And it is absolutely no answer to say ‘oh well, look, there are plenty of women coming in at the debut stage now, so we just have to wait for them to rise through the ranks.’ Because we have decades of evidence to show that this simply isn’t going to work. It hasn’t worked in the law, in medicine, in academia, in any number of other professions. If it did, these arguments wouldn’t keep recurring.

So how do we break this cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy? What would get women writers in SF&F noticed outside genre circles, which is what needs to happen if female authors are to have any chance of the sustained writing careers which their male peers can achieve.

How about a Women’s Speculative Fiction Prize? Because prizes garner press coverage and column inches outside the genre in the mainstream press. Just google any of those awards I listed earlier to see that. Prizes get the attention of publicists and booksellers who aren’t specifically interested in genre – any genre. The same’s true for crime, romance, etc. Shortlisted books get reviews because a magazine or newspaper that might not have otherwise noticed them now has a specific reason to take a look.

No, I’m not volunteering to set this up. I know full well how much hard work goes into administering and fund-raising to support an award, year round. As a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award, I got a good look at the busy team behind the curtain and I’ve been a supporter of the Gemmell Awards since the first discussions about how to go about setting that up and whether it should be a juried or popular vote. Establishing a new award like this would not be an easy undertaking, even with the active support of genre publishers willing to supply yet more free copies of books, if this was a juried award rather than a popular vote. And that’s just one of the complex issues that would need discussing, alongside eligibility and other criteria.

This idea is still worth discussing though. And if you don’t think it’s a good idea, feel free to come up with some other solutions, to offer female authors of epic fantasy some reason to keep on writing in the current hostile retail climate.