Posts belonging to Category culture and society



Sansa Stark’s joined the X-Men? Thoughts on popcultural cross contamination.

I’ve yet to see the X-Men Apocalypse movie, so I can’t comment on Sophie Turner’s performance. Her work on Game of Thrones – especially at the moment (NO spoilers in comments please!) – gives me every reason to expect she’ll do a thoroughly good job.

The thing is, though, this is becoming A Thing for me. An amusement at the moment, rather than a distraction, but definitely A Thing.

I caught a trailer for A Knight’s Tale on the TV last week, which is one of my favourite movies. Now though? That’s the one where Robert Baratheon makes The Joker’s armour while The Vision bigs him up to the crowd…

Ripper Street? Did you see the one where Blackfish Tully dragged Bronn out of bed, possibly to chase after Jorah Mormont, or maybe Barristan Selmy, because both of them have turned up, and been up to no good.

Now, this is nothing new – Ronny Cox is merely the first actor who comes to mind for me, thinking about recurrent faces in fan-favourite movies and TV, going back to the 80s. Always doing sterling work. The same goes for Brian Cox. And other actors whose surname isn’t Cox, like James Cosmo.

And I’ve no wish to deny actors work. Their employment and earnings statistics make being a writer look like steady, well-paid work!

But I am curious. Why has this become A Thing for me? The cumulative effect of the sheer volume of stuff that I’ve watched in 50 years? Or because of the particular things I chose to watch?

But as far as my sons are concerned, Sean Connery is and will always be ‘Indiana Jones’s Dad’ because that’s the role they first saw him in. On the basis of one viewing, it seems that Vanessa Redgrave is permanently tagged as ‘Coriolanus‘s Mum’ for them. So maybe not so much.

Because we can watch what we want, when we want, so very much more easily these days? Instead of seeing things on release at the cinema or when they were broadcast – or not at all? So performances weren’t so apt to all come along in a rush?

But then, you could hardly escape James Norton on UK television earlier this year, what with War and Peace, Happy Valley and Grantchester, and that was all down to scheduling.

As I say, I’m curious. I don’t have any particular conclusions, beyond hoping it remains an amusement rather than becoming a distraction.

Anyone else finding this is A Thing?

Why knowing the history of history is vital for any writer drawing from the past

I once had an amiable conversation with a scientist who genuinely couldn’t see what so enthrals me about history. When it’s happened, the past is done, according to him. Once you know the facts, where else is there to go?

Ah, but whose facts? Because this isn’t maths where a particular equation always gives the same result or chemistry where adding Stuff A to Stuff B has a predictable, repeatable outcome. One of the most fascinating things about studying history is analysing the interpretations of a particular set of known facts and seeing what that particular view tells us about whoever drew those particular conclusions. Because historical scholarship invariably tells us as much about the time and place where it was written, and about who wrote it, as it tells us about the actual historical period under discussion.

For those who were interested when I talked about this at Fantasycon 2015 – and begging the indulgence of any genuine academics reading this – here’s a brief and necessarily broad-brush look at the ways in which classical Greek homosexuality has been viewed in successive decades. Because as the first hand sources make very clear, intense friendships between teenage boys and older men were common and even encouraged. This much is known – but what exactly does that tell us about the society of Athens in the 5th century BCE, according to the historians?

According to classical scholars writing in the 50s and 60s, these were perfectly wholesome relationships where gentlemen with more worldly and military experience would mentor and advise the next generation of Athenian citizens – and there’s absolutely no reason to assume any sexual component to these relationships. NOT AT ALL, according to the prevailing not-very-sub-text of those scholars, because as we all know, Decent Chaps Do Not Get Up To That Sort Of Thing! They would cite the mockery of effeminate characters in Aristophanes’ comedies as indisputable proof and move briskly on.

The thing is, these scholars were not in denial. They weren’t lying or distorting the facts. But they were most assuredly viewing the past through the lens of their own times and society. These are academics who would have been educated and be working in predominantly if not exclusively male environments where the Old Boy Network was a flourishing institution. Given study of the classical world was considered to be the study of history’s greatest thinkers and institutions, a shining example for civilized men to emulate ever since the Enlightenment, seeing similar relationships to their own at work in Classical Athens merely served to endorse their belief in the essential and inevitable benevolence of the patriarchal status quo.

More than that, given the way in which that particular system of education considered the classical world’s stamp of approval defined so much that was worthwhile and praiseworthy, the idea that these friendships could have been homosexual relationships is quite simply untenable for them. Because these men grew up, were educated and were writing in an age when homosexuality was illegal. And not merely illegal in a way that wasn’t actually a problem because kindly, blind eyes were turned. Gay men were imprisoned. They lost their jobs and their families. Some killed themselves. Some killed others to protect their shameful, filthy, guilty secret – as it was seen back then. If you want some idea of society’s prevailing views and their reflection in the media, look into the case of John Vassall, a British civil servant who was blackmailed into spying for the KGB. If the Profumo Affair hadn’t come along, Vassall’s case would be the definitive 60s sex scandal.

So for those scholars to uphold classical civilisation as an exemplary model on the one hand and on the other, to accept that it also included behaviour which they’d been taught to believe was repellent, was quite simply impossible.

Fast forward to the 1970s and 80s when legalisation and the gay rights movement meant gay men could be out, loud and proud, challenging prejudice head on. Now we can find classical scholars offering very different views. Of course all these relationships were fully and physically homosexual, as far as their equally honest and sincere interpretations are now concerned. Without the shame-based culture promulgated by subsequent religions, men in Classical Athens were able to express their natural sexuality exactly as they wished before the obligations of citizenship demanded wives and children from them. Bisexuality was effectively the norm, not the exception, certainly according to some.

Obviously, a degree of decorum was expected. According to this scholarship, that same mockery in Aristophanes makes it plain that the 5th century equivalent of aging, flaming queens were a joke. But homosexuality itself was entirely accepted and acceptable – which of course means that those gay rights proponents could and would now claim that very same Classical Civilisation Stamp of Approval previously so jealously guarded by The Establishment.

Fast forward again to scholarship in the 21st century and to current interpretations informed by the ways in which understanding of gender and sexuality is moving beyond a purely binary view. Not only as a result of campaigners’ efforts but also as an unforeseen consequence of other things. After decades of denial, the issue of AIDS forced civil and military authorities to acknowledge the reality of same-sex encounters in all-male environments such as prisons and the armed forces. Public health considerations required supplying condoms both for avowedly gay men and for those who would have same-sex liaisons even though they still considered themselves wholly straight and who opted for heterosexual relationships outside such environments. Which, for instance, casts quite a different light on Socrates sharing a blanket with Alcibiades while on military service and subsequently marrying a woman as a good Athenian citizen was expected to do.

These days the idea that young men might experiment sexually with each other before settling into heterosexual marriage is (hopefully) unremarkable. Now Aristophanes’ mockery is seen not as lampooning gay men for their sexuality but as targeting those whose excessive self-indulgence of sexual alongside other appetites mean they are failing in their duties as citizens. Provided a man meets those obligations, how he chooses to satisfy his sexual desires, gay or straight, isn’t the central issue, according to current readings. Add to that, there’s now plenty of evidence for male and female prostitutes working in classical Athens and no stigma in visiting them.

Which isn’t to say that these relationships between teenage boys and older men aren’t a concern for current scholars. It’s the cause for concern that’s changed. When 5th century sources say that the younger partner should be beardless and with hairless thighs, does this mean prepubescent? If so, academics are now very keen to discuss how very much later puberty occurred in the days before modern nutrition, with secondary sexual characteristics appearing as late as sixteen or seventeen years of age. And how old is the senior partner in that particular historical context? Primary evidence is emphatically cited for such relationships only being socially acceptable for men up to their late twenties or early thirties. Scholars flag up contemporary sources condemning those in their forties and fifties seeking out the very young – in other words, exactly the sort of men whom we now consider predatory paedophiles. It’ll be interesting to see if these interpretations still stand unchanged in twenty years’ time or if they are considered at least in part, as a reflection of this particular decade’s belated acknowledgement of, and overdue resolve to prevent, child abuse.

So it really is at least as important to look at who’s telling you something about history, and the time and context within which they are working, as it is to look at the thing itself. Personally I think this is particularly important for writers of epic fantasy who may well start out, at least, by drawing on the history they recall from school and on general resources, particularly online, which are far more likely to draw on recycled and outdated material than to be keeping current with the latest academic research.

And of course, looking at who’s telling you something is an equally valuable skill when it comes to analysing the pronouncements of modern politicians and the mass media so eager to push their own political and commercial agenda. As Cicero used to say – and he was no slouch when it came to manipulating opinion – ‘Cui bono?’ Who benefits?

Guest post – Zen Cho on ‘My Year of Saying No’.

You’ll recall how much I enjoyed reading Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown. (If you missed my review, click here) So I’m extremely pleased to host this illuminating and thoughtful post reflecting on that story’s origins and her experiences as a newly published writer.

My year of saying no

Photo credit - Darren Johnson / IDJ Photography.

Photo credit – Darren Johnson / IDJ Photography.

In 2015 I became super obsessed with the BBC miniseries Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This wasn’t terribly surprising – I love the book and have reread it several times, and the series had everything I like: men and women in pretty period outfits, magic, humour, and even a touch of the numinous. It wasn’t a perfect adaptation, but an adaptation that’s sort of almost there but not quite is perfect for inducing fannish obsessiveness.

What was new and surprising was that, for the first time, I started identifying with Jonathan Strange. Jonathan Strange is nothing like me. He’s a fictional rich white dude who would be dead now if he was ever alive. I’m a real middle-class Chinese Malaysian woman who’s only spent time in 1800s England in her imagination. He’s the Second Greatest Magician of the Age. I’m a lawyer who moonlights as a moderately obscure fantasy writer.

I’m also fundamentally not as much of a douche (I love the character, but it’s gotta be said). I take no credit for this. It is because I was socialised as a woman and was therefore taught things like listening skills and how to feel guilty for taking up space in the world.

But there was one big thing I had in common with Jonathan Strange. We had both figured out what we’d been put on earth to do, and we were doing it. The vocations we had each chosen were potentially of great value and importance to society as a whole — magic in Jonathan Strange’s case; writing in mine — but we were mainly doing it for selfish reasons rather than to benefit anyone else. Nevertheless our work felt like a great and serious charge, and what this charge required of us was a determined selfishness.

SorcerertotheCrownUKcoverlargeIn 2015 my first novel came out. It was a bit like getting married: it meant that something that had been private suddenly became very public, and people treated me differently about something I’d been working away quietly at for years. And it also meant that people started wanting stuff from me. They wanted me to answer questions, write blog posts, submit to anthologies, show up to events, blurb books, critique manuscripts ….

It’s nice to be wanted, of course, and it was a refreshing novelty. As with most writers, rejection is the backing track of my life, so it was nice for once to hear “please will you?” instead of “no, thank you”. But it meant I had more demands on my time than ever before, when I had less time than ever before.

I had to learn to say no. Which was hard, because women aren’t encouraged to say no, and they especially aren’t encouraged to refuse to help other people. We’re supposed to be nurturing. Fortunately, I am pretty bad at being nurturing, but even so I struggled.

A lot of the requests I get are for nice things, things that support diversity in SFF and publishing, which is something I both care about and benefit from. How could I refuse when it was for such a good cause?

But I realised that if I was not ferociously protective of my time — if I didn’t play that role of The Rude Genius — I would soon find it sucked up in mostly uncompensated labour, in things that weren’t writing my own stories.

I don’t, in fact, have a room of my own. I have a sofa and an inbox full of requests for publishing advice that the querier could Google for themselves. So I’m learning to patrol the boundaries of the uncluttered space I need for writing — and for living, because I don’t owe anyone time and attention even if I’m not rushing to meet a deadline.

I’m still not as good at saying no as I should be, but I’ve already been accused of being grand for the appalling crime of not answering emails. I wonder whether the same accusation would be lobbed at me if I was a white man. We expect men, especially white men, to be rude geniuses. But it seems we feel entitled to the time and energy of women, especially Asian women.

You’ll point out I’m not a genius, which is true, but then I’m also not that rude. I say yes far more often than I say no. There’s still that fear, whenever I turn something down, that I should make the most of any attention I’m getting now, because people will stop asking eventually.

But you know what? I have never, not once, regretted saying no. And even if people stop asking and go away, it’s not like they’ll take the stories with them. Writing is mine – and it would be foolish to let a general sense of obligation to the world at large chip away at it. Jonathan Strange would definitely say something sardonic about that.

A martial arts perspective on ‘Why Women Smile at Men who Harass Us’.

Various people have been linking to a (very good) article* on ‘Why Women Smile at Men who Harass Us”* with their own further valid observations and commentary, notably Catie Murphy

Essentially, women are aiming to de-escalate these situations to keep themselves safe. Not least because as just about any woman can tell you, ignoring a man who’s demanding your attention in an increasingly persistent fashion (whether drunk/horny/showing off to his mates) will NOT make him ‘just go away’.

Nor will responding in aggressive fashion. That will pretty much definitely make things worse. Read the magistrates’ court reports in your local paper for plenty of evidence there.

Now, one assumption underpinning this is that women de-escalate these situations because they wouldn’t be able to win in a physical fight. Up to a point, yes – and it’s a wholly valid point.

But some of us assuredly could. I speak as an aikido third dan with over 30 years training under my blackbelt.

And when I’m accosted/’complimented’/intruded upon by importunate men when I’m out and about on my own? Yes, I do exactly the same as every other woman. I smile and say meaningless nothings to keep everything calm and undramatic until I can extricate myself from the situation.

Because I’m not confident in my skills? Oh, far from it.

Because I don’t particularly want to end up in court charged with assault after Mr Harrasser ends up seeing a maxillo-facial surgeon to repair his broken jaw after unexpectedly meeting the pavement face first? That’s a consideration, yes.

Overwhelmingly though, it’s because of one of the very first things I learned practising aikido, over 30 years ago.

Our instructor, Kanetsuka Sensei came into the dojo where all the students were waiting. His pupil/assistant Tanaka Sensei was on the mat, ready. Kanesuka is not a tall man. Tanaka is huge.

They squared up, toe to toe. And then Kanetsuka Sensei ran out of the dojo at top speed. Tanaka stayed where he was, impassive. Everyone else looked at each other, baffled.

Kanetsuka returned, calm and relaxed. He gestured at the door, ‘Best defence.’

Then he raised a finger. ‘If you cannot.’ And proceeded to demonstrate the many and varied ways he could throw and pin Tanaka, rendering him utterly helpless.

Helpless, please note. Not bleeding or physically incapacitated. Aikido does not set out to break an attacker. The aim, first and foremost, is to break an attacker’s will to attack, while staying safe oneself.

(That said, yes, these are techniques which used in the street, on an attacker with no knowledge of breakfalls or rolling out of a throw, would leave them bruised at best and quite possibly with broken bones. Unless the aikidoka is sufficiently experienced to be able to choose otherwise. And let’s remember the key word here is ‘attacker’. Aikido is the martial art which waits for the other guy to start things – but I digress)

So here’s the thing. By far the best way to win in a fight (or any confrontation) is not to have it happen. Top level martial arts masters in far more disciplines than only aikido agree on that.

So a woman responding to that pushy, oboxious dude on a late night train or at a bus stop with a small, tight smile and some meaningless platitudes?

She’s de-escalating the situation while keeping herself safe.

She’s not a coward. She’s not losing in that encounter. She’s winning it.

* here’s a link to that article, though it’s displaying oddly in my browser today – I don’t know why.

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Discussing diversity & representation in SFF – links round up

My post on the erasure of women last Monday clearly struck a resounding chord, which I find extremely encouraging. Though I’m by no means the only, or indeed the most recent, writer to post reflections on this issue. Here’s a selection of pieces I’ve found well worth reading recently.

I’ve pulled some quotes to give you a flavour of the pieces – and I urge you read them in full. Then go and read these authors’ books. I personally enjoy all their work – the books are well written, engaging, intriguing, entertaining. Better yet, the way these authors really think through what they’re writing, about who, how and why, gives their stories satisfying richness and depth,.

Here’s an excellent piece by Judith Tarr over on Charlie Stross’s blog. “What goes around…”

It can get really, really tiresome to fight the same battles over and over and over again, and to watch the older battles and the women who fought them be systematically and consistently erased. But when I realize how deeply ingrained the silencing of women is, I find it all the more remarkable that there’s actual, perceptible progress. Women’s voices are actually being heard–and sometimes even being taken seriously.

“is my malfunction so surprising ’cause I always seem so stable and bright?” asks Elizabeth Bear.

See, the funny thing is, it turns out that people of color and queer people and women and genderqueer people and disabled people… we’re not types. We’re not categories. We’re individuals with certain characteristics and we may have very different attitudes and philosophies and relationships with those characteristics.

So, saturation matters. We need a lot of stories with different kinds of people in them, and not just a token stereotype, one per book or movie or TV show.

And actually, finally seeing yourself as a protagonist or a significant character in art is a tremendously empowering experience. Seeing yourself reflected makes you feel real and noticed, and it’s important.

Since it’s vital that this debate includes a fully representative range of voices, I am indebted to Stephanie Saulter whose Twitter feed alerted me to this next piece from Tor.com.

“Writing Global Sci-Fi: White Bread, Brown Toast” by Indrapramit Das

Growing up with these imaginative riches curiously absent from Indian contemporary art and media, I didn’t even notice all the white protagonists, writers, directors, and actors in this boundary-less creative multiverse I so admired and wanted to be a part of. Or I didn’t mind this prevailing whiteness, because I was taught not to. That, of course, is the quiet hold of cultural white supremacy.

It wasn’t until I was on a campus in the middle of Pennsylvanian Amish country, surrounded by young white undergrad creative writing students in a workshop class taught by a white professor, that I realized I mostly wrote white protagonists. I’d never felt less white, which made the repeated pallor of my protagonists blaze like a thousand suns.

I’m not apologizing for growing up inspired by so much science fiction made by white people primarily for white people. Hell, I think white creators should be proud that their work found fans across the planet, and acquired some shade of the universality that sci-fi is supposed to espouse in its futurist openness. Just as languages spread and mutate on the vector of history (I see no need for gratitude, explanations, or shame for the words I use just because they were introduced to India by colonizers—Indian English is no different than American English or Quebecois French), so too do genres and art, and it’s time to recognize that sci-fi and fantasy are so dominant in pop culture now because fans the world over helped make it so. But if international sci-fi is to change, instead of stagnate into a homogenous product for the algorithm-derived generic consumer, it needs to foreground the profuse collective imagination of the entire world, instead of using it as background color for largely white stories.

I’m also including this piece by Jim Hines – My Mental Illness is Not Your Inspirational Post-it Note for two reasons.

Firstly, diversity is about showing and allowing access to every marginalised group – and all at the same time. It’s long past time to do away with the ‘Highlander’ approach to representation, insisting “There can be only one!” so if people of colour (or any other group) want the single ‘Minority Seat’ at the table, white women (or whoever else might be sitting there at the moment, but oddly, never the white men in the rest of the chairs) must take a step back.

Secondly, the piece underlines the importance of getting things right and actually listening, if you want to be an ally, and even more so if you’re writing about a group you’re not personally a part of.

This is a group that’s set themselves up as advocates for people with mental illness…while ignoring feedback from the very group they claim to support. I don’t know the individuals behind Team Notashamed or their situation, but this feels like symptoms of Toxic Ally Syndrome, where you’re so determined to be an “ally” of Group X that you ignore or argue with members of Group X because you know best. This is often followed by choruses of, “Why are you getting angry at me? I’m your ally! Fine, if you’re gonna be so ungrateful, I’ll just take my allyship and leave!”

Right, that’s enough to be going on with. That said, feel free to flag up any other good pieces you’ve come across in comments.

EDITED TO ADD –

The Geek’s Guide to Disability by Annalee over at The Bias blog.

I want the science fiction community to be inclusive and accessible to disabled people. I want our conventions and corners of the internet to be places where disabled people are treated with dignity and respect. I’m hoping that if I walk through some of the more common misconceptions, I can move the needle a little–or at least save myself some time in the future, because I’ll be able to give people a link instead of explaining all this again.

for instance

The use of “differently abled” is especially a problem within the science fiction community because it feeds the myth the people with disabilities develop compensatory superpowers. Some of us read and watch so much bullshit about disability that we have to be reminded that Daredevil is a comic book and not a documentary.

I’m using DareDevil as my example ‘supercrip’ because a lot of folks honestly believe that blind and low-vision people develop heightened senses of hearing and touch. The evidence for that is, at best, inconclusive. (The National Federation of the Blind says flat-out that blind people don’t develop sharper senses).

Once again, I strongly recommend reading the whole piece.

Brief thoughts on women writers being erased from SFF – again

Another day, another article supposedly assessing the cutting edge of Science Fiction written over the decades. Citing twenty five authors. All men. No, I’m not going to link. You can find it for yourself at SF Signal if you really want to.

(Revisited at the end of April 2015 thanks to an article claiming ‘Epic fantasy hates women’ on the basis of a lazy list of not very current and entirely male authored series of books.)

Like every other such article, it hands women writers a poisonous choice. We can object, with all the hassles and loss of our own working time which that will entail, as the usual counter-objections come straight back at us. That’s best case. Worst case? The full gamut of ugly insults and threats.

Or we can let the erasure stand, damaging women in SF&F, present and future.

Either way, we lose out.

I can easily predict the ways an objection to this particular piece will be dismissed. “It’s taking the long view and since men have dominated historically, the list will inevitably skew male. There’s nothing to be done about that.”

Yes, there is. Research. Start with Octavia Butler – and while you’re there, make a note that erasing writers of colour and those of differing sexuality is equally damaging and yes, just as dishonest.

Then there will be the expressions of concern – some even genuinely meant. “It’s just one article. Does it really matter?”

No, it isn’t just one article. Stuff like this crosses my radar if not weekly, at least once a fortnight. And that’s without me making any effort to find it.

As an epic fantasy writer, I’m just waiting for the first instance of that now well-established harbinger of Spring. The article saying “Game of Thrones will be back on the telly soon. Here’s a list of other authors you might like (who just happen to all be men).”

And if I object to those? “Oh, don’t take it so personally.”

No, women SFF writers don’t take these best-of lists, these recommended-for-award-nominations and shortlists, these articles and review columns erasing us ‘personally’.

We object because they damage us all professionally.

More than that, erasing women authors impoverishes SF&Fantasy for everyone by limiting readers’ awareness and choices today and by discouraging potential future writers

Which is why this matters.

Every

Single

Time

Right, I have work to do, so I will go and do that. If you want read further thoughts on all this, check out Equality in SF&F – Collected Writing

Are we finally seeing the long-overdue examination of what’s gone wrong with the book trade?

Philip Pullman and those writers backing him (referenced in my previous post) seem to have prompted an important – and to my mind, long overdue – examination of exactly what’s gone wrong with the book trade in the past five or ten years.

From Nick Cohen, on his experience of being asked to appear at The Oxford Literary Festival. ‘Why English writers accept being treated like dirt’

For those who don’t have time to read the whole thing just at the moment, the key quote for me is as follows:

If the system does not change, readers will suffer for a reason that cannot be repeated often enough. The expectation that workers will work for nothing is leading to the class cleansing of British culture. Everywhere you go, you hear culture managers saying they want ‘diversity’, while presiding over a culture that might have been designed to exclude the working and lower-middle classes. Whether you look at journalism, the arts, the BBC, photography, film, music, the stage, and literature, you see that those most likely to get a break are those whose parents are wealthy enough to subsidise them. The generalisation is not wholly true. Young people from modest backgrounds can still break through. But every year their struggle becomes a little harder. Every year, an artistic career becomes a little less viable to potentially talented writers and artists.

From Philip Gwyn Jones, laying bare the implications for readers. ‘The civil war for books; where is the money going?’

Though this post isn’t just about money. It’s about the ways changes in bookselling influence publishing decisions and ultimately limit readers’ choices. Once again, until you can find the time to read the whole thing.

as a commissioning editor and publisher of some 25 years standing, I hope I have some authority to make the claim that certain stars are missing. They are just not being born. It seems to me that there is a universe of self-censorship out there, even if it is invisible to the naked eye. We’ve had perhaps five years now of good writers taking their next ambitious project to their agent who in turn excitably puts it in front of publishers only to be told that it’s perhaps a little too bold an idea for these austere and shape-shifting times, and might there not be a more reader-friendly project up the writer’s sleeve? The agent sheepishly reports this back to their beloved writer, who then either conforms to the market’s demands or slopes away to nurse their wounded ego, and think hard about the purposes and pleasures of writing. The next time that writer comes up with a bold, unorthodox, unprecedented notion for a book, what happens? Well, perhaps, just perhaps, they decide before they start in earnest that it’s a no-hoper and they ought to play safe, so they bin it without telling anyone. And another bright star never shines.

Social reading is the coming thing, we are told, where our reading devices and apps will allow us to communicate with others who are reading the same book we are, share notes and queries with them, correct and conject, exult and excoriate together as if we online readers were round a digital dining table, and even involve the writer in that conversation if they are willing. But for such Social reading to work, everyone has to be reading the same thing, so it tends to favour the popular, the shared, the already-known. Hence the ubiquity of Most Read and Most Liked lists. There is a lot of barked coercion out there in cyberspace. So the online sharing book economy will coalesce around, well, winners. But what happens to the losers: the unshared, the jagged, inimitable, harder-to-chat books?

And the next time you’re in your local High Street or supermarket, take a look at the books on offer and I’m pretty sure you’ll see all these forces already at work.

Which incidentally, brings me back to something important about SF conventions and the genre small press. Both continue to support and promote writers and books outside the mainstream, thanks to the support of readers looking for something beyond mass market fodder.

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.

blog-lemur