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

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

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Machines; the past, the future and how stories take us there – exhibition in Durham

One of the highlights of my trip to Durham for NerdEast was visiting the ‘Time Machines’ exhibition at the Palace Green Library, which you can find between the castle and the cathedral. I heartily recommend going to find it, and not just to SF&Fantasy fans. Anyone interested in the ways in which time travel stories and literature have intersected for generations, even centuries, will find it rewarding.

The displays have been curated by the library staff and the English department, and look at how humanity has measured time, from the earliest water clocks etc, through to modern technology. It looks at the ways in which concepts of time changed with Victorian scientific explorations of the age of the Earth and with theories such as evolution. It looks at time travel stories as a means of political debate, and you will find all the familiar, well respected names in our genre represented, from H.G.Wells to Heinlein. The displays in cases are well laid out and there are also some excellent audio-visual elements.

Also, and oh, this is so important, the exhibitions gives equal weight and visibility to the ways in which writers of colour and women have used time travel stories to explore and imagine better futures, different futures, and to interrogate the abuses and complexities of the past, specifically as it affects them. You’ll find the familiar names, like Atwood and Le Guin, alongside writers like Marge Piercy and Octavia Butler through to writers doing excellent work today, such as Nalo Hopkinson and Naomi Alderman – who has just won the Baileys Prize with her novel ‘The Power’.

Here’s a quick snap I took of the box of books available for browsing in the ‘why not have a sit down and a think?’ space at the end of the exhbition. That shows the depth and breadth of the thinking underpinning this project.

So if you’re anywhere near Durham, this exhibition is definitely worth visiting. It’s on until the 3rd September, so spread the word!

Thoughts on writing and publishing, from me and others.

I’ve had a productive week writing and while I’ve been doing that, a couple of guest posts by me have appeared elsewhere.

Marie Brennan is asking various authors about that moment when a book idea really ignites. This Must Be Kept A Secret is my contribution to her ongoing Spark of Life blog series, looking at the rather different experience I had with Shadow Histories, compared to the Einarinn novels. Incidentally, if you haven’t already come across Marie’s ‘Lady Trent’ books, do take a look. I adore them.

In other writing related posts I’ve spotted this week

Fantasy Author Robin Hobb on Saying Goodbye to Beloved Characters and Those GRRM Comparisons

Jacey Bedford on writing and being edited from the writer’s perspective. Another writer whose books you should check out.

Craig Leyenaar (Assistant Editor, Gollancz) on the process of turning a manuscript into a book from the editor’s point of view.

Looking at the business side of the book trade, I wrote a guest post for Sarah Ash’s blog. The Bugbear of the ‘Breakout Book’ for Readers and Writers alike – Juliet E. McKenna

I also noted this piece by Danuta Kean – not another ‘self-publish and get rich quick’ piece but an interesting look at another facet of the changing book trade, including the pitfalls for the naive author. ‘Show me the money!’: the self-published authors being snapped up by Hollywood

Okay, that should keep you in tea or coffee break reading to be going on with.

1stChapterFriday and Nerd East News

Okay after last week’s trial run, we’re going to go with #1stChapterFriday – that’s singular, no ‘s’ – on the interests of disambiguation. We’ll also see how we get on with that hashtag on Facebook as well as Twitter.

And for sake of completeness and for those who don’t use either of those platforms, here’s my link to the first chapter of The Swordsman’s Oath, free for you to read, your friends and family etc.

In other news, I’m very much looking forward to a trip to Durham for the 3rd of June where I will be a guest at Nerd East, the North East’s original Roleplay and Gaming mini-convention, running since 2010.

Nerd East 2017 will be runing on the aforementioned Saturday 3rd June in Durham Students’ Union, New Elvet, Durham, DH1 3AN. I’ll be talking about books, games, film, TV and how they all relate to each other in current SF&Fantasy culture. Plus, y’know, whatever other interesting things come up for discussion. Did I mention I’m looking forward to this?

For those within striking distance, click here for the Nerd East website.

Reasons to watch “Show Me A Hero” – the HBO/David Simon miniseries.

We watched this over the weekend, being fans of David Simon’s other work, notably The Wire and Tremé. It’s based on the book of the same name* by Lisa Belkin, focusing on events in the city of Yonkers, New York, between 1987 and 1993, following a Federal court ruling that public housing must be distributed throughout the city to end de-facto racial segregation. Local opposition was vociferous and ferocious, fearing that the spread of crime and disorder would see property values in ‘good’ neighbourhoods plummet.

Nick Wasicsko was the young politician who initially saw a route to power by supporting appeals against this ruling, though in fact he saw the new housing projects as both inevitable and desirable, according to this series at least, and let’s bear mind that his former wife was a consultant on the project. Anyway, he soon found himself dealing with the aforementioned local residents’ opposition, with other politicians out to serve their own interests by posturing over the issue, and with outside groups keen to use this conflict to advance their own agendas. Oscar Isaac, now perhaps better known as Poe Dameron, is outstanding in this central role, and the cast overall is a stellar one, with actors like Alfred Molina and Winona Ryder ensuring that supporting roles have a major impact on the story and on the screen. Oh, and it’s nice to see Jon Bernthal with hair for a change.

The miniseries is well worth watching as a drama, bearing in mind that the title comes from F Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum ‘Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy’. It’s also a compelling exploration of the deeply rooted and multifaceted divisions and complications in American society and politics~. The drama shows valid concerns as well as unconsidered prejudices on both sides together with systemic problems both in public policy and political structures. This is all the more thought-provoking when you consider that the book was written in 1999 and the series first broadcast in 2015. It showed us how the attitudes which have put President Trump in the White House didn’t spring up out of nowhere in 2016.

However, and equally, if not even more importantly, the series shows that such apparently intractable situations can be resolved. We see that given chances and choices, those disadvantaged in life from the outset by poverty and poor education can still succeed. Some of them at least. Others will never see beyond their limited horizons. We see that integration and information enables those initially fearful of unfamiliar racial communities to understand that more unites humanity than divides us. Some of them at least. Others will never abandon inherited, unexamined bias. And on both sides, there will always be those ready and waiting to exploit such situations for personal gain.

We need stories like this more than ever at the moment, to counter the seductive, deceptive narrative of easy solutions and handy scapegoats being peddled by politicians all around the world.

* I have just bought the book and look forward to reading it.
~ We in the UK have no cause for complacency. The flaws in our own political systems may be different but they should be as great a cause for concern.

First Chapter Friday, and other links

Let’s get away from politics for a bit. First up, a reminder for those wondering where to start with my books, that the first chapters are available for reading for free.

You can find the opening chapter of The Thief’s Gamble here, and more about the book and what inspired me to write it here.

incidentally, I’ve mentioned this idea to various writerly pals, so do look out for First Chapter Friday posts on Facebook and Twitter, and share/RT to boost the signal.

Secondly, last week saw the fifth JRR Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Fiction given by Susan Cooper, thanks to Pembroke College MCR in Oxford. You can see the video of the lecture here, and it’s also downloadable as a podcast. Previous years’ lectures are also available as well as other Tolkien-related stuff. I recommend you go and browse. Once again, please boost the signal, to support this wonderful series of talks.

Thirdly, this one’s for upcoming writerly pals in Scotland. The Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Awards 2018 are currently open for applications. Find out more here, and yes, please spread the word.

And what am I doing just at the moment? I’m working on reworking one novel, pitching another one to agents, revising some short fiction for a couple of anthologies, and looking forward to getting all that done and dusted so I can start work on a River Kingdom novel.

Not at a SF&F convention this weekend? You can still enjoy some genre chat and debate

Halice – Warrior Woman from the Tales of Einarinn

It’s a busy weekend for conventions, from the UK to Australia and many points in between. Well, if you happen to be at home, you can still enjoy some SF&F chat by listening to the ‘Breaking the Glass Slipper’ podcast, where I am discussing women warriors and fight scenes with the team. We had great fun, as you’ll easily be able to tell 🙂

While you’re there, do bookmark the podcast for regular listening.

Another discussion that’s going on in various places is the intricacy of writing effective characters in your fiction. Aliette de Bodard is on a blog tour at the moment, what with her new novel, The House of Binding Thorns just out. Do take a look at what she’s saying here and elsewhere.

Beyond the Cliché Shelf: Making Characters Vibrant and Unexpected – at Skiffy and Fanty

The Fallacy of Agency: on Power, Community, and Erasure – at Uncanny Magazine

Likeable characters, interesting characters, and the frankly terrible ones – on her own website.

This is also Women in SF&F Month over at Fantasy Cafe. There’s already an array of interesting posts by authors worth looking out for, plus pertinent observations from fans and reviewers, and more to come. Enjoy!

Update and links and daffodils

I was quite surprised when a pal pointed out it’s been a month since my last blogpost. Really? Surely it’s only been couple of weeks of doing all sorts of other things? Oh, yes…

I’m working on revising one book while continuing to send out another to agents. I’ve read Cory Doctorow’s “Walkaway” and written a review of that for Interzone. I’m writing a guest post for Marie Brennan and I spent a lovely hour and more chatting with the women of the “Breaking the Glass Slipper” podcast, and that will be available shortly. I checked over the edits for a paper I’ve written for Luna Press’s forthcoming book “Gender identity and sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction: do we have a problem?”

Plus there’s been a whole load of domestic and business administrative stuff hereabouts, none of which would make for remotely interesting blogpost material but which gets incredibly time consuming.

Best of all, we’ve been on holiday, and that was great. We headed for the Lake District, and got a very different view of the landscapes, compared to our previous visits, with the trees not yet in leaf and the undergrowth yet to start burgeoning. We also saw lots of sheep and the early lambs and the Husband became fascinated by just how different the shapes of sheep’s heads can be, when you start comparing breed with breed. We visited Penrith, and Acorn Bank, and Holker Hall, and the Lakeland Motor Museum which is highly recommended for those with even a passing interest in cars, motorbikes and cycles. The collection is very well displayed and has some real rarities and oddities. And yes, there are an awful lot of daffodils in the Lake District if you’re there at the right season.

By way of light relief, I’ve watched Marvel’s “Iron Fist” on Netflix… well, let’s just say that I am left with one question above all others… Who was that seeker of ancient truth and wisdom, who travelled all the way to the high Himalayas, and taught the monks of K’un Lun to speak English with a broad Stockport accent? That’s a story I’d really like to see told…

While we were on holiday we watched the first season of “The Expanse” in the evenings, and that was very good indeed. As are the books, though now I have to decide if I want to read on after the first three that I’ve already enjoyed, or wait, so I’m not spoiled for the TV adaptation plot..

Meantime, the Internet has been offering a whole lot of interesting things, so here are some links to pieces that have particularly caught my eye.

Six Things I Learned in My First Month of Using Patreon – Tobias Buckell. Thought-provoking reading for those who think crowd-funding can support the arts.

Mary Beard has a few things to say about the shared metaphors used to describe female access to power. And there’s a transcript if you prefer reading to watching the video.

An article about Josephine Tey “60 years after her death, the greatest mystery Tey created still may be herself”

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a feminist parable for everyone – including me” by Anthony Stewart Head (Twenty years ago?! I feel old…)

Martha Wells highlights a great selection of new books on her blog.

Incidentally, you’ll notice that I’m linking to Martha’s blog on Dreamwidth rather than Live Journal. In common with almost everyone else I know, I’m not about to sign up to LJ’s new Terms of Service. There are some big red flags and one thing I know about contracts is never sign anything with clauses for concern in the hope that ‘but it’ll never happen, right?’ In any case, this website and blog there have been my primary web presence for a good few years now. So I will be dusting off the Dreamwidth account I set up the last time it looked as though LJ was going down the drain, and looking to rebuild as much of my former LJ circle of friends over there, to continue keeping in touch. I am (unsurprisingly) JeMcK if you want to find me. I’ll be shutting down my LJ account some time later this month when I have the spare time to do the admin etc.

And lastly, to be going on with, some daffodils!

Gender in Genre and the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2016

Following my last post, I’m indebted to Kevin Beynon for directing my attention to the finalists in this year’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off – an admirable initiative from best-selling epic fantasy author Mark Lawrence, which aspiring writers and fantasy fans alike should definitely take a look at.

At the start of this year’s competition, Mark invited self-published fantasy authors to submit their books which were then divided randomly among ten established and well-regarded book bloggers/review sites. Each blogger read those submissions with an experienced and critical eye – the sort of consideration any literary agent or editor will give a hopeful new story. They’ve now put forward their favourite for the final. All the bloggers will now read all the books and score them out of ten, generating a cumulative score to determine the overall winner.

Here’s the first thing that’s significant for the current gender in genre discussion. This year’s finalists are five men and five women. What does this tell us? As far as I am concerned, it indicates yet again that when a playing field is level, as far as writing is concerned, gender bias pretty much evaporates.

I’ve seen this in several writing competitions now, where I’ve judged short stories blind – which is to say, all the entries were reformatted and sent to me without any names or indicators of the author’s gender. Every time, when it comes to picking a shortlist, once the winners have been chosen and the curtain is drawn back, that selection proves to be evenly balanced for gender. I’ve found exactly the same in writing competitions I’ve played no part in.

It also reminds me of one key finding when I analysed Waterstones’ promotional emails for signs of gender bias. In the ‘Staff Picks’ and ‘What We’re Reading’ sections where recommendations came from booksellers and customers based on what they’d enjoyed reading, those choices were 53% male, 47% female.

When the only thing that counts is what readers make of the writing, the story really is all that matters.

The second thing I’m seeing here? Out of three hundred SPFBO submissions this year, the field was 49% male, 33% female and 18 unknown as they were using initials. Can we assume those initials all belong to women? I’d say that’s a risky assumption – and even if that were the case, that still means only a third of the books were written by women prepared to raise a hand to be identified as such. What does that tell us?

Once again, it confirms something I’ve seen time and again since I started writing about inequalities in visibility in SF&F. Something I’ve had confirmed as an endemic problem in fields such as medicine, science, computing, literary criticism, history and the law. Women are still culturally conditioned to put themselves forward much less and to hold their own work to a far higher standard before offering it for publication. It’s a problem that frustrates and infuriates editors, from those working on academic journals, through fiction anthologies in all genres, to the commissioning editors in publishing houses. With the best will in the world, the best initiatives to improve diversity and representation can only work if those who’ve been historically excluded now step forward.

Which means those who’ve been historically excluded need to feel they can step forward. That they can raise a hand without it getting slapped down. That their work will be judged on its merits and nothing else. Which absolutely doesn’t mean initiatives that offer patronising, special treatment or give anyone a pass for substandard work. That merely entrenches the idea that these people cannot make the grade unless the standard is lowered to accommodate them. That’s as counter-productive as it is insulting.

So this brings us back to that level playing field. How do we achieve it? How about taking that idea of no special treatment one step further? Let’s stop giving one privileged group the lion’s share of promotion and publicity. Review coverage, promotion through social media, recommendations, citations and award nominations, anthology selections and more besides, remain stubbornly skewed in favour of white male writers. They get roughly two-thirds of the publicity that’s so vital for the word-of-mouth popularity which sustains a writer’s career. Everyone else gets to share the third that remains.

When the vast majority of white male writers working today never sought such favouritism. They find the dead hand of cultural inertia and institutional racism/sexism as problematic as anyone else. Not least for themselves. They don’t want to win awards for writing the best SF/Fantasy/Horror book from a westernised white male. They want to win for writing the best book in that field from anyone! That old saying that a woman has to be twice as good as a man to get half the recognition? It has a flipside. Winning a competition that’s rigged so you can do half the work for twice as much reward as the opposition? Is that prize really worth having?

We have a long way to go. Everyone needs to play their part. Readers and writers alike will benefit and that can only be good for our genre.

Meantime, this particular competition’s outcome is an encouraging sign of progress for me.

A story of mine to listen to, thanks to Far Fetched Fables!

Click on over to Far Fetched Fables (one of the District of Wonders’ enterprises) and you will find an audio version of my story ‘She Who Thinks For Herself’.

I wrote this for the ‘Resurrection Engines’ anthology, back in 2012, alongside a slew of fine writers well worth reading. We were all invited to take on a classic of Victorian literature and find some new and specifically steampunk twist.

I chose H Rider Haggard as I recall reading his books avidly in my early teens, along with Edgar Rice Burroughs, H G Wells and other such classics found in a traditional girls’ grammar school library. I have always believed that our current speculative fiction tradition is rooted in these first mass-market, popular novels of the late Victorian and Edwardian era, written before genre boundaries and definitions became established.

Re-reading H Rider Haggard’s ‘She’ was an eye-opening experience. Naturally I was expecting to find outdated attitudes to race and gender and the influence of the Victorian ‘Great Man’ theories of history and society. Yes, indeed, I found them to a startling extent. I didn’t recall such things striking me so forcefully on first reading. In some ways, that’s reassuring. My world view doesn’t seem to have been warped as a result. On the other hand, this really does show the necessity of being alert to the differences between then and now, when revisiting the roots of our genre for inspiration.

Thankfully, there was already radical thought challenging such Imperial certainty, and growing impetus for reform in the late 19th Century, driven onward by men and women alike. There was a wealth of material for me to draw on, ensuring that ‘She Who Thinks For Herself’ is firmly rooted in historically accurate societal and technological movements of the time.

You’ll find this story alongside “Papagena” by Jay lake and Ruth Nestvold, so that’s another treat you have in store. Enjoy!

This is the very first piece of my fiction to be available in audio format. That sounds incredible, doesn’t it? Well, bear in mind that my first series came out when audio books were still being shipped as CDs and even audio cassettes. Yes, really… So only the very top-sellers got that treatment.

How things have changed, now that digital downloads are so quick and easy. Does that mean my books might get an audio release? Well, I have control over all those rights and would be happy to discuss such a project, so if you’re a fan of audio books, feel free to get in touch with your preferred provider and suggest they email me… 🙂

Resurrection Engines - a steampunk anthology with a twist