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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

Holiday reflections (and eagles)

We’ve recently spent a week in the Ardennes, Belgium. Specifically, in a miniscule village about 8 miles outside Bastogne. We rented a ground floor apartment in a barn conversion with thick stone walls, tiled floors and those continental shutters that the sons still insist on calling ‘blast doors’ after first encountering them at the age of ten or so, when they were really getting into the thrills of SF. So even with outdoor temperatures in the high twenties centigrade, that was a wonderfully cool place to relax, especially after a week spent working in the Netherlands in 35C heat.

Why Bastogne? Well, both Husband and I are interested in history and this area is famous as the arena for the World War Two ‘Battle of the Bulge’. We have a particular interest in this as my brother in law is a historical re-enactor with a group honouring the 101st Airborne, The Screaming Eagles, who were besieged in Bastogne by the German counter-attack of December 1944. When the Germans invited them to surrender, the U.S. commanding officer, General McAuliffe sent back the simple reply ‘Nuts’. This apparently baffled the Germans comprehensively.

If this is all new to you, I can seriously recommend the TV series ‘Band of Brothers’ for an overview of post D-Day WWII. If you’re already interested in such things, we visited and can very much recommend the Bastogne War Museum at the Mardasson Memorial, the 101st Airborne Museum in Bastogne itself and also the Bastogne Barracks, still a Belgian Army base where the soldiers offer guided tours of what were the U.S. HQ buildings, now with historical displays, along with one of the finest collections of World War Two military vehicles we’ve seen, including some real rarities.

If you’re not interested in such things? If you consider all this to be ‘old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago,’? I’d still recommend a visit to the area as it offers wonderful opportunities for outdoor pursuits of all kinds; hiking, cycling etc, through a beautiful region. While you’re there, you might like visit one of those museums and I think you will find more contemporary relevance than you might imagine. Exploring the rise of fascist nationalism in the 1930s, displays used contemporary documents and sources to highlight the failure of the political establishment as parties in all countries became more interested in internal back-biting and rivalries than tackling the very real, severe economic hardships and social inequalities which ordinary people faced. The demagogues – to the extreme left and the extreme right – offered simple-sounding solutions. They promised to sort everything out, they pointed the finger at easy scapegoats – and no one countered their deceptive narrative.

In the era of Trump and Brexit, that should give us all pause for thought. From the UK perspective in particular, I was struck yet again by how different the European experience of World War Two was from the British one. These museums make plain the impact of the war on the civilian population. There were the posters detailing requirements for the compulsory registration of Jews. Turn up on the appointed day and give all the details of your family, your parents, your grandparents, everyone’s dates of birth, addresses etc. – or else. Sabotage and any other resistance activity was strictly forbidden – warning posters specifically included such things as turning up late for work, or not doing your job with sufficient enthusiasm…

I recall my grandmother talking about getting twin babies and a dog down to the air raid shelter night after night on England’s south coast. They were in very real danger, as were all my relatives. In Bastogne I saw a video of a woman of much the same age, recalling spending two nights outdoors hiding in a wood in freezing temperatures with her baby. Driven back into the town by hunger and desperation, she was caught in a bombardment and both were injured. Her baby died of his wounds two days later. There are people suffering the same today. The 101st Airborne Museum has an audio-visual presentation in one of the building’s cellars. It gives you something of the experience of the townsfolk sheltering in those very cellars as the war raged overhead. Sitting there, with my ears ringing, dazzled by the flashes of light in the darkness and feeling the floor shake beneath my feet, I was forcefully struck by the thought, ‘This must be what life is like in Syria now’.

It’s not just the museums. I’m used to English village war memorials listing tragic losses through 1914-18 and 1939-45. I wince when I see the same surnames repeated, as families lost successive generations of fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, uncles. In Europe though, as I saw time and again on this trip, these memorials also have lists of ‘civilians’, ‘resistants’ or simply ‘shot by the Germans’. In some cases those outnumber those who died in the armed forces – in villages of under a hundred houses. No wonder the peaceful co-operation of the European Union (yes, with all its flaws) is so valued across the Channel. No wonder the couple of ordinary people who raised the subject with me were so baffled and politely indignant about the UK Referendum – both the campaign’s distortions and lies, and the vote’s outcome.

Gosh this all sounds very serious. Yes, such things are, and they matter, and I value these experiences which inform and expand my understanding. We also had plenty of fun as well as relaxing with books, DVDs and computer games according to taste. We had some splendid meals out; the local cuisine is good, hearty, farmland food. The countryside is lovely and the people are friendly and welcoming – and French speaking which was a relief as my Dutch is still really minimal.

We visited the Musee des Celtes and that was well worth the trip. It’s small, six rooms over two floors of an old building but with some nice artefacts well displayed, plus a replica Celtic chariot since chariot burials are a notable local feature. Overall it does a sound job of focusing on the specifically Ardennes Celtic populations and archaeology, within the overall context of Celts Europe-wide. That was interesting of itself to us since we’re so used to the Celtic focus being Scots/Welsh/Irish. There’s stuff to keep children interested, plus a wrap-up display about Celts in popular culture today, featuring Asterix, naturally. An interesting side note was the display on the 19th century Celtic Revival in the context of Belgian nationalism. I think I learned more specifically Belgian history that week than I’ve ever known before.

The displays and audio visuals are primarily in French but there is a English booklet offered which translates all the display case cards – in some cases rather amusingly. ‘The defunct’ instead of ‘the deceased’ raised a grin. Not that this party of three with two non-French speakers is in any position to feel superior, you understand. Overall, through the week, I was pleased/relieved how well my French held up as the family’s sole communicator, given I’ve never been properly fluent and I don’t use it overmuch.

By contrast, the Chateau de Bouillon is one of the biggest castles we’ve visited. It’s high on a rocky outcrop – and substantially built into it – dominating one of the river valleys that’s been a passage through the Ardennes for Germanic invaders heading west for, well, forever. Consequently this castle’s defences have been successively used, refined and updated from 968 to 1944. The views from it, and of it from the town, are spectacular and its long history is fascinating.

It’s also the only castle we’ve visited where dogs are banned specifically because the resident and apparently highly territorial eagles will see them as prey and attack accordingly… There’s an impressive collection of birds of prey with excellent daily displays featuring assorted owls and raptors from sparrowhawks to steppe eagles. Unsurprisingly I am now thinking how to integrate the new things I learned about falconry into my next fantasy project…

As promised, here are some pictures.

steppe-eagle-at-chateau-de-bouillon

steppe-eagle-at-chateau-de-bouillon-2

steppe-eagle-at-chateau-de-bouillon-3