Articles from April 2012



(The) Avengers (Assemble) – Doing Women in Superhero Movies (Very Nearly) Right

The last film I saw in the cinema with Robert Downey Jr in had me hissing with irritation at its treatment of women most particularly The Woman. Yesterday we saw the Avengers movie and oh, what a cheering contrast. Not only with the second Sherlock Holmes but with so many of the other recent superhero movies, most notably, Green Lantern.

Let me explain, as far as I can without hideous spoilers. Because you don’t want this movie spoiled, trust me. You want to go and see it at your earliest convenience.

There’s Scarlett Johansson/Black Widow, a full member of the team, treated as a fellow professional, respected by her boss and useful in a fight. But definitely not because she’s essentially another bloke who happens to have boobs. Just to make that clear, she uses her femininity very effectively against someone who can’t see beyond the fact she’s a woman and therefore assumes he naturally has the upper hand. She contributes actively and continuously to the team’s fighting – and thinking – skills as they tackle successive challenges.

Yes, okay, the zip on her black leather superhero jumpsuit is defective, permanently stuck mid-cleavage but I did say the film gets it ‘very nearly’ right. And actually, when it comes to aesthetically pleasing visuals, I would say the female viewers get their fair share of entertainment, certainly those of us whose tastes run to muscular physiques.

So far so good but it gets better because Samuel L Jackson/Nick Fury’s second in command is Agent Maria Hill/Cobie Smulders, another significant female role wherein a woman is professional, trusted and effective. In a role where there is no intrinsic need for that character to be a woman – Marvel Universe continuity aside which the majority of cinema goers will know nothing about. But once you realise that’s noteworthy because the Boss’s Sidekick is so usually a man, you also see there’s no absolutely reason why that character cannot be a woman in this day and age. And that’s really worth thinking about. (Agent Hill also has a more functional zip on her jumpsuit and a vest underneath it.)

Let’s also consider what these two women don’t do. They don’t get captured. They don’t get rescued. Yes, they get into dangerous and difficult situations – and they get themselves out of them. They don’t, alas, get any interaction or conversation which would enable the film to really nail the Bechdel Test but their respective roles, and particularly the pace and plot don’t really offer any natural opportunity for that to arise.

All this is in such sharp contrast with Whatshername in Green Lantern, whose supposed power and influence running an aerospace firm is rendered utterly meaningless because we never see her actually being powerful or influential on screen before she is reduced to Damsel in Distress (who will naturally then spread her legs with gratitude for her rescuer).

Back to the Avengers, Black Widow and Agent Hill most especially don’t get casually killed just to motivate the Alpha Males. Indeed, we see a good-hearted man in the role of innocent suffering an undeserved fate – and well, I can’t say more about the way that movie theme/cliché is handled without spoilers. Suffice it to say, I can’t recall when I saw that particular plot element done better.

Possibly in an episode of Buffy or Angel? Maybe Dollhouse? I’d have to give that some thought. Because of course, we have Joss Whedon to thank for this awesome script. The man who when asked ‘why do you write these strong women characters?’ famously replied ‘because you’re still asking me that question’.

And before that, he said “Because—equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women. And the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who is confronted with it.”

Yes, as a woman, I expect and warrant equality for myself. I also want my teenage sons and their pals and their pals’ younger brothers to see equality in action, especially as a naturally accepted element of a superhero action movie. So they don’t see Black Widow or Agent Hill as in any way remarkable. I want the upcoming generation to be baffled by the notion that women couldn’t be in a story like this on equal terms with the men.

Edit: and as I have been reminded, let’s not forget Pepper Potts on the film’s roster of capable women treated with due respect.

Darkening Skies. Two reviews. Opposed on one key point. Who’s right?

With Darkening Skies now out in the UK and US, naturally I’m keeping an eye open for reviews. This week, I’ve seen mentions in SFX’s June 2012 magazine (#221) and in the Morpheus Tales online supplement. (Both well worth reading for a lot of other good stuff by the way).

This is very encouraging from a publicity point of view. But… amongst her other observations, Sandy Auden in SFX says:

The author has been attentive to the details too, especially in the smooth transitions between story threads. It’s the details that are the main drawback though. McKenna’s characters agonise constantly about their problems and it kills the pace.

Whereas, in the Morpheus Tales supplement, Adrian Brady says:

McKenna’s writing is excellent, both managing to evoke a rich world and characters, and moving the plot on speedily to keep the excitement levels raised.

So who’s right? And am I going to throw a writerly strop or mope ostentatiously about this insult to my misunderstood genius, either online or in public? Er, no. I don’t think I could do either and keep a straight face, not even for the entertainment value of seeing other people’s astonished reactions.

Besides, they’re both right. That’s how the story worked for them and they’ve both been objective, honest and courteous in expressing their opinions. That’s what a good reviewer does.

I also know how hard I worked to balance insight into the characters with the overall narrative pace as I wrote the book. I know I did the very best job that I could. Just as I knew at the time, I’d get that balance right for some readers and … less right for others.

You see, I’ve been here before. Back when I wrote Southern Fire, I delivered it to my editor with trepidation, explaining that of my test readers, one found the opening rushed, one found it too slow and one found it just right. Who was correct? They all are, he told me. It all depends on your perspective and readers’ reactions stem from a great many things beyond the actual words on the page. As a writer, you can only do the best job you can. So that’s what I do.

Besides, they both agree on one key thing. Adrian Brady says, ‘I’m looking forward to the third novel with whetted appetite,’ while Sandy Auden offers ‘It’s not clear what they’ll agonise over next though – after conclusive events here, book three could go anywhere.’

Writing the second volume of a epic fantasy trilogy that leaves long-standing genre readers with no clue what happens next? Now that’s a result. So as soon as I’ve done – and recovered from – Eastercon, I’ll get on with writing Defiant Peaks, all the more encouraged and inspired.

My Schedule for Eastercon

Public service announcement kindathing

Friday – I’m arriving mid-morning/lunchtime and looking forward to a day of being in various audiences for some interesting programme items as well as helping staff the EightSquared 2013 bid desk. I won’t be sitting up too late in the bar because…

Saturday 10 am (Edwardian) ‘Sufficiently Advanced Magic’ – discussing the role of magic in fantasy fiction, with Marcus Gipps Stephen Deas, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Christ Wooding and Shana Worthen

Saturday 11 am (Commonwealth) ‘How pseudo do you like your medieval?’ with Anne C Perry, Jacey Bedford, Anne Lyle and George RR Martin

Saturday 12 pm (Commonwealth) ‘Gender parity on panels at conventions’ with Paul Cornell, Farah Mendelsohn, Emma Peel, Kari Sperring and Kat Takenaka

(and then some lunch!)

Saturday 5 pm (Royal) ‘How Not to Suppress Women’s Writing’ – I’m moderating and very interested to hear what Penny Hill, Amy McCulloch, Ian Sales and Tricia Sullivan have to say – and I have been gathering a good deal of info in the past few weeks. If you’ve had an email from me – and you know who you are – many thanks.

Sat 9 pm – I’ll be signing in the Winchester Room

Sunday 11 am (Room 12) – Eastercon 2013 and 2014 bid session – I’ll be there with the 2013 EightSquared Bid Committee, alongside the Satellite 4 2014 team – come along and see what you think of plans for the next couple of years.

Sunday 2 pm (Winchester) – A Fantasy Clarke Award – discussing an entirely theoretical shortlist with NIall Harrison, Nic Clarke, David Hebblethwaite, Erin Horakova and Edward James.

Sunday 6pm – Commonwealth – Having had the honour to judge the James White Award (short story competition) this year, in conjunction with Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Andy Cox and Andy Hedgecock of Interzone, I’ll be at the BSFA Awards.

Sunday 8 pm – I’ll be in the Tetworth Room signing session.

Monday – once again, I’ll be enjoying the convention without programme responsibilities. Or sitting at a con desk.

Then we’ll be heading home for a Chinese takeaway.

Traditional British Reserve 0 Readerly/Writerly Enthusiasm 3

Being involved in a Kickstarter is a decidedly unusual experience. Writers have not tradtionally stood up and asked directly for money for their work. We contract that out to our lovely agents, publishers, booksellers and so on. British writers especially are pretty reticent when it comes to shameless self=promotion on the web or at conventions. There’s generally more of an unspoken ‘if you would care to buy my books, to y’know, help keep my children fed and shod, that would be very decent of you’ vibe.

So me posting another update about Tales from the Emerald Serpent… is that ‘quite the thing’?

Yes, but, look, here’s a taster from Martha Wells’s story – and since I’ve been lucky enough to read the whole thing, I want to share it with everyone. (And if you’re not already reading Martha’s Books of the Raksura click here to see why you should be.

From her Emerald Serpent Story –

REVENANTS

by Martha Wells

They made an odd pair for a number of reasons, but one was that she was tall for a Jai-ruk and he was short for a Kin. They were dissimilar on all counts, except for their interest in the past, and in strange myths, and mysteries, and how the world had looked before they set foot on it. They talked of things no one else cared about. Rather than an odd pair, everyone thought they were just odd.

“This is a job that will pay us well,” Kryranen said. “Up in the Golden Jaguar District.” She added unnecessarily, “Where people like the Vash live.”

“You’re supposed to be keeping the notes,” Jelith pointed out. Most inhabitants of Taux assumed Jai-ruk were too brutish for scholarly pursuits, but Kryranen’s handwriting was better than his. Her hands were large but her fingers were slender and dexterous; his notes looked like the scratchings of a child next to her elegant script.

She leaned forward to look at the book and her grimace suggested she agreed. “I’ll recopy it later.” Exasperated, she said, “You just don’t like working for money. It’s too bad we can’t eat history.”

“You would eat history if you could,” Jelith felt he had to say. It was true.

She folded her arms and gave him the long-suffering look.

He sighed. “What is this job?”

“They want us to lay a ghost.”

Jelith stared. “Are you out of your mind?”

You can find out a whole lot more abou the Jai Ruk (and other cool stuff) on the Emerald Serpent Updates page

And then there’s this terrific video, put together for us by Shane Wheeler, one of our pledged supporters, for sheer love of the project.

Incidentally, check out the Kickstarter page and you’ll see the bonus level for further volumes is now set at an additional $5000 per anthology. Why yes, all of us involved are that keen to get the chance to write more in this world.

(For anyone clicking through expecting this post to be anything else, you clearly missed the memo about Arthur C Clarke Award judges not making public statements about the shortlist or anything else. Sorry about that.)