Out and about, in person and online

They* tell you that writing is a solitary occupation. Only when it comes to the pen on paper, fingers on keyboard bit. They* really should say how much fun and inspiration there is to be had in this writing life when you get together with other writers and with readers.

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In the Olden Days~, that meant meeting up in person, and we still have many and varied ways of doing that in SF& Fantasy circles. This Saturday past I was in Bristol at The Hatchet Inn, for the Launch Extravaganza celebrating the publication of ‘Fight Like a Girl’. (ebook also available). This is an anthology I’m really pleased to be part of, sharing my take on this particular theme alongside established voices and newer writers in SFF.

Isn’t that such a great cover? And for the curious, those are my battle axe earrings on the right hand side. They seemed like appropriate jewellery for the day.

We had a great time, with readings from Lou Morgan, Sophie E Tallis and Danie Ware, a panel discussing this anthology’s inspiration in particular, and wider issues facing women in genre publishing, and then Fran Terminiello and Lizzie Rose (of The School of the Sword) demonstrated some fascinating swordplay, by way of a speedy run though the evolution of swords from the Medieval to the Renaissance. Great stuff.

And yes, as promised in my previous post, I demonstrated some aspects of aikido to prove that fighting like a girl may well be different to battling like a bloke – but it’s no less effective :) With thanks to Fran for allowing me to demonstrate that bringing bare hands to a knife fight is not necessarily a problem, as well as the chap whose name I didn’t catch, who had done some aikido and generously allowed me to put him on his knees a few times and to show how being shorter is no disadvantage when it comes to getting a 6’3″ man off his feet. At which point gravity does pretty much the rest of the work…

(There may be photos/video in due course. If so, I’ll add links)

But that’s not all! These days we can meet up and swap thoughts, ideas and recollections online and a whole bunch of us writers are currently doing that over on Marie Brennan‘s blog. She’s celebrating the tenth anniversary of her first publication with a series of posts Five Days of Fiction, sharing her own thoughts on a series of questions and inviting others to chip in. I always find seeing what other people say in this sort of thing absolutely fascinating.

*’They’ being people whose knowledge of the writing life extends as far as repeating cliches and no further.
~ Twenty years ago.

The Knee to the Nuts Paradox, and other tips when you fight like a girl.

A while ago I wrote a post commenting on an article on the reasons why women smile at men who harass them. I explained how, from a martial arts point of view, that’s a winning strategy. To de-escalate a situation and leave without a fight. But that’s not always possible, so I think a follow-up post may be useful, in particular for those without any martial arts or self defence training.

(And if you’re free this coming Saturday, 2nd April 2016 and within striking range of Bristol, do come along the Fight Like a Girl anthology launch, where I’ll be demonstrating some of the self-defence principles I discuss in this article. As well as what to do if you’ve brought bare hands to a knife fight.)

If unwanted attention turns into being grabbed, that’s very definitely the time to fight like a girl. Which is to say, not by meeting force with force but by identifying and exploiting the ways in which your attacker cannot use superior strength or in ways that make such strength irrelevant. Because the aim of the game is not to stand crowing over your defeated, bloodied enemy like some cut-price Conan, but to get free of a hold and to get clean away as quickly and effectively as possible.

This post is also prompted by recent thoughts and discussions I’ve been having with fellow aikido practitioners about gendered responses to attacks. Though these observations aren’t exclusively for women’s benefit. My thoughts apply equally well to men who find themselves shorter and less physically imposing than an attacker. As well as to men who are tall, well-muscled, physically fit and more than able to leave an aggressor bleeding on the floor – but who know full well that will see them charged with assault. So, this should make useful reading for everyone.

However, this post runs long. I’m also aware that there will be those with no interest, for whatever reason, in reading even a theoretical discussion of the practical application of violence. So I’ll put the rest of this behind a cut. Click here to continue reading

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.

“You can teach craft but you can’t teach talent.” The most useless creative writing cliché?

I’ve worked with aspiring authors on an ad hoc basis for well over a decade now; running workshops at conventions and literary festivals, guest-lecturing at universities and colleges and occasionally running longer courses*. Most recently, I’ve spent a thoroughly enjoyable session with the Creative Writing M.A. students of Lancaster Uni, and had the distinct pleasure, and privilege, of selecting poems and prose pieces on the theme of ‘Monsters’ submitted by new writers, to feature in the new Mar/Apr/May 2016 edition of Mslexia magazine (now available!).

When I mention I’m doing one or other of these things, there’s a good chance someone will trot out this particular truism. It irritates me more and more, especially when you ask someone exactly what that means, and they say something vague about ‘well, people have to know how to spell and punctuate, but you can’t teach someone to have an imagination.’

Let’s examine both those notions.

There’s a whole lot more to writing craft than knowing where to put a full stop, or even the correct use of the semi-colon. An infinite amount; just look at the boundless variety of prose styles in published fiction. One of the workshops I run takes a wholly unremarkable sequence of dialogue and explores the different ways in which words can be woven around those identical spoken sentences to create significantly different effects for the reader, with regard to the place and the people. In one case, the addition of a single letter can be enough. Consider the implications of describing a woman as wearing ‘skirts’ as opposed to ‘a skirt’.

Then there’s the skill required to create atmosphere, whether that’s tension, sorrow, apprehension, excitement. It takes finely shaped prose to convey a character’s sorrow. passion, delight or fear. To indicate where the reader’s sympathies might lie or to hint that perhaps we’re not getting the full story quite yet? To write natural sounding dialogue – which is not at all the same as transcribing an actual conversation. To manage a narrative’s point of view, whether that’s in the first person or third person, and any transitions between perspectives. To convey vital facts and background to the reader without boring them rigid with a five page data-dump. I could go on but you get the idea. And that’s not even the half of it.

Once you’ve got all those words on the page, there’s the craft of cutting away the ones you don’t need. The more I write, the more eager I am to get the end of a first draft, to start refining and honing the piece, whether that’s a short story or a novel. Learning how to do that to best effect is a real challenge. Another workshop I run on such editing presents students with a piece of my work in draft and challenges them to get that down to a final version that’s on a par with my own. When I explain this means cutting those 388 words down to 117, hopeful writers’ faces vary from aghast to disbelieving. Because that first draft which they’ve just read is a perfectly good piece of writing, exactly as it stands. The craft comes in identifying the bits which the overall story can do without.

So let’s not get snobbish about the value of craft. Without a good carpenter’s skills, you’d be using splintery planks to board up that hole in your house instead of coming and going through a well-made and secure front door. Let’s definitely not accept any implication that writing craft is merely a toolkit of basic skills which a writer only needs to get to grips with once. I learn new twists and subtleties about different aspects of writing with every piece I write and frequently from what I read. Every writer I know says the same.

Now, about this notion that you cannot teach hopeful writers to have ideas, to have an imagination. The thing is, I’ve never, ever met an aspiring author who didn’t have an imagination. Surely that’s a prerequisite for being a keen reader, never mind for taking up a pen or keyboard to create original fiction? Would-be writers are never short on inspiration. Reviewing those Mslexia submissions proved that – not that I ever doubted it.

What writers need to learn is how to make most effective use of those plots and characters, scenarios and themes which are clamouring so loudly for their attention that the only thing to do is start writing them down. In some cases, the writer’s primary need is getting to grips with particular aspects of writing craft to make best use of their idea. As a teacher it’s very rewarding to see someone learning the skills that will turn their rough diamond of a draft into sparkling prose.

In other cases, in very many cases, the hopeful author needs to learn boldness. I see this time and again. I’ll be reading a well crafted piece, offering a solid foundation for a story, a character, an idea, but this particular writer hasn’t yet realised where and when they can take an extra step, or more often, a giant leap forward. Because all they can see is a leap into the unknown. Those of us who’ve already been through that learning process can now see it from the other side, where wide, new horizons open up before us. At other times, we take that leap and find a new vantage point to look back on a familiar idea and see it from a whole new perspective.

Here’s a case in point – without spoilers because this particular draft novel got all the way to publication and I don’t want to give anything away. The writer presented a confrontation between Our Hero and The Enemy. Our Hero used a recently acquired weapon to drive off The Enemy. I asked, why doesn’t he kill The Enemy? Because he’s not a killer, was the initial reply. No, I pointed out, but he doesn’t understand the weapon he’s got hold of. In this situation, he’s a toddler with a loaded handgun. He can still kill someone without any evil intent. What happens then? I saw the writer’s eyes widen, appalled at that notion, before they narrowed in thought… Even though that meant rewriting major chunks of the story to deal with the subsequent fall-out, both for Our Hero and for The Enemy’s Friends.

It’s that sort of boldness, offering some new angle, with some fresh take on places, characters or themes, which editors are looking for. Because they will have seen way more than enough slush submitted by writers who’ve been suckered into believing that the first idea they’ve had will take them all the way and once their genius is recognised, someone else will take care of full stops.

So let’s ditch this particularly useless cliché. How about we replace it with something someone whose name I alas failed to make a note of said? “Talent without craft is like fuel without a rocket. It may burn ever so brightly but it’s going nowhere.”

*For those interested in a week’s residential course focused on writing SF and Fantasy, I’m teaching at Moniack Mhor in Scotland, in December this year, alongside Pippa Goldschmidt. Ken Macleod will be our guest writer. More details here

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho – a review

SorcerertotheCrownUKcoverlargeIn Regency London, the Royal Society for Unnatural Philosophy has its first African Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias Wythe. Unsurprisingly, this does not please the great and the good (self-proclaimed) of English Magic. Zacharias, erstwhile child slave and later ward of the former Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe, is well aware of their enmity but has far more urgent concerns. English magic is being steadily depleted and relations with Faerie, a vital source of power, have somehow been dangerously compromised. Add to that the British Government is pressing Zacharias to endorse and support their imperial ambitions in Indonesia. This raises the very real danger of French sorcières deciding such actions breach the longstanding gentleman’s agreement against magical involvement in the Napoleonic Wars.

So the last thing Zacharias needs is the eruption into his life of Prunella Gentleman, half-Indian orphan and pupil-teacher at Mrs Daubeny’s boarding school, where well-born girls unfortunately afflicted with magical talent are trained to restrain such unseemly impulses. After all, everyone knows that women are unsuited to thaumaturgy. Well, everyone except Prunella. And the witches of the Banda Strait. What with one thing and another, Zacharias can’t even find refuge in the congenial surroundings of his club, The Theurgists.

This is an entertaining and original addition to the Regency fantasies we’ve seen expanding and enriching the genre in recent years. Not least because Cho is drawing on up-to-date historical sources, including non-Eurocentric views of that era, as well as the literature of the period rather than anyone else’s later and potentially anachronistic interpretations. She evidently knows her Austen, and her Thackeray and more besides, I shouldn’t wonder. The attitudes of the English aristocracy, both in terms of class and race, are entirely of their time, as indeed are Zacharias’ and Prunella’s reactions to the prejudices and insults they face, whether incidental or intentional. Their friends and foes are similarly, satisfactorily rounded and believable.

Crucially, none of this exploration of attitudes to sex and/or race is mere set-dressing or clumsy polemic. It all drives the fast-paced plot by informing decisions and plans on both sides of the growing conflict. Action prompts reaction and dangers escalate. Now Zacharias’s outsider status gives him a different perspective on non-English and non-European magical traditions. Meanwhile Prunella’s determined to put her own magical resources to best use, to learn what she can of her parentage and to make a satisfactory marriage. However her naivety means she has scant idea of the consequences of her actions. Some of these outcomes are comical; Cho has a deft touch with humour. Others are chilling. Cho doesn’t compromise over the grimmest implications of the opposition to Zacharias, or the measures that must be taken to defeat it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s absorbing and well written fantasy enriched with a meaningful hinterland. So I am not surprised to see enthusiastic cover quotes from writers as diverse as Naomi Novik, Ann Leckie, Charles Stross, Lavie Tidhar and Aliette de Bodard. I’m very much looking forward to the sequel.

To find out more about Zen Cho and her books, click here for her website.

Guest blogging for Charlie’s Diary about Warlords, Eunuchs & Slaves

I’m out and about elsewhere today, specifically over at Charles Stross’s website, discussing why I chose to write about an absolute ruler in The Aldabreshin Compass – and why I consciously included various elements to make readers go ‘Wait, what?!’

Head on over and have a read, why don’t you?

A new Aldabreshin Compass short story – Distant Thunder

Click here for the pdf of Distant Thunder

This is the second of the new short stories I’m writing to parallel The Aldabreshin Compass series, coming out in ebook from Wizard’s Tower Press.

This particular tale sheds new light on what’s happening in the Daish and Ulla domains during the events of Northern Storm, continuing the adventures of Dyal, the young swordsman who so nearly lost his life in Southern Fire, and whose escape is detailed in Fire in the Night.

Enjoy! And spread the word!

artwork by Ben Baldwin

artwork by Ben Baldwin

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.

Guest post – Simon Morden discusses Down Station and portal fantasy.

DOWN-STATION-SMA new book that I very much enjoyed reading this month is Simon Morden’s Down Station. For a fuller assessment, you can read my review in the next issue of Interzone.

For those of you unfamiliar with Simon’s work, his website is here – and for a chance to meet him, along with Tricia Sullivan, author of Occupy Me, they’re both signing at Forbidden Planet, Shaftsbury Avenue, London on 20th February, 1-2pm. Simon will also be a guest at the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club on 23rd February.

One of the things that particularly interests me about Down Station is the fact that it’s a portal fantasy. So I invited Simon to share some thoughts on that particular topic.

In defence of Narnia and other portals
Simon Morden

I recently discovered that Narnia* is a real place. Quite how that fact has eluded me for my entire adult life is a complete mystery, but I have a sudden hankering to go there and make an in-depth investigation of their wardrobes.

Because you would, wouldn’t you? Or did you grow out of that urge? The ghost of the Susan argument rears its ugly head: wanting to escape this world, with its social and economic obligations and constraints, is something that a child would do, kicking against the goads of adulthood. When a person knows their place in society and accepts it, they no longer need such escapist diversions.

Lewis, however, was speaking of a more fundamental truth even as he got it hamfistedly intertwined with 1950s social mores. Rather than agreeing that wanting to escape to another place is a mere childish notion, to be discarded as we embrace a more mature understanding of our own world, he was proposing that it’s us – the grown ups – who are the ones who lose out.

The belief that our world lies side by side with others wasn’t invented by Lewis. It goes far back, beyond recorded history. In my native islands, the Celts believed the Otherworld was connected to us at certain times of year and in certain sacred places. People could cross over, usually by invitation rather than trickery, and sometimes even return. With the coming of Christianity, these became the ‘thin places’, where Heaven and Earth pressed together, but the result was always the same: those who came back were forever changed, either by their experience of the Other, or of the Divine.

Throughout history – and prehistory – the point of these stories was that the intrepid travellers to other worlds were never escaping: they were questing. They went for a reason – either to gain something which could be used in our world, be it wisdom, a skill, or an artefact, or to give something to that other world, to save it from evil or break a curse. That we’ve turned – some might say corrupted – an important facet of our mythology into a genre that adults shouldn’t consciously entertain is problematic, to say the least.

At its worst, yes, Sturgeon’s Law (that 90% of everything is crap) applies. A portal fantasy can be all those things their critics say it is: cliche-ridden wish-fulfilment in which nothing is at stake. Perhaps, after a while, these overwhelm the market and the whole genre goes out of fashion. Certainly, anecdotally, portal fantasies have been a tough sell for years. There were always exceptions: May’s Pliocene Saga and Pullman’s His Dark Materials being perhaps the most notable. But here we are, like buses, with two coming along at once, my Down Station and Seanan Mcguire’s Every Heart a Doorway. We’re probably at the cutting edge of a new wave, and editors across the land will hate us in six months’ time for unleashing a torrent of portals across their desks. For now, though, they represent something different to the usual fare.

I would like to think I’ve done something new with my own portal(s). Featuring non-standard protagonists is a start, being chased across the threshold is another, and the world of Down itself owes more to Tarkovsky’s Solaris than it does Narnia. But I’ve done something old, too, as old as time itself. Down is a place of challenge – there are secrets to be uncovered, battles to win, knowledge to be retrieved, and two worlds to save – and change, both mental and physical. The three questions that recur in Babylon 5 – Who are you? What do you want? Do you have anything worth living for? – are circumvented by Down, because it already knows the answers, even if you’re in denial.

At its best, portal fantasy offers us a narrative metaphor for seismic shifts in our cognitive landscape. Because our image is clearly reflected in the mirror, it can help us better decide if we like what we see. If we cross over to the Otherworld, we come back different people, if we come back at all. The portal is not a way out, but the way in.