One of the underlying themes of The Aldabreshin Compass series is the burden of rule. Rank has its obligations as well as its privileges. By this point in the story, our hero, the warlord Kheda feels increasingly under pressure from the expectations and assumptions of all those he rules over, all the more so because his own world view is changing in ways he cannot share.
Something’s got to give, but what? Or should that be who and where?
Spiderman: Homecoming continues to build on, and expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While, and oh, thank heavens, it’s not another Spiderman origin story retread, it does an excellent job of refocusing the character on its original appeal at the same time as updating and integrating the High School Hero into the modern day. As a decades-long fan of the comic, I’m thrilled to see a young, nerdy Peter Parker, while also very much appreciating a younger, more modern, far more relatable Aunt May rather than a grey-haired granny stereotype.
With its smaller scale and 80s-teen-movie vibe, the film is in many ways lighter in tone than other recent and forthcoming MCU movies. A story feels much less oppressive when the oncoming disaster is humiliation at a teenage party rather than global annihilation by aliens or android armies. On the other hand, that tighter focus and scenario simultaneously makes this story far more personal. We can empathise far more readily with the reality of that situation whereas we could only ever be onlookers in need of rescue from Ultron or the Chitauri. When a shop which Peter regularly visits, where we know he chats with the owner, becomes collateral damage – that has an emotional impact which can sometimes be lacking in the CGI-spectacular destruction of faceless hordes.
I also like the way that Peter’s school and classmates are portrayed. He’s attending a specialist science and technology school, where being intelligent is the norm, not a reason for ridicule. Yes, he has a bullying nemesis, in keeping with the High School vibe, but that lad doesn’t mock Peter’s brains, rather he’s jealous of his place on the Academic Decathlon team. Yes, there’s a roly-poly, nerdy sidekick, but he’s extremely bright and capable when it comes to playing his own vital role in the plot. Success in the Academic Decathlon is presented as a worthwhile victory to strive for. All of which might be merely worthy if it wasn’t for the presence of Tony Stark. We all know Tony’s off-the-scale-brilliant but one thing his involvement in these events highlights is the difference between intelligence and wisdom. Tony doesn’t listen, he’s arrogant, and he shrugs off what doesn’t interest him. That sets the tone that his employees adopt. It’s Peter who learns the lessons that result from the consequences of Tony’s mistakes – as well as his own teenage missteps, of course.
Michael Keaton is a stellar villain whose coherent motivation is so much more convincing and complex than mere motiveless malignity. Beneath the patent injustice and/or callousness that sparks his initial grievance, there are also a good few questions posed about the roles of big business and government and what happens to ordinary people when politicians and billionaires organise the world to suit themselves. With great power, comes great responsibility. Someone should remind them of that. Which is not to say Adrian Toombs is some misunderstood and wronged individual who warrants our sympathy. He has made his own choices, consciously and deliberately for years now, and as we see, is utterly ruthless in pursuit of his goals. We can believe that Peter is in very real danger, thanks to Michael Keaton’s performance and the personal nature of their conflict.
So far, so good, however … there’s still no getting away from the most abiding and persistent problem of superhero movies based on characters with a decades-long back story. Yes, I mean the roles for women, drawn from source material written when very different cultural archetypes went unquestioned. Once again, the girls are peripheral to the male-focused action, only present in the stereotypical roles of objects of desire, domestic helpmeets and damsels in distress. The writers and actors make heroic efforts to lift the female characters above such clichés but even with the appearance of Mary Beth Lacey, apparent now working for Homeland Security or some such, there’s only so much they can do here. I can only hope that the hints of more and better to come in the next movie are fulfilled, from Michelle in particular – as long as they can do that without mangling the essence of the friendly neighbourhood Spiderman whom we know and love. I’ve had quite enough of that sort of thing with DC turning Superman supposedly dark and edgy and in the process erasing so much of his core character.
Oh hey, how about some more female-led superhero movies? That would work to elevate women and to offer girls their own role models, without eradicating the men. How about we stop looking at this as a zero sum game?
It’s been an interesting last little while in the SFF genre, notably for those of us keeping a watching brief on gender issues alongside our uncomplicated enjoyment of superheroes and the fantastic. But rather than demand your time and attention for an extended read on them all at once, here’s the first in a series of related (and hopefully not too spoilery) posts.
Wonder Woman was good fun. I most definitely appreciated seeing strong, athletic women taking charge of their own destiny on Themiscyra, and wearing costumes that drew far more on classical Mediterranean leather armour than on lingerie. Putting Diana into Great War London and seeing the clash of cultures that followed worked well, both in terms of the film, and incidentally to highlight today’s obdurate misogyny. Lucy Davis as Etta Candy gives a performance that’s central to exploring those particular themes all the more effectively through humour. I thought Chris Pine gives a good account of himself, and personally I didn’t feel his presence turned the film into All About Steve. Mind you, there really should be a law against anyone called Steve flying off alone a plane in a superhero movie now. There’s no telling what will follow…
Is this an particularly feminist movie? Not to my mind. Let’s not forget, Diana’s plot ultimately revolves around a response to male aggression. So far, so predictably defining a woman’s role as reactive to a man’s. On the other hand, there are some thoughtful asides on the causes of war and no over-soft-pedalling the dire practical and psychological consequences for men and women alike. Having a female villain in Doctor Poison was a good choice, though let’s not forget she is subservient to a man. But then again, this is set in 1918 … so … would a female villain with more overt agency have been anachronistic? There are arguments on both sides. Not least because a more overtly feminist movie would have offered endless ammunition to those primed to attack it as ‘message fiction’ long before they’d seen the opening credits.
All told, I felt Sameer and Napi were badly underused which meant their contribution ended up as primarily ‘see how prejudice extends to race as well as gender?’ rather than having that assuredly valid point made incidentally to more rounded roles for those particular characters. That said, making such roles meatier would mean extending a film with a run time that’s already well over two hours. Oh, here’s a thought? Maybe dial back the extended CGI-spectacular scenes just a bit here and there? Use those saved minutes for more interesting character exploration?
The film did drive a galloping coach and horses through established Greek myth, as I observed as we left the cinema. ‘I thought Greek myths had all sorts of variations?’ remarked one son. ‘That’s your biggest problem with a story set in a universe where a man dresses up as a giant bat to fight crime?’ queried the other. Well, yes, fair comment, both. The unexpected appearance of Spud from Trainspotting did also distract me. Just like my flashback to Renton’s toilet-dive when I watched Obi Wan Kenobi et al visit the underwater city in The Phantom Menace. But that’s probably just me…
So overall I thought it was a good, fun film rather than a great, deeply-meaningful one. I mean, compared to … oh, wait, there are no other female-led superhero movies to compare it to, are there? So let’s not get hypercritical here. As a foundation to build on, and as a film that proves that a female superhero can light up the box office with a good, fun, adventure story that everyone can enjoy, it’s exactly what we need at the moment.
Meet Daish Kheda, absolute ruler and warlord, unquestioned master of all he surveys. Of course that means when trouble arrives, absolutely everyone is looking back at him, expecting him to have all the answers. That’s a problem when the trouble that’s turned up is invaders backed by violent sorcery, and all Aldabreshin law and custom bans magic on pain of death…
I’ve had three separate conversations about this recently, relating to very different stories by different writers, so that’s a good prompt for a blog post. Famously, of course, Raymond Chandler said, when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun. There are doubtless times when that will help, though overall, desperation rarely leads to good prose.
Even so, that man, his presence, his motives, the nature of his gun and its bullets, must still serve the essentials of the story. People, plot and place. Shooting or shagging, or their local equivalents, still always need to advance your story or tell us something important about your characters and their situation.
The first of those conversations was about ‘grittying up’ a story. There’s a good measure of violence driving this plot later on but, we wondered, would readers be taken by surprise, and not in a good way. There was precious little in the early chapters to make the reader aware of potentially dangerous undercurrents. Not that throwing an abrupt bar brawl into an early chapter would be any answer. There was no place for that in the story. After some consideration, verbal violence proved to be the answer, telling us something about this world and about key characters. Violence comes in many forms in the real world, so you don’t need to only ever bludgeon readers with characters hacking each other to pieces.
That said, when you do pit your characters against foes in a fist-fight or a fire-fight, you do need to get the details right. If this is outside your own personal experience, then you will need to do your research, and not only about the practicalities. Always remember such events are there to serve the story. Emotional responses are going to reveal so much about characters. This is where biographies and autobiographies become vital resources, giving insights into the ways real people have coped with extraordinary and dangerous situations.
The second conversation was about sex, specifically whether or not Our Hero should end up in bed with The Girl. That climax would certainly satisfy a lot of readers’ expectations. Only this particular story has spent over a hundred thousand words testing expectations in fantasy fiction that have become so apparently inevitable that they’ve congealed into cliché. One particular notion that’s being challenged is the idea that otherwise intelligent and sexually experienced people must unaccountably become slaves to lust.
So, no, we concluded, this narrative has no business ending in a night of passion. Now, that’s all well and good, but that means conveying the reasons for Our Hero and The Girl to go their separate ways which will work both for the story and for those readers who had come this far expecting a Happily Ever After in the bedroom. When it comes to sex, no one likes to be left unsatisfied on the pages or between the sheets. As with so many other elements of story-telling, knowing your tropes is important when it comes to sex.
The third conversation concluded that yes, sex was the way to go. This particular story includes a central, political marriage alliance, but there’s no place earlier in the narrative, either in terms of plot or pacing, for a lengthy courtship, negotiations, whatever. But this relationship is going to be crucial for subsequent events and how key characters respond. So we need real insights into these two people and their private personal relationship. We’re not going to see that if this pivotal chapter focuses on their wedding. A wedding is a production involving all sorts of people, and it’s an event where the central players are on show, presenting a public face. Also, let’s be honest, The Big Wedding is becoming something of a cliché in historical/fantasy fiction.
The wedding night though, that’s where these two are really going to get to know each other, in every sense, for better or worse. There can be precious few secrets between two people naked together in bed. They’re going to learn a lot of important things about each other, which will influence their future life together. For instance, they’re going to learn about each other’s prior sexual experience, because let’s remember ‘virgin’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘untouched by human hand’. Incidentally, the reader can also learn a lot about this culture and society from how its people approach sex. So from the writer’s point of view, this consummation offers a whole load of opportunities to serve people, plot and place in one chapter.
The flip side of that is the considerable authorial challenge of writing a sexual encounter that won’t make readers giggle or squirm, and not in a good way. There are oh, so many pitfalls when it comes to writing sex, starting with but by no means limited to describing the mechanics of Tab A into Slot B. It’s one of those writing tasks that can leave authors feeling very exposed as they search their own experience in order to realistically convey emotional and physical responses.
Add to that, in the majority of sexual situations, a writer’s personal experience is only going to take them half way. For those of us with very, very good friends of different gender and/or orientation to our own, this is generally the cue for a quiet night in with a bottle of wine and a very frank discussion. Then there’s what can be gained from reading other writers; the ones who can do sex well, and equally important, those who do it really badly. As always, spotting overused tropes and clichés becomes critical to avoiding throwing your readers out of the moment. Another resource is erotica, and in particular, reading what those writers who specialise in that genre have to share about the tricks of their particular trade.
Writing sex and/or violence is rarely easy, but doing anything worthwhile seldom is. Sex and violence are integral facts of human life, to a greater or lesser extent. If your fiction is going to have something worthwhile to say about our common humanity, you’re going to find yourself tackling this challenge, sooner or later, to a greater or lesser extent. With writing, as with sex and violence, thinking ahead will greatly increase your chances of a satisfactory outcome.
I decided to pursue my interest in exploring reasons for the persistent under-representation of, and lack of visibility for, women authors and writers of colour, gay and non-binary writers.
In particular I decided to test that comfortable assumption that as women and others enter writing careers in equal numbers to the established white western men, those diverse authors with sufficient talent will naturally rise to the top. The far less palatable flip side to this being of course, that if such writers don’t rise up the ranks, well… they’re just not up to it, self-evidently…
The thing is though, this idea that parity of entry will naturally lead to equality of opportunity and representation at all levels has been tested and found badly lacking over the past twenty, thirty years, for women and others in the law, medicine, academia, banking and a whole host of other professions as well as careers in STEM fields. Why should SF&F be any different?
Crucially legislation has made it impossible for those responsible for recruitment and retention in those areas to simply shrug and say well, they tried and it’s a shame but what can be done? Research and analysis has identified successive barriers to equality of opportunity which are remarkably consistent across those professions and careers mentioned above. There are Gate Keepers, there is the challenge of The Sticky Floor, and then The Leaky Pipe. Only those determined enough to defeat such obstacles can face the final challenge of Breaking the Glass Ceiling.
All of which sounds remarkably like an epic fantasy quest to me – but I digress.
So I decided to take a good look at the evidence from such research in other fields, to see what might be applicable to the ongoing issue of lack of diversity in genre publishing, and to see what factors might be specific to SF&F. Because if we’re to tackle this problem in any meaningful fashion, the more thoroughly we understand it, the better our chances will be.
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!
This was a fun book to write. One of the things I was determined to do in this first series, was to never rewrite the book I’d just written, if that makes sense. I can’t remember if it was one of the editorial team at Orbit who offered that as advice to me as a new writer, or a fellow author, given that was twenty years or so ago. Either way, it made perfect sense, as I recall, then and now, my own disappointment when a much-loved book is followed by far too much of the same.
So when I was looking at the plot ideas stemming from the previous Tales, I searched for the ones which offered me a chance to do something different and challenging. Here this meant writing a novel where all the action happens essentially over five days, in an epic fantasy kingdom’s capital city. There’s no endless trekking over wilderness here. Instead, you’ll learn all about the mean streets of Toremal.
Something else I love about this particular book is the way two different artists illustrated the very same scene from the story in the UK and the US. Comparing them is fascinating, with intriguing hints to the different traditions each artist chose to draw on. That was Geoff Taylor in the UK, and thanks to an online pal with the hardcover edition, I now know the US artist is Matt Stawicki. (He’s not credited in the paperback I have here.)