What Do Female Villains Do That Bad Guys Don’t?

Following on from last week’s post, interesting points cropped up in various conversations. One caught my eye – though I cannot recall who said it or where, so if it was you, please raise a hand in comments. Essentially the question was what distinguishes a Female Villain from a Male? Let’s think about that, and broaden out the question. Is there any point in choosing to have your evil protagonist a woman rather than a man, if there’s no meaningful difference beyond gender?

This rang a chord with me, as I recall a related conversation we had at the last World Fantasy Convention about strong women in epic tales; the Female Hero I’ve already referred to. One thing all of us on the ‘Broads with Swords’ panel really like is the way strong women in fantasy fiction no longer have to be ‘fauxmales’.

Which is to say, we’ve gone beyond stories where the only possible way for a woman to be strong is to pick up a sword, don implausible boobplate armour, and go off to play Joan of Arc. Nowadays in epic fantasy, Female Heroes and Heroines alike can be politicians, scholars, and yes, wives and mothers, while still playing a central, defining role in the plot.

So what about Female Villains? How are they not just Evil Overlord in a dress? A few things have occurred to me as I’ve thought about that in spare moments this week.

Female Villains are often not the figurehead. They’re in the background, often working within the Evil Overlord’s support system. Dolores Umbridge didn’t want to be Lord Voldemort. She wanted to establish her own, much less obvious power base and used existing systems to change things little by little, rather than shattering the old order from the outset. She was a much more subtle, longer term threat as she distorted the education of the next generation of wizardry. And her goal was achievable.

Initially at least, Dolores Umbridge used what management jargoneers call ‘soft’ skills very effectively – not confrontation but manipulation, building consensus and convincing her victims and onlookers alike that this was all for their own good and in the service of broader, longer-term benefits. And isn’t that notion of ‘soft skills’ interesting from a gendered-language point of view?

Another Female Villain very good at this is Zavcka Klist in Stephanie Saulter’s GemSigns. She also highlights another possible trait of Female Villains. Evil Overlords rule from the top down. Female Villains seem more inclined to recruit allies rather than underlings, both directly on their own side and also among their opponents. They are very good at divide and rule and conquering from within. Using those ‘soft skills’ again. All ‘active listening’ and ‘reflective speaking’. ‘I understand your concerns. Let me help you resolve this problem to everyone’s satisfaction.’

Zavcka Klist also understands the value of information and of propaganda and PR. That’s something I see in other Female Villains, up to and including Ma-Ma in Dredd, even if her particular approach is more akin to the brutal South American drug cartel offer of ‘silver or lead?’ Money in your pockets or a bullet in the head? How much necessary evil will a society tolerate, to save itself from something worse? Female Villains seem good at that particular calculation.

Ma-Ma also makes extensive use of technology, to gather information as she plans her next move. Is this something Female Villains do more readily than their Male counterparts? Not sure. But that relates to something else that came out of last week’s discussions. The really scary, truly dangerous Villains – male or Female and as distinct from Evil Antagonists – aren’t psychopaths. On that scale, Dolores Umbridge is far worse than Bellatrix LeStrange.

Once I started thinking about this, I realised something else. I’ve seen a fair bit of this in action for myself. Some years ago, at PCon in Dublin, the ‘How to be an Evil Overlord’ panel was run as a role-playing exercise. For no reason that I can see, I was immediately nominated to be the Empress. Alas, I forget who else took on what other roles, apart from Kim Newman who was my Minister for Public Relations, or as he immediately renamed himself, Minister for Fun!

We fielded assorted questions from the audience, notably from one journalist who wanted to know where the realm’s substantial tax revenues were going, given the hardship of most ordinary folks’ lives. After Kim promptly made her Royal Cake Correspondent, I explained how all that money was being invested in scientific research and preparations for the realm’s wonderful space programme which would soon shower everyone with rewards as we boldly advanced the causes of technology and exploration to win the realm new resources.

Meantime, alas, the secluded space centre behind the high mountains on the far side of the kingdom would have to remain strictly off-limits, to prevent our scientists from being distracted and to avoid biological contamination, so on and so forth.

We kept this up for a good long while, repeatedly recruiting the most persistent and awkward questioners for that wonderful space programme – if we couldn’t distract them with cake. Of course, that meant dispatching them to that top-secret facility beyond the mountains, which oddly, no one ever seemed to return from. As the hour wound up and more and more people were starting to say ‘hang on a minute…’ the Empress sent her handsome, charming, and clueless Consort out onto the palace balcony to face the mob. Travelling companionably though not romantically with her erstwhile Minister for Fun, she swiftly and discreetly departed for another country with no extradition treaty and a banking system of iron-clad secrecy which had profited for years from her substantial deposits.

That panel really was a lot of fun, though I did notice a few people giving me slightly uneasy sideways glances afterwards…

So, once again, what have I missed? What traits do you see as particularly distinguishing Female Villains?

Jim C Hines blog has some eye-opening guest posts exploring representation in SF&F

While we’re considering people we don’t tend to see in SF&F, you should really read the recent series of guest posts on Jim C. Hines blog, where folk who live with the day-to-day reality of issues around race, colour, disability and prejudice talk with eye-opening candour about what they do and don’t see, and what it means to them.

Start here and keep on clicking.

Where are our Female Villains?

Something I’ve spoken and written about since The Thief’s Gamble was first published is the rise of the Female Hero within fantasy fiction. By which I mean a female protagonist whose motives, adventures and ambitions are not first and foremost driven by, and in service of, her relationship with a man and/or by extension, motherhood.

A Female Hero can assuredly have male lovers, maybe even a husband and/or children. She can co-exist with Heroines whose roles in a story and within the world it portrays, are defined by their relationships with men and/or children. This doesn’t mean such women have to be meek or passive. One of SF’s greatest kick-ass Heroines is Sarah Connor from the Terminator mythos. She’s no less awesome because of her heroism is driven by her need to protect her son.

What distinguishes a Female Hero, whatever her quest or her story might be, is that she is free from controlling male/family influence, whether she’s seeking political power, magic, or something else, whether she seeks it for herself or to benefit others.

No, I don’t mean a ball-breaking man-hater who scorns all males. And I definitely don’t mean the Red-Sonja-I-will-kill-my-rapist swordswoman as interpolated into Conan the Barbarian’s mythos. That notion might have been ground-breaking in 1973 but has become a very tired, exploitative and often misogynistic stereotype in subsequent decades. Though please note, I’m not familiar with the latest comic book incarnation as written by Gail Simone, and I’ll be very interested in comments from anyone who is currently reading it.

These days you can find plenty of Female Heroes across science fiction and epic fantasy. I’ve written a good few myself. Feel free to suggest your own favourites in comments. How is the comic world doing for Female Heroes at present?

The thing is though, where are our Female Villains? We have plenty of Female Villainesses; strong, capable women with agency and ability, whose actions drive stories, whose motivation centres on lovers and children. Cersei Lannister in A Game of Thrones is one of the first who springs to mind.

Female Villains? The only recent one I’ve been able to think of while writing this is ‘Ma-Ma’ in the 2012 Dredd movie. Gang leader, drug dealer, all-round terrifying, viciously intelligent and ambitious and incidentally, a woman.

And yes, I have noticed that I’ve just cited three examplar characters who have all been portrayed on screen by Lena Headey. Not sure what that signifies…

Before Ma-Ma? Casting my mind way back, I can think of Servalan, in the late 70s TV series, Blake’s 7, who was quite ready to use sexual wiles but whose ultimate goal was always power. Possibly The Rani, a ruthlessly scientific female Time Lord (Lady?) in the late 80s Doctor Who? Given I’ve seen neither series since first broadcast, I’m open to correction by anyone who’s watched them more recently.

Since then? Where are the Female Villains? Who have I missed seeing out there, in books, TV, movies or comics?

(Edited to Add – this link to the subsequent post What do Female Villains do that Bad Guys don’t?

A memorable meal – my guest post for Lawrence M Schoen’s blog

It’s time for something fun. So here’s my guest post for Lawrence M Schoen’s blog, specifically his ‘Eating Authors’ series.

In which I recall an Easter Sunday lunch in France when I was around nine years old, visiting a family whose European ties and history were so very different to anything I’d ever encountered in 1970s UK.

Links to some gender in genre thoughts (and book recommendations) from other folk

Good Monday morning. Well, that was a busy weekend, and not just on the Internet. It’s great to see such vigorous conversation about the perception, the reality and what that tells us about the current unconsidered biases in the presentation of epic fantasy (and other areas of speculative fiction).

If you haven’t already, do check out The Guardian’s article on women’s fantasy fiction. And do look through the comments thread for a great list of recommended reads.

More books and authors are recommended by Speculating on SpecFic where books are grouped according to the different things which might appeal to readers – politics, females with agency, dragons! – and more besides.

Find more recommendations and more thoughtful consideration over at The Geek Agenda discussing women in historical fantasy where this refers to historically-inspired fantasy rather than books set in recognisable historical settings. Don’t get bogged down in definitions, just read the piece.

Adrian Tchaikovsky addresses a slightly different set of assumptions about women’s writing specifically the ‘women write romance, romance is yucky, therefore women’s writing is yucky’ syllogism. Good piece.

Expanding the conversation –

Emma Newman gives an impassioned author’s response demanding a level playing field.

Fit and Feminist has a good post on why Pop Culture needs more women like Brienne of Tarth

Former French teacher, worldwide best-selling novelist and fantasy writer herself, Joanne Harris discusses the differences between Feminine and female.

Oh and if there was still any doubt about unreasoning bias against SF&F in some bookshops, as revealed on Twitter last week, a potential buyer went into a London bookshop and asked for a copy of Joanne Harris’s new novel, The Gospel according to Loki – only to be told they weren’t stocking it ‘as we don’t have a science fiction following’.

Yes, really.

The Guardian gets the idea! Women do write and read epic fantasy!

Following on from my previous post – and a good few others around the general issue of sexism/gender in genre this week, The Guardian is running a piece on women epic fantasy authors, actively soliciting recommendations. Do click on over and have your say!

Alison Flood’s article is here, illustrated with a great picture of Arya Stark.

Sincerest thanks to all who boosted the signal(s)

Why the SFWA Shoutback Matters

I’ve held off writing this post for a while now. Because I’m so tired of it all. Why won’t this noisy minority of folk with offensive and irrelevant opinions just GO AWAY! Let the vast majority of SF&F readers and writers who are decently socialised human beings living in the 21st century get on with discussing the increasingly intricate and inventive ways in which speculative fiction explores and celebrates the human condition in all its diversity (racial, sexual, tentacle etc)

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the noisy minority have scored big this week. I’ve just been sent a link to that dailydot.com story, revealing a mind-bogglingly offensive forum exchange among some SF writers and publishing professionals – from a friend active in crime fiction circles. Y’know, in case I hadn’t already seen it. I wish….

So this is one reason I’m writing this post. This stuff matters when onlookers unfamiliar with the current debate within our genre are noticing. When they read headlines like ‘Sexist, racist sci-fi writers forget their horrible rants are public.’ Because chances are, a great many won’t bother reading beyond that frankly ill-advised headline to discover the truth in an otherwise pretty good article. That the sexists and racists are squawking so loudly precisely because they’re being challenged and told their attitudes are unacceptable.

No, most onlookers will just glance at that, think, ‘ah yes, I see SF is still full of neck-bearded long-hairs* with Neanderthal attitudes to women and people of colour. I need not bother reading the article just to confirm I can continue ignoring that section in the bookstore.’

And in case any UK readers are tempted to think ‘Well, that’s over the US. We don’t need to worry’, do cast your mind back to the headlines and articles following the shortlist announcements for the 2012 and 2013 Clarke Award. One disgruntled non-shortlisted author started hurling insults at those who had been listed and also at the judges. This got picked up by the national press. Since he also saw fit to insult a crime writer he’d shared a lit fest platform with, Twitter soon filled up with astonishment from other crime and mystery authors that this tantrum could be considered remotely professional behaviour.

My inbox filled up with email from folk I know who work in national newspapers, broadcasting and other journalism, whose response can be best summed up by one internationally and award-winning author I have the honour to know: ‘Why on earth do you waste your time on a genre full of such horrible people?’ So the time and effort I’ve put in over a decade and more, trying to convince these people that SF&F is a mature, nuanced literature worthy of respect had been effectively trashed by one entitled individual’s spiteful fit of pique. That infuriates me.

Then we had the newspaper article in 2013 ‘Arthur C Clarke award announces all-male shortlist. Mostly female judges overlook women in choice of contenders for UK’s pre-eminent science fiction prize.’ Er, no we damn well didn’t, as Liz William’s follow-up article made clear. But that’s first article is the one that established the impression that’s lasted, that’s still being raised in conversations with me.

A common response when I say this is ‘Ah, well, we true keepers of the SF&F flame don’t need validation from the vulgar mainstream so that doesn’t matter.’ I can only assume folk with this attitude have never worked in retail. As a professional writer, it sure as hell matters to me, because it is onlookers unfamiliar with the genre who will make key decisions based on this stuff which will have a direct impact on my career. Not to mention a significant influence on my available choices as a reader.

I know this for a fact. I used to work in bookselling, working for Ottakar’s here in the UK. I was well up to speed with SF&Fantasy, also with Crime & Mystery and children’s books – because they were all genres I read and had a direct interest it. I didn’t read Horror. I never have. I simply don’t understand its appeal. But as a bookseller I had a professional duty to keep generally current with new authors and trends. I did that by checking reviews in the papers, and other mentions, via an invaluable paper newsletter called Books in the Media and other sources like the weekend papers and monthly genre magazines. This was in the mid-90s so the Internet wasn’t really A Thing. I was diligent because it was in my interests to present Horror reading customers with the books they would buy and thus ensure the shop’s sale targets were met and that would be reflected in our pay rises.

Then I became an author and started going to conventions – and discovered that I had significantly underestimated the number of women both reading and writing horror fiction. Because as an onlooker, the picture presented to me through the commercially-relevant media was badly skewed.

This is still going on. With the upcoming fourth season of A Game of Thrones about to hit TV screens, you will soon see ‘If you like reading GRR Martin, why not try these authors?’ displays going up in bookshops. I will give a book of mine, of their choice, to the first person who can send me a photo of such a display that isn’t entirely composed of male authors. Because I’ve yet to see one. I have challenged staff in bookshops about this, to be told ‘women don’t write epic fantasy’ Ahem, with 15 novels published, I beg to differ. And we read it too.

But that’s not what the onlooker sees in the media, in reviews, in the supposedly book-trade-professional articles in The Guardian which repeatedly discuss epic fantasy without ever once mentioning a female author. That onlooker who’s working in a bookshop and making key decisions about what’s for sale, sees a male readership for grimdark books about blokes in cloaks written by authors like Macho McHackenslay. So that’s what goes in display, often at discount, at the front of the store. So that’s what people see first and so that’s what sells most copies.

Six months down the line, the accountants at head office look at the sales figures and think excellent, Macho McHackenslay is one of our bestsellers – and the order goes out to ask publishers for more of the same. Now, chances are, the publisher will be dead keen to promote the second or third novel by P.D.Kickassgrrl. Unfortunately her sales aren’t nearly as good, because her book’s on sale at full price in the SFF section at the back of the shop or upstairs, where retail footfall studies have proved people just don’t go to browse any more, especially now that booksellers don’t routine carry authors’ backlists.

When it’s a numbers game like retail, the most passionate editor will struggle to get a hearing, however much he insists the body count and hardcore ethics of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s excellent book will surely appeal to Macho McHackenslay fans – especially when that bookseller won’t have seen any reviews of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s work, but that’s another discussion I’ve already written on several times.

You can see the same thing at work in the movies. How long have we been waiting for a female-led superhero movie? Wonder Woman has languished in development hell for decades. It’s taken the success of Black Widow as a character in (The) Avengers (Assemble) to convince decision makers to take that chance. Decision makers and money men whose choices are influenced by such things as the comic industry’s persistently sexually provocative and exploitative artwork, and trade events which see no problem in having no women creatives on panels at all. They don’t see the very hard work being done within the comics world by men and women alike to change all that.

Returning to books, this has little or nothing to do with the actual authors. Macho McHackenslay’s personal credentials as a fully-rounded, decent human being who shows genuine respect to folk different to himself are most likely excellent. Chances are he learned such attitudes at his great-uncle’s knee, the famed ray-guns and rocketships, square-jawed hero SF writer of the 1960s, Blokey McZoom, who marched for Civil Rights in the USA and wrote passionately in support of Roe vs Wade and all manner of other progressive causes.

Which brings me to the second reason I’m writing this is because I have seen people saying ‘oh well, it doesn’t matter, we just need to wait for the dinosaurs to die off and it’ll all be fine.’ Unfortunately this isn’t going to work. If it did, these rows wouldn’t keep recurring.

Having read getting on for 200 SF books over 2012-2013 as a Clarke Award judge, I found a range of attitudes from socially conservative/sexist/veiled-racist to adventurous, progressive, informed and thought-provoking social commentary. There was absolutely no correlation between the age and gender of the author and the presence of outdated or offensive ideas. Some of the worst offenders were younger men and women. Some of the best work was written by middle-aged and older white men, for whom age and experience had brought perspective and insight.

There’s a logical fallacy at work here. A spider has eight legs but having eight legs doesn’t make something a spider. It can be an octopus. The currently noisy and offensive crowd may be predominately old white men. That doesn’t mean anyone who happens to be old, white and/or male automatically holds outdated and offensive views. Please don’t make that mistake and add further venom to this already toxic mix.

I did see one correlation in my Clarke reading, mind you. Where authors came ‘genre-slumming’, trying their hand at SF&F, there was definitely a higher incidence of tedious books trying to tickle the fancy of the mythical mouth-breathing SF fan only interested in sex and violence. Because when that’s what the onlooker sees, those are the boxes they’ll aim to tick and hey, there’s no need to write decent prose because neck-bearded, long-haired* Neanderthals won’t know it if they read it, right? Okay, I exaggerate slightly – but not much.

So this stuff matters. This is why we need to speak up and make our voices heard above the noisy, spiteful old reactionaries. So that onlookers realise that SF&F is a genre worth looking into, for interesting, thought-provoking writing as well as thrills and spills and tales of high adventure. So new readers and writers continue the genre’s ongoing mission to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilisations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.

* I have two sons of 18 and 20 both with chin-strap beards and very long hair and have no prejudice against such personal grooming choices except when I am the one declogging the plughole in the shower

Religion in Einarinn

Reading Kameron Hurley’s guest post earlier this week has set me thinking about the way I’ve created and used religion in my own fantasy writing.

When I wrote The Thief’s Gamble, I didn’t want gods or prophecies or anything similar playing a part in the action. I wanted this to be a story about people risking themselves for other people, for friendship and duty and similar personal motives. So there were definitely going to be no gods on stage, no holy inspiration or edicts from on high. Most especially, and absolutely, magical power, whether that was elemental or aetheric, was not going to stem from divine favour. I also know people of genuine personal faith, who find fantasy fiction with gods playing an active part in the narrative problematic. Given the stories I aim to tell, there’s no need for me to give such offence to folk of sincere belief.

On the other hand, if I was creating a believable fantasy world, I knew there would have to be gods. There have always been gods, and plenty of them, and throughout human history, that’s caused all manner of strife. I find fantasy worlds with a sole religion with everyone believing in it, unquestioning, as problematic as Kameron.

So I sketched out the Einarinn pantheon, drawing on my studies into ancient Greece and Rome and what I’ve picked up here and there about sundry other cultures. Anthropologically speaking, the impulse to create deities seems driven first and foremost by the human desire for explanation and comprehension of the world around us, and then by hope for some sort of control over the unpredictable shocks of nature and whatever terrors might be lurking beyond the circle of light from the fire. So Einarinn has a sky god, Saedrin, a sea god Dastennin, a harvest goddess Drianon, and a god of death, Poldrion, to mention just a few.

But just as I didn’t want to use a single deity and default to a religion that might just as well be Christianity, Judaism or Islam with the serial numbers filed off, I didn’t want these invented deities to default to being Zeus, Poseidon, Demeter or Hades with a shave and a different haircut or new dress. So I invented more deities; Ostrin, god of hospitality and healing, Arimelin goddess of dreams, Halcarion, goddess of luck and love, Raeponin god of justice, Larasion goddess of the weather, Talagrin, god of the hunt and wild places, Misaen the Maker, god of artisans, and Maewelin the Winter Hag. Oh and Trimon the Wanderer which was useful when I came to allocate the different gods and goddesses to the seasons and festivals of the Tormalin calendar and found I had one left over. It seemed fitting that the Traveller’s God wouldn’t be tied down like that.

As I wrote the books, I drew on classical customs with regard to shrines and priests and local cults to create rituals and religious observance that doesn’t rely on any centralised system or hierarchy. I drew on the wide variety of degrees of faith among people I know day to day; to give some characters sincere belief, while others are variously sceptical to a greater or lesser extent while the rest simply adopt unthinking observance without ever really questioning the faiths of their fathers and mothers – and that’s all fine with me. As far as I am concerned, religion should always be a matter of personal exploration and private conviction.

What I found particularly interesting and rewarding as I wrote successive books was reverse-engineering the cultural history of these different gods and goddesses, as the various races of lowlands, uplands and woodlands blended in the Tormalin Empire. As it turned out, Saedrin, Ostrin, Poldrion, Dastennin, Raeponin, Drianon and Arrimelin were originally Old Tormalin deities while Halcarion, Larasion, Talagrin and Trimon were from the Great Forest, one for each season. Maewelin and Misaen are the original Mountain deities and that’s interesting, isn’t it; a dual vision of the divine. Once I had all that clear in my own mind, I could add depth and interest as the Tales of Einarinn unfolded by having different characters’ attitudes to different deities drawn from their varied cultural backgrounds.

But what about the Aldabreshi? They have no gods at all, and that was a conscious decision I made to mark them very firmly as The Other as far as the mainlanders are concerned, to make a central tenet of their lives completely incomprehensible to those who’ve grown up with the Tormalin pantheon.

On the other hand, the Archipelagans would still have that universal desire to find order and as measure of control over the natural world. So I drew on another tradition from my classical studies; belief in omens and portents. Once again, that worked better and better as I developed the concept, most fully in The Aldabreshin Compass. For instance, I wanted the Archipelagans to have some skills and talents well in advance of the mainland, because Other definitely wasn’t going to mean Lesser, not in my world. So as I developed the customs and practise of Aldabreshin stargazing alongside the many, many other systems of fortune telling I discovered, it became plain that the Archipelagans would be the foremost mathematicians of this world, as well as notable craftsmen with lenses, gears and other skills needed to make astrolabes and similar instruments.

As with the Tormalin deities, the effects of what I’d invented on my characters’ everyday lives soon became apparent in unexpected ways. The power of prediction became a significant aspect of the absolute authority of the Aldabreshin warlords. That was a sharp, two-edged sword, open to manipulation and abuse as well as laying obligations for all to see, on these supposed all-powerful rulers. Especially as the cultural imperative of belief in omens and portents offered up similarities with oppressive nature of the worst of medieval Catholicism. Wasn’t that intriguing? So wouldn’t it be fascinating if a central character lost his faith? Especially if he was someone who absolutely couldn’t let that apostasy become known. That added a whole further dimension to that particular series.

Religion continued to be one of the elements I used to enrich the background of the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution and The Hadrumal Crisis. One thing that became more and more apparent was that mages are by and large, godless. When I realised that had become so, I had to work out why it might be. Well, the mageborn mostly come from other places as teenagers, sent to Hadrumal to get their dangerous talents well away from ordinary people. Some might bring familiar religious observance from home but I guessed most wouldn’t.

Add to that, when you have real, demonstrable power over the elements that make up the world, when the Cloud Masters and Flood Mistresses can control the weather as they wish, while the Stone Master and Heath Mistress can reshape the very land itself with earthquakes and eruptions, there’s not much room left for wistful wishing for divine intervention. And that becomes interesting of itself, considering the arrogance that can make wizardry so dangerous.

Then there’s another element in Hadrumal’s godlessness which I’ve barely referred to. It’s one of those bits of world-building which an author always knows but since it’s not directly relevant to any particular story, there’s been no great need to mention it. The wizard city of Hadrumal was founded by the first Archmage, Trydek. He was from Mandarkin, a harsh country with a brutal culture that’s never even been seen by anyone reading my stories. It lies to the north of Solura, which is another very different culture to the Tormalin Empire, which has become more familiar, most particularly in the Hadrumal Crisis books. What do readers know about Soluran religion? Very little so far. They don’t have gods or goddesses either, but they do have religious orders, centred on houses founded by notable practitioners of Artifice, the aetheric magic that scholars and rulers in the lands that once made up the Tormalin Empire are keen to rediscover. The aetheric magic that the Sheltya, the guardians of lore in the Mountains dividing Mandarkin and Solura, are determined to control.

What does all that mean? Well, if I get the opportunity to write a series focusing on these as yet unexplored regions and peoples, no doubt we will all find out!

Building Enigmatic Gods in Fictional Worlds – Guest Post from Kameron Hurley

Here’s something new for a new year – the first guest post on my blog. I found it a fascinating read, leaving me thoughtful about my own work as well as casting new light on the other books I’ve read which Kameron references here. By the way, if Kameron’s own ‘God’s War’ (out in the UK this week from Del Rey UK) isn’t already on your radar as a book to look out for, I recommend you follow up the links at the end of this post.

Building Enigmatic Gods in Fictional Worlds

My grandmother was a war bride, a young French Catholic woman who married an American G.I. He threatened to divorce her if their fourth child wasn’t a boy. He already had three girls, and four was just too much to bear.

He told her this while they were wheeling her into the delivery room.

My grandfather was full of ominous contradictions.

Until I was twelve years old, my grandmother watched after me and my siblings while my parents worked. My parents were too exhausted for church and didn’t care much for leisurely Bible reading, so much of my exposure to the conception of God and organized religion was framed by my grandmother’s Catholicism. I cut my teeth on bloody books labeled “Children’s Bible Stories” and was often admonished to take care of my “modesty” instead of flinging off my towel after a bath and dancing naked around the house. My memories of church are mainly of me sitting in the pews working on my coloring books, and standing up and sitting down as directed by my grandmother.

But my grandmother believed fervently and passionately in God. My grandfather dutifully sent the church $100 a month, even if it meant their family of seven sometimes went hungry. My dad and aunts and uncles seemed to be mostly motivated in their beliefs by fear – what was God thinking about them? What did he have planned? God was an unknowable being to be respected, worshipped, loved, and feared.

Belief may never have taken hold of me, but twelve years growing up in the same house as my grandfather taught me fear. It taught me caution. It taught me to step softly around great hulking powers with unknowable motives. It gave me a better understanding of my aunts’ and uncle’s love and fear of God, and how God and his unknowable motives could so thoroughly suffuse one’s life.

My grandfather was, at best, verbally and physically abusive. He worked as a nighttime security guard at a bank, so he’d sleep during the day. All us kids were warned in hushed tones “not to wake grandpa.” Sneaking past his bedroom door on our way to play down in the basement was like sneaking past a bear’s den. I’m not exaggerating when I say this – one afternoon we congregated too long outside his door at the basement door opposite his, arguing about who was going to carry some toy downstairs, and my grandfather burst out of the bedroom, enraged at being woken by our arguing. He threw my cousin down the basement stairs, and grabbed me by the hair and slammed my head into the wall. My grandmother’s response to my grandfather’s outbursts was to throw her own fit of rage, throwing dishes in the kitchen and swearing at my grandfather in French.

Needless to say, it took me many years to figure out how to have disagreements with a loved one that didn’t involve screaming, cursing and throwing things.

My grandfather was, of course, also a father and husband doing the best he could with the bad hand he’d been dealt. When I was older, I learned that much of his job during his tour of Europe in World War II was hauling and burying the bodies of thousands of people killed by the Germans in concentration camps. He grew up during the depression, and when we’d complain about not getting some cereal flavor we wanted, he would rail on about how his family once found a hurt pigeon on the beach, and instead of nurturing it back to health, had eaten it because they were starving.

What made my grandfather my grandfather was a wholly alien experience to me. He became an unpredictable monster – vacillating between affable old man teaching me to plant and nurture seedlings to reeling, rage-filled behemoth set on destroying everything he’d built.

It was my unpredictable, unknowable grandfather that became my mapped-on stand-in for God in some of the old Bible stories I’d read. Only an angry, alien all-knowing, all-seeing being would tell you to kill your own child to prove your love, then say, “Ha ha just kidding.” The contradictions, the freeing people from slavery and then forgetting about them for 40 years – all felt like the actions of a being with inhuman motives.

It’s no wonder I became fascinated with the idea of creating fantastic religions that embraced the alien motivations of an unknowable God.

We tend to personify a lot of gods, so Zeus and Vishnu and the Abrahamic God have love and anger and rage like people. They are often driven by human-like emotions, sometimes propelled by narcissism (worship me above others; worship me instead of the others).

But in setting the actual stories of these gods next to their actions, I couldn’t help but think they looked far less human than we wanted to believe. In my own reading of the fantastic, and in the religions I built, I was drawn to this idea of humans creating religions around beings we truly did not understand; beings driven by some experience or logic or existence so alien to ours that they would be forever unknowable.

Those were the fantastic deities that interested me. Much of our history has us creating mythologies to make sense of things we don’t understand – shouldn’t our fantasy societies do the same?

Tim Akers executes this idea very well in his book Heart of Veridon, where the old gods, the “Celestes” appear to be a race of figures forever caught in stasis. Temples are built around them, yet no one knows where they came from or what they are:

“There are five Celestes, or were the last time I checked. Used to be six, but the Watchman flickered and disappeared, twenty years ago. I barely remember that, my mother crying in a closet, my father drawing heavy curtains across the dining room window and burning secret, heavy candles that smelled like hot sand. My parents followed the old ways, at least in private…

The Dome of the Singer [one of the Celestes] was, at first, a practical matter. She sang, loudly. Or she used to. When I stepped into the cool dark interior of the Dome, all I heard were feet scuffing on stones and the low moan of drafts circulating through the drafty heights. She was silent, and I felt a chill….

She hovered in the air at the center of the opening in the floor, surrounded by an iron railing. Her skin was pale against her bulbous, crimson roes. Her clothes were dark red and shiny, retaining form almost like a chitinous shell. Her eyes were closed. Her lips and the tips of her fingers were blood red and smooth. Light poured off her skin like mist on the river in winter. I had forgotten how beautiful she was, hidden away in this drafty stone building. How had we forgotten this, how had the city gone on to other gods?”

I also see a number of fantasy novels fall into the “singular religion” trap, where everyone believes in the same gods then follows one or the other. This not only erases a lot of potential depth to the world, but eliminates an incredible amount of potential tension. Look at tension and conflicts between those of different faiths across the world (many of which are built on very similar tenets), and throughout history. How do those tensions play out in a fantastic setting?

Akers creates two major religions in this novel, both with very different ways of viewing life, neatly shown in prose via the protagonists’ story of a near-death experience:

“The Celestes teach nothing of an afterlife. Not like the Algorithm, with its infinite pattern, its eternal calculations and the intricacies of their metronomic prophecies. Their lives are a soulless pattern, and their deaths are as well. The holy Wrights of the Algorithm teach of an afterlife of clockwork, the hidden engines of the world swept back to reveal the calculation at the middle, the equation that is God.

I hold to old gods. Imagine my disappointment, then, when the darkness that took me after the Glory of Day shattered against the cold water of the river Reine lingered only for a while. Light came, and noise. I opened my eyes to a world of pattern, of engine. The world of the Algorithm.”

The prophets of such extraordinary religions also make for fascinating stories, as they remake their society’s conception of God (or gods), and their relationship with this higher power, in response to changing times.

Octavia Butler’s Lauren Olamina becomes the interpreter/reimagineer of the abstract, all-powerful or alien being that so many simply call “God.” In her two books, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Butler tells the story of an ordinary girl who becomes the prophet of a new religion based around acceptance of change – God is Change. She calls it Earthseed. Butler’s books follow Olamina’s compelling journey from ordinary girl navigating the violence and uncertainty of an apocalyptic world to prophet leading the rebirth of a more vital civilization, which takes a more science fictional approach to religion-building. It shows the importance of how human religions are created, led and sustained by very human people; just people, facing impossible odds, trying to frame events around the existence of a higher power, a greater pattern or purpose. Religions are, at their core, about people trying to come to grips with uncertainty.

Olamina’s religion reimagines people’s relationship with such a higher power:

“God is Change, and in the end, God does prevail. But we have something to say about the whens and the whys of that end.”

And:

“There’s comfort in realizing that everyone and everything yields to God. There’s power in knowing that God can be focused, diverted, shaped by anyone at all.”

In Olamina’s reimagined relationship with God, people are given the power to focus, divert, and shape God’s will. They are not simply pushed along by it. They are not submissive to His will.

Aside from the “one religion” trap, another thing I see many writers fall into when creating fantasy religions is to forget that people actually believe in their gods, and belief in those gods suffuses every part of their daily life. Just as my grandfather’s tempestuous emotions often ruled my days as a child – shaping and changing events based on his moods – God or the gods should play a similarly tangible role in characters’ lives.

As Akers’s hero draws on his beliefs to interpret the events after his near-death, characters will interpret the events of the world according to their own belief systems, and use those beliefs to guide their own behavior.

Saladin Ahmed does a wonderful job incorporating the beliefs of his characters into everyday life for both individuals and communities in his book, Throne of the Crescent Moon, an Arabian Nights-flavored sword and sorcery novel about an aging ghul hunter and his apprentice.

Whereas less attentive writers might have their characters only call on or remember the existence of God or gods for oaths and epithets, Ahmed ensures that the presence of God – and the absolute faith in His existence – suffuses his characters’ lives, from greetings to blessings to prayer to magic. God is never absent.

Fantastic worlds, for me, are richer when they acknowledge that the all-powerful beings that shape their characters lives – whether literal or figurative – are, for many of their protagonists and the societies they live in – as real and tangible and unknowable as our own families, our own histories, our collective pasts.

Those who lean toward the “rational” science fiction end of the spectrum must remember that it’s been shown that our yearning for belief is hard-wired into our genetic makeup. We yearn to believe in something greater and grander than ourselves – whether that’s a common purpose or a higher power. The vast majority of humanity strives to create narrative from random. People who are able to create larger narratives – those who see patterns or larger meaning in this randomness – are more likely to outlive those who don’t.

This is why fictional fantastic societies who’ve survived against all odds, or future people who’ve conquered a galaxy, will be far more believable if they’ve organized themselves around some greater purpose. We are more sated, more powerful, more focused, when driven by a belief in something outside of ourselves.

Whether your god kindly teaches your people to nurture seedlings, flings them down the stairs unexpectedly, or engages randomly in such acts, their presence should be felt, acknowledged, and mythologized. Organized religions help us come to grips with the larger world. These beliefs have a lot to say about how your characters and societies make sense of themselves, their worlds, and the ones they love.

So consider their creation carefully, and fully.

ABOUT Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley is an award-winning writer and freelance copywriter who grew up in Washington State. She is the author of the book God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, and her short fiction has appeared in magazines such Lightspeed, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF.

Kitchener on our coins? That icon may not mean what they think it means…

As the centenary year of The Great War opens, I see outrage on Twitter and Facebook at the choice of Lord Kitchener’s in/famous recruiting poster for the UK £2 coins to be minted in this year. Don’t people know what atrocities he was responsible for, the objectors cry, throughout his long military career?

Well, since it’s quite likely that a good few folk don’t know Kitchener’s full story, I’m all in favour of them being better informed, if that can be achieved without descending into pointless arguments. The thing is though, as I look at this image, I wonder how my sons will see it, not least since they’re now both of an age which would have seen them shipped off to the trenches a hundred years ago, to do and die and never question why their elders and betters had ordered it.

But that was then and this is now. My sons have grown up reading Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett, and seeing the stage production of Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, and War Horse at the cinema. They’ve laughed through the DVDs of Blackadder Goes Forth and shivered at the intensity of that final scene. They watched Daniel Radcliffe going well beyond Harry Potter in the TV drama My Boy Jack. They’ve been on school trips to the Flanders cemeteries where they were all individually given the personal history behind a stark white tombstone and stood at the Menin Gate at sunset. Causes and Consequences of The First World War has been a staple of their school History curriculum. They’ve studied the War Poets in English Literature. Since we live in Oxfordshire, they see local traffic halted and diverted as hearses bringing dead soldiers home from Afghanistan go by.

What does Kitchener on a coin mean to them? A symbol of a bygone age when the deference ingrained in a class-ridden society saw men slaughtered by the thousand for the sake of a war they’d had no say in? A warning of the dangers of unthinking acceptance of ‘patriotic’ propaganda, most especially spouted by politicians wrapping themselves in the flag, while staying safely distant from bullets and shells? A reminder to look carefully for the self-interest or outdated thinking behind the words and motives of those who will be soliciting their votes in 2015’s general election?

You know, I don’t think I have a problem with them carrying that in a pocketful of change.