If you’re within striking distance of London on Saturday June 8th, I will be the BSFA guest of honour at the annual one-day convention jointly run by the BSFA and the SFF, alongside their respective AGMs. More from the BSFA here.
The venue is the Department of Physics, South Kensington Campus, Imperial College, and the programme is as follows:
1005-1100: Panel 1 – BSFA
The Zero Sum of Literature: are some SF writers wrong to not welcome “literary” writers with open arms to the genre?
1105-1200: Interview/talk 1 – Rachel Livermore
1200-1230: SFF AGM
1300-1330: BSFA AGM
1330-1430: SFF panel – “Return to the Moon: how and why?” – GS (M), Dave Clements, Rachel Livermore
1430-1530: Interview 2 – Juliet E McKenna interviewed by Sophia McDougall.
The Convention is free to attend and open to the public. Hope to see you there!
And now as promised, here’s another taste of The Green Man’s Foe, using the Book Quote Wednesday word ‘promise’. If this seems a little opaque at the moment, trust me, it’ll all become clear when you read the book.
There was an edge of desperation in Ben’s voice. I have to admit, that did intrigue me.
‘Just come down to take a look at the place,’ he pleaded. ‘We really need to get the project moving, and I honestly can’t think of anyone better than you.’
I wondered how much of that urgency was some instinct stirred by his dryad ancestry. Then there was my dream last night to consider. I had learned the hard way that the Green Man didn’t like being ignored.
‘I’ll talk to Eleanor.’ I raised a warning hand. ‘No promises.’
‘Great.’ Ben’s relief was obvious. He took a pen from an inside pocket and scribbled on the front of the Brightwell folder. ‘That’s my mobile, and my email. Let me know a good time for you to visit. Later this week, if you can?’
I nodded, still non-committal. There were potential complications I needed to discuss with Eleanor that I couldn’t explain to Ben.
This year I’ll be taking part in the “Read For Pixels” 2018 Google Hangout campaign (Fall Edition), in company with a veritable host of other authors supporting this non-profit fundraiser backing initiatives to end violence against women.
Google Hangout sessions will run on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings from September 1st to September 30th 2018. Each session will feature an author reading from one of their books and discussing women and girls in their books, why they support ending violence against women, and women in the media, geek culture, and popular culture. Each session will also include a live moderated Q&A session for fans and book lovers to ask their favourite authors questions in real time. My slot will be 4pm UK time, on Sunday 2nd September.
The first Read For Pixels Google Hangout live panel session will tackle Trashing The Rape Trope: Writing Violence Against Women in Fantasy. Martha Wells, Kate Elliott, and Jim C. Hines will be discussing violence against women in the Fantasy genre and techniques for tackling the subject without dehumanising female characters. There will also be a live Q&A segment for writers and fans interested in writing about female characters and approaching themes such as misogyny, sexism, gender, and violence against women with depth, empathy, and accuracy.
There are giveaways and gifts to be had from Adrian Tchaikovsky (with Macmillan Books UK), Aliette de Bodard, Ann Aguirre, Charles de Lint, Jodi Meadows, Ken Liu, Leigh Bardugo, Peter V. Brett, Steven Erikson, Susan Dennard, Juliana Spink Mills, and more. These include swag bags and book bundles, signed first editions or special editions of participating authors’ books, a chance to be a minor character in someone’s upcoming books, and more. Katherine Tegan Books at HarperCollins and award-winning NewCon Press are each donating a Mystery Book Box. Donations begin at as little as US$5 and the goodies are available to donors as “thank you” gifts and perks depending on the donation amount. I’m donating three book bundles; The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution trilogy, the Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, and my two Wizard’s Tower Press books, The Secret Histories of the River Kingdom and The Green Man’s Heir. I’ll cover the postage worldwide.
Fundraising will take place on Rally Up in tandem with the Google Hangout series over the month of September 2018. Authors involved include Alison Goodman, Brandon Sanderson, David D. Levine, Fonda Lee, Fran Wilde, Jay Kristoff, Julie Czerneda, Marie Brennan, Richard K. Morgan, Sarah Beth Durst, and Tananarive Due.
For more information about Read For Pixels, contact Regina Yau at email@example.com or visit: http://is.gd/Read4Pixels.
Well, that was an interesting experience. Last Friday I was alerted to the fact that my Wikipedia page had been flagged for deletion. Well, I say my page but one of the few things I know about the whys and wherefores of Wikipedia is that the subject of a page is not allowed to actually edit it. Anyway, I clicked a few links and established that the argument for my deletion was that I was not notable, and had not created a notable body of work. There was apparently a dearth of evidence that I was in any way a notable person, and as such, I had no place on Wikipedia.
Somewhere between startled and baffled, I noted this on social media. Consequently, I have learned a whole lot more about the whys and wherefores of Wikipedia. First and foremost is their idiosyncratic definition of ‘notable.’ This means statements about a subject must be backed by citations, by which they means links to material elsewhere on the internet to prove that a person has not merely done stuff but other people have written about them doing it, to establish proof. Not all online material is acceptable however. Blogs are not. Amazon reviews are not. Goodreads pages are not. These things are all deemed too likely to be unreliable.
Given my work on issues around representation and diversity, one thing in particular immediately strikes me about such insistence. This desire for verification is wholly laudable. It is also indirectly and unintentionally discriminatory. The fact that this discrimination isn’t deliberate in no way excuses it.
When 60-70% of all review coverage, media mentions and other online material that provides these verifying citations goes to white western male authors, then women, writers of colour and LGBTQ+ authors are always going to find it harder to provide ‘evidence’ and their pages will be much easier to challenge, given our consequent far greater reliance on our own blogs to publicize our activities and other special interest blogs and websites that won’t appear in a cursory search, looking for example at Google News reports.
It seems Wikipedia is aware of its systemic bias, as detailed in this article. Read this, and related pieces, and I imagine many of you will note, with the weary contempt of familiarity, the repeated insistence that it’s up to women themselves, and other under-represented groups to do all the hard work here. Though I haven’t found anything addressing the issue I raise above, explaining what we’re expected to do when sufficient acceptable citations simply do not exist, and those references that do exist are not deemed acceptable. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
On the plus side, I have learned that there are dedicated groups of female and other special-interest Wikipedians spending considerable time and effort updating and expanding pages, intent on correcting this bias. Mind you, I also learned their work is frequently challenged and even undone by other Wikipedians applying the all too prevalent and far too often white western male logic of ‘not of interest to me personally = not of interest to anyone’. And of course, such challenges can very easily be a thinly veiled cover for actively discriminatory behaviour. Having read the Wikipedia page on handling tendentious editing, I am not in the least reassured that this is in any way satisfactorily addressed.
So what do we do? Give up and leave Wikipedia to perpetuate its skewed world view, further erasing women, writers of colour and LGBTQ+ authors?
How about no, we don’t?
A couple of constructive ideas emerged from last Friday’s conversations. The first was having panels at SF conventions where experienced Wikipedians could explain the idiosyncracies and intricacies of editing and updating to people like me who are, for example, unaware of the specific ways in which Wikipedia defines ‘notable’ and ‘citation’, and the vulnerability of certain groups to deletion and challenge.
The second suggestion was making a time slot and space available at conventions for Wikipedians and fans to get together to update and expand author and other SFFnal pages. That would definitely help out all those authors, not only women, writers of colour and LGBTQ+ folk, who don’t have personal assistants, web-elfs or other people who can routinely do this without being struck down as a biased source.
At least as importantly, informed and engaged fans are going to be able to find acceptable citations that a cursory websearch simply will not locate. My updated and now apparently acceptable page is a prime example of this. When I flagged up this issue last Friday, online pals rallied round and crucially, since they already knew all about the many things I’ve done over the years, they used specific and targeted searches to find Wikipedia-acceptable material to link to.
Get a bunch of like-minded fans together at a convention and I’ll bet that adding their knowledge together will prove extremely productive, as someone flags up a Best Of, or Recommended Reads list online that other folk are unaware of, just by way of one example.
How about we try this?
I had a splendid weekend at Follycon, the Eastercon up in Harrogate. Listening to Guest of Honour Nnedi Okorafor in conversation with Tade Thompson was a particular highlight, among many excellent programme items. Listening to Professor Farah Mendlesohn’s presentation on Robert Heinlein makes me increasingly keen to read her forthcoming book on the author. My own contribution included panels on the ways economics is handled and mishandled in SF&F, and a discussion of employment, present and future. As has long been the case, I find SF&F conventions pretty much the best place these days to find informed social and political debate based on sound analytical thinking.
Alongside the serious stuff there was plenty of fun. Alongside estemeed authors Jaine Fenn and Jacey Bedford, with our glamourous token man Adrian Tchaikovsky, we tackled the thorny questions besieging Men in Science Fiction. For those of you who couldn’t be there to gain vital insights, this trenchant debate has been immortalised on YouTube.
Personally and professionally, the enthusiasm I found for The Green Man’s Heir gave me a real thrill. Copies in the Dealers Room sold out swiftly, while established pals and new acqaintances alike took the time to tell me how much they enjoyed it. Given the book is quite some departure from the epic fantasy I’m best known for, that’s all the more gratifying. Keen readers are already asking about a sequel… well, that’s one area where the facts of life are constant in publishing, from the multinationals to independents like Wizard’s Tower Press. Sequels stem from sales, so if you’d care to boost the signal with reviews on Amazon UK and US, and Goodreads, as you prefer, that will be very much appreciated.
Talking of The Green Man’s Heir, quite literally, before I went off to Follycon, I was able to have an enjoyable chat with Joel Cornah about the book, about the differences I found writing a novel set in this world, in the present day, and oh, all sorts of stuff. That’s now available as a special episode of the Writers of Fantasy podcast from the Scifi Fantasy Network.
Enjoy your viewing and listening.
In other news this week, the World Fantasy Awards Association has announced the judges for the 2018 World Fantasy Awards, and I am looking forward to serving alongside David Anthony Durham, Christopher Golden, Charles Vess and Kaaron Warren.
The categories are: novel, long fiction, short fiction, anthology, collection, artist, special award (professional) and special award (non-professional), as well as life achievement. So it’s going to be a lot of reading, which I’ll be approaching with keen interest as well as writerly rigour. The judging discussions promise to be very interesting.
You may be assured I thought long and hard before taking this on. It’s an honour to be asked, which made it all the more important to assess my schedule for the first half of next year, to be certain I could commit the necessary time to do a good job.
I was quite surprised when a pal pointed out it’s been a month since my last blogpost. Really? Surely it’s only been couple of weeks of doing all sorts of other things? Oh, yes…
I’m working on revising one book while continuing to send out another to agents. I’ve read Cory Doctorow’s “Walkaway” and written a review of that for Interzone. I’m writing a guest post for Marie Brennan and I spent a lovely hour and more chatting with the women of the “Breaking the Glass Slipper” podcast, and that will be available shortly. I checked over the edits for a paper I’ve written for Luna Press’s forthcoming book “Gender identity and sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction: do we have a problem?”
Plus there’s been a whole load of domestic and business administrative stuff hereabouts, none of which would make for remotely interesting blogpost material but which gets incredibly time consuming.
Best of all, we’ve been on holiday, and that was great. We headed for the Lake District, and got a very different view of the landscapes, compared to our previous visits, with the trees not yet in leaf and the undergrowth yet to start burgeoning. We also saw lots of sheep and the early lambs and the Husband became fascinated by just how different the shapes of sheep’s heads can be, when you start comparing breed with breed. We visited Penrith, and Acorn Bank, and Holker Hall, and the Lakeland Motor Museum which is highly recommended for those with even a passing interest in cars, motorbikes and cycles. The collection is very well displayed and has some real rarities and oddities. And yes, there are an awful lot of daffodils in the Lake District if you’re there at the right season.
By way of light relief, I’ve watched Marvel’s “Iron Fist” on Netflix… well, let’s just say that I am left with one question above all others… Who was that seeker of ancient truth and wisdom, who travelled all the way to the high Himalayas, and taught the monks of K’un Lun to speak English with a broad Stockport accent? That’s a story I’d really like to see told…
While we were on holiday we watched the first season of “The Expanse” in the evenings, and that was very good indeed. As are the books, though now I have to decide if I want to read on after the first three that I’ve already enjoyed, or wait, so I’m not spoiled for the TV adaptation plot..
Meantime, the Internet has been offering a whole lot of interesting things, so here are some links to pieces that have particularly caught my eye.
Six Things I Learned in My First Month of Using Patreon – Tobias Buckell. Thought-provoking reading for those who think crowd-funding can support the arts.
Mary Beard has a few things to say about the shared metaphors used to describe female access to power. And there’s a transcript if you prefer reading to watching the video.
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a feminist parable for everyone – including me” by Anthony Stewart Head (Twenty years ago?! I feel old…)
Incidentally, you’ll notice that I’m linking to Martha’s blog on Dreamwidth rather than Live Journal. In common with almost everyone else I know, I’m not about to sign up to LJ’s new Terms of Service. There are some big red flags and one thing I know about contracts is never sign anything with clauses for concern in the hope that ‘but it’ll never happen, right?’ In any case, this website and blog there have been my primary web presence for a good few years now. So I will be dusting off the Dreamwidth account I set up the last time it looked as though LJ was going down the drain, and looking to rebuild as much of my former LJ circle of friends over there, to continue keeping in touch. I am (unsurprisingly) JeMcK if you want to find me. I’ll be shutting down my LJ account some time later this month when I have the spare time to do the admin etc.
And lastly, to be going on with, some daffodils!
World Book Day seems like an excellent day to post this 🙂
To recap, as the Guest of Honour at Novacon last year, I got to pick and discuss eight SF&Fantasy books that have had a lasting impact on me over my decades of voracious reading.
The last of my selection for Novacon, this book was published in 2012, so it’s a relatively recent read, but I want to find time to go back and re-read it. It’s another Arthur C Clarke Award winner, and I was one of the jurors who selected it. For myself, I found it one of the most original SF novels I’d read in years while at the same time harking back to so many of the classic SF elements and themes which first attracted me to the genre.
There’s a lost colony, survival against the odds in an alien, hostile environment, human ingenuity rising above these challenges, as well as human frailities – selfishness and greed – threatening all that’s been achieved.
The familiarity of these ideas extends beyond SF and I suspect have contributed signficantly to the favourable reviews and reception the book deservedly won beyond fan circles, from the sort of people who’d usually say they don’t like SF&F.
However, and crucially, as with all the best contemporary SF, this story isn’t merely rehashing these familiar elements as if that will somehow be sufficient to please both the Fans and those who prefer ‘real’ literature. Beckett brings these classic narratives all up to date by examining them through the prism of our own decade and its preoccupations. Once he’s done that, Beckett uses these ideas as tools to tell a story that’s unique and compelling in itself.
A trio of spacefarers were stranded on a dark world lit only by the bioluminescence of its intensely alien flora and fauna. Their descendants live a marginal and impoverished existence with a culture woven from half-remembered Earth traditions, coloured by misunderstandings and the consequences of that first desperate struggle for survival by people never intended to be colonists. Against all the odds, the population has grown to a point where the stresses on their meagre resources means something has got to change. Who will be the agent of change? John, who wants to venture into the snowy dark and see what lies beyond the confines of Circle Valley? Or David who wants to be in charge and have everyone do as he says? What consequences will follow as these two clash, for the women who have their own narrative handed down from mother to daughter which includes the admonition to never trust a man who believes the story is all about him. Then there are the other thinkers like Jeff who believes in focusing on being right here, right now and solving the problems at hand first of all.
It’s a deceptively simple story exploring some very complex ideas about humanity’s relationships with stories, from folklore through that well-worn adage about winners being the ones who write history to our own decade’s struggles with fact versus narrative embedded in the endless rolling 24 hour news cycle. This subtext underpins but never overwhelm an enthralling and fast paced story that’s shaped by unforeseen twists as well as characters’ choices. This simplicity extends to the language as Beckett writes in a dialect stripped back to its barest essentials which nevertheless contains clues and hints about the Eden population’s history. Uncompromising peril and surprises continue to the final pages where the ending proves both satisfactory and yet inconclusive. But that’s the nature of history. Individuals’ stories are only ever part of the ceaseless flow of events.
Since this first book came out, Chris Beckett has written two more stories set in this world; Mother of Eden and Daughter of Eden, which I thoroughly enjoyed (as you can tell if you’ve read my reviews of both in Interzone). These take place decades/generations later, so one more reason why I’d take this first book to the desert island is I know I could entertain myself for hours imagining how the different factions and populations got from the end of this first story to the societies we meet in later volumes. And then I could spend still more time analysing and admiring the skills of Beckett’s writing.
And if I was truly stranded on a desert island, a tale of survival would be a good morale booster – as well as an incentive to make me do whatever was necessary to get out of there!
This was one of those books it seemed everyone was enthusing about at the same time, when it won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 1998. For me, it was an enthralling read which gave me all those things I’d loved in Clarke’s work, Heinlein and Asimov but brought intelligently up to date. There were really alien aliens, a wide range of believable human characters (including women with opinions and agency) and a thought-provoking subtext as the plot explores so many facets of communication and miscommunication, issues of race and colonisation, among other debates about humanity, society and belief; religious and otherwise. Most important of all, the story does all this without getting bogged down. Lucid, literate prose keeps the plot moving swiftly along. Scene setting is vivid and the dialogue natural, all making for an immersive read.
Following the plot that demands the reader’s engagement. The narrative unfolds in different strands and you need to pay attention as you read them in parallel. We see events unfolding from 2019 onwards when the SETI project picks up alien signals from Alpha Centauri. How can an expedition to make first contact be organised and financed? At the same time, we follow the investigators in 2059 who are trying to work out why the expedition ended in such lethal disaster. There’s only one survivor and something inexplicably horrible has happened to him. Sustaining this balancing act between telling the reader at the outset that disaster has struck and then compelling them to keep turning the pages to find out precisely what has happened and then how is a mighty writerly achievement.
Rereading this book in 2016, with 2019 now on the horizon is an interesting experience. Near-future SF notoriously offers up hostages to fortune, especially with the things which writers fail to predict. How many authors devised plots that would be instantly unravelled by mobile phones? Well, mobiles are not noticeable here but their presence wouldn’t make much difference. Mostly, Doria Russell avoids the worst pitfalls by blending logical extrapolation from then to roughly now with a deft lack of potentially compromising detail. The Horn of Africa is a war zone. Countries in Central and South America have refugee, economic and health crises. How these things happened isn’t directly relevant to the story, so we don’t need to know more than the broad brush strokes.
Other apparently prescient things do catch my eye. How does word of the SETI discovery spread? When an illegal download of the musical signal effectively goes viral on what looks very like the Internet. How is an interstellar mission launched? Not by NASA, the UN or any such agency. Space exploration has become the province of non-state bodies. In this case, the Catholic Church, or to be more precise, the Jesuits, take on the challenge. Doria Russell doesn’t pull this out of thin air; there’s been an observatory in the Vatican since 1774 and the Church first became interested in astronomy faced with the challenge of calculating dates for Easter and other holy festivals. This maybe SF but there’s an awareness of the depth of history (and the lessons it can offer) running through this book.
But why get involved in contacting aliens? Well, what would the presence of intelligent life elsewhere have to say about mankind’s relationship with our supposed Creator? What will the faithful do with any answers they might find? More immediately, can explorers voyaging so far with such lofty ideals actually cope with the practical challenges of an alien environment, its ecology and a complex society they don’t understand when they’re at the mercy of powerful individuals whose own concerns are their priority. As those questions are answered, we learn the chilling truth of what happened and why.
I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this book. I also recall recommending it widely at the time, including to friends and family who’d usually say they didn’t like SF but found this an enthralling read all the same. If you haven’t come across it before, do go and find it in your preferred format. And remember it the next time you see one of those ‘Best of/Must Read/Memorable’ lists that persist in erasing women authors from our genre. Ask why this book isn’t mentioned.
If picking a single Edith Nesbit title was tough, choosing which Terry Pratchett book I’d want for this particular list was nigh on impossible. But there had to be at least one. As I’ve observed before, the Discworld series is my main ‘refuge reading’ these days, which is to say, the books I reach for when I need some respite from reality, a breathing space before I return to the everyday fray.
So why ‘Men at Arms’? For me, this is where Pratchett really hits his stride with the City Watch strand of books, especially with regard to the social and political commentary underpinning his exploration of Ankh Morpork. Dwarfish culture and society are expanded upon, as are the racial tensions between the dwarfs and the trolls. There’s the uses and abuses of technology discussed and so more besides. All this really deepens and enriches the Discworld hinterland.
In particular, we see the challenges and contradictions of democracy, set against the ‘enlightened’ autocracy of Lord Vetinari. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to let someone as intelligent and cunning as he is take care of running everyday life for us all? But that relies on having someone like Vetinari willing and able to take on the job. How do we feel about having our lives run according to a very different set of rules operating under the fig leaf of monarchy? What about the destructive nostalgia of Edward d’Eath putting grubby commoners in their place? Or the self-serving machinations of Dr Cruces ensuring the elite stay rich and powerful? Or come to that, the ruthless expediency which Sam Vimes would like to apply to maintaining law and order?
The Watchmen and women themselves are very much still a work-in-progress at this point in Pratchett’s writing, making this book all the more interesting to re-read. Vimes can still believably relapse into his old drunkard ways and the differences between him and Lady Sybil remain pronounced. Is their marriage really going to happen? If it does, can it possibly work out? Carrot’s naivety is still self-evident in his creatively spelled letters home but now we see new and intriguing facets to his straight-forward approach to life. Minor characters are fleshed out, developing the ensemble. Detritus has far more than a walk-on role, particularly in his partnership with Lance Constable Cuddy.
At this point in the series though, Detritus’ character development could take any one of several paths. The same is true of Angua, and of her relationship with Carrot. Most of all, there’s uncertainty, even danger, stalking these characters in a way that’s absent in later books. At this point, no one has plot immunity and that gives this particular story a definite edge.
There are also genuine ‘whodunnit’ puzzles to solve, with regard to the murders and what really happened to poor Brother Beano. Plus, of course, the book is deftly, wickedly funny, not least thanks to the reappearance of Gaspode the talking dog, who’s evidently made his way back to the city after his experiences in ‘Talking Pictures’. And as with all the Discworld books, the bright flashes of Pratchett’s lightning wit illuminate the threats lurking in the shadows all the more clearly.
I put this particular list of books together back in September and October 2016, when the world was a very different place. We’d had the self-destructive folly of the UK Brexit vote but the US election still lay ahead. Looking at this book in early 2017? With the self-deluding Hard Brexiteers persisting in their arrogant belief that they can dictate the best of all possible deals to the rest of the EU? When every passing day gives European states less reason to do the UK any favours, let alone respect Theresa May or Boris Johnson? With President Trump in the White House and heading an administration convinced they can peddle whatever lies they like while enforcing a racist, extremist agenda and dismantling or ignoring as many checks and balances as they can?
Reading Men At Arms in these circumstances, it’s tempting to think we really could use a Lord Vetinari or a Captain Carrot about now. We seem to have slipped into a world like the Discworld era ruled by Lord Snapcase, as seen in the later novel Nightwatch. But that sort of thinking is as much of a fantasy as anything Terry Pratchett wrote. The lesson we really should take from his writing right now is that it’s no good waiting for someone else to deal with such problems. Everyone has a responsibility to act.