Posted in creative writing culture and society diversity in SFF Equality in SFF Links to interesting stuff

The J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature 2024 – Speaker Neil Gaiman

Living in Oxfordshire, I’m fortunately able to attend most of these lectures in person. Heading into Oxford yesterday afternoon, I already knew this would be as good as any previous year. In the twenty or so years since my path first crossed Neil’s at a convention, I’ve heard him talk many times, and he will always have something new, different and fascinating to say. This was no exception – but I’m not going to attempt to summarise, as the video will soon be available, and believe me, you really don’t want to miss that.

(While you’re waiting do check out the videos of previous years’ speakers available at the Tolkien Lecture website. Varied, fascinating and thought-provoking.)

One thing Neil said prompted me to make a note. He quoted CS Lewis quoting JRR Tolkien: ‘The only people who decry escapism are jailers ‘.

That reminded me of something which I couldn’t quite remember, if you know what I mean… I’ve found it now, and it is very well worth the read – Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown on Who Gets to Escape

That article was particularly interesting for me, given the responses I was seeing at the time to my trilogy The Hadrumal Crisis, where who can and cannot escape various situations underpins a lot of the story. I discuss that here.

One other note. As I reached the venue, Oxford Town Hall, I was struck by the tremendous variation in the ages and appearances of those waiting patiently for the doors to open. Proof, if any were needed, that there’s no readily identifiable demographic for fantasy fans. This is possibly one reason why passers-by catching buses home from work were so bemused by the queue – which was very soon reaching well down St Aldates and past Christ Church’s Tom Tower. The town hall is a big space and it was packed!


Posted in creative writing culture and society Links to interesting stuff reflections and musings

Thinking about the lenses we use to view history

We went to the Earth Trust/Dig Ventures festival of discovery on Sunday. We listened to two talks by teams of young, enthusiastic archaeologists discussing the finds from digs around Wittenham Clumps. One was on everyday objects, and the other was on ancient animals. In between, we had a very nice lunch, strolled around the local landscape, and went to the pop-up museum where a small selection of the thousands of finds was on display.

I expect many of us have seen Roman tiles with cat and dog prints left when the clay was still wet. This is the first time I’ve seen a fox leave its mark.

Then there were the mystery objects, such as this. I always ask Husband what he thinks. After studying it for a few moments, he proposed a use that one of the archaeologists confirmed is their experts’ current best guess.

Apparently a feature of Bronze Age sites is ‘pots in pits’, and there’s much discussion about what deliberate deposits of selected items might mean. Rituals linked to ‘end of use’ are generally proposed, though it’s impossible to know whether these marked, for example, a death, the demolition of a dwelling, or moving away from an area. One such pit here is particularly interesting as the objects deposited are a well-used, smashed pot, broken loom weights and a 4 year old sheep. When swords and other weapons are deposited in water or pits, they are deliberately broken to put them beyond use. Is this a similar ritual involving objects associated with textile production? Sheep for meat were usually slaughtered by the end of their second year. Beyond that, they were primarily kept for wool. What does this tell us about spinning and weaving and those who did it? That these women and their skills were respected with such rituals? What does that tell us about these ancient people and their society? Maybe it wasn’t all mighty-thewed warlords defending helpless women and children?

Another speaker observed that ‘hillfort’ is increasingly considered a misnomer for enclosures ringed with ditches and banks, as modern archaeology increasingly indicates they weren’t built for defence, not primarily at least. People could retreat into them at need, but for most people, most of the time, these appear to be trading and gathering centres, possibly seats of power for tribal leaders. Where did the people come from to trade and meet? DNA work on burials on this site is still pending, but at least two skeletons have been interpreted by bone experts as likely of African heritage.

This got me thinking about where that term ‘hillfort’ had come from. Field archaeology pioneers from the 1850s onwards started surveying and excavating these landscapes. The British Empire was at war with someone or other through most decades of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. How much did that background noise of perpetual conflict influence these men to see such earthworks as military and defensive? What assumptions followed? You only build defences when there’s an enemy out there. Therefore anyone new must be an invader! But what if that initial assumption is wrong? The the whole framework collapses. Finds that have been interpreted to fit that world view should be reassessed. This is just one reason why I find current archaeology so fascinating.

Since one of my personal lenses for viewing history is its use in world-building for fantasy writers, it’s apt that the next creative writing article from my archive is on this very topic.
The Uses of History in Fantasy

Posted in culture and society Publishing & the Book Trade reflections and musings supporting the SFF community

Ego-Surfing for Self-Defence in 2024

Is it still called ego-surfing? That term was coined in the 1990s as more and more people got online, and would put their names into a search engine to see what came up. It soon became clear this was hazardous for authors. A few months after The Thief’s Gamble came out in 1999, I found two very negative reviews. According to one, the book proved I was a patriarchy-enabling betrayer of the sisterhood. The other reckoned it showed I was a ball-breaking man-hater. I was all set to respond, to explain, when a friend working in IT told me to take a breath, step away from my keyboard and think this through. I remain eternally grateful to him for explaining my chances of success were minimal, compared to the significant possibilities of things going badly for all the online world to see. As a more experienced writer told me soon after, ‘Arguing with a critic is like starting an arse-kicking contest with a porcupine. Even if you win, the cost to yourself won’t be worth it.’ The decades since have seen memorable catastrophes when authors have challenged reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

So no, checking reviews and comments is not what I’m talking about. But another online saying in the 1990s was three things make a post. So here are three solid reasons for writers to stay vigilant over what’s being said about them online these days.

Generative AI has seen an explosion in misinformation. This year’s hobby among writers has been asking ChatGPT and similar for their biography. The inaccuracies that result can be hilarious, as very-far-from-intelligent software scours the Net for anyone with the same name and produces a mishmash of results. After that initial laughter though, this isn’t so funny. How can someone without any prior knowledge of the subject untangle the truth from the nonsense? How can they fact-check when search-engine results are increasingly poisoned by this rubbish?

This gets much worse when some inaccurate statement could have negative professional consequences. Tobias Buckell recently discovered he was being cited as an author praising AI for helping him finish writing a novel, in a lengthy and entirely made-up quote. He was justifiably furious. The excuse that the article was AI-generated so no one is to blame is ridiculous. A human decided to put that lie online – unless no one checked what was being posted, which just makes this worse.

There’s also been an upsurge in online impersonation, especially of literary agents, editors and other people working in publishing. Hopeful writers are being contacted with wonderful offers, and some will be too naive to know this is not how the book trade works. Generative-AI makes these scams more plausible and more common. Writers are being impersonated by scammers creating supposedly new stories in much-loved and long-ago completed series. They find themselves listed as authors of books they have never heard of on Amazon and other sites. These ‘books’ are AI-generated garbage, but how is a reader to know that before buying one and finding out that it’s trash? If the reader doesn’t know what’s happened, the danger of reputational damage for that writer is very real.

Not all of this misinformation can be blamed on generative-AI. I have been checking in on a particular Wikipedia page for over a month now, since I noticed a major rewrite that stripped away an individual’s positive achievements and inserted highly critical and inaccurate material. By which I mean paragraphs that no newspaper’s lawyer would let go to print as some statements would be legally actionable. The person making these edits was doing so under a pseudonym, while Wikipedia culture does not accept the subject of a page making changes themselves. (I have written before about issues with Wikipedia.)

I discussed this with several friends who are active on Wikipedia, who were naturally concerned. They undertook to take a look, and assured me that Wikipedia does have systems to deal with such situations. I have observed these systems in action, and I am glad to say that the page now offers fair and balanced content. But resolving this has taken quite a while, and there have been periods when that seriously inaccurate content remained visible. Two things follow from this. Firstly, if you are the subject of a Wikipedia page, check it from time to time. You need to know if inaccurate material has appeared before you can find help to get the facts straight. Secondly, if you are using someone’s page as a source, and something doesn’t seem right, do click on the Talk tab to look for any current disputes between Wikipedia editors.

In conclusion? All these things strengthen the arguments for an author maintaining and updating their own website, to ensure there is at least one source of accurate and up-to-date information about them online, which they control.

Posted in creative writing culture and society reflections and musings

As writers, where should we get our ideas from?

I see in the news that reparations have been paid to the relatives of the Maids Moreton murder victims. This is the case recently dramatised on TV as The Sixth Commandment. That’s right. A real crime with legal proceedings still ongoing following the killer’s conviction has already been turned into entertainment. This makes me very uneasy, and no, I didn’t watch the series.

Of course, a major source of inspiration for writers has always been the daily news, in print, on the radio, on the TV or now the Internet. In the 1950s, the cop drama Dragnet on radio and TV promised “The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” The TV show Law & Order began ripping ideas from the headlines in 1990. Regular watchers would pay close attention to episodes carrying the disclaimer that “The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event.” That would be entirely true. It would also often be possible to identify the real-life case raising key issues which this week’s story would address. The same can be true for crime and mystery novels going back decades. I’ve often heard authors talk about the specific case that stirred their imagination.

These days though, direct dramatisations of real crimes are everywhere. Actors play killers and victims who were real people. Some of these killers and victims are still alive. Their families and friends often still live in the areas where very real horrors occurred. They’re seldom considered or consulted. Occasionally an article highlights the distress some docudrama has caused these blameless people. However those affected can expect little sympathy. Consider the often aggressively hostile response online and in the media when Amanda Knox highlighted the way her life and trials have become common property for writers and film makers. They can reinterpret and rewrite some thinly veiled version of events as they see fit, without any reference to her.

Some of these dramas carry a second disclaimer at the start, to the effect that events and individuals may have been altered for dramatic effect. This doesn’t only apply to crime dramas. Biopics can offer a version of someone’s life that doesn’t tie up with events as remembered by those who were around at the time. As a decades-long Queen fan, the movie Bohemian Rhapsody leaps to mind. Why do screen writers do this? Because real life almost never offers up a coherent, well-constructed plot with the characters required to make it truly effective. One reason I rarely watch these true crime dramatisations is because far too many sink into a morass of second-rate drama that’s also factually incorrect. That’s not only bad television. Where criminal convictions and prison sentences might still be appealed, some fudge that creates misleading impressions for the sake of ratings is callously irresponsible.

The line between exploitation and exploration is extremely narrow. As writers, we must tread very carefully. Our stories must reflect real life, if readers are to relate to our work. However I remain convinced that the most effective way to explore emotional truths is to stay firmly in the realm of fiction.

Posted in creative writing culture and society

A passing thought on fashion in fiction

Among the photos of fashions at the Met Gala, this is what caught my eye. In 2022 singer/musician Lizzo wore a Thom Browne coat that took 22,000 worker-hours to create, including 1200 hours for the gold embroidery. Highly skilled needle-worker hours.

Epic fantasy (and other) writers should please note this aspect of the historical elite’s clothes/furnishings. These things are a visible display of wealth’s ability to command other people’s time and labour in a world without today’s brand name status symbols.

I have no idea of the price tag on Lizzo’s coat, and still less how much of that reached those needle-workers. I’m guessing the deal was as exploitative as that seems to be the norm in this particular area of the fashion industry. That’s a separate conversation.

I have written about this before – click here

Posted in bookselling culture and society Publishing & the Book Trade

A few thoughts on seasonal book sales

The book-trade press is reporting that hardback celebrity biographies aren’t selling at all well this year. Folk with long experience in the writing and retail bits of the book trade will read this with a massive sense of deja vu. Such books are highly discretionary purchases mainly aimed at people who rarely buy books. They might buy five books in a good year, often as gifts, and who won’t buy any at all when times are tough. And times are very tough, as we all know far too well. Even with these titles heavily discounted in the supermarkets, potential purchasers may well be opting for a box of chocolates or a favourite drink as a cheaper and more immediately cheering present.

Has high staff turnover in publishing seen this sort of institutional knowledge lost? Along with other information which surely could prove useful for boosting sales in the short as well as the longer term?

Far too few titles are now offered to the 5-12 books a year readers of mass market fiction whose major contribution to the publishing bottom line used to keep the midlist viable. Here’s an idea for the Big Five. Why not try offering a choice of fiction for all tastes across all genres, varying authors month by month, in WHS and supermarkets? Start building readerships again. That’s where future best-sellers with sustained sales will come from, not the latest pop-culture trend/personality.

Meantime, let’s raise a cheer for the smaller presses who are working so hard and publishing great books. Don’t forget them when you’re doing your seasonal shopping.

Posted in creative writing culture and society New Releases News

The Golden Rule – a few thoughts about writing steampunk

Today sees the publication of The Golden Rule, my contribution to a collection of four steampunk novellas from Newcon Press which can be purchased individually or as a set. These stories are linked by their cover art, but apart from that, they stand alone. The other titles are Under Pressure by Fabio Fernandes, The London Particular by George Mann, and The Visionary Pageant by Paul Di Filippo.

Steampunk is great fun, in comics, in stories, and in the cogs and goggles aesthetic of the terrific costumes people create. It also draws on the popular literature of the Victorian era that can be too easily overlooked as a significant forerunner of the science fiction and fantasy genres that have evolved in the last century and a half. So far, so good.

However… when I was first invited to try my hand at a steampunk story, revisiting a classic of such literature, I opted for the author H Rider Haggard. Rereading his work for the first time in decades, I was appalled by the racism and sexism underpinning the melodrama. It was scant comfort to realise none of this unpleasantness had made any lasting impression on teenage me. Hopefully, anyway. Certainly, I do know to check for any lingering echoes in my work these days. This rereading did alert me to one major potential pitfall of writing steampunk. While contemporary writers should have the sense to steer clear of the overt bigotry, I realised it could be far too easy to slip into an uncritical pro-Empire mindset, defaulting to Rule Britannia and all that.

Fortunately, as well as H Rider Haggard’s books, those library shelves I had scoured as a teenager held other classics of Victorian literature which offered no such rosy view of their society, such as Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. I also came across non-fiction like Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa (1897) which gave a very different view of colonisation. So I was aware that critical voices were speaking up in that very era. That gave me the starting point for that first story ‘She Who Thinks For Herself’. As I wrote more late-Victorian stories, in the overlap between steampunk and horror, I continued to use the viewpoints of the overlooked and disregarded to shine a different light on the great deeds of the great white men who assume they are in unquestioned charge. You can find those stories in Challoner, Murray and Balfour: Monster Hunters at Law.

In the decades since I was a teenager, the Establishment’s vision of benign imperialism bestowing railways, democracy and afternoon tea on grateful colonials has been increasingly challenged by a wide range of historians and journalists. We are starting to see a far more complex and multi-layered picture of peoples, places and events. When I was invited to contribute to this quartet of novellas, I recalled one such book and wondered if that might give me a starting point for an exciting steampunk story with a different perspective on the alleged Glories of Empire. I found Anita Anand’s “Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary” on my bookshelves and went from there. This story of an exiled Sikh princess, god-daughter to Queen Victoria, led me to the Golden Jubilee of 1887, where I found that celebration had dramatic facets I had never suspected. Here is a photo of the Indian Cavalry who played a central role in the procession. If you want to know their role in my story though, you’ll have to read The Golden Rule – now available from Newcon Press, and you can find the ebook on Amazon.

Posted in culture and society good stuff from other authors Links to interesting stuff Publishing & the Book Trade Unexpected things about Juliet

Silver for Silence – a new Philocles story for a very good cause

Regular readers will recall me flagging up the Books on the Hill project last year, aiming to publish quick reads specifically intended for dyslexic adults, to encourage them to explore and enjoy the great range of fiction available these days. I wrote about that here.

I’m delighted to say the initiative has been a great success! Alistair and Chloe are running a second Kickstarter this year, offering another tremendous selection of stories to give readers a taste of different genres. You can find Open Dyslexia: The Sequel here. You will note that names from the bestseller lists and TV adaptations such as Bernard Cornwell and Peter James are supporting this splendid initiative. I was naturally most honoured when Alistair asked me – or rather, my alter ego JM Alvey – to write a short history mystery (12,000 words) for this year’s line-up.

What you may well not know – because I certainly didn’t, and yes, I am embarrassed by my ignorance – is that making a read dyslexia-friendly is a case of formatting and layout and similar. For an author, the writing process is exactly the same. I’m aiming to challenge, entertain and intrigue with this new Philocles short story in the same way that I do with anything I see published. The only difference is more people will be able to read it – and I love the thought of that.

This project really highlights how much new technologies can do to make books more accessible for people with dyslexia. And that makes the absence of such initiatives by the mass-market publishers glaringly obvious. The book trade needs to take a long hard look at this situation.

Posted in creative writing culture and society good stuff from other authors Links to interesting stuff Publishing & the Book Trade

The J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature 2022

Last night’s thoughtful and thought-provoking JRR Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature by Rebecca F. Kuang is now available on the organisation’s YouTube channel – along with previous years’ talks from Pembroke College, Oxford, where Tolkien served as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1925-1945. All very well worth your time.

You can find out more about Rebecca and about the lecture series here.

Here’s the link to this year’s video.

I went into Oxford to be in the audience, and it was great to see established friends and to make new acquaintances. I used the Park & Ride – and on the way back, I really thought I was going to just miss the bus and have to wait half an hour in the rain for the next one. But no! There is a special place in heaven* for a bus driver who sees you start running as he’s driven past, and so waits at the next stop for you to get there, even though there are no other passengers waiting to board. (*or equivalent spiritual reward)

Posted in creative writing culture and society diversity in SFF

The trans visibility conundrum for writers – how to demonstrate that something’s unremarkable?

They say three things make a blog post. Here’s one. A few weeks back at the World Fantasy Convention, as part of a good programme with respect to diversity discussions, courtesy of the hosts, the Baltimore SF Society, I sat in a packed audience for a ‘Gender 401’ panel. Trans, non-binary and gay writers discussed approaches to better representation in SFF, and recurrent mistakes – like worlds where dragons or sentient computers exist but apparently there’s no one who’s gay, nor ever has been… It was a very informative panel, and the room was full of authors like me who want to get this stuff right, but don’t have lived experience to draw on. I’m not going to recap the discussion – the panel recommended checking out Tiptree Award winners and recommended books, so start there if you want to know more.

Two was the recent Trans Awareness Week here in the UK, highlighting the issues that trans people face, as well as showing positive instances of trans lives for those who might be unaware that trans people are pretty much the same as the rest of us. The third thing followed soon after – Trans Remembrance Day, highlighting how persistent ignorance and prejudice leads to the appalling deaths of trans people who just want to live their lives in peace like the rest of us.

All of which underscores just how much representation matters – as we have seen over the decades as fictional portrayals in print and on screen have helped tackle sexism, racism, homophobia and ableism etc. Sometimes these portrayals tackle that central issue head-on, and that’s important work. It’s not the only option though. Time and again addressing prejudice is done very effectively by making a key character female/black/gay/disabled etc, and having no one remark on it, as that character plays their part in the story on equal terms with everyone else.

So here’s the thing. If I want to write a story with a diverse range of characters when it comes to gender, race, sexual orientation or disability, that’s straight-forward at the most basic level. There are women around, and character descriptions make passing reference to skin tone as well as hair, eyes, clothes etc. A male character mentions his husband, or a female character refers to her wife, or people being poly or non-binary is apparent. Someone is deaf, or has mobility issues, and that’s accommodated rather than being an issue for them or anyone else. Yes, as the author, I must then do the necessary work to make these characters ring true for readers who have the lived experience I lack, but simply having them present on the page is easy enough.

How do I do this with trans characters in a book? Because a trans woman or man living their life in an accepting society is going to be unremarkable. As we increasingly see with trans actors in film and TV, until the fact that they’re trans crops up as a plot point, it’s impossible to tell. I’m thinking in particular of recent episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Chicago Med. I’ve also had people in real life tell me with absolute conviction that they don’t know any trans people, when I know for a fact that they do. They’re just not aware of it.

Yes, of course I keep my mouth shut in those situations, because it’s not my place to out anyone – and that’s going to be exactly the situation in our aforementioned accepting society that I’m writing about in my putative SFF novel. Trans people are going to be there. There’s going to be nothing to distinguish them from other men and women. No one’s going to remark on their presence because it’s unremarkable. Which means me mentioning it as the author is going to be so out of place that I might just as well add ‘LOOK AT ME BEING DIVERSE – GIVE ME COOKIE!’

So far I’m unable to come up with an answer here, but that’s not going to stop me trying to find a way. Because inclusion and representation matter for trans people just as much as these things matter for everyone. So if you have any useful thoughts, suggestions or observations I’m interested to know more. (Non-useful comments will be binned.)