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A Plug for the Nerdiest Fundraiser Ever: Pat Rothfuss’s Worldbuilders

I’ve got a few more content-heavy posts that should be going up in the next couple days, but in the meantime, I wanted to direct any loyal readers who aren’t yet familiar with it to the Worldbuilders fundraiser organized by Patrick Rothfuss (author of Name of the Wind). It’s an annual benefit he puts together for Heifer International, a combination of items for sale, items for auction, and a lottery, and in the last few years, it’s turned into a BIG deal in the nerd community. If you look at the list of sponsors on the main Worldbuilders page, there are some definite high-profile organizations from a whole range of nerd valences (including DAW Books, Good Old Games, Think Geek and Penny Arcade). And if you look at the stuff you can get if you donate, you’ll see why I’ve dubbed it the nerdiest of nerdy fundraisers.

A partial list of things you can get or attempt to get right now, today, by donating some money to this great cause…

Items for Sale (through Worldbuilders’ online store The Tinker’s Packs):

  • Signed copies of books by (among others) Peter V. Brett, Max Gladstone, Kameron Hurley, and many more, including both English-language and foreign-language editions.
  • A 2015 calendar by artist Karen Hallion with prints of various Disney characters meeting a man in a mysterious blue box.
  • Coins from the worlds of Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire.
  • All kinds of memorabilia evoking the world of Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, including t-shirts and jewelry.

Items for Auction (the full list available on eBay here):

Items in the Lottery (for which every $10 buys you one ticket): games, books, variations on all of the above, and sometimes exceedingly cool limited edition things. In 2013, one of the lottery items was the opportunity to be a beta reader for a future work of Pat’s.

And so, there’s my pitch. Heifer is a good charity, well worth your investment, and should you use Worldbuilders as your investment strategy, you have the option of choosing, and the potential to win, some exceedingly awesome nerdy swag as your reward for giving.

I’m doing it. Y’all should go and do likewise 🙂

Do You Want a Stroll or a Road Trip? On Reading Standalones and Series

I’m a creature of habit. That may be one reason why my list of favorite books includes so many series: once I’ve gotten comfortable with a setting and a cast of characters, I’m inclined to settle down in their world for as long as I can. Fortunately, long series are a pretty common element of epic fantasy, which by definition encompasses big stories; the tale I’m telling is currently slated to span ten books before it’s done. I’m the sort of person who’ll never roll my eyes upon hearing that a beloved series has expanded to encompass another book. And yet, when I’m testing out a new author, I’m inclined to look for standalones.

Of course, this is at least in part for efficiency reasons: if I’m unsure about an author, it’s easier to get a sense of their storytelling skills if I can see how they plot out a whole arc. But I think the main reason is because the big stories told by series have at least as much potential to let down their readers as they do to bring joy.

On the simplest level, this is because the nature of series writing leaves the author with many more traps to avoid. If you’re writing a series, whether you’re telling a succession of effectively standalone tales like the ones in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files or Seanan McGuire’s October Daye books or, like Stephen King in The Dark Tower or NK Jemisin in The Inheritance Trilogy, a story that’s basically one long novel stretched over a few thousand pages, each book needs to be crafted individually. Whether individual volumes are meant to stand on their own or not (which is a different discussion), readers come into a series expecting that each volume will have its own plot arc, its own mini-journey, and in all but a few of the most loosely connected examples, it’s also expected that each book will contribute something to the overarching plot of a bigger story. That’s something most series readers love and look forward to; it also requires authors to carry two different plot valences in their heads from the very beginning, and means that the odds of writing yourself into a corner go up exponentially. If JK Rowling had decided two-thirds of the way through her tale that Harry Potter shouldn’t live with his horrible relatives anymore, she would’ve had to jump through more hoops to get him away from them than if she still had the whole story sitting in front of her, unpublished and accommodating.

Besides the problem of juggling plots, there’s also the trouble of reader expectation. Readers who discover a series early in its publication history have lots of time between volumes to grow attached to characters, to gossip about plot twists and dream up the endings they want for “their story” – and sometimes, the ending the author chooses isn’t the one you’d have picked. This happened for me with Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series, a guilty-pleasure choice of mine where I reached the final book having read and reread the others until I had sections nearly memorized, and then was left cold by how the author opted to end her story.

Obviously, the ways reader expectations are developed have changed dramatically since the advent of the Internet; George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books might be a too-obvious example of this, where any fan who wanders onto the discussion boards almost can’t help but be prematurely spoiled about the final picture Martin’s been slowly laying out with hints and prophecies. I’ve heard more than one fan say that if Character X ends up proving to be aligned with Interest C, as some readings of the clues suggest, they’re declaring the final books non-canonical (in the same way some people have done with the Star Wars prequels, or the new Star Trek movies). Giving fans more time with a story, and letting the anticipation build for its conclusion, opens the door to disappointment that can’t be there in the same way for something wholly contained in a few hundred pages.

In fact, time presents a whole set of problems for series writers. Sometimes, an author’s voice shifts from the first book to the last on a path that readers don’t want to follow. I had a difficult time with the last trilogy in Jacqueline Carey’s Terre D’Ange series for this reason; I found the final books, with their more “modern” slang and their constant references to heroes of old, to read like a caricature of what I loved in the earlier trilogies, and they didn’t find a permanent home on my shelves. Sometimes, as with Melanie Rawn’s Exiles trilogy, an author loses the muse that was whispering that story in their ear, and moves on to other projects: while I’m the first to agree with the argument that authors, as artists, should write what they want, and stop when they want (as Neil Gaiman memorably put it in a post on the subject, “George RR Martin is not your bitch”), I do understand the impulse to avoid all but completed series to avoid being left stranded in mid-stride. And (most) finally, like Robert Jordan/James Rigney, an author might die with their story unfinished. I’m not a big enough fan of the Wheel of Time series to have read the new books Brandon Sanderson authored using Rigney’s notes; my impression is that many fans think they’re better than they might otherwise have been (review links to io9 and includes spoiler warnings for the final book), but I’m sure there are others in the fan base who feel the story couldn’t truly be finished without Rigney there to write it.

And so, in short, it seems like series offer more risks to the reader, extra disappointment on a whole range of levels. There are extra responsibilities in place for the author who wants to write good series fiction; first, the responsibility of making sure that the seeds you plant in early books are tracked, of figuring out whether you want your books to have a grand arc beyond the individual volumes and of what pieces of that arc you want to fit into the smaller stories. As a reader and a writer, I’d also argue authors have some responsibility to make each volume stand as a complete story on its own. I don’t mean that readers should be able to dive into the middle of the series, but I don’t like cliff-hanger endings between volumes, especially when there’s going to be years until the next one’s released (I nearly turned my back on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy after the way the first book ended). Series have to do more work than standalone books to succeed in the story they’re telling: there are some authors who I count among my favorites, authors whose standalone work I read over and over again, who seem to choke when they’re faced with stretching a story over multiple books. Series can be tricky.

But when they work, in my view, they allow modern readers to fall into one of the best aspects of storytelling, the kind of storytelling that’s been around for a long, long time – of falling in with characters from legend, characters whose adventures are legion, and starting down the road with them knowing that there’s a long, long way to go. That’s why I’m writing one, and why I continue to embark on road trips with other authors familiar or otherwise.

On Writing Diverse Characters: Reports from the Trenches

In the last month, I’ve moved into redrafting the second quarter of my novel. While the first quarter centers around a very small central cast, this new section, when my hero steps out into the Big Bad World, adds roughly double that number of new faces — and since a number of these new characters have core identity elements that I don’t share (including aspects of occupation, race, ethnicity/background, sexuality, and ability/disability status), part of my writing work this month as I develop formal character profiles for them has been to do some homework.

The above link connects to a NaNoWriMo blog essay by author and surgeon I.W. Gregorio, in which she quotes discussions by fellow authors Ellen Oh and Gene Luen Yang about how best to write characters from other cultures. The homework metaphor is Yang’s; as he puts it:

We have to allow ourselves the freedom to make mistakes, including cultural mistakes, in our first drafts. I believe it’s okay to get cultural details wrong in your first draft. It’s okay if stereotypes emerge. It just means that your experience is limited, that you’re human. Just make sure you iron them out before the final draft. Make sure you do your homework. Make sure your early readers include people who are a part of the culture you’re writing about. Make sure your editor has the insider knowledge to help you out. If they don’t, consider hiring a freelance editor who does.

As someone who spent 24 years as a full-time student (13 years K-12, 4 years undergraduate, 7 years graduate school; roughly 80% of my life to date), I know how to do homework. In the last month, without exaggeration, I’ve checked out more than a dozen memoirs from my local library, plus a couple big coffee-table books and academic texts. My goal is to read 3 or 4 books touching on each aspect I’m trying to incorporate into one of my major characters: I figure that should give me a fighting chance to steer clear of at least the biggest generalizations and stereotypes. And as I do this work, I’m also mentally adding categories to my list of desired beta reader experts. Besides the (maybe-not-so-obvious) fact that I want some men and male-bodied folk to give my first-person male protagonist’s story a critical read before I send it out into the world, I already knew that I’d have to find a falconer or two willing to lend their expertise to my final editing process, as well as someone familiar with rapier fighting. Now, I’m bringing in one major character who’s on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum and another who’s Indian-American, not to mention four or five other supporting characters with major aspects that are different from mine in a whole plethora of ways, and my list of desired specialized beta readers just keeps growing.

Because books are a great start, especially first-person accounts of life through these different lenses; I feel like I’ve already learned a ton about how to accurately and honestly develop the people I want to include in my story. But I know that books have limits, the biggest one being that they’re one-way. By reading books about being an “Aspie,” I’ll get insights into some parts of that experience, but I’m still bound to make mistakes in translation, if only because my character’s life isn’t happening inside that book. If I want to meet my own standards for portraying the characters I want to develop, I know I’m going to need someone to spot my mistakes, as well as the new mistakes I make correcting them.

As any student knows, homework is time-consuming. I know that this research is one of the (several) reasons my writing has stalled in the last few weeks, as I try to figure out how the new contextual material changes the characters I’ve already got down on the page. But as author Malinda Lo puts it in her answer to the question “Should white people write about people of color?“:

Writing outside your culture is a complicated endeavor that requires extensive research, being aware of your own biases and limitations, and a commitment to delving deeply into the story. However, writing any fiction requires this. There are no shortcuts to writing fiction truthfully and well. There really aren’t. The writer must put in the time so that they become confident in their decisions, and there are a million and one decisions to make when writing a novel.

On reading Lo’s words, my mind goes first to the difficulty of working and reworking plot decisions, a whole other can of worms and another contributing cause to the writing problems I’ve been having the last few weeks. But worldbuilding certainly eats its share of an author’s time. My story takes place in a secondary world, albeit one that’s connected to contemporary Earth; my protagonist’s native culture, one of easily a dozen different indigenous cultures that readers will be introduced to throughout in the series, is pretty much invented out of whole cloth. As a sociologist, I resolved when I started this project that my novel’s world would feature original (non-derivative) cultures, that their composite elements would make sense, and that the characters who came out of them to join the arc of my central storyline would be more than just the sum of their cultural traditions (for example, The Merchant, The Scholar or The Warrior).

If I can commit to that level of detail for my secondary world, I can take the time to make sure my Earth-born supporting characters are realistically-depicted individuals from particular backgrounds too. And so I’ll keep reading and note-taking, and take my comfort from the knowledge that the story I’m writing is becoming ever more the kind of story I want to have on my own bookshelves.

Book Review: Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey

The encroachment of grass had not come overnight, nor had the Lords awakened one morning recently and decided in a flash not to give all their traditional tithe to the Weyr. It had happened gradually, and had been allowed, by the Weyr, to continue, until the purpose and reason of the Weyr and dragonkind had reached this low ebb, where an upstart, collateral heir to an ancient Hold could be so contemptuous of dragonmen and the simple basic precautions that kept Pern free of Threads.

As part of my ongoing writerly education, my reading resolution for this calendar year was to familiarize myself with authors from the last few decades’ fantasy canon. My progress has been uneven (there are just so many wonderful new books coming out!) but I’ve read some Tad Williams this year, and some Robin Hobb, and I’ve got books on my to-be-read shelf from Raymond E. Feist and Gene Wolf, Zelazny and LeGuin, and Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz. And, on my most recent vacation, my traveling companion was Anne McCaffrey, and the first tale she wrote in the Pern series.

I’d absorbed some bare basics of McCaffrey’s world by nerd osmosis. I knew that there were dragons; I knew that the dragons worked with humans to burn up a weapon that was being dropped on their home world. I knew McCaffrey used glottal stops in her characters’ names. And I knew that she wrote in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the storytelling norms of mainstream fiction were quite different than they are now.

I didn’t expect that last point to matter as much as it did; because of some of the book’s stylistic elements, if I hadn’t been on an airplane, I might have stopped halfway through. The characters are portrayed more distantly than I’m used to; we don’t get much of their inner monologues, or really see them change through the course of their adventure. The main characters are a couple whose attraction to each other feels at times more like a plot device than an emotional bond. The plot’s also structured differently than I would have expected, with the Big Bad Threat to the Planet not showing up until the third act; for most of the book, the force driving the conflict is politics and power struggles among the dragonriders and the other citizens of Pern. All this goes to say that reading the book has made me realize contemporary readers do expect certain things in their stories, in a way that I didn’t have such a visceral understanding of before.

And yet — I’m really glad I read this book, and I will at least be finishing the trilogy it’s a part of. And not only because McCaffrey’s shadow stretches over all the contemporary fiction featuring dragons, from Novik’s Temeraire books to Paolini’s Eragon, Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon, and Hartman’s Seraphina. Stylistic differences aside, I thought the book made a very interesting cultural exploration of how the weight of history fades over time.

What I didn’t realize until I picked up the book was that the threat the dragons and dragonriders are trained to attack — the biological Threads that drop onto Pern from a neighboring planet and will, if left unchecked, consume every living thing in their path — isn’t a constant danger. Because the Threads’ home planet has an elliptical orbit compared to Pern’s, the two planets only come close enough to allow the transfer every two hundred years or so. When the book starts, there’s been a particularly long Interval since the last Pass, closer to 400 years. As the quote I start the review with notes, much of Pern has gotten lax about adhering to anti-Threads safety guidelines, and people have started grousing about why they ought to be paying to support a fleet of dragonriders for a threat that might never come again (legend states that the Longest Interval will be when Threads never come back to Pern). This has very obvious echoes of the way people deal with abstract danger in real societies; when crime in your city is low, it’s easier to gripe about the huge amounts police officers are paid. When there hasn’t been a major earthquake for 25 years, bolting your bookcases to the wall might not be your top priority. And in any society, four hundred years is a long time.

I thought McCaffrey presented a society “gone soft” very well. Even the dragonriders themselves don’t quite know what to do against the Threads; for generations, they’ve spent their lives in flying competitions. There aren’t enough young humans being taught to ride; there aren’t enough dragons being born, because those in charge of the fertile females haven’t worked at keeping them in trim. The characters trying to prepare Pern against the threat have to go to ancient tapestries and songs for hints about how their ancestors dealt with the last incursion of Threads. It’s disaster-proofing through historical document analysis: I loved it. And once the plot to save Pern (with some help from archeology and other, more magical sources) got rolling in the last 75 pages, I stopped caring about the book’s flimsy characterization and slow start, and instead read straight through to the end.

This book does show its age. A modern story would likely spend more time in the heads of its protagonists and in describing the world, and it would probably start the big plot wheels rolling sooner. Those differences might be enough to turn some modern readers off, but after making it through to the end of the book, I can see why this series caught the imagination of so many dragon-loving kids, and I will be reading the rest of this trilogy for sure.

Why I’m Writing About A (White, Cisgendered, Ablebodied Straight) Boy

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog recently talking about the value of diversity in genre fiction: the benefits of reading diversely, of supporting authors whose experience or identity is different from the SF/F mainstream, and of trying to increase the representation of characters of all stripes in the stories we tell. These issues are on my mind a lot these days, and I talk about them with my writerly friends (and others who will tolerate the conversation) at every opportunity.

Which has led to some uncomfortable moments for me in the last few weeks when I sit down to work on my novel. Because after all my talk, I’m still developing a series whose central character matches up with just about every protagonistic cliche in the book: a fair-skinned, able-bodied, heterosexual male.

When I sat down with all the pieces of my story to start my second draft, representation was one of the things I wanted to address, and I’ve definitely made some changes to my cast. There are now several major characters with physical or neurological differences that they didn’t have in the first draft; there are more queer characters than there were before; the skin tones of my supporting cast are more diverse than they were in my original mental portrait. These days, when I introduce a new character whose gender isn’t an essential part of their role in the story, I’ll literally roll a die to determine if they’re a man or a woman. I’m making a conscious effort to put my money where my mouth is in terms of my supporting cast. And yet, when it comes to my hero, I can’t quite do it.

I could give the excuses that I’ve heard over and over again from fans justifying the majority identities (most often whiteness) of beloved fantasy characters: that my character’s ancestors came from particular places that mean he’s going to look a certain way, or that the religious aspects that are very central to his story would have to be dramatically different if I changed his gender because of the conventions of the religion, or a half-dozen other things that don’t really address the issue. Because, after all, these are rules internal to the setting, and the setting is invented. I could easily change the way my protagonist’s ancestors looked; I could just as easily change the details of the religion he follows.

Alternatively, without changing the world’s rules at all, I could tweak my story to put a different kind of person at the center of it. I’ve thought about what these kinds of changes would look like more than once in the months of working on this revision: what if I made him brown? what if I made him queer? what if I made him “her”? But every time I ask myself these questions, I confront the simple truth that I just don’t want to. My hero has been living in my head for eight years now, even if I’ve only been trying to shape his story for about two and a half of them. And I like him the way he is.

I’m still conflicted about this choice. I revisit it every time I read an article about the lack of diversity in mainstream stories (this chart from We Need Diverse Books, for example, is infuriating). I squirm uncomfortably when I read articles like this one from author Elizabeth Bear, seething about the fact that in far too many movies, there are capable female supporting characters whose only job is to scaffold the male hero on his way to being the Chosen One. I remind myself that one central theme of my first big plot arc is subverting/problematizing that Chosen One trope; I remind myself of the work I’ve done to diversify my story’s cast; and still I wonder which tropes I’m unwittingly perpetuating.

And so, after much soul-searching, here are the promises I’ve made to myself (and to those who will hopefully someday become fans of my work).

  1. I will not pretend my hero is something other than another skinny white guy. I could make arguments about how he’ll have a major lack of elite cultural capital, or discuss what I want my series to say about social mobility; I could talk about how racial identities in his world map differently than racial identities in the real world; I could stomp my feet and flail my arms and point to how other characters have X or Y marginalized identity. That doesn’t change the fact that the guy on the cover will look much the same as typical fantasy heroes have looked since the first American nerd bought the first nerdy paperback. As Rachael argues in this fabulous post on being a fan of problematic things, Step 1 is acknowledging the thing’s problematic nature. I can love my hero as he is, but I still need to admit his lack of congruence with the goals I say I support for the SF/F community at large.
  2. I will develop my supporting cast with intention. When this character sprang to my mind eight years ago, I didn’t question his majority identities, and in the interim, I’ve grown attached to the person I developed. But there are a huge number of people in the world around him, characters major and minor, who aren’t so well-developed yet. And as I flesh them out, I’m going to do my damnedest to do it with my eyes open to all possibilities.
  3. I will remind myself this isn’t the only story I have to tell. I know there are other stories in the universe of these books; I know there are other universes in my head that haven’t presented themselves to me yet. I can’t predict what the protagonist of my next series might look like, but I do know I’m gone too far down the rabbit hole of storytelling meta-analysis in the last year or so to blunder blindly into telling the story of yet another straight white guy.

When I first became conscious of the cliched choices I’d made in developing my protagonist, I felt guilty. I don’t anymore. I believe that in the end, authors should write the stories that speak to them: as I noted on this blog about a month ago, in my experience, if you’re writing something ONLY to get a political or social point across it won’t work very well as fiction. I like my hero, and I want to tell his story, so I’m going to do that and trust that someone out there will like it, too. I think that what I’ve learned — and what I’d pass on as the wisdom for other writers — for the next time I start something new is that there are more places to look for inspiration, and more stories to tell, than what the old-time genre canon suggests. I’m excited about the prospect of a long career of going out and discovering new and different kinds of heroes.

In the meantime, I’ve got a book to write.

Worldbuilding from Real Life Without Leaving Home: Travel Guides

I’ve already mentioned here the Comic-Con video I found a few weeks ago where a group of epic fantasy authors discuss everything from overcoming writing anxiety to designing maps. In the conversation, the authors talk a lot about what to read to help you with building rich worlds, but there’s a technique I’ve recently discovered that they didn’t mention and which I’d like to share with you. So here it is, in brief:

If you want your world, or even a corner of it, to have the flavor of someplace you’ve never been, read a good travel guide.

In my own worldbuilding this year, I’ve been making a special effort to avoid the straightforward transposition of existing cultures. Some authors who use this technique do it brilliantly: Guy Gavriel Kay’s built a career on doing minor tweaks to real-world cultures and writing not-quite-historical fiction. Jacqueline Carey’s D’Angeline books also have cultures very similar to those of the real medieval world (in most cases). George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has not-quite-Mongols (though Martin notes that he was inspired by a range of nomadic cultures in developing them), and not-quite-Moors. But I wanted something that felt more original, something that readers couldn’t point to and say “obviously, that’s [England/Japan/India/Italy].”

However, like any good worldbuilder, I knew that I didn’t have to invent everything myself. So instead, I started reading. I read two books on Japanese history and culture; I spent a morning reading up on the armies of ancient empires that ruled over present-day Mali, Congo and South Africa; I have a whole bookshelf full of stuff on comparative religion. That’s all great iceberg work, but it doesn’t do a good job of giving me bits of flavor. Architecture, culture, customs, food… the sorts of things a reader would be interested in learning about. Or, y’know, a tourist.

The idea of using travel guides occurred to me in a bookstore a month or so ago, and so a few weeks back, I checked out two guides from my local library to put the theory to the test. I grabbed what looked interesting from what they happened to have available, and what I ended up with was Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring and Fodor’s Scandinavia. Both were useful; the Lonely Planet one included substantially more cultural stuff, though I’m not sure whether that’s because Southeast Asia requires more cultural explanation than Scandinavia for the guidebook’s presumed reader (a questionable assumption for about a dozen reasons) or because Lonely Planet does better culture in general. I’m planning to do more research (and will post a followup comment when I do). But both books included sections on history, politics, food, cultural taboos, holidays, and the must-see places around the country. All things that you’d want to know about your fictional country just as if it were a real one.

Just for fun, a sample of fun facts I learned from these guidebooks, in no particular order:

  • Traditional Vietnamese puppet theatre is “water puppetry”; it was originally performed in flooded rice paddies with the puppeteers standing in the water.
  • In rural Thailand, you are likely to be awakened by a rooster crowing at any hour of the day or night
  • Some Finnish communities traditionally wash their rugs in the sea
  • Cambodian delicacies include grilled tarantula and cobra wine (wine with a dead snake in it)
  • A seaport in Denmark has a pair of ceramic dogs in almost every front window. Historically, when the dogs were facing each other, it meant that the man of the house was home; when they faced away from each other, it meant he was out at sea.

You get the idea. Details like this are appealing to tourists but can also offer a unique flavor to your fantasy world.

Of course, before incorporating any aspects from a real-life culture into a fantasy culture, you should spend some time thinking about the context in which you’re planning to use the elements. If you borrow too much or too distinctively from a single culture (an example of “distinctive” might be if you decide you want your culture to write with ideograms, something  associated in the real world almost exclusively with Chinese language and culture), you want to make sure you’re not encouraging readers to use perceived real-world stereotypes to draw assumptions about your world, or otherwise demeaning the real-world culture. The difference between learning about other cultures to generate ideas and practicing straightforward cultural appropriation can sometimes be subtle. And if you want to use a single culture as more comprehensive inspiration for your fantasy world, please don’t stop with a guidebook: take Nisi Shawl’s advice from Writing the Other and learn everything you can about the culture, ideally including conversations with people who are cultural natives.

Guidebooks won’t build your world for you, and they shouldn’t be your only resource. But they can be a great starting point to generate ideas, and a fabulous way to fill your head with images, smells, tastes and sounds from outside the cultures you’re familiar with.

Book Review: Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson

The exterior paint job [of the apartment building] was something else, in a weird wacky way that I loved. Probably years before, somebody had slopped teal green paint onto the raw brick. They’d used a dark, muddle purple for the exterior window rims and sills and the edging around the roof. Then, for good measure, they’d lined the inner surfaces of the windows’ rims with dark yellow, kind of a mango colour. Made the windows look like the insides of baby birds’ beaks when they gaped them wide and demanded food from their exhausted parents. — from Chapter 1 of Sister Mine

Nalo Hopkinson is a new author to me, and this book is (I hope) the first of two I will review in the next two weeks as part of Aarti’s Diversiverse challenge (also the reason for my out-of-character back-to-back weekend posts).

The book is definitely a bit outside my usual fantasy comfort zone, primarily because it’s set firmly in an alternate version of the real world rather than the epic-fantasy secondary worlds that tend to draw my eye. The main characters are first-person narrator Makeda and her twin sister Abby, who were born conjoined. The surgery that separated them left Abby with limited use of one of her legs, but as the book jacket puts it, “[it also] left Makeda with what feels like an even worse deformity: no mojo.” Abby and Makeda are the half-human children of a wilderness demigod and one of the servants from the human family who have long served the demigod capital-F-Family. Their other relatives include Uncle Jack (the god of life and death) and Granny Ocean (the goddess of guess-what), along with gender-ambiguous twins Beji and Beji. Because I know that Hopkinson is Caribbean-Canadian by background, I found myself looking for parallels between the divine system she sets up here and the Yoruba-influenced Caribbean orisha traditions, but was quickly forced to admit that I don’t know nearly enough about the religion to recognize possible homages to it here.

The central conflict of the book is the relationship between the two sisters. Abby has a touch of her divine family’s mojo (magic), a spectacular singing voice; Makeda has no mojo, and struggles with feeling left out of the only family she’s ever really had (the girls’ mother was punished by the divine Family for her relationship with their father and hasn’t been a part of their lives since their birth). I enjoyed the family dynamics in this book a whole lot: I think Hopkinson does a phenomenal job of demonstrating that a big, raucous divine family really has quite a bit in common with a big, raucous mundane family (speaking as someone who grew up in possession of one of the latter). I was also a big fan of Hopkinson’s prose; as the paragraph at the top of my review suggests, she has a real gift for description. The interactions between the divine and mundane worlds reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but unlike Gaiman’s Shadow, Hopkinson’s protagonists inhabit both worlds fully (like any code-switching young woman might be expected to) and struggle to find a place in each.

All in all, there were many things I liked about this book. The language and world-building are beautifully done, and give the setting a very distinctive feel. Mundane humans are “claypickens”; magic is “mojo” or “shine”; one of the supporting characters is Jimi Hendrix’s guitar in human form.

For all that, I didn’t get drawn into the book as deeply as I expected to. Other reviewers have suggested, and I agree, that the text feels in places like Hopkinson’s trying to weave together too many subplots — what’s going on in Makeda’s new apartment building? what will happen to Makeda and Abby’s father now that his mortal body is failing? how could Makeda have made such a fabulous piece of art with no mojo? — and losing track of her central thread. I also felt as though the book could have done with maybe one less reversal of its central storyline: the question of what really happened when the twins were born and whose mojo is really where gets turned on its head at least three times in the course of three hundred pages.

I would recommend the book on the strength of its worldbuilding and characters, but I would say that it’s not a book for those (like me) who like their plot neatly tied together. I’ve seen several other reviewers note that Hopkinson’s books generally tend to be more tightly plotted, and so I am planning to try another to get a chance to enjoy her worldbuilding and prose against a more unified backdrop.

A Plug for BookLust’s Diversiverse Challenge

What’s the last book you read by an author of color?

If you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed the new design on the blog this week, and specifically the new button that’s appeared in the upper left-hand corner with the tagline “A More Diverse Universe.” It’s the logo for Diversiverse, an awesome reading challenge that’s being organized by Aarti at Booklust for the last two weeks of September. If you want to participate, there are two steps you need to take:

  1. In the next few weeks, read a book by an author of color
  2. Between September 14-27th, post a review of that book in some public location online (you don’t need to have a blog to do this; Goodreads counts, and so does Amazon)

I’ve spent the last 2 months talking on this blog about how important representation is in genre fiction. Unsurprisingly, one of the more reliable ways (though certainly not the only one) to increase the visibility of characters from any underrepresented group is to encourage and support authors who are members of that group. There are a million reasons why this challenge is a worthwhile one, and I would strongly recommend folk consider taking this opportunity to expand your reading horizons. If you’d like to officially enroll, you can sign yourself up on Aarti’s page (the Diversiverse link above)

As Aarti points out, this challenge isn’t really so difficult to fulfill. In her words:

You may have to change your book-finding habits to include POC authors in your reading rotation.  You absolutely do not need to change your book-reading habits. 

In that spirit, I’ve included a short list here of some genre authors you might check out as a starting point. Stars indicate those whose books I’ve read, the others are authors I’m familiar with but haven’t read yet (as you’ll no doubt note, neither list is nearly as long as I’d like it to be! Please feel free to add other rec’s in the comments!)

  • Saladin Ahmed* (fantasy)
  • Octavia Butler* (science fiction)
  • Samuel R. Delany (science fiction)
  • Junot Diaz (magical realism)
  • Nalo Hopkinson* (fantasy)
  • NK Jemisin* (fantasy)
  • Malinda Lo (fantasy)
  • Marie Lu* (YA dystopia)
  • Nnedi Okorafor (fantasy)
  • Salman Rushdie (fantasy)
  • Charles Saunders (fantasy)
  • Charles Yu (science fiction)

The God of Old Men: Religion, Age, and Throne of the Crescent Moon

Over the last few months, I’ve written a series of posts exploring genre fiction’s representation of the different identity valences discussed in Shawl & Ward’s Writing the Other. The posts for four of these six categories (race, orientation, sex/gender, and ability/disability) came relatively easily to me, but I’ve been at a loss about how to tackle the final two: religion and age. These are both extremely important identities for us to consider as authors and readers, but for me, the entry points seemed less obvious.

Then I read Saladin Ahmed‘s Throne of the Crescent Moon, and realized I could talk a bit about both topics in one post.

Ahmed’s book has received a lot of buzz in the SF/F community. It was nominated for (among other things) the Hugo and Nebula, and won the 2013 Locus Award for best first novel. It got a glowing review on io9, where Annalee Newitz described it as “the best fantasy swashbuckler of the year.” So I may be late to the party on this one, but I’m still going to add my voice to the chorus saying this book is both well-written and important.

Its main characters share some recognizable elements with classic fantasy archetypes: there’s the sage white-bearded wizard, the wild shapeshifter, the puritanical monk. And the story has all the elements of a classic adventure tale: romance! adventure! a world in peril! But these characters are also deeply embedded in a culture that’s very unlike the traditional fantasy world. Ahmed’s story takes place in the city of Dhamsawaat, in a culture whose inspiration comes not only from the magic of the Arabian Nights (there’s lots of talk of jinn, and the main monster-threat in the setting are ghuls) but from Muslim ritual and tradition.

The heroes of this book are religious one and all. The common belief is that their magic is a gift from God, and that the monsters they fight are created by those who draw power from “the Traitorous Angel.” The central character, the ghul hunter Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, works his magic with a combination of blessed herbs and foci and recitations of the sacred Names of God. The religion on display here clearly shares elements with Islam, just as the larger culture does with medieval Arabia. Since Ahmed himself is Arab-American and Muslim, some readers might say that “of course” these are elements he’d choose to incorporate into his storytelling, but it seems to me that most genre authors, regardless of background, don’t make a particular effort to incorporate religion into their stories in a positive way.

When Christianity analogues show up in fantasy realms, they tend to be portrayed as puritanical and/or authoritarian and almost-inevitably violent (think of the Children of the Light in Wheel of Time, or R’hllor in ASOIAF). Gods themselves tend to get slightly better treatment, when they actually put in an appearance on the page (NK Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy springs to mind here, as do Jacqueline Carey’s D’Angeline books). And polytheists generally come off better than monotheists (there’s the Seven Gods in Westeros, of course, and the numerous gods and goddesses capering through Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch books), maybe because for authors situated in the monotheism-heavy Western world, coming up with pantheons of deities feels freer than trying to invent a single overarching G/god. But regardless of where religion fits into the world, religious people tend to be firmly on the sidelines in genre fiction, and when they interact with the heroes it seems to be most often to get in their way. I suspect this reflects a perceived distinction between “religious people” and “consumers of genre fiction,” which, given the commotion from some evangelical Christians a few years back about Harry Potter, might be an easy mistake to make. But just as with other aspects of diversity in storytelling, I think religious characters are an important group to include in fiction. Whether the gods are “real” actors in the story or not, it’s worth considering that throughout most of human history, most people in most places have believed deeply in something bigger than themselves — and, of course, developing a religion (or religions) for your setting gives you an extra dimension for worldbuilding to seep into.

Throne of the Crescent Moon has gotten a lot of press for these aspects of its storytelling, and deservedly so. But what seems to be less widely discussed about the book — the part that I didn’t know before reading it — was that the protagonist, Adoulla, is over sixty years old. In his introductory scene, Adoulla enjoys a rare quiet morning drinking tea with a friend, reflecting on how he’s getting too old for the active, dangerous life of a ghul hunter.

“Adventure, you say? A fortnight ago I was face-to-face with a living bronze statue that was trying to kill me with an axe. An axe, Yehyeh!” He shook his head at his own wavering tea-reflection. “Threescore years, and still I’m getting involved in such madness. Why?” he asked, looking up.

Yehyeh shrugged. “Because God the All-Knowing made it so. You’ve faced such threats and worse before, my friend. You may look like the son of the bear who screwed the buzzard, but you’re the only real ghul hunter left in this whole damned-by-God city, O Great and Virtuous Doctor.”

There are certainly middle-aged and elderly people in genre stories, and not all of them play the role of the doddering mentor sitting quietly on the sidelines. There’s Gandalf, of course, and his spiritual descendant Albus Dumbledore; there are also characters like Colonel Tigh and Admiral Adama from Battlestar Galactica (whose actors were 54 and 56 when the series began), who were allowed to participate in action scenes, perform physical heroics and even (gasp!) form romantic and sexual relationships with NEW partners during the course of the show. And yet, none of these characters is the protagonist of his story (and these characters are all “he,” aren’t they?) in the way that Adoulla is. Adoulla is the first of the main characters we meet, and the one whose viewpoint closes the book. His body has an old man’s weaknesses, yet he also is a character with a lot left to give the world, including romantic love (with, wonder of wonders, a desirable woman close to his own age!)

Ahmed gives us five primary viewpoint characters in Throne of the Crescent Moon (each of the “band of heroes” gets at least a few chapters), and three of those are past the age of forty. I don’t remember the last book I’ve read that focused its narrative that way, particularly a book written by an author who hasn’t yet reached that age himself. I suspect that’s one of the reasons older characters are rare protagonists in genre fiction; if fantasy and science fiction are supposed to be escapist, the likely perception goes, relatively few people seek to “escape” into the rickety body of an elderly narrator. And yet, as we’ve discussed before, portraying the range of human experience in this dimension is important, too. Ahmed himself, in an interview quoted in the LA Times, put it this way: “My hero is 60-plus years old… That comes from the focus on age, and the wisdom that comes with age, in Arab culture. Maybe a 15-year-old is not who we need to follow around the whole time.”

His book demonstrates the truth of the statement. Throne of the Crescent Moon takes us on a comfortably familiar journey of magic and monsters, while overturning several core fantasy assumptions about where those stories live and who our guides through them can be. I’d recommend it, and I think we need more books like it from all quarters.

Impossible Things: Redefining Ability and Disability in Genre Fiction

“You left my dragon back there! He can’t fly on his own! He’ll drown!” — Hiccup, How to Train Your Dragon 2

When Star Trek first appeared on TV in 1966, the decision was made to hide or disguise actor James Doohan’s missing finger. Although I couldn’t find a conclusive answer to whether the choice was Doohan’s or the producers’, it’s conventional wisdom among Star Trek fans that the shows’ creators felt that by the 23rd century, prosthetics would have advanced to the point where missing digits would be unthinkable.

By contrast, in 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon, not only does the dragon protagonist have a disability (after part of his tail is shot off, he can only fly with a prosthesis operated by his human buddy) but the human protagonist, Hiccup, loses his foot at the end of the film (a plot change from the books) and has his own prosthesis going forward. The movie has received quite a lot of press for its positive depiction of a main character with a disability, and it’s true that this is definitely a step in the right direction. However, in thinking about depictions of characters with disabilities in genre fiction, I’m coming to the conclusion that (surprise!) we’ve still got a ways to go.

I’ll start off with praise for a few authors who are making a clear effort to increase representation of people with disabilities in their fiction. Both series I’ve read by Tad Williams (Otherland and Shadowmarch) feature characters with disabilities in main roles. And say what you will about George RR Martin’s problems with race and gender, he does a very creditable job of presenting characters with a range of physical, developmental and mental differences. His core cast includes people with dwarfism and paraplegia, as well as someone who’s an amputee; he also has a major supporting character and several minor ones with developmental disabilities, which is even rarer in fiction. These characters’ differences are part of how they interact with the world, but none of them has disability as their only character aspect.

Once you move outside these series, though, the field gets a little thin. While driving home last night, Husband and I spent 45 minutes trying to list other genre fiction characters with disabilities, and here’s the sum total of the list we came up with, arranged in buckets from roughly most- to least-problematic:

Fairly troublesome:

  • Jake Sully from James Cameron’s Avatar — becomes a paraplegic due to a war wound; spends the movie lamenting his lot and (it’s suggested) chooses to give up his human body at least in part so that he has the capacity to walk
  • Luke Skywalker from Star Wars — has a hand amputated and immediately replaced with an identical prosthetic

A little troublesome:

  • Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: TNG — blind from birth, but uses technology to “see” in a range that goes beyond that available to people with standard human vision. Which means that he does process the world differently, but also that he sees everything that others do.
  • Professor X from The X-Men — becomes a paraplegic due to an accidental bullet wound (at least, according to X-Men: First Class); uses a wheelchair ALMOST all the time (except for portions of the new movie Days of Future Past, but I’ll come back to that).

Fairly well-depicted:

  • Drusilla from Buffy/Angel — is portrayed as having unspecified mental illness because she was “driven insane” by Angelus before being turned into a vampire
  • Felix Gaeta from Battlestar Galactica — has a leg amputated late in the series due to injury
  • Saul Tigh from Battlestar Galactica — has an eye taken out late in the series during imprisonment
  • Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader from Star Wars — becomes a de facto cyborg after amputation of multiple limbs and being set on fire.
  • Toph Beifong from Avatar: the Last Airbender –– blind (presumably) from birth, uses her Earthbending powers to get around by feeling vibrations in the ground

When I got home last night, I thought of a few more characters to add to the list. There’s Nemo from Finding Nemo, with his asymmetrical pectoral fins; there’s River Tam from the Firefly/Serenity universe, whose treatment at the hands of the Alliance caused both physical and mental damage to her brain; there’s G’Kar from Babylon 5, another character who loses an eye before the end of his series; there’s Jerome Morrow from Gattaca, a paraplegic. But coming up with a list of genre fiction characters with disabilities is undeniably tougher than coming up with characters who embody other underrepresented identities. As I’ve talked about in previous posts, the history of genre fiction has many examples of the wrong ways to include people of diverse races, genders, and sexualities in your storytelling — but for the most part, characters with disabilities just aren’t there at all.

I’ve thought a lot about this issue, and I have a few theories about what might be going on. First and foremost, I suspect that even for those most committed to increasing diversity on any level, disability/ability is still a social identity that goes largely unconsidered. When I participated in a professional development workshop a few years ago where we discussed “increasing diversity among college and university faculty,” people talked about gender, race, and sexuality; those who remembered to include class background clapped themselves on the back for their conscientiousness. Growing up in a small, homogeneous New England city, I knew a few people of color, and a few people who identified as something other than heterosexual, but I had no friends with disabilities. I vaguely remember a child in my elementary school who walked with leg braces; there was a developmentally disabled boy in my middle school class who had an aide to help him through his day, and a girl who had difficulty walking because of cerebral palsy; and that was it. I suspect that for many able-bodied people, particularly those who live outside major metropolitan areas, people with disabilities don’t have a big impact on their everyday experience — and part of the reason for this, in classic vicious circle style, is because people with disabilities are still underrepresented in popular media.

I recently ran across Mayzoon Zayid’s TED talk about her experience as a Palestinian-American woman with CP trying to break into acting, and her discussion of the invisibility of people with disabilities made a real impression on me. As she puts it,

Disability is as visual as race. If a wheelchair user can’t play BeyoncĂ©, then BeyoncĂ© can’t play a wheelchair user… People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world, and we are the most underrepresented in entertainment.

Of course, Zayid’s point is that when people with disabilities do appear in movies and TV shows, most often they are played by actors who don’t share their disability (see: every single one of the characters listed above, along with Forrest Gump, the wheelchair user Artie from Glee, and Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character Raymond in Rain Man). However, I think a related problem is that (able-bodied) storytellers still tend to default to certain tropes when telling stories about people with disabilities. Author Susan Nussbaum captures this in an essay for The Huffington Post, where she says that as a person with a disability, she tends to “avoid books and movies with disabled characters in them” because

The vast majority of writers who have used disabled characters in their work are not people with disabilities themselves. Because disabled people have been peripheral for centuries, we’ve been shut out of the artistic process since the beginning. As a result, the disabled characters we’re presented with usually fit one or more of the following stereotypes: Victim, Villain, Inspiration, Monster. And the disabled character’s storyline is generally resolved in one of a few ways: Cure, Death, Institutionalization. It’s a well-worn formula that can be changed up in a number of ways, but it usually looks something like this: Disabled Victim + Self-involved non-disabled Protagonist = Cured Victim + Redeemed non-disabled Protagonist.

Basically,  Nussbaum argues that stories about a hero with a disability — who remains both the hero and disabled throughout the story — are still relatively rare.

The “cured” piece is one that I think genre fiction is particularly prone to, because part of the escapist nature of science fiction and fantasy stories is the idea that things can happen in those worlds that can’t happen in this one. I don’t believe that either the Star Trek writers or James Cameron and the rest of the Avatar team intended their message to be that people whose physical differences can’t be “fixed” are somehow doomed to live a miserable life — but when a TV show suggests that of course no one would opt to have nine fingers in the 23rd century, and that the cure for a paralyzed soldier’s depression is a new body that allows him to walk and run again, it’s hard not to go “hmm.” Given the raging real-world controversies around cochlear implants for deaf children and the effects of prenatal testing for Down Syndrome, I’m a little uncomfortable with any fictional world that suggests that people whose bodies or minds are in any way atypical will of course automatically be “fixed.”

The other piece of the “cured” trope, of course, is characters like Luke Skywalker (or How To Train Your Dragon‘s Hiccup) who have prosthetics that have no impact on the story or the character’s everyday life. In How To Train Your Dragon 2, Hiccup runs and jumps and tumbles seemingly without a moment’s thought about the mechanical foot strapped to his leg: although I know that some prosthetic limbs give their wearers a huge amount of mobility, this did give me more than a moment’s pause. When working with human actors, I suspect at least part of the motivation for these choices is is not wanting to inconvenience the actor any more than necessary (or have to green-screen Mark Hamill’s hand away in every shot through the third movie). I wondered about this factor in X-Men: Days of Future Past, which presented what felt like a fairly flimsy excuse for why James McAvoy’s 1970s-era Professor X was able to walk around; I suspected it was primarily because the filmmakers wanted to include Xavier in action sequences, and doing so would have been much more difficult if they’d had to negotiate a 1970s-analog pre-ADA world.

And really, I think that’s the core of the trouble with ability/disability representation in genre fiction. Although the genres have opened up considerably in the last few decades, science fiction and fantasy stories are still expected to be stories about Big Damn Heroes: stories with swords and starships and big guns and powerful wizards. Our culture doesn’t think of people with disabilities as filling those roles; and if a protagonist interacts differently with the physical world — if Hiccup has to stop and adjust his foot before he can hop down off his dragon’s back — it will affect the way that hero swashbuckles, the same way it affects everything else.

As you’ve probably guessed, I think that paradigm is ready for tweaking. I’ve mentioned before that my current novel project has a heroic role model whose physical differences make him quite unlike the “typical” hero/mentor figure. When I first conceived of the character this way, I found myself getting uncomfortable, the negative lizard-brain reaction described by Shawl and Ward in Writing the Other. My inner monologue went something like this: “No, Big Damn Heroes can’t have physical limitations! No one would take him seriously! No one would — except they can’t help but take him seriously. He’s the most fearsome warrior and most highly respected general in the world. …by gods, I have to write the character like this. I can’t pass up the opportunity.”

And so I will. And it’ll require rethinking some of the tropes about what heroic characters do and how they sound. And I think it’ll be interesting, and distinctive… and important. Because we need more diversity in our genres, and Jake Sully and Luke Skywalker and Geordi aren’t going to cut it forever. All of us genre authors talk a good talk about using our imaginations to reinvent the world: let’s go out there and imagine some different heroes.