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A Breath of Fresh Air: On Attending (Half of) the 2014 Tiptree Ceremony

It’s not often I trek into San Francisco on a whim, but this past weekend I made an exception. Late Friday afternoon, I saw an email notification from a fabulous local nerdy organization, SF in SF, noting that due to a congruence of unusual circumstances, one of the bestowals of the 2014 Tiptree Award would be taking place in San Francisco instead of at this year’s WisCon. The site of the ceremony would be Borderlands, maybe the most fabulous genre bookstore to have ever graced the earth; the awardee would be Jo Walton, for her novel My Real Children.

I love Borderlands, enough to have been one of the first 100 people to join their sponsorship program earlier this year when they nearly had to close because of the new SF minimum wage law (more about all that here; linked post first, then others from February and March 2015). And when I picked up My Real Children on vacation last year, I loved it so much I almost didn’t leave the hotel room (my review is here). So when I heard the two were going to come together in a glorious awards ceremony, I figured it was worth a chunk of my Sunday to experiment with being a Tiptree audience member.

I am so, so very glad I did.

For those new to the concept, here is how the Tiptree Award (named in honor of author Alice Bradley Sheldon, who wrote her sci-fi novels as James Tiptree, Jr.) is described at tiptree.org:

In February of 1991 at WisCon (the world’s only feminist-oriented science fiction convention), award-winning SF author Pat Murphy announced the creation of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender. (To read her speech go to PatMurphy.pdf.) Pat created the award in collaboration with author Karen Joy Fowler. The aim of the award is not to look for work that falls into some narrow definition of political correctness, but rather to seek out work that is thought-provoking, imaginative, and perhaps even infuriating. The Tiptree Award is intended to reward those women and men who are bold enough to contemplate shifts and changes in gender roles, a fundamental aspect of any society.

The essence of the award is fundamentally in tune with the larger issues WisCon seems to be primarily concerned with — issues of representation in genre fiction, of rethinking what sci-fi and fantasy “should” be about, and of opening the genre to a wider fan base and helping underrepresented fans and creators feel like they’ve got a place in the crowd. In short, it touches on a lot of the same concerns that I raise in this space: I’ve described it to friends before as “a convention for sociologically-minded nerds.” I thought about making the pilgrimage to WisCon this year, and finally decided I had too much else going on to justify the expense of a semi-random trip to Wisconsin on Memorial Day weekend. But the presentation this weekend reaffirmed my commitment: maybe not next year, or the year after, but soon, I will be there. And I hope that someday I’ll be able to become a regular.

Here’s what I saw on Sunday.

Once everyone had gathered, most of us chittering over newly-purchased books to be signed, emcee and author Ellen Klages called up a friend of Jo Walton’s, Ada Palmer, to first give a reading from her new book Too Like the Lightning (which I will definitely be reading when it comes out next year — intrigue and mayhem and toy soldiers! toy soldiers who come to life!) and then to sing, with her colleague Lauren Schiller, a song called “Somebody Will.” Which pretty much embodied the essence of what it seems like WisCon-oriented genre writers are trying to do, and what I’ve talked about here more times than any other topic, and how I like to live my life: the idea that change is slow but inexorable, and that each of us has a role to play in making that change a reality even if it doesn’t change in our lifetimes, and that the important thing is to do what you can with heart. Which, among other things, is a central theme in My Real Children.

Once the song had been sung and the audience had collected ourselves and stopped sniffling, Klages sat down to interview Walton about her experience as a writer; I’m not sure if this interview is available on YouTube, but it was very refreshing to hear someone admit that all the Truths about Real Writing (you must write every day and never stop; you must never give away your creative work on the Internet; you must pick a genre and stick to it) hadn’t applied to her, and that somehow her books were still winning awards (and not only “feminist” awards, either; in case you missed it, Walton’s Among Others won both the Hugo and the Nebula in 2012). Walton also discussed how she’d written My Real Children to deliberately blur the boundaries between science fiction/fantasy and “women’s fiction,” which she defined as literature whose principal tensions derive from issues central to many women’s lives — marital relationships, children, balancing work and family, getting old — that are rarely addressed in genre fiction (regardless of whether the main character is a woman or a man). She talked about how she thought these things were particularly important to include in our field, since not only was no one writing about them, but (paraphrased) “they’re unlikely to go away in the future — and if they do, then that will be interesting and worth writing about!” It resonated with other conversations I’ve read about the importance of telling all kinds of stories, and reminded me why I fell so in love with Gabaldon’s Outlander books despite their flaws. And it felt so refreshing in the wake of all the angry rhetoric that’s been thrown down in fandom this year about what kinds of stories “deserve” to be told.

And then, once the interview was done, the Tiptree committee gave Jo Walton her prizes: besides a plaque, they included money, and chocolate, and a piece of specially commissioned art inspired by the subject of her book. Ellen Klages then explained that the Tiptree winner usually has rights to wear one of the Tiptree tiaras for the duration of the WisCon weekend, and that Walton did get those rights (even though she was the guest of honor at another convention that weekend, a Tiptree representative met her there with a “spare tiara”); but that because Walton had expressed concerns that wearing a tiara was more stereotypically “girly” than she really felt comfortable with for herself, the committee had gotten her a tiara hat pin instead, to wear on her fantastic broad-brimmed hat. I was surprised at how touching I found this, maybe just because it was evidence that the committee not only knew the author but had actually taken time to take her wishes into account.

And then, before cake (because there was cake, and we all got a piece), the committee and the audience sang Walton a song. Two songs, actually; a combined round, to the tunes of Row Row Row Your Boat and Frere Jacques, with the words changed so that the songs were about My Real Children. And as I sang, with gusto, and as I looked up to the front of the room and saw Jo Walton’s face light up, I thought: this is the community I want to be a part of.

I’ve read a lot about the people in the genre fiction community over the last few months, good, bad and ugly. I’ve read George RR Martin’s long explanations of how the culture at WorldCon has changed; I’ve seen other authors I like and respect wade into the fray and try to speak reasonably; I’ve considered the Hugo nominations and decided how I was going to vote on as much of the material as I was able to take in. And honestly, it’s all left me feeling a little uneasy about pursuing a career as a professional writer. I know that all groups of professionals have politics, that there’s no getting around that — but somehow, I thought that maybe there was a niche within genre fiction where nerds who felt the way I did about the world could just get together and hang out and talk about books and how they try to use them to create positive change in the world.

This weekend, I think I found that place. And if this ceremony said anything at all about the rest of WisCon, I may have to get a ticket for next year’s Memorial Day weekend this week. Because this whole event, from beginning to end, was food for my artist’s soul. Thanks to all who put it together, and I hope I’ll get to know you better soon.

Reading Challenge Review: Flesh and Fire, by Laura Anne Gilman

A book by a female author (#9 on my 2015 Reading Challenge List): Flesh and Fire

I knew this category would be one of the easier ones for me to meet, but I’m always happy to add more female authors to my list. I chose to seek out Laura Anne Gilman’s work after stumbling over her recent blog post on how she decided to publish her epic fantasy under her own name rather than using a gender-neutral pen name, and she didn’t disappoint. Flesh and Fire, the first book in The Vineart War trilogy, introduces us to a young man named Jerzy who’s been plucked from his place as a vineyard slave to be his master’s new apprentice. In that role, he’ll learn how to work the magic that makes his master’s order, the Vinearts, so vital to the world they’re a part of — because in this universe, magic is all tangled up with wine.

Gilman’s dedication is to her agent, who she claims made a casual suggestion to “write me a food- or wine-based fantasy”; this book is certainly that in spades. I won’t say too much about the details of the worldbuilding, because a lot of the joy in the book for me came from discovering its twists and turns, but I’d feel comfortable starting where the book does, with a version of the world’s creation story. Paraphrasing and summarizing, it goes like this: in ancient times, the prince-mages held all the power in the land, political and magical; they managed the vineyards and crafted the powerful spellwines which allowed them to control the elements and heal the sick. But they grew arrogant, and so the gods sent their son to warn the prince-mages to be careful, and when they ignored his words and killed him, his blood spilled forth as the most powerful spellwine anyone had ever seen, and it changed all the grapes of the world into something weaker and more limited in their scope than what had come before. This gent’s known as Sin-Washer, and his legacy for people is a new political system that divides power between the Washers (priests), the princes (rulers) and the Vinearts (mages).

“And… Vinearts must spend their entire lives learning their vines, and have no time to build armies or rule over men, and princes, busy with the ways of men, have no time to dedicate to the secret and subtle ways of vines.”

We pick up our story a few thousand years after these events, and learn that in the meantime, things have been going pretty smoothly. As with most fantasy, that changes pretty quickly once the tale gets going, but we don’t see much of the ramifications in this first book. Flesh and Fire is largely a book of setup, introducing us to characters and places and how the magic system works — and if you’ve read other reviews of mine, particularly my take on Robin Hobb’s books, it won’t surprise you to learn that I was absolutely fine with that.

The negative reviews of this book on Goodreads echo those I read for Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice — suggesting that in nearly 400 pages, “nothing happens.” I didn’t have that impression at all; in fact, as I read, I was continually struck by Gilman’s skill with pacing, how she managed to spin a story that covers a little more than a year by skipping over all but the most important parts (this is, you may have guessed, something I struggle with). This isn’t really a story about the mysterious threat that’s rising to throw the world out of balance; this book’s meant to introduce us to the hero who we’re led to expect by the end of the book has some unique role to play in stopping that threat. And I think it does that admirably.

Warning: moderate, early-book spoilers beyond this point.

When we first meet Jerzy, Gilman doesn’t even give him a name. He’s “the boy,” one of the faceless mob of slaves tending the master’s vineyards. But when he has an unexpected reaction to the accidental overturning of a vat of spellwine, the master pulls him from the group and brings him into the house, and from that point forward, everything about his life is different. Gilman takes her time with this transition, and it eats a good chunk of the first third of the book. For me, that was exactly the right choice; I enjoyed being able to experience Jerzy’s shock and slow acclimation to his new world, and I admired the way Gilman used different perspectives to give us information about him that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Another unusual thing about this book compared to its Big Fantasy Novel counterparts is that we see comparatively little magic until quite late in the story: in fact, one of the Goodreads critiques I read was that “it didn’t feel like a fantasy book,” an assessment which seemed to be based in the fact that most of the characters were mundane folk living their mundane lives and that nothing big and flashy happens for many chapters. I’d disagree with the point, though: I think the worldbuilding here is quite subtle, but clearly present, and strong enough to convince us that this isn’t the world the readers come from. While Jerzy’s world does fall prey to the accusation of being “not-quite-Europe” in many respects (it’s pretty clear that Gilman based the book’s two major settings on wine-growing regions in France and Italy), the religion is distinctive and so are the cultural attitudes. There’s also a “cost-of-magic” discourse here that’s unlike any I can remember seeing before.

More plot-peripheral-but-notable things:

  • I very much liked the device of starting the novel with the creation/changed world story. I’ve been tempted to do this sort of thing in my own work and have always drawn back from it, fearing that it’d be alienating to a reader, but this book pulled it off in a way that worked for me.
  • I was intrigued by the fact that Jerzy seems (at this stage at least) to be more-or-less asexual, an identity I don’t remember seeing as central to a main character in other books I’ve read. Admittedly, Gilman hints pretty strongly that his orientation may have something to do with his being a survivor of molestation, which I don’t love, but I did appreciate how his difference from the characters around him (who demonstrate both different-sex and same-sex attractions without either one’s being framed as inherently “normal” or “abnormal,” another thing I liked) was remarked upon (by others) and pondered (by Jerzy himself).
  • From a craft perspective, I also liked the fact that several characters who we’re led to believe will be major players in the books to come don’t appear until relatively late in this one. I’ve read a few discussions of plotting and pacing that say you shouldn’t introduce anyone important after the halfway mark, but Gilman breaks that rule and breaks it well.
  • For what it’s worth, I finished the book more concerned about what will happen to the hero than what’s happening to the kingdom; the sections of the book that moved away from Jerzy’s immediate concerns to give us a broader perspective on world events seemed less engaging to me, maybe because those characters were by necessity less fleshed out. I don’t feel like that makes one thread or the other “good” or “bad,” but I did find it interesting.

In short, while I didn’t think this book was perfect, I liked it quite a bit. I will definitely be seeking out more work by Gilman and looking to find out what happens to Jerzy and his friends and allies.

Not “Blannie,” Just Annie: Remakes, Reimaginings and Representation

At one of our Christmas dinners this year, I mentioned that I was planning to take Husband to go see the new Annie remake. Hearing that, a relative smiled and said innocuously, “Don’t you mean Blannie?” Which, of course, is a hashtag that’s been appearing on Twitter in discussions of the new movie, a compression of “black Annie.”

“No,” I said. “I mean the remake of Annie.”

As a kid, I was a big fan of movie musicals. I watched and rewatched The Wizard of Oz. I remember sitting transfixed on the living room floor by West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and on the edge of the couch a few years later with Little Shop of Horrors and Jesus Christ Superstar. And as was the case for most kids who grew up in the ’80s, the story of the spunky orphan and her bald benefactor took its turn on-stage in my house, too. One of my never-quite-realized childhood ambitions was to cast and recreate these shows using my friends and family, and I have a very clear memory of discussing with my mother whether my best-playmate uncle might be willing to take on the role of Rooster, orphanage mistress Miss Hannigan’s no-good brother.

I don’t remember where Husband and I saw our first trailer for the 2014 Annie, and I don’t remember if I’d heard anything about the movie before seeing it. But I do remember how excited I got, just hearing snippets of the familiar songs. This was a story that had a special place in my heart as a kid; I was thrilled to hear it’d be coming back to the big screen. And when I saw Quvenzhané Wallis’s grinning face, I thought: “Oh, wow, the new Annie’s black? That’s amazing!”

I’ll freely admit that I might have had a different reaction before I started graduate school, before I took courses on the sociology of race that were the first place I read about how few characters of color (or diverse characters of any kind) have historically appeared in children’s books. Even a few years ago, I might still have balked at the idea that a classic, much-loved story could be reimagined with a protagonist of a different race and keep the spirit of the original story. But now, after a year of thinking about how to increase the representation in my own work, after reading Writing the Other and looking at the numbers on protagonists of color and following the efforts of the team at We Need Diverse Books to increase all kinds of diversity in children’s stories, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are more important things than respecting the canon.

It seems like the Marvel and DC universes provide a pretty good model for exactly this sort of thing. In 2011, the Ultimate Marvel universe killed off Peter Parker and replaced him with Miles Morales, the first black (and second Hispanic) Spiderman; there was some backlash, but the loudest voices, including that of Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee, supported the impulse to make Spiderman a character who demonstrated that you didn’t have to be white to save the world. Both the Marvel and DC movie franchises are taking steps in the same direction, greenlighting films for, among others, an Aquaman played by Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa, and Marvel’s first black superhero, the Black Panther.

These stories don’t take away from the ones that came before them. Having a new Wonder Woman movie that’ll bring a female superhero into the imaginations of 21st-century little girls doesn’t undo the fact that The Dark Knight was a good movie, or that Bruce Wayne’s Batman is a fun character. Having a black Spiderman doesn’t erase the white Spiderman: it just gives more kids the opportunity to pretend to be a superhero who looks like them. And kids do notice that stuff. This Washington Post article, by writer Amina Luqman, about how her son didn’t want to dress as Harry Potter for Halloween because “I’m not tan, I’m brown” just about broke my heart.

One response to the unveiling of Miles Morales (archived here), by opinion writer Alexandra Petri, repeats a commonly-used phrase from those who object to what they see as the “forced” diversification of contemporary characters: “It doesn’t matter what the character looks like so long as he tells a compelling story!” As Petri suggests, the people who say this are absolutely right; we should all be able to enjoy a compelling story. And sure, part of pretending is imagining yourself to be somebody else. But increasingly, research and popular opinion seem to be assembling around the notion that it shouldn’t always be kids from underrepresented groups who have to stretch their imaginations the furthest to see themselves in the heroes of their favorite stories.

Husband had never seen the 1982 Annie, and so we watched it together last week so he’d be properly contextualized for the new movie. Seeing it for the first time in 20+ years, I was struck by its cheesiness (the adults all look a little too happy to be real) and its increasingly improbable plot (Miss Hannigan doesn’t recognize her brother with a fake mustache? Annie gets adopted by Daddy Warbucks only because she happens to be the one who overhears when his assistant first comes to the orphanage? There’s a mansion and substantial grounds somewhere on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue?). I was also struck by the movie’s casual racism: Daddy Warbucks’ two bodyguards are “Punjab” and “the Asp”; respectively, a tall, dark-skinned, turbaned man who can “put a spell on [the dog]” and make toy airplanes fly with a wave of his hand, and a smaller East Asian gent whose main jobs seem to be driving Daddy Warbucks around and teaching Annie how to do karate chops. I still hold some affection for the movie, and I might even show it to my own kids someday, but I wouldn’t do so without unpacking those stereotypes a little. And I suspect I would feel differently if I looked less like Aileen Quinn, who played Annie, and more like Geoffrey Holder and Roger Minami, who played the bodyguards.

The writers of the 1982 Annie, and its Broadway predecessor, took their own liberties with the original story. The comic strip Little Orphan Annie, which debuted in 1924, expressed its creator’s strong objections to (among other things) unions, the New Deal, and communism. If creator Harold Gray had known that his spunky red-head would someday be portrayed meeting with FDR to help set up the New Deal, he might’ve come back from the dead to protest. Stories change to fit the times they’re told in.

It’s true that when I saw the new Annie this weekend, I didn’t see a little girl with red hair. But I saw girls somersaulting around their group home singing “A Hard Knock Life”; I saw adults hamming it up in ridiculous dance numbers; I saw the message that a good-hearted youngster can have a positive impact on the world; and I saw a spunky kid with a sparkling smile who sang “Tomorrow.”

So no, I didn’t go see “Blannie” this weekend; just a new version of Annie, written to introduce the story to 21st-century kids of all backgrounds. And this movie musical nerd was glad to add it to all the others in her library.