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Today’s guest is speculative fiction writer, poetry editor, and filmmaker Romie Stott! She has been poetry co-editor at Strange Horizons, one of this year’s Hugo Award finalists for Best Semiprozine, for over a year, and she also contributes to Arc, a publication from the creators of New Scientist dedicated to speculative futures. Her story “Three Young Men” appears in the recently-released anthology of Biblical horror stories (that may have one of the more memorable titles I’ve seen in awhile) King David and the Spiders from Mars. I’m happy she’s here today to discuss biology as a feminine science and how that impacts its use in science fiction!

King David and the Spiders from Mars

The Feminine Science

In middle school, or maybe even earlier, I picked up the understanding that Science Fiction is for boys and Fantasy is for girls. I don’t know whether this is something someone told me, or whether I inferred it from what I was reading: YA fantasy like Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series, which starred a female knight/sorceress/headstrong romantic, and SF like Heinlein, where men are bold, dispassionate explorers and women are soft blankets. Which left me in a bind because I have never had any desire to travel to the past, even a past with magic. Or a present with magic. I like science. I like what it’s done for women’s survival rates. I find it excruciating when someone treats me as though I have feminine intuition.

There were other related things I came to accept, like Math is masculine and Reading is feminine. Not “for boys” and “for girls” — I liked both, and had teachers and friends and classmates of both genders — but masculine and feminine in a semiotic or synaesthetic way, as though the English language is secretly still French underneath. Classical music is feminine. Physics is masculine. Visual art is masculine. Biology is feminine. Chemistry is bisexual and the disreputable stepchild of Physics. (Chemistry was always my favorite.) In all cases, the masculine subjects were indefinably superior, indefinably prestigious, and widely accepted as more difficult.

Science fiction, speaking broadly, has a love for shiny surfaces. (Or these days, gritty pitted surfaces.) Of the poetry submissions I receive at Strange Horizons, where I am co-editor, looking at only those poems I would classify as science fiction and not fantasy, ballpark 90% of them are about astrophysics. 9% are about mechanical technology — robots, spaceflight, internet. 1% are chemistry or number theory.

Bio is not so much in there. I am not sure science fiction people think of it as one of the hard sciences, possibly because it is entangled with medicine, which is not science as much as it is a combination of technology and religion. Yet science fiction people are comfortable writing about technology, and about religion. And cell biology, for instance, should be unaffected by this, but only mitochondria are considered SF-worthy. Bio is squishy. Human bodies are not otherworldly.

It took me a good 10 years past high school to shake off the notion that learning about biology was in some sense “slumming.” This was about the same time I realized that memorizing things comes not from repetition but from linking information to a structure built of other information — that it was a creative act instead of a stockpiling. Until that point, I’d fallen into the google fallacy, a trap of thinking I didn’t need to know things; I just needed to know how to find things. Which is partly accurate, but you have to know enough to know that the thing exists to be found, and you have to be able to describe it well enough to retrieve the data, as anyone knows who has played the game “I can’t think of the word, but it’s kind of like beautiful but not really? It maybe starts with an r, or maybe a g?”

This fallacy underlies a lot of geek culture. The subjects I internalized as feminine were the ones that required a lot of memorization. They seemed dogged and rote, something nose to the ground, as homebody as putting up preserves. The masculine subjects were instead about derivation, a kind of leaping into the air, with the elitism that comes from seeing the world clearly and perfectly because you are brilliant. A genius doesn’t need to remember; a genius can deduce the world from a grain of sand. The problem, alas, with a merit system built exclusively on making the correct inferences instead of the careful work of building up information is that it looks very much like aristocracy, like something you are instead of something you learn.

Coincidentally, that “something you are” tends to reflect light, make expansive gestures, and have no breasts. But overemphasizing the “grain of sand” model of genius has downsides even if you’re not concerned about social justice. When it comes to futurism, the process of inference absent memorization is often misleading. If all you have to go on is what’s in front of you, you have no idea whether the thing you’re seeing is normal; you could base your whole model on a fluke. At its extreme, you could watch someone win the lottery and conclude that she’ll win the lottery tomorrow as well. On the other extreme, you could miss the fact that someone’s slowly starving by assuming he just skipped lunch this one time.

One of my short stories, “The Wishing Hour,” includes a pregnant protagonist, and when it was published I realized that if I told someone it was an SF pregnancy story they’d probably surmise it involved alien invasion/possession/parasitism, because this is a dominant SF trope. I like that trope; I am a huge fan of Alien, for instance. However, something I have noticed when talking to my male friends is, to put it gently, they don’t seem to think of this trope as containing any irony. They really think it has to feel weird and alien and unnatural to be pregnant. (One would hope they are all therefore extraordinarily pro-choice, but as Prometheus would suggest, not necessarily.)

On the one hand, yes, there is a foreign body which has set up residence in a uterus. On the other hand, pregnancy is definitively not alien, by virtue of the fact that it is producing humans. It is also, not incidentally, something half of the human race can do with our bodies. It’s not something we always do with our bodies, and it’s not something all of us do with our bodies, but enough of us do that pregnancy is automatically not alien or supernatural or weird. Although non-pregnancy is now undeniably the base state of most women in the industrialized world, for much of history (prior to modern birth control) when average family size was much larger, many more women spent much more of their time pregnant. In this context, it’s hard to think of the unpregnant body as more de facto authentic.

By the same token, although some women have complicated feelings about menstruating, it’s probably not central to most of our identities. However we might individually feel about it, we recognize it’s a bodily process, like breathing or digesting. But it shows up as a plot point in speculative fiction much more often than digesting does, or peeing, or sweating, usually as a sign that something is horrifying or magical.

There are not a similar number of stories about how erections are alien parasites which use chemical signals to take over your brain, suck the blood out of other parts of your body to feed themselves, and make part of you swell up to a totally wrong size that is horrifying. John Varley did write a penis-as-alien-parasite story, and it is excellent. Tiptree did some work in this area although as far as I know not specifically penis-focused, but these stories are understood by readers to be symbolic, and to portray men in not the best light. Whereas alien pregnancy stories are just telling it like it is. (Probably not coincidentally, Varley and Tiptree were also much more comfortable with sex and sexuality than most SF authors working during the 1970s and early 80s, as pointed out in this entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.)

This is not a scientist’s way to look at a body, which is what I ask for from science fiction. And it’s othering to do this to women’s physical realities while not similarly exploiting uniquely male physical realities. SF in general tends to have a revulsion for the body, a sense that our bodies are something we want to overcome — that we want to be immortal, free of sexual desire, able to make children outside our bodies, able to stretch beyond our senses, able to forego food and breathing. We want to be superhuman or posthuman. The body is a limit; bodily feelings are base drags on pure intellect.

This is not an invalid point of view, and when I say that a physical state is “natural” that doesn’t mean I think it’s better. There’s a lot to be said in favor of transcending the physical self. But it’s important to continue to examine the ideas we’re repeating and advancing, and in this case to look at the ways it can reinforce the misogyny that continues to be endemic to some of our professional organizations, like the cultural narrative that women are deformed men.

Biology, as they say, is not destiny. But it is a science. One that’s a lot more hackable than physics. Not to mention really, really weird. Much moreso than black holes.

Romie Stott is poetry co-editor of Strange Horizons. She recently won Intel and Arc Magazine’s Tomorrow Project with a short story called “A Robot Walks Into a Bar,” and was a top 10 finalist in American Zoetrope’s 2012 screenplay competition. As a narrative filmmaker, she has shown work at the Dallas Museum of Art, the National Gallery (London), and the Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston), and as part of Jonathan Lethem’s Promiscuous Materials project. Her portfolio is online at romiesays.tumblr.com.

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Today’s guest is Keri, who runs Feminist Fantasy! Keri began Feminist Fantasy as a resource for finding feminist-friendly fantasy books, and the website accepts user-submitted recommendations with a description on the book and why it’s feminist friendly. It’s a great place to find new books to read, and I’m thrilled Keri is here today to share some of her favorite feminist-friendly fantasy books by female authors!

Feminist Fantasy

Feminist-friendly Fantasy Fiction by Women

The first fantasy book I ever read was feminist-friendly, though I didn’t realize it or even know what that meant at the time.

I fell in love with fantasy novels when I read The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall, which I found on my 5th-grade teacher’s bookshelf. The book is about a group of outcasts led by Muggles, a candy-making woman who learns the value of individuality. “Some say Muggles was the first feminist,” Carol Kendall said, “but I just write the way it is.”

I’ve devoured hundreds of fantasy books since reading The Gammage Cup in 5th grade. In all those books I read, I noticed a trend: many of them seemed to be missing well-written female characters—women with agency.

I don’t necessarily need a female protagonist, or women who literally kick ass. At a minimum, I want female characters (yes, preferably more than one) to serve as more than plot devices. Many fantasy novels, if they have female characters, only have one or two who get kidnapped or killed just to serve as motivation for the male characters. Some fantasy novels leave me wondering if the author created a world populated by just men.

I know it’s not too much to ask for the author to give as much attention to writing and developing female characters as they do to male characters; I’ve read plenty of books since The Gammage Cup where they do. I thought it would be nice to have a list or database where people could list those books, so I started FeministFantasy.com.

Kristen kindly asked me to write about some of my favorite feminist-friendly fantasy books written by women for April Women in SF&F Month, so here are a few of my favorite fantasy books by women that I consider feminist-friendly. Though I’d like to note there are definitely great feminist-friendly male authors out here (including Morgan Howell, Ben S. Dobson, and Tobias S. Buckell), this series is for celebrating the women authors! So let’s get to it.

I’ve divided them into old-school, newer publications, and indie fantasy. I know it can be difficult to wade through all the self-published titles out there, but there are truly some gems you don’t want to miss out on. And as an (albeit nonfiction) indie author myself, I have a soft spot for self-pubbed writers 🙂

Old School Fantasy

Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner The Bone Doll's Twin by Lynn Flewelling

Arrows of the Queen (The Heralds of Valdemar #1) by Mercedes Lackey

Really, I could name any book by Mercedes Lackey; she writes great diverse characters regardless of gender. Arrows of the Queen introduces the character Talia, who grew up in a farming society that believes that women should be submissive, but runs away when she’s Chosen to be a Herald of Valdemar.

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

Katherine, the main character in The Privilege of the Sword, was brought up in the country knowing the rules of civilized society, but she’s encouraged to break them all by her uncle who summons her to the city in Riverside. She starts learning swordplay instead of following the usual path of finding a well-to-do husband to take care of her. This book explores issues like breaking traditional gender roles, gay relationships in a homophobic society, and different aspects of female friendships.

The Bone Doll’s Twin by Lynn Flewelling

Lynn Flewelling is another author with tons of feminist-friendly books. The Bone Doll’s Twin is a unique gender-bending story where a girl is hidden by being disguised as a boy using forbidden dark magic, and has to come to terms with learning about her true gender.

New Trad-Pub Fantasy

Gilded by Christina Farley The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Gilded by Christina Farley

Gilded is Christina Farley’s debut novel, just released in March 2014. It’s the story of a Korean-American girl, Jae Hwa, who returns with her father to Seoul, South Korea, after her mother’s death. There she learns that her family has been targeted by a Korean demi-god for generations, and her own life is now in danger. I loved learning about Korean mythology, and loved the character of Jae Hwa, an expert in Tae Kwon Do and traditional Korean archery. Jae Hwa is a strong-willed character who risks everything to save her family and friends.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

I love this book for the excellent character development and the interesting worldbuilding, which is based on Spanish culture. Elisa is a princess supposedly chosen for greatness, but she feels like a failure compared to her perfect older sister. She overeats and has a weight problem, and feels ugly. On her sixteenth birthday she has to secretly marry a king of a neighboring kingdom, but once she travels there she realizes the country is in turmoil. Elisa becomes a target of revolutionaries. Through all her struggles she grows and evolves as a person and eventually becomes a great leader.

Indie Fantasy

Death's Hand by S.M. Reine The Emperor's Edge by Lindsay Buroker

SM Reine’s Descent series

SM Reine is a prolific author, and all of her books have well-written female characters. The Descent series tells the story of Elise, a “kopis” born to fight paranormal forces. Kopides are all male, except for the rare female kopis like Elise. Elise, a strong warrior who really lacks in emotional maturity, defies pretty much every stereotype about women. I love SM Reine’s books for having a variety of well-written diverse characters. There are all kinds of characters from all over the world, but none of them feels like a token representation.

Lindsay Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge Series

From the beginning, Emperor’s Edge deals with the issue of the role of women in a changing society. Amaranthe is one of the first female law enforcers in the Empire, and she doesn’t get much respect from her partner or fellow enforcers. When she stumbles upon a plot against the Emperor, she assembles an eclectic team of outcasts to help her save the day.

KeriLynn Engel is a Connecticut freelance writer and women’s history blogger, and the author of Amazing Women In History.

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Today’s guest is science fiction author Paula S. Jordan! She has two short stories published in Analog (“The Gift of Unbinding” and “Two Look At Two”) with a novelette (“Vooorh”) soon to come in the same publication, and she also blogs at DarkCargo. In addition to being a writer of short fiction with a novel in progress, she has a background in physics and has worked for NASA, and today she is discussing her inspirations and influences in developing aliens in science fiction—both the planetary environments and the effect first contact has on the individual characters.

Building Aliens

I have come late to the writing of science fiction and fantasy, but not to the field itself. My first science fiction book was Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse and His Space Ship, a gift from my father at age seven. I have been reading sf/f ever since.

Over the years I have sought out educational and work experiences that fed that early interest and that feed my writing today: BA degrees in history and drama (both helpful for characters, societies, plots, conflict, etc.) and a later BS in physics with emphasis on astrophysics, orbital dynamics, and planetary design. I was able to parlay the latter degree into a 13-year stint as an orbit analyst working on NASA and NOAA contracts at Computer Sciences Corporation.

To date I have sold three stories in the field, all to Analog. The most recent of them, “Two Look at Two” (April 2011) and “Vooorh,” (appearing soon), are adapted from my novel in progress, a people-to-people alien contact story set in the mountains of western North Carolina. While the background physics, alien and planet design, biology, etc. are carefully researched, they are secondary to the novel’s primary emphasis: the characters–both human and alien–and their individual reactions to this encounter. There are factions among the aliens, each group with its own reaction to the humans, who of course have factions of their own. I expect the complete story arc to be a long one.

My own first meeting with aliens came through the novels of C.J. Cherryh, first with the utterly inscrutable aliens of her Faded Sun Trilogy and later her Foreigner series. Then there were Ursula Le Guin’s groundbreaking Left Hand of Darkness, considering exoplanet-adapted human beings, and Patricia Anthony’s accounts of off-world sentients arriving on Earth at various historic periods. In God’s Fires, for instance, her aliens arrived in Spain during the Inquisition.

The Faded Sun by C. J. Cherryh Foreigner by C. J. Cherryh Worldwired survival

Most recently I have been impressed by two extraordinary series. Elizabeth Bear’s Jenny Casey trilogy further expanded my thinking on both aliens and modified humans while Julie Czerneda’s Species Imperative series brings an environmental biologist’s eye and experience to both the physical and psychological variations possible in alien beings, including powerful innate drives arising from the challenges of their home environments.

There have been others, but these books pay more than usual attention to the aspect of alien encounter that interests me most, the personal reactions of individuals apart from the group behaviors of official and/or military personnel with their trigger fingers ever at the ready. It’s an interest that grows with every such story I read, and continues to develop as both the power and the challenge of diversity become ever more evident on our own planet in the 21st century.

And there is that other thing: the knowledge that–however much each of us may experience of this world in our individual lives, or that the whole of humanity may learn of the universe while this planet endures–the entire sum of our observation can only be a miniscule fraction of all that the universe holds. And even that tiny part is filtered through limited senses, specialized for our own small world. The rest of existence we can only guess at, in part by imagining the kinds of senses that other sentient beings might develop and the wonders that they might perceive thereby.

So I wanted to build aliens, a process I knew little about when I started the novel. What I did know was that to build a believable alien it would be helpful to consider the sort of biosphere, generally a sun and planet system, that could evolve such beings and sustain them over time. Not only is it science fictionally more satisfying to do so, but the logic of the model environment can reveal more about the aliens’ needs and behaviors and suggest more useful detail for plot development than a writer’s imagination might manage without it.

Thanks to my physics professor, the late Dr. Sheridan Simon at North Carolina’s Guilford College, I did know something about designing planets. In addition to teaching the fundamentals of orbital dynamics and stellar evolution in classroom work, he mentored me in a semester-long independent study on more advanced astrodynamics and the fundamentals of planetary design.

Aliens-and-alien-societies First-Contact Eerie-Silence

Later resources included Stanley Schmidt’s very helpful book, Aliens and Alien Societies, and Paul Davies’s The Eerie Silence, among other references old and new. I also read First Contact by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, the moving story of encounters between Australian prospectors and indigenous stone age peoples in the interior of New Guinea in the 1930’s. In photographs of the islanders at their first meeting with white-skinned men, their faces–stunned, terrified, baffled, curious, haunted–tell the entire story. Other sources have included the Internet, fellow writers at science fiction conventions and, in particular, ongoing discussions with neurologist Dr. Tedd Roberts on the octopus, arguably the most “alien” of our Earthly creatures.

Once I got my hands into the clay, so to speak, it became clear that neither the aliens nor their biosphere could be developed independently of the other. Also that tracking and respecting the inter-relationships between alien critter and planet and sun was more complicated than I had imagined.

Think of a biosphere as the sweet spot for a particular species within a star system. For my critters that meant a planet of relatively low density (its gravity light enough to produce the aliens I wanted but strong enough to hold an atmosphere) and a stable star of sufficient luminosity (energy output) to keep life perking along on the ground (or in this case, in the seas). For its part in the energy equation, a planet needs the right combination of surface reflectivity (albedo) and orbital distance from its sun to collect and hold the energy it needs. Too shiny or too far from the sun and it’s too cold for life; too dull, too smoggy, or too near the sun and it’s too hot.

Fiddle with the planet’s density, tweaking its mass and size to get the right gravity? Fine. But the orbital distance also varies with the mass. Changing that too much can shift the planet out of its sweet spot, sending it too near or too far from the sun. And adjusting its albedo to compensate–say, adding an ice sheet to reflect more light and heat into space–would wreck the nice semi-tropical environment I want for my aliens. Aaaaugggg!

So it’s build and check. Rebuild and check some more. And finally it’s right. I have the aliens I want, and I know the place they call home.

But why stop there?

One of the neatest things about developing non-human, sentient critters is figuring out what their psyches, and therefore their personalities and behaviors, might be like.

OK, so maybe my human characters can’t delve very deeply into alien instincts and behaviors, but these are my aliens. I made them up. So why stop with the physical? If it is the benefits and challenges of a world that shape a species, wouldn’t the same forces also shape the instincts, the imperatives for survival, and the functioning of the minds and senses of the aliens evolved there?

Then, with the motivations and capacities of the critters well in hand, why not just turn around and take a look at the universe as a whole–the one we all inhabit–as these aliens, with their uniquely evolved and calibrated set of senses, might perceive it?

Whoa! We are a long way from Kansas now.

These beings will see and hear in the wavelengths that provide the information they need to survive in their particular environment. Their bodies will tolerate the ranges of heat and cold that their environment provides. Their senses of smell and taste will be attuned to the chemical compounds that most affect their lives. The acuities of any or all their senses may differ from ours, and they may have senses that we have never dreamed of, for detecting elements of their environment that we have no survival-level need to detect.

In short, their perception of physical reality, what I think of as their sensory universe, will differ from ours to the same degree that their biosphere differs from Earth. All of which will affect the ways in which these guys think and behave differently from us.

More and more material for their story, and for the story of how they and my human characters meet.

Paula S. Jordan

Paula S. Jordan, a lifelong reader of science fiction and fantasy, is the author of “The Gift of Unbinding” (Analog, May 2001) and “Two Look At Two” (Analog, April 2011). “Vooorh,” her novelette-length sequel to “Two Look At Two,” will appear in Analog in the near future.

After degrees in history and drama and several years as a free lance writer, she earned a BS in physics and worked as an orbit analyst for NASA and NOAA. She supported 30+ unmanned science and weather missions including the Clementine mission that first detected water on the moon.

Now a freelance writer and community volunteer, she is at work on more short stories and her first real novel. She blogs regularly at http://Darkcargo.com on sf/f-related books, writing, history, and assorted distracting curiosities. Follow her on Twitter @PaulaSJWriter.

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Thanks to the guests from last week, it was another great week of Women in SF&F! The next week of guest posts begins tomorrow, but before announcing the schedule, here are a few reminders and links to last week’s posts.

Giveaways and The Giant List of SFF Books by Women

Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter

The Paradox trilogy giveaway has ended and there’s an official winner. Congratulations to Michele F.!

There’s now a new giveaway for 5 advance copies of Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter (residents of the US are eligible to win). It sounds very intriguing and it’s now on my wish list after reading her guest post that went up yesterday!

There is also still time to add some of your favorite books by women to create an even bigger list of SFF books by women. Last year, Renay from Lady Business asked us to enter some favorite speculative fiction books written by women to create a list of recommendations, and it resulted in a list of over 800 books with many books recommended by multiple people!

Week in Review

Here are the posts from last week in case you missed any of them:

Upcoming Guests: Week Four

I’m very excited about next week’s guests! Here is the schedule:


April 21: Paula S. Jordan (“The Gift of Unbinding”, “Two Look at Two”, “Vooorh”)
April 22: Keri from Feminist Fantasy
April 23: Romie Stott (“A Robot Walks Into a Bar”, “Three Young Men”)
April 24: Barbara Friend Ish (The Shadow of the Sun)
April 25: Trudi Canavan (Thief’s Magic, The Black Magician Trilogy)

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Today’s guest is science fiction author Stephanie Saulter! The first book in her ®Evolution series, Gemsigns, was released in the UK last year and will be available in the US next month. Binary, the second book in the series, was published in the UK earlier this month. I am happy she is here today to discuss use of gender in Gemsigns and rewriting narratives—and if her article makes you want to read Gemsigns as much as it did me, be sure to check out the giveaway at the end since I am also giving away 5 advance copies of the upcoming US edition!

Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter Binary by Stephanie Saulter

Gender Is Part of a Narrative. Rewrite the Narrative.

Many thanks to Fantasy Café for inviting me to contribute to 2014’s Women in SF & F month. This annual showcase of women authors is one of those events that I simultaneously think is really great, and wholeheartedly wish wasn’t necessary. I’d prefer a world in which the notion of such a thing would be so strange we’d hear about it and go, ‘A what-month? Why? What for?

We don’t live in such a world. Yet. Which is why I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about the use of gender in Gemsigns.

There is no use of gender in Gemsigns.

Not, in any event, in the way you might imagine. One of the conjunctions noted by readers and reviewers of the novel is the number and prominence, and absolute equality in power and status, of the female characters – despite there being no overtly feminist agenda on display. Well, precisely. Feminist agendas only make sense in the context of masculine dominance; they are called into being by the presence of a patriarchal system against which one needs to push back. By not calling attention to the gender of characters, by not having that ever be an issue, I wanted to subtly make the point that even in the world of the ®Evolution – a world riven with baseless prejudices and unfair value judgements – some prejudices, some value judgements, have simply ceased to exist. They are part of a history that some characters within the story may not even be aware of. We know otherwise; and readers can, I hope, make the leap to realising that if a society can purge itself of some kinds of bigoted nonsense, it ought to be able to do so with others.

As I’ve said many times before, Gemsigns was in essence me writing a book I wanted to read, but could never locate on the shelf. So it’s not surprising that all of the tropes I find irritating or tiresome were roundly ignored, or subverted. And one of the things I have a real problem with is the recurrence, again and again, of sexist inferences and implicit gender power imbalances in stories set in the future. Especially the very far future. It’s as though we have internalised the notion that this is a natural and permanent state; that there is some kind of universal law, eternal as the cosmos, which states it shall be ever thus.

Hmm. Whose narrative is that, do you think?

It’s certainly not mine. If you’re reading this there’s a good chance it’s not yours either – at least not the narrative you want to have. I think it can only be because it’s so fundamental to the world we inhabit that it is so often replicated in the worlds we invent. But the power of invention is precisely that: the ability to change the narrative. And especially in the invented realities of speculative fiction, why perpetuate the notion that gender must always and inevitably matter?

So I don’t do it; and I have good reasons to avoid flagging up the fact that I don’t do it. I’ll call attention to it in an article such as this one, but I won’t within the story. It’s evident that the female characters are female, just as it’s evident that the male characters are male – however the narrative attaches no inherent significance to the fact. Because every time you do flag it up, attach flashing red lights and a banner that says LOOK AT ME TREATING WOMEN AS EQUALS, every time you make it overt: you are effectively restating the narrative you want to erase. You are reminding readers of the obverse – the idea of women not being equal.

I hate that phrase ‘strong female character.’ I don’t care that these days it’s often a statement of approval; I hate it. I hate the unthinking, endless insertion of the qualifier – as though it were the default state of female characters to be weak.

Again I’ll ask – whose narrative is that?

What presumptions are being perpetuated, every time we use that language? Who do those presumptions suit?

I’m as tired of defaults in literature as I am of inequities in life. I am sick to death of the dominant narrative, in which human beings are presumptively male, strong, white, and straight; and every other kind of human is measured and understood by their variance from this supposed norm. We know that’s not the truth of who we are. We know that it is biologically, psychologically, culturally and statistically a falsehood. So why do we keep repeating that falsehood? Why do we cling to gendered representations of strength and weakness? Why do we keep telling that story?

This is important. Stories are how we understand the world. Stories are also how we create the world.

So if I have any advice for fellow storytellers concerned about real-world issues of justice and fairness and equality, it’s this: consider what narratives you do, or do not, wish to perpetuate. If the person who needs to be rescued is always female; if the best friend who dies tragically is always gay; if every politician is corrupt and every institution is shambolic; if every family is dysfunctional and every lover is a traitor; if every character of colour is a sidekick, or magical, or dispensable; if the evil henchman always speaks with a foreign accent; if the hero is always a he – you are not only perpetuating those stereotypes within your fiction. You’re keeping them alive out here.

You do not need to do that. You have the power to not do that.

Write the world as you want it to be, as you expect it to be, as it should be. Write it into existence.

Stephanie Saulter

Stephanie Saulter writes what she likes to think is literary science fiction. Born in Jamaica, she studied at MIT and spent fifteen years in the United States before moving to the United Kingdom in 2003. She is the author of the ®Evolution trilogy; her first novel, Gemsigns, was published in the UK & Commonwealth last year and will be released in the US next month. Its sequel, Binary, has just been published in the UK. Stephanie blogs unpredictably at stephaniesaulter.com and tweets only slightly more reliably as @scriptopus. She lives in London.

Gemsigns Giveaway

I have 5 advance copies of Gemsigns to give away! This giveaway is open to those with a mailing address in the US.

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “Gemsigns Giveaway.” One entry per person and five winners will be randomly selected. Those from the US are eligible to win this giveaway. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Saturday, April 26. Each winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them by then a new winner will be chosen (who will also have 24 hours to respond until someone gets back to me with a place to send the book).

Please note email addresses will only be used for the purpose of contacting the winner. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Good luck!

Update: The form has been removed now that the giveaway is over.

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Today’s guest is science fiction/fantasy author Storm Constantine! She is the author of more than 30 books and a great number of short stories (including two stories in Para Kindred, a newly released collection of Wraeththu short stories she edited with Wendy Darling), and she is also the Managing Director and Commissioning Editor of Immanion Press. Her Wraeththu books are some of my favorite books of all time for their beautiful writing, vivid characters, and compelling ideas about a future with a new race of hermaphroditic people. I was thrilled when she these accepted my invitation to participate in this month’s series, and she’s here today talking about the craft of writing.

Wraeththu by Storm Constantine Calenture by Storm Constantine Sea Dragon Heir by Storm Constantine

I’m passionate about writing and care about the fate of new writers. In a recent blog of my own, I wrote about the standard of writing I’m coming across nowadays, in terms of grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation – essentially the tools of the trade. This generally refers to books I find self-published as E-books. But after reading a couple of recent printed short story anthologies, I’m driven to say that the poor standard of writing also extends to the actual story-telling.

The fault lies partly in the depth – or lack – of editing. There are still some remarkably good editors out there – Newcon Press’s Ian Whates being one of them, as many of his contributors will attest – but it seems to me some editors appear to see their job when compiling an anthology as simply checking the spelling and worst of the grammatical woes, (and maybe only with Word’s built in grammar and spelling checkers), but who don’t offer comment on how a story might be strengthened or refined.  Many new writers begin their careers by contributing short pieces to magazines and anthologies, which now also extends hugely into e-publishing. And some of those new writers, while showing obvious promise and talent, need guidance to help hone their craft. I can remember working early in my career with editors like David Garnett, Ellen Datlow and David Pringle, (to name but a few who spring to mind – there were many), who would make great suggestions for how a story might be improved. Sometimes their advice might sting, but it was always pertinent. Perhaps nowadays, in this age of entitlement, writers are less open to such invasive editing, even if they need it, so editors will therefore be less inclined to offer comment for fear of it being badly received or rejected. I myself have had authors withdraw work from Immanion Press because they weren’t willing to make constructive changes. Strangely enough, the writers who are most open to positive criticism are generally the most talented. It’s as if they’re hungry for ways to improve their work. Writers of poorer quality are usually the ones to have a tantrum if you offer any form of criticism. There are exceptions, of course, and some weaker writers crave learning, while some excellent writers are strict about not having a word of a piece changed. I’m just speaking generally.

What I fear most about the advent of e-publishing, and the fact that a lot more people have an avenue to get their stories into virtual print, is that they don’t have the benefit of the apprenticeship that writers of the past enjoyed. Companies – and in some cases I refuse to call them publishers – don’t appear to care about nurturing a writer and helping them evolve. I don’t blame the writers who I see publishing flawed work – they simply have a gut-deep desire to write. The contract between writer and editor was always the hand of discipline, how to refine your work, tighten and improve it. I don’t believe that some of the E-books I see nowadays have had any of that applied to them. In one case, I saw an allegedly historical novel so full of wince-making  anachronisms, it was almost unreadable. Even watching period TV shows would have given the author a basic idea of what was and was not feasible in the time they chose to write about. No research, no awareness of the era in which the story was set. And the publisher just accepted this manuscript and published it. That is no favour to the author. I wanted to read that book because the idea for it was great – a really good ghost story – but the ineptitude of the writing, and the lack of research, lost me about a third of the way through and I had to stop reading it. The ghosts were the most credible thing about it.

In the past editors were shepherds, who guided the writers in their care to greater accomplishment. Nowadays, most new writers only have friends and family, or perhaps other fledgling writers, to rely upon for feedback and criticism. And in many cases they lack the guidance concerning the very basics of their craft – the words they use to conjure images in the minds of their readers. I was not taught full English Grammar at school, because by that time the powers that be had shaved it from the curriculum. All we learned was the basics. When I began to write seriously, armed with ideas that editors liked, which secured me the initial contracts, I had to teach myself the intricacies of my craft, and this required personal effort as well as taking heed of more experienced editors.

With all this in mind, here are points I offer to new writers I work with, and which I also drummed into my students when I taught creative writing. They are what I learned, and in some cases, when I did learn them, it was like a light being turned on:

1. Learn the tools of your trade. Educate yourself concerning grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation. There are many books out there to teach you. Once you know the rules, you have the authority to break them. And once you are proficient with your tools, a new world opens to you. You’ll have far more control over your writing, and how to guide your readers through what you write, so they’ll read every word as you intend for them to be read. Be clear. Be concise. Use your tools.

Grammar is the power. It sharpens prose and guides a reader to the meaning of your words. If your grammar is sloppy, your reader might need to re-read sentences to get the meaning, and in those moments, you’ve lost them. They’re no longer immersed in the story, they’re struggling for meaning. Verb forms are part of grammar, and the more active a verb the more exciting it is to your reader. Develop an ear for grammar. For instance, which sentence sounds more powerful to you? ‘She is lying at my feet and is bleeding’ or ‘She lies at my feet and bleeds’? The more active form of the verb – the latter – is inevitably stronger. Put strength into your writing by using more active verbs. Avoid passive verbs as shown in the first example. Verbs are just a component of grammar; there is much more to it, of course. But it is fascinating to learn and once you see the results you’ll be glad you learned it.

Syntax. This is the right words in the right order. Simple example: what’s better? ‘The black cat crept between the shadows’ or ‘between the shadows the black cat crept’? Both say the same thing but which is sharper, more meaningful? Syntax also involves seeing yourself as a camera, focusing in. What do people notice first? It’s dark, it’s cold, there are beetles beneath your feet. Mention the beetles first, then mention the cold and the dark, and your reader might have thought of any temperature and time of day when reading about the beetles. Focus. Use a film-maker’s art. That is syntax.

Another part of syntax is the music of your prose. It’s not only poetry that’s poetic. Words and sentences have rhythms, even in the sparest style of writing, and the best writers sing to you with their words. Having an ear for this subtle rhythm helps bring out the song.

Spelling. This part is simple. Just spell the words correctly and people can understand your writing better.

Punctuation. This is an art in itself. The different punctuation marks denote pauses, and you use these to guide the speed with which your readers read your prose. The longest pause is the full stop or period. A comma is a much shorter pause. Colons and semi-colons are in between. Dashes and brackets (parentheses) are also used to control the reader’s eye, so that the sentences are read as if you were reading them aloud. They help you place inflection. There are rules about clauses, which need the embrace of commas, or the sharp report of a colon or semi-colon, that are more to do with grammar, but be aware you can put inflections on your words merely with deft punctuation.

2. Write about what you know, because this again gives you a voice of authority and makes your work credible. If you want to write about what you don’t know – research. Meticulously. Give your work authenticity so that your reader is never jerked involuntarily out of the story by inaccuracy or something not credible. If you’re writing about fantasy worlds, invest them with a level of detail and history so that readers feel they are stepping into a world that has existed for thousands of years. You don’t have to slap this on with a trowel, but just subtle details here and there, and lore of the past. As an example, recently I wrote a supernatural story about certain aspects of the Catholic Church set in the 1950s. I found myself researching details every few paragraphs and changing the story because of anachronisms. These were just tiny details, such as who would have had a phone in those days (few), would a blue collar working man have eaten lunch in a pub (no), would a poor working-class family have had a fridge (again, no). Things we take for granted in our modern world can’t be included in a historical, or often not even in a fantasy story, depending on the kind of world you’re creating.

3. Read, read, read. Analyse the books you like and figure out what works for you with them. Apply these rules to your own work. Also figure out what disappoints you, or what you don’t like, and avoid that in your own writing.

4. Write from the heart. If you love what you are writing, the chances are greater that others will love it too. If it’s your first novel, write the book you’ve always wanted to read but have never found. But be aware you have to abide by points 1, 2 and 3.

These four points merely skim the surface of learning the writer’s craft. There is an old quote that the pen is mightier than the sword. But to me it’s also true that the pen can be a sword. Words are indeed powerful and learning their deep and complex magic is not only beneficial to your craft but an intriguing journey, a quest.

Of the many women writers I love to read, here are a few recommendations. I list these authors because to me their style of writing is like sinking into a scented bath; they are experts with prose. I won’t list individual books because there are so many; I recommend dipping into any of them. Gaie Sebold’s work I discovered only recently, but the two stories I’ve read so far have been brilliant.  So, my list: Susan Hill, Alice Hoffman, Tanith Lee, Gaie Sebold and Diane Setterfield. Those really are only a few of my favourites, and I’m open to recommendations also.

Storm Constantine

After seventeen years of being professionally published, Storm decided that the only way for her books to stay in print for any length of time was to publish her back catalogue herself. With Immanion Press, she intends to rectify the typical fate of books, which is to have the “shelf life of a magazine”.

Storm underwent a cursory art college education, but found it too restricting creatively. After a series of mundane jobs, she began writing seriously, and her first book, “The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit” was published in 1987 by Macdonald Futura. Storm has written approximately 1.5 books a year ever since!

In the 80s and 90s, she frittered away some time managing bands, and caught the publishing bug from producing fan club magazines. After giving up the musical distraction, Storm embarked on the fiction project, “Visionary Tongue”, which was a regular magazine of dark fantasy/fantasy/sf stories. She enlisted the help of several writer friends to act as editors, so that up-and-coming writers would have the chance to work with a professional, and pick up tips about their craft and the industry.

Immanion Press is undoubtedly an extension of what Storm began with Visionary Tongue. As well as her own work, and the back catalogue of friends and writers she admires, Storm is keen to promote new talent.