Octavia E. Butler’s Wild Seed became the fourth Patternist novel upon its publication in 1980, though it is first in chronological order. A total of five Patternist novels were released, and all but one of these (Survivor, which the author did not want reprinted) comprise the omnibus Seed to HarvestWild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, and Patternmaster. This collection begins with 1690 and ends in the distant future, although many believe it’s best to read these in publication order instead: Patternmaster, Mind of My Mind, Wild Seed, Clay’s Ark. Since I’ve only read Wild Seed so far, I cannot comment on which order is preferable, but I can say that I found this to be a fascinating, engaging, disturbing story worthy of its place on the James Tiptree Award 1995 Retrospective Honor List.

For 3700 years, Doro has survived by killing people and inhabiting their bodies. He occupies his time by gathering humans who also have special talents—those whom most would consider witches due to abilities like telepathy or telekinesis—and breeding them to create more like them. Over the centuries, he’s rarely met anyone who even comes close to being his equal, and if anyone becomes too powerful or rebellious, he puts them to death.

On a visit to one of the seed villages he maintains in Africa, he finds his people have been taken by slavers in his absence, but he finds something unexpected when his senses draw him toward someone southwest of his former colony: Anyanwu, who appears to be an elderly woman. She is indeed an old woman, having lived about 300 years, but the true form she reveals to Doro is that of a beautiful young woman. When she was around twenty years old, Anyanwu stopped aging and discovered she had the ability to control her body. She can alter her human appearance, become an animal, heal herself (and, to a lesser extent, others), and crush a rock with her bare hands.

Doro is ecstatic to have discovered what he calls “wild seed” and dreams of what type of children a woman like Anyanwu will produce after being bred to people of his choosing. He coerces her into accompanying him to the New World, promising her children who will not die and threatening to take her children and grandchildren in her place if she refuses. Though Anyanwu does not like Doro’s casual disregard for human life or threats to capture and intermarry her descendants, she does come to care for Doro as her husband. However, she despises him after they arrive in New York and he reveals that he intends for her to marry his favorite son, Isaac, and have children by him, Doro, and anyone else Doro commands. If she resists, he will do to her what he does to anyone who refuses to submit to him: kill her.

Wild Seed chronicles the relationship of these two immortals from their meeting in 1690 to the mid-1800s, as a man who has lived 3700 years with no true challenges to his power encounters a woman like none other: one with enough power in her own right to potentially be his match.

Like all of Octavia E. Butler’s books I’ve read, Wild Seed is a fascinating book with lots to analyze and consider. The highlight of the book, in my opinion, is the central characters: their similarities, their differences, and their complicated relationship with each other. Doro and Anyanwu are uniquely alike in some ways—both being long lived and able to change their bodies’ ages, skin tones, and sexes—but they’re polar opposites in most ways. Doro is a wanderer who travels the world going from settlement to settlement; Anyanwu prefers to be settled in one place, surrounded by her own people. Doro is selfish and nonempathic; Anyanwu is selfless and compassionate. Doro takes human life casually; Anyanwu only kills to protect herself or others. However, they can’t escape that they are the only two people who subsist throughout the ages.

The story is told from both of their perspectives, and Doro is rather abhorrent right from the start. When he learns some of his people were taken by slavers on the very first page, his first thought is how “they had undone in a few hours the work of a thousand years.” His pride is hurt because he couldn’t protect his people, but he doesn’t spend any time dwelling on what happened beyond how it affected his ego and his obsession with eugenics. When he meets Anyanwu, he tells her he’ll spare her children and grandchildren if she comes with him, but he’s already planning to gather them and breed them to each other the first chance he gets. He does what he wants, and no one will stand in his way—nor will pesky human morality, such as beliefs like People Should Have Free Will or Murder and Incest Are Not Okay.

He is a compelling character even so, especially considering that despite his vile ways he does seem to care for a rare few people including Isaac, whom he still wants alive even after he’s old enough to have outlived his usefulness to Doro. However, I consider this to ultimately be Anyanwu’s story, and she is the best part of the novel and both a likable and compelling character. She’s a survivor and protector who can be fierce when necessary, and I appreciated that her abilities were tied in to her characterization. She doesn’t just heal people in the blink of an eye but has to have an understanding of medicine and the human body in order to do so: she has to figure out how to reproduce the problem within her own body and experiment with fixing it. Needless to say, this is risky, but the fact that she did it shows her selflessness, and the fact that she’s been able to keep herself alive for centuries despite this practice shows her cleverness (which is also illustrated in other ways as she deals with Doro).

The only reason I’m not giving Wild Seed a rating of 10/10 is that it took a little while to get going toward the beginning. Though the opening with Doro and Anyanwu’s meeting pulled me in, it started to lose my attention while they were traveling to the ship that would take them to the New World. However, after they reached this destination and it introduced Doro’s son Isaac (and Anyanwu discovered how to become a dolphin!), it managed to capture my attention again and I didn’t want to put it down until the end.

Wild Seed is an absorbing story of two immortals who clash but ultimately cannot escape each other: for as unlike as they are, there’s also no one else like them. Though remarkably unsettling at times, it’s also a deeply compelling examination of these two characters and their complex bond, and I found it to (mostly) be a thoroughly engrossing novel.

My Rating: 9/10

Where I got my reading copy: My husband gave me Seed to Harvest for Christmas.

This book is April’s selection from a poll on Patreon.

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Today I’m thrilled to welcome Bridget McKinney from SF Bluestocking! She writes about science fiction, fantasy, and feminism, and she not only covers books but also movies and television shows such as Game of Thrones and The Expanse. SF Bluestocking is one of my favorite sites because of her thorough, thoughtful, well-written reviews and commentary—and it is quite deservedly one of this year’s Hugo nominees for Best Fanzine!

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The Future Is Female

Let’s not be coy. 2016 was a garbage year, for me personally, and for women (and humanity) in general. After a year of death and disappointment and disillusionment, this year hasn’t, for the most part, started off much better. The theme for 2017, and possibly for the next four or so years, is destruction, and for many of us it’s already turning into a year of depression. And anxiety. And anger. And plenty of other negative emotions not even starting with “A” or “D”. For me, and I suspect for many of us, fiction has been a much-needed solace in these times, and as an avid reader of new releases I find that reading helps to keep me focused on the future instead of dwelling on the past or becoming too mired in the present to function.

The future is often on my mind, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of science fiction and fantasy and that’s something it’s hard to do without considering the incredible work that women are doing in those genres. Women are producing some of the most original, timely, compelling stuff on the market these days, and when I think about where sci-fi and fantasy are going, the future is most definitely female. No matter the subgenre, women are forging new roads and leading the way forward. If you’re looking for something to add to your reading list, here are some of the titles that I think represent the best and brightest of their genres and may offer some hope in a dark time.

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer Borderline by Mishell Baker

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

Amberlough is a fantasy novel where the only magic is that of excellent worldbuilding and storytelling. Set in a world that’s roughly analogous to ours in the 1930s, it follows the fortunes of several characters as they work to survive during the birth of a fascist regime. It’s sadly more timely and relevant than anyone involved in its publication probably hoped it would be, but this is also a great boost to the book’s significance. My very specific sub-subgenre of choice these days has been “badass ladies having political awakenings” and Amberlough’s Cordelia Lehane is an exemplar of the type. Her story will make you want to punch a Nazi or five hundred, a feeling which might come in handy over the coming years.

Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer

Crossroads of Canopy is another story of political awakening, but its protagonist, Unar, isn’t motivated by experiencing a revolution. Instead, she’s a character who, by the end of the novel, is fixing to start a revolution. Crossroads is epic fantasy, with gods and monsters and magic, but it has a unique setting: a whole human society built in the tops of trees in a vast rain forest. It’s a groundbreaking novel that eschews the medieval fantasy tropes more commonly associated with fantasy epics in favor of crafting something wholly original. That Unar is one of the most delightfully difficult and complex fantasy heroines in recent years certainly helps as well.

Borderline by Mishell Baker

Speaking of difficult and complex heroines, Borderline’s Millie Roper might be their queen. Urban fantasy has a reputation for being cliché-ridden, low brow comfort-reading, but Mishell Baker’s Arcadia Project series breathes new life into the genre by telling the story from an underrepresented point of view and ditching a bunch of tiresome tropes. Baker’s L.A. setting is diverse and naturalistically portrayed, a perfect antidote to the often white-washed and overly-romanticized settings that plague urban fantasy. Baker hasn’t rewritten the book on the genre, and there’s plenty here that will be familiar to connoisseurs, but she’s certainly raised the bar.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

I honestly don’t know how much longer I can wait for the sequel to Zen Cho’s lovely debut novel (2018, apparently, according to Goodreads). Sorcerer to the Crown is a brightly original fantasy of manners that I haven’t gone a week without thinking of since I read it prior to its release in 2015. If romping homages to Jane Austen starring POC, magical school girls, Malaysian vampires and dragons aren’t major features in the future of fantasy, I’m going to be deeply disappointed.

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor is one of the most popular writers of Afrofuturist fiction, and her novella, Binti, in which a young Himba woman goes on a dangerously fraught journey to attend university on another planet, won last year’s Best Novella Hugo Award. The sequel to Binti is even better than its predecessor, bringing Binti back to Earth, where she and her friend Okwu struggle to communicate their experiences and their connection to Binti’s people. The conclusion of the series—Binti: The Night Masquerade—is scheduled for a September publication, when we should find out if and how Binti can integrate her multiple identities and remain true to herself and her family and culture.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Sometimes, you just want to read a whimsical story about two weirdos growing up and falling in love and growing apart and finding each other again during an apocalypse, and if you’re lucky All the Birds in the Sky is the book you grab. With Patricia and Lawrence, Charlie Jane Anders manages to create a pair of protagonists who feel both mythologically archetypal and often painfully real, and their journeys together and apart are remarkably well-realized stories of self-discovery. Anders explores the relationship between science and magic in the modern world with humor and heart and an epic showdown reminiscent of the end of Good Omens, though without any bikers.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is almost certainly the most important work of epic fantasy to come out this decade, and if it doesn’t become as widely read and influential as Lord of the Rings, there’s no justice in the world. The Fifth Season is a beautifully written, intricately woven story that draws its inspiration more from literature, history and science than from other notable works within the genre, making for a truly novel reading experience that can’t be adequately explained without spoiling its surprises. Dealing with themes of slavery, oppression, and apocalyptic crisis, The Fifth Season is sometimes harrowing, often bittersweet, but always marvelous.

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Social sci-fi has long been due for a renaissance, and with her Terra Ignota series Ada Palmer seems keen to kick it off. Told as a written history from the point of view of the convict Mycroft Canner, Too Like the Lightning (and its recent sequel, Seven Surrenders) tell the story of a world no longer governed by nation states. Instead, people in the future have organized themselves into Hives that adhere to various styles of government founded on principles of Enlightenment philosophies. After three hundred years of peace and prosperity, however, someone (or someones) decide to look the gift horse in the mouth. It’s a cleverly imagined, near-perfectly realized vision of a future that is fully rooted in identity of humans as denizens of the Earth. Rather than exploring how we might screw up the galaxy if we leave our planet, Palmer has decided to explore the ways in which we might succeed or fail right here at home.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

There was never any way that I wasn’t going to fall hopelessly in love with Becky Chambers’ vision of the future. Chambers’ books are smart, funny, warm and optimistic enough that they border on cloying, but they’re also full of sincerity and basic human decency and found families finding each other. They’re a little bit Star Trek and a little bit Firefly and a lot their own, uniquely charming thing, and they’re best enjoyed curled up in your favorite blanket with a cup of your favorite drink for the ultimate sci-fi comfort-reading experience. Goodness knows we can all use that from time to time and as much now as ever.

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Today I’m delighted to welcome C. A. Higgins! In 2013, her short story “The Changeling” was a runner-up in the Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. Her debut novel, Lightless, was one of Kirkus‘s Best Fiction Books of 2015, and it was followed by a sequel, Supernova, in 2016. The conclusion to this science fiction trilogy, Radiate, is being released on May 23!

Lightless by C. A. Higgins Supernova by C. A. Higgins Radiate by C. A. Higgins

Constance was stubborn.

I couldn’t blame her for it.  I’d decided early on that the leader of a solar-system-wide civil war should be principled but extremist, fanatical, righteous to the point of blindness.  If I am unable to admit I’m wrong about the location of the coffee pot even while my roommate is pointing at it, surely a woman leading a revolution wouldn’t consider her own fallibility.

For most of Supernova that worked out fine.  Constance’s righteous blindness is the engine behind her revolution.  The idea of a heroine who was in many ways inherently unsympathetic interested me, especially as she was influenced primarily by male characters and historical figures: Macbeth, for instance, but not his wife.  Walter White.  Robespierre.

And then came the climactic scene, a confrontation between Constance Harper and one of her rebellious soldiers, a girl named Marisol.  It should have been a moment where everything came crashing down, and the reader saw in full what Constance had done and Constance had become—too late to do anything about it, of course.

Instead, the scene fell flat.

Perhaps, I thought, it was a problem with the structure.  One scene after Constance’s confrontation, Supernova’s second plotline reached its climax: a confrontation between Althea Bastet and her AI daughter, Ananke, in a scene deliberately designed to mirror Constance’s clash with Marisol.  But that scene worked out fine: the characters did what they were meant to, the emotions and fallout occurred exactly as scheduled.

So this whole mess, somehow, was Constance’s stubborn fault.

Constance and I circled each other for a while, like a matador and a bull.  I’d take a poke at fixing the scene, she’d charge at me bellowing while I scrambled back and left everything as is.  I tried going back further—maybe she needed to be motivated more.  I added a few more red flags on her path, the universe trying to signal to her that she was sliding down the slippery slope to Hell.

“I’m right,” she told me, even while I pointed at the metaphorical coffee pot directly in front of her.

“You’re the worst,” I replied, but she didn’t seem to hear me over the sound of her own moral rectitude.

I didn’t have trouble with any of the other characters.  It was true I had more in common with the others—Althea and I share a certain irritable work ethic, Mattie and I have the same sense of humor, Ivan and I process information similarly.  (As for Ida, the nicest thing I can say about myself is that she and I are both ambitious.)  Even Ananke, a machine that struggled itself to sentience, was not so difficult to write.  Her motivations and vulnerabilities are all inherently human: arrogance, curiosity, loneliness.

But a tendency to down coffee and bark at interruptions while working is not enough to understand a character, and it wasn’t as if I understood Mattie because we laugh at the same things.  I empathized with these characters, but not because we had superficial things in common.  Constance’s problem was not that she was unsympathetic, it was that she was unempathetic.  She had flaws, like the other characters, but she did not have any vulnerabilities.

I had not wanted Constance to be weak.  I had been determined not to give her any traits that might diminish her, or turn her into the supposedly badass chick who becomes helpless in Act Three so that the hero can save her.  But a vulnerability does not make a character weak, it makes her real.

What would drive the brave leader of the revolution, who had grown up in a world full of terror, except fear?

The next time I wrote Constance and Marisol’s confrontation at the climax of Supernova, the scene came through with crashing walls and dawning horror, as Constance realized she had become what she had feared all along.

C. A. Higgins
C. A. Higgins is the author of LightlessSupernova, and Radiate.  She was a runner up in the 2013 Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing and has a B. A. in physics from Cornell University.

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Today I’m thrilled to welcome New York Times bestselling author Megan Whalen Turner! Her work includes Instead of Three Wishes: Magical Short Stories; “The Baby in the Night Deposit Box,” which was included in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection; and, of course, her beloved Queen’s Thief series, which won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature in 2011. The second book, The Queen of Attolia, is one of my particular favorites—it’s clever, absorbing, and filled with wonderful characters and political maneuvering—and I’m excited about the release of the next Queen’s Thief novel, Thick as Thieves, on May 16!

Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

This is my local bookshop, Loganberry Books in Cleveland, Ohio:

Loganberry Books
Credit: Harriet Logan

To highlight the works of women, they’ve flipped the books written by men so that the spines don’t show.  The books are still alphabetical, so if you are looking for a book by George Perec, you can still find it. Go to the P’s, find Elizabeth Peters and start pulling the nearby books off the shelf to check who wrote them.  The reversal is only temporary, meant to show the disparity in the numbers of books by women and by men.  As Loganberry owner Harriet Logan said, “This is not by talent, choice, or even popularity, but mostly through industry favoritism, social opportunity, and habit.”

There is something else that the reversal shows, that if you have a system, almost any system, for organizing your books, it’s not that hard to find something—so long as you already know it exists. If you want a book by George Perec, you can find it, and when they flip all the men’s books around at the end of the month, you can still find the women’s books: it’s just that you are much less likely to come across a book by a woman by chance alone.

I believe that Discovery, the process of finding books and authors that are new, is the most important aspect of increasing diversity in publishing.  Some people find their new books by reading reviews regularly and getting newsletters in their inbox, but the vast majority of readers pick up the thing that’s on the endcap at Barnes and Noble.  Or maybe they see the tagline, NYT Bestseller, on the Amazon description.  Publishers, jockeying for those few places, put their money into the best bet for appealing to the widest audience.

Some people don’t have the advantage even of the endcaps at Barnes and Noble, and if they did, those aren’t the books that would make a difference in their lives.  Many of them don’t have a librarian in their school to ask for recommendations.  I think we need a better method of Discovery, especially for those people—a better method of bringing smaller audiences into contact with exactly the book they long to read.  Publishing would have a better chance of diversifying if a book could more reliably make it to its intended audiences without being a blockbuster first. The only thing worse than watching a great book sink without a trace is knowing that there’s a kid somewhere who would have loved it and who will never get a chance to read it.

For me, the wonderful thing about a bookstore like Loganberry is the delight of finding something wonderful and unexpected. I can weight the odds toward diversity by keeping an eye out for women, for names that might belong to indigenous people, or titles that indicate a marginalized voice. Or I can reach for the book of a well-known author displayed on a table and see next to it a book (an entire book) that teaches you how to judge how deep water is just by looking at it.  (I bought that one.) That serendipity is more difficult to manage online where the algorithms that push books onto my screens aren’t under my control.

I fall into reading ruts pretty easily.  When I was a kid, I read all the Black Stallion books, all the Susan Cooper books, all the Alistair MacLean books.  It took effort and sometimes blind luck to get me out of my comfort zones.  Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of my favorite books and I only read it because it was on the shelf in a small apartment where I was trapped as a nanny to a sleeping baby.  I love Iain Banks and I am not sure I would have if his books hadn’t constituted 40% of all books in English in the Oslo Public Library the year I lived there.

As more and more of my purchases are made online, as more of my reading is online, I worry about the algorithms that are used to put books in front of my eyeballs.  Amazon’s whole imperative is to show me books just like ones I’ve read already. Even as I am trying to diversify, I can I see myself going down a narrower and narrower tunnel.

In particular, I am wondering where my blind luck will come from.  Who is going to put into my hands that book that is different from everything I’ve read in the past—that I never would have guessed I would love?  I’m counting on places like Loganberry and my local librarians more than ever before, but I worry about those who have no access to either a Loganberry or a librarian.  For them, we urgently need an online system and one that works not only for the dedicated reader—one that works for the uninitiated so that they can connect to books they had no idea existed, books that can change their world.

Megan Whalen Turner in Egypt

Megan Whalen Turner is an award winning author of short stories and novels for children, teenagers, and adults. She has won the LA Times Book Award for YA Literature, the Mythopoeic Prize and a Newbery Honor. She also spent one brief glorious week on the New York Times Bestseller list.

She has never won a Guggenheim, but her husband, the cognitive scientist Mark Turner, has. While he was on sabbatical as a Guggenheim Fellow she also enjoyed a year off to write her first book, a collection of short stories called Instead of Three Wishes.

She has lived in Ohio on and off for the last twelve years, with extended trips to places like San Diego, Oslo, Norway, and Lower Saxony. She is in Egypt right now, but will return to the United States in April for the launch of Thick As Thieves, a new book set in the world of The Queen’s Thief.

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Today I’m thrilled to welcome Nisi Shawl! Her short fiction includes the story “Cruel Sistah,” which was selected for The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2006: 19th Annual Collection; the novella “Good Boy,” a World Fantasy Award finalist; and the short story collection Filter House, a Tiptree Award winner and a World Fantasy Award finalist. Her first novel, Everfair, was published last year and is one of this year’s Nebula Award nominees!

Everfair by Nisi Shawl Filter House by Nisi Shawl

Golden Ages

By the time my debut novel Everfair appeared I was 60 years old.  I’m working on a sequel; if the first publisher I’m shopping it to buys it, I could well be 65 when that sequel—Kinning, I call it—appears.

I never thought I’d get this old.  Getting old is not something women are encouraged to anticipate.  It’s a losing battle, evading age, but one every woman in the world’s dominant culture is expected to fight.  Though often we’re given examples of what it’s like to be old: Lolling about on our laurel wreaths, basking in the glory of our grands and great-grands, clasping the tender hands of our lifelong lovers or gazing in satisfaction upon our monumental artistic or scientific accomplishments.  Or, daringly, all of the above.  But old age in these visions is a resting state, not an active one.

If you haven’t gotten around to it by 40, the saying goes, you never will.

Fifteen years ago, at the age of 46, I became First Runner-Up for the Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Imaginative Fiction with my story “The Beads of Ku.”  After several months spent puzzling over the question of why I hadn’t won outright I homed in on a passage in my text that seemed to provide an answer:

As the woman Dosi grew older, she began more and more to stay at home and to leave all the business to Fulla Fulla.  At last she became ill, and though Fulla Fulla nursed her mother diligently, she died.

Dosi’s death and her disappearance from the rest of the story must have annoyed Le Guin, who had probably long since tired of authors demonstrating how disposable old women were.  She was over 70 herself at that point, yet by no means over and done with her days of derring-do, as anyone privileged to watch her speech at the National Book Awards twelve years later can attest.

So I’ve learned not to simply discount and discard the middle aged and older women I write about.  In her 40s, Everfair’s Lisette is an international spy and the author of subversive political commentaries, and her lover Daisy, 55, loads and unloads freight-hauling dirigibles and holds the powerful government post of Poet.  My fictitious older women are writers and fighters and merchants and movers and shakers of every sort.  They go places and have adventures.  Fantasy and horror and science fiction adventures.

Like Octavia E. Butler, like many other black authors of imaginative fiction, I’ve been asked why I write it.  Why not stick to the “realistic” genres such as “street lit” and depict knife fights, crack addiction, teen pregnancy, and so on?  I usually answer those sorts of questions by saying that science fiction, fantasy, and horror deprivilege the status quo; an alternate history’s events may transpire less tragically, SF’s futures can reverse oppression, as can horror’s presents, and fantasy can heal us of it.  Also, SFFH can be used to bring marginalized characters to the story’s center by shifting your readers’ focus away from those who fall into the default.  This is as true for age as for race: prepare to dump your assumptions when encountering Le Guin’s Yoss, the stubborn, retired science teacher heroine of “Betrayals”; or menopausal Calamity, islander heroine of Nalo Hopkinson’s novel The New Moon’s Arms.  These women love and lose, change and challenge the world on their own terms.

Write what you know, we’re told; a wise instructor once pointed out to me that this is truest on an emotional level.  On an intellectual level knowledge is easy to fake and quick to obtain.  You can do a bit of research to learn how much fodder a horse eats daily.  You can extrapolate from current data to figure out how many years of travel it would take a spaceship powered by solar wind to reach a particular planet.  But the wonder of finding a mermaid unconscious on a deserted beach?  That you need to have felt in order to properly convey it.  That or something similar.

I feel the bravery and independence of old women not just because I’ve been one myself for the last decade or so, but because of my mother’s example.  At 81, June Rosilee Jackson Rickman Cotton is a self-described “tough old bird.”  She flirts, she fusses, and she does not give in.  She does not give up.  She does not give any sort of fuck.

Most old women have had taken away from us just about everything life taught us to care for: friends, youth, beliefs, belongings…in some cases health and mobility.  Memories.  Lovers.  Parents.  Children.  Divested of these, we become less and less tightly chained to maintaining the current state of affairs.

At the same time as our losses are occurring, though, we receive extraordinary gifts.  Such as freedom.  Such as broadened and deepened perspectives.  Gifts that can render us especially fond of ringing changes on hegemonic constructions of inevitability.  In other words, especially fond of speculative fiction.

We read it.  I average 50 books a year.  I have no stats from a wider sample for you, only these shots of my overfull shelves and the growing to-be-read pile beside my mother’s bed.  At the moment June is working on Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season; she’s already gotten through Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and the Delany tribute anthology I co-edited, Stories for Chip.

We write it.  No, we’re not the only ones writing speculative fiction, but since there’s no compulsory retirement rule for authors, we’re plenty.  Keep learning, keep improving, and you can keep writing as long as you want.  Off the top of my head, without even opening a search tab, I can list eleven living Grandes Dames of SFFH: Kit Reed, Carol Emshwiller, Eileen Gunn, Jewelle Gomez, Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Murphy, Pat Cadigan, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Kathleen Alcalá, C.J. Cherryh, and the inimitable Ursula.  Death has robbed us of a few others, such as Octavia, who died at the tender age of 58.  Younger than me.

We are it.  This, more than anything else, is the connection I want everyone to make between old women and speculative fiction: equivalence.  Identity.  Like all humans we face the unknown every day; unlike most humans, we know that.  Death has touched us intimately.

Also, the future is where we old women live: we’re time travelers who more than once have witnessed our world unravel and respin itself.  We have the emotional dissonance, the cognitive estrangement necessary for understanding SFFH and conveying its meaning to others.  We notice the gaps between what is and what might be, what was and what might have been.  Between what we’re promised—or threatened with—and what might actually come about.  We are rich in insights; our minds mint brilliance, our hearts shine with the burnished glow of our stories, our sagas.  The long, long years ring with our epics’ chimes.  Hear them, share them.  Act them out.  Make them your own.  They are what await all you literate women reading this: ages of gold.  Spend them well.

Nisi Shawl’s alternate history/steampunk novel Everfair is a 2016 Tor publication and a Nebula finalist.  Her 2008 collection Filter House co-won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award.  She’s a founder of the Carl Brandon Society, a nonprofit supporting the presence of people of color in the fantastic genres, and serves on Clarion West’s Board of Directors.  Shawl was selected as Guest of Honor for WisCon in 2011, the Science Fiction Research Association’s convention in 2014, and Austin’s upcoming Armadillocon in 2017.

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Today I’m delighted to welcome fantasy and science fiction author Fran Wilde! Her debut novel, Updraft, won the Andre Norton Award, received the Compton Crook Award, and was a finalist for the Nebula Award for Best Novel. It’s followed by the second book in the Bone Universe trilogy, Cloudbound, with the third book, Horizon, following in September 2017. She’s also the author of several short stories and the novelette “The Jewel and Her Lapidary,” a finalist for both this year’s Hugo Award and Nebula Award!

Bone Universe Trilogy by Fran Wilde

In Your Narrative, Messing with Your Perspective

I remember the first time a beloved series (Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy) shifted narrative-focus characters on me between books. It was a bit wrenching. I was grumbly for hours. WHERE DID GED GO aughhh @[email protected]!%$%(#.

And then I got into the story.

Tenar was different, but as excellent a guide for Tombs of Atuan as Ged had been for Wizard of Earthsea. Better even. Because Ged was there too, and back again in The Farthest Shore, but now I’d gained a wider view of both him, of Tenar, and the world around them.

When I set out to write Updraft, the first book in the Bone Universe series, I knew the story could be told from either Kirit’s or Nat’s perspective. I’d heard Kirit’s voice initially and loudly; I had to tell her story first. But when it came to writing Cloudbound, which is about learning to lead in the face of adversity, I knew the voice needed to be Nat’s. Even as I made the shift, I remembered reading Tombs of Atuan and missing my favorite, but the story—and the world—required a broadened perspective. In Horizon, the third and final Bone Universe book out this September from Tor, I’m using perspective shifts again, including two voices already familiar to my readers.

Why do this? In secondary world science fiction and fantasy, where a limited point of view can narrow focus (often with excellent results), a shift in perspective can also expand the story. The choice is both a difficult one for an author and an opportunity, one numerous authors in both adult and YA series engage.

Shifting points of view between series books is a different kind of literary tradition from the one-perspective series. The strategy multiplies narrative focus and that allows readers to see characters from close up and far away. It’s also often a feat of narrative voice, as each new character’s story must feel distinct from that which preceded it. I thought I’d use my spin at Fantasy Cafe to ask other women writers why they’ve elected to shift narrative focus in some of my favorite series. (And I’m hoping you’re preparing your own lists for the comments at the end.)

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin The Kingdom of Gods by N. K. Jemisin

In N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, Yeine Darr narrates The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Oree Shah takes The Broken Kingdoms, and Sieh—the child god—speaks The Kingdom of Gods.

I asked Jemisin what some of the considerations for shifting the point of view character between books in the Inheritance Trilogy were and whether the worldview changed.

This is awkward to answer, simply because it implies that the story could have been told in any other way. But the trilogy was the story of the gods’ falling-out and reconciliation, and how this affected the world over millennia. No single human being’s perspective or experiences could possibly have encompassed that. Even with the three characters I used, I still had to elide a few thousand years to keep the story interesting and moving at a relatable pace. So, Yeine showed how the Gods’ War impacted the power brokers of the world; Oree showed how it impacted ordinary people and how the echoes of past violence tend to linger in the present; Sieh showed how it impacted the gods themselves. Meanwhile all three perspectives, which covered about 100 years in the human world, showed how events which seem like yesterday to gods cause massive upheavals in human society.

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard took a different turn in her Dominion of the Fallen series.

Set in an alternate turn of the century Paris devastated by a magical war, the first volume, The House of Shattered Wings, was focused on a particular House fighting a cold war of attrition and magical intrigues, and three characters within the House. When it came time to write volume two, The House of Binding Thorns, I felt that some character arcs had been settled by volume one, and that to feature the exact same cast of characters would lead me to create new problems & new arcs for them. … So I gave some of them a break from being dragged strange places and repeatedly pummeled (only half a joke: I’m pretty rough on my characters) Finally, I wanted to shine the light on different areas of my setting—in particular, factions we hadn’t seen before—and this was much easier and natural to do by adding new characters.

Changing the characters naturally changed the focus of the narration, which is what I was after—though there were a couple surprises. The first book was deliberately claustrophobic, confined to the one House—the new one changed locations within the space of a few chapters, which opened up vast areas of Paris we hadn’t seen before, like the Houseless areas, the suburbs, and the underwater kingdom under the Seine (dragons! I love dragons. Sorry). Not only the world changed, but so did the worldview: in the House of Shattered Wings there were no “powerless” characters: everyone had magical powers and no one really had to deal with going hungry. In book two, Françoise, who is Houseless, has a much harder time (even though she has a community to help out). And in fact, the theme shifted from a meditation on exile and loss to communities and how to belong, which is a different take on the idea of loss—it ended up a very different book.

All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear By the Mountain Bound by Elizabeth Bear The Sea Thy Mistress by Elizabeth Bear

And in Elizabeth Bear’s Edda of Burdens Trilogy, Mingan, Muire and Cathoaire, Muire’s son, help keep the narrative focus fluid.

The biggest consideration in changing narrators in a series is, of course, the risk of alienating the readership. But the Edda of Burdens was always envisioned as a trilogy of books about three different, intimately linked people at three different points in history, and the plan was that all three books could be read in any order, which would give the reader a different perspective depending on what way they came to the narrative. So characterizing any book in it as, precisely, a prequel or a sequel to any other is difficult, because the events take place in one order; the books were written in a different order; and they were published in a third. 😀

So I didn’t really have any options; each of the three characters gets a book to play protagonist, and they’re supporting characters in the other protagonists’ stories. They’re stuck to one another by fate—by their wyrds, more or less—and their stories don’t really exist independent of their relationships.

Writers choose to shift point of view in a series for a number of reasons, and the results are as varied as the writers themselves.

For the Bone Universe, I wrote a bit about the uses of multiple perspectives last year, and I’ll continue to write about it as the series comes to a conclusion in September. The crux, for me, is this: Different perspectives unearth different layers and different ways of seeing the world. I expanded a bit on this, and I’ll excerpt here:

Especially with first person point of view, readers become very familiar with a certain voice and a certain worldview early. The literary device of the “I” as narrator becomes a mask that we can look through, and adventure in, using the persona of that character. Shifting narrators between books means taking a risk — jarring a reader’s assumptions about the world, the story, and the characters themselves.

In the case of Cloudbound, that was a really important thing to do, and worth the risk. Cloudbound is a story about leadership, and Nat is a very different character from Kirit. He’s more investigative, more determined to play by the rules — even when he doesn’t know the rules — and he’s had a very different life experience from Kirit’s. Allowing Nat to explore the city of living bone in his own way, and to see Kirit as she’d once seen him, also gave me the opportunity to reveal parts of the world and the story that Kirit might not have seen herself.

I love that there are quite a few of us working within the tradition of shifting points of view. So, Ursula Le Guin, I’m sad I balked at first, and I’m so glad I learned to look for the expanded perspectives.

More series with shifting narrative focus include Octavia Butler’s Parable series, Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series, Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling series, Lois Lowry’s Giver, and Malinda Lo’s Ash and Huntress.

What are your favorites? Add your perspective! (See what I did there?)

Fran Wilde
Photo Credit: Steven Gould
Fran Wilde is the author of the Andre Norton- and Compton Crook Award-winning, Nebula-nominated novel Updraft (Tor 2015), its sequels, Cloudbound (2016) and Horizon (2017), and the Nebula- and Hugo-nominated novelette The Jewel and Her Lapidary (Tor.com Publishing 2016). Her short stories appear in Asimov’s, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Nature, and the 2017 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. She writes for publications including The Washington Post, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, iO9.com, and GeekMom.com. You can find her on twitter @fran_wilde, Facebook @franwildewrites and at franwilde.net.