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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.

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Today’s guest is Rinn from the (largely) science fiction and fantasy book blog Rinn Reads! In November of 2013, she organized Sci-Fi Month, a month-long event celebrating all things science fiction—movies, television shows, games, and, of course, books. It was a resounding success with more than fifty bloggers and twenty-five authors participating, and it was a lot of fun. It also inspired me to read some science fiction books I’d been meaning to read for awhile, leading to my discovery of a new favorite book (Warchild by Karin Lowachee). She is here today discussing the portrayal of women in science fiction and fantasy!

Rinn Reads

There has always been much debate about the role of women in fantasy and science fiction – it can certainly be a sore topic for some.

It drives me crazy when women are portrayed only as meek, fragile little things. That may have been how we have been seen for a long time throughout history, but there are really plenty of women who aren’t – in both fiction and real life.

Personally, I like the portrayal of women in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, but I know the views on this are mixed. Although the culture is based on medieval society, and women within their society are slightly below men on the social scale, none of the ladies of Westeros let that get in their way. I love how Brienne is a female knight and gets admitted into Renly’s Kingsguard. Many of the minor characters are disrespectful towards her because of her choice and appearance but she has the respect of a King (and many other major characters of the series), and she proves herself a thousand times over. I love how Tywin tells Cersei that he’s not treating her a certain way because she is female, but because of the choices she has made. The women of Westeros are products of their country – it’s tough, so they are too. All these women going from powerless to powerful, using what they have and making their own ways in the world.

I think that to portray women in fantasy and science fiction accurately, the author needs a range of women. Weak and fragile, headstrong and brave. Shy and scared, courageous and proud. Not everyone could face down a dragon. And not not everyone feels the need to burst into tears at any moment. And development – character development is SO IMPORTANT. For example, I loved how Vin in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire went from being a timid little mouse to a confident young woman, because she actually got to explore life and her own potential. At the beginning of the book she was a very difficult character to connect with or even understand; she was just as withdrawn from the reader as she was from the fictional characters around her. And to go back to Westeros again – think of Sansa Stark. When we first meet her in A Game of Thrones, she is a young girl, dreaming of a life filled with balls, pretty dresses and honeycake. The treatment of her, and her family, at the hands of the Lannisters changes her. She learns how to manipulate the system, when to appear meek and when to defy authority. And do I even really need to explain why Arya is amazing??

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling also shows a diverse selection of female characters, and all during an important phase of life – the teenage years. The books are so influential, particularly Hermione’s character. She is smart and not afraid to show it, a bit of a know-it-all – and adored worldwide. She has inspired many young women today, shown them that’s it’s good to be smart, you don’t need to hide your brains and be ashamed of being intelligent. Don’t be scared to put your hand up in class. Ron even admits that him and Harry wouldn’t have gotten far without her. She is the glue that keeps the trio together. On the other hand, Lavender Brown is the squealing girly girl, and Luna Lovegood the quirky girl who is constantly away with the fairies (or perhaps the Nargles, in her case). There are so many other female characters in the series that I can’t really go into depth here, but none of them feel like ‘cookie cutter’ characters who mean nothing.

And then we move onto video games like Mass Effect, where actually, gender doesn’t really matter. Whether you’re male or female, it’s your choices that matter and the consequences do not differ depending on your gender. If you’re a female Commander Shepard, it’s your name that has meaning, not what’s between your legs. If you want to be commanding and authoritative, you get the same amount of respect regardless of sex. In fact, the only thing that changes depending on gender are some of your romance options!

However, there are some stories that confuse me, for example Red Sonja. On one hand I think she’s a cool character – a female warrior, tough, brave (and with flaming red hair!); but on the other hand she doesn’t exactly… wear much, so she feels like a piece of eye candy. If you do an image search for women in fantasy you get a lot of scantily-clad ladies who apparently are tough-as-nails warriors. I don’t doubt their skill, but is that clothing really sensible? Can’t we have more female warriors like Brienne from A Song of Ice and Fire, or Aveline from Dragon Age II, who are amazing and skilled, but also wear armour that actually protects them?

In conclusion, I think that the vast majority of fantasy and science fiction portrays female characters in an accurate way. As human beings, with a wide variety of personalities, opinions, appearances, sexualities, interests etc. I could think of so many more examples to share, but I don’t think I have the time or space! I’d love to hear your suggestions. Don’t let anyone tell you that fantasy and science fiction are ‘male dominated’ genres.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today’s guest is fantasy and science fiction author Ginn Hale!  I’ve read and loved her (as of now) standalone novel Wicked Gentlemen as well as both volumes of Lord of the White Hell, published by Blind Eye Books (a publisher dedicated to SFF about gay and lesbian protagonists). In particular, Lord of the White Hell was one of my favorite books in 2010 because of its wonderful characters and the strikingly different cultures it portrayed. Inspired by fan comments that she “writes like a man,” she’s here today to talk about what that might mean and to what degree gender plays a role in how an author’s work is received.

Wicked Gentlemen by Ginn Hale Lord of the White Hell by Ginn Hale The Shattered Gates by Ginn Hale

Write Like a Human

Over the years I’ve received a number of fan letters that, while well-intentioned and very kind, always give me pause—especially when they exclaim something along the lines of “you write like a man.”

Obviously, the comments are intended as compliments and I take them as such. (I’d be the last to complain about a reader taking the time to contact me. It’s always flattering and inspiring.)

But those comments did get me wondering—is writing itself really gendered? Or is it that certain subject matter seems more male or female? For that matter, does awareness of an author’s gender affect a publisher or reader’s perception of the book’s authenticity? And why—despite the vast number of top-selling and award-winning female authors in the world—should “writing like a man” be considered commendable? If it is, then by extension does that mean that authors who “write like women” have somehow failed…even if they are women?

May Fowles, in a 2011 article for the National Post aptly titled “Write Like a Man: the Unspoken Rule of Avoiding a Pink Cover”, notes that the reception of a book regardless of theme often seems to depend upon the author’s sex:

“Men actually write ‘women’s books’ all the time, but they’re certainly never labeled as such. When male writers write about relationships, family and the domestic sphere, fiction or non, they’re considered groundbreaking and often celebrated for it.”

So the bias seems to have far less to do with the subject or genre of a book than the gender of the author.

A common criticism raised against women writers, regardless of genre or theme, is that a female author cannot write a convincing male character. To a much lesser degree the reverse has been argued, as well. But since Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover are all considered classics I don’t think the criticism is taken too seriously.  As May Fowles pointed out, men are often applauded for writing about women.

Female authors on the other hand must often contend with a very skewed version of the write what you know adage. Apparently a woman may be able to convincingly write characters of wildly diverse backgrounds, beliefs, ethnicities, ages, educations, and physical abilities—she may people entire worlds–but she can’t possibly characterize another human being with genitalia that differs from her own.

Of course such an assertion doesn’t make any more sense than claiming that mystery authors must be criminals to really write a good mystery. (Thieves might pass muster for some less discerning critics but the truly discriminating will demand a murderer!)

Though some women have been male authors–in name at least. Many a female author has received recognition and praise—not to mention much better pay for her work—when it was attributed to a male pseudonym. Enough of us have written as men that by now you’d think the point would have been proven.

But more often than not, when the truth is revealed, critics make a point of declaring that this singular female author “writes like a man” as if she were some astonishing prodigy who defies the limits of her sex. To quote critic John Clute, speaking of Alice Bradley Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr.) “she wrote like a man, and a meteor, a flash in the pan, a mayfly angel.” By the end of the summation the author has not only transformed from a woman to man but she’s become a bizarre ‘flash in the pan’ hybrid of insect and angel.

So clearly the gender of an author plays a huge role in how writing may be perceived.

But is the text really all that different?  Considering all the genres and styles of writing that exist in the world, is the real division just as simple as male and female? I personally don’t think so but how about we test the theory out?

The following are short excerpts of writing, taken more or less at random from several authors. Read them over and if you’re inclined go ahead and “sex” them. (There is an answer key at the end.) But it might also be worth taking a few moments while reading to consider whether it would matter to you if any particular author turned out to be male or female. Does it in anyway alter your conception of the prose? And if so, why?

1 Strange spices scented the chilly autumn wind, and he could hear faint cries drifting over the wall from the streets beyond.

2 Neglect could kill a building brick by brick. It was, to his mind, more insidious than hurricane or earthquake as it murdered slowly, quietly, not in rage or passion, but with contempt.

3 A hand appeared from the dust and wrapped about her upper arm, firmly but not hard, and guided her into the maelstrom.

4 Clara Reece screamed, cried, shouted, hit her brother with all her strength, kicked furniture and walls, but none of it served to ward off the horrible realization that a stranger was coming to take possession of half of her ranch.

5 They were a strange lot. They knew about old things no one used or needed anymore, and they built things with their hands.

6 Maybe what’s been carved away, the empty space that’s left, is like silence. The dark shadow that defines the pale form.

7 Electrodes, attached to long wires and wrapped in saltwater sponges to further conduct current, would be fitted to the ankles and head.

8 It was reassuring just to look at him, riding slowly forward into the sunlight on the black Irish stallion.

Certainly some authors do seem better than others at capturing a diversity of authentic voices, be they male, female, young, old or any other shading of individuality. Such authors often transform mere print into living characters that readers can recognize, sympathize with, love or hate. They are outstanding writers.  (I’m often gripped with awe and envy while reading such books.)

But these authors are not confined to one gender any more than they are confined to one ethnicity, nationality or age. What they all do have in common is their grasp of humanity and of course human language. In short, the single trait that they all could be said to share is that they are human beings.

Now, until we see the rise of the machines, when perhaps a horde of plot-bots will crank out digital novellas featuring unfulfilled toasters and the ovens they both hate and admire, I don’t think most critics or readers are likely to start informing authors that they were moved by how very human their writing is. Writes just like a real human is unlikely to be splashed across covers any time soon. We tend to take an author’s humanity for granted. But in doing so, we can often fall back on identifiers that are largely superficial when deciding who can be a great author.

But if we accepted that anyone could produce a powerful work, then maybe we’d all discover new caches of wonderful books that we would otherwise have devalued, ignored, or felt couldn’t speak to our own particular niche simply because of the author’s sex.

The answer key.

1 George R.R. Martin—male
2 J.D. Robb—female (Nora Roberts)
3 M.L. Buchman— male
4 Leigh Greenwood—male (One of a number of men now making in-roads into the romance market.)
5 Rebecca Rowe—female
6 David Esterly—male
7 Deborah Blum—female
8 Michael Shaara—male

Ginn Hale

Ginn Hale resides in the Pacific Northwest with her wife and two cats. Her novel Wicked Gentlemen garnered her recognition as a Lambda Literary Award finalist and Spectrum Award winner. Her publications include the Lord of the White Hell books, the Rifter trilogy: The Shattered Gates, The Holy Road, His Sacred Bones, as well as the novellas “Feral Machines” (Tangle), “Touching Sparks” (Hell Cop) and “Things Unseen and Deadly”, which appears in the shared world anthology Irregulars.