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Today’s guest is bestselling fantasy author and Aurealis Award winner Trudi Canavan! Her books include The Black Magician Trilogy, Age of the Five Trilogy, The Traitor Spy trilogy, and her upcoming novel Thief’s Magic, to be released in May (which I’m really interested in reading after taking a look at the beginning of it!). I’m thrilled she is here today to discuss Australian women writing fantasy—and to have one copy of Thief’s Magic to give away!

Thief's Magic by Trudi Canavan The Magician's Guild by Trudi Canavan The Ambassador's Mission by Trudi Canavan

Doing What Comes Naturally: Aussie Women Writers of Fantasy

A few years ago, thanks to Twitter, I heard a strange thing. People were noting that the ‘most anticipated books’ lists for the next year were dominated by books by male writers. ‘How can this be?’ I asked myself. ‘Most fantasy is written by women.’

So I went in search of ‘Most Anticipated’ and ‘Best Of’ lists, examined Amazon, Goodreads and Wikipedia, and was utterly flabbergasted to find long lists of books written mostly by men, and of those written by women a huge proportion was urban fantasy.

Though my belief that most fantasy is written by women was wrong, the impression these lists gave was also far out of kilter with the true proportion of books written by women. When I expressed my dismay on Twitter, the responses were well-meaning but disappointing. They ran along the lines of:

“But women don’t write/read fantasy.”

“Why don’t you read urban fantasy instead?”

“This is how it naturally is.”

Well, the first response was so clearly wrong, since I both write and read fantasy, that I ignored it. The second I bristled at. I like alternate world fantasy – fantasy set somewhere other than our world. (Some call it epic, some call it quest. I find ‘alternate world’ includes both as well as books that don’t quite qualify as either but are clearly fantasy.) Sure, I’ve read and enjoyed urban fantasy, but it’s not what rocks my boat. Telling me to read urban fantasy is akin to telling me to read crime, or romance, or contemporary fiction – it’s telling me that I shouldn’t read what I like, and it’s not far from telling me I shouldn’t be writing it, just ‘cause of my gender. The third response amused me greatly. I’m sure the tweeter couldn’t possibly know they were suggesting we Australians are unnatural freaks.

You see, roughly two thirds of Australian alternate world fantasy written for adults and published by middle to large publishers is by women.

At the time I didn’t know the ratio, though I knew it was nothing like the 10% or less I was seeing on those lists. I worked it out later after doing a pile of research, online and off, and feeding the information I’d gathered into a big spread sheet. And then worked out how to make charts.

Australian Fantasy Books by Gender

(click graph to enlarge)

I suspect if I included small press and self-published writers, the ratio of women would be higher, but the next book had the bigger claim on my time. I also wanted to take into account the influence of publishers on the gender balance. When it came to young adult books, I only included the few authors whose books had clearly made a big mark in the adult market and/or had been nominated for adult fantasy categories of awards. I also expanded the selection to include New Zealand writers, because it made it easier than trying to decide the nationality of authors who had emigrated. Since I’ve created the spread sheet more new writers have been published, or I’ve been alerted to names I’d missed. It hasn’t changed the ratio.

So are we Aussies unnatural freaks, or is everyone else? Why do us gals Down Under have it so good? I have a theory. It has two sides:

First, there are cultural attitudes. When I was a teenager girls read fantasy and boys read science fiction. Boys wouldn’t be seen dead reading ‘stuff about unicorns and fairies’. This was in the 80s. (Yes, I’m old.) I’ve asked friends around Australia if this was their experience, too, and many agree. It’s also interesting to note that not all overseas books make it into the Australian bookshops – only the most successful fantasy reaches us – and I remember reading plenty of female authors along with the male.

Second, there’s the youthfulness of our local market. A quick history follows: Prior to 1990 there were no big fantasy imprints in Australia. Pan Macmillan took a stab at it by publishing Martin Middleton. His first book sold out in weeks, so they knew they were onto something. This got the attention of other publishers, and a few started imprints in the mid-90s, the most active being HarperCollins Voyager, which launched with the very successful Sara Douglass. The growth in the industry peaked in the early 00s, levelled out in the mid 00s and started to grow again in the 10s.

Australia Fantasy Books by Number

(click graph to enlarge)

I’ve noticed, when watching and reading interviews with other fantasy authors, that they are nearly always influenced by their predecessors. Readers, too, crave more of what they’ve already enjoyed, seeking writers similar to those whose works they already like. Publishers take note of this, and try to cater to that demand along with providing something new.

Sure, Australians read and love writers like Tolkien, Moorcock and Feist, too, but they had less influence on us as actual people because they were far away. Could it be that not having a lot of famous men as our SFF predecessors meant we didn’t get the impression that everything they are amounts to the best and only formula for success?

Perhaps this meant we were free to do what came naturally, and which brought about an explosion of talented writers taking fantasy in new and exciting directions – two thirds of them women. Women who, along with the men, produced fantasy that is immensely varied, from whimsical to bloodthirsty, lyrical to fast-paced, political, dynastic, swashbuckling, laced with magic, confronting realism or delightful escapism.

Anybody complaining that fantasy is just the same old thing repeated over and over ought to try some Australian fantasy.

Because, naturally, when you broaden your horizons when it comes to writers, whether from Down Under or not, you broaden your horizons when it comes to the stories you read, too.

For those who might want to sample some Australian and New Zealand fantasy during Women in SF & F Month, here’s a list of authors you could try. The full list including the guys is on my website.

Jo Anderton
K J Bishop
Isobelle Carmody
Rowena Cory Daniells
Alison Croggon
Louise Cusack
Cecilia Dart-Thornton
Sara Douglass
Grace Dugan
Kim Falconer
Jennifer Fallon
Kate Forsyth
Pamela Freeman
Alison Goodman
Traci Harding
Julie Haydon
Lian Hearn
Kate Jacoby
Shannah Jay
Deborah Kalin
Sylvia Kelso
Margo Lanagan
Glenda Larke
Helen Lowe
Beverley MacDonald
Fiona McIntosh
Juliet Marillier
Karen Miller/ K E Mills
Josephine Pennicott
Tansy Rayner Roberts
Jane Routley/Rebecca Locksley
Jo Spurrier
K J Taylor
Mary Victoria

Trudi Canavan

Trudi Canavan lives in Melbourne, Australia. She has been making up stories about people and places that don’t exist for as long as she can remember. While working as a freelance illustrator and designer she wrote the bestselling Black Magician Trilogy, which was published in 2001-3 and was named an ‘Evergreen’ by The Bookseller in 2010. The Magician’s Apprentice, a prequel to the trilogy, won the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel in 2009 and the final of the sequel trilogy, The Traitor Queen, reached #1 on the UK Times Hardback bestseller list in 2011. For more info, visit www.trudicanavan.com.

Thief’s Magic Giveaway

Courtesy of Orbit, I have a copy of Thief’s Magic to give away! This giveaway is open to those with a mailing address in the US, UK, Canada, or Australia.

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 “Thief’s Magic Giveaway.” One entry per person and one winner will be randomly selected. Those from the the US, UK, Canada, or Australia are eligible to win this giveaway. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Friday, May 2. The 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: Now that the giveaway is over, the form has been removed.

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Today’s guest is fantasy author and speculative fiction editor Barbara Friend Ish! The first book in her series The Way of the Gods, The Shadow of the Sun, is out now, and the second volume is scheduled for release next year. Last year, she wrote a guest post here titled “I Still Believe in Small Press” after making the difficult decision to focus on her own writing instead of the work she was doing as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Mercury Retrograde Press—and I’m thrilled she is back today, this time talking about conceptions of feminism in science fiction and fantasy characters!

The Shadow of the Sun by Barbara Friend Ish

Women in SFF: the Next Wave

Lately I have been haunted by the feeling that I am doing feminism wrong.

I’m writing a fantasy series. In the early books, there is only one female point-of-view character out of four—and she’s a weak person. Weak, not because she’s female—though I am uncomfortably aware of how much in opposition to the current standard for female characters she is—but for reasons that serve the story. A gender minority, because of thoughts on gender roles I hope the text will convey. She’s not a weak character, I hope; I am doing my utmost to give her robust life. But she’s definitely a person who doesn’t measure up to the current feminist ideal. And as I write her, alone in my study, I am uncomfortably aware of the judgment that will be leveled against me for this creation. It has led me, after much self-examination, to become aware of the limitations the current generation of women writers impose upon ourselves.

Literature, even SF and fantasy, reflects the society that produces it. The roles and characters of women in our literature are and ever have been mirrors of our roles and society; the ubiquity of men as central to fictional stories reflects the central role of men in society’s story. There’s a reason why we call our species “mankind”: our language and syntax carry our culture’s assumptions and priorities as thoroughly as do our stories.

Once upon a time—historians date this period to sometime around the middle of last week—men were men, and women were plot devices. Women served two basic story functions: as obstacles/antagonists and as love interests/story goals. The former function was fulfilled by bitches, harpies, and whores; the latter by good women—largely chaste, but always true to their men; supportive, devoid of needs or agendas that did not serve the male protagonist’s development.

More recently, particularly during the previous century, new options became available to women, and accordingly to female characters. They were allowed to have interests of their own, indeed careers, as long as those things didn’t interfere with their fulfilling their functions as designated by society and literature. A woman could be almost anything she wanted to be—and then go home and handle the cooking, the cleaning, and the sexual needs of her mate. As ever, the consequences for violating these rules were severe: shaming, shunning, loss of acknowledgment of a woman’s feminine status.

Literature, as is its wont, reflected society. Notable examples in SFF lit come from Heinlein, whose novels are populated by manly men and brainy women who could solve a Very Complex Equation or pilot a spaceship and then, most important of all, demonstrate their liberated status by being sexually available to everyone. These were some overachieving women; this was the face of so-called liberation. Women were not only able but required to do it all.

When feminism really got going, a new party line developed: women didn’t actually need men, except to fulfill their needs for love and womanly validation. In SFF, we had a sudden explosion of kickass heroines, usually with tattoos prominently featured on covers to show they were edgy but still fully sexualized for any available male gaze. There was a whole new breed of expectations of women now: they were to be strong, independent, as tough as any man.

At each stage of the development of expectations imposed on women, those expectations have been prisons for the women who must live them. Always we internalize the oppressive stories and not only impose them on ourselves but on our peers and daughters. Indeed we have tended to be the enforcers of society’s myths regarding gender, frequently far harsher regulators than men: shaming women who claim sexual pleasure for themselves as sluts; decrying women who voice their own needs as bitches, harpies, destructive forces in their men’s lives. We are the first to look for some clue to how a woman who is subject to violence may have brought it on herself.

Today we live in a new, scarcely visible prison of societal expectations, and it too is reflected in our literature. The categories for women are still “compliant with societal norms for women” and “unacceptable”. Women are still harsh enforcers. It’s just that the standards to which we hold one another look different now.

We must be feminists. We must do it right, whatever that means. That’s another reflection of the limitations we place on ourselves and internalize: now we judge ourselves and one another for not being feminist enough. We have created a new ideal and are once again constrained by it. This is not freedom or authenticity, either. As writers we must only write female characters who uphold feminist ideals. Our female characters must be kickass. Weak female characters are anti-feminist, and we write them at our professional peril. Reading and enjoying them exposes us to mockery.

I think it’s time to take a good look at the limitations we’re putting on ourselves as readers and writers. I suggest that female characters, like male characters, should come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of kickassery. If a male character is weak, no one decries that character as an insult to men everywhere. Instead we examine his role in the story and what it might mean. Male characters are allowed to be real.

I think it’s time we accorded female characters the same courtesy. I think it is our job as feminists of every gender not to place and attempt to enforce yet another set of unachievable standards on all women, but to recognize that some are kickass, and some are heroic in other ways, and some are just not heroic at all. And that they can fulfill all the roles in the story that we can imagine for them, and their presence in those roles can teach us about being human, rather than simply about how we are supposed to be as women.

To be painfully clear: I love kickass female characters. I acquire them as an editor; I read them as a reader; I write them as a writer. But not all of the worthwhile female characters uphold the standards we as a society impose on women. It is the job of writers not to produce moral tales that demonstrate correct behavior, but to hold up a mirror to humanity and help us understand what being human means. It is the job of readers, inasmuch as they have a job, to decide for themselves what those creations mean; what it means to be human.

Female characters need to be allowed to join that quest. They need to be themselves in all their myriad flavors, and to be accepted on their own terms in the way we do male characters. I propose an adjunct to the famous Bechdel test, which we can use to discover whether we are faithfully portraying female characters in SFF. I think it’s pretty simple:

If the female character in question were a man, would you consider that character’s actions a stain upon the identity of men?

I suggest that if the answer to that question is “no”, and yet you consider the female character’s behavior an insult to women, then you have just bumped up against an area in which society’s programming regarding women has infiltrated your brain. What you do with this awareness is entirely up to you.

Barbara Friend IshBarbara Friend Ish is the author of the Compton Crook Award Finalist novel The Shadow of the Sun and the 2015 novel The Heart of Darkness. She moonlights as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief for Mercury Retrograde Press. Books edited by Barbara have been covered by Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Locus Magazine, and electronic and print outlets worldwide. Her cats run her life.

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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.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

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)