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Book Description (from the Penguin Random House website):

A young pilot risks everything to save his best friend—the man he trusts most and might even love—only to learn that his friend is secretly the heir to a brutal galactic empire.
 
“Riveting, wildly fun, and incredibly smart.”—Emily A. Duncan, New York Times bestselling author of Wicked Saints

Ettian’s life was shattered when the merciless Umber Empire invaded his world. He’s spent seven years putting himself back together under its rule, joining an Umber military academy and becoming the best pilot in his class. Even better, he’s met Gal—his exasperating and infuriatingly enticing roommate who’s made the academy feel like a new home.

But when dozens of classmates spring an assassination plot on Gal, a devastating secret comes to light: Gal is the heir to the Umber Empire. Ettian barely manages to save his best friend and flee the compromised academy unscathed, rattled that Gal stands to inherit the empire that broke him, and that there are still people willing to fight back against Umber rule.

As they piece together a way to deliver Gal safely to his throne, Ettian finds himself torn in half by an impossible choice. Does he save the man who’s won his heart and trust that Gal’s goodness could transform the empire? Or does he throw his lot in with the brewing rebellion and fight to take back what’s rightfully theirs?

Bonds of Brass, the first book in Emily Skrutskie’s Bloodright Trilogy, piqued my interest when I learned it was a space opera with a prince in disguise from the book description and saw a graphic on Twitter stating that you might like it if you like forbidden romance, fake dating between PINING best friends, scary empress moms, galactic-level bisexual disasters, and the inherent DRAMA of empire, among various other components. It sounded like a recipe for a fun story with angst and secrets galore, and I was thrilled when a copy of the book unexpectedly showed up in the mail one day.

And it is an entertaining, fast-paced novel. It doesn’t take long to jump into the action with the attack on Gal and the revelation that he’s the heir to the Empire occurring within the first 20 pages, resulting in a rescue sequence showing that Ettian is indeed “one hell of a pilot” (another feature listed on the aforementioned Twitter graphic). There are a lot more exciting scenes throughout its pages and it does have a lot of fun parts, yet I only found myself truly immersed in it during the last few chapters and didn’t find it all that memorable once I finished reading it—mainly because I just wasn’t all that invested in the characters or their stories.

Bonds of Brass does make some time for character moments, but they didn’t end up entirely working for me, especially those between Ettian and Gal. At first, the palpable tension due to their feelings for each other was delightful, but the more I read, the less I understood why Ettian remained so fiercely loyal to Gal after learning he’s the heir to the Empire that destroyed his life. Certainly, Ettian is loyal to his friends and Gal won’t necessarily be the same type of ruler as his scary empress mom, but I didn’t feel that we were shown the better parts of him that Ettian reflected on: his best qualities and charisma mainly seemed to be in Ettian’s memories, not in the present. In fact, Gal often came across as a jerk—and not the type who has characterization and layers making him engaging to read about anyway—especially considering his jealousy and treatment of Wen, a character I found far more compelling and likable. I just kept thinking that Ettian seemed far too good for Gal and could find someone far worthier of his devotion.

Although I thought the romantic connection ultimately fell flat, I did like the platonic relationship that developed between Ettian and Wen, a girl he met when looking for a spaceship to buy and ended up befriending after everything exploded and went horribly wrong. Wen is a survivor—clever and “chaos incarnate,” as Ettian says of her—who makes everything more interesting when she shows up. Her friendship with Ettian largely builds from the shared experience of being children who have to scrape by on the streets all alone. They can understand each other in ways many others do not, and they look out for each other and have each other’s backs.

While Bonds of Brass is generally a quickly paced book, it’s also a bit of an oddly paced book: a lot happens, but there’s a lot of exposition and introspection that seems to drag because it just doesn’t have the narrative voice to carry it. The last chapters move at a breakneck pace as it reveals the big twist, which I not only predicted long before it happened but thought was too orchestrated (in ways I can’t discuss without spoilers, of course). Although I did enjoy reading how it unfolded, I also felt like it wasn’t especially gratifying compared to other books I’ve read that do similar things—I tend to love that sort of revelation even when I suspect it’s coming, but I didn’t find myself thinking about this one after closing the book.

Despite the issues I had with Bonds of Brass, some fun scenes, a great friendship, and curiosity about how it would end did keep me interested enough to read the entire book, even though it never got me terribly invested in the characters or made me want to stay up late reading “just one more chapter.” However, although the last few chapters did actually keep me glued to the pages, it didn’t end up being a novel that stuck with me enough to want to continue the series given the many other books I have yet to read.

My Rating: 6/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Bonds of Brass

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Thank you so much to all of this year’s guests for your fantastic essays and making the ninth annual Women in SF&F Month wonderful! And thank you also to everyone who shared about this month’s series—I really appreciate it!

For those of you have may have missed any guest posts from earlier this month, you can browse through all of the Women in SF&F Month 2020 guest posts here, or you can find the individual links below. More information on the ongoing recommendation list project is also below.

2020 Women in SF&F Month Guest Posts

Amayo, Reni K — “Why We Should All Know More About African Mythology”
Onwe Press co-founder and Daughters of Nri author Reni K Amayo wrote about the importance of myths and what we can learn from them.

Brissett, Jennifer Marie — “The Sophomore Book”
Elysium author Jennifer Marie Brissett discussed working on her second novel, Destroyer of Light, and the experience and pressures of writing the sophomore book.

CW from The Quiet Pond
CW shared about her journey as an artist and how it tied into her journey with mental health in the story of how her fantasy-themed book blog, The Quiet Pond, and its first animal caretaker(s) came to be.

Estep, Jennifer
Crown of Shards author Jennifer Estep discussed early influences on her writing, particularly how Leia not becoming a Jedi in the original Star Wars movie trilogy prompted her to write the fantasy stories she wanted to tell.

Ibañez, Isabel
Woven in Moonlight author Isabel Ibañez wrote about her love for the badass warrior girl trend in YA fantasy but also wondered if depictions of other types of strength and multi-talented characters are getting left behind.

Kennedy, Jeffe
Forgotten Empires author Jeffe Kennedy discussed being a writer whose cross-genre work was accepted and published as romance before also being recognized as fantasy—and what surprised her when she started attending SFF conventions.

Kerr, Katharine — “What is Good Prose, Anyway?”
Deverry author Katharine Kerr proposed definitions for what constitutes “good” prose and “bad” prose.

Kirk, Robin — “Science Fiction and Human Rights”
The Bond author Robin Kirk discussed the power science fiction has to inspire and teaching a course on human rights with fiction, interviews, and/or talks by Ursula K. Le Guin, N. K. Jemisin, Octavia E. Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, and more.

Larkwood, A.K.
The Unspoken Name author A.K. Larkwood delved into why she wrote about a non-human protagonist in her debut novel.

Madson, Devin — “Perfectly Shallow Characters”
We Ride the Storm author Devin Madson discussed characters—including what can make them seem to lack depth, Messy Characters who do not conform to social ideals, and what the amazing characters she’s read lately have in common.

Mandanna, Sangu — “Creativity in the Time of Corona”
Celestial Trilogy author Sangu Mandanna shared about the difficulty of holding on to creativity in the midst of a global pandemic and discussed a few things that have helped get her creativity flowing again.

Skrutskie, Emily — “The Badass Mothers of SFF”
Bonds of Brass author Emily Skrutskie wrote about her fondness for badass moms as characters and some of her favorites in science fiction and fantasy.

Stewart, Andrea — “Happily Ever Aftermath”
The Bone Shard Daughter author Andrea Stewart discussed fairy tales and fiction, exploring what happens after a couple gets together, and writing an established relationship between two of the women in her debut epic fantasy novel.

Suvada, Emily — “On Heroes, Horror, and Hope”
This Mortal Coil author Emily Suvada explored the coronavirus pandemic—and the one thing that surprised her about it having authored a series that feels uncomfortably familiar at the moment—stories, community, and hope.

Thakrar, Shveta
Star Daughter author Shveta Thakrar discussed messages in fiction and examining internalized ideas about the path a story must take—and how and why the female friendship in her fantasy debut novel changed after early drafts.

Villoso, K.S.
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro author K.S. Villoso shared how her Chronicles of the Bitch Queen series sprung from the concept that Queen Talyien was a badass—and how being a badass went beyond her skill with a sword.

 

The Reader-Recommended SFF Books by Women Project

Although there are no more guest posts for this year’s series and April is nearly over (how did that happen?!), the recommendations list will remain open for new submissions for at least a little while.

The recommendations list began when Renay of Lady Business first asked for recommendations of favorite science fiction and fantasy books by women in 2013, and the list has continued to grow as new recommendations have been submitted every year since. It now has 2,710 titles with the most recommended book having been submitted 58 times.

If you would like to add some SFF books by women that you loved, you can add up to 10 here. Or, if you have already added some favorites in the past, you can limit your entries to 10 SFF books by women that you read in the last year.

 

For more background on the origins of Women in SF&F Month, my introduction post for this year’s series discusses how it began in 2012 and why it ended up being an April event.

Thank you for reading!

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Today’s guest is Onwe Press co-founder Reni K Amayo! She’s also the author of “Andromeda,” a short story about the titular Ethiopian goddess, and Daughters of Nri, the first book in the Return of the Earth Mother series. Daughters of Nri, a young adult fantasy novel set in an ancient kingdom located in present-day Nigeria, is an enchanting story about twin sisters unaware of each other’s existence—or the fact that they are goddesses!—with beautifully handled themes centering community and connection.

Daughters of Nri by Reni K Amayo Book Cover

Why We Should All Know More About African Mythology
By Reni K Amayo

Athena was the first deity that I remember learning about in school. I knew her to be the alluring goddess of wisdom, arts and strategic warfare, and I was completely enthralled. Frankly, I still get quite a bit excited when I come across her in literature and art. As a young, impressionable and (annoyingly) enthusiastic feminist, Athena with her wit and strength appealed greatly to me. She was evidence that even back in 900 B.C. someone viewed women as wise and strategic. I put aside her terrible treatment of Medusa, a woman punished for being sexually assaulted, and her general disregard for human life, and instead focused on her display of feminine strength and power.

It took a few years before my interest in Roman and Greek mythology sparked a question that I would later discover to be one of the most important that I have ever asked — where are the African myths? For a long time, I believed that they didn’t exist. Outside of the Egyptians, ancient African mythology seemed obscure and non-existent; it stood in my mind as a blank canvas to the exquisite masterpiece that was ancient western mythology. I was so very wrong. In due time I realised that every single continent was rich with colourful and intricate mythology of its own.

From India’s Parvati, a manifestation of the all-powerful divine feminine energy of the universe, Shakti, according to Hindu mythology. To China’s Wangmu Niangniang, the goddess of happiness and longevity who could boast of a magical peach tree that kept the people who ate its fruit perpetually young. And then, of course, there’s Ala, the Igbo earth goddess who completely embodied duality, ruling the underworld while also being credited for fertility, often depicted with a baby in one hand and a sword in another. Her nature, in part, inspired me to write Daughters of Nri, the first book in the Return of the Earth Mother series. Once I discovered African mythology, I became insatiable. I dug through various texts and pieces on the subject, and soon enough, I began to piece together a picture of African history that vastly exceeded the next-to-nothing I had learnt in school.

Stephen H. Furrer once said that myths are “a kind of poetry that helps us make sense of the world and our place in it”, and I think nothing is more true. Myths have given us a medium to understand and explore civilisation in ancient Rome and Greece; we can attribute them for giving us the Olympics, the water mill and the theatre. If we could only dive more in-depth into ancient Africa, we would also discover Mali’s pioneering university systems, the earliest development of Mathematics in Eswatini and incredible medical advances still being used today, with the first known surgery performed in ancient Egypt. We would uncover a history not narrowly focused on slavery and oppression, but filled with fascinating discoveries, compelling stories and heroic feats.

I genuinely believe that we are doing ourselves a disservice by limiting our “World history” to the West. The more we know of ancient histories, mythologies and people, the more we paint an accurate picture of our past, which will no doubt assist us as we shape what could be an exceptionally better future.

Reni K Amayo Photo Reni K Amayo is a British Nigerian author and co-founder of Onwe Press, an independent publisher focused on amplifying diverse voices and express under-represented ideologies across all creative industries. Reni was born and raised in London to two Nigerian immigrant parents. She has spent many years studying the intricacies of different African, specifically Nigerian, cultures, mythology & anthropology to unearth a rich history that has been obscured and forgotten across the globe. Reni’s debut novel Daughters of Nri is set in ancient Igbo land and follows two twin goddesses who have been separated at birth on their epic journey of self-discovery as they embark on a path back to one another.

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Today’s guest is Jeffe Kennedy! She’s the author of many fantasy, romance, and fantasy romance books, including those in The Twelve Kingdoms trilogy, whose conclusion won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Fantasy Romance, and The Uncharted Realms series, whose first installment won the RITA Award for Paranormal Romance. Her work has also been nominated for multiple RT Reviewers’ Choice, RITA, and PRISM Awards. The Fate of the Tala, the fifth book in The Uncharted Realms series and her latest novel, was released earlier this year—and her next novel is coming soon with the release of The Fiery Crown, the second book in her romantic fantasy series Forgotten Empires, on May 26!

The Fiery Crown by Jeffe Kennedy Book Cover The Fate of the Tala by Jeffe Kennedy Book Cover

I am a straddler of worlds. A longtime member of Romance Writers of America (RWA), I’m also a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA)—and serve as a Director at Large on the SFWA Board of Directors. In the Venn diagram of genres, my work sits squarely in the overlap between epic fantasy and romance. My stories are almost always built on a variation of the Hero’s Journey, except it always belongs to the heroine.

I’m also a heteronormative girly-girl. I like wearing makeup and flowing dresses, and people often recognize me by my high heels and big hats. At romance conventions, no one ever blinked at my personal style.

I entered the romance arena first, because that’s how my cross-genre books were first embraced. Romance publishers were much more willing to publish books with heavy fantasy settings and worldbuilding than fantasy publishers were willing to publish epic fantasy with a romance structure.

I feel like that’s an important distinction, as fantasy with romantic elements isn’t the same animal, mostly because it uses a different plot structure.

At the SFWA Nebula Conference in 2019, Mary Robinette Kowal led a panel I participated on where she challenged us to define a standard science fiction or fantasy plot structure. Everyone on the panel—notably all women—wrote a blend of SFF and romance. We could all come up with examples of commonly used science fiction or fantasy plot structures, and for every one we could think of numerous exceptions. After much discussion, we finally came to the realization that science fiction and fantasy elements serve as setting, while the plot structures can vary. They can have mystery, horror, action/adventure, literary, and a host of other familiar story arcs.

They can also have romance plots.

This was a huge revelation to me. I’m an intuitive storyteller, and I’d been simply writing the books that came to me. I never wanted to write cross-genre. I’d gotten great advice from many generous authors and I knew building a career as an author would be more difficult than if I wrote squarely in one genre. And I’d tried to groom my books to fit a single genre, but never seemed able to do it. That’s not where my voice led me. I didn’t even know I wrote fantasy romance/romantic fantasy until my first book was (finally!) published and that’s what my publisher called it.

After that Nebula Conference panel, I realized that I write naturally in a romance structure: very character-driven, with a focus on transformation and self-realization. My cross-genre sweet spot is when the abyss of the Hero’s Journey—the death and rebirth that allows the protagonist to transform, atone and return—coincides with the romance Black Moment and sacrifice required for them to embrace love and the personal transformation that brings.

I also love romance because I believe that joyfulness and love are profound emotions that deserve as much exploration and attention—perhaps more—than the darker experiences of our lives.

All of this is to say that I found my footing as a writer first in the romance community. Then, as my publishing credentials allowed me to join SFWA—and as readers recognized my books to be fantasy as much as romance—I began attending SFF conventions also. And I wore my big hats, my high heels, red lipstick and flowing dresses.

So, sure—we all know there will always be that guy. The socially awkward one who asks me about how hot the sun must be for me to wear a hat indoors, the one who figures me being pleasant at my signing table gives him license to relentlessly hit on me. That’s all par for the course. What surprised me were the women in SFF who told me I shouldn’t be so performatively female. One woman author became quite angry with me on a panel when I pointed out that skirts provide greater freedom of movement (if full enough) and that wearing skirts and dresses is the equivalent of going without pants—a state often touted by men as the best way to relax.

These conversations happened repeatedly at various events, with a few women earnestly advising me that I didn’t “have” to dress that way, and others suggesting that I’d never be taken seriously if I continued in my girly-girl ways. To think that I’d believed I’d be judged on the intelligence of my work and conversation.

All of this gave me pause. Why would femininity be a mark against being “taken seriously”? Especially in this day and age when we are embracing self-expression. At one SFF meeting, another woman literally threw her hands up in the air at the sight of me, commenting that everyone else was dressed comfortably while I was wearing a fancy dress. (It was a very comfortable sundress.) But I wanted to ask why it was okay for her to criticize my appearance.

Yes, we have a long history in the SFF genre of women writers being held in lower regard than male ones. The examples of female authors taking male names, and even complete personas, abound. It’s fascinating—and viscerally satisfying—to read about James Tiptree Jr. and how Alice Bradley Sheldon had so many people utterly convinced she was a man. Arguably women felt they had to masquerade as male authors to be treated the same way.

But… aren’t we supposed to be past that now?

Connie Willis has talked about a similar experience, how she was relentlessly teased for years because she wore a Laura Ashley dress with a lace Peter Pan collar to her first Nebula Conference. And Willis goes on to say that it was the feminists in the field who raked her over the coals for writing stories with housewives as heroines.

I’ve had similar experiences, of attending feminist SFF conferences—where I expected to be utterly at home as a feminist who writes SFF—only to come away feeling excluded and unworthy of interest.

Everyone should have their gender expression respected. We’ve made strides in normalizing that pronouns should be asked for and honored. In the field of SFF, more authors who are trans, non-binary, ace, bisexual and homosexual are being read and welcomed for the diverse perspectives they bring. So why are we still treating heteronormative femininity as somehow less than?

I believe this bias extends to the works also. It always dismays me when a female author chooses to give a male protagonist all the agency and action in the story. Male authors do this, too—and many male authors are making the effort to give female protagonists exciting stories—but overwhelmingly I still see SFF focusing on, if not male protagonists, then masculine qualities.

For example, the female protagonist who dresses as a boy in order to be “taken seriously.” This is a time-honored trope, and it can be interesting to explore, but it becomes insidiously present in all kinds of stories. The “strong female character” is portrayed as hating traditional female roles and activities. She must wear pants. She hates sewing and cooking—to the point of being terrible at it. She chops off her hair and she even eschews the company of other women, seeing them as frivolous, vain, and empty-headed. The reader is to understand that she is Not Like Other Women, because stereotypical femininity is weak.

She doesn’t have to dress that way. Much better to be like a man.

But, do women have to be like men to be equal? Or, more pointedly, while we’re working hard to recognize that sexuality and gender can be a spectrum, why would we scorn the far ends as less than others, even as toxic? (I have seen performative femininity compared to toxic masculinity.)

Then there’s the perspective that our SFF protagonists must engage in “big conflicts.” War, battles, individual fights—those are the exciting drivers in many novels. I’ve done them, too. In these scenarios, the women must be warriors or magic-wielders. They are not staying home to bake bread or weave cloth. The activities of hearth and home are simply not interesting in these scenarios. Interpersonal conflicts aren’t the drivers of many epic fantasy stories—unless the story is romance.

Finally, in a frequently well-meaning effort to give female characters agency—and to avoid the noxious trope of the Woman in the Refrigerator—a number of authors have declared they will not use rape or sexual assault of female characters in their books. They are rejecting the—admittedly overused—shorthand of a backstory of sexual trauma as motivation for a female character to be fierce and kickass.

The problem with this blanket rejection is that it effectively whitewashes a pervasive truth of many women’s lives. As was amply demonstrated by the #MeToo revelations, nearly every woman has faced a spectrum of sexual peril, from harassment to rape. Declaring that a female character must never have experienced any of this is akin to pretending that a female character can only be interesting if she loathes traditional female skills and activities.

She must be Not Like Other Women. Because this vast, faceless and apparently mindless mass of stereotypical women are ipso facto not interesting.

Aren’t we still looking on these women with a male gaze? They’re painted with such a broad brush, these giggling females interested only in ribbons and gowns, spending endless hours gossiping over pointless embroidery projects. Never mind the immense skill and effort that goes into textile work of all kinds. Or the near magical craft that goes into getting bread to rise properly. Or the careful tending of the garden so it produces food.

In the gaze of male-dominated stories, the heroes return home to cozy cottages that have been meticulously maintained in their absence. There’s wood for a warm fire, a meal that magically appears before them, and a restful bed with linens and blankets that somehow miraculously manifested. Of course this is all due to the women’s work, those who stayed at home and labored to put all of this in place. The labor and skill that’s so uninteresting that it rarely merits mention in an epic fantasy tale, except to be scorned by the one who is Not Like the Other Women who live such boring lives.

I’m positing that female characters may be as varied in appearance, skills, interests, thoughts, ambitions, and dress as any other character. We can move past the staid trope where “female” is a character definition. Instead of the group of protagonists with the Lead Boy, the Nerdy Boy, the Athletic Boy, and the Girl, we might find that there are other ways to characterize a person who is female. And I don’t mean presenting the Pretty Girl vs. the Nerdy Girl.

Female characters in fantasy can take on many kinds of roles, and possess many skills. In my Forgotten Empires trilogy, I have a queen who loves fashion—and is a canny politician. There’s also a warrior woman who’s vain about her hair, a female general with a hard, pragmatic outlook, a lady-in-waiting who’s exceptionally good at comforting people and another with grand ambitions. There’s also a woman who is a proficient weaver—and bomb maker.

The kinds of female characters we can portray in fantasy are as varied as all of humanity. Fantasy stories portraying lesbian, bi, ace, and other non-heteronormative female characters have made great strides in showing other ways of being female. They’re fantastic (in every sense of the word) to read. But, being a heteronormative female who likes classically feminine things doesn’t make your brains leak out of your ears. A woman with a sexual preference for men shouldn’t be subject to the male gaze any more than any other person.

“Strong” doesn’t equate to masculine, and femaleness doesn’t mean a person too oppressed to know better. Everyone should be able to dress however they like, without being criticized for it—and they should still be taken seriously.

Jeffe Kennedy Photo

Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author whose works include novels, non-fiction, poetry, and short fiction. She has won the prestigious RITA® Award from Romance Writers of America (RWA), has been a finalist twice, been a Ucross Foundation Fellow, received the Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship for Poetry, and was awarded a Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) as a Director at Large.

She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with two Maine coon cats, plentiful free-range lizards and a very handsome Doctor of Oriental Medicine.

Jeffe can be found online at her website: JeffeKennedy.com, every Sunday at the popular SFF Seven blog, on Facebook, on Goodreads and pretty much constantly on Twitter @jeffekennedy. She is represented by Sarah Younger of Nancy Yost Literary Agency.

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Thank you so much to all of last week’s guests! The last two guest posts are going up tomorrow and Tuesday, but before announcing the schedule, here’s how to catch up on anything you’ve missed so far.

All of the guest posts from April 2020 can be found here, the first week in review can be found here, the next week in review is here, and in last week’s guest posts:

And the recommendation list project has been updated and opened for new recommendations! In 2013, Renay from Lady Business asked readers to submit some of their favorite science fiction and fantasy books written by women and we’ve been collecting submissions every year since. After updating it to include last year’s submissions, the list now includes 2,710 titles, many of which have been recommended multiple times. (There’s one book that’s been recommended 58 times!) It’s also possible to add more books to the list: you can add up to 10 of your favorites (or, if you’ve already done that, 10 of your favorites read over the last year).

A Note on the Recommendation List Project Search: It was brought to my attention this weekend that the search on the list was no longer working—something must have changed with the API sometime after I tested it earlier this month, which is odd timing since there’s never once been a problem when testing it each year and then it suddenly stopped working after I’d tested it this year. In any case, the search is working again, and I’m sorry if you ran into any problems with trying to add books. Please do let me know if you run into any further issues, and if you have some books you’d like to add, please add them!

Next week, Women in SF&F Month 2020 continues with guest posts by:

Women in SF&F Month 2020 Schedule Graphic

April 27: Jeffe Kennedy (Forgotten Empires, The Twelve Kingdoms)
April 28: Reni K Amayo (Daughters of Nri, “Andromeda”)

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Today’s guest is Robin Kirk! She’s an award-winning poet and essayist, and her short fiction appears in Beyond the Nightlight, Tomorrow: Apocalyptic Short StoriesWicked South: Secrets and Lies: Stories for Young Adults, and more. The Bond, her science fiction debut novel, received the 2018 Foreword INDIES Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction and was a finalist in the 2019 Manly Wade Wellman Award for North Carolina Science Fiction and Fantasy. The second book in the Bond Trilogy, The Hive Queen, is coming out on August 3!

The Bond by Robin Kirk Book Cover The Hive Queen by Robin Kirk Book Cover

Science Fiction and Human Rights
By Robin Kirk

Science fiction is one of the greatest and most effective forms of political writing.”
Nnedi Okorafor, award-winning author of the Binti series

 

Science fiction is often credited for inspiring advances in technology. Jules Verne, author of adventure stories like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, may have inspired submarines. Arthur C. Clarke imagined using satellites for global communications. Lillian Cunningham’s gripping “Moonrise” podcast, produced for the Washington Post, traces how science fiction helped propel both the Soviet and American space programs.

As a longtime human rights advocate as well as a sci-fi writer, I believe this genre has inspired more than objects. Through the lens of story, we’ve also explored ideas about how society could or should function. Women writers especially have tested the boundaries of what it means to be human and live in connection with other humans.

And that shapes what rights we think we do or should have—even who should have rights at all. This observation is almost as old as science fiction itself. As the world careened toward World War II, H.G. Wells—author of War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and The Invisible Man, among other works, and a committed socialist—wrote “The Rights of Man,” a prescient treatise that proposed not only political rights, but rights to nourishment, housing, health care, and a home.

In “Imagining Human Rights: rights through the lens of speculative fiction,” a class I taught this semester at Duke University, I relied on authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler, and Nnedi Okorafor, among others, to explore how women writers have compelled us to examine the complexities of rights and how they may shift—or explode in our faces.

I started the course with Le Guin’s deceptively simple short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” For me, the story presents a powerful allegory for our willingness in modern society to accept the suffering of others so long as we are comfortable. In a 2018 Paris Review interview, N.K. Jemisin described a category of what she called “Omelas stories,” which, like Le Guin’s spare tale, “gut punch(es) you with the fact that this is the reality of living in a modern capitalist society. You are living at the expense of, amid the pain of, a lot of people who have suffered to bring you the wonderful lifestyle that you’ve got—if you’ve got that wonderful lifestyle at all, which a lot of folks in this country right now do not.”

Some students had read the story in high school and remembered the relatively simplistic moral they’d gleaned. Of course, they stated, one should walk away from such suffering. Using Jemisin’s analysis, I pressed them. Walking away changes nothing for that child. How, exactly, are you looking for that metaphorical child in your life? While some of my students come from wealthy families, others are first-generation and overcame immense obstacles to go to a place like Duke. They felt they had “earned” the right to be there. But what would it mean to really open that door and peer in at the child whose suffering helped make their success possible? Would any of them—could they—walk away from the Omelas that is Duke’s verdant campus?

Postcard from Octavia E. Butler
Postcard from Octavia E. Butler at Duke’s Rare Book and Manuscript Locus Archive

The class came alive on the day we discussed Butler’s “Bloodchild.” Previously, we’d visited Duke’s Locus Archive and I’d helplessly fan-girled over a Butler postcard to her editor (“I am Octavia E. Butler in all my stories, novels, and letters. How is it that I’ve lost my E in three places in Locus #292? Three places! You owe me three E’s.”). “Bloodchild,” winner of a 1984 Nebula Award and a 1985 Hugo Award, forced the students to detach from gender norms and ask what assumptions they had about rights when faced with survival.

Butler’s protagonist, Gan, is a male human born on an alien planet. With his family, Gan lives in a protected reserve run by T’Gatoi, a Tlic noble. T’Gatoi is a gentle, though firm, ruler. The pact with humans is simple. Each family commits one male child per generation to incubate a Tlic egg.

As with Butler’s other stories, including the mind-bending Xenogenesis series, the relationship can’t be distilled into a simplistic narrative of slavery or gender-bending. Butler maintained that her inspiration for “Bloodchild” lay in issues of sex and gender. These categories presume trade-offs around rights, especially as we edge into worlds where bodies (and body parts) are purchased and hired to create and carry children. In many areas, gender fluidity is replacing gender binaries. My students went over allowed class time as they discussed how this story related to their own lived experience around consent and future plans to have or not have children.

We even drew the Tlic, an exercise in disgust and fascination. I certainly could not have written the books in my own gender-bending fantasy series, The Bond and The Hive Queen, without having first read Butler.

Sadly, our in-person discussions were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. I’d managed to somehow pair the cancellation of classes with the assignment of M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, planning to frame a discussion of rights and climate change once students returned from Spring Break. As it turned out, Carey’s apocalyptic tale and his unforgettable heroine, Melanie, were just as suited to a discussion of pandemic as rebirth and reveal.

Our final assignment is Nnedi Okorafor’s “Spider the Artist,” which takes place in a future Nigeria where multinational corporations defend oil pipelines with spider-like zombies. Fitting for an end-of-class discussion, the story introduces students to a woman who chooses to stand up for justice. In an interview posted to her blog, Okorafor says this story was the first she wrote consciously as pure science fiction.

The story is so rich in sensory detail that I wonder if my students will enjoy feeling transported from their quarantine homes into a Nigerian village so damaged by exploitation that “The air left your skin dirty and smelled like something preparing to die. In some places, it was always daytime because of the noisy gas flares.” Okorafor gives us a rich palette of Nigerian folklore, current politics, and the life experience of so many oppressed people, at the mercy of savage capitalism yet still determined to be human and fight for their rights. For Okorafor, “science fiction is one of the greatest and most effective forms of political writing.”

Only recently have women been fully recognized as having shaped our science fiction imaginary (despite the fact that the creators of the genre include writers like Frankenstein’s author, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, whose mother was a women’s rights champion). In some cases, the contributions are seismic in terms of rights and not confined to the page. Sometimes, just the fact that people of color, women, and the disabled, among others, are visible, regardless of what they are producing, is a rights advance.

For instance, Nichelle Nichols, the actor who played Lieutenant Uhura on Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek, famously considered leaving the show to return to her first love, musical theater. After telling Roddenberry, she happened to attend a fundraiser where the organizers asked to introduce her to a fan. She was shocked when that fan turned out to be the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King told her that Star Trek was one of the few shows he and his wife, Coretta, watched with their three children. When she told King she planned to leave the show, he protested. With the role, he told her, she was showing the world that African Americans were accomplished and capable of doing anything, including traveling the universe.

Nichols chose to remain. She went on to push NASA to recruit more women and people of color, helping to bring in Sally Ride, Guion Bluford, and Mae Jemison, the first black woman to go into space.

When I teach the class again—hopefully with this pandemic in our collective rear-view mirror—my challenge will not be to find material but to pare down the richness of what’s available. My students have helped me see science fiction in a different way, now through the lens of a generation shaped by pandemic and profoundly familiar with how life and their prospects can change in an instant. My one hope is that these stories will help them cope with those changes and feel less defeated by them. It’s a challenge to all writers to find ways to help people understand that they matter and that stories can help us see each other and our planet as precious.

Robin Kirk Photo Robin Kirk is the author of The Bond and The Hive Queen, released on August 3, 2020, books one and two in a fantasy trilogy from Blue Crow Books. Her short story, “Love is a Wild Creature,” is featured in Wicked South: Secrets and Lies: Stories for Young Adults, also by Blue Crow. Her short stories and poems have also appeared in speculative fiction and other publications. Kirk has published three nonfiction books on human rights in Latin America as well as essays, articles, short stories, and opeds. She teaches human rights at Duke University. She is reachable at RobinKirk.com, @RobinKirk on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She is represented by Jacqui Lipton at Raven Quill Literary Agency.