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The third week of the twelfth annual Women in SF&F Month starts tomorrow. Thank you so much to all of last week’s guests for a fantastic week of essays!

More guest posts are coming up Monday–Thursday, but before announcing the schedule, here are last week’s pieces in case you missed any of them.

All of the guest posts from April 2023 can be found here, and last week’s guest posts were:

And there are most guest posts coming up, starting tomorrow! This week’s essays are by:

Women in SF&F Month 2023 Schedule Graphic

April 17: Sienna Frost (Obsidian Awakening, “Sirens“)
April 18: Gemma Weekes (Glimpse: An Anthology of Black British Speculative Fiction, Love Me)
April 19: Lauren J. A. Bear (Medusa’s Sisters)
April 20: Martha Wells (Witch King, The Murderbot Diaries, City of Bones)

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is fantasy and paranormal romance writer Leslye Penelope! She is the author of Song of Blood & Stone, which was selected as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time, and the rest of the books in the Earthsinger Chronicles, as well as Savage City, described as “a dystopian, enemies-to-lovers, portal, shifter fantasy romance.” Her latest novel, The Monsters We Defy, is a heist story described as “historical fantasy that weaves together African American folk magic, history, and romance,” and it was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2022. In addition to writing, she talks about working as a traditional and self-published author in her weekly podcast, My Imaginary Friends. I’m thrilled she’s here today to discuss fantasy writing and computer science in “When Fantasy and STEM Collides.”

Cover of The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope Cover of Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope

When Fantasy and STEM Collide
By Leslye Penelope

I first fell in love with writing the weird and fantastical as a child. Of course, this isn’t particularly unusual. The stories we tell children to help them understand the world around them are filled with monsters and fairies, witches and wizards. Tales of creatures with magic powers who live in impossible worlds are the first stories most of us hear. However, as we grow up, so many of us leave fantasy behind in favor of more realistic fiction and entertainment. The real world encroaches, leaving the fantastical by the wayside.

While I never left it completely behind, I too moved on for a while from reading and writing fantasy. Life sharpened my other interests, eventually leading me to a career in website development. However, I found my way back to my first love and never looked back.

Recently, I was on a panel as part of an event with two other Black women authors, Veronica G. Henry and Nicole Glover. We discovered that all of us work in IT for our day jobs and also write speculative fiction, specifically fantasy. STEM fields are pretty much the epitome of realism. Science, technology, engineering, and math focus heavily on our world and on logic, rationality, and repeatable, predictable results. Also, STEM and fantasy fiction are both male-dominated, at least historically, so what draws women, particularly Black women, to both?

For me, like many others who find themselves in technology-centric jobs, I was always intrigued by science and tech. As a young child, I dreamed of becoming a chemist. I was always doing experiments and putting strange concoctions of ingredients into the freezer or onto the stovetop to see what would happen at different temperatures. Of course, by the time I got to chemistry in the tenth grade and received a hard-fought B instead of an easy A, it occurred to me that perhaps my future did not lie in chemistry. Physics was much the same, to my everlasting chagrin. I loved the idea of science, but the practical application of it lowered my GPA more than I would care to remember.

However, I ended up finding my way into computer science. By the age of eight or so, I had become the de facto technical support resource in my home for our IBM computer. I learned DOS commands and how to fix the dot matrix printer when it refused to print. When we got our first modem, I navigated the world of BBSs (early online chat boards) with relative ease. In school, I studied programming languages like Basic and C++, along with Fortran, which for some reason was part of the curriculum of my minor in computer science decades after it had fallen out of regular use.

My writing practice grew alongside my interest in computers and programming, with the stories I wrote always containing some element of the speculative. Dystopian settings, ghostly doppelgängers, and magical adventures filled the pages. My early influences included Edgar Allan Poe, along with the likes of Virginia Hamilton and Gloria Naylor.

I rejected the common wisdom to write what you know. What I knew was bland suburbia; who wanted to read about that? I wanted to write what I didn’t know, things I could only imagine—the what if’s and what could be’s.

I also wanted to write myself into a world that often felt unwelcoming. In some ways, being a nerdy Black girl in majority White spaces was like being left-handed or seven feet tall—nothing was quite made with you in mind. But in the world I didn’t know, the one that I could only imagine, anything was possible.

On the programming side, writing code is a way to envision an outcome and make it a reality. You can create an algorithm which will do what you tell it to. Your code will also not do what you don’t tell it to, so I learned to be as thorough as possible, which has also served me well in fiction writing. Authors are the gods of our own imagined worlds. We create lives and control the heartbreak and joy of our characters.

In that way, writing speculative fiction can be empowering. I have the ability to write myself into any story I choose, in any role I desire, and program the outcomes. Also, to a certain degree, since writing fiction is about manipulating emotions and outcomes for the reader, I can influence the way another person feels.

Researchers have found that reading fiction increases empathy, and what better way to change the world than to make a reader feel certain emotions about characters they are unfamiliar with or never would have empathized with before?

Those of us who work in STEM often see a direct cause and effect in our work. Scientists might adjust hundreds of variables in order to observe the effects of their studies. They predict the result they’re trying to achieve and then work to make it happen. There are many spiritual traditions which believe that people have a hand in creating our own reality. Writers certainly do it every day, taking readers on journeys emanating purely from our minds. And with recent hype around artificial intelligence-assisted technologies shaking up the publishing industry, and perhaps moving our world ever closer to the dystopias of the Terminator and the Matrix franchises, the programmers and developers responsible for these innovations are, very tangibly, shifting and shaping our actual reality.

Futures predicted in works of speculative fiction or film inspire and change us. The powers of science and art combine to create something new and maybe a little terrifying. However, I’ve always found simpatico between the two main spheres of my world: the creative and the technical. My official biography states that I’m equally left and right-brained and, for me, that feels only natural. Doesn’t that equal an entire brain, after all? I’m grateful that I get to be fully and completely myself in all aspects of my life, using all of my brain and my heart to do the work I enjoy.

Photo of Leslye Penelope
Photo by Valerie Bey
Leslye Penelope has been writing since she could hold a pen and loves getting lost in the worlds in her head. She is an award-winning author of fantasy and paranormal romance. Equally left and right-brained, she studied filmmaking and computer science in college and sometimes dreams in HTML. She hosts the My Imaginary Friends podcast and lives in Maryland with her husband and furry dependents. Visit her online at https://www.lpenelope.com/.

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Today’s guest is fantasy author Hannah Kaner! Her debut novel, Godkiller, became a #1 Sunday Times bestseller after its UK release earlier this year and will be published in the US on September 12, 2023. It’s described as being set in “a land where all gods have been banned, and one young woman is paid to kill those who still hide in the shadows,” but she “discovers a god she cannot kill: Skedi, a small god of white lies.” I’m thrilled that the author is here today with “Don’t damsel your fury.”

Cover of Godkiller by Hannah Kaner

Don’t damsel your fury – Hannah Kaner

I remember being a furious child. Small and blonde, bookish and talkative, I hated how often I was “baby”, how often I was “cute”. I wanted to be loud, strong, and powerful. I wanted to fight my brothers and my cousins, strength to strength, arm to arm, bloody noses and bruises.

Worse was when they started getting bigger, taller, stronger. Worse is that being as loud as the lads was ‘annoying’ (them), ‘boisterous and unladylike’ (adults), ‘disruptive’ (teachers). I’m sure I was all of those things, but it was early that I understood that there was one expectation for ‘girls’, one for ‘boys’, and you were expected to fit neatly into one or the other.

“Look at you! You’re a woman, not a man—
your strength is no match for your enemies” (Sophocles, Electra)

The stories I consumed seemed to agree. It was a woman’s place to be rescued, or to be a best friend, a supporting act or a love interest, or just scenery. If they wanted to take action, they were either ‘chosen ones’ or they must lament or work within their gender or the limits of their bodies. Electra must wait for Orestes before she can claim her revenge, Clytemnestra is punished for seeking her own, Lady Macbeth demands “Come you spirits. . . unsex me here” so she can realise her ambition, Scheherazade must entice Shahryar with stories to save her head from rolling in the morning.

“All extremes of feeling are allied with madness.” (Virginia Woolf, Orlando)

It’s wild what we learn when we are young, how quickly survival takes centre stage. How important it is to fit, to entice, to cajole.

I started to think that in order to be respected as an agent rather than a supporting act I had to adopt some trappings of masculinity. I leaned into ‘tomboy’, I rejected the femininity I saw as weakness, in much the same way as N.K. Jemisin describes in her post ‘Don’t Fear the Unicorn’.

“Take care.
Ares, god of warfare, lives in women, too.” (Sophocles, Electra)

As I grew and felt more comfortable in my own body, in enjoying my femininity, I still struggled with its limits. I’ve been in ‘team’ scenarios where I’m advised to lower and deepen my voice to be respected, where I’ve had to consider how I can rebuff advances without being ostracised or inviting attack, to present my case as if it was someone else’s idea, and to be called a ‘bulldog’ when I have the courage to speak out.

“If you’re not angry, you’re either a stone, or you’re too sick to be angry. . . You should be angry. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.” (Maya Angelou, Iconoclast)

I’m not alone. As more women, diverse and powerful, trans and cis, use their voices and gain acclaim, the backlash causes whiplash: too much. Not enough. Too aggressive, too performative, too attention seeking, too girly, too emasculating. Not woman enough. As if ‘woman’ was a fixed and simple box tied to reproductive organs and an ability to be sideways-smart and pettable. Cute.

“Not, let it be said at once, an unaggressive or uncombative human being. I am an aging, angry woman laying mightily about me with my handbag, fighting hoodlums off.” (Ursula Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction)

So, writing Godkiller, I wanted to write a woman who never learned how to be small in a world that didn’t expect it of her. The challenges and limits of gender and expectation, queerness and nuclear families are still important stories to explore, but in Godkiller I threw those challenges to the wind. Kissen is everything Electra or Lady Macbeth, Clytemnestra and Scheherazade may have, in my imagination, desired. She is furious at the world and not afraid to voice it. She doesn’t need permission to be aggressive, bloody-fists forward, stubborn as a donkey and larger than life.

She is everything that I wanted to read when I was young.

“There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” (Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Trickster)

And Kissen isn’t an isolated incident. In SFF right now, in writing right now, there are stories bursting at the seams with incandescent dances with women’s rage, rage of different ilk’s, furies of different fashions, of women’s anger in fierce flight. We are allowed to be monstrous, to be agents and, even better, to make mistakes.

The space that speculative fiction, fantasy and sci fi, gives us isn’t just to allow us to fight against the shape the world puts on us, but asks the question: what if the world was a different shape? What if instead of learning to fit into the world, what if we expect the world to fit us?

Photo of Hannah Kaner Hannah Kaner is the #1 internationally bestselling author of Godkiller. A Northumbian writer living in Scotland, she is inspired by world mythologies, angry women, speculative fiction, and the stories we tell ourselves about being human.

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Today’s guest is fantasy writer Maya Deane! Her Greek mythology–inspired debut novel, Wrath Goddess Sing, was released last year and is coming out in trade paperback on June 13, 2023. Focused on Achilles, her book is described as “drawing on ancient texts and modern archeology to reveal the trans woman’s story hidden underneath the well-known myths of The Iliad.” I’m excited she’s here today to discuss literary realism and fantasy!

Hardcover of Wrath Goddess Sing by Maya Deane Paperback Cover of Wrath Goddess Sing by Maya Deane

In “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” the late great Ursula Le Guin argued that fantasy threatens “all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial” in our lives.

I agree, and I can explain how. Fundamentally, fantasy refuses to be realistic.

If your first reaction is to tell me why I’m wrong, first let me explain what I mean.

What does it mean for a story to be realistic? Realism is a literary mode, a sort of meta-story that shapes the stories that can be told. It was pioneered in the 19th century by the likes of William Dean Howells, who argued in Criticism and Fiction that fanciful, romantic, or fantastical stories occupied a lesser place in the Darwinian evolution of literature, and that realistic fiction should “portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know,” with “fidelity to experience and probability of motive.”

But whose experiences and motives are realistic and probable, and whose measure do we all know? Historically, the answer has been the class of people who publish books: middle-class, bourgeois, white, cisgender men and women, usually culturally Christian, usually heterosexual or willing to pass as heterosexual. But I am a Jewish trans woman who has used the pinnacle of modern medical technology to literally shapeshift from the cellular level up; once I was imprisoned in my body, understood by no one; now I am manifest in the world, known and loved and happy. And even now, many will insist that my story is unrealistic, though I have lived it.

Thus realism is not simply a question of plausibility; it is a question of legibility through the consensus of a dominant class which chose to see the world in a very specific and convenient way. In realism, there are no dragons or gods to upend the social hierarchy and bring transformative change; there is only “probable” cause and effect. There are no prophetic dreams, only psychological manifestations; nothing is ineffable or unknowable; paradox does not exist; even if we do not know all the rules, we can learn them, manipulate them, and make the world predictable and controllable. And unrealistic things — like me — can be banished back to the world of make-believe.

Realism has changed the way we view history and mythology. To a realist’s eyes, Roman trans women are less realistic than cis women, though we have ancient statues of their naked bodies. If I said there were trans women in ancient Alexandria, realists would reflexively doubt, demanding proof they never expected to see; yet in the first century, Philo of Alexandria was already complaining (like a modern Fox News host) that trans women of his day were so rich and beautiful (and had surgery so young) that their very lives were an affront to “natural order.”

Is Aphrodite the manifestation of Ouranos or the daughter of Zeus? Did Agamemnon promise his daughter to Achilles at Troy, or kill her at Aulis? Is Circe the daughter of Hecate or Helios? Was Medusa from a Greek island or from Libya? Is Achilles a man or a woman? Did the Trojan War happen in the late 13th century BCE, or in the timeless realms of mythology? If you think you have a definitive answer, that’s the legacy of realism, which sculpted mythology on a Procrustean bed into a tamed, consistent canon instead of a dazzling prismatic spectrum of contradictory stories.

Realism has influenced fantasy too. “Hard magic” — magic systems with clear, revealed, knowable laws subject to the scientific method, more the province of engineers than poets — is realism. Realism calculates the wingspans of dragons to make sure they have enough buoyancy and lift to carry them aloft in some analog of our skies. These are not bad things! I enjoy logistics in my fantasy! But realism in fantasy has a darker side; brown hobbits and Black stormtroopers and lesbian necromancers and transgender demigoddesses are deemed “unrealistic,” but fantastic versions of middle-class, bourgeois, white, cisgender, heterosexual, culturally Christian men and women are somehow less remarkable.

But at its heart, even the most realistic fantasy is fantastic, refusing part or all of the world we are told is real, and that is what makes it glorious, and that is why I write fantasy. In fantasy, I can contradict the false realist narrative with deeper truths, ignoring lawyerly questions of consistency and logistics, refusing to justify that which contradicts the dominant view. I can call up Achilles as a trans woman, fiercely alive, full of dreadful joy and beauty; I can summon forth gods not tamed into an Edith Hamilton-style rogue’s gallery of petty bickerers; I can rip down the wall between “history” and “myth” to expand the imagination, conjuring women like me where generations of teachers have falsely insisted none could exist; I can reveal inner worlds both wonderful and terrible, and let them melt the universe.

Le Guin wrote that those who oppose fantasy are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom. But freedom is the least realistic thing in the world. We can only be free by embracing the fantastic first.

Photo of Maya Deane Maya Deane is the author of Wrath Goddess Sing (Morrow), which inspired some very popular Achilles genderswap fanfiction by an obscure Ionian poet named Homer. Follow her @mayadeanewriter, and be sure to buy Wrath Goddess Sing before it’s cool, like Homer did.

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This week’s first Women in SF&F Month guest is science fiction and fantasy author Vida Cruz-Borja! She is the author of the excellent IGNYTE Award–winning essay “We Are the Mountain: A Look at the Inactive Fantasy Protagonist,” which appears in the new essay collection Letters to a Writer of Color. Her short fiction includes “Odd and Ugly” and “Have Your #Hugot Harvested at This Diwata-Owned Café,” and she has two collections: Beyond the Line of Trees and, most recently, Song of the Mango and Other New Myths. Her latest is described as “stories woven from elements of classical myths and folklore from the Philippines and other parts of the world, as well as from visions of the modern and of the future”—and I’m thrilled she’s here today with “‘New myths’ and the people who tell them.”

Cover of Song of the Mango and Other New Myths by Vida Cruz-Borja

‘New myths’ and the people who tell them
By Vida Cruz-Borja

On a panel about science fiction and mythology I was once on, an audience member asked what I felt was the jackpot question: “Why aren’t any other myths as well-known as Greek and Norse myths?”

Mythology says a lot of interesting things about a particular culture at a particular time and place. A body of them is like a culture’s Dead Sea scrolls or Hammurabi stele. Not only do you get to learn about fascinating material cultures—architecture, pottery, food preparation, and so much more—but you get to learn about a culture’s values and how they play out across experiences like war, sex, and death. All great takeaways for science fiction and fantasy writers.

But the same things that make mythology exciting—war, sex, death—can be the same things that make the mythology vanish. An expanding religion may destroy records or alter them to carry foreign values and turn natives away from traditional ones. A colonizer may marry and impregnate a native storyteller, who will have no time for tasks other than childcare. A younger generation’s desire to live and work in cities spells the death of old traditions—such as the recitations of myths—as there are fewer and fewer people to pass them on to. There are many other reasons a culture’s mythology may vanish; these are just a few.

Consider that as history is written by the victors, so, too, do the victors propagate the planet’s most popular myths. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but much of the Western world has a history of invasion, colonization, and empire—and for the longest time, Ancient Greece was upheld as their ideal. Today, Norse myths are gaining traction thanks to Marvel movies—which are produced by Hollywood, which dominates much of the entertainment of the English-speaking world. A lot of Norse mythology has also been sanitized for the Christianized Anglophone West.

Why does the media machine of the West keep retelling Greek and Norse myths? Because the values of those cultures have been co-opted and transformed for a modern audience. Much of the media reinforces those values through subliminal and more palatable messaging. Re-teaching and reinforcing values—especially through retellings of myths—is one of the glues that holds the behavior of “civilized” society together.

Even though many other myths have been lost to time, there are many that still remain, accessible through the right keywords in a search engine and books. The culture that eschews them in favor of the same old myths, however, will not change; as a reader, it’s up to you to find them and get to know them.


But should you, as a writer who is likely an outsider to the myth’s culture of origin, retell them?

The answers I’ve given before were largely for White would-be writers seeking permission that isn’t mine to give. My own stake in the answer to this question is about articulating who I am and what is mine and what I can freely do with what is mine.

Philippine myths are not well-known beyond the Philippine archipelago—heck, many are often not well-known even to Filipinos (having almost 200 ethnic groups and as many languages will do that to you). Case in point: I’m a middle-class English-speaking Tagalog Filipina based in Christianized, Westernized Manila. My very good education in an all-girls’ Catholic school barely included any of our constellation of mythologies.

Manila lost who she was before various other influences overtook her; by extension, her people also lost who they were. We seem uneasy about accepting that we are the heady mix of all the colonizers and trading partners that left their marks on us. And so we—I, in the hope of finding something that hasn’t been whitewashed—turn to our indigenous siblings for hints of who we used to be before we had an identity crisis.

But I am uneasy about this, too. Some of these groups don’t even see themselves as “Filipino” in that Westernized nationalist sense of the word. We live on the same soil, but we are worlds apart; even when we have similarities, how can I take what is theirs and use it in my own art just like a thieving colonizer?

This tweet was alluding to using indigenous Philippine designs in visual art, but I think it applies to writing, too. The answer is equal parts astute research, respect, and intentionally taking inspiration from and paying homage to what has come before.


The “new myths” in the title of my debut short story collection, Song of the Mango and Other New Myths, refers to the fifteen stories that contain echoes or are outright remixes of existing myths, fairy tales, folklore, and tropes pervading certain genres. Many of them are of a Filipino milieu because they were written for a Filipino audience. You’ll find here kapre performing deeds of daring and doom, diwata uplifting the poorest of the poor, tikbalang acting in theater plays, and much more besides—as larger than life and as complex as the heroes and monsters of any Greek or Norse myth.

But not all my stories are set in the Philippines, whether in the primary or secondary world. That’s on purpose. I reserve the right, just as White writers unabashedly and unquestioningly do, to sometimes write about characters and places that are not mirrors of who I am and where I come from.

I, too, have things to say about cliché fantasy tropes, European-esque fairy tales, the care and destruction of the environment—and sometimes I need to step out of Filipino “cosmetics” to say it. Still, my Filipino-ness will probably peek out at you between the lines, whether you know what you’re perceiving or not and whether I realized what I was writing or not.

I’ve mixed a lot of things together—some of them truly outrageous—with modern values to form new myths for a contemporary era. I enjoyed the alchemical process of creating them and I hope that this book will reach readers who will be susceptible to its own peculiar, “new” magic.

Photo of Vida Cruz-Borja Vida Cruz-Borja is a Filipina fantasy and science fiction writer, editor, artist, and conrunner. Her short fiction and essays have been published in F&SF, Fantasy, Strange Horizons, PodCastle, Expanded Horizons, and various anthologies. She won the 2022 IGNYTE Award for Best Creative Nonfiction for “We are the Mountain: A Look at the Inactive Protagonist,” which was reprinted in Letters to a Writer of Color (2023). She is the author of two illustrated fantasy short story collections: Beyond the Line of Trees (2019) and Song of the Mango and Other New Myths (2022). Her work in her different fields has been nominated, longlisted, and recommended for the Hugo Award, the British Science Fiction Award, and the James Tiptree Jr. (now Otherwise) Award. Currently, she’s a freelance book editor with Tessera Editorial and The Darling Axe and is co-director of FiyahCon Fringe BonFiyah under the larger umbrella of FIYAHCON, a BIPOC-centered convention for science fiction and fantasy readers and writers.

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It’s almost time for the second week of the twelfth annual Women in SF&F Month. Thank you so much to all of last week’s guests for a wonderful first week!

There will be more guest posts Monday–Thursday of this week, too. But before announcing the schedule, here are last week’s essays in case you missed any of them.

All of the guest posts from April 2023 can be found here, and last week’s guest posts were:

And there are most guest posts coming up, starting tomorrow! This week’s essays are by:

Women in SF&F Month 2023 Schedule Graphic

April 10: Vida Cruz-Borja (Song of the Mango and Other New Myths)
April 11: Maya Deane (Wrath Goddess Sing)
April 12: Hannah Kaner (Godkiller)
April 13: L. Penelope (The Monsters We Defy, Earthsinger Chronicles)