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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)

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Today’s guest is fantasy author Hadeer Elsbai! Her debut novel and the first book in The Alamaxa Duology, The Daughters of Izdihar, is described as “set wholly in a new world, but inspired by modern Egyptian history, about two young women—Nehal, a spoiled aristocrat used to getting what she wants and Giorgina, a poor bookshop worker used to having nothing—who find they have far more in common, particularly in their struggle for the rights of women and their ability to fight for it with forbidden elemental magic.” I’m excited she’s here today discussing research and combining speculative fiction with real-world inspirations in “The Doctoress on a Donkey: Finding Transformative Fantasy in History.”

US Cover of The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai UK Cover of The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai

The Doctoress on a Donkey:
Finding Transformative Fantasy in History

In the mid-1800s in Egypt, there existed a small corps of female medics who rode donkeys as transportation in Cairo. It sounds like something out of a fantasy novel, or at least it did to me, but it’s real: Muhammad Ali Pasha, then-Khedive of Ottoman Egypt, in a push to modernize the nation and prevent the spread of disease, decided to enlist women to become “hakimas” — translated as “doctoresses” — in order to provide services to the country’s cloistered women, who could not be treated by male physicians.

I discovered the doctoresses in a book called Policing Egyptian Women: Sex, Law, and Medicine in Khedival Egypt by Liat Kozma, which had sourced the information from a 1974 research article by LaVerne Kuhnke titled “The Doctoress on a Donkey: Women Health Officers in Nineteenth Century Egypt.” At the time, I was working at NYU Libraries, with access to a vast wealth of resources, and it was only my position that permitted me free access. I unearthed a treasure trove of research dedicated to the history of early modern Egypt, the sort of niche academic histories that would be unknown even to the average Egyptian, and certainly to the average American.

The aforementioned doctoresses lived by strict rules, as they were technically part of the Ministry of War and were subject to army regulations. Their marriages to doctors were arranged by government officials, their uniforms were standard issue, and the cost of the donkeys they rode was deducted from their salaries. We know virtually nothing about their individual lives or the adventures they were permitted to have. But fantasy and history work in tandem. History inspires fantasy, and fantasy novels can often inspire an interest in history. Fantasy can be a place to expand on the historical narrative in more freeing and transformative ways. Fantasy is an opportunity to give women and other marginalized groups bigger lives than the historical record permits.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to fit the donkey-riding doctoresses in The Daughters of Izdihar (though I hope to write about them in future books!), but I couldn’t have written the book without them, nonetheless, because it was the doctoresses that cemented my interest in the history of Egyptian women, which led me to Doria Shafik, who spearheaded the Egyptian suffrage movement in the 1950s, and became the main inspiration for The Daughters of Izdihar, and for one character in particular. I decided to share this history of my homeland in the form of a fantasy novel, where it would be more accessible than academic work, and give readers a different image of Egypt than what they perhaps might be accustomed to.

Incorporating all of this history into The Daughters of Izdihar was an interesting intellectual exercise, fraught with many questions. How closely should I mirror the historical record? How much should I merge the lives of different historical figures? How could I adjust events to account for the presence of magic? What aspects of 19th-century Egypt needed to be elided for my story to work? For example, women in 19th-century Egypt were secluded in harems, which, if incorporated into The Daughters of Izdihar, would have severely restricted the movements of my majority-female cast of characters.

I also, frankly, did not want to highlight harems, a historical reality that is often greatly misunderstood by the West, and which has contributed greatly to Orientalist depictions and understandings of the Middle East. I was already walking a difficult line, writing about overt misogyny in a Middle Eastern-inspired country.

And so the world of The Daughters of Izdihar wound up a simulacrum of 19th-century Egypt, with major events from the 1950s along with bits and pieces of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and my own experience living in Cairo. The book’s setting became a combined reality that didn’t really align with any particular time period in Egypt, because, after all, it’s a fantasy world. It’s not actually real, no matter how closely it mirrors real life.

In real life, Doria Shafik, after years of house arrest and isolation, allegedly committed suicide by throwing herself off her balcony. Her fictional counterpart will come to no such tragedy.

This is the freedom that comes with writing fantasy that pulls from history: you control the narrative. The feminist leader does not have to die alone and unhappy. And the doctoresses do not have to embody the limited lives depicted in the historical narrative: they can transform into detectives, politicians, heroes, and villains — whatever you imagine them to be.

Photo of Hadeer Elsbai Hadeer Elsbai is an Egyptian-American writer and librarian. Born in New York City, she grew up being shuffled between Queens and Cairo. Hadeer studied history at Hunter College and later earned her Master’s degree in library science from Queens College, making her a CUNY alum twice over. Aside from writing, Hadeer enjoys cats, iced drinks, live theater, and studying the 19th century. THE DAUGHTERS OF IZDIHAR is her first novel.

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Today’s guest is YA fantasy author Elisa A. Bonnin! Her first two novels were both released late last year: Dauntless, described as a Filipino-inspired book in which “a teen girl must bring together two broken worlds in order to save her nation,” and Stolen City, in which “twin thieves attempt to pull off a daring heist.” I recently read Dauntless and adored the setting with its dangerous beasts and settlements amongst the branches of large sprawling trees, as well as the main character’s journey as she discovers there’s more to her world than she thought. I’m thrilled the author is here today to discuss writing characters and defaults in “Breaking the Mold, or ‘What even is neurotypical anyway?’”

Cover of Dauntless by Elisa A. Bonnin Cover of Stolen City by Elisa A. Bonnin

Breaking the Mold, or “What even is neurotypical anyway?”

I’m autistic.

Depending on how we know each other or whether or not you pay attention to my social media, this might be the first thing you know about me, might not come as a surprise, or might be completely unexpected. I’ve often been told “no, you’re not” by people who only see me when I’m masking or by well-meaning family members who share similar traits (I have bad news for them…). My autism was discovered when I was a child, when a difficult family situation triggered a cavalcade of meltdowns that sent even my normally skeptical mother running for medical advice (the doctor had some bad news for her too).

What’s interesting, though, is that even though I had the privilege of knowing I was autistic from a young age, because I was told I was “high-functioning” and that I “didn’t need to worry about it”, I never really bothered to learn much about what being autistic meant, and the ways that autism changed the way I perceived the world. (A shame. If I had, it might have saved me from major burnout in my late 20s. This will be my last aside for now, take a look here for a case against the continued use of functioning labels.) In particular, I had no idea how being autistic was affecting my writing, and the way that I described my characters’ reactions to other people and the world around them.

While I’ve been writing since childhood, I can only think of two times that I’ve deliberately tried to write an autistic character into my work. The first, from a draft in the early 2010s, was a character near and dear to my heart, a magical empath who channels all her frustrations into her art. The second character will be in my Winter 2025 novel. In between, I wrote a lot of characters, including protagonists, who I assumed were neurotypical. Time has given me some evidence that that assumption might be incorrect, and has also led me to question if I’ve ever written a neurotypical POV character, and more importantly—why on earth I thought neurotypical characters were the default anyway.

Let’s start with Seri. She’s the protagonist of my debut novel Dauntless. Seri is the kind of character who starts out soft-spoken and unassuming but grows into a warrior who fights for what she believes in. She was never written to be autistic. In fact, I started writing her just after finishing up a book with the autistic artist I mentioned above, so when I was writing Seri, I thought of her as neurotypical. The trap I’d caught myself in was one of thinking that being autistic meant having certain traits, and because Seri wasn’t a character with those traits, I couldn’t write her as an autistic character.

And…I mean…for the most part, I still don’t think Seri is autistic. She certainly wouldn’t score very high on any online tests that look for evidence of autism. But because I was writing her, there were some things about the way she saw the world that made sense to me and didn’t make much sense to my editor or my neurotypical readers.

It was the way she processed information. There were moments when Seri would be in stressful situations and, drawing on my own experience of being in stressful situations, I would describe how sound faded, becoming replaced by a high-pitched whine that I could hear in my head. I would know people were talking to me, sure, but their voices would be muffled and difficult to make out, a bit like adult Peanuts characters. I thought that this was something that happened to everyone.

Turns out it wasn’t.

Because Seri was never intended to be autistic, I removed the odd sensory elements from her narrative and moved on to Stolen City, a book with four POV characters. Stolen City eventually became my second novel, published the same year as Dauntless. As my first draft of Stolen City came back from edits, I read through it and realized that I had done the same thing again, with a character called Liam.

Liam was always meant to be a quiet bookworm, obsessed with the possibilities of magic and forever exasperated by his more extroverted twin sister Arian, with her blatant disregard for the rules and her love of danger. I’d known both of these characters for a very long time—all the characters in Stolen City are derived from characters my best friend and I developed in high school—so I thought I knew Liam in every way possible. I decided it would be fun to explore the dark side of him that we often hinted at while playing, and to do that, I built a situation where he would be incredibly stressed out. I made his ex-girlfriend betray him in favor of the same colonizing force that took his home and his family away, and he reacted rather violently to that betrayal.

Writing his reaction was cathartic for me, but when I got comments that parts of his reaction were unsympathetic, I had to do some soul searching to figure out why. I realized that though I never intended to, I had written Liam as autistic, and the explosion he had in that “unsympathetic” scene was a meltdown. Armed with that knowledge, I was able to dive into revisions and fix the scene so that it was focused more on his feelings, on the mental processes that were causing him to break down. The result was much more effective. In the end, Liam became my first (and only) published autistic character.

Or so I thought. Because when Stolen City came out, I was able to get an advance copy to my sister (also autistic), and when she read it, she praised me for my portrayal of Liam and my portrayal of his sister, Arian.

Arian, who I really thought wasn’t autistic apparently has some traits that have resonated in autistic people. And that happened completely unintentionally.

Now, while I’m writing, I’m much more sensitive to this tendency. I can see it happening often, especially when I write books that carry more emotion in them, books where the focus is strongly on a protagonist’s inner world. I see it happening now, in my upcoming Winter 2025 novel Lovely Dark and Deep, which is a magic school story wrapped around my protagonist’s struggles with friendship and identity. And I wonder if it might happen in my current WIP, which features my first extroverted protagonist. In fact, the more it happens, the more I realize that autistic might actually be my default for characters, and that I have to work to make characters neurotypical.

The answer to my existential crisis might be a bit obvious to you, because of course I keep making my characters autistic. I’ve never known what it’s like to be neurotypical. But because the neurotypical experience is always shown as the default, I never questioned why my characters were neurotypical until proven otherwise.

It makes me wonder just how many other “defaults” I’ve internalized without thinking about it. Straight characters are also perceived as a default, but could my characters all be bisexual until proven otherwise? (Actually yes, probably.) Also, considering it took me until Dauntless to figure out that I could write non-white characters in fantasy and set my stories somewhere non-European, it really does make me wonder why on earth a bisexual autistic mixed-race Filipino girl came to the conclusion that all of her characters needed to be straight, white, and neurotypical.

The operative question here is “why”, because I know “how”. All the stories I had ever read prior to creating my own had those defaults. I grew up with those defaults, even growing up in a non-Western country. And as a writer, I’m still working each day to break myself of these habits, to question my assumptions about what the audience does and does not need to be told about my characters.

I’m getting better at that, but I’m not there yet. I still make assumptions about my own characters, and I know that I’m much worse off when it comes to other people’s characters. I’m still surprised when a character from a piece of media deviates from this incredibly narrow thing I was raised to think was the standard, and I still need to sit down with myself and ask myself hard questions.

But as far as my characters go, I put a lot of myself into each POV character I write. And so it’s probably fair to say that as far as defaults go, my characters are going to end up quite a lot like me.

Photo of Elisa A. Bonnin Elisa A. Bonnin was born and raised in the Philippines, after which she moved to the United States to study chemistry and later oceanography. After completing her doctorate, she moved to Germany to work as a postdoctoral scientist. A lifelong learner, Elisa is always convinced that she should “maybe take a class in something” and as a result, has amassed an eclectic collection of hobbies. But writing will always be her true love. Publishing a book has been her dream since she was eight years old, and she is thrilled to finally be able to share her stories. She is the author of Dauntless and Stolen City.

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Women in SF&F Month continues today with a guest post by Malka Older! She is a Campbell Award finalist and the author of the Locus and Neukom Award–nominated novel Infomocracy, as well as the other two cyberpunk political thrillers in the Hugo Award–nominated series The Centenal Cycle. Her work also includes the collection …and Other Disasters and writing for Orphan Black: The Next Chapter. The Mimicking of Known Successes, her latest science fiction novel and the first book in the series The Investigations of Mossa and Pleiti, is described as “a cozy Holmesian murder mystery and sapphic romance, set on Jupiter”—and I’m thrilled she is here today to share how Watership Down had an influence on some of its themes!

Cover of The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older

Rereading Watership Down as an adult, I was firstly struck by how well it held up to the love I had for it as a child. The characters still felt vital and real, their lapine culture incredibly rich, their adventures thrilling. But I was also struck by the descriptions of the world that surrounds the story, depicted in loving detail — most of it utterly lost on me. I could not picture ragwort or kingcups; I did not have a mental recording of the songs of yellowhammers or greenfinches; when I read that “a cockchafer droned past,” I didn’t know whether the improbably named beastie was a bird or an insect.

As a child this didn’t bother me much, because I was constantly reading references to things that I didn’t understand, whether one of Anne Shirley’s quotations or a comparison to a historical event I hadn’t learned about yet or simply a mundane object that had either disappeared or been renamed, like a snood or a looking glass. Indeed, that’s part of the power of old books, their capacity to serve as measuring sticks for how much we’ve changed; the allure of drawing us into another time combined with the opacity of unknown words or concepts.

As an adult living in an era of environmental crisis, however, the blank details from Watership Down felt weightier, laden with a strange kind of nostalgia; a bit pathetic, perhaps a bit prophetic. Were we, as a species, going to lose more and more of our environmental literacy? Were we going to lose more and more of those species? And what, of the things I wrote about, would be utterly incomprehensible without research to future readers?

These ideas became the kernel for the academic system in my new book, The Mimicking of Known Successes. Set on (around) Jupiter several centuries after the end of the world — that is, after environmental catastrophe forced the evacuation of Earth — it depicts a society fascinated by what was lost and frustrated by the incompleteness of our understanding of Earth’s ecosystems. One of the main characters, Pleiti, is a classical scholar, using books including Watership Down to fill in some of those gaps, tabulating and cross-referencing animal species in an attempt to gauge ratios and relationships.

For me, this idea lets me explore several different, linked themes. One cluster is temporalities: the way we will be seen in the future; our own fetishization of the past. Another is the potential of fiction as a source of understanding the past (or, in the case of science-fiction, the future): since writers reflect the assumptions of their own time, even when a story isn’t factually accurate its backdrop tells us fundamental, often otherwise forgotten things about its era. It also, not incidentally, lets me both enjoy and poke fun at academia as a setting — particularly potent for a murder mystery, with the parallels of searching for information.

In the universities of my imagined Jupiter, however, the classics faculty, while the most prestigious, is only one of three. There is also a modern field of study — dedicated to Jupiter itself and human life there — and a speculative one, prizing invention and imagination. I’m looking forward to delving more into those in the sequels.

Photo of Malka Older Malka Older is a writer, aid worker, and sociologist. Her science-fiction political thriller Infomocracy was named one of the best books of 2016 by Kirkus ReviewsBook Riot, and The Washington Post. She is the creator of the serial Ninth Step Station, currently running on Realm, and her short story collection And Other Disasters came out in November 2019. She is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society and teaches in the genre fiction MFA at Western Colorado University. Her opinions can be found in The New York TimesThe Nation, and Foreign Policy, among others.