attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
Faith -- or even the considered rejection of faith -- is an area often overlooked in world-building for speculative fiction in spite of the impact it's had on our world (for good and bad). How does faith affect the world view and formation of a fictional world?

The first thing you find out about writing a novel is that you know the way you thought you had everything planned out?  Not so much.  the world that feels so detailed and vivid in your head is full of holes.  As you start writing, a few thousand facets of your world get filled in and polished, and these things you didn’t think about before become important enough to ride around in the back of your mind all the time.  For me, the consequence to this is that I keep finding potential [ profile] bittercon  panel ideas and saying to myself, yes, I have to write this post, because I’m doing things with this in the Novel.  Bear with me.

In my novel, the main character is deeply religious.  Her religiosity is important, though never central, to the story both politically, because she belongs to a faith that is a somewhat oppressed minority in the country she’s just beginning to rule, but she comes from a nation of people who had only just recently conquered the country she rules, and in that nation, her religion is the dominant group, and also emotionally, to her as a character.  Her beliefs also don’t line up perfectly with the standard doctrine of her faith.  She’s no radical heretic, but like may of us, she’s a little heterodox.  Other characters in the story have their own religious perspectives, either as fervent believers, or as people whose belief is a small part of their lives, or as people who just haven’t thought much about it (actual disbelief being much more difficult in a pre scientific revolution society).  And as I’ve been writing, and comparing other books to mine, I’ve noticed that all of those things I just mentioned are rare in the genre.

Which isn’t to say that religion is thin on the ground in the genre, not at all.  An author’s religious beliefs, or passionate lack of belief, and a wish to  inspire others to share those beliefs has even been the foundation of some of Speculative Fiction’s most popular works.  C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass series are allegories for Christianity, and against religion entirely, respectively.

Gods and Goddesses frequently populate fantasy worlds, real, substantial, and willing to grant their followers power.  Fantasy reflects its connections to mythology in this way.  Mythologies, by their very nature have divine forces acting on the world.  The followers of these gods and goddesses have ample proof of their existence, which changes the importance of belief, and makes the gods, for the purposes of the story, another form of functional magic.

In Science Fiction settings, there is a tendency for religion to have fallen by the wayside as science has progressed further.  A character in such a setting need never consider a rejection of faith, because society has already done that for him.  A lack of a religious belief is as taken for granted as belief in the local gods was in early societies.  Or religion doesn’t show up at all.  It is just absent all consideration.

The most perplexing treatment religion in Speculative Fiction can receive, at least to me, is the one most often found in Urban Fantasy.  The traditional remedies against vampires, and many other evil monsters are religious in origin, and in stories where religion is not otherwise even mentioned, those remedies show up, crosses and holy water for vampires, baptism for fairies, hallowed ground for the risen dead, can all be invoked against the supernatural without anyone seeing this as evidence for Christianity.  Characters in on the hunting, even using these symbols may themselves belong to other religions, and no one seems to see a conflict.  Even when other gods appear, no one notices a contradiction.

Religion in Speculative Fiction is dealt with in many, many ways, but strangely, enough, just as religion, as an expression of culture and unprovable belief.  This is what I’m trying to do, in my novel, and the lack of it in the rest of the genre makes me wonder if I’m just the one odd duck who likes that kind of thing, and if I should scrap it.  And this lack makes me wonder, and not just because of my perpetual case of authorial insecurity, why?

What do you think of religion in Speculative Fiction?  Any specific examples you like?  Dislike?  Think it shouldn’t be in the genre at all?  Think it should be in the genre more?  Do tell.

Written for [ profile] bittercon the online convention for those of us who can't make it to any other kind, on a topic adapted from a panel at the 2012 Chicon, the text of which is quoted at the beginning of this post.
attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
Based on our genre, there aren't any. Why not?

I am tempted to just to leave this question alone and see what discussion it prompts in everyone else.  This is something I have noticed in a vague, background kind of way, but I never really thought about it (though I probably should have).

Part of it, I know, is that literature and other media as a whole don’t portray a lot of people who aren’t skinny.  People in fiction are usually skinny unless there’s a reason for them not to be skinny.  A side character may be fat and jolly, or bustling and fat, or lazy and fat.  A villain may be fat and greedy, or fat and stupid, or fat and dirty.  A character is fat, much like a character has a disability, or is nonwhite, because the author chose for them to be that way.  Skinny is a default in fiction, and fat is a deviation.  Nowadays, there are more fat main characters, especially in Romance and YA novels, but fat people in fiction are a tiny percentage compared to fat people in real life.

Part of this also has to do with the space program, and the visibility of astronauts as the Science Fiction genre was coming into its own.  Astronauts, as most of us are aware, have to be incredibly physically fit, and have to pass a physical examination before they even begin training that tends to weed out anyone not of slender build.  A lot of Science Fiction involving space travel has an understandable tendency to draw on this.

Some of it has to do with Science Fiction’s aspirational roots.  Science Fiction is most often about imagining a future for ourselves, and from the start, many of those futures were better than the presents from which they sprang.  We would have peace and plenty.  We would travel the stars.  And we will have conquered disease and disability, and everyone will be healthy and beautiful.  And not fat.

Even in horrible futures, skinniness is predominant.  Many dystopians posit a food shortage, and if people are starving, they certainly aren't fat (okay, in real life, that’s not strictly true, but...)

None of this changes the fact that there is a lot more room for fat characters in Science Fiction than are currently there.

So, fat Science Fiction characters: why not?

Written for [ profile] bittercon the online convention for those of us who can't make it to any other kind, on a topic adapted from a panel at the 2012 Chicon, the text of which is quoted at the beginning of this post.
attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
Where are the female villains in our stories today? We often speak of writing strong female characters, but what about strong female villains? The villain is often the hero/heroine in his/her own story, yet we rarely see strong female villains portrayed in SF&F. An examination of characterization that moves beyond the ever popular rape scenario that is often given as a primary motivation for women seeking revenge. Sometimes, women are just mean. Let's look at them.

Oh female villains.  There are just so many angles to take this topic from, and so many things written about this topic, and so, so many ways to actually write a strong female villain, along with a whole pile of ways to write a weak one.

The lack of female villains in literature and media is a new phenomenon.  Once upon a time, nearly the only way a female character could be strong was to be a villain.  Female strength was a sure sign of, and could only be expressed through, evil.  With the license that being evil gave her (or more accurately her creators) a female villain could be so much more fun than a mood killing mother or shrinking damsel in distress.  The villain got all the best lines, all the best props, and all the best songs.  (Oh Maleficent, you are the only thing worth watching in Sleeping Beauty.)  And to modern eyes, looking back at these portrayals, they can feel almost like a breath of fresh air, next to our dearth of fascinating evil women.  Of course, in their own time, they were reflective of their own period’s particular brand of sexism, a sexism that said that a good woman could only fit into a certain set of small boxes, and interesting, wonderful villainesses were often paired with innocent, beautiful, and utterly uninteresting heroines for them to menace.  This is the evil stepmother, and the wicked witch.

Another type of old villainess is the femme fatal.  She was weak physically, but beautiful and manipulative, and most of all, a sexual threat to a main male protagonist.  She is a reflection of the fear society held (and holds) of female sexuality.  She won’t be virginal, and she won’t settle down and be loyal to one man, but of course, women don’t enjoy sex, or at least not like men, so she must be using sex for something.  She uses men.  This is what makes her evil, any true evil action she undertakes is secondary.  She is less of a breath of fresh air.  In fact most modern villainesses share something with her in that they are sexualized, and their sexuality is a weapon they wield against the heroes.

Many female villains, past and present, especially femme fatal types, are the sidekick to a male villain, Harley to his Joker, Bellatrix Lestrange to his Voldemort, Azula to his Ozai.  Many of these villains, like the above, are either in love with their master, or their master’s daughter.  Like many forms of media sexism, individual examples of this trope may be fine, may even be fantastic villains in their own right, but in aggregate how we view women and female villainy, as something lesser, as something that can be blamed on an evil man.  Related to the above, and also only a problem in aggregate is how often these sidekick villains turn good verses their male counterparts.  This is often the fate of the less evil femme fatals.

There is smaller female villainy too, the mean girl concept, subtly referenced in the topic summary, the stereotype, true or not, that girls are more manipulative and subtly mean than boys which is becoming more and more popular.  Mean girls are almost a force of nature in fiction.  Any gathering with a lot of girls in it will produce them.

And there is ever that combination of racism and sexism that produces the Dragon Lady, a vicious South East Asian femme fatal, common in “Yellow Peril” stories, and other female villains meant to embody their race.

So okay, there are many many ways of doing female villains wrong, but as I said before, there are a lot of ways of doing it right.  Unfortunately, it’s much harder to codify the ways to make a good female villain.

Some authors go the route of making a fascinating villain who could be male or female, who is not sexualized,and not evil in any of the stereotypically female ways.  Azula, who supposedly was originally going to be a boy, is manipulative and devious, physically intimidating, and brutally sadistic.  Although she is far from physically unappealing, she is rarely sexualized, and the one time she tries to seduce someone, she’s inept and terrifies her target, and it’s played for comedy.  She might be the obedient daughter of her father, but she has more development and more screen time than any other villain.  She is the terrifying creature who harried the Avatar across the Earth Kingdom came closer to killing him than anyone else, and she is the scariest person on the show, bar none.  Avatar: the Las Airbender also has Hama.  Tortured and brutalized in prison, she holds he whole Fire Nation responsible and sees no reason not to do to Fire Nation civilians what was done to her, and every reason to force Katara to follow in her footsteps.

Another great villainess in this mold is Tsarmina Greeneyes from the Redwall series (what, is this Redwall week, or something?)  Tsarmina is the leader of a military dictatorship in which she uses her army of vermin to keep the local woodland creatures under control.  At the beginning, she kills her less monstrously cruel father and frames her brother so that she can take power.  She likewise is a powerful physical threat, a cat to the main character’s literal mouse.  There is nothing sexualized about Tsarmina.  She takes the usual role of a masculine villain and comes close to triumphing over our beleaguered woodlanders.

Then there are wonderful, horrifying villains who could never be anything but female.  Mother Gothel from Disney’s Tangled is not only an evil woman, but an evil mother, and deftly manipulates the societal picture of an ideal mother to manipulate her victim and the audience.  Unlike the evil stepmothers of old, Gothel doesn’t become overtly cruel until the very end, when she fears losing Rapunzel’s magic hair.  To defeat her the heroine had to first realize she even is evil.  Gothel is such a realistic depiction of the common everyday evil of an abusive mother, that many of the grown children of such people started talking about how much she reminded them of their own abuse.  Equally important, she has a completely understandable motive.  She wants to live.  Losing Rapunzel’s magic hair means rapid aging and death for her, and like all of us, she wants a little more time.  It isn’t her goal that’s the problem, it’s her methods.  It’s that she kidnaps a little girl, holds her captive, and manipulates her into loving her.  Were she male, Mother Gothel would lack the punch she has as a twisted mother figure.

What are some of the other challenges of a good female villain?  If you have a male hero, do you run the risk of him losing sympathy fighting her?  How are her actions judged differently because she’s female?  What about male characters that fall into a typical female villain role, a male version of a femme fatal?  An evil stepfather?  And do you have any favorite female villains to share?  Come on, you know you do...

Written for [ profile] bittercon  the online convention for those of us who can't make it to any other kind, on a topic adapted from a panel at the 2012 Chicon, the text of which is quoted at the beginning of this post.
attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
Do authors pay enough attention to the practical constraints of their created worlds when describing what their characters are eating? Does anyone want a bug butter sandwich - or vat meat?

Is it wrong that one of my first thoughts upon reading this description was all of those magnificent feasts in the Redwall books by Brian Jacques?  Once upon a time, these feasts caused little me a great deal of consternation and longing, because while my elementary school teacher was reading those books to us, my immune disease was forcing me to subsist on turkey, rice, scallions, and grapes.  I was also terribly hungry all the time then, because I was busy growing nine inches in one year, after which I was still one of the shortest kids in the class.  So those lurid descriptions of piles of wonderful food made quite the impression on little me.

I love food.  And I know my food.  I’m a very good cook, or so I hear tell, and I’m notorious among my friends for always knowing the best restaurant in town for ny given genre of food.  My childhood unable to eat almost anything left me an extremely adventurous eater, and barring things I’m allergic to, I will try almost anything once.  More relevant to this topic, and to Redwall, I know what goes into what, because thats what keeps me from eating anything I’m allergic to.  Even at ten years old, when I was not the most inclined to thinking worldbuilding through, I noticed that a whole lot of the food at the Redwall feasts needed milk, cream, or butter, or eggs, which compels the question, where did our abbey mice get such things?  Do they have a pasture somewhere with cows that they tend to (and am I the only one imagining green habit attired mice clinging to a cow’s udder, trying to milk it?) is it milk from the lady rodents themselves?  Some of the food could be made with chemical substitutes, but do our utopian low tech woodland creatures have a full industrial chemical laboratory beneath Cavern Hole?  And what are the ethics of eating eggs when birds can think and talk just like the abbey creatures?

Then there are books where I just can’t figure out where any of the food comes from at all.  In Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, for example.  When Tally and Shay leave the settlements and go zooming across the countryside, there is no visible agriculture.  The population is deliberately kept stupid, docile, and less than productive.  I can’t figure out how most jobs necessary for society to function at a basic material level are performed, much less food.

This question seems more relevant, at first glance, to Science Fiction than to Fantasy, because after all, most fantasy either exists in an expressly agrarian society, or takes place in a modern city.  The means of food production don’t need to be spelled out, because they’re apparent at first glance.  There are still things that should have been thought through, such as the Redwall example, or foods eaten wildly out of season, or crops unsuited to a climate, that sort of thing, though, and in Fantasy, it’s usually forgotten.  Food doesn’t matter until it gets to the table and can be an expression of culture or personality.  Discussions of food in fantasy often revolve around how it can add realism to a narrative, how taste and smell should be added to descriptions of a world.  Sight and sound, the senses most often used, can be appreciated at a distance, but taste is visceral.  It is literally in your face.

In Science Fiction, the “where does the food come from” question can be much more blatant.  Depending on the environment involved, food might have to be shipped in at great expense, or manufactured artificially.  The stereotype from the middle of the last century is the food pill.  There’s alien cuisine to be considered.  There’s what foods a character might miss in any situation that takes them away from those foods.

The description of this topic mentions types of artificial food and asks the question of whether anyone would want to eat it, which I think is a strange question to ask, and completely beside the point, given that in most cases, writers don’t want us to look at artificial food and think “ooh yummy.”  As to whether it would be realistic for characters to eat it, I can safely say that my own childhood food experiences and the ability I possess to imagine what it is like to be desperately poor and hungry have convinced me that if it’s what’s available, that’s what humans will eat.  Turkey, rice, scallions, and grapes got very boring very quickly.  I came to hate the sight of all four, yet every day I ate them without even salt, because they were all I could eat, and I had a body to fuel.  Starving people the world over probably ate their usually monotonous diets more enthusiastically than I did, because hunger really is the best sauce, and I was fortunate to know that I would always have three meals to look forward to.  Enjoyment doesn’t enter into it.

Part of the reason, I think, for the above pointless question is that many, but certainly not all of us, though probably a healthy majority of the people sitting around talking about food in Speculative Fiction at a convention, in the modern developed world are lucky enough to never know true hunger.  When food is always available, and in wide variety, and always has been for a person, enjoyment is one of the only questions about food left.  We’re free to choose our food based on what we feel like eating.

Equally important to why so often in Science Fiction I can’t figure out where any food comes from is that in the modern developed world city dwellers and suburbanites, rich, poor, hungry, or well fed are also by and large isolated from the means of our food’s production.  It’s easy to forget that food doesn’t just come from the restaurant and the grocery store, and since we take it for granted, it’s easy to forget about in worldbuilding.  This raises the question whether this is important in some way outside of simply telling a good story.  Is our societal tendency to forget about food until it’s in the kitchen or on the table somehow going to lead to the kinds of failures of imagination that could harm us in the real world?  Or is food in Speculative Fiction one more thing that some writers pay attention to and others don’t or in different ways?

Written for [ profile] bittercon the online convention for those of us who can't make it to any other kind, on a topic adapted from a panel at the 2012 Chicon, the text of which is quoted at the beginning of this post.
attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
Why have castles in the same world as dragons? How would having magic actually impact a feudal society? What roles would sorcerers really occupy in such a world?

I’m told this is a well worn topic, so I will begin by saying I’m relatively ignorant of the discussions that have already taken place.  Most of the takes on this topic that I have seen have been primarily from a military angle, if you have dragon riders, what good is a high walled, unroofed fortress like a castle?  If your average wizard can kill at a glance, what good is armor?  Intentional or not, this is the direction in which most of the genre guides us.  Much of fantasy is concerned with war, epic battles being one of the favorite topics, which makes military inconsistencies like these more obvious.  As much as I love a good adventure, I’m more of an anthropology buff and politics buff than a military tactics buff, so I intend to take a slightly different tack.

Magic can be seen as an analog not only for military technology but for technology more generally, which has always been segregated by class.  A feudal system, with its rigid class divisions, can only survive if technology, and infrastructure are distributed in such a way as to support it and make it necessary.  If a kingdom has a strong communications network (scrying mirrors, long distance telepathy...) and a quick way to move people around (flight, teleportation...) then that kingdom’s king doesn’t need a bunch of lords and knights around to help him control his kingdom.  In Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books, because of this, though Valdemar has lords and Ladies, and relatively little modern industrialization, the political system is highly centralized, with the monarch holding most of the power, and her own band of highly mobile magic users circulating through the country to keep control.

And what about worlds where peasants are constantly being born with magic?  How long would an inherited hierarchy last when people on the bottom rungs so frequently find themselves in possession of that much physical power?  Does the system have permeability for magic users?

There are a number of ways to make magic reenforce a feudal hierarchy, if a writer decides that’s the direction they wish to go in.  Magic could be born only within certain bloodlines, like in Robin Mckinley’s Damar books, where kelar is born only to members of the royal family.  Magic could be something gained instead of inborn, either through some ritual or through long term study.  Magic users could themselves become another form of nobility, much like the Medieval Catholic Church.

Authors could also start with a magic system and see where it leads them.  Maybe magic being born unpredictably throughout the population leads to magic users each becoming small-time warlords, controlling villages and city-states.  Maybe the authorities make a successful go at finding and killing magic users before they can use their power to uproot the system.  Maybe nobody has magic inside, and power is centralized around rulers who hold magical artifacts.  Maybe magic has made fields and crops so fertile that the bulk of the population no longer has to farm, and almost everyone lives in large cities.  Maybe magic users have become godlike figures.  Maybe one country has magic and another does not.  Fantasy in no way binds us to historical accuracy, or even to drawing on the past, although fantasy writers often do.

How do yo think politics and culture would be shaped by magic?  What kinds of magic systems would you like to see the consequences of explored?  What books or series have you seen tat dealt with this topic well?

Written for [ profile] bittercon the online convention for those of us who can't make it to any other kind, on a topic adapted from a panel at the 2012 Chicon, the text of which is quoted at the beginning of this post.
attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
Revolutions vary from the disparate traditional tropes of the French and American revolutions to non-violent revolution (Gandhi’s India), The entrenched power may be colonial, class-based, or simply authoritarian. How well does SF & F represent the ideals and ambiguities of revolution, the need to rebuild, and the cultural stresses that result.

I almost titled this post Politics in Fantasy part 2.  Revolutions are politics.  They are one of it’s most visible forms, like earthquakes are for plate tectonics.  (International wars are volcanoes in this analogy, in case you’re interested.  No?  Well alright.)

Revolutions in Speculative Fiction tend to be he big flashy kind with epic battles and heroic deeds.  They also tend to be fought by the Good Guys(tm).  We love underdogs, and rebellions are the underdogs in a big way.  Furthermore, a Good King or a democracy never seems to have a revolution raised against them.  History however is full of stories of revolutions that brought brought cruel dictators like the Ayatollah to power, or revolutions fought against democracies, like the American Civil War.

In Speculative Fiction the kind of revolution that shows up is also different.  Most fictional revolutions, as I said before are the kind that involve a war.  Peaceful revolutions happen on occasion, while ideological social, and technological revolutions are rarer still, except as backstories.  These are revolutions where the outcome is inevitable, and the combat verbal.  The shakeups change the fabric of society fundamentally.  Part of this is a sense of stasis in especially fantasy.  Series that take place over a thousand years may have a society and material culture that is almost identical.  Revolutions run counter to this.

Most Speculative Fiction ends when the revolution ends, but there are exceptions.  Firefly has the browncoats, a class of failed revolutionaries, meant according to the show creator, Joss Whedon, to be analogous to the former Confederate soldiers after the American Civil War, only with more of a moral leg to stand on.  The first book of Carol Berg’s Rai-Kirah trilogy ends with the main character’s nation being given its freedom, and he next two books deal with the resulting shakeups.  The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge ends with Moon taking power, and The Summer Queen is about her reign.  The Star Wars Expanded Universe deals with the transition from the Rebel Alliance to the government of the New Republic, what it means to become a centralized government, and the Imperial Remnants, themselves attempting a counter-revolution.  At the end of a revolution, no matter who wins, suddenly, the story becomes more complex, and less black and white, yet one of the great attractions of epic fantasy and space opera, huge segments of the reading public for Speculative Fiction is that it deals in black and white.  As with cop shows, the muddy grays of the world can be forgotten, and good can unequivocally triumph over evil until the end of the story.

Written for [ profile] bittercon the online convention for those of us who can't make it to any other kind, on a topic stolen from a panel at the 2011 Worldcon.
attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
I have this running joke about fantasy that I’m there for the politics.  I’m not all the way kidding.  It’s my field of study, and I chose it because I am a hard core policy wonk.  I was there for the politics before I even realized I was into politics.

Speculative Fiction is the perfect genre for exploring politics.  Because Speculative Fiction authors are able to make up whole worlds, they can make up whole countries, with whole political systems.  It is the genre of “what if”, so authors are free to ask “What if aliens really did invade?  What would the world’s governments do?” or “What if I had a set of small kingdoms, each trying to get he better of the others, wedged between two empires?” or “What if we try to colonize a people (human or alien) and we fail?”  Or “How would [insert influential world event here] be different with magic/lasers?”

Hands down, Speculative Fiction has the greatest potential for this, but not everybody gets their socks knocked off by this stuff.  Fantasy especially has long been accused of being retrogressive and conservative, an I have written before about the deep ties it keeps to history.  It is a genre populated with monarchies, good kings, bad kings, evil regents (are there any good regents in fantasy?) noble princes, determined princesses, and whole courts full of aristocrats.  And you Science Fiction readers shouldn’t get too smug either.  If it isn’t a world controlling totalitarian dystopia, it’s a non-specific never seen intergalactic council.  In other words, Spec Fic authors can, but don’t have to.

The Fantasy genre tends to have a love affair with royalty, and the goal of most Epic Fantasy is to either prevent the conquest of a kingdom, or free a kingdom, or put the true heir on the throne, or otherwise put or keep a Good King (or more rarely a Good Queen) defined as anyone with royal blood who was reasonably moral and of moderate intelligence, on the throne.  Some secondary world fantasies have powerful courts where the nobility jostle for power, or diplomatic relations between multiple nations, but for some reason, this sort of power play is almost always portrayed as sinister.

Urban Fantasy has it’s share of the world’s real oldest profession too.  Odds are actually better that the author will discuss the internal politics of vampires/werewolves/fae/zombies (the internal politics of zombies would be actually kind of awesome, someone should get on that) than the odds that politicking will show up in secondary world fantasy, in Urban fantasy, it is an even dirtier, more morally repugnant game.  Heroes don’t play politics.

Well, they do sometimes, but usually the books they play it in are all about the politics.

Science fiction too has a fascination with ultimate power, but their view of it is far darker.  Dystopian totalitarian states must be overthrown in exchange for a government (or lack of government) more suited to the author’s beliefs, usually democracy.  Somehow, very few Science Fiction stories ever show anybody living in a republic actually voting, or discussing politicians, or public policy.  The nitty gritty of freedom is almost unimportant.  This is partly because both genres have strong ties to epic literature, were politics was the slow stuff between wars.

These are all of course trends, not absolute realities otherwise, I probably wouldn’t be here.

Political Speculative Fiction: (Let’s build a list!)

The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner (shut up)
The Westmark Trilogy by Lloyd Alexander
Leviathan and Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
The Abhorsen series by Garth Nix
The Pain Merchants/The Shifter by Janice Hardy

From the comments:

The Deryni series by Katherine Kurtz
The Deverry cycle by Katharine Kerr
Point of Dreams by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett
The Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold
Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge
Swordpoint and Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner
Crossover by Joel Shepherd
Kitty Goes to Washington by Carrie Vaughn
The Elenium and Tamuli trilogies by David and Leigh Eddings

Written for [ profile] bittercon the online convention for those of us who can't make it to any other kind, on a topic loosely from a panel at the 2011 Worldcon.
attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
How do you create something unique and original within the space of something already established and loved?  What freedoms exist there that don’t exist when creating a completely original work, and what freedoms don’t?

This topic just begs for a fannish look, don’t you agree?

The thing about fanfiction is, you probably aren’t doing it if you don’t feel a deep need to play with these characters, this world, these themes.  I got into fandom because I had this really rude plot bunny for a fic that just wouldn’t et me go, and I knew I was never going to make any progress on my novel until it was written.  (Five years later, and No Difference is finished, but the bunnies keep coming, gah!)  This is in itself a sort of freedom.  We’re playing with somebody else’s toys.  We’re free to poke into the corners unexplored in canon.

We don’t have to introduce anybody to the characters or world, and we’re free to focus on the bits and pieces we’re most interested in.  An original fantasy novel that focuses on the bitterness and pride in two deeply damaged thirty-somethings while there’s a chosen one running around somewhere would almost have to be parody based on the concept alone, but is the plot of some truly wonderful Harry Potter fanfics.  I personally like to pull some of the icky bits of a universe out and hone in on those.  It’s very hard to do that in an original novel, and it tends not to make a reader see things differently than they did before the way it can in fanfiction.

To an extent, people publishing in an established universe is like being paid to write fanfic, but even fanfic is much freer.  We write AUs, fusions, genderflips, mpreg, ship fics, fix-it fics, shameless porn, whump, and a dozen other things that would be forbidden for these writers to do.  They usually write under strict guidelines, and of course face approval or disapproval before their work can be unleashed on the wider world. 

But they still get to crawl around in the shadowy corners of the world they’re writing in, and sometimes, when they find something hidden there, it has a whole lot more impact than it would in an original novel because it changes the way the reader looks at the whole fictional universe.

There is also a certain psychological freedom.  Few of us fic writers, and I suspect almost no one writing a tie in or shared universe work is attempting to write the Great American Novel.  This isn’t to say there isn’t some seriously powerful fanfiction out there, but it’s probably not going to end up in a high school English anthology.  It’s easier when you know something isn’t going very far to just to let go and write.

So my friends, most of you read fanfiction, and many of you write it yourselves.  What are your thoughts?  How do you make something fresh when you play in somebody else’s world?

Written for [ profile] bittercon the online convention for those of us who can't make it to any other kind, on a topic adapted from a panel at the 2011 Worldcon.
attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
Steampunk is frequently realized as an idealized, shiny version of the Victorian era, with quite a few of the nasty bits missing or obscured. The real Victorian age was a mix of great wealth and progress with poverty, workhouses, and more. What does it say about us when the latter are left out?

For a previous round of [ profile] bittercon, I wrote about history and fantasy in which I touched briefly on the moral ramifications of using real world histories as a basis for fantasy worlds, which generated the most discussion.  When I saw this topic, it seemed like an excellent opportunity to write a follow up.  Recently, there have been several writers posting about how it can hurt when their own histories are played with.  Steampunk I think shows the other side, how it can hurt when someone plays with a history they insist is not yours.

The Victorian era we read about and feel the sort of longing for that it prompts genres like Steampunk is the product primarily of the writings of the wealthy.  This, combined with the natural filter of nostalgia means that it was almost inevitable that most Steampunk fans want the good parts version of history.  People like shiny things.  That’s why they’re expensive.  We also like to play, and this is a fun genre.

However, just underneath the surface of the gilded age was a foundation of poverty, starvation, oppression, inequality, conquest, and colonialism.  In America, the beginnings of the Victorian era were propped up with slavery and destitute urban labor, and the end was propped up with sharecropping and destitute urban labor.  The tide of immigrants that flooded int the country outstripped even the speed at which the Federal government wrested land away from American Indians.  In England and much of Western Europe, they sucked resources from the colonies, including Ireland, itself part of Western Europe, to prop up the homefront, and the poor choked the cities, desperate for work while the wealthy sprawled out in the country.  In Russia, they didn’t need colonies, because the majority of people at home were still surfs.  This was the era that so horrified Dickens and Marx and prompted attempted revolutions all over the continent and the colonies.  Women held almost no power, and people with disabilities were treated with scorn and pity.  Protestants called the Pope the Antichrist, missionaries tried to get natives to stop worshiping idols, and anti-Semitism was natural and acceptable.

When we ignore this to play in the Victorian Era, we say that those stories, the stories of the oppressed, don’t exist.  The world is cooler without them.

None of this means that Steampunk is rotten at the core, any more than other fantasy and science fiction, which has an interesting history of erasure to say the least.  Aside from the fact that it’s the right thing to do, there are some seriously amazing stories to be found in the underbelly of a Steampunk society.  Steampunk in Victorian India, in the colonial cities of China, in colonized Africa, in places the Europeans were never quite able to subdue, Indian tribes using Steampunk, the women’s suffrage movement with pneumatic robots.  Steampunk that maybe just acknowledges that someone’s servants aren’t happy and adoring.  There is some of this out there.

Steampunk is in some ways a complete paradox.  It is a product of a certain unconscious nostalgia, a sense that things were better then (or more interesting) and yet the Victorian era itself was full of great thinkers who touted the wonders of progress.  The Victorians, especially the late Victorians, where most of the Steampunk I have come across focuses, had a very linear view of history with the industrialized west at the pinacle of human development, in which constant progress and universal betterment was the assumed outcome of the passage of time.  This fit in well with their colonial aspirations, and is responsible in part for their belief in the “white man’s burden”.  They had made it, they could teach others to make it, and then everything was going to just get better and better for everyone.  This wasn’t of course to say there wasn’t a lot of nostalgia in Victorian times, especially for the middle ages, as evinced by Gothic revival architecture, books like Ivanhoe, the popularity of the King Arthur legend, an emerging Pan-German Nationalism (oh dear) and the entire romantic movement, but in general, like 1950’s America, progress was the word of the day.

Steampunk may itself be reflective of a larger darker movement of nostalgia in which subsets of the Religious Right talk about returning the country to its core values and deliberately invoke the Victorian era (and the 1950’s) for their supposed good behavior.  Thankfully, most people who enjoy the genre probably know better than to fall for that, but does this adoration of the past help their cause?  Nostalgia is natural and normal, but it can be dangerous.

Written for [ profile] bittercon the online convention for those of us who can't make it to any other kind, on a topic stolen from a panel at the 2011 Worldcon.
attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
Cinderella's sisters cut off parts of their feet. Rapunzel's prince loses his eyes to a thorn bush. But in present-day fantasy, it seems less shocking to kill a character than to significantly and permanently damage their physical form; witness the thousands of deaths in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series that don't get nearly as much airtime as one character losing a hand. What changed--for storytellers, and for audiences? How does this fit in with our culture's mainstream acceptance of violence alongside an obsession with youth and physical perfection? As medical advances help people survive and thrive after drastic injuries, will there be more stories that explore these topics?

Anybody who has been following my blog probably already knows that I have disabilities, and that the portrayal of disability and the people who have them in media is a special interest of mine. The above burb from the 2011 Readercon convinced me that if nothing else, I had to host this topic for bittercon.

There's this idea in modern Western society that when a person gains a disability, they stop living. They might breathe, and eat, and do the whole cellular division thing, but they don't have a life anymore, and isn't it so sad? Disability is this strange thing in fiction like killing a character, except that everybody still has to deal with them.

This to me is a deep and insulting failure of societal imagination. I was born with my disabilities, and so have never been able-bodied, but I hear from other people with disabilities who used to be able-bodied, that this just isn't so. I hear people talking about how they would rather be dead than be deaf, or blind, or unable to walk, and it's this same attitude that bleeds into fiction and leaves an author unwilling to write a character gaining a disability. If you can't envision yourself with disabilities, how can you write a character with them?

The above blurb mentions the modern beauty culture, but this cultural chord is far older. Not all that long ago, physically disabled men and women were considered unmarriageable, worthless romantically, and doomed to half-life. Compared to books like What Katy Did and The Secret Garden, modern absence of disability could even be called an improvement. This doesn't mean it's good enough. The above blurb also mentions the modern American acceptance of violence, but I think the unwillingness to deal with disability is part of what marks this same culture's unwillingness to deal with the true consequences of violence.

I've written previously about how many people see disability as getting in the way of a happy ending. I disagree with this (vehemently and loudly) but it is true that having someone around who has acquired a disability is having a living, breathing reminder that Bad Things Have Happened, in a way that a dead body obviously isn't. I'm not of the opinion that this is a bad thing, but it can be a hard one.

Not all is doom and gloom for people with disabilities in modern fantasy, however. There are some absolutely amazing books with disabled characters. Yes, I'm going to mention Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series, where the main character loses his had at the beginning of the the second book, and has to face his own prejudices and feelings of inadequacy as well as the purely practical adjustments, but there are others, Sarah Rees Brennan's The Demon's Lexicon and sequels, where one of the central characters has a severe limp, and a backstory as an athlete, whose brother wants to cure him against his will. The fifth Harry Potter movie portrays Harry showing symptoms of PTSD.

Aside from discussion, I would love it if you reading this would help ad to the above list and mention fantasy you love with decent portrayals of disabled characters, and yes, as my Harry Potter reference indicates, that includes mental and neurological disabilities, as well as the physical ones this topic is technically about.

Written for [ profile] bittercon the online convention for those of us who can't make it to any other kind, on a topic stolen from a panel at the 2011 Readercon.
attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
As YA publishing expands and the internet connects readers from tremendously different backgrounds, it's no longer possible to talk about a "classic" set of formative first reading. How does our collaborative discourse on texts change when we have little in common among our formative reading experiences? And how do we engage with the often problematic heritage of our childhood favorites when no one we want to discuss them with has read them?

The above is the blurb for this panel at the 2011 Readercon, and after I read it, I was mystified. Harry Potter is the Beatles of my generation. When I was in middle school, you weren't anybody if you hadn't read The Golden Compass. Both school districts I went to middle school in assigned Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Everybody I knew read To Kill a Mockingbird and Lovely Bones. My best friend and I bonded over having both read Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar books. I only stopped being in the target audience for YA books four years ago, and even in the information age, that isn't that long ago.

More and more, YA books are becoming best sellers.  Twilight and The Hunger Games have readers in the millions. Talking about the fracturing of reader interest seems a little counter to the evidence.

At the same time that YA and MG publishing is growing, the internet is expanding exponentially.
The world wide web is vast enough that no matter what almost unknown book you fell in love with as a child, there is always someone online who fell in love with it too and would just love to discuss it with you. The blurb touches on this but only in the sense that it brings in new perspectives, people who might have read an entirely different set of books. To me, it was the place where I finally found people who shared my favorite book series (which just won the 2011 Mythopoeic Award for Children's Literature, go Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief!).

What boggles my mind most about the above blurb is the blithe assumption that there ever has been a classic set of books that all children, or at least all bookish children read. We have always been divided by race, nationality, language, region, gender, genre, and taste. My avid readers of a mother and grandmother never read any of the books from their era that I consider classics (Except To Kill a Mockingbird), because they're just not into fantasy, and my grandmother was so turned off by the only Enid Blyton book she picked up that she decided that all children's books were worthless and I'm still convincing her otherwise.

I think the invocation of the internet as part of this new dilemma is telling. Suddenly voices that never had been heard, with their alternate childhood canons are being heard. They've always been there, it's just the people who did the public talking usually came from the same kind of background and were therefore exposed to the same books until now.

People who read the same books will always find each other, and we have always had to deal with people who have different canons of past reading. The community of readers will survive.

What are your experiences with the internet, individual canons, and the fracturing of reader interest? Fandom certainly complicates the matter at least for me, and a lot of you, but not all of you, dear readers are fannish. Is there a set of children's and teen books you would consider to be essential, and why?

Written for [ profile] bittercon  the online convention for those of us who can't make it to any other kind, on a topic stolen from a panel at the 2011 Readercon.
attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
Paranormal romance is a world in which human women and girls are entranced and overcome by the charms of supernatural, inhuman men. Vampires, werewolves, faeries, demons, and others populate the romantic field for the women of these novels, and seldom does it flow the other way with a human man and a supernatural woman.

The story of a supernatural woman romancing mortal men, as told by male writers portraying women as the other is a venerable and often retold one. But the idea that a woman is othered by men, that she is some sort of strange and unknowable creature tells women that men must be so very different from them, and therefore as hard for them to understand. Therefore, since the beginning of women's writings, women have portrayed men as the strange unknowable.

But is this the only reason the female protagonist of a paranormal romance rarely begins as a supernatural creature? Romance writers presumably expect women and girl readers to identify with the female protagonist, so it must be her male love interest (m/m and f/f romance having different dynamics all together) who is inhuman and serves to introduce her into the magical world he inhabits, a world the reader gets to visit until the story is over, so it's very useful to have an othered male.

One of the largest subsets of paranormal romance is Young Adult or Teen paranormal romance, where entering a supernatural world serves as an obvious metaphor for the first steps into the dating world. Dating is so confusing, so overwhelming, that most of us on some level wish we had a guide. Along with introducing her to the supernatural world, the supernatural boyfriend in a paranormal romance serves as that guide, taking away insecurity, potential pain, and the fear of making a mistake. The fact that if he is a vampire, faerie, demon, angel, etc. he is likely to be much much much older than the heroine (though still appealingly young and sexy) makes for a fairly dubious cultural narrative of an older man who guides and protects a young girl.

It has been discussed elsewhere that fathers and father figures in paranormal romances and urban fantasies tend to be very very good fathers, and mothers are in some way either neglectful or monstrous. The only woman a heroine can rely on is herself. How does this play into the idea of the othered male? Is the genre also othering women from it's female readers, proclaiming them each exceptional women, far above other women, and therefore worthy of their own magical boyfriend?

Written for [ profile] bittercon the online convention for those of us who can't make it to any other kind, on a topic stolen from a panel at the 2011 Readercon.
attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
Fantasy settings have historically harkened back to the past.  Medieval European settings for fantasy are so ubiquitous that for many people in the west (and for many people outside the west who have absorbed western European fantasy literature) the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the word “fantasy” is a medieval castle and a bunch of people with swords.

Other historical settings find their way into fantasy as well, from Classical India to Imperial Rome, to Muslim Spain, to the American West.  Adding a spark of magic to a historical or nearly historical setting has become what fantasy is to many people.

Even Urban Fantasy, while most often taking place in a contemporary setting finds itself constrained to historical tradition. Medieval Europe makes a frequent appearance there too, albet in a modified form.  The creatures that find their way into Urban Fantasy, vampires, werewolves, fairies, assorted mythological creatures from all over the world almost always have medieval or classical origins.  Creatures made up from whole cloth are almost unheard of in Urban Fantasy.  Urban Fantasy is all about the past, the mythological past’s encroachment on the modern.

The more like medieval Europe the fantasy setting, the more likely it is to be idealized and the less relation it tends to bare to real history.  Is there a responsibility when portraying historical setting sin fantasy to be accurate?  Or be accurate on certain issues, and if so which?  Are fantasy worlds made of a mix of many historical periods ore entirely out of the writers’ own heads a different genre all together?  And as diversity is increasingly obvious as an issue in fantasy, is writing standard medieval history somehow irresponsible?  Do some periods of history require a greater accuracy than others?  What is the duty of Contemporary and Urban Fantasy towards history?  And what role does alternate history get to play in fantasy with historical settings and inspirations?

Written for [ profile] bittercon the online convention for those of us who can't make it to any other kind, on a topic stolen from a panel at the 2010 Worldcon.
attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
Motherhood holds an enormous place in modern society. Most women become mothers at some point in their lives. Yet even as more and more women become prominent as both sci-fi fantasy writers or as fantasy and sci-fi protagonists, fewer and fewer mothers are showcased in modern sci-fi and fantasy.

Part of this comes undoubtedly from the traditional cultural devaluing of women’s roles (such as motherhood) in the western society from which a lot of modern fantasy springs. Also, until recently, women were not themselves common in fantasy, and in much modern fantasy, women still find themselves only in limited roles. One of those limited roles was as either love interest of the hero (including sometimes mother of his children, which would necessitate the male protagonist being a father) or the hero’s mother. In this role, motherhood made the woman into a symbol of positive domesticity, something the hero yearns to return to, or a stifling domesticity that the hero wishes to escape from. This older expression of both femininity and motherhood is losing ground, but as it does, the number of mothers in sci-fi and fantasy has begun to shrink.

As more and more women become the stars of fantasy novels, will more and more of them be mothers? Or interact with mothers? At the moment, it doesn’t seem like they are. There are notable and popular exceptions (Bella Swan in the Twilight novels, for example) that show that there may be a market for that type of narrative, however.

Part of the absence of motherhood, especially among the protagonists of sci-fi and fantasy stories might lie in the appeal of such novels as an escape from the everyday world. Many women experience an enormous about of pressure to become mothers, or to value children, and consciously or unconsciously wish to escape the cult of motherhood in their fiction. Part of it is that motherhood sucks up so much time and energy that writing a protagonist as a mother presents a real challenge.

Then there is the evil mother. Fantasy especially partly has its roots in European folk tales, many of them have the mother as a menacing character, one of the enemies that must be faced and overcome.

Also there is Young Adult and Children’s sci-fi and fantasy, where the absence of protective parents, especially mothers, is a whole nother issue with its own reasons and purposes.

The question is, do readers and writers want to see more of motherhood? Do readers and writers want to see a change in how motherhood is portrayed, or is the way things are done now the ideal situation?

Written for [ profile] bittercon the online convention for those of us who can't make it to any other kind, on a topic stolen from a panel at the 2010 Worldcon.
attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
You are lying in bed with a book.  You’re exhausted, and you’re settling down for a relaxing evening, when suddenly you have a sword in your hands, and you’re right in the middle of a bunch of people hacking each other to bits.

Fantasy stories are frequently the stories of combat, of duels and wars, and tavern brawls, and sword cuts and bloody noses.  Even in Contemporary Urban Fantasy settings, hand to hand combat shows up almost as often as it does in Historical and Secondary World Fantasy.

Bizarrely, for a lot of people with an in depth knowledge of anatomy or fighting end up snickering their way through the scenes which are often choreographed with no accounting for realism.  Then there are writers who research painstakingly and build as accurate a battle scene as can be constructed.

To give some examples (in television and movies, because film makes it all more obvious)  Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s combat scenes are all kinds of fun to watch, but absolutely ridiculous.  This isn’t uncommon at all.  The beloved fencing scene in The Princess Bride is actually the same set of sword moves done twice and filmed at different angles.  On the other end of the spectrum is Avatar: the Last Airbender with its very accurate fighting, that is also all kinds of fun to watch, and includes fire, water, flying, and chucking boulders at people.

Is either one the right way?  Is there a right way?  Is there a wrong way, other than boring?  That’s the other thing.  Fight scenes, as action packed as they are by nature are difficult to write and keep interesting because they lack dialogue.  Do fight scenes more dialogue?  Creating a certain mood in a fight scene is another way to make it less boring, but that’s hard to do too.  Writing the combat becomes a matter less of reporting faithfully where each blow lands and more about conveying the internal dynamics of the characters involved.  And mapping the whole thing out in one’s head is fiendishly difficult as well.  What do we as readers and writers of fantasy get out of or want to see fight scenes, and what would you put into them?

Written for [ profile] bittercon the online convention for those of us who can't make it to any other kind.


attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)

August 2017

131415161718 19

Avatar: the Last Airbender


RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Oct. 20th, 2017 05:47 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios