I’ve been thinking about passion. (Not in the erotic or romantic sense: minds out of the gutter, people! More on the line of intellectual passion.)

I had an interview today for a job in an area that is, at best, tangentially connected with my degree (either of them). One of the interviewers said to me, “It’s obvious you have a lot of passion for your degree subject,” or words to that effect. And I might be reading too much into that, but the implication seemed to be that passion was a finite thing, that having one compelling interest meant having less capacity to be passionate about other things.

I’m passionate about ancient history because that’s where I ended up. But I ended up with a specialism there as much by accident of circumstance as design: it was in front of me, and there would always be more to learn.

I like knowing things, understanding how they fit together, making sense of people and themes – I’ve been known to spend hours learning how volcanoes work, or geomorphology, or the genesis of the space programme, or 19th century medical science; about medieval China and India’s North-Western Frontier under the Raj, about Dutch and Portuguese mercantile colonialism in South-East Asia and its effect on European market capitalism; about social relations in modern Malaysia and the anthropology of taste and class in 20th-century France. About economic relations between states and between people – economists rarely make it legible to ordinary people, but once you relate the numbers to relationships of people and interests and power, it becomes fascinating.

I like language. I like knowing how it works, the varied language groups with their different grammatical structures and the way different languages encode different ways of viewing and interacting with the world in their own ways. I like science, the way new developments have different ramifications for human life and experience and potential, for individuals and communities.

My capacity for passion is no more limited than my capacity for love, or grief. It’s limited only by time and resources. There is very little with a human element I find boring, for crying out loud.

(Data-entry is boring. But you have to do the boring shit to get to the good parts: if a PhD taught me anything, it was that as the prime law. Also the importance of organising your logistics in advance.)

I know there are people who are only interested in one or two things, and the rest of the world can go hang. But I don’t know many people personally of whom this is true. The capacity for passion – for enthusiasm – for taking delight in the topic at hand – seems to be a key component of geekiness. We constrain our passions according to how much time there is in a day, and the ratio of effort:reward, but still.

…I guess I might be passionate about the capacity for passion. Who’d have thought?

Sleeps With Monsters: In Defence of Fanfiction, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Trust Myself

A new column over at

I had a conversation in this last month about queerness and pairings in fanfic and other narratives. In the course of that conversation, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart came up, with its portrayal of queer (and kinky) consensual female relationships. And I ended up admitting that the first time I read it, the female queer stuff went over my head. I was seventeen at the time: it was there, explicit, and on the page, and my reaction to reading it was I know something is going on here but I don’t understand what it is.

Anyone may die at any time.

One day in May 1974, my mother left work fifteen minutes early to go to a doctor’s appointment. It was a fortunate day to have had her doctor’s appointment, because that day was a day that carbombs went off across Dublin. Her route to the train station took her right through the blast area for one of them, and she missed them by fifteen minutes.

In Paris and Beirut after this weekend, there will be similar stories. And stories that do not have so happy an ending. And that is true across Syria and the conflict zone in Iraq, but we do not hear the civilian casualty counts from the airstrikes of the Syrian regime, Russia, the US, Turkey, France. We are insulated from that horror until explosions rip through the fabric of the city of Paris, and everywhere the English-language news is gleefully horrified at the opportunity to expound.

And racists everywhere seize the opportunity to blame people fleeing this exact sort of violence.

France has bombed Raqqa in Syria in retaliation. France is using the rhetoric of war and revenge. France is doing Daesh’s work for them, in part. Fundamentalist movements cannot be overcome through violence: it is their most fertile recruiting ground. The best revenge would be to react to this tragic event with humanity and tolerance, with love instead of hatred, openness instead of fear.

But that is not what we see.

I’m fairly disgusted with the world right now. Every time I hear the news all I can think is: how many more dead? How many more dead will be added to the tally of tens of thousands? How many more millions of refugees?

In moral cowardice, I avoid the news.

Ní fhágfar faoin tíorán ná faoin tráill

GANDALF: Theoden king stands alone.
Eomer: Not alone. ROHIRRIM!

Watching #hometovote on Thursday night and Friday, that was how I felt.

On Friday, 22 May 2015, the Irish nation voted overwhelmingly to give equal protection to all persons choosing to marry without distinction as to their sex. It – we – voted to affirm the equality of GLBT citizens in the eyes of the constitution.

Today we watched the returns come in. Today we saw history made. Today, in the crowds in the courtyard of Dublin Castle, cheering when every constituency went green for YES (and booing for Roscommon-South Leitrim, shame on you, you let the side down a bit there), today we began a new history.

I have now heard a crowd break spontaneously into the national anthem.

This is not a thing I ever expected to hear.

But when David Norris spoke a few words to the crowd in that courtyard – a rowdy, cheerful crowd that nonetheless went silent to hear him speak – ending on a note of liberté, egalité, fraternité, everyone. Just. Started.

Buíon dár slua
thar toinn do ráinig chughainn,
Faoi mhóid bheith saor
Seantír ár sinsear feasta,
Ní fhágfar faoin tíorán ná faoin tráill.

I have never in my life seen anything like it. There was a crush just to get in to the courtyard where the screen was bringing up the constituencies as they turned green for Yes. And every time another one went green the roar. Laughing. Crying. Hugging people met randomly. And when Leo Varadkar appeared, a Fine Gael government minister who only came out this year and turned into the most unlikely gay icon of our time… the whole crowd started chanting, “LEO, LEO, LEO.”

One of the highest turnouts for a referendum ever in this country. A landslide in the Dublin constituencies. A two-thirds majority across the country.

Everyone who canvassed. Everyone who came out on national TV, in the newspapers, on doorsteps all over the country, whose courage and compassion and generosity are an example to us all – thank you. Everyone who came #hometovote, that army pouring over the hill – thank you. THANK YOU.

It took me until this year to realise and admit to myself properly that I was bisexual – queer, primarily attracted to women, whatever words are the words that shape the place where a person fits. It took me so long because I was slow to realise it was even possible, much less normal. Much less safe. (My subconscious has some really odd narratives about sex and desire – and I blame being a bastard in nineties Ireland in part for that.)

And now. Now my heart hurts with gladness because this whole bloody country just turned around and said Ah GO ON. Turned out in droves to say Let grá be the law.

It’s in the constitution now, bigots. NO TAKEBACKS.

No, it’s not the end of the road. No, it’s not a panacea. It will not solve quiet social prejudice, or erase Irish homo- and transphobia overnight, or address any number of other problems. But today, Ireland?


(And I was there to see it.)

What a day. O what a LOVELY day.

There the road ended.

I had the idea that I was going to write about What I Did On My Holidays in the company of excellent people in Newcastle and Glasgow.

But I dug a hole under a flowerbed and buried my cat tonight, so I’m not feeling as cheerful as otherwise I might. Even the contemplation of Saturday afternoon at Barter Books

Barter Books, Alnwick

Barter Books, Alnwick

and Sunday at Housesteads…

Housesteads Roman fort, Hadrian's Wall.

Housesteads Roman fort, Hadrian’s Wall.

in glorious company, of custard and cake in a café with pictures of cows on the wall…

A café in Hexham, after dark.

A café in Hexham, after dark.

… is not able to make me a cheery human tonight. Nor the contemplation of Glasgow and lovely people and a delightful second-hand bookshop (Caledonian Books) where I found copies of Oxford Classical Texts in mint condition really cheap.

I brought things home, and the memory of good company.

Things from Newcastle.

Things from Newcastle.

Things from Glasgow.

Things from Glasgow.

But Vladimir is as cold and stiff and dead as my grandmother, and it makes me gloomy as fuck.

INSPIRE! Toronto International Book Fair – I am in Toronto

I’m in Toronto to attend the Toronto International Book Fair, on foot of a train of events that led to said Book Fair’s publicity people paying for my flights and attendance. (Thanks, Book Smugglers! Wouldn’t be here with you.) It is a bizarre and unexpected occurrence, and until the fair begins I am crashing on the truckle bed of marvelous and generous friends.

I flew with Air Canada via Heathrow, in one of the more painless long flights of my existence. The aircraft was the very latest in shiny passenger-flying, with actual headroom and windows that could be tinted five different shades of green, and they fed us. Recognisable and tasty food: dinner, a snack, and then a hot wrap thing that actually tasted of its ingredients. Plenty of soft drinks: I had some Canadian ginger ale and discovered I liked it.

I landed to sunset in Toronto, and felt as though I’d stepped onto a film set.

I find the skyline, and the layout, of North American cities surreal, when I see them in person. They are so much a part of English-language television, and so different to the cities I am used to, that visiting them feels rather like stepping out of reality and into a fictional dream where people might be uncommonly handsome and even the tenor of street noise is different. The straightness of the roads and the height of buildings messes with my sense of scale. The sky seems larger.

Surreal, like I said.

I shall conclude this I am on another continent! post by saying that Toronto has some very tasty dumplings and noodles on offer among its eateries. And an impressive amount of fallen leaves.

Truth. Reconciliation?

This isn’t about me. This isn’t about you.

And it is about me. And it is about you. And it is about all of us.

I’m one of the people who thought Requires Hate’s reviews sometimes had a point. Her rhetoric rode the barest edge of arguably acceptable, and crossed over that line as often as not, but anger is a powerful tool. And often, a useful force for change.

I didn’t know, then, the history of her trolling, or the extent of her abusive behaviour.

Anger is a tool, but it is also a trap.

Even advocacy in good faith cannot justify abusive behaviour.

It may surprise you, but I don’t want to believe the worst of anyone. Except, maybe, at this stage Benjanun Sriduangkaew (and perhaps Nick Mamatas). It is very tempting to believe the worst. It’s easy.

I distrust easy things. But what appears from the public evidence* is that the person presently published under the name of Benjanun Sriduangkaew has engaged in trolling, abusive, damaging behaviour online under a variety of handles for a long stretch of time, and has manipulated the narrative to deflect blame and avoid taking responsibility for doing much, if not all, of that harm.

Some of that harm was done in the guise of advocating for social justice.

*Informational note: Comments at link contain language ascribing RH’s behaviour to mental illness and occasional dehumanising language, which the moderators attempt to shut down.

In some ways, life was easier before I had friends.

I consider Alex Dally MacFarlane a friend.

She has hurt people whom I respect.

These statements exist together. Both are true. I cannot reconcile them.

It is our responsibility, as human beings, to act to minimise harm.

This is one reason why social justice advocacy is difficult, because harm happens across multiple axes and is often invisible to people who aren’t affected directly. (And often, addressing those harms causes perceived loss – of status, of benefits, of self-image – to people who benefit from the existence of said harms.)

Abusive behaviour is often invisible to people who aren’t its targets.

As human beings, we ought not let abusive behaviour go unmarked and unchecked.

As human beings, we ought not let ourselves become complacent in addressing systemic abuses.

The language of social justice advocacy has been used to harm and to manipulate.

It isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last. In some form, in some measure, it happens every day. Whenever advocacy fails to acknowledge and address the intersectional nature of harm and prejudice, for example; or when someone uses past behaviour as a shield for present wrongs, or holds out present behaviour as a reason to forgive past sins.

Good acts and ill ones don’t cancel each other out. It’s not a matter of addition and subtraction. The scales don’t balance that way, if they balance at all. People can learn and people can change. People do good things and bad things. People are complicated.

This does not prevent us, as human beings, from carrying on in working for more justice. Building better and more welcoming communities. Deconstructing our assumptions. Acknowledging abuses wherever they happen. Looking beyond ourselves.

Trying to be kinder, better people.

I want to add my voice to Elizabeth Bear, when she says:

What I would like is for our community to take this opportunity for positive action. I believe that the people Bee/RH has harmed should be given as much support and aid in healing as practicable. I believe that potential future victims should be warned. I believe those who may feel trapped by her should be protected. I believe those whom she has abused should be helped to connect with one another as they desire.

I believe their voices should be listened to, if and when they choose to come forward. I believe that the people who have been silenced by this campaign of bullying should be given as much space to speak as they would like.

I believe that, on an ongoing basis and pursuant to our dawning understanding as a community of the need for harassment policies and a pro-active stance against bullying, we–the established members of the science fiction and fantasy community–need to make safe spaces where people who have been bullied and harassed can come forward and find strength and solace, as well as safety.

I believe we need to respond to this series of events in our community by making more space for marginalized voices, and promoting young writers, women writers, and writers of color.

… Moreover, we owe it to our emergent writers to create a space where bullies cannot silence them, police their writing and their identity, and make them feel unsafe. I’m not just talking about the RH/Bees of the world here, but the Jim Frenkels as well.

We need those safe spaces. And we need that space for marginalised voices. And we need to build communities that refuse to participate in systemic abuses, and that do not welcome people who engage in abusive behaviour.

That’s hard work.

But we need to do it.

Acknowledge the past. Live with the present. Work for the future.

Snark? Crank? Maybe just a few thoughts on a minor phenomenon

You folks all know I write Sleeps With Monsters over at right now. I don’t spend a lot of time in the comments, mostly because my life lately is OH GOD SO MUCH WORK, and when I do, I try to to restrain the occasional urge to snark and crank.

With only moderate success, it must be noted.

Anyway, at the end of June I wrote a post rounding up books by women forthcoming in the second half of 2014. It’s not a comprehensive list, because there’s only one of me and there isn’t one central database for forthcoming information, but I did my best.

Now, maybe it’s not obvious that Sleeps With Monsters is a column dedicated to talking about books that aren’t by men. Maybe it’s not obvious at all. But, you know, it stirs all my snarky impulses when three out of the sixteen comments that followed the post? They want to talk about books by men. (Rothfuss, Weeks, Khanna, and Erikson.)

This happens regularly. On book recommendation posts and forthcoming book posts, often, someone just has to bring up some book by a bloke.

Books by men are reviewed and discussed disproportionately often, as Strange Horizons’ yearly ongoing SF Count demonstrates. And apparently it’s not possible to discuss books by women without someone bringing up “What about the men?”

Snark. Crank. *points to phenomenon*

There’s no fix for the reviews issue except trying to push back on discrimination and be inclusive with as much intersectionality as one can manage to be mindful of. (And to shut up and listen when other people who experience discrimination along other axes are talking.)

I have to say, though, the “What about the men?” phenomenon is a thing that irks.

On influence and bookshops and use

Tansy Rayner Roberts, “On Influence”:

The meme that the female author in SFF is somehow a rare, precious, unlikely object, persists to this day. But you know what? There were women writing SFF in the 70′s, and not just a token handful. There were women writing in the 80′s and the 90′s and the 00′s and oh look they’re writing RIGHT NOW.

And yet when booksellers (and it’s not just booksellers) put out lists or displays of what to read after George RR Martin, how often are those lists all male?

In my experience? Quite often. It’s one reason I’ve stopped shopping for fiction at Hodges Figgis – well, that and the review copies. When it comes to backlists, which is where many of my major reading gaps are these days, it’s predominantly men; when it comes to new books, the books that get display space, with the notable exception of Trudi Canavan and Karen Miller, are predominantly written by lads. All the category science fiction to get table space is normally by men, with the exception of, this winter, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.

It’s so much easier for me to find the books I want to read online. If I order them online, it will only take a week or two for them to arrive, rather than two weeks to a month if I order with Dublin’s oldest bookshop. I like bookshops. But I like browsing to find something that’s new (or old but I’ve not seen it before) and different and interesting, rather than the stuff I’m already familiar with, and Hodges Figgis doesn’t curate a corner-shelf of New or Different or Interesting in SFF.

Also they shelve Nick Harkaway and Angela Carter in plain literature.

If I were going by their shelves, I would never have found Beth Bernobich or Martha Wells or Marie Brennan or most of anything Elizabeth Bear or Sarah Monette wrote, or Michelle Sagara or Sherwood Smith or Deborah Coates, or Barbara Hambly. I did find Kate Elliott, but not very prominently. Tanya Huff. Amanda Downum. Cherie Priest. Juliet McKenna, but not much of her backlist anymore. The Antipodean blockbuster fantasy school keep a fair presence on shelves – Canavan, Fallon, Miller, Larke, whoever it is who’s writing the series begun with The King’s Bastard (Rowena Daniels?) – but they’re not generally to my tastes. N.K. Jemisin stays on the shelves, but rarely on the display tables. Elizabeth Moon likewise. Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death was prominently displayed for a month or two, likewise Karen Lord. But Lackey has begun to disappear from the shelves in backlist, and so has McCaffrey, and I don’t think I ever saw more than one copy of an Octavia Butler novel there at all.

To judge by their shelves, there are very few women who write in the science fiction end of SFF at all.

I read a hundred-odd books in a slow year: I’m not an average reader. And I like bookshops and want them to remain an institution of daily life. But if the bookshop is not useful to me, quite aside from questions of representation on the shelves, I’m not going to patronise them as often as, perhaps, I otherwise would.

Even if buying from The Book Depository instead does mean I’m contributing to the Amazonian monopoly.

Disillusioned and Angry: a post about politics and the economy

What follows is a little different from my usual line.

I used to think it was possible to have ambitions. I used to think the ambition of having a steady job – permanent and pensionable – that paid a living wage and left time over for enjoying life was a modest ambition. Maybe not achievable by everyone,* but for someone with my advantages, my – not to be falsely modest – intelligence, and ability to fake middle-class socialisation, something I shouldn’t worry too much about not achieving.

Today I saw this item in the paper. “Wanted: PhD grad to work for jobseekers’ benefit + E50.”

Two different companies have advertised internships as part of the Government’s JobBridge initiative — but want only highly qualified staff.

A pharmaceutical plant in Cork is seeking applications under the back-to-work scheme and a PhD in synthetic organic chemistry is considered to be a “base requirement”.

A spokesman from Hovione said there “hasn’t been that much interest” in the role.

However, another pharmaceutical plant in west Dublin, Clarochem, had a similar requirement for a PhD intern and has just filled the role for a full 39-hour-week programme for six months.

Clarochem Ireland, a custom manufacturing plant in Mulhuddart, asked that applicants held a minimum of a PhD in synthetic chemistry, and were capable of working on solo projects in a dynamic environment.

The oligarchy has won. There is no future for any of us not born to unmortgaged assets in this country – and maybe not in any other, either. Finance Minister Michael Noonan goes to Brussels to get his plaque with “Best European Finance Minister” engraved on it for licking the boots of unelected European eminences, for selling the poor of the Republic down the river and the middle-class after them, in service to the interests of global capital.

The European project is a humanitarian and democratic – and on any measure other than that of global capital’s, an economic – failure, but we’re still shackled to the corpse of all its fine promises. Our budgets will go to Brussels to be amended and approved by unelected, unaccountable men and women – carrion-feeders who will continue to demand the privatisation of state assets and state bodies (assets and bodies that by right and justice belong to the people of Ireland!) and to whose dictates our spineless, treacherous, two-faced “leaders” will cravenly bow.

The Irish government will not be able to reclaim the assets it has sold at a loss to corporate interests – corporate interests that will use them to make a profit at the expense of Irish residents. Nor will our government easily recover the powers it has so cravenly surrendered.

They call this a recovery. Who has recovered?

Who was responsible for this catastrophe in the first place? Who has benefited from it?

Not the people struggling to keep a roof over their heads. Not the people seeing their real wages – if they’re employed at all – go down, and the cost of food and accommodation go up. Unemployment remains above 13%. Three hundred and thirty thousand people are out of work. (That is at least 7% of our total population, for comparison purposes: 13% of people between age 18 and 65 are signed on for benefits, which approximates to 7% of all the people of any age normally resident in this country.)

And, let’s reiterate: the people who are in work have seen their take-home pay decrease under the burden of wage-cuts and changes in their tax and PRSI assessment. That particular trend isn’t about to reverse itself.

Conclusion? The average person at work, or looking for work, in the country is comprehensively screwed.

Barring a sustained revolutionary change in the relationship between the citizenry and our government, between the nation and the European Union and the IMF – and going forward in an age of ever-increasing automation, in how we conceive of the relationship between people, labour, and capital – we’re permanently screwed.

Because under the conditions presently obtaining and likely to remain in place, there will never be enough actual work to provide full employment at non-poverty-level standards of living. So we need to change how we think about the relationship between labour and money, between people and capital – and that is a change far more revolutionary than demanding democratic accountability from the Oireachtas and the EU.

*Which is another story, and a shame and a half.

Calling people on thoughtless sexist sh*t: Justin Landon on Patrick Rothfuss

So Patrick Rothfuss, on his Reddit Ask-Me-Anything, did this:

Let’s all talk about cup sizes. There’s nothing wrong with reducing a female person to her secondary sexual characteristics!

It passed unnoticed by many, unremarked-upon by most.

But Justin Landon of Staffer’s Book Review decided he would remark upon it:

By not objecting to the comment on Reddit, Rothfuss functionally condoned the behavior. By responding to it, and participating in the masturbatory exchange that followed, Rothfuss demonstrated a camaraderie with the concept that his female characters exist solely for the benefit of the male gaze. He is normalizing a culture in which men feel entitled to have access to “attractive” women, judge women’s worth on their “attractiveness”, and not consider women as anything other than objects for view/consumption. I think what bothers me most of all is that the science fiction and fantasy community has done nothing but rail against this kind of mentality for the past several years and yet one of its most successful [authors] is perfectly fine participating in it.

…If the Reddit question was the first example of Rothfuss doing something questionable as it relates to women, I would keep my mouth shut. But, for the past several years he has published a pin-up calendar for his Worldbuilders charity that depicts female characters from genre novels in alluring poses. He’s even got some high profile women authors to contribute their characters to the project. Why is the calendar problematic? Because the man is framed as the viewer, and the woman as the viewed. The calendar is celebrating science fiction and fantasy, and thus framing the woman as a passive recipient in the art excludes them from an active role in the making, creating, and consuming of the genres themselves. Of course, none of that is nearly as egregious at the comment that opened this post, but it points to a pattern of behavior. A pattern which none of the big dogs have deemed appropriate to call out.

I don’t want to talk about Rothfuss, or the shit that some Reddit-using Rothfuss fans are giving Landon for drawing attention to the fact that the SFF community’s big names don’t tend to call out their community-involved success stories for doing thoughtless shit/saying thoughtless crap in public. (It is a very human thing to not want to piss off your friends and colleagues. On the other hand, it can become a problem.)

No, I don’t want to talk about Rothfuss. I want to mention, instead, what it means to me to see a (cis) male person on the internet calling out an incident of thoughtless sexist speech, and doing so quite thoroughly.

Men get a lot of kudos for calling out sexism/misogyny. Part of the reason they do, I think, is because non-cis-male people have learned not to count on the support of men when it comes to how the (to use bell hooks’ phrase: white supremacist patriarchy) patriarchy screws them over. We expect them to dismiss us, to uphold a viewpoint that dismisses our lived experience as irrelevant, a hierarchy that devalues our participation.

When a guy comes out and proves by word and action that he’s listening – and using what he’s learned to go out and preach to the unconverted – and that he’s willing to take us seriously, that he’ll stand up and be counted in support, there’s an startling amount of relief associated with that. And that startlement – that lack of expectation – means he receives the kind of effusive thanks usually reserved for completely unexpected and really welcome costly gifts.

Because make no mistake, pushing back against damaging cultural norms is work that costs people who do it. In energy – emotional, physical, and intellectual – yes, but it can also cost them their sense of personal safety (see under: death threats, rape threats, bomb threats), sometimes their jobs, and sometimes their mental health.

The more support there is for this kind of work, the less, ultimately, it will cost us to do it. Men have the advantage that other men are more likely to listen to them and take them seriously than they are to people who aren’t cis men, which is part of those damaging cultural norms, but the more men there are walking the walk as well as talking the talk, the more men there will be who are willing to listen to the rest of us when one of us says, Actually, that’s a problem.

So to Justin: thank you. It is a lovely gift.

Now I’ll expect this kind of gift from you all the time.

25 “Essential” Urban Fantasies

Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch and Justin Landon of Staffer’s Musings are up to their old tricks again. A fresh listing challenge, like the epic fantasy challenge of a while back, is in the offing.

25 “Essential” Urban Fantasies

– 25 works
– No more than one book or series per author/creator
– You can only list books that you have read
– How you define urban fantasy or “essential” is 100% up to you.

Participants and their lists:

Jared Shurin
Justin Landon
Tansy Rayner Roberts

…and your humble correspondent.

Defining Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy defined by place; the fantastic narrative has an urban setting. Many urban fantasies are set in contemporary times and contain supernatural elements. However, the stories can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods, as well as fictional settings. The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city.

“Urban Fantasy,” Wikipedia, retrieved 26 October 2013

I like this definition. It covers a great deal of ground, even while it excludes contemporary fantasies set in rural areas, such as Deborah Coates’ Wide Open, whose marketing ties them closely to the fantasies of the modern urbs. I would like to add an amendment: the urbs of “urban fantasy” should not be limited to the metropolis or large conurbation, but must include smaller cities and towns. What is most prominent in the fantasy of the urban, to me, is the combination of anonymity and the need for systems and compromises – a way of operating in the world that doesn’t rely on implicit reciprocity and mutuality – that arises when people live together in numbers exceeding the hundred-odd of the isolate village or the thousand-odd of the tiny towns of the past. Urban fantasy shares DNA with ghost stories, noir crime and the police procedural, as well as fairytale, folklore, and fable.

Do we, or should we, distinguish “paranormal romance” from a wider set of fabulae in urbibus accidentes? Although UF and PR are distinct, for the most part, as marketing categories, my definition of urban fantasy as the fantasy of the town… doesn’t really allow that distinction.

Defining “Essential”


: extremely important and necessary

: very basic

The following list comprises works of fantasy which are only very important to me, and do not necessarily have a bearing, historic or otherwise, on how I see the subgenre in general. The order indicates nothing in particular.

I have declined to spend much time talking about why I made the choices I did.

25 “Essential” Urban Fantasies

There are fewer than 25 contenders in the area of urban fantasy as I have defined it, under the restrictions of one series per author/creator, about which I care strongly enough to number as “essential” (to me).

1. Rituals, by Roz Kaveney (2012).

This is part urban fantasy, part secret history, part I-don’t-know-how-to-describe-it.

2. The Onyx Court series, by Marie Brennan (2008-2011).

A faerie court, bound to the city of London.

3. The Promethean Age books, by Elizabeth Bear (2006-forthcoming).

Richly complex novels.

4. The Bone Palace, by Amanda Downum (2010).

This is a second-world fantasy set in a city. It is rather magnificent, to me.

5. The Chronicles of Elantra series, by Michelle Sagara (2005-forthcoming).

Second-world fantasy set mostly if not entirely in a city, involving element of both high fantasy and the police procedural.

6. James Asher series, by Barbara Hambly (1988-forthcoming).

Bleak and atmospheric novels involving vampires, set in Europe in the years preceding the Great War. Breath-taking books.

7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, television series (1997-2003).

Enormously influential. Not single-handedly responsible for the success of urban contemporary fantasy with vampires and werewolves as a subgenre, but I daresay it didn’t hurt.

8. Anita Blake series, by Laurell K. Hamilton (1993-forthcoming).

When one of my hockey coaches recommended this series to me sometime in or around 2002, Narcissus in Chains hadn’t been published out of the UK yet, and the Anita Blake novels hadn’t really moved from noir to full-on bad poly erotica yet. (What a trainwreck that was to watch… Albeit a very popular trainwreck.) For all these novels’ problems – and they are many, even before they get really into the badly written sex and ridiculous no-one-acts-like-an-adult relationship dynamics – they were probably my first introduction to the landscape of contemporary marketing-category UF. And the first four or five Anita Blake books were rather successful at marrying noir to fantasy.

9. The Vicki Nelson series, by Tanya Huff (1991-1997).

Adapted into the television series Blood Ties in 2007-2008. Set mostly in Toronto.

10. The Kitty Norville werewolf series, by Carrie Vaughn (2005-forthcoming).

Werewolves! Vampires! Talk radio!

11. Hawk and Fisher novels, by Simon R. Green (1990-2000).

Second-world city fantasies! Green really writes fantasy in shades of horror. But these are very good, if disturbing.

12. Lost Girl, television series (2011-ongoing).

It’s terrible. And hilarious. And queer-friendly.

13. The Shattering, by Karen Healey (2011).

A small seaside town hides a terrible secret.

14. Above, by Leah Bobet (2012).

Set in Toronto. Magnificent, dark, strange, affecting.

15. The Peter Grant novels, by Ben Aaronovitch (2011-ongoing).

Energetic police procedurals set in a London filled with fantastic beings and magic.

16. Agent of Hel series, by Jacqueline Carey (2012-ongoing).

These are really entertaining. I hope Carey writes many more.

17. Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson (2013).

Families. Magic. Cosmology. Set in Toronto.

18. Underworld, film (2003).

Vampires fight werewolves in the streets of Budapest, with appropriately doomed romance. An excellent film-of-its-kind, and one of the first films I ever saw with a female action lead.

19. Beka Cooper series, by Tamora Pierce (2006-2011).

The first two books of which are police-procedural second-world urban fantasy. And really kind of lovely.

20. Embers, by Laura Bickle (2010).

Set in modern Detroit, starring an arson investigator.

21. Blood Oranges, by Kathleen Tierney (2013).

A dark satire of the modern vampire novel.

22. Team Human, by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan (2012).

An interesting novel involving vampires and humans and teenagers.

23. Norse Code, by Greg van Eekhout (2009).

Ragnarok is coming. Watch out, Southern California…

24. Dragon Age II, videogame, by BioWare (2011).

I’d thought about putting Dishonored on this list – it’s interested in the breakdown of cities, after all – but when I considered it, it didn’t have quite as much interest in how cities work. You could perhaps take the basic outline of DAII out of a city… but it is a very civic-centred fantasy, when you get down to it. And it interests me, both for the kind of story it is trying to tell as a videogame, and for the genre-mixing possibilities it contains. It’s ambitious, and it’s not successful in all its ambitions – but it tries to do more with story. And the story it’s telling is a city-based fantasy.

There is nothing else I have read, remember, and care about sufficiently, and which sufficiently satisfies my criteria, to number under this heading. I was tempted to include Lackey’s racecar elves… but I don’t actually give a good goddamn about them anymore. I am still tempted to include Peter Higgins’ debut in this – but I don’t think Wolfhound Century is all that interested in the urbs qua urbs.

I have deliberately excluded superhero narratives. If I allowed of superhero narratives, I might make twenty-five; but superhero narratives owe as much to the handwavy science fiction of the pulps as to the intrusive presence of liminal, numinous fantastic shit. If it smells of SF, it isn’t urban fantasy.

Sarah Silverwood’s The Nowhere Chronicles: A Biased Reponse to Textual Bias

A new post over at

Prejudice can be loud or obvious, and it can be quiet, unmarked, part of the sea in which we swim. Silverwood’s Nowhere Chronicles uphold a biased view of the world, which is to say: they’re bloody sexist.

I read these books and wrote this many months back, in June. I don’t go looking for things to be angry about. In fact, I don’t really like being angry: combining rage and (self-)righteousness is a thing that makes me uncomfortable.

But. Thoughtless, all-but-invisible (because part of background assumptions) bias is a thing that really gets my goat. I hate it in myself. I hate it in the world. I hate it in books. I expect more. I expect better.

Can I Just Say

Eighteen months and more on, a review I wrote for Strange Horizons is still capable of attracting ire.

(ETA: Oops. I missed this! More ire than I’d thought.)

And it’s not the only one. Two years on from this review, people still occasionally pop up to take (rather odd, by me) issue with it.

(Screencap source, from the blog of the same person who has some ire for the SH review. Post whence the screencap came, since edited.)

Oddly enough, no one’s taken me to task for – or even much seemed to notice – this review, wherein I deployed Grumpy Cat.

Not this Grumpy Cat:

But still, Grumpy Cat. (I haven’t .giffed a book review before.)

No one is outraged when I review an indie title by a little-known Canadian woman, and call it terrible.

But the outrage – shall we call it outrage? In some cases it seems stronger than mere affront – that has attached itself to those other reviews?

It is persistent, and expresses itself often in gendered ways.

That, by-the-by, is an observation, rather than a complaint. For myself, I won’t complain:* I’ve come to find it incredibly entertaining when my reviews – those reviews, since they seem to be the only ones which do – draw fire on grounds of their tone, or on some spurious lack of intellect or perception on my part.

No, seriously, mate. Tell me how I’m wrong on the internet again! Ask me if I know what words mean! Imply that I’m doing something for the attention – or because I’m jealous – or because I’m bored.

C’mon. Is that the best you can do?

(Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution. And I’m not in it for you, princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money.)

I’ll be over here in my corner chuckling – and maybe quoting Merleau-Ponty: “In the last resort, the actions of others are, according to this theory, always understood through my own; the ‘one’ or the ‘we’ through the ‘I’.”

We must return to the social with which we are in contact by the mere fact of existing

I don’t want to talk about phenomenology, exactly. I do mean to mention perception. This discrepancy between reactions.

As an aside: it troubles me that one response to women who perceive, and upon perceiving object to, high levels of sexual objectification or sexual violence (explicit or implied), in novels and visual media, is a version of gaslighting.

It is odd, being a person who has opinions in public. Who is mostly having opinions in public because she is being paid to talk write them. But I’ve at times (“Admirals and Amazons: Women In Military Science Fiction” is perhaps the most striking example, although you can make a case for “Epic Fantasy Is Crushingly Conservative?”) gone out of my way to phrase those opinions in ways designed to provoke.

There’s no way to have a conversation if nobody answers, after all.

Every time you open your metaphorical mouth on the internet, you don’t just run the risk of annoying someone. Given sufficient exposure, you’re just about guaranteed that someone will be pissed off. There’s always the risk of lost connections, lost income… if you’re bolshy enough and unwilling to acknowledge their point of view, sometimes, lost friends.

Words are dangerous tools. They turn in your hand. They cut as well as comfort.

The same phrase can strike two different people three different ways.

After two years having opinions, many of them cranky, most of them feminist, I’m a little surprised not to have seen a rape threat yet. (Seen.) I know, or have heard of, too many people who have received them. (Even one would be too many.) And I wonder. What separates me from them? Just my good fortune?

Or is this another case where perceptions of legitimacy and authority, attention and protection, affect responses? I don’t have sufficient data to hypothesise –

But every time I write something in the least bit confronting, I wonder how long good fortune lasts. Because I knew going in that it’s improbable it should last forever.

That’s what makes the ire those reviews attract so entertaining. I judge! I hate! I condescend!

Oh, ire-stirred ones. You say that like it’s a bad thing.

But only, and only to, the text.

At least at first.

I couldn’t write either review better now. They’re solid, honest work. Better-constructed, if I’m being fair, than some of the reviews I’ve written this summer: there’s nothing like thesis deadlines for distraction.

I’ve learned a bit since about comment threads, and engaging, since. I’d like to think I could do that part better now.

I like to think… I couldn’t, of course. I have even less time on my hands.

Can I just say:

Support Strange Horizons’ fund drive.

*Mock, or state objection, perhaps.

Pál Engel, The Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary 895-1526 and some thoughts about fantasy and Parts East

Pál Engel, The Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary 895-1526. English translation by Andrew Ayton. I.B. Tauris, 2005.

For a change of pace, I like to have at least one history book on the go that has nothing to do with what I’m supposed to be reading. For several months between spring and late August, this 400-pages-plus tome by Pál Engel, alleged to be the standard introductory work in English on medieval Hungary, was the history in question.

Its twenty chapters present a chronological progression from the pre-Christian Hungary of the 8th century through to the Jagiellonian kings at the end of the Middle Ages and the kingdom of Hungary’s eventual division between the Holy Roman and Ottoman Empires. Accounts of political events are interleaved with chapters which focus more thoroughly on the social and economic background. Its level of detail increases as it progresses forward in time, but Engel does – to my eye, at least – a decent job of laying out the problems, silences, and biases of the sources. Bear in mind, however, that while my impression is one of good faith history, I can’t speak to its accuracy, since it is very far from those periods on which I’ve done any serious reading.

Europe east of Vienna and north of Byzantium is the disregarded younger sibling of European medieval history. (Or, perhaps, the disregarded great-aunt you forget lives in the attic until she thumps the floor and the ceiling-plaster in the living-room cracks.) Only when one begins to investigate it does one realise how little do the Balkans, the Carpathian basin, or the Polish plains influence our view of the European medieval world. Even though, for example, the kingdom of Hungary was a major exporter of gold and horseflesh, and the Hungarian crown was at times deeply involved in the politics and succession disputes not only of its neighbours, but of kingdoms further afield as well. The feudal organisation of the medieval Hungarian kingdom looks rather different to the English or French model, for example. It’s eye-opening to see a different sort of hierarchy, when it comes to the gradations in status between people not part of the “magnate” class of nobility.

It’s a good, well-structured overview, and I can see why it would be offered up as the standard introduction on the topic.

From here let me segue to a brief excursus on history, Europe’s Pannonian Plain, and fantasy. It has troubled me for a while that Parts East of Vienna seem to be fair game for invented nations (Sherwood Smith, this year’s Gene Wolfe novel, others), but something that’s prodded my mind as a particular cause of unease recently is the Lackey/Flint/Freer alt-hist fantasy collaboration The Shadow of the Lion. Set in Venice, it’s pretty much a coming-of-age fantasy with a whole bunch of youthful protagonists doing their coming-of-age among intrigue and magic and danger.

Which would be fair enough, but I went to reread it lately – I hadn’t, I don’t think, read it since 2003 or 2004 – only to be confronted with a baffling and rather offensive piece of worldbuilding and characterisation. For one of the princes of Europe is inhumanly, demonically evil, where all the others are merely humanly flawed. This ruler is not a Spaniard or a Frank or an Englishman, nor even an Italian or a German or a Greek; rather it is one Jagiellon, Grand Duke of Poland and Lithuania.

Is it the bias of my sources? Or is it that when deciding upon villains, a writer is that much more inclined to portray people from the lands beyond the former Iron Curtain, or from the “barbaric” (cough), “fierce” (cough cough), “inscrutable” (choke), “exotic” (choke choke), “decadent” (cough) [check as applies] East, as wicked beyond reason or redemption?

When it comes to the eastern bits of Europe and their apparent fantasy counterparts, it is American writers who do this par excellence. And I’m just a little pissed about it.

(The historical Jagiellonowie rulers of Poland were interesting. They deserve better than to be cast as incarnate devils.)

Another conversation about why CODE NAME VERITY is ALL MANNER OF EXCELLENT.

An IM conversation about the 2013 Printz Award winner devolves into a conversation about why Elizabeth Wein’s CODE NAME VERITY is ALL MANNER OF EXCELLENT.

Featuring your humble correspondent, and Jenny of Jenny’s Library.

We are not concerned hereunder with spoilers, so if you haven’t read CNV? We’re going to ruin the ending for you.

Jenny: I kinda want to read In Darkness [by Nick Lake] and compare it to Monster [by Walter Dean Myers]

Because Monster? is about a boy on trial for murder

And we spend much of the book not knowing if he’s guilty or not

(and in the end, it’s still uncertain – it’s debatable)

but on the first page of In Darkness we have the narrator saying “I first shot a man when I was twelve years old.”

So we have one book that’s not just about young men of color and the violence in their lives, but more importantly the extent to which our perceptions of young men of color and violence affects how society treats them, and what kinds of chances they get

And I suspect In Darkness will only be about the first, at best

and also – there’s something about how they are both addressing their audience

(Code Name Verity too)

Despite the very different reasons for Steve and Verity writing, there’s something similar in how they’re addressing their audience

in the extent to which the writers writing these characters allow the personalities of young people to come through

and I’ve only read the first page of In Darkness

but the character here is addressing it’s readers much differently

in a way that’s much more removed and lacking that same kind of personality

which means it’s lacking that closeness and humanity

intimacy I guess is the better word

Liz: Maybe Lake just sucks at voice

Jenny: This is quite possible!

I suspect that the amount of potential for disrespect involved in presuming to tell this story has something to do with it as well

Any decently smart reader can figure out within the first page or two of Monster and Verity

that Wein is using the lowered expectations we have for young women in order to take us by surprise later

while Myers is showing the lowered expectations we have for young men of color in order to ask us to do better

but what is Lake doing?

other than confirming what we already think about young men of color


the main takeaway from Lake’s first page is that he wants us to be shocked and feel sympathetic

but Verity and Monster – while the shock is there, the main points are empathy and respect

Liz: Yes

I mean, I do not know from Monster

Jenny: heh

well, and I’m more going from what I remember about the book, than the first page, which I don’t remember precisely

Liz: But in CNV, we are shocked by what is happening to Julie, and only later realise that it isn’t exactly as straightforward as it seems.

There is a layered playing with empathy there.

Jenny: Yes

in both books

Liz: Particularly with respect to Anna Engel and the German officer.

Because both of them are broken by the same system that is breaking Julie, even as they’re complicit in it

Jenny: Monster is a mix of journal entries, and then what’s happening to Steve written out in screenplay – as if he’s detached from his own trial

and it’s an unreliable narrator in ways

except the point is to force us to ask ourselves just why we really don’t trust him, why the people in his life don’t trust him

rather than to use our trust to lie and make us believe it

but the going back and forth from journal and screenplay

it has the same sort of intimacy and detachment that Verity does through her letters, but then spending so much time talking about herself in third person in them

and they both exist in the story for similar and yet very different goals, the characters in the story are doing the detaching thing for the same reason

because they are scared and ashamed

Liz: I do not find shame in Code Name Verity

Not in retrospect

You know how she goes on about what a shameful coward she is? And in retrospect it’s such a goddamn effective misdirect

Jenny: Verity has clarified for me why I like unreliable narrators in young adult novels, but rarely like them in adult novels. because in young adults novels, they are more often about identity, and young adult’s identity is much more in flux, so often lying is just as honest in terms if who they are as telling the truth is.

Yes, no

Let me try to clarify?

Liz: Because she’s terrified but not broken, and that playing with shame, playing on the image of (socially-sanctioned as female) weakness, is a way of convincing her interrogators she is broken

While at the same time?

Doing the exact same thing to the reader.

Jenny: I think maybe more mad at herself is more what I meant?

Liz: And then pulling out the goddamn rug.

Jenny: Because she is mad at herself for getting caught

At least I think she is

Liz: I think that rolls together into angry+terrified at the whole situation to me.

Jenny: Yes, that’s maybe a better way of putting it

Liz: And the distancing effect is a way of… well, it’s a resist-interrogation technique, isn’t it?


Jenny: Yes – which is what Steve is doing too

Liz: Pretending it’s happening to someone else

That’s part of what makes CNV so effective

Jenny: *nods*

Liz: Because, well.

EVERYTHING about it?

From Julie’s POV?

Is doing about seven different things at once.

It is dense in terms of effective technique.

Jenny: Fuck yes

Liz: (and affective technique, to boot)

Jenny: which is why I look at In Darkness and just go O.o

because maybe it will surprise me?

but I’ll bet it won’t be a quarter as good at telling the story of the violence in the lives of young men of color as Monster does

and Verity does some of the same things that Monster does but better

it’s much more clever

Another thing I’d like to add:

I haven’t had a favorite book since childhood because once I got to my teen years, so few of them touched me in quite the same way, or stayed with me for as long. I could never pick and “favorite” was always changing

I suspect that CNV will be my favorite for a very long time (relatively speaking)

like, I’m obsessing over this story in a way I haven’t in years

(except for maybe PC Hodgell’s Kencyrath books)

I mean, Bujold was awesome and distracting and all, but I dunno how to describe it

the difference, I mean

Liz: The difference between your response to Wein and to Bujold’s stuff, what do you mean?

Jenny: Well, this sounds slightly silly?

but it feels more life changing

like, I’m very glad I’ve read Bujold’s books

they will always be favorites

they made me think about things in new ways

but…. CNV feels different somehow

Liz: Is it because it doesn’t flinch?

Because that’s what did it for me.

Jenny: that’s definitely part of it

Liz: It takes all your expectations that a book like this is not actually going to go there

Jenny: and it goes places even worse

Liz: And then it goes there. Into that moment that combines perfect horror with unlooked-for grace.

Jenny: Not precisely?

I think it’s more because it redefines what it means to love someone that much

perhaps because I’ve grown up on too much Hollywood?

Liz: “It’s like falling in love, finding your best friend”?

Jenny: Yes, but also… in choosing to shoot Julie, Maddie is choosing to love her friend over loving herself

Maybe that’s not the best way to put it? But Maddie gives up trying to be Julie’s hero

Because it’s more important to her to do what Julie needs than what Maddie wishes she could do  (not that Maddie actually wanted to be Julie’s hero, precisely, but you get the idea)

in that moment, Maddie chooses the pain and guilt of having failed her best friend in the world over letting her friend spend even one more moment in pain

and that’s a much bigger sacrifice than risking her life for the chance to save both of them

Liz: Or fail to save either.

Jenny: yes

Liz: Yeah

Jenny: and…maybe this sounds stupid?

but it feels like a very… female perspective on war and battle

and what it really means

not that this story couldn’t happen – doesn’t happen – among men?

like, the traditional male perspective is that one is risking one’s life for one’s loved ones back home, watching your friends die doing the same

Liz: Mercy, and survival, and the fact that some fates really are worse that death but that the death part doesn’t actually hurt any less because of that?

Jenny: Yeah

I think also – the difference between war that you go somewhere else to make, and war that brings itself to you

because while women have always fought! and they fight in far off places – the war that women fight does tend to more often be war where the battlefield is your own home

at least, that’s my impression?

and when it comes to losing loved ones, friends, making sacrifices…

There’s just something about not having the comfort of knowing your family is safe back home that’s different, and that comes through not just in Maddie and Julie’s friendship, but their fears.

It’s more just that… I’ve known that war is different when it isn’t sending troops elsewhere?

but my own country hasn’t lived that in generations and it shows in the shitty choices we make

and this is a perspective we need more of because war is always in someone’s home

and because it’s not a perspective that my country has lived in generations, I may know it, but I don’t know it

It’s a fundamentally NOT White American Male perspective on war<

So, yeah, it actually pisses me off more now that In Darkness got the medal and CNV just got an honor

because based on the sample that I’ve seen I don’t see it challenging that perspective.

That war is Over There.

Further thoughts are invited from all comers.

Fourth Walls: Strange Horizons has a fund drive, and I have some thoughts related to one of their recent columns

Strange Horizons are having their annual fund drive.

I don’t know what to say when it comes to Strange Horizons. I don’t read short fiction very often, and their editorial taste in poems is frequently – although not always – very different to mine. (They bought a poem from me, so it’s certainly not always.) I write reviews for them, so all I have to say about the reviews department is coloured by the possibility of bias – I’m honoured to be in that company: me, I come up well short in comparison to Foz Meadows and Nic Clarke and Aishwarya Subramanian and Martin Lewis, among the rest.

They publish interesting columns. All their staff are volunteers. They pay all their contributors, and the rates are pretty damn good. If they were ever to go under, they’d leave an enormous gap in their wake.

$11,000 is a relatively small budget on which to run a weekly magazine. They’re worth supporting.

The most recent of their columns, Renay’s Communities: You Got Your Industry In My Fanwork has drawn a spot of attention. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t fully get where Renay is coming from: there’s space for authors to engage in discussion of their own work… but crucially, only as long as they get that intent isn’t everything. It’s not magic: their work is open to multiple interpretations, and they have to live with knowing the interpretation they’d prefer to put on it isn’t always going to be the one that strikes the reader most strongly, or even at all.

It depends on the reader. For some of us, the brown parcel sat abandoned on a train station bench is just a package. For others, it’s a potential bomb and they’ve had too much of that kind of hurt already. (If you’ll forgive the metaphor.)

It’s odd, reviewing things and writing about them, in an SFF context. I learned to think and talk about books from writers working on the craft of creating them, because back when I acquired a computer and entered upon internet communities, I wanted write novels. (It’s a hobby I’ve mostly managed to give up – or fooled myself, at any rate, into believing so. There’s little time in a PhD for extraneity.) I kept a running tally of the books I read for my own reference. A friend – its publisher – asked me to contribute a review to Ideomancer, and that gave me sufficient confidence that I starting pitching elsewhere.

I needed coffee-money, after all.

Some of the books I’ve reviewed have been authored by friends. Some of the people whose books I’ve reviewed, or who have agreed to interviews for that column I write, have since become more than mere acquaintances. You can’t talk to pleasant people about shared interests and enthusiasms and not eventually become friendly with some of them: I’d say you had to be an asshole to want not to. And the line between what’s appropriate between friends or potential friends and what’s appropriate between writer and reviewer… gets a bit odd, at times, from this perspective.

If their book doesn’t work for me, I won’t say it to their face. That’d just be rude. But the review isn’t for them. It’s for me, and for the general readership of the website or magazine that’s (normally) paying me. The exercise in intellectual honesty – Am I harder on this book because I like the author? Or, conversely, Am I not looking hard enough at its flaws? – combined with the exercise of figuring out what the appropriate level of professionalism is in interactions with authors, publicists, editors and the like who aren’t friends who I know’ll call me on it if I step over the wrong sort of line… makes it occasionally weird, awkward, and stressful.

Maybe more than occasionally.

That weirdness leaves aside interacting with people who are readers without being also otherwise engaged in the production of reading material, or who, like me, review things for money or kicks.

Renay talks about a “fannish fourth wall.” I’ve never been a self-described abstract “fan.” And from where I stand, it looks more like a funhouse mirror. Things appear differently, depending on how you look.

Mind you, something doesn’t appear differently no matter how I look at it?

In the comments to Renay’s piece at Strange Horizons, Ben Aaronovitch keeps looking like a disingenous ass.

Complex systems

It’s an Irish summer and the sun is actually shining. I should be working on my thesis or one of the ten thousand things I’m behind on.

(Like reviews. Hi, difficulty focusing! How nice you should come visit…)

Instead, I’m taking a little time to mention something that I came across via Niall Harrison at Strange Horizons.

Tor UK has an open submissions policy. Editor Julie Crisp ran the numbers on genders submitting to their slushpile. In Sexism In Genre Publishing: A Publisher’s Perspective, she brings the numbers out into the light and finds that her slushpile ratio is 32:68 F:M overall, 22:78 F:M with science fiction specifically, and calls for more women to submit their work.

Leaving aside the discussions from short fiction markets which suggest that while men submit more work overall, women submit work of better quality – what good is a post that points out the disparity in subs? Renay (of LadyBusiness) calls it “a reductive, shallow look at the issues regarding gender parity and representation in genre.”

She says, “[The post seeks] to distance itself from the external criticism of the community which would hold it accountable for the decisions which have led to the low numbers of submissions from women. Instead of taking a forward-looking path to solving the problem of low submission, publicly posting the numbers to ask “How can we do better? What are the cultural and social issues that might be influencing women’s reluctance to submit? How can we reach out more and welcome women writers? How can we better support them once they’re here?”, Julie Crisp used the numbers to say, “Not it!” and complain about the blame being laid at her door.”

In the comments to the original post, Sophia McDougall writes

What is so hard about battling sexism in publishing is its so nebulous and fluid, you often cannot point to one deliberate, malicious decision and say “this is where it all went wrong.” This also means there is not one single decisive thing you can do to fix it. You’re right to say it’s not “clear-cut”. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or that the problem is just that women aren’t interested. As the industry stands, women have good REASONS not to be interested! I know this is something that people at the publishing end can’t just wave a magic wand and fix. I know you can’t publish what you don’t receive. But publishers do have a part to play, and that has to include recognising the complexity and scale of what’s going on.

…maybe SFF isn’t worse, maybe it’s better, because at least it knows and cares that it has a problem and is trying to change. Even though it is sometimes painful.

But I feel this piece will be taken as granting SFF permission to care less.

Sexism is complex and visible disparities are the result of many intersecting factors. Showing the numbers is useful. But if one wants to change the disparity one cannot sit back and wait for better numbers to magically appear. Just because one asks nicely.

Addressing complex systems takes work.

I’ve never seen UK editions of Elizabeth Bear’s science fiction. Catherine Asaro. Kristine Smith’s Jani Killian novels. Chris Moriarty’s Spin novels. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden books. Hell, Karen Traviss. The time is ripe for some UK publisher to make an investment in an SFF “21st Millennium Classics” line, acquiring UK rights to SF novels published in the first decade of the new century, and putting an equal proportion of male and female authors in the line-up. If women in the UK don’t see science fiction by women on the shelves, published by UK publishers, they’re hardly going to see the point in submitting to UK publishers themselves.

If there was an easy fix, we would have stopped talking about this years ago. Constant, mindful engagement across multiple avenues of approach: that’s the only solution.

And that takes a very long time.

SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part XIII of XIII

Part I.
Part II.
Part III.
Part IV.
Part V.
Part VI.
Part VII.
Part VIII.
Part IX.
Part X.
Part XI.
Part XII.

Or click on the SFF/Classics Conference 2013 tag.

This is the thirteenth part of a multi-part conference write-up.

This is Monday afternoon and my notes are shaky things.

Final session! Given a choice between My Little Pony and “Screen and media,” I picked “Screen and media,” because I heard that one of the papers would speak about Dragon Age. This session was chaired by Edith Hall, and featured papers by Jarrid K. Looney (Royal Holloway, London) joining by Skype, and Daniel Goad (Royal Holloway, London), present in the flesh.

…My notes are crap. Hell. Okay. Well, Looney’s paper, “‘There is both the god in man, which reaches for fire and stars, and that black dark streak which steals the fire to make chains’: The Dual Identity of Prometheus in Modern Media Culture,” despite the amusing vagaries of technology, proved an energetic and interesting paper.

(Notable moments: Skype cut out while Looney was saying, “Space, the final front-“.)

Seriously, my notes for this session are terrible. Okay, Daniel Goad’s paper, “A Tale of Two Empires: Ancient Rome as a Model for Two Fantasy Empires,” was up next. Goad was a good speaker, and his paper dealt with Roman influences on Star Trek‘s Romulans and Dragon Age‘s Tevinter Imperium. While I enjoyed it, I found it more shallow and surface-y than really satisfactory.

Sigh. Poor, poor notes. Oh, well. After three full days of detailed note-taking, I suspect it’s a bit much to expect my hands and brain to co-ordinate well in the last hours.

Tony Keen wrapped up the conference, saying that there would be some some of publication of “Select Proceedings,” since with over 60 papers they could not publish all of them. He said that there was a 2012 French conference on a similar topic, that there were volumes forthcoming from a number of people, that London WorldCon would have an academic track, for which the CFP closing date was December 1.

After the conference, retired to the Phil with a bunch of other people. Where I, embarrassingly enough, didn’t here Nick Lowe compliment my paper and had to ask someone to explain. At which point Liz Gloyn told me, DI-esque, “Bask in the praise! Bask!”

Some wonderful people there. Much wonderful conversations. I am overjoyed, and privileged, to have gone, and I hope similar things happen in future.

SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part XII of Many

Part I.
Part II.
Part III.
Part IV.
Part V.
Part VI.
Part VII.
Part VIII.
Part IX.
Part X.
Part XI.

Or click on the SFF/Classics Conference 2013 tag.

This is the twelfth part of a multi-part conference write-up.

This is Monday afternoon and my notes are shaky things.

At lunch, I succeeded in dumping my helping of chicken satay over my foot, to general hilarity. Including my own, since by this point in the conference I think I was a bit punch drunk. Had some interesting conversations, including about videogames (although possibly this was not at lunch) with people including someone who’s name I’m not sure I got. I think it was Emily Kesh? (She was reading a Penguin Paradise Lost, I think.) Anyway, all things very convenable.

After lunch, we all filed upstairs to the Gallery, for the plenary address of Edith Hall (King’s College London), on “The Sea! The Interplanetary Sea! Xenophon’s Anabasis in Outer Space.” Hall is a very entertaining, engaged speaker, not shy of taking advantage of a comic moment: when Tony Keen introduced her as “a powerhouse of Classical scholarship,” Hall performed a series of dance-y “muscled arms” gestures.

Hall took the stage to disclaim deep knowledge of science fiction. She accepted the invitation to speak, she said, because Tony is a “good egg” and she likes him.

Xenophon, she said, is a major figure in the Western prose tradition. Many genres have their roots or influences in the Anabasis. She gave a précis of the Anabasis, and particularly its opening and movements to the death of Cyrus and then to the Black Sea, and stressed that although this is the climax of the narrative it is not its conclusion, as Xenophon and the Ten Thousand continue fighting around Thrace, and Xenophon (being exiled from Athens) wants to found a new city himself.

The Anabasis is the archetypal account of a military expedition. It provides military information, but the emphasis is on escape. There are previous escape texts in Greek literature, like the Odyssey, but the Odyssey is centred on home, centripetal, featuring travel around the periphery of the world. Xenophon’s text is profoundly centrifugal, caught between Greek and Persian worlds.

Other escape texts include Iphigenia in Tauris, which sees two men and one woman at a primitive barbarian community at Tauris, who must bring back an ancient wood statue of Artemis. (And the lads need to rescue the woman.) Comparandum with Return of the Jedi.

Although Hall said the influence is not direct, but probably mediated through the history of cinema, like the 1920s Trader Horn which influenced Tarzan and various iterations of “two guys and a girl escaping” films. Xenophon himself knew of Iphigenia in Tauris and was later to set up a temple to Artemis.

Hall remarked on the fact that despite being a socialist she’s attracted to right-wing men: “I would have married Xenophon and lived on his farm.”

Moment of humour over. Writers using the Anabasis, she said, have to deal with the geopolitics. How seriously have the authors thought about the Anabasis itself? How do you use Xenophon’s conflicted attitude towards home? Colonising the Black Sea? Socratic political theory? Xenophon’s Anabasis has an extremely pragmatic attitude towards home. The soldiers are mercenaries, some criminals, poor men coming from rural poverty, the principal players all – in a sense – refugees from a war-torn Greece and the end of a thirty-year war. The soldiers are selling their swords and labour to the real power in the region, Persia.

The Ten Thousand were a marching republic of sorts, a city on the move. The Anabasis is full of political theory, and Xenophon shows us different types of city/society life – feudal empire, tribes, new city, Athens and Sparta.

The Anabasis is like a “rite of passage novel.”

Hall looked at the idea of the Anabasis in three works. Paul Kearney’s Ten Thousand, which she called “Tolkien light with Greek proper names,” David Weber and John Ringo’s March Upcountry/March to the Sea (“macho puerile junk – just junk“), and Andre Norton’s Starguard – “The shortests! And it’s by a woman! Which I didn’t know when I read it!” which she said was the best of the lot, and which of them all she would recommend to other people.

Here my notes get sketchy and fuzzy, as Hall gave the room the low-down on how each of these novels engages with the Anabasis. Since I can’t make sense of what I have written down, I leave the details as an exercise to the reader.

It was an excellent and engaging paper. Even if it didn’t delve too deep into why the Anabasis and why these novels… or maybe that’s my mid-afternoon punch-drunkenness talking.

At the very end of the paper, Andy Sawyer stood up to present (with a long run-up, during which Hall’s face grew more worried) Edith Hall with her plenary-speaker gift.

Sawyer: “Your very own super lambanana!”
Hall: “Oh my God, what is that?”


“Look at it, that’s beautiful!”

Whereupon Edith Hall insisted on having pictures taken with the lambanana, Tony Keen, and Andy Sawyer, amid much giggling from the audience and calls of, “Hold it in profile!”