Posts Tagged ‘gender’

Past a certain point, my praise for the stories of the late great Terry Pratchett becomes pleasingly repetitive. Humour, humanism, quirky invention and offbeat observations – it’s there in everything from my best loved Pratchett to more recent works that haven’t grabbed me so much. So of course Wyrd Sisters, the sixth Discworld book, is a fabulous read. I loved it just as much re-reading it after his death as I did on first encountering it as a teenager. If you haven’t read it then you should – it’s as good a starting point for Discworld as any, and a fantastic work of fantasy.

All of which got me thinking – why does Wyrd Sisters stand out in the Pratchett mix?

A Favourite Among Favourites

Wyrd Sisters isn’t in my top three Discworld picks (Guards! Guards!, Pyramids and Small Gods, in case anyone cares). But it’s clearly among other people’s. When the Sword and Laser book club were voting on a Discworld book to read, this one came out on top. When someone put on a Discworld play while I was at university, they chose Wyrd Sisters, as well as choosing me for the role of diverse guards and other extras (for the record, I was a terrible actor, and it’s a mercy that I let that ambition go).

Wyrd Sisters is a great book, but so are most of the Discworld novels, so why does this one keep emerging from the pack?

Hitting His Stride

I think one of the answers is that this is about the point where Pratchett really got into the swing of Discworld. Many put that point a book or two earlier, which places this firmly in the comfort zone. That makes it memorable for those who read his books they were released, or who have read them in publication order.

Then there’s the Shakespeare references, and Pratchett riffing on the power of stories. It’s a theme he returned to from time to time, but here he combines it with spoofing The Bard, that bulwark of the English literary canon. Whether you loath or idolise Shakespeare, that probably creates extra associations.

More than anything though, I think it’s the witches. This wasn’t Granny Weatherwax’s first appearance, but it saw her team up with Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. In a move that still remains shockingly unusual in fantasy literature, the book is led not just by a woman but by a group of women, all of them lovable and admirable in their own ways, all very distinctive both from each other and from familiar fantasy tropes. These aren’t a bunch of sexy arse-kicking heroines, but they’re still fascinating people and a hell of a lot of fun to read about. They feel like real people, with all their quirks, strengths and failings, albeit people who cast spells and ride flying brooms.

I expect that Pratchett will be loved for years to come, and I expect that Wyrd Sisters will be too. So if you haven’t read it, please do. And if you have, let me know what you think – is this one of the man’s greats, and what about it stands out for you?

Menelaeus’s fingers were sore from picking cotton, his back stinging from Mr Stenson’s lash. But he wasn’t going to let that stop him. With one hand he clutched his totem, intertwined figures of man and woman, diviner and spirit. With the other he picked up a handful of corn and scattered it across the skin of the drum.

“What do you see?” Octavia’s expression was serious, making her face appear even more wrinkled in the oil lamp’s light. He had learned much from her wisdom, her strength and her grace, but had still more to learn. With her man’s clothes and her fierce resolve, she embodied the world in between, the place where boundaries fell, where humans and spirits met. She was, in so many ways, the person he wanted to be.

Most of the kernels had bounced away to the floor. He looked carefully at the positions of those that remained, where they lay on a grid that served as both game board and tool of their art. The signs were all too familiar.

“This is Stenson.” Menelaeus pointed at a dark, twisted symbol marked by the corn. “Tomorrow we will suffer his wrath.” He pointed to the signs for suffering and for the field hands, both singled out by his spirit twin through the grain. Another symbol had been marked, one that filled him with even more dread. “There will be a death.”

“Again.” Octavia nodded. “Now tell me anything we can use to lessen the harm.”

#

“Keep back, boy.” Blood dripped from Stenson’s whip. At his feet, Octavia Brown lay dead beside the cotton buds she had dropped in the dirt – ruined, as Stenson put it.

At least Octavia’s son Saul was not here. His fury would have got him killed. Thanks to Menelaeus and Octavia, the Brown children would not be orphans.

That knowledge did nothing to still Menelaeus’s pounding heart. He wanted to rip out Stenson’s throat with his bare hands. But Stenson and his men had guns, and Menelaeus would not be the only one they would punish.

So he stood still and silent. But now he knew – divining the future was not enough. He had to shape it.

#

In the stillness of the night, Menelaeus stared at the totem, two carved beings intertwined. He could still feel his spirit twin, but without Octavia he was weaker, and he needed to be stronger than he ever had. He was just a man, and that was not enough.

“Stenson comin’ for you.” Saul stood beside Menelaeus’s bed. “Says you been stirrin’ trouble. You want I should kill him?”

His voice was ragged, torn up by hate.

“No.” Menelaeus rose from the bed. “Ain’t no-one else gonna fight for me. But I’m gonna need some things of your momma’s.”

#

“Who the hell d’you think you are, boy?” Stenson’s voice was even more menacing coming from the darkness behind the lanterns. His men cackled at his words. “Goddam faggot as well as a nigger now, huh?”

“My name is Meredith.” It felt natural, not just the name but the dress and the shawl. Becoming more than just the man he had been. Becoming both parts of the divination.

As the person who had been Menelaeus placed the corn kernels on the drum, she could feel the power flowing through her, her spirit twin stronger for sharing her change, for breaking a line that defined and divided him.

“Always knew you were an uppity nigger.” Stenson’s gun clicked. “Now we gonna end that.”

“No.” Meredith slid a kernel across the drum skin, from the sign for the overseer to that for death.

A shot rang out.

“Oh shit!” A different voice this time. White, male, scared.

“What the hell you done, Hank?” The lights shifted, illuminating Stenson’s body and casting Meredith back into shadow.

“I don’t know,” the man whimpered. “It just gone off in my hand. I don’t…”

As fear turned to panic and accusation, Meredith picked up her drum. The plantation men would be busy for a good long while.

As she walked away into the night she touched the totem hanging around her neck and remembered Octavia. She felt torn by loss, and yet, more than ever, she felt whole.

Lies banner 2

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This is the latest in a series of stories set in a weird western setting, where magic is (for the most part) achieved through games. I think this one may have given me more insight into how that works. If you enjoyed this then you might also like the previous stories, Straight Poker and Counting Coup. And you can read my other weird western work in my steampunk collection Riding the Mainspring, which is free if you sign up to my mailing list.

This particular story comes about thanks to Ben Moxon, who came up with the idea for connecting games and divination through a decorated drum. He also led me to this fascinating article on divination, around which Menelaeus/Meredith is built.

I haven’t always been a fan of big fantasy books. If a novel comes labelled ‘First in the Epic Saga’ and is heavy enough to kill a charging rhino, odds are I won’t even read the blurb. But over the past year or so, my mind has been changed. Thanks to the excellent recommendations of programmer, folk rocker, horseman and general renaissance man Glenatron, I’ve discovered that some of these hefty tomes aren’t just a perfectly passable way to fill a fortnight’s reading. Some of them are – and I’m overcoming years of prejudice to say this – really worth your time.

Cold Magic by Kate Elliott, despite one central flaw I’ll get to later, is one of those books.

Character, History and Gender

Set in a very different 19th century Europe, Cold Magic is the story of Cat Barahal, a young woman weeks away from adulthood. Taken from her family as part of a long standing magical and political pact, she finds herself in the hands of a powerful house of sorcerers. These cold mages form an alternate aristocracy alongside the traditional lords and princes, their authority entangling in messy, complicated ways. Their political schemes soon threaten Cat’s life, as well as that of her beloved cousin Bee, and it’s up to Cat to… oh, you get the idea.

Cat is a likeable if prickly protagonist. Like Jane Austen’s heroines, she’s written in such a way that the reader realises things she doesn’t, even though the story is written from her point of view. Getting that right takes skill, and it’s a skill Elliott has clearly mastered.

But the biggest appeal for me about this character is the way that she is presented as a woman in a gendered society. Some fantasy authors address the gender inequality of feudal societies by simply ignoring it. That’s fine, you can do what you want with your world, but it means we miss out on exploring the consequences of inequality. Others just take it for granted and provide no female characters with real control over their lives – not a great example to current and future generations. Elliot does something I like far more. She presents an unequal society, and then shows how Cat deals with the consequences of that inequality. From the social order of her school to the prejudice against a scarred female veteran, gender imbalance is in the details as well as the big picture of Cat’s arranged marriage and assumed disposability. But both she and Bee empower themselves despite that, and that makes for a great character in an interesting setting.

A Whole New World

That setting is one of the biggest draws of this book. As Elliott writes in the back, it was inspired by a long world building exercise that she carried out with others, and that attention to detail shows. Climate, geography, politics, economics, social norms – so much is revealed, and it’s all fascinating. There are elements of fantasy, like the feathered trolls, alongside steampunk airships. There are spies and intrigues, wars and treaties, two thousand years of history impinging on the present. It cleverly winds strands from real history into the mix. The classical references are nice, but it was when I realised who the infamous General Camjiata represented that things fell into place for me.

Most interesting to a social lefty like me was the depiction of society beyond that scheming elite. We see the pervasive oppression that comes with a long standing feudal hierarchy, just like the one that dominated in early 19th century Europe. We also see the horrors of factory life, the way that the transformations of the Industrial Revolution led to a whole new kind of oppression for the vast majority of people. And we see the reactions against this – riots and revolutionary plots, the sort of stuff that left me white-knuckled with excitement when studying 19th century history. These aren’t things I’ve seen a lot of fantasy novels, and I look forward to seeing their consequences explored in the rest of the series.

Stop, Exposition Time!

Having said all of that, the loving and detailed world building also leads to this book’s big flaw – exposition. Elliott has built a wonderful world and quite rightly wants to share it, but sometimes the explanations get clunky. The plot will grind to a halt for two pages of background on ancient wars. Sometimes characters will explain things they have no real reason to explain, in a manner usually reserved for the least charismatic university professors, just to get information across to the reader. And much as I loved the world these sections presented, the way they presented it threw me out of the story and made it feel less real.

I’m going to come back to this in a future blog post, because I want to compare it with some other approaches, one of them equally problematic in a very different way. And it may be less of an issue for those accustomed to reading those rhino-slaying fantasy tomes – after all, this is one of the things that puts me off epic series fantasy in general. But if you’re going to have a problem with the book, this will probably be it.

Lessons Learned

By now it should be obvious that as a reader I liked this, and that I’ll be reading more of this series. But what did I learn as a writer?

Learning from others’ mistakes, it was a reminder of the disruption exposition can cause, and just how carefully it has to be handled. There are far worse offenders where this is concerned, but it’s a useful reminder.

As for what Elliott gets right, there’s so very much. How to position a strong-willed female protagonist in an unequal society. How to use hints of history for richer world building. How to reference other things without it becoming smug or putting the reader off. How to weave an intricate tangle of events for the protagonist to fall into.

I’ll be mulling this one over for a while, and that in itself counts as a recommendation.

A special treat today – I have a guest post from Sue Archer of the Doorway Between Worlds blog. I’m a fan of the way Sue uses science fiction and fantasy to explore topics around communication, and it’s a pleasure to host her opinions on another topic here today, one that I’ve touched on in the past. So without further ado…

Female Superhero Movie Franchises: What Would Ellen Ripley Say?

When I was eight years old, my parents gave me a copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I devoured the story, identifying with the plucky character of Lucy. I then went on to read A Wrinkle in Time, and got drawn in to the world of Meg Murray, who was geeky (like me) and who saved her brother from evil. And I knew: science fiction and fantasy were written for me. This was a genre where girls could save the world.

When I was ten years old, I played with She-Ra: Princess of Power dolls, because other dolls were downright boring next to ones who could use swords and magic. I watched the various incarnations of the Justice League and Marvel characters on television and pretended that I was a superhero like Wonder Woman.

When I was twelve years old, a movie came out that I wasn’t old enough to see yet. In this movie, an ordinary woman fought against the odds to save humanity from aliens. The movie went on to spawn several sequels, and the female lead became a hugely popular character.

Her name was Ellen Ripley. And the year Aliens came out? 1986.

Ripley

Fast forward twenty-eight years later. Count ’em: Twenty-eight. We are in 2014, and since Ellen Ripley, I have not seen another adult female character leading a movie franchise in the speculative fiction genre. (The closest thing so far is The Hunger Games, but it’s aimed at more of a teenage audience.) Frankly, I’m tired of waiting for another one. What happened?

The Wonder Woman That Wasn’t

There certainly hasn’t been a lack of trying by those who understand that this genre is for women as well as men. Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame was slated to helm a Wonder Woman film. Joss Whedon and Wonder Woman! Alas, that movie never got off the ground. And now we’re left with DC introducing Wonder Woman as a secondary character to Superman and Batman in their next superhero film. Apparently the studio thinks my favourite Amazon is just not strong enough to have her own movie. Which is ridiculous.

Superheroes Without Superpowers

I love the Marvel movies, but I’m disappointed that they aren’t making definite moves towards a female-led superhero film. Instead, we’ve had female characters who are part of a team: Black Widow, a female assassin in a bodysuit who has no superpowers; and Gamora—wait for it—a female assassin in a bodysuit who has no superpowers. Black Widow was done well, while Gamora had an underused backstory and was upstaged by a sarcastic raccoon and a talking tree. Neither of these women were leads. I’m tired of looking for small victories. When will we get a movie about Captain Marvel? Or another Marvel female character who is just as powerful as the men?

Men as Women

And I don’t mean a female character who is based off of a powerful male one. Marvel’s announcement of a female Thor being introduced in their comics annoyed me. I would have no issue with Sif taking up the hammer of Thor and wielding its powers as herself. But for the woman taking the hammer to be called Thor? This is insulting. Other characters have taken up Mjolnir in the past and gained the powers of Thor, but they kept their names. Why does the woman have to lose hers and be called Thor? It reminds me of Batgirl, Supergirl, and all of those other characters that were derived from male ones. Is Marvel afraid of developing a new standalone female character? That’s just sad.

Superwomen vs. Hollywood

I’ve heard all of the arguments about why a female-led movie franchise is not being made. And none of them make any sense.

Well, look what happened when we made Elektra and Catwoman. No one turned out, so clearly the appetite is not there for female-led movies. (It couldn’t possibly be because they were terrible movies.)

Women don’t go to see these kinds of movies, so we wouldn’t make any money. (Too bad that according to the MPAA, 42% of the domestic audience who came to see Iron Man 3 were women. Superhero movies in general are coming in at around 40% women in the audience. Not to mention you’re assuming men don’t want to see women superheroes. Not true of the men I know.)

We’ve already made plans for other movies, so you’ll need to wait a few years. (So change your plans. You could if you really wanted to.)

And this is the crux of it. The movie industry is made up largely of men who don’t really want to produce movies about female superheroes. So, unfortunately, I think I’ll be waiting for a few more years before I see what I want. (Some possible light at the end of the tunnel: There have been some recent rumours about an unnamed female-led movie in the Spiderman universe for 2017. I’ll believe it when I see it.)

What I’d pay money to see: Ellen Ripley facing down the leaders of The Company, also known as Hollywood movie execs. I can only imagine what she would say.

In the meantime, I’m off to watch my copy of Aliens.

Which female-led shows have you enjoyed? Who would you like to see on the big screen?

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Thank you to Sue for the post. If you enjoyed it then please go read more of her views on the Doorway Between Worlds.

Conflict is common over the depiction of race and gender in speculative fiction. As a middle-class first-world white bloke I recognise that I’m in a very privileged position and over-represented in popular culture. But as a nerd I also recognise why people get defensive about challenges to a frequently mocked subculture. I’ve written a post about this and recent superhero films over one Curnblog. Here’s the start of it…

Where Did Storm Go? Representing Race and Gender in Superhero Films

Superhero films and the comics that spawned them are famous for their traditionally white male fan-base. It’s a fan-base to which the creators play, with the vast majority of superheroes, and particularly the high profile ones, being white men.

This raises issues for the balanced representation of gender and race and for the diversity of perspectives possible within these stories. It becomes even more problematic as these stories reach out to a wider audience, perpetuating norms of white male cultural dominance. But why is this so common? And is an opportunity for change being squandered?

Talking raccoons are surprisingly well represented in the Marvel universe

Talking raccoons are surprisingly well represented in the Marvel universe

To read the rest please hop on over to Curnblog. And while you’re there I also recommend Anthony Pilloud‘s ‘The Fallibility of Superheroes‘, an interesting article on the troubling moral structure of the Marvel universe.

 

For more on issues of representation you might also want to check out this rough transcript of a panel R A Smith was on at LonCon.

And if you have any thoughts on the subject or links to other interesting articles then please leave a comment.

I love science fiction and fantasy, and I believe that nothing is better for those genres than the ability to critically discuss them, to offer challenges and insights to each other, to find our weaknesses, celebrate our strengths and build on both.

That’s why I often hate getting into debates about them on the internet. What should be a forum for development and growth instead becomes a source of deep division. Why?

The symptoms

Recent controversy around the Hugo awards is a good example of how this goes down. A group of writers and fans with a broadly right-wing agenda campaigned to get their favourite writers onto the ballot. They succeeded, and in response more liberal fans cried foul. Much vitriol was spewed. I mostly ignored it but it still made me sad because of the tone taken by people on both sides.

Discussions of feminism and geek culture are among the worst I’ve seen. Both sides of these debates put huge efforts into pushing forward their point of view, rather than listening to each other’s perspectives or trying to understand where those viewpoints come from. It tends to get very ugly very fast, and though I care deeply about these topics I step away from discussions that look angry, unproductive and emotionally draining.

The disease

In my opinion, the problem is that these debates become a matter of attack and defence, rather than an attempt to learn from one another and appreciate other points of view.

It’s natural that this would happen. As fans of all things nerdy we’re used to being ostracised and attacked, to the point where we see ourselves that way despite the increasingly mainstream position of our culture. That makes us incredibly wary of any perceived attack, ready to leap in and defend what we love. It’s one of the reasons why the insightful videos of Feminist Frequency receive as much scorn as admiration. People see a critique of an aspect of something they love and they feel it as an attack on their cultural identity. They feel hurt, and they respond as such.

But of course these counter-attacks put the feminists, or the right-wing science fiction writers, or whoever it is on the defensive. The fight goes back and forth, becoming increasingly bitter. A love for or hatred of Feminist Frequency becomes a badge of honour, to be defended in itself. Positions entrench preventing either side from hearing the other. They might win more supporters through these public spats, or they might alienate casual observers, but what they won’t do is change each others’ views.

The cure (well, mine anyway)

Tom Bramwell has written an excellent piece on this problem and video games, and if you take away one thing from this post it should be to read his article. What I took from it is this – we need to listen. Even if I abhor someone’s opinion, I can achieve more through listening and understanding why they hold that opinion than from repeating, rephrasing and defending my own arguments, hammering them into a defensive stance. Proving ourselves logically right over and over again doesn’t matter. Understanding why others disagree with us does.

I’m not saying that you should not stand up for what you believe in. Far from it. I firmly believe that women are under-represented in science fiction and fantasy and we should change that. But I also believe that the best way to achieve change is to express my view, then step back from the debate and listen. Not to defend my position. To understand rather than berate.

And yes, this is not just a science fiction and fantasy thing. It is a universal thing. It is as true of politics and religion as of which Star Trek captain was best (Picard). But sf+f is where I live. It’s what I’m passionate about. And so that’s where I start trying to treat this differently.

And if you’ve never seen Feminist Frequency then here’s a taste. I think it’s excellent, if occasionally flawed. Other opinions are available.

 

 

Tolkien compared stories with soup. He said that, as readers and critics, we should look at the whole dish rather than the ingredients that went into it.

While I take Tolkien’s point – that it’s important to enjoy and immerse yourself in the story in its own right – I also like to think about the ingredients. A lot of different flavours went into the latest story I have out – Sand Dancer in James Tallett’s The Ways of Magic Anthology. So, for those of you who like to play literary chef, or just want to make sure there’s no rat in your word stew, here are a few ingredients that went into this story.

The Ways of Magic

 

Arabian nights

For me as a westerner, there’s something exotic and romantic about the Middle East. It’s a place full of strange beauty and unknown dangers, a place of djinn, minarets and shifting sands, of fine architecture, fine learning and the fine voice of a distant call to prayer.

Of course, the way we romanticise the East is problematic. Edward Said’s concept of orientalism – simply put, that we romanticise Asia in a way that also lets us look down on its people – is old hat, though sadly still relevant. As an outsider to these countries I’m cautious about using their culture for my own creations.

But what’s the alternative? That everything I write is full of white people living Anglo-American lifestyles? That all my fantasy is Tolkien-style elves, dwarfs, dragons and castles? Isn’t ignoring other cultures even worse? Also boring, of course.

I loved those old Sinbad films when I was growing up, the ones with the Ray Harryhausen monsters (sorry writers, actors and directors, but however good you were it’s still a Ray movie in my mind). I love Disney’s Aladdin, for all the problems that Disneyfication brings. I love the short stories of Saladin Ahmed, and am looking forward to reading his novels.

So, for good or for bad I’ve written a few stories that try to depict an Arabic fantasy setting, and this in one of them.

Magic

The clue’s in the title of of the anthology – Ways of Magic. This story is built around a particular way of creating magic, one that combines art, passion and power through the medium of dance.

I like to use the arts as mechanisms for magic systems. They stir passions within us that are a good fit for a powerful and evocative magic system. They have rules and patterns a writer can use. They make adventure stories about more than politics, power and wealth, bringing a society’s culture to the forefront.

For an Arabian fantasy story, combining this with belly dancing seemed a natural fit. I know next to nothing about dancing, so again I’ve darted outside of the familiar, but I hope I’ve done it some justice.

Female leads

I try to create a balance in my fiction, with about half the leads male and half female. It would be easier for me to just write blokes – after all, I am one. But I want the world to provide women and girls with role models they can relate to. I want my nieces to see a variety of women in fantasy fiction, to see that they don’t need to be princesses or Xena lookalikes to matter in those worlds. And for myself, I want my fiction to be more interesting and varied.

I wrote this story just as I was starting a concerted effort to improve the gender balance in my writing, so it’s probably not my most nuanced attempt at a female lead. I won’t apologise – we all learn and improve by doing – but I will say that I’m still striving to do better.

Sand in your gears

Those three are the biggest ingredients that went into this stew. It’s also flavoured with clockwork robots, because I can never resist a bit of mechanical fantasy, and with some familiar themes about authority and rebellion. I like to think that it makes for a tasty read, but you’ll have to be the judges of that.

The Ways of Magic is available through Amazon (UK and US versions), Barnes & Noble, Kobo and probably a bunch of other places. If you’re looking for some fantasy to read then please give it a shot.