Religion in SFF

“Portal to the Depths of Space” by ErikShoemaker is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

There was a discussion not so long ago, on Twitter (I don’t have to remember how to work the shortcode this time … sadly I’ve forgot who posted it and so can’t look for it. Maybe someone will post it in the replies) about how strange, and rather colonialist, to think that in space and in future there is no religion.

If you think about it, it is pretty daft. Why would religion disappear like that? The rather moronic and racist notion of Social Darwinism, if you must know.

I can see religions that have to adjust their thinking. Some Abrahamic religions have sects that interpret their religion such that it is incompatible with meeting alien life – especially wholly alien life – unless they want to … oh, never mind, some of that lot already tend towards such a warped perception of their holy works commingled with Renaissance painters being ecstatic over new pigments that they’re the sort who consider anyone not like themselves to be subhuman anyway. Still the ones not rabidly racist will have to adjust their doctrine or haemorrhage believers to the point of [veritable] extinction.

Why, though, should we believe that the peoples we find among the stars won’t have religions, superstitions, and more?

Sure, it is possible the psychology of an alien race is such that it doesn’t do faith, or dogma, or any of that. It does not mean they’re more advanced, as the standard trope of SFF would have you believe, merely that they are not human. Which is cool. They’re not better but neither are we. The only reason you’re unlikely to see such in my writing except as a passing character is that, like atheism, I find it tremendously difficult to wrap my head around.

Oh, but Jaye, you’ve said you aren’t religious! [Insert references here], see?! You’re an atheist! (Says all the religious folk, especially the atheists … which is a different tangent I’m not following. And I’m not even medicated for my ADHD anymore).

No, I’m not religious. Therefore I am neither atheist not theist, though neither am I agnostic in the strictest sense. In some definitions of the latter I am, in fact, agnostic, but in my own understanding of the word I prefer not to claim it. I do believe that the universe was created. I feel that it’s reasonable to assume aspects of our reality, possibly our very biologies, are the work of beings more advanced than ourselves and more ancient. These we may as well call gods. I mean … it’s a nice catchy word is ‘gods’, sorta rolls off the tongue. Deorum, los dioses, gli dei, na déithe, die götter, nā akua, devataon, para dewa, kamigami … see? round the globe it’s just such a catchy little way to express it. And so bloody versatile it is! It doesn’t have to mean omni-anything, or even immortal! If you remember there’s faiths, religions, gods, beliefs outside of the western world and it’s Christian-centric way of thinking.

It’s fun to write religious characters. It’s enlightening to envision the faiths of races that evolved around an alien sun. To try to understand what is important, divine, to a sensual race of empaths; to an obligate carnivore; to people who have been among the stars and meeting alien beings for longer than humanity has had fire.

Science fiction ignores all of this in favour of the cult of scientific dogma and a sense of logical superiority. Mostly because of an utter and ingrained disdain for the “soft” sciences … thank you John Fucking Dickface Campbell.

Fantasy is much more open to it, if sometimes misunderstanding how polytheism works. But at least Gary Gygax can be thanked for that; sadly a desperate bid to be taken more seriously by the SciFi crowd has lead to a breed of fantasy that is more faithfully drab.

Still, Star Trek vs Star Wars: SW was a more rich and vibrant tapestry even if the only religion given any serious visibility was The Force, in particular the Jedi understanding of it. We never truly learn of the adherents of the light, and then we finally get some glimpse of the Sith but unclear if they’re adherents to the dark or merely unbalanced Jedi or if even there is a strict difference. But we have the questions because we have that glimpse and all a storyteller can ever really do is give a glimpse. Star Trek is so often so much flatter and more … what’s the word … Stepfordy … which means you don’t get much room to ponder these questions. Everyone is like some soulless cog in some cosmic machine. Newer things colour this in, at least for the aliens, so that’s helpful.

Still, imagine it. Take yourself into the great deadly void of space. Race at hyperphotonic speeds between the stars, between the galaxies. You’re like the ancient Polynesian in a canoe on the ocean headed towards an island no one has set foot on before or even seen. You’ve skill, knowledge, supplies, wits, and courage … but do you sincerely believe you go out there alone? That you don’t carry with you gods whose caprice could drown or starve you? Whose benevolence will deposit you on the shore of the next paradise? Of one who is eagerly riding, just in the corner of your eyes, along for the grand adventure as excited and thrilled at the prospect of discovery as you are? I said LIKE, I’m not painting a photorealistic picture of Polynesian sailors. But it’s scary and uncertain. There will be things difficult to explain. Even once your science can explain it … just because you know how the gods made it work doesn’t mean they didn’t make it work, just that you’re possibly one step closer to godhood yourself and you may wish to ponder what sort of gods you’d wish to be.

Perhaps, even, we already are clumsy and fledgling gods creating strange alien universes in CERN unwittingly bringing to life whole existences and realities. What if one day we do so on purpose and with control? Cool, huh? Maybe that’s the religion of the peoples who ride the worlds circling the middle sun of Orion’s belt.

It’s why my characters always have beliefs, faiths. Even Sally, who is angry with God and is shunning Him, has faith and religion. She believes in the God whom she rejects. Otherwise what’s she angry at? Sure, she doesn’t buy that He’s the only one. She doesn’t. And as such felt a pull to wonder at the others and how they might fit into her life, but she wasn’t ready for that and then Lauren showed her a way to see things differently. That it was people and their temples and churches who were wrong and not her God … she’s still angry, still resentful; it’s in her nature and unlike Lauren she demands answers why God allows such things in His name. But she can accept Him.

Yes, Now & Forever is contemporary, not SFF. But it doesn’t make it any less an illustration that people interpret the universe in a shield of faith. Even atheists with their dogmatic adherence to science. Some are more flexible, they adapt their teachings and beliefs in accordance with new science just as any religion that wishes to understand the universe would. Others balk at changes in knowledge and understanding, are aghast that their deities like Hawking or Einstein could have been fallible, could be wrong. Some understand the underpinnings of their faith in sciences as a quest for knowledge and understanding and that these can change in light of new data; just as there are Christians who understand that Jesus said we should love our neighbours and that God is a kind and benevolent father.

But it’s no more realistic to say that only one religion follows humanity to the stars than to say that everyone in space is American. It just doesn’t fit facts. The language of Terrans in the stars could be Hindi or Mandarin; it could be a language as yet unspoken as it hasn’t been born of the combined cultures and tongues of joint travels and mixed settlements.

I have probably wandered down a tangential rabbit hole. Those who were betting I would may now collect their winnings.

I’m sure I had a point around here someplace. Looked shiny, had space churches in? Anyway it’s stupid and boring to say there isn’t religion in space. That’s all … and now I have a better understanding of the end of Weird Al’s Albuquerque 🤔. Except I rather like sauerkraut, at least good sauerk—I’m doing it again.

Still imagine those stars populated with gods and pantheons and spirits and færies and ghosts, goblins, spooks, spectres, saints, sinners, paladins, priests, crusades, zealots, adherents, layman, friars, monks, et al. Unashamedly recognise that our most chimplike ancestors seemed to have done funerals. We’ve believed in something higher for millions of years, we’re not liable to stop and it seems unlikely that the psychology of a race we can have meaningful conversation with is liable to be so tremendously different in the end. So go ye forth and spread the Word(s) and erect those monuments. You’ll create, in the end – I’ve faith – a brighter and more palatable future for us all.

I should write SciFi

Anyone not heard of Queers Destroy Science Fiction yet?

I think it’s both a very cool, and very sad, thing.

First off: the cool. It’s not about queer characters, though they (logically) have said if they have to choose between two equally good works they’ll probably pick the one with queer characters over the one without; it’s about queer writers. Normally my opinion is that such details are wholly irrelevant. I couldn’t care less if my favourite authors are bigger into goats than Lord Byron (if you don’t get it I suggest that ignorance, in this case, is bliss), so long as they tell a good story.

But the rationale for this just plain rocks. The thing is that there are a rather vocal group of vitriolic homophobes, transphobes, people who assume bisexuals are more mythical than unicorns, etc. SciFi personalities from widely recognised fans, to authors, agents, even editors. Too, there’s this habit for the agents/editors to say things to the effect of “good story, but the queer quotient is too high”.

John Joseph Adams: It’s mostly people complaining about the presence of queer characters appearing in stories that I’ve seen, as opposed to complaining about the sexuality of the authors themselves. But of course by complaining about the sexuality of the characters, they’re telling queer authors that their POV is not welcome.
As one example, take a look at some of the lower-rated reviews on Amazon of my anthology THE END IS NIGH ( There were several readers there complaining about the very existence of queer characters in the stories. And that’s in a book where I think literally 5 stories had any mention of queerness (out of 23). One story was political (about marriage equality), but the others just contained queer characters, yet the very presence of queer characters “destroyed” the stories for them. That’s what Queers Destroy Science Fiction! is rebelling against.
As another example: We did a Facebook “promoted post” to boost the signal about the Kickstarter. Within a few minutes of that going up, the post got comments like “No queers in my scifi please” and “Being gay is wrong.”

So, it’s a great protest of this attitude, and I love great protests. Pickets and clever chants have their place but are not, strictly speaking, positive nor always terribly powerful/effective (besides, too many slogans these days aren’t even all that clever; they need to find some old 1960s hippies to help). This is so many kinds of positive and powerful. It’s also heartening that the Kickstarter earned US$53K of its US$5K goal.

But it brings me to the sad: it’s heartbreaking that such a thing should even seem necessary, let alone show strong evidence of being necessary. Queers Destroy Mysteries or Queers Destroy Romance or Queers Destroy Westerns (okay, maybe Westerns) … no such feeling that this is a Thing (though it can be, there’re agents for Romance that won’t handle LGBT material … how rude!). Science Fiction, though?! Of all genres that should never have needed such a thing as this, SF was it.

Science Fiction is the genre that is supposed to make us ask questions, to dream, to show us a better future to strive for or warn us from a path towards a terrible one. It paints the world of the noble gentlemen heroes known as Lensmen, it gives us the bleak dystopian corpocratic UV irradiated hells of cyberpunk, the alien scapes of Star Wars … the new gospels of love and acceptance of Stranger in a Strange Land.

Too much of it, today, though is caught up in … I’m not sure what to call it and what my wife has to say about it is horribly unladylike and R-rated … if I cleaned it up and censored some of it.

I’ve said before that I adore Science Fiction (and its sister genre, Fantasy, so commonly collectively known as Speculative Fiction), and I do wish I had more SF ideas than I do. But I don’t really read much newer stuff, in fact I’m wont to not even be able to bring myself to consider so much of what is dubbed SciFi these days (and a sad proportion of Fantasy along with it) as legit; I just can’t bring myself to count these works as the same genre as Bradbury, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Doc Smith, and Jules Verne. They just don’t really push the envelope of human imagination in the way that even some of the pulpiest garbage from back then could. As for Fantasy, it’s doing better, but there’s quite a bit lately that I feel has Lewis & Tolkien spinning in their graves such that we could connect them to turbines to power the world.

There was a time when the biggest names in SF, along with some of the least names in it, would look at the world and write things … oh hell, SciFi has been ill for so long … the beginning of the end was when Star Trek: TNG not only didn’t start with even a single character who wasn’t cis+straight, but never got one … we had to wait for Talia & Ivanova in Babylon 5.

I could go on like this for ages. It’s just that it isn’t only about representation, but about the fact that if our new mythology (Fantasy) and our dreams of the future have no place for women, people of diverse ethnicity, or queers … what hope have we of ever being accepted? Luckily the slack is taken up by drama & comedy, Will & Grace, and Orange is the New Black among others, take up the slack left by SF falling asleep on its job.

So, it’s cool Lightspeed is stepping up to the responsibilities of the genre, but it’s pretty shite that they have to resort to such methods as this.

[Reblog] Reasonably Unscrewed-Up Character ≠ Mary Sue

Once again, Scalzi says something beautifully that’s been bugging me.

No one’s said this about any of my characters, no, but that’s because of a lack of SF. Fantasy/SciFi is outrageous with this stuff. It’s almost perverse … correction, it IS perverse.

Seriously, I’m waiting for the day Bilbo Baggins is routinely accused of being a Mary Sue.


When Mary and I were doing the Q & A portion of our Borderlands Books appearance, I went off the ranch a bit and kvetched about one of my pet peeves concerning science fiction reviewers, which is the assumption that any main character who is not screwed-up is somehow automatically a Mary Sue wish fulfillment character for the writer… or perhaps more accurately that my main characters are Mary Sues for me. Rather than recreate the kvetch, let me transcribe it here, edited slightly so you don’t get every stutter and “uh”:

Forgive me father, for I have sinned, I have been reading my reviews. And there’s one thing that just always pisses me off, and that it is that when they mention characters, they say, well his main character is fine and blah blah blah but it’s really just a Mary Sue character. And it just drives…

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“The door irised open”

Today I’m going to talk, more as a reader than a writer — though I’ll probably be unable to resist putting my author voice in here somewhere.

I love to read speculative fiction.  Fantastic genre.  I’ve said this again and again.  Princess of MarsTriplanetaryStranger in a Strange LandTime Enough for Love2001: A Space Odyssey, Callahan’s Crosstime SaloonThe Hobbit, Dragondoom, A Song of Ice and Fire, Black TrilliumForgotten Realms, and so very many more!  To stretch things further:  the adventures of young Ms Alice in the strange world of Wonderland, or of Dorothy and her friends in the great fairy land of Oz.

Lately, though, I’ve been rather disappointed in new SF.  Once the genre(s) came to life in vivid and exciting worlds and adventures, not I feel as though I’m reading a textbook.

I think it harkens back to some of that discussion about show and tell in writing — you want to show things, and sometimes you tell things, and there ought to be a careful balance.

Today it gets far too carried away trying to show the world-building.  Today it is not enough to, as the immortal Robert Heinlein so eloquently penned “the door irised open”.  Today … I’m going to stick with the door, though it had something to do with how the ship’s engines worked or something to that effect in the book I’m drawing from here; today it would be something on this line:

The door irised open as they approached, then irised closed shortly after they’d passed through.  Hank stared at it thoughtfully as they walked through and finally said, “You know … I’ve always wondered, why do our doors open like that?  Didn’t they used to swing open and closed on the old wet navy ships?”

Ginny stared at him, “Well, if you’d ever paid attention in History class …”

I believe the exact quote was something to the effect of “well, as you learned in school” or similar, and as I said, they were discussing something esoteric about the ship.  But regardless there then ensued a multipage explanation in dialogue.  I’ve found others that spend, I wish I were lying, giving you a 100+ page history lesson on the setting before you necessarily meet the characters, and even if you’ve met the characters, it’s after the dissertation when you get to meet our good friend The Plot.

Sure, as Sturgeon said:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud.[1]

Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

Sadly, however, this is no longer an isolated eccentricity of some authors.  This is becoming the expectation of … well, I will admit, among science fiction readership it seems to be the desire of the fans to read something that is rather more like a textbook than a novel; but it’s leaking terribly badly into the writing advice.  Of course, as always with writing advice, in remarkably contradictory fashion:  “Don’t info dump” and … I really can’t recall the short and snappy way of saying it, but “explain everything“.

Personally?  I find Heinlein’s approach great, or Sir Terry Pratchett best.  In the former you are given a quick adjective to give flavour to the setting and the scene; it’s as taken for granted by these people that a door should iris as we take for granted it should swing (or, for those in more east Asian countries, perhaps I ought to say ‘slide’?).  In the latter we might, or might not, depending how funny he can make it, a quick little footnote (or not so quick … but always funny) explaining it — Bloody Stupid Johnson was likely involved, I’d suspect.

Betimes we do need to explain things in our stories that, possibly, the characters know and take for granted that we in our world and time do not.  The opening of The Hobbit is a glorious example of this (I hope Tolkien estates will pardon my excerpt):

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill – The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it – and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.

This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained-well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.

The mother of our particular hobbit… what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be at in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it). Now you know enough to go on with. As I was saying, the mother of this hobbit – of Bilbo Baggins, that is – was the fabulous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, head of the hobbits who lived across The Water, the small river that ran at the foot of The Hill. It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. That was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them, – and once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared, and the family hushed it up; but the fact remained that the Tooks were not as respectable as the Bagginses, though they were undoubtedly richer. Not that Belladonna Took ever had any adventures after she became Mrs. Bungo Baggins. Bungo, that was Bilbo’s father, built the most luxurious hobbit-hole for her (and partly with her money) that was to be found either under The Hill or over The Hill or across The Water, and there they remained to the end of their days. Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his makeup from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out. The chance never arrived, until Bilbo Baggins was grown up, being about fifty years old or so, and living in the beautiful hobbit-hole built by his father, which I have just described for you, until he had in fact apparently settled down immovably.

Now, it is worth noting that this seems to contradict what I said.  But it’s this:  in Tolkien’s case the narrator is speaking to you and I, the character telling the tale needs you to understand a creature that has become scarce and little known to the likes of us — could he have explained hobbits through the course of the narrative?  Of course he could — he could have described Mr Baggins of Bag End as short and plump with his curly hair and jolly clothes, and gone on from there throughout the book.  Or could he?  Maybe by getting it out of the way upfront he does something in the tone of the story; now the meeting with Gandalf the Grey could go on in a manner a bit less puzzling to the audience.

It’s not wrong for your narrative to explain that which is normal in the time and place of the setting — but the explanation shouldn’t interrupt the story!  Pratchett achieves this with footnotes; Heinlein and Tolkien achieve this by keeping it quite important, relevant to the bit of narrative at hand, and — above all — relatively short and sweet.

Now, to return to our door … okay, this one’s stretching it a little since it’s a door, how important is that?!  Still, work with me.

The door irised open as they approached, and irised closed again after they’d gone through.  Henry looked back to be sure it’d closed.  In his youth, he’d been on a very ancient ship which still had swinging doors and a hull breach had yanked a hatch open killing several of his friends.  These modern doors would have to be severely damaged — or fail to close — for that to ever happen again; the sight of his friends being blown into the abyss of space, though, left him a little paranoid.

See?  I’m stretching.  Still, if it really was important why a door would iris instead of swing, we’ve just told you; it’s safer (I am not interested in a physics argument, I was making that up as I went along).

It’s this idea that you need to clearly establish your setting.  Yes, you do, but as a reader, you can give it to me in bites, pieces, and you can keep it relevant.  I don’t really care how the war between the Klothorian Empire and the Numbanji Consortium started, not if the story isn’t about that.  It’s enough to know that this band of shipwrecked Klothorians who washed up on a Numbanji shore are none too welcome.

Context.  Always always context.  An explanation is okay here, but terrible there.  And, as always, keep it short or keep it … interesting.  Heinlein’s old juvies would sometimes insert brief science lessons into things.  It was done in a mix of the adult explaining things to the kids who were joining in the adventure on a rocket ship, and a bit of narrative explaining esoteric bits of what they were doing and why; but he kept it fairly succinct, and the most science lessony bits were to make the young reader feel a bit of a part of the preparations for this trip into space so that it seems less dull.

If it’s important, or really neat, how the engines work — couldn’t you have just made it part of, say, a paragraph description when the drive activated?  It’s a time honoured SF trope to do so.

I don’t mind irrelevant and unimportant detail tossed in.  It helps set the scene and to characterise the people involved.  It serves nothing to tell me the door iris instead of swing — except now I’m further immersed in the realisation “this place is wholly unlike here and now”.  I don’t want to read textbooks, I want to read a novel.

This is why this isn’t in my author mode, just my reader.  If you want to write a novel length work by inserting several short textbooks interspersed inside a short story or novella, fine, do so.  Clearly some readers will love that, and if you and they are happy, I’m happy.  I’m just sad that it’s so terribly hard to find anything that isn’t that, and rather sick of writing advice everywhere that tries to turn the new, burgeoning writers into such authors; or the discussions that seem to be turning readers into such people.  The classics are fine, and nice, and there’s ample supply of them I can still discover … but they are finite.  I’m sad that even the 10% allowed for by Sturgeon’s Law feels like I’ve then got to dig to find MY 10% from within that.  I’m not sure, but I think 10% of 10% is 1% — slim pickings.


You know, it’s strange.  As a fan of Scifi & Fantasy stories I’ve, naturally, heard of the SFWA … hard not to given that its members seem, so often, to be the winners of the Hugo, and certainly its members would be the ones winning the Nebula (or is that the other way around?  I can never recall).  The SFWA never much appealed to me though.

In the mean time I’ve discovered that there are other writers’ guilds.  The RWA, the MWA, and HWA to name a few.

Given that I write romance, the RWA was something I looked into.  I must say … it’s significantly more impressive and … nice?  Whatever the word I’m looking for, I was intrigued by it.  Seriously considering joining.

Thing is, $95/yr isn’t a lot, but it is if I’m paying it for nothing.  Certainly the benefits of the RWA look promising, in the ad copy and PR.  That’s kind of the point of ad-copy and PR.  I do, also, know that Elaine Cunningham — a personal favourite among the authors producing Forgotten Realms novels — is (or, at least, was) a member of both RWA and SFWA and had quite a lot of positive things to say about the RWA — especially as compared to the SFWA (Færie Patrol would qualify me for the SFWA in case any are wondering why I’d really care much about the SFWA beyond amusement or head shaking at the latest scandals).

In practical, rather than “this sounds good” terms — anyone know what benefits there are to joining a writers’ guild?  Is there, especially for a self-published author, much use to the networking (I’ve always hated that term, don’t know why) opportunities?  Anything for a shy person not wont to spending over much time in internet forums to gain?  In good ol’ plain English — what is to be gained for the price of one’s dues?

Ah me, but decisions are rough — especially when one has so much caution and so little idea where to begin in researching?

Lessons From Heinlein

Not a fan of Old Man’s War, but not surprising since I don’t like Starship Troopers either. Still, I do love Heinlein, and his aporoach to characters is one I do tend to hope I emulate well.


I was re-reading the postscript I had on Old Man’s War just before I sold it, and which I subsequently removed from the Web site. I think it’s interesting enough as a discussion of the mechanics of writing that I’ll go ahead and repost it here. Astute observers will note that I wrote it before I actually sold OMW, and so the entire discussion of writing successful SF is a little presumptuous. On the other, it is sold now, so there you have it. The first graph, talks about OMW a little bit, but the meat of article — what I call Heinlein’s Theory of Characters — is generally applicable. Anyway, here it is.

Lessons From Heinlein

A number of readers have commented that Old Man’s War is strongly reminiscent of two classic science fiction novels: Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. In both cases…

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Sexism in the world of writing

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I find it fascinating to think about how the world of writing is often rampant with very profound sexism, and one enforced from all sides — including the consumer end.

Writing, I know, includes rhetorical writing, which has always been dripping with extremities of thought in every direction. Same goes for informative texts — everyone has a point to make.  I often find the term non-fiction a touch funny — sometimes I think the only honest writing is fiction; it admits to being made up, then so often proceeds to give you a glimpse of some life truth through this made up account.

Still, by the same token the sexism isn’t in depiction, it’s in the industry itself.  So, yes, even in the rhetorical and non-fiction worlds.  Thing is, I’m not talking about on the paper.  I’m talking about in the material, themes, genres.

Take SF, a favourite of mine.  Speculative fiction is a vivid place full of idealised histories and shining futures.  It’s a place where women could captain a starship with dignity and respect at a time when, perhaps, they couldn’t get taken seriously as the captain of a bass boat.  It’s a place where a sorceress could cross spells with an archmagus and none could know who would prevail, and both were looked at with awe and respect — even fear.  Yet it’s a place where authors, at times, find themselves thankful for a name with a masculine tone, or find themselves writing under pseudonym.  Because, of course, women don’t know the first thing about writing Fantasy, Science Fiction, and the like!  God, no, who ever heard of such a thing?!  Oh, not to say they can’t, but it’d certainly be all fairies, unicorns, and True Love — not a decent fight scene in sight, and no mighty castings.  It’d be court intrigue and … notice how I’m sticking with Fantasy here?  Yeah, there’s a reason for that.

Sexism works both ways.  Romance.  Oh, fellas, you poor dears.  Don’t you know, not a one of you has a romantic bone in your whole body?!  You couldn’t write a touching love scene if your lives depended upon it.  Oh, sure, a bodice ripper, all sex and “love muscle” this, and “throbbing” that might be seen as okay, though you’ll probably find you’ll have better luck if you called it erotica than romance, and throw in a few colourful vulgarities or just get rather more graphic about it.

Agents and publishers aren’t as bad about it, if they were then many of the authors writing under pseudonym couldn’t.  Clearly one cannot cash a royalty cheque made out to their pen name, so obviously the agent and publisher knows who really wrote it.  It’s the readership, though, they’re the worst.  Jo Rowling‘s middle initial isn’t K.  J. K. Rowling, just doesn’t sound as feminine — it does now that we all know that she is the lovely and talented author of the Harry Potter series, but when the stories were new … oh, my … let’s not put Jo, a distinctly feminine label, on this Boy’s Adventure Fiction, it won’t sell very well.

It’s true, too.  Oh, if you ask people directly they’ll say it’s more important what’s in the book.  But that’s while they’re thinking with their forebrain.  What happens when they’re scanning the bookshelves?  What happens when they see a cover with Fabio’s arms draped with a pert young blonde in a French Renaissance dress?  They might glance at the title and see something like Jasmine’s Desire (I am not going to find out how many books have that title and nor how many have a cover remotely as I’ve made up … I won’t), in many cases if it’s by Elaine Wrotabuk the expectations for what will be between those pages will be different than if it says Edward Wrotabuk.  Ever notice just how many names on the shelves of Science Fiction are ‘male’ and how many on Romance are ‘female’?  Ever notice how many are only initials?  Ever wonder who just got clever and picked a perfectly innocuous name?

It’s not just those two genres, they’re just the easiest to pick on.  I write one and read the other, so I’m more familiar — and there’s the fact that it often appears to be the worst for it.  They’re the ‘[sex] can’t write this stuff’ genres.  In other genres it’s just assumed the content will be different.  Also, if we’re talking Young Adult, Children’s, and other stuff that might, at times, be divided into girls’ fiction or boys’ fiction, then we run into the situation where you want a male name on The Hardy Boys, a girl’s name on Nancy Drew.  

It’s in other aspects of the readership.  Men just can’t possibly write a female protagonist.  Certainly not as a point of view character.  Just as Jo Rowling, clearly, could not have penned the work with this male star-of-the-show — obviously that was done by the ambiguous, but assumed to be Mr J. K. Rowling.  

So we’ve got expectation of content — male penned romance is smut, female romance is moving and passionate (even when it’s really smut).  Female written fantasies are just romances with pixies in it, but male penned ones are hobgoblins and epic, bloody battles.  Men can’t write convincing women, and women cannot write men to save their lives.  And women don’t know the first thing about science fiction.  Feel free to extrapolate into the expectations of horror and mystery, westerns and contemporary, and other such fictions.  

Those matters, though, I can largely be amused by.  I mean, an author can change her name for purposes of making the book on the shelf conform to societal expectations and, once the content between the pages is know — instead of only guessed at — her true name and face can be known and, now that everyone’s thinking with their higher brain functions, no one gives a damn.  J. K. can now, once more, be Jo — though for convenience’s sake the cover retains the J. K.  It’s the criticisms, analyses — the literary breakdowns that actually bother me.

It’s the feminist critique of works, for example, wherein a book by a woman (or perceived to be) can have lesbians, strong females, women who enjoy sexuality and women who loathe it, men who’re sensitive, and men who are brutish — and she is brilliant.  There’s so much spoke in this work!  Tell them though, that Sam Spade is Samuel, not Samantha, though and suddenly the lesbians are just perverse fantasy, the strong females are somehow sexist (I’ve never understood how that works), the sexual women are more perverse fantasy, and … need I go on?

It does work a little to the flip side.  A woman author who writes sensitive men, or weak men, or strong women and so forth is clearly a dyke femi-nazi or something.  Strangely I’ve noticed men tend to be less worried about this sort of thing.  Maybe it’s just taken for granted by the male of the species that women think them idiots and so are unfazed when a woman writes them as such, who knows?  Still, in all fairness, I’ve seen men get quite riled by the depiction of men in various writings.  

Why is it that something is positive for little boys, or little girls if it’s written by one gender, but horrible and perverse the other way ’round — even if the text is unchanged (I’ve actually encountered, sadly I cannot recall where or with regards to what, people reversing their attitudes when such data is brought to light)?  Why is it insulting when it’s discovered an inspiring story of homosexual romance was written by someone who’s straight?  Okay, so that’s not sexism, but prejudice is prejudice.

I know, I spoke at length of fiction, but I said rhetoric and information had the same issue.  It does.  Women aren’t supposed to know about some topics, and men aren’t.  Imagine a book on etiquette and protocol, or on flower arranging by a man — a straight one!  Or a book by a woman about DIY diesel engine repair that isn’t just Suzy Homemaker “if the sprocket-hose, this little thing right here, gets a hole in it and you’re on the interstate, don’t call triple-A, just grab your ballpoint pen and …”, no I mean “So once you have the engine mounts loose, we’ll hoist the son of a bitch out of there and get to work rebuilding it …”  

The point is we’re writers.  Writers are readers, then there’re the people who’re just readers.  We’re the weird people.  We’re not normal!  Why, then, are among the worst at maintaining stereotypes and prejudices?  Oh, sure, we love a good stereotype while writing, it’s useful for making things succinct, “For a redhead she was remarkably even tempered” and “what do you expect, he went to Oxford,” but we shouldn’t enforce the things in life.  I believe wholeheartedly that any woman who wants to know a camshaft from a steering column ought to be fully capable of showing any man at the local service shop a thing or two with a torque wrench (minds out of the gutter, folks), that a straight man can be a fantastically cultured individual with an eye for floral arrangements and interior decorating, that women are more likely to write an action filled blood and gore fightfest, and that any man who lets himself feel can write profoundly touching emotional explorations.  Some of the most scientifically and technically minded people I’ve met were female, and there’re certainly a good deal of double-Xs reading SF … and there’re straight men who don’t mind a good tearjerker and have all the technical and mechanical aptitude of an earthworm.  Maybe as the people who live in the world of facts (non-fiction), imagination (fiction), and trying to move people into new ways of seeing things (rhetoric) we ought to remember to think more forwardly in the real world just as well or more than we let ourselves in the worlds between the pages.  

Who knows, it might change the world.

Because the voices say so

It’s funny, but a lot of people tend to ask writers: where did you get your inspiration? Where do your ideas come from? And various other questions in that vein.

The thing is … for most writers, this is as strange a question as: so what made you write this?

By and large in all of those cases, the answer boils down to “The voices said so.”

Sometimes, yes, we do have some stimulus that gets us to thinking in a particular direction. Now & Forever was born because I read a sweet, happy romance at around the same time I noticed that there was an acute lack of such stories featuring a same sex romantic pair as the main protagonists. Oh, they exist, and in more abundance since that point, but it’s irrelevant. That made me think of writing such a romance. The rest came down to, Lauren and Sally asked me to write their story.

Writers’ inspiration, by and large, is the same as any artist, I should think. Life. We look around at life and ask What If, or Why Not – thus we write various fictions, especially speculative. We look around and we see things we wish to point out – thus is born things like satire. We have a feeling, and we wish to share it – thus is born Romantic fiction (not to be confused with romance fiction, which is a sub-category of this). But in all it’s life, and voices.

The voices are the characters. They’re visions of people, and of places. Sometimes we try to guide the voices, but mostly they guide us. We just have to be quick at taking dictation.

Yes, some authors do construct stories. They build dialogue. They think long and hard about the nature of plot and such. Those people seem, most of the time (in my experience at any rate) to favour literary fiction, a genre whose purpose I’ve yet to fathom. Some do write romances, mysteries, SF, westerns, or horror. Seemingly, though, of a literary nature, or of a completely ephemeral and throw away nature.

All the authors people really seem to dig, the stories that seem to resonate with the most readers, though, those are the ones where things are described as a period of discovery. We learn about our characters, we become friends or enemies with them. We witness the births of cultures, the deaths of races. We see the whole tapestry of events unfold with each stroke of the pen or press of a key. The inspiration particles sleet through our brains, and when we’re feeling particularly receptive to them the words flow like water that has just burst its dam and threatens to flood us to forgetting all but the story – sometimes it happens. These are the authors who might say things like “I want to know what happens next” (Louis L’Amour).

Good or bad. I’m not saying that believing your characters are living, breathing beings somewhere, or anything of that sort, will make you the next Jo Rowling or Neil Gaiman. Talent, the ability to take that inspiration and shape it and forge it into a solid tale, engrossing and engaging, that matters at the end of the day as much or more.

My other point is, for every one person for whom their character is nought but a cog in some literary device – no more real and alive than a transistor (and all too often, in my reading, with as much personality and ability to garner the sympathies of the reader) – there are a dozen or so who talk of their story or their characters as a thing alive that has an either parasitic or symbiotic relationship with the author’s psyche and mind.

I, personally, think this always shows in writing. Even a talented, skilled, brilliant author whose story isn’t a living thing won’t shine as well as the person with only mediocre skill and so-so talent whose story is like unto a living thing. It’s in the language of critics and fans alike. The tales of Oz or the adventures of the young Miss Alice, sailing the high seas with Long John Silver or Captain Nemo, slaying vampires with Van Helsing or slaying orcs with Arylin and Danilo all can be said to come alive. Maybe it’s because the story, in some way IS alive and was so for the author and now is so for the reader. Just as the purely mechanical – all technique and no heart – writing of the literary purist might be no more alive than a machine, no more soul than a desk fan, and thus as it had no life for the writer it has no life for the reader.

I could be wrong. I know how I write, and I know what it looks like when my favourite writers talk about writing. I know what I see on the rare occasions where I venture into internet discussion forums (which, on those rare occasions I do so, do tend to be writer’s forums). I wonder … can corollaries be true? Can a story that was alive and vibrant in the author’s mind find death and mechanical lifelessness once written? Can something born of technique and lifeless prose tell a story alive and vivid to the reader? I wonder if you could tell; would the formerly alive have the feeling of a corpse? Would the lifeless machine that has come to life still show signs of having once been the prose equivocal of a little wooden boy? Ah well, I suppose in the fullness of time anything is possible.

An interesting counterpoint

I’ve shared the meat and potatoes of John Scalzi‘s blog posts regarding certain questionable e-book imprints by Random House which included very strong opinions on royalty only publishing models.  This is a counterpoint, not to the ghastly details of Random House’s contracts (truly horrific), but to the royalty only bit.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

In Defense of the Royalty-Only Model for Digital Publication

John Scalzi, author, blogger, lame-duck (but by no means lame) President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, defender of working writers everywhere, and client of the agency I happen to work for, has been commenting this past week about a shift toward advanceless book deals and the gradual erosion of authors compensation in the digital marketplace (summary can be found here).

While John is mostly right (especially about Random House’s new Hydra/Alibi/Loveswept/Flirt “profit share” endeavor being exploitative) I thought he was perhaps a bit unfair to the royalty-only model, and I thought I might supply a counterpoint to his criticism, and also a bit of context about how the royalty-only model rose to prominence in the digital book sphere.

Exploring possibilities

So I’ve made a couple of agent inquiries this weekend.

Really not many. As I know how to do this on my own I was quite particular in who I elected to send inquiries to rather than sending to every agent I could find. I thought, Why not? There’s nothing to lose, and an advance to gain.

There goes money again. Well, frankly, I may write because I have stories I wish to tell, but we live in a crass capitalism and I like to eat and have a home, and wages don’t go far these days.

In the end I submitted to two agents only:

Ms Lakosil of Bradford Literary Agency and Ms Diver of The Knight Agency.

I was promptly rejected by Ms Diver. I wasn’t very surprised. I’d actually changed my mind about submitting an inquiry to that agency, initially I hadn’t felt very interested.

This does not mean Now & Forever is not going to be self published, only that it might not. I should expect a reply from Ms Lakosil before editing will be done so no delays there, and I she expresses interest I’ll discuss detail regarding time frame expectations and so forth to decide if I wish to go a traditional route.

In truth my opinions of publishing came largely from my love of SF. The SF houses are, in my opinion, trying to commit suicide. As such I want nothing to do with them professionally. While it can be truly said that publishing houses are all suffering some malady of the mind and a terrible case of short sightedness it is to varying degrees dependent on the publisher and, most importantly, genre. Romance, it seems, is a touch less demented and as such I’m willing to test the waters a little and see how I feel.