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Quick thoughts on gender roles and gender flip

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(collated and expanded from twitter because I feel this should be saved somewhere)

Having a think on stories that question gender roles. There’s two tactics: one is to define different ones: frequently inverting the existing ones, i.e. women fight! men take care of babies! The other is to have societies where gender divisions are much less sharp, or non existent (or where gender itself is fluid).

They both have their attendant issues: inverting roles, I feel, just reinforces the notion that the gender divide exists. Though you can push this to absurd limits; or hope that flip makes people question assumptions, I worry that it simply doesn’t work that way, and that people simply think: “oh, same things, except we’ve inverted roles!” Different roles with the same boundaries just keep boundaries in place: if you’re saying, for instance, “look, in this book women are warriors/cool badass assassins/magicians and they’re the heroes”, you’re unconsciously (or less unconsciously) reinforcing the stereotype that only fighting is worth writing about: i.e. in our world what matters are “male” coded values, and you’re effectively saying that a woman is only worth talking about if she behaves like a man. It’s subtle (or not so subtle), but in our societies you can see it in the value we put on work: women who work (and thus do “traditional male” stuff) have more value than women who stay at home and raise babies (and thus do “traditional female” stuff). [1]

Also, when inverting roles, one can easily invert clichés rather than actual gender roles. See; women don’t fight! Of course they do. Of course they’ve always fought (see Kameron Hurley’s brilliant takedown), and history erases that because it’s written a certain way.
(and let’s not even get into different cultures having different gender expectations: for instance, Confucian society frowns on men fighting because it thinks that it’s puerile and that the true value is being learned. Though there tends to be a constant in all societies that raising children is not really work at all *sigh*).

The approach with less sharp/non-existent gender divisions (which includes fluid gender and non-binary gendered people who aren’t gender fluid) is more difficult, and runs the risk of presenting an idealistic society, and erasing stuff that goes on. No gender prejudice at all in the future, for instance, though I hope we do get there eventually, feels very far off in the sense that history has shown that we’re very good and very sneaky at maintaining prejudice.

All in all though, would rather plump for less sharp gender divisions? Call me idealistic but I want a future/an imagined society that’s pleasant, that speaks to me, and that has women/genderfluid people doing all sort of kickass things without gender divisions (and men doing the kickass things they want too, whether that is raising babies, crying or having typically “female” coded behaviours).  In House of Shattered WingsI tried very hard to have little gender prejudice and few gender roles: the soldiers in the war are indifferently male or female, and same with the heads of Houses, who are split half and half, roughly. Arguably the most ruthless and talented head of House is Claire, who’s a woman (the others have a definite tendency for over-confidence and schemes that blow up in their faces).

ETA: about having completely different genders (invented ones that are neither male nor female), something I haven’t tackled here: I feel it can work, but that it’s tricky to do well? If you don’t differentiate your genders enough from the existing ones, people will still fall back to the existing gender boundaries? (and also, of course, it still presents a society with sharply defined gender boundaries, which reinforces the notion of “proper” gender roles, which I’m personally not a fan of).

Yeah, I know, this isn’t really a post. More like me working out things, and I feel like there’s tons of other things that really need to be said on the subject! I would love to hear other people’s take on this?


[1] While, of course, not being worth as much as men. Because.

Imagination, the cliché shelf, and the inner librarian

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Imagination, the cliché shelf, and the inner librarian

“We’re our father’s prejudices and our swordmaster’s dead men; our mother’s palate and our nurse’s habit of speech. We’re the books unwritten by our tutor, and our groom’s convictions and the courage of our first horse.”

This is a Dorothy Dunnett quote (from The Game of Kings, which I heartily recommend): it’s nominally about how the people who raise you influence what you later believe, but I’ve always thought it applies to other, more writerly things, too. See, the thing is… imagination doesn’t exist in a vaccuum.

I kind of feel like I’m barging through open doors with a battering ram–and I know everyone’s experiences are different–but I always think of my subconscious for stories as this huge, badly curated library which gathers all the books I’ve ever read, all the movies I’ve ever seen, all the words I’ve ever heard… And some books, some movies, some words are closer to the entrance, because they’re more recent, because I loved them more, or for whatever other reason. I go into this huge library with  a question (a half-formed idea for a novel or a short story, a plot point that I can’t solve, a character that needs a better personality): to continue the analogy, it’s like I’m looking for something in a book, but I’m really vague on what book, just that I’m adamant the book is in the library somewhere, and I’m not going out of said library until I have something to hand (aka “librarian’s nightmare” :p). And, if I brainstorm long enough or let everything rest long enough, presto! My subsconcious will provide me with an answer: my inner librarian will come back smiling and hand me a book, which I’ll use as an answer to my problems (until the next time, obviously!).

But the trouble with huge libraries and a crap filing system is that it’s very, very easy for the inner librarian to just hit the shelves closest to the entrance when you need a book–and the shelf that’s right by the entrance, the “recently returned books” shelf? It’s generally the one that’s full of clichés. It’s the tropes that I’ve seen over and over in media, the easy answers to complex questions; the archetypes of behaviour that feel so weighty because they’ve been reinforced by years of societal pressure (the encyclopedias in several volumes that insist that women really like pink and shopping and don’t have a brain, that real men don’t cry, etc.). Which means that I’m very, very wary of the cliché shelf: I have a habit of second-guessing the first things I come up with, because in 99.9% of cases they’re just lazy thinking. You have to go deeper into the library.

(by which I don’t mean you shouldn’t reach for tropes. Sometimes a trope really is what the story needs; sometimes you don’t want complex and you don’t want to question everything, and that’s quite OK! Not every story needs to smash all the things. But I feel like this should be a deliberate choice, and not simply a default because said trope happened to be the thing nearest to hand)

One of the reasons why I do so much research *before* I start writing a book? It’s because of this. Research adds books to the library (and adds them, very often, to shelves close to the entrance). Research means that I have things close to hand that are useful and relevant: it means that, when I need a random plot point in, say, a Confucian society, I won’t have my characters throw a large sports event (Confucians tend to think sports is best avoided); or, when I have a 19th-Century dystopic French society with a highly hierarchical class system (well, hello, House of Shattered Wings!), I won’t have a servant barge into the office of the head of the House and talk to them like an equal. And I need the foundations to be there before I start plotting; or my plot won’t make sense within the universe that I’m creating–I need my shelves to be filled with the right books to get the right answers when I’m brainstorming.

One of the funny things with the imagination-as-library thing, though, is that some things still end up being close to hand no matter what you do–it’s like my subconscious keeps making them bubble up (I have a thing for family as restriction vs family as loving environment, and also for evil trees in fantasy stories, apparently. Go figure. Clearly there’s a childhood thing there that I’m not aware of).

Again, it’s not necessarily a problem: some unity of themes is expected as an author, but I’m aware some of those continuously bubbling-up things could be problematic; and it’s useful from time to time to take a long hard look at them. It’s very easy to feel like I’m reaching deep within the library, but still getting the cliché shelf or its little friend, the “inverted cliché” one: the one where all women behave like men (which looks OK on the surface, but really means that you still attribute a higher value to maleness); where POCs rule the world and set up a racial segregation system that looks exactly like the ones in our world, except in reverse (again, looks OK on the surface; can be done very well, but can also end up playing into dominant folks’ fears that all POCs are secretly out to get there and/or promote the idea that “oh, it’s not so bad because everyone would be as bad as us, on the exact same terms, if given power”); where violence is committed by women/POCs/marginalised folks but still remains the driver of the plot (again, some stories are all about violence and that’s OK! It’s just that there is more than one way to skin a cat subvert a cliché).

So, anyway, that’s me and my subsconcious aka the inner librarian; and why it’s important to never ever trust the first, easy answer to a question :p What about you? Do you have an inner librarian? How do you feel your subconscious works? How do you use research in your books?


[1]We can also argue about what “strong” means and the different kinds of “strong”, but this isn’t the article for it!

MIRcon GoH speech: Xuya, science fiction at the crossroad of cultures

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MIRcon GoH speech: Xuya, science fiction at the crossroad of cultures

By popular request, the retranscription of my MIRcon GoH speech–there’s nothing much below that’s strikingly new, but it’s the first time I’ve actually put everything together in the same space; and there’s been interest on twitter and other social media on seeing this, so… here goes.

(I’ll skip the disclaimer that I’m going to do this speech in English instead of Spanish :p)

I’m going to focus this speech on Xuya, because of the recent publication in Spanish of El Ciclo de Xuya and En una Estacion Roja, a la Deriva; and because Xuya has been with me for a while–going on for 7 years now, and over a dozen stories!

In many ways, Xuya started because of my relationship with genre–which is a bit of an odd one [1]. I came to SFF in English (I discovered genre while I lived in the UK), but I’m not a “white Anglophone”: English isn’t my native language (that would be French); I live in the West but am not fully Western (my mother is Vietnamese, and Vietnamese culture strongly featured in my upbringing). I grew up in an interesting place, speaking and hearing several languages, and at the confluence of several cultures. When I read classic SF, with its stories of colonisation and conquest of space, I have this persistent feeling that I’m the funky-looking person with the odd customs, and the near-incomprehensible language–the alien rather than the coloniser.

(true story: some years ago, when I was reviewing short fiction for Tangent Online, there were a number of pieces that were so dependent on US/UK culture that I didn’t understand what was going on, and where I had to google to get at least an inkling of what the author was getting at–even set in the future, those stories depended, for instance, on current US politics and current societal concerns; stuff that was just bewilderingly mysterious to me. And, to date, I’m still pretty sure there’s stuff I entirely missed )

What I was trying to do with Xuya was to write the sort of thing that I wanted to read: a universe based on stuff that was familiar to me; and also a universe with very different cultures in presence. The basic idea of Xuya is that China discovers North America ahead of Europe, enabling the survival of some of the pre-Columbian empires–and creating a 20th-Century where North America is split between the Aztecs (Mexica Dominion), the Chinese (ex-colony of Xuya, now independent), and the United States (a much smaller and much poorer version). Further on, Xuya is about a space age where Asian cultures are dominant; and in particular, East Asian cultures (I’m putting Vietnam into East Asia because of the common points with Chinese culture that put it in a very different situation compared with the other SEA countries; but I’m aware it’s not the “official” classification).

Xuya, then, is about the interaction of different cultures with different values–because every culture has its mindset. I’ve ranted at length about this, but there’s a prevalent attitude that some stories are “universal”; and that it’s this universality that makes their success possible: works like Harry Potter or the Hunger Games have such wide impact because they tell a story that everyone can recognise and identify with.

To put it bluntly: I disagree. There is one universal story, and it is that we are human. We are born, we live, we die. We are social animals: we create bonds with other people; we have families and friends. We love, we fear, we hate. But there are nuances; and to erase such nuances is a grave mistake. To take just one example: there is a vast difference in mindset between a 15th-Century Vietnamese and a 21st-Century French. On the one hand, you have someone who values literature and education very highly because they’re the path to success as a government official; who worships their ancestors and would be ready to die for their parents; who believes that a career as a government official is the highest form of worldly success one can attain. We can argue about the value of education in the current French way of thinking, but it’s no longer believed that you have to know literature and be able to write good poetry in order to succeed in life. Similarly, the young are, by and large, not going to die for the old (they’re more likely to criticise or ignore the old).

What I wanted to do was to create a culture with a different mindset, without falling into clichés (the mystical Asians, the bloody-minded Aztecs). To my mind, that is the hardest thing to do, because, well. Assumptions are a bit like the air you breathe: they are incredibly hard to leave behind or objectively catalogue and study. You are born with them; bathed with them from a very early age; and they are continually reinforced at every moment of your life through the media, through your interactions with other people. Every movie you see, every news report you listen to, every conversation you have reinforces them–and you’re often unaware that you have such assumptions at all. And yet… societies different from ours would have a radically different mindset from ours, and I feel like this needs to be taken into account. Note that I’m not saying all SFF has to do this. There are plenty of excellent books where the society isn’t the focus; and that’s not a problem. But it’s what I want to do with my fiction. I want to write stories like Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and “Coming of Age in Karhide”, where a change in sexual mores results in profound societal impact that affects everything from families to politics; or like Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy, where Carthage never fell, and the resulting society is recognisably different from ours.

I wanted to show China/Vietnam/Mexica as vibrant cultures beyond the stereotypes–as cultures that lived, breathed; and changed. Because cultures change, too; because nothing remains static–and yet not every culture follows the Western notion of “progress”, the peculiar blend of consumerism and science we have achieved in our 21st Century societies. To take just a few examples: the Mexica religion in Xuya has modernised, but it hasn’t become a copy-paste of Christianity. It did drop the mass sacrifices, and replaced them with a focus on bloodletting and penance. It’s also remained dominant in society (again, unlike Christianity); and an enthusiastic patron of the sciences: unlike in our world, where science and religion don’t always happily coexist (to some extent, I suspect, because in the West the worship of religion has been replaced by the worship of science). [2]

What interactions can you have between a culture like China, for whom war is a disgrace, and soldiers eternal inferiors to scholars; and a culture like the Mexica, who believe war underlies everything (and who, in the 21st Century, shift from bloody wars to economical ones)? Between one that takes in all immigrants so long as they conform (change their names, religion and customs); and one that promotes greater diversity between immigrant groups, but has to deal with greater intergroup tension and more overt racism?

Of course, it’s not that simple–and cultures can’t be reduced to easy soundbites. Nor, indeed, are there any easy answers to the questions I ask! But it’s what I try to explore.

Xuya is also about motherhood and families.

The kindest thing you can say about SFF is that it has an abysmal track record on the matter. Families are at best absent from the narrative (beyond the occasional nuclear family); at worst, they’re killed off–and they tend to be seen as a hindrance that you have to get rid of before you can go off on an adventure. There is a tremendously high value being put on being alone and forging one’s own path–which isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially in dangerous environments!

Mothers, too, are often overlooked in SFF. I was part of a panel on SF and motherhood at the 2013 Eastercon: before the panel, I attempted to look for books that would feature mothers as characters in their own right–I even outsourced the question on social media. It was a very short-lived attempt, because the list turned out to be abysmally short to the point of non-existence.

I’m not going to be exclusively negative here, so let me give a positive example of a mother in SFF: Cordelia Naismith in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, and Barrayar in particular. Cordelia is a great character with a great amount of resourcefulness; she starts Barrayar pregnant, and gives birth during the novel–she plays a part not only as a mother, but also as a character in her own right. She’s not sidelined or meekly awaiting rescue (or worse, killed off): she plays a significant part in the rescue of her child, and in the subsequent civil war.

And, hum, the negative example. I’ll start with the disclaimer that I’m a big Star Wars fan, and that it was one of the major things that led me to genre. With that out of the way, I’ll tackle the thorny problem of the prequels; and in particular, of Amidala, who essentially dies in childbirth at the end of episode III. (yeah yeah I know the script says she “lost the will to live” or some such crap. I think it’s called postpartum depression. And incidentally, motherhood is the major mortality cause for women–any culture that has spaceships and is still not capable of birthing twins without losing the mother has got a serious priority problem). But it’s not only the mother of Luke and Leia who dies: episode IV then basically does it all over again, by killing off both sets of adoptive parents. If you think about it, the subtext is really quite nasty.

I wrote the Xuya space cycle to run counter to that narrative: I wanted to write space soap opera, or possibly domestic SF (doesn’t meant there can’t be explosions and other cool things! Just a heightened focus on family). I wanted to write stories with a strong familiar presence; and in particular the presence of an extended family (aunts and uncles and cousins); and how those families would change in a science fiction setting.

The Xuya universe has Minds, artificial intelligences carried in a human womb and subsequently transferred to a ship or space station. Among other things, Minds are designed to be very long-lived (if you’re going to go to all that trouble of implanting into a human womb and monitoring the pregnancy, you might as well go for long-lived and save yourself some work).

Among the subjects I wanted to tackle was that of different life-spans and their effect on family life: how do you deal with sibling rivalry when they both have radically different set of expectations? How do you live with a great-aunt who has been around for centuries, and who not only has known your great-greatparents, but will also be around when your grandchildren are adults? What happens when she vanishes or dies? How do you grieve? What do you do when your ancestors don’t die, but can be run as simulations in your own mind? What happens in a culture where knowledge (and in particular, the knowledge held by your ancestors) is crucial? What kind of advantages or inheritance can you give your children?

Of course, family is both a stricture and a comfort: I try to focus more on the comfort side of things because I feel it’s underplayed in SFF, but there are familial obligations–and On a Red Station, Drifting in particular focuses on family honour; on how to deal with relatives you might have absolutely no liking for, but that you are still duty bound to protect–what is your duty to your family, and how far are you prepared to go to follow it?

Another theme of the Xuya universe is war, and families in times of war. My personal preference is to show war, not from the point of view of the soldiers, but from those of the civilians who are deeply affected, yet powerless. War is, by nature, a time of difficult decisions–and those decisions are amplified by the presence of families. Who do you rescue if you can’t rescue everyone? When do you flee? When do you make a stand? When you become a refugee, how much do you give up, and how many moral principles are you wiling to compromise on in order to survive?

Again–those are hard questions, and I don’t have glib answers to them (or answers, period!). But those are themes I try to explore in the Xuyan stories; and to deal with through the lens of a different universe with very different expectations.

Thats why I write Xuya–thank you for making it this far, and I hope you enjoy the stories :)


[1]Pretty sure plenty of other people have odd relationship with genre :)
[2]Not saying there’s systematic antagonism between religion and science today (in particular, various denominations of Christianity have various approaches and strike a different balance)

A few disjointed thoughts on other cultures and diversity in SFF

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A few disjointed thoughts on other cultures and diversity in SFF

This is a collection of stuff I’ve already said elsewhere or on this blog, but for what it’s worth… The usual disclaimer applies: these are my personal opinions and my personal experience (I know not everyone has the same opinions and I certainly don’t pretend to speak for everyone!). I also don’t pretend to have easy solutions for everything I mention here (and God knows I made some of those mistakes myself, and will continue making them, but hopefully I’ll improve on that front as time goes by); but I think it’s better to know all this stuff and then decide how to handle it rather than go on being blissfully unaware of it.

Warning: this is me in ranty mode, not helped by the 3 hours of sleep I got over the past few days (yup, I know that I volunteered for that whole sleepless thing. But doesn’t change much to how I feel…)
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On political and value neutral

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Expanded from my twitter feed, because I feel it bears repeating.

Escapism

I’ve been seeing a lot of gender-focused work described as “political”, with a strong negative connotation to the term political–it seems what is meant by “political” isn’t really “relating to the public affairs of one country”, but rather “involved, committed, with a message”. Which in turn is rather puzzling when you think on it–if a work isn’t involved [1], doesn’t have anything to say, then should we still be reading it? And are there really works that don’t have anything to say?

Even “escapist” literature or Hollywood movies have a strong underlying message and promote equally strong assumptions (on the value of escapism, on cultural dominance, etc. I could dissect lowbrow Hollywood movies but don’t have the energy here–maybe for next time!).

I remain puzzled by the assumption that some literature can be value-neutral, as if that were ever possible. It is not. Every single piece of literature/art is embedded in the culture/sub-culture that gave rise to it. I’m not doing cultural existentialism here–it’s not *because* something was produced in, say, France, that it will have X and Y and Z; but something produced in France by a French writer will be infused with *some* degree of French cultural background; same for US productions, etc. Every single piece of literature bears the assumptions and the worldview of its creator, who in turn bears the assumptions of the culture they’re part of  (and, to some extent, the work bears the assumptions of its reader, who might interpret it through different filters than the creator).

There is no such thing as meaningless fluff, because even the “shallowest” of fluffs carries an implicit value of what makes fluff; of what doesn’t challenge the majority of readers; of what kinds of escapism are efficient and “don’t engage the brain” [2]. For instance, going off on adventures away from one’ s family, saving the world and getting the girl might be the majority idea of what constitutes escapism in Western society; it will hardly be the case everywhere. Escapism in ancient/modern Vietnam [3], for instance, has a greater chance of focusing on saving one’s community and one’s elders, and romantic attachments have much less of a place, or at least there’s much less imbalance between those and the other kinds of attachments. (don’t want to do broad sweeping cultural generalisations, but I’d argue that in a system of Confucian-derived values, there is a much larger weight on fraternal/friendship bonds than on romantic love, and yet a larger weight on elder/younger family bonds than on any of these. Works produced *within* that kind of society which challenge those norms tend to do so in a specific and characteristic manner, for instance by elevating bonds of friendship over all other ones; just as mainstream Western works tend to challenge traditional Christian values in specific ways).

Coming back to “gender-focused” work, I think we see the same fallacy: the definition tends to be applied to anything with a cast composed mostly of women. On the one hand, I appreciate the need to qualify stories that challenge the status quo; on the other, there’s something… sticky about the lack of balance there: stories that have an all-male cast are equally gender-focused and promote the patriarchy to an even larger extent than female-focused stories (because it’s much easier to promote the status quo), and not applying this term to them fails to challenge the notion that culturally dominant stories are somehow value-neutral and “invisible”. And I find that bothersome: if we can’t recognise our own set of dominant tropes and how everything is geared to accommodate them, to produce them and to propagate them, then being in a position to recognise there is an (unequal) status quo and being able to challenge it are just going to be that much more difficult. It’s like the air you breathe: that you don’t think of it doesn’t mean it’s not there and doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a *huge* influence on you.

Very disorderly thoughts; I apologise for the mess. But I just wanted to put them out there, because “not involved” seems like a dangerous fallacy to me. Do I make sense?


[1] I know that to some extent this is about the “forcefulness” of said work and how vigorously it tries to get its point across; but that strikes me as the beginning of a slippery slope that looks a lot like the tone argument (anything people don’t want to hear gets tagged as “too vehement”). Hard to know when to draw lines; and I don’t pretend to have easy answers; just putting (rather obvious!) thoughts out there…

[2] Think for a moment on what  “doesn’t engage the brain” implies, and you’ll realise that a necessary prerequite for this is “doesn’t challenge my deeply-held beliefs/doesn’t challenge the majority view I’m used to”.  I’m religious, so anything that is actively hostile to spirituality has a much larger wall to leap in my hindbrain; but this is partly offset by the fact that the (French) society I move is largely atheist, and that I’m thus inured to negative portrayals of religion.

[3]  Bit of a tricky thing to separate influences, as Western culture is so ubiquitous even in modern (and colonial) Vietnam that it has started to bleed quite significantly into the culture/erase non-compliant bits of it. And again, general trends rather than specifics; I don’t want to do cultural existensialism, but equally cultural specifities shouldn’t be casually swept under the rug under cover of “we’re all the same deep down”.

Seraphina, fullblood prejudice and pervasive racial passing

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So… have just finished Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina–I bought it mainly because it was recommended to me as a great portrayal of a mixed-race protagonist: its eponymous heroine is half-dragon, half-human in a world where a fragile peace reigns between the two species. Seraphina is the Music Mistress at the court of the human queen of Goredd, where she passes as human in order to avoid the deep-seated prejudice and fear engendered by dragons (who are able to take human form but are betrayed by their silver blood and their odd smell).

It’s an intriguing setup; but in the end, I’m sad to report I was somewhat disappointed by Seraphina and its portrayal of race relationships.

(rambly musings about prejudice and passing)
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Mixed-race people in SFF

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OK, because I’ve seen one too many %%% storylines about mixed-race people in fiction (expanded for SFF to include the children of humans and aliens/magical creatures, etc.). For your information:

We are not psychopaths, terminally maladjusted, forever torn between two cultures in a way that will inevitably destroy us. We are not freaks or hybrids or mongrels or circus animals, forever exhibited as examples of what can go wrong in human/alien/magical creatures relationships; neither are we featureless saints exhibited as examples of interracial/interspecies harmony.

We are not special, magical or possessed of numinous powers by virtue of our non-white/non-human blood; we are not the tamed Other, made acceptable by an infusion of white blood and white customs, the “safe” option with only a hint of fashionable exoticism and none of the raw difference of “true” foreigners. We are not a handy, non-scary substitute for diversity in fiction.

We do not have pick sides unilaterally. We do not have to share the identity of our mother or of our father to the exclusion of the other parent (and most of us will find it quite hard to completely reject one half of our heritage); and our parents are not perpetually locked in some cultural war in which there would only be a single winner. We can be raised with love and respect and in a meld between two cultures: we do not have to be orphaned/single-parent/neglected/abused to exist.

Our parents are normal beings, and so are we.

If you’re using mixed-race people in your fiction and feature ANY of those tropes, do please think for a moment of what it is that you’re saying (and I wish I could say it’s not the case, but I’ve seen all of these–yes, even the hybrid/mongrel–at some point in recent SFF, either in print or in other media).

ETA: also, in case you’re wondering? The use of the word “half-breed” to refer to mixed-race people is NOT acceptable in any context (except possibly as a slur in historicals). “Mongrel” should also be banned from your vocabulary on mixed-race people. I don’t particularly enjoy being compared to animals, or the long history of prejudice inherent in that term (it’s a bit like thinking “mulatto” or “nigger” are appropriate descriptive words). For God’s sake, think on what it is you are saying before flinging this kind of word around.


Disclaimer: this is based on my experience and on those of friends growing up (mostly in Europe, and most Asian-white mixed-race). I tend to think a lot of it applies elsewhere, though…

List of articles hosted in other places

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Articles on Language and Culture:
-“On Worldbuilding, Patchwork and Filing Off Serial Numbers”, at Khaalidah’s blog
-“Drawing Inspiration from Further Afield: fantasy set in non-Western Cultures”, at Aidan Moher’s blog
-“Narrative, Resonance and Genre” at SFnovelists
-“Traduttore, Traditore: translations, languages and cultures” at SFnovelists

Articles on Science, Religion and Plausibility
-“Scientific plausibility”, guest post at Gareth L. Powell’s blog
-“Atheism, Proselytism and other Isms”, guest post at Futurismic

Articles on Writing
-“On the Persistence of Rules”, guest post at The Parking Lot Confessional
-“Plotting your Short Stories”, guest post at Janice Hardy’s The Other Side of the Story

Science, engineering and large projects: SF in the 19th Century

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And now for something completely different: a few weeks ago, I complained on twitter that the science in SF seemed oddly stuck in the 19th Century, both the actual science research (which seemed composed mainly of individual mad geniuses in their garages having huge conceptual breakthroughs), but also its close siblings, the engineering projects that make up so much of SF (like building space stations, space launchers, etc.), and which seem to bear little relation to anything resembling real life.

I’ve complained about science here, but now for bonus points: engineering projects!

So, exhibit A. This is how a large-scale project looks according to most SF stories I’ve read:
.
Basically, a project manager who is God, or as near to God as matters, with anything from a hundred to thousands of (mostly) nameless, faceless grunts under him doing all the work. The story then tends to be either from the point of view of the project manager as he attempts to solve a pressing technical problem, or, less often, from the point of view of a harried grunt who has to solve a problem before the all-powerful project manager descends on them like the wrath of God (I’ve been nice here and thrown in an Assistant Project Manager, who will provide the necessary dialogue for as-you-know-Bob scientific exposition or provide a sympathetic ear to our grunt’s troubles).

Exhibit B: by contrast, this is what a real large-scale engineering project looks like in the 21st Century [1] (click to zoom):

Yes, it’s rather more complicated. There’s also two significant differences worth noting: one, the bottom boxes of the chart are not people, but team leaders, ie every bottom box still unfolds into your actual grunts. Second, I’ve cut at the level of the project manager to keep both graphs at the same scale, but there’s a significant extra layer at the top, which includes our project manager’s immediate hiearchy (his boss), a committee of peers (who follow the project and determine whether to continue funding it or not according to various Go/No Go criteria), and one or several sponsors (who champion the project within the company and to whom the project manager is accountable). Let’s not forget interlocutors outside of the company as well: the actual customer (ie the person paying for the delivery of the project; for instance, in the case of missile systems, the army is paying; in the case of a space station, you can imagine a conglomerate or a government paying…); subcontractors who have to be monitored, other companies working on related segments of the project (for instance, on a space station project, one company does the infrastructure, one company the climate control…).

So, yes, you’ll notice the same thing as with scientists: no project manager exists in a vacuum. They’re always accountable to someone for something (and when I say “accountable”, I mean all important decisions made are scrutinised, not that they’ll be judged solely on whether the project finishes appropriately. Will come back to “appropriately” in a minute).

Another thing is that responsibility is shared and diluted: note that the second org scheme has divided the satellite into different subsystems like the ground portion, the comms system, etc., and assigned different responsibilities within those subsystems. There is no grunt vs project manager system, but a carefully organised hierarchy of decreasing responsibilities fanning out from the system level, which ensures that everyone knows what they’re doing, and most localised problems do NOT make it back to the project manager, who has way more important things to do than concern himself with every little problem. On that same subject, a project manager is very seldom in the field, and most of their day is spent in meetings and in discussions with people (I always feel like laughing when a project manager on a space station spends their time touring the construction site and offering advice on stuff that most workers would take care of on their own…)

Finally, one thing that bugs me in engineering projects in SF is the lack of tradeoffs. Science tends to be “all shiny”, ie when a problem is posed, there is very often a perfect solution, one that meets all the needs and provides all that is expected. In real life, science is *never* shiny, and is almost always about compromises: things can be infeasible simply for technical reasons (for instance, no radio comms will provide the necessary reliability over the necessary distance), they can be infeasible for cost reasons (radio comms can be provided, but not within the allocated budget), and they can be infeasible because of time reasons (radio comms can be provided, however they will take eighteen months to be developed and tested, and we only have twelve months to deliver the system). In my line of work, we call that a QCD triangle (quality, cost, delivery): you simply can’t have all three items at the same time!

Now, coming back to that “appropriately”: a project is of course judged on whether it finishes on time, with the appropriate features and within budget (incidentally, a lot of SF projects never really seem to worry about either delays or costs…). However… you don’t wait until the project is finished to judge this! In addition to regular progress reports, there’ll be regular “milestones” which correspond to important decisions and/or steps in the project’s life. At those points, the project will come under scrutiny more intensely (by the peers, the hierarchy etc.), and will have to provide quite a few elements of justification for said decisions (and the project manager might well be part of a collegial decision process in those stages).

So, there you go, a short Engineering Projects 101–I’ve had quite a few years working on those by now (though admittedly mainly in a European work culture), and quite a few years reading SF, and so far I’ve been very disappointed by the portrayal of these. I might, of course, be picking up the wrong books/short stories/movies… Have I forgotten any gripes people have with engineering in SF? Are there any pieces that do a decent job of getting to grips with this kind of complexity? Feel free to argue/discuss/disagree in comments!


[1] Fake example for a satellite launcher. I copied it from a blog–not saying it’s a typical org, but it’s most certainly one that could exist and apply to a bona fide project.

Cultural appropriation

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[Warning: this is me in ranty, pissed-off mood. I apologise for picking targets and basically offloading my anger on them, but I honestly feel I can’t make you understand what I mean without pointing at specific bits. Many thanks to Rochita Loenen-Ruiz for reading this before it went live]

Apropos of nothing and just for the record: when people complain about cultural appropriation, they’re not all [1] saying that outsiders shouldn’t write cultures foreign to them. However, what I suspect they’re saying [2] is this: some outsiders (rather more than you think) will get cultures egregiously and disrespectfully *wrong*. That, even if a lot of (other outsider) people think that a certain book/story did a great job of introducing them to a fancy new culture, it doesn’t change the orientalist/racist clichés or simply the bad facts that are presented in said fiction.
And when I say bad facts I don’t mean niggly details that would require weeks of research: I mean really, really bad facts akin to calling everyone in a French novel “Dracula” because everyone knows Dracula is a typically French name. Facts that should have been a part of any basic research process, and that make the reader doubt the author really cared about the culture they were so “thoughtfully” depicting. Names. Food. Religion. That kind of thing.

You’ll think that this is a tiny minority; a 0.01% of writers who get things wrong and are rightly excoriated for it. Thing is… this happens WAY more often than you’d think. This is NOT a tiny minority. I’m not saying it’s a 99.99% of fiction either, but cultural appropriation is not a negligible or insubstantial phenomenon. A significant amount of fiction out there makes me doubt much thoughtful research (or much research at all!) was involved.

To take just one example: the last few stories set in China I have read [3]. One of them, set in historical China, mangled the historical timeline so badly I wasn’t even sure it was the real China, and inexplicably forgot to have any kind of ancestor worship, which is a bit like doing medieval France without Christianity. One of them, set in a futuristic China, used the timeworn tropes of Chinese being horrible to their own women (because, you know, Confucianism [4]) and had said women rescued by Westerners (because quite obviously those poor Asians can’t rescue themselves). And the last one, set in what purported to be Ancient China, had a concerted state-supported effort aimed at imprisoning, mistreating and killing dragons (we’ve been over this before, but Chinese/Vietnamese dragons are NOT evil, they’re Heavenly beings. This is a bit like having a historical medieval Europe where kings authorise the chasing and killing of angels. Possible, but a. you’re not going to get very far because angels are way more powerful than humans, and b. you’re not going to stave off the wrath of God for very long…) For bonus points, that story also had an evil character on a quest for immortality that he later renounced because he wanted redemption. Er. No. Quests for immortality are perfectly fine in Chinese thought (see Daoist immortals. That’s perfectly OK, and in fact deeply respected).

Again, I’m not Chinese. But Vietnamese culture has a heck of a lot of overlap with Chinese culture, and none of these feel remotely OK to me. In fact, they feel like Western thought grafted on top of what someone thought were the “cool bits” of Chinese culture. And, without exception, all of these had glowing reviews by people convinced that those were accurate and nice representations of Chinese culture. Newsflash: no, no, and no. When a writer is perpetuating horrible clichés in the course of their writing, when they’re propagating transparently false ideas of what it means to live in a place and/or a time period… This is cultural appropriation, and it’s bad–and whether said writer meant it or not doesn’t change the fact that they’ve egregiously mangled someone’s culture through lack of care. It’s the bit that makes a lot of people angry, and quite justifiably so. [5] It’s not the fact that writers take cultures that aren’t from their traditions that attract people’s ire; it’s the fact that the depiction of those cultures are badly inaccurate on mind-boggling levels.

(there’s an easy way to avoid this if you’re using a 21st-Century culture btw–grab someone from said culture and ask their opinion about the basic stuff in your story)

Anyway, that was my afternoon rant. Apologies again, and thanks for listening. If anybody wants to weigh on how they feel about the subject, I welcome thoughts and discussions!

(also, if any Chinese people are reading this and feel that any of the examples I used aren’t appropriate, I’d be quite happy to be corrected. I would have used Vietnamese culture, which is the one I’m most familiar with, but Vietnam hasn’t been the subject of quite so many books and stories and I didn’t really have enough examples for this…)


[1] Some of them are, and I understand and respect that feeling. Likely, the reason they don’t want outsiders writing about their culture is exactly what I’m going to outline in this post–too many people have been doing it badly, badly wrong.
[2] Again, not claiming to walk in people’s heads. Seen the feeling a lot on the internet though.
[3] I’m not Chinese, as is by now evident; and China itself is huge and multifaceted. However, Vietnamese and Chinese cultures have a lot of points of intersection, especially when we’re talking Ancient China and Ancient Vietnam, since the second was basically a colony of the first. And also, I can spot an Orientalist cliché when I see one.
[4] Not saying Confucianism didn’t do a lot of damage; however, you have to realise that you can’t base a description of modern China/Vietnam on mores that have gone out of fashion or been severely toned down in the 20th Century. Having China follow old-school Confucianism, again, is a bit like having Europe still follow the hard-core Christian mores of the Middle Ages. Er, no?
[5] I very probably committed bad mistakes in the Obsidian and Blood books (well, not “very probably”, I know at least two errors that I wish I could fix), though I did my best research-wise. I do hope none of them are on that egregious level of failure, but if they are, I apologise profusely. I was much less aware of that kind of issues when I wrote Servant, and it shows.