Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Two notes and an admin thing

11.10.10
by Daniel Abraham

Note One:  Leviathan Wakes v. Fuzzy Nation v. Out of the Dark.  it’s the SF Signal cover smackdown!

Note Two:  Leviathan Wept and Other Stories (no relation) reviewed!

Admin Thing:  Wordrpress is asking about some updates.  It’s just to a theme that we aren’t actually using, but in case it all gets fouled up, that’s what may or may not break everything.

Okay.  That’s all I’ve got today.  Let’s be careful out there.

[ED: Okay, looks like the update went fine.  Carry on.  Nothing to see here.  😉 ]

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MLN on UF: The Anonymous Interview

11.09.10
by Daniel Abraham

So I talked about rape and urban fantasy, and — as is often the case — not everyone agreed with me.  As if often the case, I learned some things I hadn’t known, specifically that there are a *lot* more explicit rapes in UF than I’d been aware of.  That’s making me review and revise my thesis, but it hasn’t yet changed my mind.

A few years ago, I was at a worldcon with Walter Mosley.  He was talking about how writers get pigeonholed, and told an anecdote about going into a bookstore and finding one of his own science fiction books shelved in mystery.  He took it to the information desk and let the bookseller know that it was mis-shelved.  The bookseller said something along the line of “No.  That’s by Walter Mosley, and he writes mystery.”  Mosley got to say “I’m Walter Mosley.” And what he said at Worldcon was that he could see the words running across the bookseller’s forehead  . . . and you write mystery.

I’m that bookseller right now.  Clearly it is perfectly possible to write explicitly about rape in urban fantasy because a bunch of successful people do it.  And yet I am convinced it’s a mistake to do it.  It’s weird having a conviction.  I employ them so seldom.

But I’m off track.

Someone signed on the blog anonymously and took issue with my post.  We had a couple interchanges (they’re still there, you can take a look), and she came up with a list of questions grilling me on gender in my work.  They’re interesting, so I thought I’d haul them out for all y’all to look at.  Let’s shall we?

My interviewer?

ANON: I do have a few non-confrontational questions in order to take a step back and because it occurred to me to be curious about something. And I do understand that you may choose not to answer them but I’d really like to know:  How does/do the female protag(s) in your Urban Fantasy book(s)compare to those you describe in this post? Do they fear rape? Have they been forced into power? Do they have ambition? Do they have a circle of females surrounding them, are they surrounded by men or a combination? Are any of their potential lovers potential domestic abusers? Is that because this female(s) is/are better able to choose among her male choices or is it because there were no domestic abusers created among her choices to begin with?

MLN: Jayné Heller is my protagonist in the Black Sun’s Daughter books.  The third of those is about to come out.  I designed her to be — especially in the first books of the series *exactly* what I was describing in my earlier post.  Her powers are thrust upon her.  She is surrounded (and supported by) men.  Not exclusively, quite, but close.  She does not fear rape, nor have I brought sexual assault into the series as a plot point.  (I don’t intend to do so.)

Her present lover is a sensitive, nice guy.  None of the potential love interests in the series would pose her any danger of abuse.  (In part because she has magic powers and could defend herself, but they’re also not those guys.)

The Black Sun’s Daughter series was built to be ten books long.  The idea was (and is) to start with something as close to the standard as I can get, and then over the course of the series, peel it away.  I don’t want to get into too many spoilers, especially as the books aren’t all written yet, but the underlying matter that interests me about urban fantasy is the protagonist’s journey from an urban fantasy heroine to someone that can be strong without being weaponized.  I don’t like to use the word “empowered” because it’s been misused so often, but the idea’s related.

ANON: Are the villains and their minions primarily male or female? How many rapists are within their ranks?

MLN: My relationship with villains is a little idiosyncratic.  In the series, the magic things are bodiless — unclean spirits.  While some are gendered, the person being ridden by them doesn’t have to have to be of any particular sex.  But that’s not really the answer to your question.

The primary villain of the story is male.  He is a rapist by any sane definition, but we aren’t going to have any descriptions of a woman being raped, we aren’t going to see him chuckling evilly as he prepares to assault anyone.  And my protagonist, while damaged by his agency in other ways, won’t be raped.

There are incidental characters — I’m thinking of one in particular — who is guilty of sexual assault.  He ends poorly.

ANON: Now why did you fashion your world this way?  Did you create your world as a purposeful commentary on cultural discomfort about women and power or is it something that has unconsciously developed as the narrative evolved? Or do you feel that your narrative has nothing to do with commentary on women and power but is about something else? If so, what is that something else?

A knife? Or the subtext of cutting stuff?

MLN: Oh, I built it in a government lab to do this.  I’m lucky in that I’ve gotten to hang out with some really first-class minds for years and kick these kinds of ideas around before I ever started the project.  Carrie Vaughn is probably the most important of those.  But the points about ambition and being in community with other women came from conversations with Suzy McKee Charnas and Maureen McHugh.  I went into urban fantasy because I as interested in taking what I see as the wish fulfillment of urban fantasy and remaking it in what is for me a more interesting image: a woman who achieves power without identifying herself with violence.

You see, I’m skeptical about the redemptive power of violence.  I don’t think that a woman who kicks ass is the same thing as a strong woman.  The gap between those two ideas is where I’m writing these books.

ANON: Do reviewers agree with your assessment or see the underlying theme you are trying to convey?

MLN: Damned if I know.  I’d be a little surprised if they did.  They’ve got at most a little less than a third of the project to judge from, but even putting that aside, estimating someone by their reviewers puts a lot of faith in the reviewers.  Part of my job is to stand out in public for the casual judgment of whoever happens to be wandering by.  I’ve been called all sorts of names by folks who had opinions about me and my work.  Pedophile, racist, misogynist, queer, metrosexual.  It’s undignified and often humiliating, but it’s the price I pay for a job I enjoy, so I put up with it.

If you would like a snapshot of the project without the mess and bother of buying all the books, though, I’d recommend you pick up or borrow or go stand in the aisle at your local bookstore and read the new Dozois & Martin anthology Songs of Love and Death.  The MLN Hanover story in there — “Hurt Me” — will pretty much tell you whether the Black Sun’s Daughter books are worth considering.

And now, with respect, I had a few questions for my interviewer. The problem is I don’t know how she can answer them.  She is, after all, anonymous, and this is the Internet.  I may have several people answer.  Or none.  Or someone entirely different who’s wearing the same mask.  Part of the problem with this kind of imbalance of power.  I suppose anyone’s welcome to answer, just so long as we keep the conversation civil and troll-free.  I kill trolls without comment.  All y’all know it now.

— I started off this conversation by saying that I thought it was a bad idea to address rape directly in urban fantasy.  I still think that, though my justifications aren’t as solid as they need to be.  Anon, you found that insulting.  Could you paraphrase what I said before in a way that makes the offensive parts clearer for me?  I’m wondering how much of what you eventually heard was in what I meant to say.

— You’re an urban fantasy reader.  What do you want from a good book?  Would you have the same expectations of non-fiction as of a novel?  A literary novel as of a genre one? Do you think the role of the best fiction is to be realistic? Escapist?

— What is your experience of subtext? Do you think it’s a proper and appropriate tool of fiction even when it requires *not* stating something directly or is that kind of intentional omission something writers do when they’re being show-offy and twee?  Or does the level of skill make all the difference?

— Oscar Wilde wrote “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.  That’s what fiction means.”  To put you on the spot as much an an anonymous voice in the ether can be, Anon, what does fiction mean?

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Cool Hunting 11/3/10

11.04.10
by Daniel Abraham

1) Vicious Grace is reviewed.  Roxanne didn’t hate it.

2) Election postmortem:  The American Conservative is unimpressed.  “During the last few months, I have been reading the argument that angry Americans want to restore some measure of justice and order in society so that rewards go to the deserving and failures are not bailed out. It is a significant problem that the chosen method to express this anger has been to reward the undeserving and promote the failures.”

3)

4) Ninety percent of the cells in your body aren’t human.

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We Got Cover Art (and more stuff too)

11.01.10
by Daniel Abraham

It begins . . .

Your friends and mine at Orbit have announced the official release of the Leviathan Wakes cover.  And nifty new wallpaper too!  Lo, I am spiffed.

Ty would be spiffed too, but he’s traveling to exotic locations and having adventures.  I think it says something about our relative characters that his travel-related injuries involved a drunken race with a professional stunt man down a night-darkened road in Morocco while mine was food poisoning in Denver.

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MLN on UF: Comment and response

11.01.10
by Daniel Abraham

No one said much here about that last post, but there have been some conversations at my LJ account, Aliette de Bodard’s LJ account, and the Westeros forum.

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MLN on UF: Why Jayne Heller Won’t Get Raped

10.29.10
by Daniel Abraham

The countdown is started.  It’s a month until Vicious Grace hits shelves, and I’m getting nervous about it.  I always do this.  You know, covertly start checking the Amazon ranking (even though I know it doesn’t actually provide solid, useful data), checking for early reviews, and generally throwing the bones in hopes that it’s going to do well.

The source of my disquiet

It’s an illness.  It really is.

But something happened at my reading at MileHiCon that I wanted to talk about.

So let’s start here.

I think — as I’ve said elsewhere — that urban fantasy is a genre sitting on top of a great big huge cultural discomfort about women and power.  The typical UF heroine (as I’ve come to understand her) is a kick-ass woman with a variety of possible lovers.  She’s been forced into power which she often doesn’t understand, and can face down any danger while at the same time captivating the romantic attention of the dangerous, edgy men around her.  She’s been forced into power — either through accident of birth or by being transformed without her permission — and is therefore innocent of one of the central feminine cultural sins: ambition.  She is in relationships primarily with men rather than in community with women.  “Bad boys” want her, and they won’t be bad to her. Etc, etc, etc.

The thing that sets almost (and there are exceptions I’ll talk about in a minute here) all the urban fantasy heroines apart from real women as found in the real world is this:  they don’t fear rape.

I understand and sympathize with them.  As a man, I don’t fear rape either.  I understand intellectually that I could be a victim of it, but it just doesn’t seem plausible.  It doesn’t impinge on my consciousness the way that it does for women. And so — while urban fantasy embodies so many of the insecurities about women and power — here, it falls into real fantasy.  They’re immune to traditional masculine power (that’s to say violence) because they have internalized it.  They’ve become it.  Urban Fantasy heroines are — for the most part — weaponized.

As the beneficiary of masculine power, I’m also skeptical of it (which is part of what made the Black Sun’s Daughter books a nifty project for me).  But I’ll go into that another time.

(Daniel pauses, looks at the third rail, sighs.)

So.  With that in mind, let’s talk about Orson Scott Card.

Not my book

Card is many, many things, several of them admirable, many of them odious, but whether you admire him or hate him or pity him, or all three at once, give the man this: he’s not dumb.  One of the pieces of writing advice I’ve gotten (second-hand — I’ve never met the man) from him was this:  If the story’s about something, you can’t say it.  The example cites was that if a story is about guilt, you can’t use the word guilt when you’re writing the story.  it takes the power out of it.  By putting too fine a point on it, you give the game away.

If you look at the reactions to those urban fantasists brave and thoughtful enough to address rape intentionally in their books (and I’m thinking of Patricia Briggs here), even when the readers like the books and care about the character, there’s a strong negative reaction.  Enough that (my thoroughly unscientific survey shows) people step away from the series.

I don’t know Patricia Briggs.  I’ve never met her.  I haven’t talked to her about this.  But she’s a damn good writer, her books were some of the work that convinced me there was something interesting going on in this genre, and I understand why she would go there:  because it’s where all the arrows are pointing.

So at MileHiCon, I did a reading.  I had half an hour, and I did a sampler plate of all my present projects.  A section from the forthcoming Leviathan Wakes, part of a chapter from The Dragon’s Path, and the full introduction from the fourth Black Sun’s Daughter book, Killing Rites.  (It’s going to be about a year before that one comes out.  Vicious Grace is the next one.  It’s coming out shortly.  Did I mention I was a little nervous about that?  Anyway . . .)

In the introduction to Killing Rites, I wanted to play a little change on the Evil Thing on Lover’s Lane trope.  I had my couple out in the middle of nowhere.  I had my supernatural evil in the woods.  But instead of having my Boogum interrupt the wholesome mating ritual of the American adolescent, I had it break up a rape in progress.  Now, I knew what I was doing, so I wasn’t ever worried for the poor girl in the story.  The listeners didn’t have that.

Ty was sitting in the back of the room.  He said that when I first used the word rape, he could see the people in the room tense, and that when the Boogum appeared and it became clear that I wasn’t going to pull an Irreversible on them, there was relived laughter.  Even when, later in the section, people began to think that the Boogum might kill the girl, the tension never rose again to the level it had been at before.

The fact of the matter is that I can’t write about rape.  Not directly.  Not explicitly.  For one thing, I’m a man writing a woman under a suspiciously gender-neutral pseudonym; the questions of subtext and privilege get too squicky too fast.  But for another, it breaks the contract I’ve implicitly made with the readers.  I can talk about betrayal and death, trauma and the aftermath of trauma, sex and fear and violence, but just not all at once.  I write Urban Fantasy, and I feel this is the boundary of my chosen genre.  If I were to write hard-boiled crime or mimetic literature, the rules would be different.  But I believe Urban Fantasy is about gender and power and violence, and that I can imply and suggest and disguise, but — as Card said — I can’t come right out with it.

It breaks the rules, and the rules are there for a reason.

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MileHiCon 2010, or That Which Does Not Kill Me

10.26.10
by Daniel Abraham

Sadly, much of a glorious weekend has been scrubbed away by what followed.  I shall do my best to reconstruct.

As best I can recall, I arrived in Denver Thursday night.  Ty and Melinda Snodgrass and I had made the trip — Ty and myself starting from Albuquerque and meeting up with Melinda in Santa Fe.  The drive up was pleasant enough, or so it seems through the veil of history.  Little did I know . . .

Friday began late — a slow morning of work, lunch at the Baker St. Pub, and then a bit of programming.  I was on a panel titled something like Finding Your Voice in which we talked about what a “distinctive voice” is and what editors mean when they ask for one.  My opinion was they that “distinctive voice” was a code phrase for “competence” but not everyone agreed with me.  We ranged from there to questions of diction in epic fantasy (the From Elfland to Poughkeepsie problem, a conversation made more interesting as Katherine Kurtz — one object of LeGuin’s disapprobation — was actually on the panel).  We also made a stab at a glossary of what editors mean cataloged by what they say.  So, for example, “The story is too long” translates to “I got bored” and “the story’s too short” translates to “I got confused.”  Like that.  All in all, Ms. Kurtz was the shining moment, and I was mostly being snarky with Sarah Hoyt who is, I’m sure, a lovely woman.

I missed the part of the opening ceremonies where Paolo Bacigalupi talked about me (I’m told he said nice things), but I sat beside him and Carrie Vaughn at the autograph alley, and then went to the genuinely wonderful Midnight Hour panel in which Carrie — standing in for her werewolf talk radio personality Kitty Norville — interviewed Paolo in his role as a zombie rights activist.  It was hilarious in part because it was almost impossible to tell who exactly was being made fun of.  The take away moment for me:  “Some people use loaded words like ‘apocalypse’ to try and control the conversation.”

Saturday morning, I did something.  I remember it was at around 10, and I think it was a panel, but I think the neurons that coded for that memory died on the drive home.  Which I will come to.

A new feature at MileHiCon was the “Speed Date an Author” event which needs a few kinks worked out.  In its best form, it’s a chance for authors and readers to have a bunch of (fairly brief, well-regulated) conversations, and could be fun.  In practice, it was a cross between a poorly attended signing and musical chairs.  Next year will, I’m sure, be better.

After that, there was a long, interesting conversation with a fella I met at the speed dating, followed by a panel on surviving Clarion (and Clarion-like experiences) which served to cement some of my prejudices, and about which there is little to say.  I thought the Clarion workshops were a force for good when I went into the panel, and I thought the same when I came out.  Any other confirmations of my worldview would be impolitic.

That evening, Carrie Vaughn was kind enough to conduct a half-hour taped interview with James S. A. Corey which I am going to be sending off the promotional forces at Orbit this afternoon.  It went very well, apart from the camera’s utter fascination with the roll of fat under my chin.

Sunday was a reading I split with Carrie Vaughn.  She read from her new superhero book After the Golden Age.  I did a sampler plate of reading from The Dragon’s Path, Leviathan Wakes and the fourth of the Black Sun’s Daughter books Killing Rites.  The reaction to that last one pointed out some things about urban fantasy that I’d only half understood before, and I’ll talk about them next time when I’ve put my thoughts in order.  Short form: I think rape maybe the third rail of urban fantasy.

And then there were the ribs.

I cannot entirely blame them.  Ty ate them too, and he didn’t get sick.  God knows they tasted fine at the time.  I’d have had more if there’d been any.

It’s about an eight hour drive from Denver to Albuquerque, and I made almost seven hours of it before it became clear this wasn’t going to work.  My chest still aches when I breathe too deeply or cough.  I’ve burst blood vessels in both eyes.  I lost some time on my projects schedule that I need to make up now.

Briefly, MileHiCon is a great convention and a wonderful time.  Skip the ribs.

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Steampunk is . . .

10.26.10
by Daniel Abraham

The Mad Hatter has asked us to define the indefinite.  For my money, Cherie Priest nailed it although oddly in the Lou Anders section, not in her own answer.  I think that’s a little like bowling a strike in the next fella’s lane.

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On the Road Again

10.21.10
by Daniel Abraham

We’re off to MileHiCon.  I’ll drop y’all a note if anything interesting happens.

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100 Aspects of Genre: Learning from the Dead and the Dying

10.19.10
by Daniel Abraham

I did say before that this was, intellectually speaking, a work in progress.

In thinking about genre, the thing I struggle with the most is that it doesn’t exist.  Genre can’t exist within any given project or any given author.  To the degree that it’s anything at all, it’s a relationship between individual projects, individual authors, and individual books.  When I say China Mieville is New Weird rather than Urban Fantasy, I’m not actually saying anything about Perdido Street Station or The City & the City as books.  I’m talking about a taxonomy that exists entirely in my head (and the heads of the fine marketing folks at the publishers and bookstores who want to make sure I’m happy with my purchase).

What we really have is a huge count of individual books, all different from each other, but with some sharing certain characteristics.  Most of these books fall into the marketplace like a stone in the ocean, barely leaving a ripple.  A few bec0me massive cultural phenomena — often for no obvious reason.  But then there’s this bit in between.  When we look at the patterns of what achieves commercial success, we see pools of books that seem related.  These authors are working on similar projects, and the percentages of successful books with similar characteristics is high.  So, for instance, books with a female protagonist, a plot that revolves around heterosexual romance , a resolution that relies on the successful love relationship being formed between the protagonist and the object of her desire, and with a theme or moral that argues that romantic love will conquer all obstacles appear more likely to find commercial success than some other books with different characteristics.

Those sets of “winning” attributes begin to define a genre.  Romance for that, but we could build a different set of attributes for fantasy or mystery or whatever.

But.

Evolution is often misunderstood as a continual process of refinement toward excellence.  It isn’t.  It is a desperate, generational struggle to adapt to a changing environment.  An organism that was the top predator at a pH of 6.8 may be free biomass for other organisms to eat and use at a pH of 6.  The relationship between organisms and their environment (and so also with other organisms) is in constant flux, and a winning strategy in the Pleistocene may or may not be a winning strategy now.  Species flourish, and become extinct.  Ecological niches open, and they also close.

And so it is with genres.

I think that the successful genres of a particular period are reflections of the needs and thoughts and social struggles of that time.  When you see a bunch of similar projects meeting with success, you’ve found a place in the social landscape where a particular story (or moral or scenario) speaks to readers.  You’ve found a place where the things that stories offer are most needed.

And since the thing that stories most often offer is comfort, you’ve found someplace rich with anxiety and uncertainty.  (That’s what I meant when I said to Melinda Snodgrass that genre is where fears pool.)

But what we’re anxious about changes over time, and it doesn’t always change back.  If I’m right, then I’d expect to see new genres being born as books struggle to address the landscape of the time.  And also dead genres whose stories spoke to a moment that has in some way passed.  And that’s exactly what I see.

The problem I’m sitting with right now is that I have some sense of what function present genres have.  Urban Fantasy seems to me to revolve around the uncomfortable relationship between gender and power.  Romance seems to take its power from our (very legitimate) fears about romantic and sexual isolation.  Mystery — did you ever notice that the detective story didn’t really exist before urban anonymity? — is about the maintenance of moral order.  But these are all things I’ve read since becoming an adult.

When I turn to the dead genres — True Confessions, Western, Nurse novels — I can sometimes see glimmers of what was going on there, but I just don’t have the cultural background that would give them power. I have theories, of course.  Westerns (or the one’s I’ve read, which are mostly Elmore Leonard) seem to be about masculine stoicism.  No matter how broken or compromised a man’s emotional life is, he still does what needs to be done.  Why would that have been an especially powerful message in the 1950s and 60s when Westerns were at their most popular?  No idea.

True Confession?  Well, voyeurism certainly hasn’t changed, but the literature of it has moved on.  My guess is that it got edged out by a better predator.  Something — tabloid media, for instance — found a better way to address those cultural needs, and the market for true confession stories dried up like Playboy subscriptions in the age of free Internet porn.

Nurse novels?  No clue what that was about, but Sage thinks they may have died off when oral contraceptives came on the scene.  Someone else’ll have to put that together for me.

But the test of a theory is predictive ability.  So let’s turn to the reputed hospice care genre of our present age:  the constantly dying and never dead science fiction.

I grew up when science fiction was already on the cusp between serious work and solemn.  I grew up on Star Trek.  Which is to say the first great pulp flourishing was behind me, and the New Wave was over my seven-year-old head.  The theory that I’ve been given by them as knows better is this:  science fiction first became a genre in the 1930s — after the first great war, before the second, during the Depression — and fed off the fear that things would never change.  That this, to riff on the movie, was as good as it gets.

It fed an optimism, and a view of the future that’s gone now in part because our relationship to change is different.  I would suggest that in the 1930s, our anxiety about the troubles and issues of the day landed on the surprising power and novelty of the industrial revolution and drove a literature in which novelty and change knew no limits.  And boy howdy (as Uncle Elmore might say), did that work well.  Apart from the exploration of space, the window dressing of science fiction is where we now live.  Stories about raising clones for spare parts are now literary.

But with that, the fears that the world wouldn’t change have faded, replaced by the sense that the world is changing too much.  Is out of control.  And with that, we’ve seen science fiction begin to fracture into:

1) hard science fiction — the true heir of the 1930s scientifiction of Hugo Gernsback,

2) dystopian science fiction — the new flourishing of what were once just cautionary tales,  now growing into the role of cathartic horror, and

3) nostalgic science fiction — revisiting the literature of our (by which I mean my generation and older) childhood.  The futures of Larry Niven and Gene Roddenberry remade without any attempt to connect them to our present situation.

So, after wandering the wilderness for something more like 40 days than years, maybe I’ve happened upon a thesis of sorts.

If genre fiction is the natural coalescence of similar literary projects in conversation and reaction to one another centered on issues of social anxiety and insecurity, science fiction will see an increasingly esoteric rigorous hard sf following the path of poetry and modern jazz music by appealing to a narrower and narrower audience who are sophisticated in its reading, a swan-song resurgence of nostalgic science fiction recapturing and commenting on the work of the 7os that will die out entirely within a generation, and continued growth in the (oh hell, let’s coin it) Bacigalupean dystopias addressing environmental and political issues.

Individual works will almost certainly buck the trend, but as genre isn’t an individual work but a relationship between them, the body of literature should trend that way.

If it doesn’t, I’m wrong.  Right?

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