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Other info: Malinda Lo has also written Huntress, Ash (review here), and Inheritance.
Summary: Flocks of birds are hurling themselves at aeroplanes across America. Thousands of people die. Millions are stranded. Everyone knows the world will never be the same. On Reese's long drive home, along a stretch of empty highway at night, a bird flies into their headlights. The car flips over. When they wake up in a military hospital, the doctor won't tell them what happened. For Reese, though, this is just the start. She can't remember anything from the time between her accident and the day she woke up almost a month later. She only knows one thing: she's different now. Torn between longtime crush David and new girl Amber, the real question is: who can she trust?
Review: It all starts when Reese Holloway is waiting for a plane back from debating and birds fall out of the sky. Stranded, she and the debate team decide to head home in a rented car, and things change even more. With no idea of the events after a crash, nor the later happenings or procedures, Reese finds some anwers that will change her life, and humanity, forever.
Huntress, I didn't enjoy especially, but Ash was one of my favourite books due to the writing style and the new take on an old story. Adaptation leaves the fantasy route and goes down the scifi men-in-black route, and it does this really well.
I love the characters. Amber's probably my favourite, because she's adorable and funny and I fell in love with her. I also liked that you had to constantly question her and her loyalties. David- CHINESE MC HECK YEAH (I get excited by chinese main characters) was also really adorable and smart. Reese isn't one of my favourite characters, she seemed a bit ordinary compared to a cast full of scientists and government agents and conspiracy theory website runners and things which I want to say but that's kind of spoilery, but I did like the fact that she constantly questioned things. Oh, and love to Reese's mum. See the lawyering badass love for her daughter and reaction to her coming out as bisexual.
Nowhere in this book is a good place to stop reading-most certainly not the end.. Every point in Adaptation was either too intriguing or too exciting or too adorable to let you even think about putting it down, and I've had the must-never-stop-reading-this-feeling for very few books before.
Overall: Strength 5 tea to a book I recommend to everyone, especially mystery, scifi, thriller, romance fans.
Other info: Chris D’Lacey has also written the Last Dragon Chronicles.
Summary : When Michael Malone discovers his supernatural ability to alter reality, he is recruited by an organization dedicated to investigating strange and paranormal phenomena. He joins in hopes of finding his father, who mysteriously vanished three years earlier. Michael's first task is to solve the mystery of a dog he rescued from a precarious clifftop -- a mystery that leads him to a strange and sickly classmate and a young girl who was killed in a devastating accident. Stakes are high as Michael learns to harness his newfound ability and uncover the deadly truth about his father's disappearance. A bold and thrilling tale of alternate realities, paranormal mystery, and extraordinary adventure.
Review: Michael’s going to school via a non-normal route when he senses the thoughts of a suicidal dog, and somehow manages to stop her going over a cliff. This brings him to the attention of UNICORNE, who say they can tell him what happened to his father, who disappeared. They set him on the task of finding out what the dog was doing on the cliff, and this leads him to a mystery involving a classmate, a dead girl, and his newly discovered powers.
I’ve heard great things about Chris D’Lacey’s other work (which I have never read) so I was hoping this would be good. The blurbed concept isn’t particularly original, but I really liked the idea of cellular memory and the way it played out in the book.
There’s science-fiction elements, fantasy elements, and some thrillery elements too. It could have been a good mix, but in parts it goes so quickly that things don’t get explored as much as they could have been.
I like the characters, especially Josie, Michael’s ten year old sister, Chantelle, a UNICORNE agent, and Freya, Michael’s sick classmate.
The plot twists and turns, sometimes well, and sometimes in convenient places. I like the mix of more normal things that Michael has to deal with, in between the paranormal. I think the start of it was stronger than the way the setup played out though; it started with a strong hook, but then got a bit confusing. The main mystery did get played through well looking back on it, but with side elements being created due to Michael’s powers, it is harder to follow than it needed to be.
Overall: Strength 3 tea to a genremixing thriller.
For most teenagers having your mum die, having to live with your mum's twin sister in another city, and having your body go all strange on you (massive growth spurt, tingling all over body, visions and nightmares) would send you in a depression - not Evie. She's feisty and motivated even when thrown a curve ball on top of everything else ... When she meets up with her childhood friend Kitty it sparks a desperate desire to protect her friend at all costs.
Find out who is trying to harm her friend and why Evie feels so compelled to rescue her. Throw in a potential romance, intrigue, and you have an exciting Sci-fi thriller for YA. Okay, so I love science fiction but even people who do not have Dr Who or Star War leanings will love this book. There's no other world, or planets, or aliens but an ordinary girl mixed up in an experiment gone wrong two generations ago.
I literally couldn't stop reading this book (until the early hours of the morning); the twists and turns in the plot had me turning page after page. When I finished the book (matchsticks propping up my eyes) and tried to find out when the next book in the series was coming - I read the author's bio and was really surprised ... The story is set in USA and it reads like an international bestselling book - I was not expecting it to have been written by a first time author from a provincial town in New Zealand.
Rachael Craw has a great support team: agents Barbara and Chris Else, her writers' group, and the Walker Book team, and she has been an English teacher at High School - needless to say, this is a writer to watch. Her writing is taut, the plot is gripping, and her characters are very likeable. I can't wait for the next two books in the series: Stray (book two, 2015) and Shield (book three, 2016). If you're a Divergent or a Viral fan - you'll be hooked on this new exciting series.
In Virals, acclaimed mother and son writing duo Kathy and Brendan Reichs have created a captivating and enthralling series by incorporating science fiction and crime with a contemporary perspective, via 4 teens who are navigating an unusually adventurous adolescence.
Seventeen-year-old Seth drowns; in fact his action is deliberate. He wants to escape the horror of his existence. Racked with guilt over the fate of his younger brother, an event he feels is his entire fault, he doesn’t have much to live for. Then he wakes up, back in his old home in England, and things start becoming very weird indeed. He is wrapped in silvery bandages, and his old street is deserted. The whole place is uninhabited and overgrown. He seems to be the only person left alive in the world. He must now forage and scrounge for clothing, food and water. He wonders if this is hell. His dreams don’t help because his previous life comes back to him in huge, unwelcome chunks of memory. Then he meets two other people, with their own unique and strange tales to tell.
Despite the fantastic beginning, with a description that pulled me right into the ocean with Seth, I struggled to finish this book. Parts of it were incredibly exciting and then would grind to a halt with unnecessary introspective and philosophical meanderings on the part of the main character, meanderings which became boring and one had the urge to say, “Oh, just get on with it!” The plus side: an utterly riveting and plausible story premise that comes much later on (just when you are wondering what on earth this is all about and is he dead or not, and if everyone else is dead, then where are the bodies?); really wonderful descriptions that have the reader in the grip of the moment; action and tension to add to the positively bleak and hopeless situation; events that come out of nowhere that have a cinematographic and surreal feel to them; the depth of emotion Seth feels for the loss of his younger brother and his friends. In fact, Seth’s guilt is so palpable that one is consumed with curiosity to learn the truth. The two characters that join him are so different, so lost as well, and so eager to hide the circumstances of their lives/deaths. One feels the pain of the characters as they reveal the humiliating and tragic burdens they each carry.
What I did not enjoy: the flashbacks were sometimes jarring and intrusive, until I accepted them as part of the story-telling process; the fact that this world, while it began as an interesting construct, did not have enough to sustain the story and/or the last three inhabitants. I found the ending abrupt and it short-changes the reader in a way. There were many loose ends in the unfolding of this tale that I feel the author might have tried to answer. The characters were confused and, as a result, the reader becomes confused. It is as if the author didn’t bother to work things out to the last detail, which is possibly not the case, but feels that way. The reference to same sex love/relationships was dealt with sensitively and delicately, in an almost tender way. However, this might surprise readers who are not prepared for it, especially if the reader is younger than the protagonist’s age of 17. Ultimately, the characters’ thoughts on what constitutes life and death, and the option of living in a constructed world, avoiding the reality of a life too sad/tragic/hopeless to contemplate should give readers food for thought. However, I have no doubt that the intended audience of older teens and YA readers will love this book.
Reviewer’s bio: Fiona Ingram is an award-winning middle grade author who is passionate about getting kids interested in reading. Find out more about Fiona and her books on www.FionaIngram.com. She reviews books for the Jozikids Blog.
In this series, Tu Books Publisher Stacy Whitman shares advice for aspiring authors, especially those considering submitting to our New Visions Award.
Last week on the blog, I talked about hooking the reader early and ways to write so you have that “zing” that captivates from the very beginning. This week, I wanted to go into more detail about the story and plot itself. When teaching at writing conferences, my first question to the audience is this:
What is the most important thing about a multicultural book?
I let the audience respond for a little while, and many people have really good answers: getting the culture right, authenticity, understanding the character… these are all important things in diverse books.
But I think that the most important part of a diverse novel is the same thing that’s the most important thing about any novel: a good story. All of the other components of getting diversity right won’t matter if you don’t have a good story! And getting those details wrong affects how good the story is for me and for many readers.
So as we continue our series discussing things to keep in mind as you polish your New Visions Award manuscripts, let’s move the discussion on to how to write a good story, beyond just following the directions and getting a good hook in your first few pages. This week, we’ll focus on refining plot.
Here are a few of the kinds of comments readers might make if your plot isn’t quite there yet:
Part of story came out of nowhere (couldn’t see connection)
Plot not set up well enough in first 3 chapters
Confusing plot—jumped around too much
Excessive detail/hard to keep track
Too hard to follow, not sure what world characters are in
We’ll look at pacing issues too, as they’re often related:
Chapters way too long
Pacing too slow (so slow hard to see where story is going)
Nothing gripped me
Getting your plot and pacing right is a complicated matter. Just being able to see whether something is dragging too long or getting too convoluted can be hard when you’re talking about anywhere from fifty to a hundred thousand words, all in one long file. Entire books have been written on how to plot a good science fiction and fantasy book. More books have been written on how to plot a good mystery. If you need more in-depth work on this topic, refer to them (see the list at the end of this post).
So we won’t get too in depth here, but let’s cover a few points.
Know your target audience
When you’re writing for children, especially young children (middle grade, chapter books, and below), your plot should be much more linear than a plot for older readers who can hold several threads in their heads at once.
Teens are developmentally ready for more complications—many of them move up to adult novels during this age, after all—but YA as a category is generally simpler on plot structure than adult novels in the same genre. This is not to say the books are simple-minded. Just not as convoluted… usually. (This varies with the book—and how well the author can pull it off. Can you?)
But the difference between middle grade and YA is there for a reason—kids who are 7 or 8 or 9 years old and newly independent readers need plots that challenge them but don’t confuse them. And even adults get confused if so much is going on at once that we can’t keep things straight. Remember what we talked about last time regarding backstory—sometimes we don’t need to know everything all at once. What is the core of your story?
Note that “too complicated” is one of the main complaints of plot-related comments readers had while reading submissions to the last New Visions Award.
Don’t say, “But Writer Smith wrote The Curly-Eared Bunny’s Revenge for middle graders and it had TEN plot threads going at once!” Writer Smith may have done it successfully, but in general, there shouldn’t be more than one main plot and a small handful of subplots happening in a stand-alone novel for middle-grade readers.
If you intend your book to be the first in a series of seven or ten or a hundred books, you might have seeds in mind you’d like to plant for book seventy-two. Unless you’re contracted to write a hundred books, though, the phrase here to remember is stand-alone with series potential. Even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was pretty straightforward in its plotting—hinting at backstory, but not dumping backstory on readers in book one; setting the stage for potential conflicts down the road but not introducing them beforetime. Book 1 of Harry Potter really could have just stood on its own and never gone on to book 2. It wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying as having the full 7-book arc, but note how seamlessly details were woven in, not calling attention to themselves even though they’re setting the stage for something later. Everything serves the linear plot of the main arc of book 1’s story. We only realize later that those details were doing double duty.
Thus, when you’re writing for children and young adults, remember that a linear main plot is your priority, and that anything in the story that is not serving the main plot is up on the chopping block, only to be saved if it proves its service to the main plot is true.Plotting affects pace
In genre fiction for young readers, pacing is always an issue. Pacing can get bogged down by too many subplots—the reader gets annoyed or bored when it takes forever to get back to the main thrust of the story when you’re wandering in the byways of the world you created.
Fantasy readers love worldbuilding (to be covered in another post), but when writing for young readers, make sure that worldbuilding serves as much to move the plot forward as to simply show off some cool worldbuilding. Keep it moving along.
Character affects plot
This was not a complaint from the last New Visions Award, but another thing to keep in mind when plotting is that as your rising action brings your character into new complications, the character’s personality will affect his or her choices—which will affect which direction the plot moves. We’ll discuss characterization more another day, but just keep in mind that the plot is dependent upon the choices of your characters and the people around them (whether antagonists or otherwise). Even in a plot that revolves around a force of nature (tornado stories, for example), who the character is (or is becoming) will determine whether the plot goes in one direction or another.
Find an organizational method that works for you
This is not a craft recommendation so much as a tool. Plotting a novel can get overwhelming. You need a method of keeping track of who is going where when, and why. There are multiple methods for doing this.
Scrivener doesn’t work for all writers, so it might not be your thing, but I recommend trying out its corkboard feature, which allows you to connect summaries of plot points on a virtual corkboard to chapters in your book. If you need to move a plot point, the chapter travels along for the ride.
An old-fashioned corkboard where you can note plot points and move them around might be just as easy as entering them in Scrivener, if you like the more tactile approach.
Another handy tool is Cheryl Klein’s Plot Checklist, which has a similar purpose: it makes the writer think about the reason each plot point is in the story, and whether those points serve the greater story.
Whether you use a physical corkboard, a white board, Scrivener, or a form of outlining, getting the plot points into a form where you can see everything happening at once can help you to see where things are getting gummed up.
This post is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to plotting a book. Here are some books and essays that will be of use to the writer seeking to fix his or her plot problems. (Note that some of these resources will be more useful to some writers than others, and vice versa. Find what works for you.)
“Muddles, Morals, and Making It Through: Or Plots and Popularity,” by Cheryl Klein in her book of essays on writing and revising, Second Sight.
In the same book by Cheryl Klein, “Quartet: Plot” and her plot checklist.
The problem, however, is that Survivor is a book Butler disavowed and, once she had the ability, she prohibited it from being reprinted. Used copies tend to sell for at least $65 (although one just sold on E-Bay for $15. Alas, I discovered it only after the sale!).
However, I figured I might be able to get a copy through interlibrary loan, and that's how I discovered my university library had a copy. (You can also find a bootleg PDF online if you search for it. But I didn't tell you that.) I went to the library fully expecting that the book did not exist — that it had disappeared off the shelf without anyone noticing, or that for some reason the catalogue was mistaken. But no. It was there: a hardcover without a dust-jacket, in pretty bad condition, its mustard-yellow boards scratched and torn, its corners crushed and frayed, its binding broken. I will be returning it with a note, something to the effect of: "Please take care of this book. It might not look like much, but it is rare. It is valuable. We need it to be preserved."
Having now read Survivor — or, more accurately, having compulsively devoured the novel in two days, which for me is very fast, indeed — what I find myself most wanting to say is exactly that, to whoever will listen: We need this book to be preserved.
After reading/devouring Survivor, I went looking for reviews of it and articles about it. I read every interview with Butler that I could find where she mentioned it. I wanted to know why she had gone out of her way to keep this book from us, because for me it was not just a satisfying read, but a far more satisfying ending to the Patternist series than Patternmaster, her first-published novel, a novel I like well enough, but which feels thin: a book for which Butler had considerable vision, but not yet the skill to bring that vision to vivid life. Survivor is certainly not as skilled as many of Butler's later novels, even the later-published novels of the Patternist series (as novels, I think both Wild Seed and Clay's Ark are more accomplished) — but it's at least the equal of Mind of My Mind, and in some ways superior to it: I found the ending quite moving, for instance, while for me the most interesting sections of Mind are in the middle. Survivor also provided a certain sense of closure to the Patternist series that Patternmaster didn't for me, perhaps because Survivor is about some of the last remnants of humanity, the ones who escape Earth and don't end up the "mute" slaves of the Patternists.
When I was young, a lot of people wrote about going to another world and finding either little green men or little brown men, and they were always less in some way. They were a little sly, or a little like "the natives" in a very bad, old movie. And I thought, "No way. Apart from all these human beings populating the galaxy, this is really offensive garbage." People ask me why I don't like Survivor, my third novel. And it's because it feels a little bit like that. Some humans go up to another world, and immediately begin mating with the aliens and having children with them. I think of it as my Star Trek novel.
One of the central elements of Survivor is the ability of humans to have children with the natives of a far-off planet, and this biological improbability seems to be a part of the problem she sees with the book. Elsewhere, she spoke of publishing Survivor too soon, as if she wished she'd given it another draft or two, maybe to at least gesture toward some justification for the ability of humans to procreate with the Kohn, the native people of the planet (a common ancestor, for instance).
The biological improbability isn't the main thing. Though no explanation would make it highly scientifically sound, there are improbabilities in Butler's other novels, and this one is hardly a reason to condemn a book to the memory hole.
The main reason she gives there is that of, we might say, the colonial gaze, something common to science fiction from its beginning. In this, though, I think Butler underestimated the richness of her own writing. While certainly the Kohn could have been portrayed more complexly, the novel is not as simple as she makes it out to be, and the humans are often portrayed negatively — they are unprepared, deeply prejudiced, almost suicidally stubborn, and sometimes just stupid.
It is interesting to see female fantasies emerging in science fiction; it is also important to perceive them for what they are, because a fantasy — one of the persistent, satisfying day-dreams of mankind — is not a good story. This has been amply demonstrated by hundreds of male fantasies masquerading as science fiction or sword and sorcery. ...
The female fantasy that is currently gathering momentum seems to run as follows: "I was the chosen mate of a large, alien-looking male." There is a treament of this in Floating Worlds by Cecelia Holland and an interesting variant in Octavia Butler's new novel Survivor. In both cases, with Holland's six and a half foot black Styth and Butler's giant, blue-furred Tehkohn Hao, the aliens are distantly human and the union is blessed with issue.
The Morse review begins:
If you enjoyed Mandingo, that titillating tear-jerker about the lust of a white plantation mistress for her black slave, you'll probably enjoy Survivor, which raises the tension at least theoretically by introducing a pleasant bestiality in the male partner, who would closely resemble a six foot tall blue gorilla if such a thing existed.
Survivor isn't a bad book, and the ploy of miscegenation perks up an otherwise uneventful story, but with apologies to the gorilla, there's no real meat in it.
I don't know if Butler read these reviews, but if she did, I can see them causing her to rethink her novel. She might have thought that if she had failed so spectacularly as to elicit such responses from reviewers of, presumably, at least a modicum of intelligence and literacy, then she must not have written the book she thought she wrote. Because though of course I'm just speculating here, I'm pretty confident that Octavia Butler did not set out to write a hot-and-heavy interspecies romance fantasy. (I would also suggest that Morse is misreading Mandingo, but lots of people did.)
Survivor is not a fantasy about how much fun it would be to be ruled and dominated by a big furry blue guy. But I can see where readers' discomfort comes from. Diut, the leader of the Tehkohn, is at first repulsed by Alanna, but then works through his repulsion until it becomes a kind of attraction, and he takes her on as a kind of project. He then decides she'd be a great wife for him, and he takes her to his bedroom. She fights him. He says the Tehkohn do not have a tradition of forced mating, but he also doesn't offer her much choice. She gives in when he tells her that if she mates with him, she will be free to live how she wants. At first, it causes her pain ("'I always give pain before I give pleasure,' he said. 'Your body will accustom itself to me.'" ), but Alanna finds his fur pleasant and an attraction for him grows. She comes to value him and eventually to love him.
Butler's purpose, it seems to me, was to show how repulsion can become attraction. Humans and Kohn find each other's bodies at best alien, at worst utterly repulsive. They see each other as animals and savages. Alanna is a perpetual outsider, though — on Earth, her parents were killed by Clayarks (humans mutated by the disease brought back on the Clay's Ark starship) and she roamed feral for a while until she was adopted by the religious missionaries who soon take her with them to the new planet. She does not share their very strict religion, though, and plenty of the missionaries thought she should be cast out — not only because she wasn't of their faith, but also because of her ancestry.
Here's an important passage from early in the novel:
"Neila, I've been talking to some of the others and they agree. If we're going to keep the girl in the colony, surely she'd be happier with her own kind."
There had been a moment of silence, then Neila spoke quietly. "Her own kind? Who are you suggesting I give my daughter to, Bea?"
The older woman sighed. "Oh, my. I knew this was going to be difficult. But, Neila, the girl isn't white."
"She's Afro-Asian from what she says of her parents. Black father, Asian mother."
"Well, we don't have any Asians, but one of our black families might..."
"She has a home, Bea. Right here."
"Most of the blacks here are no more interested than the whites in adopting a wild human. The ones who are interested have already been here. Jules and I turned them down."
"...so I'd heard."
"Then why are you here?"
"I thought that after you'd had a few days with the girl, you might... reconsider."
There was the sound of Neila's laughter. "Come to my senses, you mean."
"That's exactly what I mean!" snapped the older woman. "Several of us feel that you and Jules ought to be setting a better example for the young people here—not encouraging them to mix and..." 
A fear of mixing, a fear of impurity and contamination, carries through the whole novel, again and again leading characters toward decisions and actions that harm them. One of the pleasures of reading even Butler's earliest books is that many things which seem straightforward and even obvious are complicated by something else within the story. She doesn't just show us that the fear of mixing and contamination is a hindrance and even a danger to various characters — she shows that sometimes it's a justified fear. The other group of Kohn, the Garkohn, kidnap and seem to plan to inseminate some of the humans because within their ethical system, this means the humans are then bound by Garkohn laws and dictates. In all of her novels, Butler is fascinated by the ways that power is wielded, and even when she seems to show power to be a necessary and perhaps benevolent tool, it is never unambiguously so.
This reminds me of something Dorothy Allison wrote in a 1989 essay on Butler for the Village Voice (collected in Reading Black, Reading Feminist ed. Henry Louis Gates):
I love Octavia Butler's women even when they make me want to scream with frustration. The problem is not their feminism; her characters are always independent, stubborn, difficult, and insistent on trying to control their own lives. What drives me crazy is their attitude: the decisions they make, the things they do in order to protect and nurture their children — and the assumption that children and family always come first.
...While acknowledging the imbalances and injustices inherent in traditional family systems, Butler goes on writing books with female characters who heroically adjust to family life and through example, largeness of spirit, and resistance to domination make the lives of those children better — even though this means sacrificing personal freedom. But she humanizes her dark vision of women's possibilities by making sure that the contradictions and grief her women experience are as powerfully rendered as their decision to sacrifice autonomy. ...
Homosexuality, incest, and multiple sexual pairings turn up in almost all her books, usually insisted on by the patriarchal or alien characters and resisted by the heroines, who eventually give in. Her women are always in some form of bondage, captives of domineering male mutants or religious fanatics or aliens who want to impregnate them. Though the men in Butler's novels are often equally oppressed, none is forced so painfully to confront the difference between surrender and adjustment. Women who surrender die; those who resist, struggle, adjust, compromise, and live by their own ethical standards survive to mother the next generation — literally to make the next world. Maybe if this world were not so hard a place, butler might be writing less painful fiction.
I think the patterns that Allison sees in Butler's novels are sometimes more nuanced than she describes here, and this description doesn't really show the way that Butler's interest in the idea of family is an interest in the idea of a chosen family, or at least a family less of blood than convenience. Her families often become communities. Her interest in power (and power struggles), though, leads her to depict families and communities where not everyone has the equal power to choose whether to be a member. Again and again, people are pulled into communities against their will. They may come to see the community as the best place for them, but usually it is some person of power who brings them in. (For more on family, communities, and kinship in Butler's work, see some of the references in Susan Knabe and Wendy Gay Pearson's "'Gambling Against History': Queer Kinship and Cruel Optimism in Octavia Butler’s Kindred" in Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler.)
Nonetheless, Allison gets at the peculiar frustration, discomfort, and even discombobulation that reading Butler can cause. I struggled with this myself when I read my first Butler novel, Parable of the Sower, somewhere around 1996 or so. I hated it. Viscerally and vehemently. Mostly because I thought Butler was trying to write a book about how wonderful the protagonist Lauren Olamina was, and how much we should all worship and admire her. As a novice to reading Butler, I didn't yet understand the complex stance her books take toward their protagonists, particularly the ones like Lauren who become the leaders of a group or community. Yes, there is attraction, but the attraction can also be a trap, and that was the trap I fell into: I legitimately liked Lauren through much of Sower, but I was also put off by her confidence in her, I thought, insipid spirituality. (Again, I was reading it shallowly. The text is quite ambivalent about that spirituality, if "spirituality" is even the right word for it.) In Butler's work, power always corrupts. But sometimes, there's just no better option.
It also counters the power fantasies so prevalent in SF and popular culture in general. Cherry Wilder was, I think, spectacularly wrong about the "female fantasy" of Survivor. In various interviews, Butler noted that as a child she was an avid reader of comic books, and the influence is clear — indeed, the Patternist series sometimes feels like a version of the X-Men. But Butler's take on the power fantasies inherent to both superhero comics and a certain strain of science fiction is not an uncritical one. She knows the seductive power of such fantasies, and she's more than aware of the terrors that seduction can lead to. (As I, perhaps prejudicially, read her, she sees similar seductions in religion. Sometimes I think a basic theme of Butler's work could be stated as, "The power fantasies of comic books, sci-fi, and religion are not all that different...")
Along similar lines, a clever idea that Maria Holmgren Troy proposes is that Survivor can be read as (among other things) an allegory of science fiction itself:
Interestingly, in the context of science fiction, it is possible to see Alanna—and by extension Survivor—as a child of Butler’s imagination, and the name “Jules Verrick” as a reference to Jules Verne, who is sometimes considered to be the “father of science fiction.” Verne is regarded as one of the most important “pioneers of the tale of the extraordinary voyage into outer space, the most typical of all science-fictional themes” (James 16), which ... is one of the premises of Survivor. Verrick’s wife is called Neila, which if the letters are reversed spells “alien.” Thus, in this allegorical reading, Octavia Butler’s wild child is adopted by the white science-fiction tradition with its domesticated aliens, a tradition which her transgressive work challenges; consequently, the genre and its audience’s generic expectations are forced to expand in order to contain Survivor. Butler stated in an interview in the late 1970s that what she would really like her novels to accomplish is to “make people feel comfortable with characters who are not all male, who are not all white, and who just don’t fit. Who are not middle class, who don’t fit the stereotype” (“Butler Interviewed” 31).
Of all of Butler's books, Survivor may be the one most clearly in dialogue with much of the science fiction that came before it. While reading it, I thought repeatedly of some of the novels of John Brunner, perhaps because Butler cited them as an influence in a 1997 interview with Joan Fry for Poets & Writers (collected in Conversations with Octavia Butler): "The writers who influenced me most tended to be those who were the most prolific. John Brunner was very prolific — my favorites are Polymath, The Whole Man, and The Long Result." (The influence of those three books on the Patternist series seems pretty clear, with Polymath the closest to Survivor.) One of the things I find notable in the two original reviews of Survivor that I was able to dig up is their determination to read the book within the standard science fictional frame, and thus to see it as unoriginal and thin and perplexing; whereas it's a much more satisfying novel if read as an at least somewhat skeptical outsider to the conventional conversation, the standard narrative.
I have moved away from so much of what I thought I'd be writing here, and I haven't written much in detail about Survivor itself, but perhaps that's for the best. I need to read it again. I am very torn about many of its elements and implications. But I am not torn about one thing: no matter how much Butler regretted the book, no matter how embarrassed she was by it, it is, I think, a perfectly respectable part of her oeuvre, and vastly better than the work of many, many writers.
With that in mind, I think it's worth considering whether Butler's literary executor(s) should consider re-releasing Survivor. The question should be considered carefully, because it was Butler's wish that no-one read the book. (In Strange Matings, Nisi Shawl says the first Butler novel she read was Survivor, and so eventually she asked Butler to sign it for her. Butler did, but wrote: "Nisi, I wish you didn’t have this one.") Any new edition should of course make Butler's disavowal clear. My own desire would be for an academic/critical edition, a book where the text of the novel was accompanied by some essays about it (and not just fawning ones). With the release of the new short stories, it seems especially valuable to have Survivor available again. But I don't know. It's entirely a selfish desire on my part — I'm fascinated by the book and would like to own it, and I'd like to be less worried that my library's copy is going to disintegrate and be impossible to replace.
In any case, if you happen to find a copy of Survivor, don't be afraid of it. It's worth reading. It's not Butler at her best, by any means, but it's at least a worthy companion to Patternmaster and Mind of My Mind, and it's not nearly as bad as she thought it was. Indeed, when I think of Survivor now, it's with some sadness, because I don't like to think of Butler disliking her own work so much that she would want it to disappear, especially when that work is more complex and thoughtful than much of what's out there.
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Earth Awakens. Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston. 2014. Tor. 400 pages. [Source: Library]
I enjoyed reading Earth Awakens the third in a new series by Orson Scott Card. At first, I had a hard time reconnecting to all the characters because it's been a year since the last book. There are many characters to keep up with after all. But by the time I was halfway through this one, I was hooked once more. I liked the characters. I didn't always like how they acted. But Card can write flawed characters that I actually like.
In this third book, all the characters are trying to fight the Formics. Some are working together officially to defeat the aliens. Others are more on their own with their own plan. For example, some characters are fighting them on earth; other characters are fighting them in space. But by the end of this one, all the characters stories have merged into one which is probably for the best.
Series books are always so difficult to review because to talk about plot reveals spoilers from the other books. But essentially I liked this one. Maybe not love, love, love but a good, solid like.
Eye to the Telescope (ETTT) is a guest-edited online publication of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. ETTT 14 will be edited by John C. Mannone, who is looking for ekphrastic submissions for the October 2014 issue. Deadline September 15, 2014.
There is no particular theme for this issue, but the speculative poems (sci-fi, fantasy, surrealism, etc.) must be exactly 100 words (excluding titles and epigraphs/postscripts that cite other sources) and be connected to the visual art linked below (see website). They may contain tones of humor or horror, but most importantly, I am looking for literary quality writing with literary depth. All forms/styles are accepted. Either write a poem directly inspired by one of the images posted on our site or pair up a poem influenced by a current science event (include an online reference) that also complements one of the pictures. Identify which image elicited each poem.
See our website for the links to the pictures and for more submission details.
A couple of weeks ago, I was thrilled to participate in one of the most exciting and memorable things I’ve ever done: the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop. Dubbed a “space camp for writers,” it brings together established writers, editors, and creators for an intensive, week-long crash course in astronomy: basically a semester’s worth of Astronomy 101 classes in seven days. It was breathtaking (literally—it takes place in Laramie, Wyoming, about 7,100 feet above sea level), mind-blowing, and, most of all, inspiring.
We were in class almost every day from 10 a.m. until well after 5 p.m., with some lab sessions and outings thrown in. So what sort of things did we learn? Just as an example, our Monday lectures included the Scales of the Universe, Units, the Solar System, Seasons and Lunar Phases, and Misconceptions about Astronomy. By Friday and Saturday we were discussing galaxies, quasars, and cosmology (including dark matter and dark energy). That’s quite the learning curve! Most of us felt like our heads were full by the end, yet we were always eager to hear more.
Yup. That is totally an exoplanet.
I know I must have learned some of this stuff in elementary school (and forgotten most of it), but there have also been so many breakthroughs in astronomy since I was a kid (sorry, Pluto!), I was learning much of this for the first time — and I also had a new appreciation for the topic. Every class was a revelation. What made it even better was having the opportunity to see the science we were learning at work: analyzing the emission spectrum of different elements in the lab, searching for exoplanets at planethunters.org (warning — that site is addictive!), learning how those famous images of space are put together for the public, and visiting the University of Wyoming Infrared Observatory to photograph stars with a giant telescope. It was there, at the top of Jelm Mt., that I experienced the highlight of my week: viewing the Milky Way with the naked eye in a clear night sky. (It also looks very impressive in expensive night vision binoculars.) Returning home and looking up at night was depressing; the city lights blot out all but the brightest stars, and I can imagine that some people go their whole lives without seeing a sight like that.
People always ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” Look up. Look around you. Ideas are all around us! As a science fiction author who doesn’t have a background in science, all too often I get distracted by fun concepts like time travel and parallel universes and faster-than-light space travel. It’s so easy to forget just how fascinating and exciting actual science is and skimp on it in stories. Why make everything up when we have a whole galaxy to play with, and an even bigger universe full of weird and mind-boggling things?
I’ve always enjoyed doing research for stories, but from now on I’m going to pay more attention to what’s happening in astronomy and physics and the world and universe we live in — and hopefully the things I learn will inspire new stories, instead of the other way around. (Added bonus of the workshop: Now I actually understand those astronomy articles in Scientific American!)
We also stopped by the Geological Museum at the University of Wyoming. I love dinosaurs. Meet Dracorex hogwartsia, “Dragon King of Hogwarts”!
I want to continue learning about astronomy, and work real science into more of my fiction. It’s important to keep “refilling your creative well,” and Launch Pad was a great way to do that. If you’re a science fiction writer, I encourage you to apply to next year’s workshop, and I also encourage you to donate to keep the program going. It’s a wonderful resource that is helping to get more people interested in science, and helping we writers to make our stories as scientifically plausible and accurate as we can.
For other perspectives on this year’s Launch Pad experience, read accounts from my awesome classmates and instructor:
How about you? Would you go to Launch Pad? How do you refill your creative well?
E.C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts and raised by a single mother and a public library in Yonkers, New York. He is the author of the Andre Norton Award–winning young adult novel FAIR COIN and its sequel, QUANTUM COIN; his next YA novel, THE SILENCE OF SIX, will be published by Adaptive in November 2014. You can find traces of him all over the internet, but especially at his blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.
Science fiction books supercharged my imagination as a kid. Everything from Star Wars storybooks to Ray Bradbury radio adaptations to The Black Hole – Read Along Book and Record inspired my childhood attempts at telling stories.
I caught up with Von Der Lohe recently, and she had a simple message for GalleyCat readers: “Authors, illustrators and publishers, please please please please please include more girls in science fiction picture books. Parents, read science fiction with your daughters.”
To Say Nothing of the Dog. Connie Willis. 1998. Bantam. 493 pages. [Source: Bought]
I have every intention of rereading all four Oxford time travel books by Connie Willis this year. Earlier in the year, I reread the first book, Doomsday Book. To Say Nothing of the Dog, the second book, is a book I originally read and reviewed in July 2009. While the first book offers drama, drama, more drama, with just a touch of humor now and then, the second book is a romantic comedy. I happen to love both books though they are very different from one another.
Ned Henry is the hero of To Say Nothing of the Dog. He is on a mission, not a mission of his own choosing perhaps, but a big mission all the same. He is one of many time travelers working for Lady Schrapnell on her latest project: restoring Coventry Cathedral. The novel opens with a very overworked Ned Henry beginning to show severe signs of time-lag. What he needs is rest, permission to rest. That isn't likely to happen if Lady Schrapnell learns his whereabouts. For better or worse, Ned Henry is sent to the past--to Victorian times--to recuperate. He's been given another mission too. This time by someone much nicer and calmer than Lady Schrapnell. The problem? Ned Henry wasn't capable of listening and understanding. Now he's in the past without a real clue of WHY he's there and what he's supposed to accomplish.
Verity Kindle is the heroine of To Say Nothing of the Dog. She is on a mission of her own. While Ned Henry was given the assignment of finding out the whereabouts of the bishop's bird stump, Verity's assignment is to read Tocelyn's diary. The diary is available to read in the future. But the most relevant pages to the Coventry Cathedral project were damaged. So she's been sent to the oh-so-important summer of 1888 to read the newly written diary entries. She's having about as much success as Ned Henry. In other words, not much luck at all! These two work together as best they can. Verity manages to travel back and forth a few times to the future. Their mission--as they see it has changed a bit. They worry that they've damaged the future and that something horrible may happen as a result. Like Tocelyn, they know, was supposed to marry a "Mr. C". They know this for a fact from future diary entries. Yet here they are and she's engaged to someone else! Their "new mission" is to find the identity of "Mr. C." and make sure they meet when they're supposed to meet....
I loved this one. I have always loved this one. It is a delightful time travel novel. I love the humor! I do! It's so very, very funny! And I love the details and the dialogue. This one is just a joy cover to cover!
A new science fiction anthology—Building Red-The Colonization of Mars—is currently accepting submissions. Payment is $25 per story accepted, five free contributor copies, and 50% off copies contributors purchase.
Deadline for entries is November 1, 2014.
Complete submission guidelines. Included on the blog are web resources regarding the technicalities of getting to and living on Mars. Please note: we're looking for science fiction, not fantasy stories. Submissions can be funny, dark, quirky, serious, etc., but must include hard/believable science in the fiction. Send questions to:
janetcannoneditorATgmailDOTcom (Change At to @ and DOT to . ) Janet L. Cannon, Acquisitions Editor Walrus Publishing, Inc.
PLANET KINDERGARTEN is a brilliant idea for a picture book - the kind that makes you wonder why no one thought of it sooner! PLANET KINDERGARTEN is written by Sue Ganz-Schmitt with a great attention to details when is comes to comparing the first day of kindergarten with a NASA mission. But what really puts PLANET KINDERGARTEN over the top and into orbit are the brilliant illustrations by
In this second book of the Darracia Saga, Collision, Michael Phillip Cash continues his sci-fi drama with more deception and multiple character developments that take readers deeper into the solar system and the history of its inhabitants. As the battle for Darracia continues, there are internal traitors, blossoming romances, family tensions and everyone, besides the enemy, is questioning their faith in the Elements.
Stacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers. Parts of this blog post were originally posted at her blog, Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire.
Last week, I discussed why worldbuilding in speculative fiction can be so challenging for authors. How do we introduce a completely new world without infodumping or confusing readers? I gave some examples of worldbuilding done well in popular YA science fiction and fantasy: The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Twilight. In all these cases, the starting point is in some way relatable, or there is something about the character (Tris, Katniss) that hooks the reader. First pages should be character- and plot-driven, and worldbuilding should support rather than dominate. That gives these books an easy entry point and wide appeal.
There are three primary approaches to worldbuilding:
Reader learns world alongside character
Readers of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Twilight figure out the world alongside the main character. Information is spooled out as the character learns it, so the reader doesn’t have to absorb everything at once. This is a low bar for entry, not requiring much synthesis of information. The character is almost a stand-in for the reader.
Exposition: questions raised, then answered
What about Hunger Games? Now it gets a little tougher. Suzanne Collins starts out with a perfectly relatable (if a tiny bit cliche) situation, the main character waking up and seeing her family. We get some exposition on Katniss’s family and the cat who hates her.
But it becomes non-cliche by page 2, when we learn about the Reaping. Ah! What’s the Reaping, you ask? We don’t know yet. Now the bar for entry is raised. There is a question, the answer for which you’re going to have to read further to find out. The infodumpage level is low, but there is still some exposition in the next few pages, letting us know that Katniss lives in a place called District 12, nicknamed the Seam, and that her town is enclosed by a fence that is sometimes electrified—and which is supposed to be electrified all the time.
Collins’s approach to spooling out a little information at a time is to explain each new term as she goes, but some readers think that feels unnatural in a first person voice because the narrator would already know these things, so why is she explaining them to the reader?
It depends on the story, in my opinion—Collins makes it work because of how she crafted Katniss’s voice. It is a very fine line to walk—I can’t tell you how many submissions I’ve received that start out with, “My name is X. I am Y years old. I live in a world that does Z,” an obvious example of how this approach becomes downright clumsy when not handled with Collins-esque finesse.
“Incluing”: questions raised, then reader infers answers bit by bit
Then there is the opposite end of the spectrum, in which the reader is given clues to work out rather than having any new terms explained to them. This approach needs just as much, if not more, finesse. It’s a process that some readers who are new to speculative fiction might stumble over the most, which is why I think there’s so little of it in middle grade and YA fantasy and science fiction. I’ve seen it called “incluing,” which is a silly word, but I don’t know of another name for it and the description of incluing in that Wikipedia link is exactly the kind of worldbuilding I—as a lifelong fantasy fan—prefer to see in the beginning of a book, particularly one set in a world that has no connection to our own, or if it’s in the future of our world far enough into the future that the society is unrecognizable to us, such as the society in Tankborn. Karen Sandler does a wonderful job at incluing readers as we read chapter 1 of the first book in the Tankborn trilogy.
The prominent example I like to give writers for this kind of worldbuilding is from The Golden Compass. Check out the first paragraph of that book:
“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches were pulled out ready for the guests. Portraits of former Masters hung high up in the gloom along the walls. Lyra reached the dais and looked back at the open kitchen door, and, seeing no one, stepped up beside the high table.”
Pullman jumps right into the scene, with Lyra sneaking down the dining hall with her daemon. We’re hooked—she’s doing something sneaky, and we don’t know what. And we want to know. We don’t even know what the daemon physically looks like until paragraph 4, and even then we don’t know why he’s called a daemon or what makes a daemon special.
What is a daemon, anyway? We don’t know! In fact, this is one of the major conflicts of the book—we need to read more to find out about daemons, and further mysteries are revealed as we read that deepen our understanding of daemons and of Lyra’s world in general. As we discover more clues that intrigue us, we want to know more, and keep reading.
But the line between intriguing the reader and confusing the reader is very thin, and I would argue that for some readers it’s in a different place than for others. Those of us who are familiar with fantasy might be more willing to patiently wait for more information about daemons because we trust that this author will let us know what we need to know when the time is right. We know that they’re teasing us with this information so as not to overburden us within the first few pages of the book (or, in the case of The Golden Compass, because the reader can’t know what the majority of people in that world don’t know, either).
In situations in which you need to establish a world that’s entirely different from our own, I find that putting a character in a situation that’s somewhat familiar to the reader can help with establishing the unfamiliar. In Karen Sandler’s Tankborn, for example, Kayla has to watch her little brother instead of going to a street fair with her friends. While Kayla calls him her “nurture brother” instead of just her brother, it’s still a situation to which a lot of readers can relate, even if it is set on another planet and her brother is catching nasty arachnid-based sewer toads instead of familiar Earth frogs and toads.
M. K. Hutchins, author of Drift, approached it in a completely different way. She starts with a dangerous situation—a family on the run from authorities, splitting up. The mother, our main character Tenjat, and his sister Eflet are embarking on a terrible journey that’s almost certain death, setting off on a raft in the middle of the night into an ocean full of snake-like monsters, and leaving the family’s father and smallest brother behind to face unknown punishment. While perhaps no reader has been chased by authorities in the middle of the night, it is a dangerous situation and a parting of family—mixing the familiar (family) with the unfamiliar (a dangerous situation in a completely new setting).
It’s the difference between showing and telling. Philip Pullman, Karen Sandler, and M. K. Hutchins all show us how their worlds works, rather than pausing to tell us how it works (“in this world, all people are born with an animal companion called a daemon”).
Telling can work, though, especially in small doses—Katniss’s voice is so conversational that the brief moments of telling in the first few pages of The Hunger Games work, particularly because Collins is mostly showing what Katniss is up to. The brief pauses to “infodump” feel like the reader is being told a story by a storyteller, like a friend telling a story over the kitchen table after a nice big meal would pause and explain something you didn’t understand (a friend who’s a very good storyteller). It’s an awareness of audience that most speculative fiction doesn’t have the luxury of.
Showing isn’t always better, and telling isn’t always bad, when done right and mixed in with showing. Whichever method you use, remember that sometimes readers will trip over new words so you need to give them as much context as possible without over-infodumping.
And here is where the art comes in. I can’t tell you what that balance is, but if you look at examples like the ones above, you’ll get a better feel for how much to reveal and how much to hold back in your first few pages—revealing enough to orient your reader and give them a sense of the differences of this world (while grounding them in something familiar like Lyra’s hallway or Katniss’s humble home) while seeking to avoid overburdening them with too much all at once.
What about you? How have you found the right balance of introducing your world without overburdening the reader? What books do you recommend that do this particularly well?
How can you not love a graphic novel titled, Cleopatra in Space? Just when I was quietly mourning the end of Ben Hatke's Zita the Spacegirl trilogy, Mike Maihack gives us a new spacegirl to root for. As is the way with many great graphic novels, Cleopatra in Space began life as a webcomic in 2009 and ran until 2012 when Maihack began working on the graphic novel format of the story.
The One Safe Place, by Tania Unsworth (Algonquin Young Readers, middle grade, April 29, 2014)
Climate change has brought North America to the brink of collapse. But shielded from the merciless sun in a remote valley, Devin and his grandfather have managed to keep a peaceful life going. Then Devin's grandfather dies. When the work of their farm proves too much for him, Devin sets out to find what's left of civilization. In a wreck of a city where feral children run wild (but the rich can still afford the water to keep their lawns green) Devin is taken under the wing of Kit, a girl who's a practiced thief. But then comes the promise of a refuge for children--a place where they will be safe and cared for--and though Devin has his doubts, he allows himself to be persuaded to enter that mysterious sanctuary.
And indeed, the Gabriel H. Penn Home for Children offers all the food, all the divertissements, and all the other creature comforts a kid might want. But Gabriel H. Penn did not have the well-being of children in mind when he established the Home. He was thinking solely of himself....and the rich old clients who might join him in benefiting from the "happy childhood" the Home provides for its young residents.
Devin does not fall for it. He can't help but be appalled by the zombie-like state the children periodically fall into, and senses there is a dark underside to the whole set-up (and boy is he is right!). And so he sets about solving the mysteries of the Home, and planning an escape.... On the plus side, Devin has perernatural gifts of memory conferred on him by his profound synesthesia, and he has allies among the kids who have their own abilities. One the down side, the trap they are in is a pretty tight one, and it will take a whole lot of luck for the ragtag group of kids to escape the "safe place" that is their prison.
"Plucky, quirky kids working together in a fantastical setting to defeat evil adults who are keeping them prisoners" is pretty much always a good plot, as far as I'm concerned, and this one was no exception. It's fun to see the dark side of the Home slowly becoming clear, and to get to know its young residents as they start to work together to escape. And I don't think I'm alone in this-- there is lots of kid appeal in this portrayal of the superficial elements that comprise "happy childhood" being horribly twisted, and the children fighting back, especially when the kids are well-drawn enough to have distinct personalities! Devin's synesthesia is a particularly engaging aspect of the story. Fascinating in and of itself, and allowing Unsworth plenty of scope for appealing descriptive language, it is a lot more than just an add-on specialness. It plays a Pointful role in the plot, which I appreciated lots.
I did feel, though, that the near-future climate horror was not quite as well done as may be-- though it certainly helps set up the paradise of the Home, giving good reasons for the kids to end up there, it felt like a bit of an unnecessary dystopian accessory to the sci-fi premise of what is really happening at the Home. I questioned the premise that there still have been enough left of civilization to support an uber-rich class (though the rich certainly good at surviving), and I wasn't able to accept the kids as believable products of catastrophic climate change. They were just a bit too much like kids of today (would Kit, for instance, uneducated street kid that she is, really be familiar with IQ tests?). I think that young readers won't notice or care, but it kept me personally from truly embracing the story.
Short answer--a good, solid story for the eleven year old or so who enjoys creepy sci fi suspense in which brave, resourceful kids are pitted against evil adults.
And now the part of review writing I always enjoy--going to see what the professional reviews said.
Me--what's with that upper age range? The kids are 12ish, some younger...there's no romance...the violence is muted though disturbing...I'd say 12 or 13, tops. Any older and you run into readers of YA dystopia who will find this too tame. No star from Publishers Weekly, but a very positive review-- "a page-turning mix of suspense, intrigue, and anxiety. The kids are genuine and quirky, just the right kind of mismatched misfits to snag readers’ hearts. This is a wholly enjoyable journey, and a dystopian vision with some great new twists."
Me--not sure my heart ever got snagged, exactly, but I agree with the main points here (though I think "dystopian" has become somewhat overused and cheapened these days). The major twist is indeed not one I can remember seeing before (though I'm not quite sure about this......).
Another star from School Library Journal-- "The suspense and dread build as the mystery gradually unfolds, but it stops short of becoming truly horrific. The conclusion is fast-paced and gripping."
Me--nothing to disagree with here (although the spectre of old age trying to siphon off the vitality of the young is perhaps something that will be found truly horrific by those concerned about the collapse of Social Security as the Baby Boomers age...).
Back in January, having imbibed too many book reviews and flame wars, I spouted on Twitter: "Most critical writing could be summed up as, 'My god is an awesome god! Your god sucks.'" That especially seems to be the case with so much writing about science fiction, which is less rigorously analytical than it is theological.
Here, I'm not going to wrestle with their arguments so much as speculate (perhaps irresponsibly, erroneously, ridiculously) on what itch such arguments scratch, because though I am skeptical of the overall thrust of both pieces, I don't find either to be especially bothersome. As I read each, I realized that I didn't understand the desires and assumptions that motivated them, because they are the desires and assumptions of a religious denomination I don't adhere to. I've explored and dabbled with various sects of the church of science fiction since childhood, and a part of me still very much wants to be a believer, but I just can't make the proper leaps of faith. Call me Doubting Matthew.
To show the theological import of the two essays, we'll have to look first (briefly, inadequately) at how they argue their cases. Let's start with Roberts. A key sentence:
Asking whether SF is "intrinsically" leftwing or rightwing is dumb, since literatures are not "intrinsically" anything. But I'm tempted to thump the tub nonetheless.
"This is dumb, but I will do it." I admire the honesty. This is a leap of faith admitted boldly and in the open.
And so Roberts leaps and thumps:
Conservatism is defined by its respect for the past. The left has always been more interested in the future – specifically, in a better future. Myriad militaristic SF books and films suggest the most interesting thing to do with the alien is style it as an invading monster and empty thousands of rounds of ammunition into it. But the best SF understands that there are more interesting things to do with the alien than that. How we treat the other is the great ethical question of our age, and SF, at its best, is the best way to explore that question.
This is a straightforward version of dogma offered by more abstruse, monkish scholars such as Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, and Carl Freedman (the holy trinity of Marxist SF critics). Against these ideas, Santesso addresses the tendency to see SF as inherently progressive, or to define "good SF" as SF that agrees with the (Marxist) reader's ideology:
So the critical argument, as it stands, is that the “generic tendency” of sf is progressive, that its themes are naturally progressive, that its structures are naturally progressive. I suggest, in response, that the claims one can make about the inclinations of a genre if one concentrates on certain strands and tendencies of the tradition are limited only by the strands and tendencies chosen. Over the remainder of this essay, I will argue that certain other strands of sf—since sf as a whole (encompassing everything from cyberpunk to military science fiction, at the very least) is indeed hardly politically unified—can be recognized as anything but “naturally” progressive, instead being more strongly allied with fascist politics. Furthermore, certain foundational tropes and traditions of the genre carry the DNA of fascism, as it were, to the extent that even liberal, progressive authors working within the genre’s more refined strains often (inadvertently) employ fascistic tropes and strategies. These tropes and strategies interrupt and disappoint certain ideological expectations advertised as, or assumed to be, native to the genre.
Both writers explicitly recognize that this search for one, true SF is a fool's errand, but both play the fool — Roberts admittedly, Santesso more circumspectly, but just as strongly. They are defenders of the faith.
Santesso's essay does a good job of delineating fascist tendencies within particular stories and types of stories. His essay seems to me to be a useful beginning, a sketch of analytical possibilities that would benefit from being expanded, and Santesso's careful definition of the term "fascism" certainly allows readers to expand the ideas themselves. (A good companion to Santesso's work is Barton Paul Levenson's "The Ideology of Robert A. Heinlein" in NYRSF 118, April 1998, which similarly applies a relatively precise definition of fascism to specific texts.)
Santesso's final paragraph is dense, but it's worth working through:
Given his influence on progressive sf criticism, we may give the last word to Jameson, and in particular his celebration of the Brechtian notion of plumpes Denken (“crude thinking”), which he defines as the postulate that even the most subtle, academic, or experimental “neo-Marxist” works must contain a core element of “crude” or “vulgar” Marxism in order to qualify as “Marxist” at all. Jameson alludes to plumpes Denken in order to make a point about science fiction: “Something like this may have its equivalent in SF, and I would be tempted to suggest that even within the most devoted reader of ‘soft’ SF—of sociological SF, ‘new wave’ aestheticism, the ‘contemporaries’ from Dick to the present—there has to persist some ultimate ‘hard-core’ commitment to old-fashioned ‘scientific’ SF for the object to preserve its identity and not to dissolve back into Literature, Fantasy, or whatever” (Jameson 245). Might it also be the case that the fascist energies and ideas of pulp sf are precisely the kind of identity-confirming “core” or definitional element that makes it possible to speak of “science fiction,” even when discussing literary, progressive sf? It is understandable that progressive critics would wish to distance themselves from both the aesthetics and the politics that accrued to a generation of stories featuring scenarios of the Golden Races vs. the Scaly Ones variety. But to deny that politics altogether, to claim that it belongs only to the past, is to evade a serious investigation of what makes the genre work, what gives it its identity and indeed its appeal. It is, ultimately, a denial of “science fiction” itself as a genre worthy of discussion, for surely the point of genre criticism is to identify and trace the various constitutional energies, themes, and plots that animate a form and in doing so account for all its variant strains and trends, not just the ones that accord well with a narrow set of critical pieties. To speak of “science fiction” at all is to admit to certain links and ideological ties that go beyond subject and setting, leading readers and critics into unexpected places and opening up unexpected connections. One cannot simply disown unwanted relatives or pretend not to recognize their features when they pop up in later generations. It is, indeed, precisely those ancestral presences—sometimes odd, sometimes eccentric, sometimes distasteful—that give science fiction its remarkable diversity and continuing vitality.
I'm not entirely convinced by many of the premises here*, but I'm fascinated by the continuing appeal of the desire not simply to define science fiction, but to define it toward a particular ideology, even when the writer knows and admits that this is a simplification or just "dumb".
The assertion that "good" science fiction is, in the view of Roberts et al., "progressive", is a statement that serves to set up criteria for true faith and for apostasy. (It's analogous to the use of the term "literature" to mean "that writing which I value and consider worth study".) Such a desire is similar to the one that propels people to claim that science fiction began with Mary Shelley or Newton or Lucian or Gilgamesh or the Big Bang, all of which are also ideological claims to an origin story that suits the storyteller's self-conception (or, if not outright self-conception, then at least the theological denomination they have chosen to associate with).
The stories told of science fiction are stories that reflect well on the storyteller. If the storyteller is an avid reader of science fiction, then the story is one that justifies that reading. Often, it's the fannish story of SF being somehow at the heart of literature, and therefore worthy of respect and study and love (as opposed to the "mundane" literature of a false church). Sometimes, it's a story of SF being the superior denomination. (My god is an awesome god!) One is not just a reader of science fiction, but a proud reader.
Adam Roberts's Guardian piece is perhaps best described as an example of faith-based writing. Lots of people of faith have written brilliantly, have done great things in the world, etc., so I don't mean this as a condemnation, and Roberts is particularly clear-eyed about his faith. He may be proselytizing, but he's perfectly aware that that's what he's doing. He's like a Campus Crusade for Christ guy standing out in front of the library, randomly accosting people with, "Hey, do you have a minute for Jesus? Jesus is cool!"
Aaron Santesso's essay is a useful corrective to the faith-based initiatives of the One True Church of SF missionaries (for instance, it would be interesting to read Santesso's approach to Iain Banks alongside Roberts's), but Santesso ends up giving in to the theological impulse himself by offering a story of original sin. Perhaps we could call it a Calvinist approach to SF dogma. He gives us an Old Testament sort of god, all grumpy and authoritarian and given to genocides, while Roberts sees science fiction more as a hippie Jesus. This unites the two essays, for Santesso has faith that science fiction can achieve its own new testament, and Roberts seems to think it already has.
As I said, I'm not separate from all this myself, even if I don't understand the fundamentalists and evangelicals. In many ways, I admire and even envy them their leaps and faiths. Perhaps their dogma is more honest than my anti-dogma, which is little more than the habitual uttering of, "Yes, but—" I have my own gods, my own idols and rituals and sacred texts. In that way, perhaps personal taste is always religious, always faith-based. Despite all attempts to figure out the empirical (or ideological) engines of taste, the explanations remain inadequate against the mysteries. Perhaps our passions are not only best expressed but best maintained through expressions of ecstasy. Perhaps faith is the best way to organize our desires, to give meaning to our pleasures and displeasures.
I'm a doubter, and so always and forever chained to maybe and perhaps...
Perhaps your god is an awesome god. Or, perhaps life is richer and more coherent if we believe in a god (or pantheon) that is an awesome god, regardless of whether such a belief itself is rationally justifiable. Maybe we need more tub thumping dumbness, more leaps of faith. Maybe...
Or maybe it's your god that sucks.
--------------------------------- *My own proclivity is to view SF as a set of discourses sustained and propagated by a network of discourse communities, all of which can and should be historicized — a position certainly not opposed to Jameson or Santesso, but oblique to them. Add a Comment
We are thrilled to announce that submissions for our second annual New Visions Award are now open! The New Visions Award, which was created in 2012, will be given to a middle grade or young adult fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by a writer of color. Established by Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW that publishes YA and middle grade science fiction and fantasy, the award is a fantastic chance for new authors of color to break into the world of publishing for young readers.
With the recent uproar over the lack of diversity at this year’s BookCon that led to the creation of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, to articles in the New York Times by Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers addressing the lack of diversity in children’s books, it’s obvious that readers want to see more writers of color represented. It is our hope that the New Visions Award will help new authors begin long and successful careers and bring new perspectives and voices to the science fiction, fantasy, and mystery genres.
The New Visions Award is modeled after Lee & Low’s successful New Voices Award, which was established in 2000 and is given annually to a picture book written by an unpublished author of color. This award has led to the publication of several award-winning children’s books, including It Jes’ Happenedby Don Tate and Birdby Zetta Elliott.
The New Visions contest is open to writers of color who are residents of the United States and who have not previously had a middle grade or young adult novel published.
Manuscripts will be accepted now through October 31, 2014. The winner of the New Visions Award will receive a grant of $1000 and our standard publication contract. An Honor Award winner will receive a cash prize of $500. For further details, including full eligibility and submission guidelines, please visit the New Visions Award page.
If you have any questions about submissions, eligibility, or anything else, feel free to drop them in the comments and we’ll try to answer them. And please spread the word to any aspiring authors you know who might be interested. We look forward to reading your entries!
Stacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers. Parts of this blog post were originally posted at her blog, Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire.
During the first week of June, I attended the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore. At the conference, I met writers from all over Asia and the Pacific, discussing craft, marketing their books at home and abroad, and translation. I even ran into Mark Greenwood and Frané Lessac, the Australian author/illustrator team behind the LEE & LOW picture book The Drummer Boy of John John. I enjoyed all the panels and the chance to see Singapore and meet so many people from the other side of the world—it gives you a perspective as an editor you might not otherwise have.
One of the panels I participated in was a First Pages event, in which I read about 20 first pages of picture books, middle grade, and YA novels and then gave feedback on whether the pages were working for me and if I’d want to read more.
Stacy Whitman with author Mark Greenwood and illustrator Frané Lessac
For the fantasy and science fiction entries, a common problem was—and is in any new writer’s writing—revealing enough about the world that you create interest and intrigue, but not too much. Too much, and you risk alienating your audience, confusing them, or simply not hooking them. Reader reactions are so subjective. One person might think there’s not nearly enough worldbuilding in a book (“give me more! MORE!”) and another might say of the exact same book that what worldbuilding there is was way too confusing (“I couldn’t keep all those made-up words straight!”).
So how do you, as the author, balance the needs of such a wide range of readers when you’re working in a complex world? And how do you balance the need to establish your characters, setting, and plot with the need to spool out information to your reader to intrigue them rather than confuse them?
This is a question that almost every author and editor of speculative fiction struggles with, particularly because we, as veterans of the genre, are already more comfortable with a lot of jargon than your average teen reader, particularly teen readers whose preference for fantasy runs more toward the contemporary paranormal variety.
Stacy Whitman at the famous Singapore merlion fountain
There are a number of reasons why I think Twilight was so popular on such a broad scale, but one of the biggest ones was the relatability of the initial situation. Not vampires showing up at school—before that. We start with a simple story about a girl who is leaving her mother behind in Arizona to live with her father in an unknown small town on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. Relatable: divorced parents, fish out of water, adapting to a new school and a new climate.
Think about all the really big fantasy hits of the last decade or so in children’s and YA fiction: Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Twilight, Hunger Games, Divergent. Of these books’ beginnings, only the dystopian tales start all that far outside the everyday experiences of your average young reader, and even The Hunger Games starts with a relatable situation—a coal mining family lives in a desperate situation and must hunt for food.
While most kids who would have access to The Hunger Games don’t live under a despotic regime, it’s plausible that it could happen in the real world. Every kid has been hungry at some point, though perhaps not as hungry and desperate as Katniss. Every kid has taken a test in school, and sometimes it feels like those standardized tests do determine your everlasting fate, as they do in Divergent, even if Tris’s Abnegation explanations are a little tedious. Harry Potter and Percy Jackson are ordinary kids going to school, living somewhat normal lives (even if abusive ones, in the case of Harry) before their worlds change with the discovery of magic.
Stacy Whitman speaking on a panel at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content.
There are three primary approaches to worldbuilding:
Reader learns world alongside character
Exposition: questions raised, then answered
“Incluing”: questions raised, then reader infers answers bit by bit
Next Thursday, I’ll go into detail about each of these techniques and give some examples. In the meantime, think about your favorite science fiction and fantasy books. How do they bring you into their world? What works best for you as a reader? Answering these questions about your own reading preferences can help guide you as a writer.
Latinos and other People of Color (PoC) are expanding their presence into more than the White House. The last frontier, what might prove to be the most resistant to our inclusion is speculative literature [fantasy, magical realism, science fiction, horror, fables and myth, and alternate histories]. Por qué?
Among others, two important, interplaying factors might explain the resistance to our inclusion.
Spec lit is BIG money for those within certain cliques
Sci-fi, fantasy and horror are all over the American screens of cable, network TV and movie houses. Good or bad, blockbusters or not, apocalypse or dystopia, a lot of stories are making chingos of dinero, and in certain cases, the road begins in spec-lit short stories or novels. For writers of those stories, the lucrative film-rights would have to be spread around, if POC enter this arena.
The young, including whites, are attracted to the cultures of POC
Forget about backwards caps and low-hanging baggies, reggae and reggaetón--if the spec stories of POC reach the screen, Anglo kids might find more to love than just wearing J-Lo T-shirts.
POC stories can include themes sympathetic towards immigrants, the Chicano Movement, monetary retribution to Native Americans and descendants of slaves, Puerto Rican independence, the Cuban Revolution, the disenfranchisement of mexicanos after Texas's secession and the Mexican American War, families' communal values (instead of Western-ethic individualism), pride in ancient indigenous cultures like the Aztec and Maya (Matt de la Peña's Maya character, Sera, not the savagery of Apocalypto). And that's not a complete list.
If such ideals and beliefs from the novels of POC reach the screen in the most popular genres of speculative fiction, imagine what rebellious, white (and other) teenagers might adopt as their own values. Like, Amy Tintera's Callum Reyes character--"the perfect solider who's done taking orders!" Or, to plug my work, what if teens identify with my fantasy novel's Chicano hero who won't accept "assimilation" and joins others to save and change their world? Nomás diciendo....
It's no longer fantasy to imagine a Latino in the White House (although it's harder to imagine he would be sympathetic toward immigrants, workers' rights and stopping military invasions.) A more frightening possibility to the white-male-dominated establishment is the horror of their children accepting and even advocating for POC in EVERYTHING!
To look at it from the perspective of the white male, spec-lit establishment, as hot as spec lit is now, the old writers feel like they are finally being recognized and rewarded, as never before. For POC to demand entry into this monetary wonderland at this point is just the WORST time!
Hollywood and its young audiences may not agree. Sci-fi, as well as other spec lit, needs new blood, themes and direction, which is what Project Hieroglyph is attempting. Change will come and Latino writers entering these genres can have a great effect on its direction. Vamos a ver.
This Friday, I'll be on NPR, expounding on Latino writers and Sci-Fi, courtesy of Producer Daisy Rosario, Latino USA. I'll let you know info as it comes in.
Will there be Latino authors in Big Book of Sci-Fi?
Jeff and Ann VanderMeer will be editing The Big Book of Science Fiction for Vintage, an 800-page, time capsule of the last 100 years of sci-fi. They will have an open reading period for reprints when you can submit links or electronic manuscripts of your own work or recommendations of rare or often overlooked stories you think deserve their attention.
Clearly, to cover a century, they can't just focus on the contemporary scene. They say, "As ever, we’re committed to including work from a diverse array of sources." It may be a few months before setting up the submission process, but they'll make sure it’s widely publicized. It will be up to Latino authors and fans to submit material so this doesn't become another Big White Book of Sci-Fi. Connect with Jeff to make your literary contribution, when it's time.
Es todo, hoy, (but wait to see what mañana brings)
I’m developing some funny reactions when I hear or see the word “diversity” -- especially when concerning science fiction, speculative literature, or what ever we’re calling that twisted wad of imaginative genres today. It happened when I read Rudy Ch. Garcia’s recent La Bloga post. Before I knew it, I had tweeted:
I was diverse back when it scared the shit out of people.
Right away my friend Selina Phanara reminded me that I still scare people “plenty,” and Bill Campbell of Rosarium Publishing remarked that “I think it still kinda does.”
Yup. Diversity still does kinda scare the shit out of people. It's just that nowdays, it’s supposed to be a good thing, what we’re all working for in this here civilization. You can still be scared of it, but you have to grit your teeth and look brave.
Reminds me of some old job interviews where the interviewer would turn a shade paler and give me a forced smile. It was as if I was H.R.Giger’s Alien, drooling slime and deploying the inner jaws. It would have been hilarious if I didn’t really need a way of making a living at the time . . .
Long before everybody was talking about the need for diversity in sci-fi, people in the genre would go around congratulating themselves about how they were always promoting “tolerance” -- and you’d always be running into stories where caucasians would learn that people with green skin, that looked like giant insects, could be okay folks.
Tolerance ain’t so great. Ever been around people who were “tolerating” you? And trying hard not to notice the color of your skin? Talk about quiet horror.
After all the stories where the hero shoots first and asks questions later, the subject of tolerance usually came up when trying to sell sci-fi to a highfalutin audience.
So now there’s all kinds of talk about diversity and sci-fi, and since I’ve been tilting with this windmill for about forty years it brings back memories, and the desire to speak out.
Even back in the Seventies, diversity was considered desirable. It would bring prestige, if done right, so it doesn’t scare away the perceived predominately white audience. You couldn’t go too far. Make it like “mild” salsa . . .
Ocatvia Bulter, Samuel R. Delany and Steven Barnes would be interviewed and discussed, but somehow, their race wouldn’t be mentioned. Better not bring it up. The audience may be disturbed.
Diversity was desirable, but wasn’t considered profitable. The audience was seen to be white folks from the Midwest. And not everybody liked sci-fi. What would happen to the profits if they lost the racists?
Of course, it’s the 21st century now, a new millennium. The publishing world is in turmoil. Ebooks are rocking their universe, which is no longer centered around New York City and a white elite.
And when they go out to meet the audience, more and more of them aren’t white.
It scares them.
Kinda like I scare them. And for me, it ain’t fun until it gets scary.
In the next few years, where books come from and how people get them will change radically. Diversity will be necessary for survival in this brave, new global village.
Or will it be a global barrio? Or an intergalactic barrio?
Hollywood and the surviving publishers will follow, not lead.
Ernest Hogan is a Chicano science fiction writer, an unlikely thing to be, but he really had no choice.