Book Review: Women Destroy Science Fiction

Lightspeed_49_June_2014Women Destroy Science Fiction is a special, book-length edition of Lightspeed Magazine featuring short stories (originals and reprints) flash fiction, author interviews, and essay – all by women.  This issue was funded through a kickstarted campaign.  Here’s the pitch:

Women aren’t writing “real” science fiction, the fallacy goes. “Real” science fiction is . . . whatever science fiction certain men like. Some days this makes us sad. Some days it makes us angry. And some days it just seems hilarious. . .and a quip on Twitter turns into a special issue of LIGHTSPEED in the space of roughly half an hour.

When we announced the Women Destroy Science Fiction! special issue in September, the response was immediate and overwhelming. All people had was a title and an email address, but the enthusiasm was boundless. The special “I Want to Destroy SF” inbox we setup filled with subject lines like:

  • Helping my sisters destroy science fiction since 1983
  • If anyone’s going to destroy SFF—
  • Please sir, may I destroy science fiction?

Why, yes. Yes, you may.

LIGHTSPEED was founded on the core idea that all science fiction is real science fiction. The whole point of this magazine is that science fiction is vast. It is inclusive. Science fiction is about people (roughly 50% of whom are women), just as much as it’s about ideas. Science fiction is about us, our perils and our promise; it’s about our collective future. LIGHTSPEED has also been committed to gender parity from the beginning, and we have achieved it consistently for nearly four years now. But looking around at media at large, it’s clearly just not enough—and thus the Women Destroy Science Fiction! special issue was born.

Lately I’ve been coming across a lot of short story anthologies that score high on concept and low on content.  Luckily these stories combine original ideas with excellent craft, and the essays provide plenty of brain food.  Here’s some highlights from the original stories in the anthology:

Each to Each, by Seanan McGuire:  When the navy starts modifying women’s bodies to turn them into every possible variety of mer-creature, what could go wrong?

The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick, by Charlie Jane Anders:  A friendship between two women is challenged when one accesses the memories of the other’s ex-boyfriend

A Burglary, Addressed by a Young Lady, by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall:  Another story with an emphasis on friendship between two women, this story is about a Regency-style world in which courtship is conducted through burglary instead of Balls.

There are steampunk stories and stories about clones and stories about body-swapping.  There are weird stories (Dim Sun, by Maria Dahvana Headly, is especially surreal) and in the flash fiction category, there’s a story that contains only four sentences.

This is an exquisite collection and I can’t wait for the upcoming issues: Women Destroy Horror, Women Destroy Fantasy, and Queers Destroy Science Fiction.  I had a great time with the stories in these collections as well as the essays and interviews that accompanied them, especially the roundtable interview by Mary robinette Kowal which features Ursula K. LeGuin, Pat Cadigan, Ellen Datlow, and Nancy Kress.  This is good stuff!



Friday Book Club: The Art of Racing in the Rain and 5 Myths about Dogs

SWT-Book-ClubsGarth Stein says that he got the idea for The Art of Racing in the Rain from a documentary about Mongolia.  This documentary claimed that there is a common belief in Mongolia that a good dog can reincarnate as a human.  Here’s some other myths, legends, and bits of folklore about dogs.  Once again, my super-reliable source is Wikipedia – this is fun background info, not academia here.

1.  Some Hindus believe that taking good care of a dog can get you into Heaven.

2. The second day of the Chinese New Year is considered to be the birthday of all dogs.

3. Saint Roch, also known as Saint Rocco, is the patron saint of dogs (in Catholicism).  His feast day, celebrated in Bolivia on August 16, is known as the birthday of all dogs.  If different countries provide different dates, should dogs get multiple birthday parties every year?  Seems fair to me.  As my husband points, out, by rights they should get seven.

4. The Black Dog, a supernatural portent of death, may be seen during thunderstorms in the British Aisles.  The legend of The Black Dog was the inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

5.  The maned wolf, which lives in South America, eats fruit, especially a species of tomato called a “wolf apple”.  Over half of its’ diet comes from fruit.  The red pigment in tomatoes, lycopene, is named for the wolf that finds it so appetizing.


Wednesday Videos: Game of Thrones Parodies

WednesdayVideoApparently there are only two ways to cope with another Game of Thrones season ending – one way to cope is to make parody videos, and the other is to watch them.  Here’s a few to tide you over until next season.

First of all, here’s Lena Heady giving an interview in character as Drunk Cersei.  Best line?  “You host a [bitter laugh] talk show.  How NICE”.

In case you need a catch up on who these people are, here’s a parody medley to explain it all to you:

And Wil Wheaton, not to be outdone, has his own way of explaining it all:

There’s no release date set for Season 5 but it’s rumored to be happening around March 2015, so you have plenty of time to stock up on dragon kibble and kleenex.  OK, go!


An Interview with Alex Dally MacFarlane, contributor to “Invisible”

Invisible-FullThis summer we’ve been hosting a series of interviews with contributors to the anthology, Invisible, edited by Jim C. Hines.  Hines was inspired to put the anthology together when he saw the heated response that Alex Dally MacFarlane received when she posted an essay on calling for “an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories”.  Thanks to Alex for this fascinating interview about non-binary gender and fiction!

1.  Jim C. Hines said that your essay, “Post-Binary Gender In SF:  Introduction”, and the responses the essay got, inspired him to invite people to share their own experiences with representation on his blog.  Since then, you have written several other pieces for about non-binary gender.  Have you noticed any difference in the tone of the comments?  Do you feel like some people are starting to understand your message better?


Most of my subsequent posts have been post-binary reviews of particular books, which haven’t drawn many comments. My non-review posts have received more. They’re… mixed. I’ve had some incredibly valuable comments, whether from specialists (eg: linguist Rose Lemberg commenting about “closed cases” and other issues on my post about adapting to non-binary pronouns) or fans/writers who are interested in the subject. I know the column has reached other non-binary SF fans and I know some binary-gendered SF fans are finding it interesting and informative, because they’ve told me. I care a lot more about that than the opinions of certain bigots and other people who won’t change (and who, yes, still leave comments on my posts, some of which the moderators have needed to remove).



2.  What does non-binary gender mean to you?  Are there any websites you recommend for people who want to learn more or get support?


Well, I’m non-binary (my gender is best described as “it’s complicated”). I’ve found the best website is Twitter: the sheer quantity of marginalised people talking about their lives, experiences and all sorts of subjects is incredible. There’s a lot to be learnt by listening to people’s lived experiences, particularly lots of people, because everyone experiences their gender differently and it’s important to understand that there’s no one way to be non-binary. (But remember: these are people, not textbooks and not quiz machines.)


3.   Are there any books that you think do an excellent job of not defaulting to binary gender?


Hmm! No. Not that I’ve read.


There are books that I’ve enjoyed, but… I like Maureen F. McHugh’s Mission Child a lot, but the protagonist is the only non-binary person in a story that spans multiple cultures and locations. The world’s default is definitely binary. I found Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man fascinating — one of its cultures defaults to five genders — but it reinforces the five genders in exactly the same harmful ways that we reinforce our two, so it does and it doesn’t fulfil your question’s criteria. Potentially there’s Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, but it uses a binary pronoun to refer to people across cultures that mostly seem to recognise two genders (and it seems the Raadch recognises two but doesn’t care to differentiate in language, which is different to a non-binary default). I’ve had much better luck finding short stories that don’t default to binary, some of which are discussed in the next answer…


4.  You edited an anthology called “Aliens:  Recent Encounters”.  Does writing about aliens seem to make authors more comfortable with presenting a variety of gender identifications, body types, and skin tones?  How is writing about aliens potentially freeing, and how is it problematic?


I think it’s absurd to write aliens with the same sex and gender set-up as humans (which itself is a simplifying statement: humans do not have binary sex or binary gender, nor do all human cultures construct gender in the same ways), unless the aliens are of the panspermia, closely-related-to-us variety. I welcome science fiction where the aliens are different to us in this regard. The only problem is that writers almost always write the humans as binary in sex and gender: this is sometimes set up as a specific contrast. How strange, that more than two genders exist! etc.


I have enjoyed some stories with non-binary aliens and binary humans, but it’s where this contrast is not very pronounced, such as Catherynne M. Valente’s “Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy”, where the aliens are multi-gendered (but this is not subject to remark). Then there’s Nancy Kress’ “My Mother, Dancing”, where humans encounter alien life for the first time — humans who all use a non-binary pronoun, hirs. Ditching the humans entirely is Eleanor Arnason’s “Knapsack Poems”, an interesting story, though the three sexes of her aliens are unfortunately gender essentialist by contemporary Western cultural norms. All three stories are reprinted in Aliens: Recent Encounters.


Meanwhile Ken Liu’s “The Shape of Thought” has humans hundreds of years in the future stymied by the non-binary pronouns used for the aliens they live with: zie/zir are compared to a pebbles obstructing the smooth flow of language. I am rarely so swiftly Othered!


I would like to see stories about aliens and gender, but not where the aliens’ non-binary gender system(s) contrasts a false binary in the humans. Multiple gender systems and aliens/humans who stand outside their cultural norms would be a bonus! Gender isn’t binary; it also isn’t tidy.


5.  What draws you to science fiction and fantasy?


I’m drawn to fiction I enjoy in all genres, whether realist or non-realist. I tend to prefer the latter, though, because I like outer space and surreal cities and so on, which all occur more often in non-realist fiction. From a post-binary perspective, I like the potential of science fiction and fantasy to thoroughly deconstruct the binary — or scrap it entirely. I wish they’d actually do it more! Non-binary gender system(s) as a norm is still so rare.

History’s Hidden Heroes: “Wings of Their Own” and Female Aviators

Photo of Julie ClarkEvery month we take a look at “History’s Hidden Heroes” people (usually scientists, because that’s how I roll) who are women, people of color, LGBTQIA, or who otherwise don’t fit the common stereotype of what a scientist looks like.  I try to find people who, while they may be well-known in their field or in their country of origin, are not well-known among laypeople in the USA.

This month, we are shifting from the sciences a bit to talk about women in aviation.  I just got to see the documentary Wings of Their Own, and it is a fascinating and inspiring overview of women in  aviation.  The filmmakers interviewed (or otherwise discuss) 210 women, providing a fascinating overview of women in aviation from “Kitty Hawk to Cape Canaveral.

As a documentary, “Wings of Their Own” suffers from a lack of captions identifying women who are speaking (there are some but I could have used more), no option for subtitles, and generally low production values.  This is a low-budget labor of love, so the photography and music is poor (by film standards).  But the movie is absolutely electric when the women who are profiled are speaking – which is for most of the documentary.  Because so many women are talking, there’s no in-depth coverage.  This is the kind of documentary in which it’s casually mentioned that the Wright Brother’s had a sister who flew – and off I go to Google.  In case you’re wondering, Katherine Wright served as the brothers’ executive assistant/social manager/business manager and flew while touring Europe with her brothers.  She was the third woman to fly – the first two were Theresa Peltier and Edith Berg.  In addition to going up in a plane, she went up in a balloon.  But I digress.

Here’s just a few things the documentary mentioned that will have you googling for hours:

  • Bessie Coleman, the first female African-American pilot, had to learn French because in 1920 she could not get a pilot’s license in America
  • Jacqueline Cochrane, founder of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots group (WASP) had some special requirements for WASP members.  In order to promote the best possible public image, she looked for women who were pretty, athletic, and white.  No African-Americans were allowed in the group.
  • Mercury 13 refers to a group of women who passed their tests to qualify as astronauts in the Mercury spaceflight program in the early 1060s.  The testing was abruptly suspended and the women never flew.
  • When Julie Clark, one of the first female commercial airline pilots, was hassled by a male co-pilot, she finally told him, “Hey!  I’ve flown more hours inverted than you’ve flown upright!”

I mention Julie Clark because I used to see her fly at air shows and when she appeared on-screen I gave this little yelp of glee.  My dad used to take me to air shows and Julie Clark was my favorite performer because, year after year, she was the only woman.  I worshipped the ground that woman walked on when she wasn’t flying.  One of the things the documentary talks about is how many women were introduced to flying by supportive men – and how much women value the support and mentorship of other women.  The networking of women is placed front and center at the beginning of the documentary, which talks about women’s air races, some of which are flow by mother-daughter teams.

One of the traps of history is that of the token hero.  In science, if there’s a picture of great scientists, they will usually be male with the exception of Marie Curie.  Marie Curie was great, and we should all know about her, but she’s one of just thousands of women who have been scientists historically.  In aviation, we get Amelia Earnhardt – again, a great, but not the only woman out there.  The problem with this is not only the factual error but the physiological impact.  If all we see is one image of ourselves in a sea of others, than we think that to succeed in a given field we must be very special and very alone.

My favorite thing about Wings of her Own was that it shatters the myth that female pilots are few in umber (and always white).  The women are young (the youngest is nineteen) and old (some women are still flying well into their eighties!).  They are black and white and Indian and Asian and Latina.  They flew in every possible capacity – Coast Guard, commercial jet, stunt pilots, medevac, police helicopters, fighter planes – you name it.  Then there’s the women who fly purely for fun – kindergarten teachers, therapists, moms, anyone.  They light up when they talk about their first solo flights.  They encourage each other and the urge the viewer to “just try it!”  Even though I wish the film had gone more in-depth about some things, as an overview this was inspiring and exciting and fun, and it makes me want to go through the attic and see if I can still find my “Julie Clark” metallic sticker.

Friday Book Club: The Art of Racing in the Rain vs To Kill A Mockingbird

SWT-Book-ClubsThere are so many things to love about The Art of Racing in the Rain.  This book is wildly popular for a reason – it’s expert at eliciting emotional response.  I love the racing stuff.  I love the philosophy, though I find it somewhat simplistic (which, since it’s being understood by a dog, actually makes sense).  I love the dog, because you’d have to be completely devoid of heart not to love the dog.  There’s just one thing that sends me into such a rage that I practically froth at the mouth and it’s this:

WTF is going on with the subplot about statutory rape?  Why am I the only person on the entire Internet who finds this entire subplot to be contrived, stereotypical in the worst way, offensive, and wildly improbable?  For the initiated, the subplot goes like this:

Denny, our hero, is falsely accused of statutory rape by his in-law’s teenage relative.  Enzo, the dog, is the only witness and Enzo knows that really that brazen hussy threw herself at Denny, who nobly turned her down and drove her home.  The in-laws want custody of Denny’s daughter and conveniently the teenager presses charges for statutory rape.  During the entire ensuing legal battle the in-laws have the kid.

There are all kinds of problems with this storyline, the biggest of which is that it takes a very real problem and makes it into the old “Teenage hussy” cliché.  That cliché was tired and ugly when it was used in To Kill a Mockingbird and it’s even older and uglier here.  Let’s compare how To Kill a Mockingbird made it work while Art of Racing does not.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Mayella, the young woman who accuses Tom Robinson of rape, is an ugly character, but she is at least a character.  She has some background and some personality and a motive.  Her accusation has consequences that affect her adversely – it’s understood that this is serious business, even if she didn’t understand what she was getting into at first.  It’s explained why, even though she knows these consequences will befall her (not to mention Tom, of course, the victim of her accusation), it’s still worth it to her to make the accusation.  She’s a horrible, horrible person – but she’s a person, one Atticus even has some sympathy for even as he utterly destroys her on the witness stand.

Everything in To Kill a Mockingbird is told from the point of view of the child named Scout, who has an advantage over Enzo in that she can get into the courtroom.  Still, most of what Scout knows about Mayella doesn’t come from the courtroom – it comes from adults explaining things to her or talking in her presence.  Enzo, the narrator of Art of Racing, can’t get into the courtroom, nor is he present when the in-laws talk to Annika.  But he is around the in-laws after the case begins, and of course he’s around Denny often.  So there’s no mechanistic reason why Enzo couldn’t know more about Annika – for instance, the in-laws could discuss how they made her testify, or Denny could speculate about her personality and motives.  Enzo is also around Annika quite a bit before the evening on which Annika attempts to seduce Denny occurs, so Annika could have talked to Enzo then and given the reader a better sense of who she is, even if the topic had nothing to do with Denny.

But alas, Annika has no personality at all except that of a completely one-dimensional seductress.  It’s implied that the in-laws somehow convince her into making the accusation, but we never see how.  And while I’m willing to believe that sometimes people make false accusations, the idea that this is an easy and painless thing to pull off is a lie.  Annike can look forward to being backed up by her family, because they are making her do this in the first place, but in real life often the victim’s family doesn’t believe them or blames them.  Some of Annika’s friends might support her, some might envy her, but many people at school will vilify her as a whore.  She can expect to have her life scrutinized in court right down to the exact length of her skirts and the number of buttons on her shirt.  She’s not in for an easy time.

The author, Garth Stein, has taken a real problem and treated it irresponsibly, and that has two consequences:

1.  It’s a harmful  thing to do to the hundreds of victims who struggle to be believed but are told they must have really wanted it, and probably deserved it, and are probably lying anyway.

2. It’s sloppy writing.  My personal gender politics aside, having a one-dimensional character in a book diminishes the book.  One reason that To Kill a Mockingbird is such a classic that it refuses to take that path.  Not all the characters are nice people, or even remotely decent people, but they are characters.  We might loathe Mayella with every fiber of our beings, but we have some sense of why she is who she is, and some sense of her as a human being.  Annika, in The Art of racing in the Rain, is a caricature.

If you are interested in some stories that deal more realistically with sexual assault, here’s a short list, feel free to add to it in the comments:

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

She’s Come Undone: by Thomas Lamb

Jailbait:  The Politics of of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States, by Carolyn E. Cocca

Yes Means Yes:  Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valent1

White Oleander, by Janet Fitch



Wednesday Videos want to binge-watch Orphan Black

WednesdayVideoI finally started watching Orphan Black and it turns out that it really is as good as everyone kept telling me it was.  If you haven’t checked it out yet, for crying out loud, watch it!  It’s online at and the first season is out on DVD.  In honor of the series that seems to be my new drug of choice, I present you with the following:

I gotta run – I have more Orphan Black to watch!


An interview with Gabriel Cuellar, Contributor to “Invisible”

Invisible-FullThis summer I’ve been posting a series of interviews from people who contributed essays to the anthology Invisible.  This anthology, edited by Jim C. Hines, explores the importance of diverse representation in genre fiction.  In the essay, “‘Crazy’ about Fiction”.  We asked Gabriel why she thinks it’s so common in fiction for female characters to be ‘driven crazy’ by rape or loss of a child, and what the representation of mental illness in fiction means for people who struggle with mental illness in reality.

On common tropes about the causes of mental illness in characters:


As a culture, we tend to want women to represent as mothers and sexual objects. I believe that’s why the two most common tropes to “drive women crazy” are those rape and the loss of a child. We don’t like to see women as soldiers, so PTSD from wartime tends not to be the event that breaks a woman down. There’s been a plethora of “strong female characters” in the media as a specific reaction against those roles, but sadly those characters tend to be so completely masculinized that they seem to just be there as a flag to wave about how someone can be BETTER in the media. Personally, I feel that most of Joss Whedon’s “strong” female characters fall into this trope, over-sexualized, always needing a male romantic partner, easily backed into an emotional corner and often killed to advance the story. Bleh.


Note I am speaking in generalizations when I say that “most” of the characters in the media fall into this dichotomy. Lots of characters who are strong and not neutered exist. Karrin Murphy from the Dresden Files is a GREAT example of a strong female character who is not masculinized to the point of being neutered – she’s described as “cute” but tough as hell, takes no shit from anyone, has a sexual/romantic life that is pretty much not with the protagonist, is emotional without being seen as weak, and definitely has agency of her own.


The other problem with the rape/child loss madness scenario is that male characters usually don’t suffer from these. It’s a shame, because men do get raped, and men do lose their children, but when that happens to them, they’re pretty much culturally pressured to keep it secret and get over it. We want as a culture to see men suffer PTSD from war and watching their buddies get killed, or not at all.


And that rounds out PTSD being the primary role of mental illness in media. People “go crazy” because an event in their lives. If they don’t get over it, they become a recluse like Mrs. Haversham or a mother who steals or kills children, or a mass murderer who thinks he’s still in Nam. When they stop being crazy, it’s usually because they “faced their fear” and stopped being afraid. This is so immensely frustrating to those of us who suffer from mental illnesses, including PTSD, because of course there’s no magic moment where you just find your rapist, spit on him, and magically your life is better. There are actual, physical changes in the brains of people with PTSD. Like bipolar or depression or OCD, it is a legitimate medical condition.


On why these tropes are harmful to real people:


I think a lot of the time, women who are suffering from mental illness, especially if it is from an external event like the death of a child or a miscarriage, have no portrayals which address their real feelings and struggle. Miscarriage is a secondary form of the death of a child, but one where only the woman is expected to show any grief, and which a lot of other characters will side-eye because after all, there was no child. These events are deeply traumatic, and the media shows us that women can either wallow in this until they become an insane recluse carrying around a doll and snatching other peoples’ babies, become grossly over-involved mothers who never let a child out of their sight because of the loss of an older child, blame one child for the death of the other… they’re expected to become terrible mothers because they lost a baby. It’s grotesque, because it both implies they were bad mothers for letting it happen, and warns them to get over it (at least externally where others can see) as quickly as possible so they don’t become the destroyers of other children.


Rape victims are usually portrayed curled into a ball in the corner, afraid to let any man touch them, jerky and alarmed at everything around them, barely able to function.  If they do get over it, it’s all at once. You never see the stages of recovery that most survivors have to go through. They go from completely traumatized to fine, usually because some male character (usually an outraged romantic partner) kills or in some other way dismisses the rapist from her life. Sometimes the woman has to kill the rapist herself – or even worse, confront him and torture him, then tell him it’s “not worth it” to kill him and walk away.


This is a terrible trope for women to internalize. It implies that it’s a good idea to see their rapist again, in a situation where violence is a given, or to simply tell a man about it and let him deal with it. But this trope tells a woman that the rapist must be dealt with in order for her to make her magical recovery. And that as soon as he is dealt with, she will be fine. In a country where police are more likely to interrogate the victim than the rapist, and convictions are infrequent compared to reports, making the rapist part of the recovery process is a terrible idea most of the time. At least one male character (a romantic lead who can save her or love the trauma out of her or the rapist himself) is required for her recovery. That is some deeply harmful stuff to absorb. Everyone’s process is different, and again we see our media telling women how to quickly get over it – and how they are weak and crazy if they don’t.


And now I’ve spent all this time on what bugs me the most – the trope that trauma “causes” mental illness. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve been with in various recovery groups who will say “I don’t know why I feel this way, it isn’t as if I’ve been (fill in the blank.)” Sexual abuse and rape are a huge issue in this country, but most mental illness isn’t caused by an external event. An external event can trigger it, or just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but people with medical depression, bipolar, OCD and many other illnesses are simply ill. Like having diabetes or a heart condition, these illnesses can be controlled with medication, and can’t be cured completely. We stigmatize mental illness to such a degree that if nothing traumatic happened to you, and if you have to be on medication for your lifetime, you’re simply weak. You can look forward to murderous rampages and living in a house with cardboard taped over the windows, collecting cats!


On what a positive or realistic portrayal of mental illness would look like:


I can’t really think of any positive portrayals of mental illness, sadly. Monk is played for laughs a lot of the time. As Good As It Gets was also played for laughs, and the guy is a giant jackass apparently because of his condition (because he becomes nicer over the course of the movie when he starts taking his meds.) You don’t have to be a jerk just because you’re ill.  In one of Orson Scott Card’s books, mental illness is actually inflicted on a whole population of a planet to keep them under control, and the ones who don’t “get over it” by the end are portrayed as too weak to understand that what has happened to them isn’t “the voice of god,” even when proof is shown to them. Even if there’s a good portrayal of how the illness works, it’s hardly ever treated respectfully.


I would really love to see a character just take their meds in the morning and get on with their life as a productive member of society, without having to “get over it” or make it disappear as part of a plot. The problem is that mental illness is seen as part of a plotline. Character don’t just have it, interfering with their lives but not paralyzing them. Usually when mental illness is brought into a story, it’s either as a plot device (character is raped and has to get over it, mentally ill character shows up to menace the protagonists, crazy mother, etc) for either one of the protagonists or as a temporary set piece character who is there as an object lesson and then rolled offstage.


What do you wish people understood about mental illness?


I wish people understood – and wrote for – the fact that mental illness is like any other illness. It needs treatment, and that treatment doesn’t need to be stigmatized. People who’ve undergone trauma aren’t weak if they can’t get over it right away. People with schizophrenia aren’t dangerous maniacs whose dog tells them to kill people. People with bipolar don’t have to ruin their children’s lives. People with OCD don’t have to become hoarders or wash their hands every five seconds. There are firemen and police officers who may have mental illness that isn’t caused by having to shoot someone or failing to save someone. Rape survivors can go on to have functional lives without shooting their rapist and without a magical man to save her with his love.


We may stigmatize the causes of other illness (“you have heart disease because you’re obese, why don’t you take care of yourself!”) but we don’t stigmatize the heart disease itself. We might tell that person to exercise more and eat less, but we don’t tell him that he’s weak for taking the meds that allow him to live and function, and we’re generally not afraid that the heart condition will turn him into a murderer. I wish we could see more of that regarding mental illness in fiction… but I suppose someone who is sick and high-functioning ends up needing to be some sort of inspirational exemplar if they’re going to appear at all.


 You can find Gabriel’s essay in “Invisibe” and find her blogging about breeding domestic rats at!


An Evening With Diana Gabaldon

Photo of Diana GabaldonLast weekend I was thrilled to get to attend An Evening With Diana Gabaldon, hosted by the Sacramento Public Library.  Over 700 people attended to hear Diana’s on stage interview with librarian Stephenee Borelli, who had put together a whole series of events around Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  If you ever have a chance to hear Diana speak in person, don’t miss it – she’s funny, engaging, and entertaining.  She’s also very polished and poised when it comes to promoting her work.  She can name-drop an award or slip in mention of how many books she’s sold in a casual way while also talking about the appeal of kilts.

I didn’t record the interview (for one thing, I think it might have been illegal, or at the very least, tacky) but I did take copies noted in my immaculate handwriting:

my notes

Here’s a few highlights from the evening:

  • The Outlander Series which is about to air on Starz may or not be good – but it sure looks great.  We got to see a very short preview and I was impressed with the Scottish scenery (it’s shot on location) and the casting of the two leads.  Fingers crossed, people!
  • A quote from Diana: “I was not a tactful child”.
  • Diana said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the happiest day of her life was when her mom sent her to the library with a note for the head librarian that read “Let her read anything she wants”.
  • “I knew I was always meant to be a novelist, and when I was 35 I said to myself, “Mozart was dead at 36.  I better get cracking”.
  • Diana does her best writing between midnight at 4:30AM.
  • Her husband is the only person who sees what she’s working on while she’s working on it.  The funniest criticism she got was a note in the margins that read, “Nipples again?”.
  • One of the great joys of the series is seeing Claire and Jaime maintain a physically and emotionally romantic relationship into middle age.  Diana said that people said of Voyager, No one wants to read about people in their 40’s having sex” and she said, “Wanna bet?”
  • Each book has a different structure – for instance, the structure of Outlander is three overlapping triangles, showing a linear narrative with three climaxes.  Dragonfly is shaped like a dumbbell, with a framing device, two major conflicts, and a calm stay at Lallybroch in the middle.  Voyager is like a braid.
  • The books aren’t planned out ahead of time.  There will be at least one more book in the series, possibly more.  “I discover them every day.  If I knew what was going to happen it wouldn’t be fun”.
  • There will be a small book, release date unknown, titled, What Frank Knew.

poster for Starz Outlander series

Diana is a voracious reader and won’t list her favorite authors in general, but she does credit five authors for helping her learn the craft of writing:

  • Charles Dickens – for how to portray character
  • Robert Louis Stevenson – for how to spin a good yarn
  • Dorothy Lee sayers – for incorporating dialogue, dialect, and social class into a watertight plot
  • John D. MacDonald – for how to sustain a series
  • P.G. Wodehouse – for how to juggle language


The latest book in the series, Written in my Own Heart’s Blood, was released on June 10.   I am currently number 156 in line to check this book out from the library.  Can I wait that long?  I doubt it!  Thank you to Sacramento Public Library for hosting such a great event and to Diana Gabaldon for being so gracious and entertaining!

Friday Book Club: “The Revenant”, by Billy Collins, and The Art of Racing

SWT-Book-ClubsGarth Stein credits several things for giving him the idea to write “The Art of Racing in the Rain”.  Here’s how he describes the process (from his website,

Q: Where did the idea for the book come from?

The first seed for this book was planted in my mind about ten years ago. I was no longer working in documentary films, but a friend asked me to consult on the U.S. distribution of a film he knew about from Mongolia, called “State of Dogs.” I took a look at the film and the press material they had on it. I didn’t end up getting involved with the film, but the idea really stuck with me. In Mongolia, there is a belief that the next incarnation for a dog is as a man. I thought this was a cool concept and I tucked it away thinking I might some day do something with it.

Then, in 2004, I saw Billy Collins speak at Seattle Arts and Lectures. He’s a great poet and a terrific reader. He read a poem, The Revenant, which is told from the point of view of a recently euthanized dog as he addresses his former master from heaven. The poem begins, “I am the dog you put to sleep…come back to tell you one simple thing: I never liked you–not one bit.” I loved this poem. When Billy Collins finished reading, I knew I had to write a story from the point of view of a dog. And my dog would know the truth: that in his next incarnation, he would return to earth as a man.

So I had the character and the goal, but I still needed the framework of a story. A close friend of mine, who is a semi-professional race car driver but who supplements his racing by working behind the counter at an upscale automotive repair shop, was going through some personal difficulties. His plight wasn’t Denny’s, but it gave me some ideas about what happens to families when one member suddenly passes away. I developed a story that would really put my main character, Denny, through his paces, and then it was all there for me.

Q: What inspired you to tell the story from a dog’s point of view?

Using a dog as a narrator has limitations and it has advantages. The limitations are that a dog cannot speak. A dog has no thumbs. A dog can’t communicate his thoughts except with gestures. Dogs are not allowed certain places. The advantages are that a dog has special access: people will say things in front of dogs because it is assumed that a dog doesn’t understand. Dogs are allowed to witness certain things because they aren’t people and have no judgment.

I was able to work with this idea a lot in terms of giving the reader a unique viewpoint into the action of the book. Enzo goes off with Zoë, and while Denny, her father, doesn’t know what happens, we see through Enzo’s eyes and so we do know. In that sense, it was a lot of fun playing with this “fly on the wall” point of view. Especially since the “fly” in our case, is Enzo, who has very keen powers of observation.

This link takes you to a TED talk of poet Billy Collins reading two of his poems about dogs:  “The Dog on his Master” and “The Revenant”.  You can follow the link (who also leads to print versions of the poems) or watch the reading below.  Enjoy!

If you are in the Sacramento, California Area, don’t forget to visit our in-person book club on Sunday, June 22, 2014 at 2PM at the Arden Dimick Library.  In the meantime, comments are welcome below!  What did you think of The Art of Racing in the Rain?

Wednesday Videos: Two versions of “When I’m Gone”

WednesdayVideoI know, I know…we all got sick of this song, which is from Pitch Perfect, in 2012.  But I just came across this video and had a huge wave of memory for those summers at camp when I learned the cup game, and the summer where I had that super crappy dishwasher job, and the times I actually did just walk off into adventure (admittedly, one of these adventures led directly to being a dishwasher – long story).  So whether you are hanging out at camp, or sweating out a crappy job for minimum wage, or hitting the road, this is for you!

Can’t run that video without including this gorgeous Gaelic version.  The language is beautiful, the song is charming, and all those cooperating kids makes me all teary.

An Interview with Ithiliana, contributor to “Invisible”.

Invisible-FullWe are spending some of this summer hearing from authors who contributed essays to the anthology Invisible, edited by Jim C. Hines.  These authors speak out about representation in science fiction and fantasy, and how the lack of representation or the nature of that representation affects them as readers and/or creators.  Today we have an email interview with Ithiliana , whose essay “Shards of Memory”  addresses how finding characters in science fiction who lived and loved beyond the binary helped her as she developed her own identity.   As always, my questions are in bold text and responses are in regular print.

 I love your fan name, Ithiliana.  Can you tell us how you found or created this name, and what it means to you?

Thank you! I love it too. When I came back into fandom in 2003, in online Lord of the Rings fandom, I needed a pseudonym. My favorite setting in the Lord of the Rings is Ithilien, so all I did was tweak the ending a bit, and there it was. It was an immediate inspiration once I asked myself, what word or term in Tolkien’s work do I want to have as my fan identity. I sometimes joke that my love for Tolkien’s work resulted in me becoming a nature poet, rather than a medievalist, and Ithilien is a big part of the cause. The description of Ithilien is one of the most evocative and detailed of settings in the book (Tolkien said in one of his letters that he was not very good at describing characters, being much more interested in the specifics of the landscape). The pseud felt so “right” that to celebrate my 50th birthday, and becoming full professor, I got a tattoo of it in the Beleriand dialect of Sindarin Elvish (a fellow fan helped me out when I could not learn enough to transliterate it myself—she was a member of LEAF (Learning Elvish Among Friends).  My primary fandom is Tolkien’s (and Jackson’s!), so having that connection with the world is important to me.

Ithiliana tattoo

In your essay, you talk about how important Joanna Russ’s work was for you.  Were there other authors that helped you form a positive sense of yourself and your sexuality?  Can you talk a little bit about some of them, and how they affected you?

Joanna Russ’ work was the first and the most important, but, yes, there were other authors. (I am terrible at the “list X favorite” authors because there are so many that I can never limit myself!).

Melissa Scott’s science fiction is incredibly important to me—I cannot remember what year I found her work first (I have a lousy memory for dates), but I remember the first work I found: the Silence Leigh trilogy, set in a future where space travel is done by astrological technology. The protagonist, Silence, marries two men, who are partners, and although there’s little explicit sex, it seemed fairly clear to me that the men were lovers before they met Silence. (Scott has issued a revision of the trilogy with more development of the characters which I have on my Kindle but haven’t had time to read yet!). Scott’s sf futures are so different from the shiny-nice ones that are popular in a lot of media (the squeaky clean image of the Federation): her characters are always from a marginalized group or underclass, either because of class, gender, ethnicity or sexuality (or sometimes all of them), and she has gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans* characters as the norm, not as exceptional stand-outs or sidekicks. I cannot recommend Scott too highly (I teach her novels in my classes when I can—too many are out of print, and it’s a shame).

I went head over heels for Diane Duane’s adult fantasy (found years after I’d become a major fan of her Young Wizards series): The Middle Kingdoms (Tale of the Five). The first one (The Door Into Fire) was published in 1979, and the next one did not appear until 1984 (and then the next in 1992). This alternate world fantasy is one in which bisexuality is the norm—plus fire elementals and dragons and group marriages and incredible stuff. I went around dazed and mumbling about bisexual erotics (I defined myself as a bisexual for much of the 80s and into the 90s, and while I now identify as queer, bisexual erotics are awesome and far too seldom found).

Vonda McIntyre’s novels—but especially the Starfarers Quartet—first contact, academics! (not enough academics in sff—which is why I love Barbara Hambly’s fantasy novels though the relationships are primarily heterosexual, but wizardry is pretty much presented as getting a doctorate plus training in martial arts), poly relationships, pacifism—the whole series basically queers most of the sf spaceship/aliens narrative conventions. *Highly* recommended.

There are other authors who write fantastic LGBT characters that I read and admire, whose work does major deconstruction of patriarchal ideologies of gender and sexuality, but these three authors’ works are the ones who characters I most connect with on that deep emotional level. (Some others: Nicola Griffith, Samuel R. Delany, Jewelle Gomez, Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson).

You point out that there is more representation of queerness in literature than in TV/Film.  Are there any TV/Film representations that you admire?  Why do you think that is?  If you had total control over the screenplay, casting, and directing of any book, which would you film, and why?  And who would you cast?

I had to Google to find lists of queer characters in TV and film—because while I’d heard of some over the years (Willow, in Buffy; Ivanova in Babylon 5 being the most notable), I could not recall any from my favorite series/films, but I do not *like* a lot of tv/film sff so there’s a lot I don’t watch. I do not enjoy series or films set in high school, so that meant Buffy didn’t make it, though I tried a couple of times, after hearing great presentations on it. And reading over the list that came up ( made it pretty clear why—they tend to be men (and mostly white), and (mostly) young (and I think claiming Dumbledore is cheating given that it was announced by Rowling well after the fact). I did enjoy Xena which I began watching fairly late into the series (luckily it was being re-run), but the simply dreadful final season or two (after the infamous “Gab drag”) turned me right off, and I didn’t enjoy the way in which the show (as is the case with a number of the other examples) refused to move much beyond sub-text into text.

Now, as a fan of slash fiction, I’m all about the sub-text, but I’m tired at this late a date of the fact that mainstream media still cannot have queer characters as protagonists, cannot move beyond incredibly limited portrayals of GLBT characters (and the older I get, the less interested I am in the shows about people in their 20s-30s—I was cheering Agents of SHIELD from the start because Coulson! and May! (not Skye and Ward)!

And the reasons—well, they’re all the reasons that Jim highlighted with the project—mainstream media marginalizes and erases almost all people who don’t fit into a very narrow and normative category.

I don’t tend to think to think in film terms, so I cannot imagine trying to cast and direct a film – nor, most of the time, do I think of casting my favorite characters from books.

Could you talk a little bit about how online fandom has supported you?  Do you feel that participating in online fandom has changed your sense of who you are?

Lucking back into fandom in 2003 (ironically, because of meeting and becoming friends with two women at an academic conference) was an incredible event. For some years, I’d been trying to run an sf book club at my university in rural Texas, but it was impossible to get more than a few people to attend (mostly men), and we shared no interests in common. Finding the LiveJournal Lord of the Rings fandom was like stumbling into the most fantastic 24/7 book club ever, where people were writing lengthy screeds about the films, about books, about their lives. I jumped right in and made friends (including a number whom I’ve met offline as well), found people who were interested in all the same things I was. There was the incredible high of getting comments on my fic, sharing cat stories and pictures, talking about going through menopause, talking about sexuality, and a million other things—it’s impossible to list all the fantastic things that happened during that time. I found a whole new sense of energy and optimism, new things to write about (both creatively and in my academic scholarship), and the sense that I was not this weird person who never fit in anywhere.

Fandom is not utopia—but I can say that meeting and engaging with the women I did during the first five years or so changed my life in all sorts of positive ways, giving me a community that simply does not exist in the offline spaces in which I live and work. And I don’t think I am alone in that feeling.

It would also be great if you could give us a little intro to what slash fiction is, and recommend a couple of sites that you feel have good quality stories.

Slash fiction—that could become a book all on its own! The simplest definition is that slash is a type of fan fiction (though there is slash art, and slash vidding) that focuses primarily on a romantic and/or sexual relationship between two characters of the same sex from the original source. The earliest slash stories were about male characters (with Trek fandom being considered the first slash fandom, Kirk and Spock being the first major pairing). Then it becomes very complicated (because of all the types of fan creations that exist, because the term might mean different things in different fandoms, because people tend to assume that the works are uniformly sexually graphic in a way that ignores that vast amount of G and PG rated romance fics, that there is a growing body of stories about female characters, and that slash is not limited to only fic about human beings—there is Transformer slash!, because a whole slew of people were shocked, shocked! to find women writing about male fictional characters in a sexy way and wanted to talk psychology rather than literature, and there are probably even more reasons than I can think of here).

The question of recommend sites with good quality stories is one of those complications: a lot of people assume that fan fiction in general, because it’s written by amateur not professional authors (though there are professional authors who wrote slash, and some who still do) is badly written. And it’s true: there’s a lot of badly written fan fiction and slash out there. (But there’s a lot of really badly written sex by professional authors as well as the Bad Sex Award shows!:

There is a lot of excellent writing as well, but the aesthetics are not (often or always) the main reason for reading slash: that is, I read only some slash fics in Lord of the Rings fandom (no matter how well they’re written, I’m not interested in fics with Elves as main characters, for example), and pretty much only read in that fandom (though I read and write both Fictional People Slash and Real People Slash—the second being slash fiction about the actors playing the characters). So “good fanfic” is (for me as a reader) much more than the quality of writing (and there are some fics that I can say, objectively, are not very well written that I find incredibly powerful stories because of the content). I have some of my fics archived at Archive of Our Own (, and I can recommend that site because it’s large/growing, with lots of fandoms represented on it, and run by fans (as opposed to the monetizing efforts by

I have tried reading some fics in other fandoms that are recommended by friends whose tastes, at least in part, I share, and have found them well written, but not doing what I want in a slash story which is tied deeply to certain kinks and desires, desires I did not have the language to name, or the awareness of having, until I found slash.

A good basic definition:




While there tends to be a lot of snickering and dismissive commentary about slash as a genre, and about the queerness of the (mostly) female fandom (but not entirely straight!), some of the news from China recently of women being arrested for writing slash has shown the extent to which, for some, this sort of activity by women is seen as dangerously deviant and needing to be controlled.


Book Review: Heaven’s Queen, by Rachel Bach

cover of Heaven's QueenHeaven’s Queen is the final book in the Paradox Trilogy by Rachel Bach.  I reviewed the first book, Fortune’s Pawn, in October 2013.  I loved the first book for, among other things, the competent, intelligent female heroine, Devi.  The first book consisted largely of the author ducking sexist trope after sexist trope – and to give her publisher credit, this started with the cover image (which you can see below).  The covers show a woman in what appears to be a space suit but is actually a reasonable portrayal of Devi’s mecha-like armor.  Devi has a beautiful face but there is nary a bare midriff or sassily cocked hip to be seen.  It’s wonderful.

The rest of Fortune’s Pawn follows the tone set by the covers.  Devi is business-like and very good at what she does (she’s a mercenary trying to work her way up in the world).  She is open to the idea of romance but it does not consume her every thought.  And much attention in the series is paid to her armor and how she uses it. The second book, Honor’s Knight, was fine, but it suffered the fate of many middle books,  It clearly serves to steer the story towards the third book.  It also insisted of action sequence after action sequence.  If futuristic action sequences are your thing, believe me , you’ll love that book.  If not, then, like me, you’ll enjoy it but mostly as a way to pass the time until we get to book three.

Which brings us to:  Heaven’s Queen!  In this final book, Devi has to sort out just tons of crap.  There are multiple homicidal aliens from parallel universes.  There are crazy homicidal little girls who can kill you with their brains.  There are crazy homicidal military guys.  Her boyfriend is perfectly sane except for rare occasion during which he tries to kill her.  Her ex shows up out of nowhere, claims he loves her, and sics the military on her.  Other than one night of great sex, her life  totally sucks and it seems inevitable that it won’t suck for much longer because she’s going to die.

Heaven’s Queen doesn’t succeed as well at avoiding sexists tropes as the first two books did, mostly because of the romance with Rupert.  Even when she’s wearing her armor, Devi is a lesser warrior than Rupert, a fact which is mentioned many times.  And he’s possessive and protective of her in a way that I found deeply irritating.  Meanwhile, the appearance of the ex comes completely out of left-field and seems to serve no function except to reinforce the idea that Devi is sexually and romantically compelling.

However, the book does most things right.  Time and time again, Devi finds some way out of certain doom.  She has common sense and she has physical needs – when she finally finds a safe place for a while, she sleeps for eighteen straight hours and then she has to pee.  Every time she is near a power source, she charges her armor and runs it through a cleaning and repair cycle – whether there will be time to finish the job or not.  She speaks directly and she works very hard to get direct answers in return.  And the day is saved by her, not Rupert, although he’s certainly a big help.

The book is madcap, gung-ho space adventure with real heart.  All the villains have motives and many of them have perfectly good arguments for why they should get their way.  This adds a lot of depth to the story, not to mention some great plot twists.  I recommend this series for anyone who likes space opera, futuristic action and adventure, and fantastic, complex heroines.

covers of Fortune's Pawn, honor's Knight, and Heaven's Queen

Friday Book Club: The Art of Racing in the Rain

SWT-Book-ClubsWelcome to June’s Book Club!  This club meets here every Friday and in person at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento, California on June 22, 2014.  We meet at 2PM in the Community Room and we welcome comments here as well as in person on June 22!

This month’s selection is The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.  The book is told from a dog’s point of view.  Enzo (the dog) is an old dog who looks forward to reincarnating as a man after his death.  Meanwhile Enzo supports his beloved owner, Denny, through a death in the family and a horrible custody battle for Denny’s daughter.  Denny is a race car driver, and Enzo formulates a philosophy of life from hearing Denny talk about the art of driving.

Garth Stein has an extensive website which include a bio, facts, and merchandise, among other things.  There’s even a music video of “Enzo’s Song”, by Martin Odstrcil:

This book has hit a nerve in audiences and it inspires passionate engagement.  A look at fan comments tells us that this book speaks to people in very personal ways.  I may be the only person on earth who didn’t like it – and even my reaction was one of raw emotional response instead of intellectual detachment, so clearly it did affect me powerfully (more on my problems with the book in later weeks).  If you’ve read it, did you like it?  Did you feel a sense of emotional connection to the story?  What does this book mean to you?

Fandom and Fiction as Activism

fictionfansI wrote a piece for Smart Bitches, Trashy entitled “Community, Hope, and Liberation:  Fandom and Fiction as Activism”.  This essay talks about my experience at Baycon, my love for fiction and fandom, and the #yesallwomen movement.  I hope you will hop over to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and take a look!  Here is a link:

Community, Hope, and Liberation:  Fandom and Fiction as Activism

From the essay:

I’m home now, but I’m still spending a lot of time on social media reading the stories of women, and realizing that these stories represent only a small fraction of what women experience around the world.  Sometimes I wonder if it would be better for me to spend less time talking about fiction and more time doing activism.

But what I realized this weekend is that even the least consciously politically charged fiction is a form of activism.  It shows us ourselves as we are and it lets us dream of what we might become.  Sometimes those dreams are cautionary nightmares and sometimes they represent our deepest hopes.

It took me me a while to see how BayCon, Smart Bitches, and other places, real and virtual, where we share our passions and our stories, intersect with #yesallwomen.  They are, in essence, the same thing – flawed, messy spaces in which people struggle to find community, hope, and liberation.  They are places in which we gather for support.  They are places in which we gather to have our stories heard, and they are places where we struggle to understand our history and create a vision of the future.

I hope you’ll enjoy the full essay!