Guest Post: Speculative Fiction from an Aboriginal Point of View, by Ambelin Kwaymullina

cover of Invisible 2

Ambelin Kwaymullina’s essay for Invisible 2 (edited by Jim C. Hines), “Colonialism, Land, and Speculative Fiction: An Indigenous Perspective,”, challenges a common science fiction theme of colonization and first contact. She was kind enough to elaborate here on looking at common science fiction themes from an indigenous perspective. You can read my review of Invisible 2 here.

I am a writer of speculative fiction. That means it is my job to look to the future. I am also an Aboriginal Australian, and that means I am all too aware of the nightmares the future could contain. My people, along with other Indigenous and colonized peoples of the globe, have lived through the great injustices and terrible violence of the colonial project. So when I hear tales of human spacefarers seeking new frontiers, my inclination is to cry out a warning to any alien peoples to run while they can. But I know, too, that there is greatness in humanity. Except I think realising that greatness requires a breadth of vision that in turn requires hearing the stories of the many diverse people of this earth.

The many barriers to diverse writers have been the subject of extensive comment in the US as part of the We Need Diverse Books campaign. I have written of some of the issues in an Australian context, and in relation to literature, I want a future that is different to the past. I particularly want an end to the misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples and the taking of Indigenous stories, and I know I am not alone in this. It is why there are many protocols and guidelines in Australia, including in relation to ethical publishing of Indigenous stories and producing Indigenous Australian writing. So I am hopeful that we are moving towards a future where all those who seek to write of other cultures and other peoples will be aware of when those stories are not theirs to tell. And I look forward to equitable collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers – for when such collaborations are based in fairness and respect, I believe there is no end to the futures we can generate together.

Ambelin photo

Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Australian Aboriginal writer and illustrator who comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. She is the author of the YA dystopian trilogy, The Tribe: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, The Disappearance of Ember Crow, and The Foretelling of Georgie Spider. When not writing Ambelin works at university teaching law.

Math as SuperPower: An Interview with SL Huang

cover of Invisible 2This post is part of a series of interviews and guest posts from contributors to Invisible 2, edited by Jim C. Hines. You can find our review here. In this post,SL Huang talks about math as superpower, and the advantages to the writer of including diverse characters in a story.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Russell’s Attic series?

It’s about an antihero protagonist whose superpower is mathematics — being able to do math really, really fast.  Which basically lets her do almost anything.

But I’ve been reliably informed by my readers that the books aren’t really about math.  They’re action/adventure stories about friendship and found family and sticky moral situations and trying to make the right decisions while not really being sure of anything.  They’re about nerdiness and snark and superpowers, and gun fights and car chases and close escapes.

More than anything, I hope they’re about being entertaining!

In other words, you don’t need any math knowledge to read the books.  But if you like the idea of a heroine who thinks she’s in a Hausdorff space while drugged up on painkillers, this might be the series for you.

I love the idea of math as a superpower? How did you choose that superpower, and how does Cas use it?

I’ve had this idea of math as a superpower ever since I was a kid, because . . . I always wished I had it!  I’d be doing something like learning softball and think, “But I can calculate exactly where the ball will be!  WHY CAN’T I HIT IT???”

I gradually realized that math would be the best superpower ever, because what couldn’t you do with it?  I’ve actually had to put some limits on Cas’s powers (for instance, the fact that she doesn’t have a perfect memory means she can’t use her math ability to analyze past events) to avoid her becoming TOO powerful.  But she can calculate anything in the moment, which makes her an incredible sharpshooter and fighter, as well as giving her subtler skills like the abilities to become effectively invisible or listen in on conversations just by doing the right calculations.  Economics, computer science, and physics are all her playground, and she can do everything from detecting AI to piloting a helicopter.

She’d make a fortune on Wall Street if she were ever interested, but she’s kind of allergic to a nine-to-five job . . . or, you know, joining society.

In your essay for Invisible 2, you talk about no longer being afraid to write characters who represent a variety of demographics (non-white, female, non-binary, disabled, non-neurotypical, non-Western). Can you tell us about a few of your characters? Did you find that having a diverse cast of characters enriched your story?

Oh, I have definitely found a diverse cast enriching.  The characters’ backgrounds inform how they interact with the world, so greater diversity means they push or pull the plot in a greater number of different directions.  If all my characters were the same, they’d give me a pretty homogeneous set of possibilities.  But the more differences they have, the more plot and character arc opportunities I have, and that includes not just differences of personality and opinion, but differences in background, gender, sexual orientation, race, and more.

That all sounds terribly selfish, doesn’t it?  Richer writing opportunities is certainly not the main reason I write diversely!  But I kinda DO wish it were talked about more.  Including diverse characters is instead always referred to as this onus, this thing that we should do but is hard work — so much research and (horrors!) THOUGHT that needs to be involved, etc., etc..  People never talk about how there are so many ways having diverse characters is beneficial to the writer.  If we’re going to be self-centered about things, I’ve come to realize it’s a natural conclusion to write diverse characters.

Most of the ways my characters’ differences end up pushing the plot are subtle ones.  For instance, in Book 3 (out this fall!), which features two new nonwhite, female mathematicians, one of them has her assumed anonymity turn on the use of a pronoun.  In book 2, an African-American character points out my protagonist can pass using another woman’s ID because they’re both nonwhite.  The non-USA-ian background of my protagonist will become a clue to her past in book 4.  In both books 1 and 2, giving a character with a physical disability the proper accessibility created way more plot and character possibilities than it limited.  And on and on — character backgrounds, relationships, reactions, and conflicts are all enriched by the characters’ diversity.

I don’t plan these things.  I make my characters first, and let them drive the plot.  But the more diverse they are — either by being different from the hegemonic majority in their world, or just different from each other in all sorts of ways — the more it opens all sorts of avenues I otherwise wouldn’t have.

Why should we care about representation in fiction?

1) Allowing for the possibility of diversity improves storytelling.  I recently saw an interview with George Miller, the creator and director of Mad Max: Fury Road, which has been lauded for being an ensemble action movie that dared to have a mostly-female team of heroes.  Miller said he didn’t intend any shattering feminism with the movie — he was just trying to tell a good story, and that was where the brainstorming took him.

Which is amazing to me.  I want that.  I want that in our world, that people’s brainstorming will take them to a team of female heroes for an action movie just as often as it will populate an action movie almost entirely with men.  It’s ridiculous to me that we can look at this movie that grew out of a normal brainstorming process with no overt feminist design and think, “Wow, how on earth did they get a movie with that many women in it greenlit?!”

But all Miller did was allow for the possibility, and we got an incredible story.  I love Mad Max because it’s a great movie, full stop.

2) It’s a matter of honesty.  When I look around my life in LA, the amount of diversity is staggering.  I’ll look around at a party and realize that half the people are nonwhite or half the people are queer, not by any intentional selection process, just because they are.  Once I worked on a string of three films in a row that had almost no white people on the cast and crew — they were an African-American Western, a Colombian music video, and a Japanese commercial.  The group I used to watch Doctor Who with only had one guy and one white person (not the same person).  None of this is by design; it’s just the world I live in.

When we write fictional worlds in which this sort diversity is purposely excised — and, yes, purposely, no matter how non-maliciously, because writing non-diversely is a choice as much as writing diversely is — it’s dishonest.  It’s taking reality and altering it for no good reason whatsoever.  And it’s not only dishonest, it’s dishonest in a way that is hurtful to members of the audience.  The feeling that “people like me” are erased from fictional realities is not a pleasant one . . . and after a while, it becomes exhausting.

3) Media impacts the way we interact with other humans in reality.  We all have subconscious biases in thousands of ways; that’s just the way our brains work.  It’s illogical to think media representations (or non-representations) of diversity don’t affect how we perceive the world, or that the biases in media don’t have a cheerful give-and-take with real-world systemic prejudice.  Characters in fiction can affect how we see others and how we see ourselves.

Unconscious institutional bias is one of the hardest types of bias to combat.  The more good representation in fiction can push back against that, the better a place the world will be.

4) If you want a selfish reason: It opens up more plot and character opportunities, as above.

5) Also partially selfishly: I’ll add that writing people with backgrounds vastly different from mine is constantly improving my own empathy and humanity.  Most of the research I do is to go and read and listen.  And if I’m listening well enough to help me write a character, it’s impossible for me not to become a more understanding human.  This is especially true considering that (obviously) people from any one demographic are not a monolith, so there’s no limit to the nuance of human experience I can learn from.

What book (other than your own) should we stick in a beach bag this summer, should we be lucky enough to have a beach visit in our future?

I’m going to diverge a little from my usual here and recommend a graphic novel. I don’t read a lot of graphic novels because I tend to get eyestrain from them (sadness!), but this one is TOTALLY WORTH IT.

It’s called “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage,” by Sydney Padua.  And it’s about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in a steampunk alternate universe, one where she doesn’t die young and he actually finishes his inventions and they team up to FIGHT CRIME.

For those who don’t know, Charles Babbage is often credited with inventing the computer, and Ada Lovelace — a brilliant mathematician — is credited with being the first computer programmer, as she wrote a program for the machine Babbage had invented but not yet built.  Yes, you read that right — she wrote a computer program for a computer that hadn’t been built, and she did it before programming had been invented.  The two were, in fact, good friends in reality, but both had lives (a short life, in Lovelace’s case) punctuated by tragedy and personal demons.

Anyway, I have been head over heels for Padua’s work since it debuted as a webcomic.  The wit!  The humor!  The art!  Ada Lovelace debugging a giant Difference Engine by climbing inside and hitting things with a crowbar!  Oh, and the FOOTNOTES!  Padua includes a whole mess of historical footnotes, some even funnier than the comic, and some that read along the lines of, “Yes, believe it or not, Charles Babbage said this for real. It’s in his autobiography.”

This is one of those books I can’t stop trying to get people to read, because it’s just too good.  Definitely pop it in your beach bag!

SL Huang justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction, starting with her debut novel, Zero Sum Game. In real life, you can usually find her hanging upside down from the ceiling or stabbing people with swords. Online, she’s unhealthily opinionated at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter as @sl_huang.

Book Review: Invisible 2: Personal Essays on Representation in SF/F

cover of Invisible 2Invisible 2 is the second anthology of essays about representation in science fiction and fantasy edited by Jim C. Hines. When Invisible (the first collection) came out I had the honor of interviewing several contributors to the anthology as well as editor Jim C. Hines (disclosure: if he has a cult, please consider me to be in it as I think he’s swell). Over the next couple of months, I’ll be running interviews and guest posts by contributors to Invisible 2.

Invisible 2 has a broad range of essays, dealing with issues including migration, sexuality, physical appearance, and disability. The introduction is by the amazing author Aliette De Bodard. There’s also a recommended reading list at the back of the book that is just fantastic and should keep me busy for a long, long time.

Overall, I felt that this collection was not as strong as the first collection, but it’s still a must-read for anyone interested in the issue of diverse representation (and if you aren’t interested, you will be after you read this anthology). The inclusion of an essay by a straight, white, cis man and an afterword by Jim c. Hines (who also fits the description) is an interesting choice that I felt enhanced the anthology without co-opting the conversation. Both authors talked about why diverse representation is important for them.  I thought that was an excellent move – I didn’t feel that they took too much space away from other authors and it gave the issue a context that this is everyone’s problem. We ALL need diverse books (and television shows, and movies, etc). We are all enriched by a diverse media and deprived by one that limits itself to only a few voices.

Another stand out include an essay by Diana M. Pho called “Breaking Mirrors”, in which she says this:

In reality, representation is more like constructing your fancy glass houses, then letting everyone else smash them apart and pick up bits to take home. Your art can easily cut others deeply, resulting in infection and scars. People may step around the broken fragments to protect themselves, or gather them carefully with padded gloves. And, on occasion, someone may pick out a shard from the dirt because it had sparkled like a jewel in their hand.

Gorgeous! I can’t wait to share some interviews and guest posts with you – in the meantime be sure to check this anthology out.