I am not a feminist (thought of the day)

So, OK, this is going to be one of those times that people say “I am not…” and then proves the person to be exactly what they said they were not.

The other day, I was looking through various categories of books on Amazon, and I happened across a bunch of semi-erotic paranormal stuff with titles like “Claimed by the Alpha” (sorry if this is your actual book title. I’m not talking about any book in particular), written by women, where the female characters appeared to have little interest other than sucking up to some dominant male in the hope of getting smexytimes.

And I couldn’t help thinking: I am not a feminist, but did our mothers and grandmothers fight for women’s rights just so that women could publish submissive [expletive] like this? Handing the man the reins with which he can whip us and keep us at a short leash.

There was lots of it, so obviously someone is lapping this stuff up. I remembered the outrage about the “passiveness” of the main character in Twilight. And then I remembered that I wasn’t in particular bothered by it (yes, I read all four books). Because I also have a little trouble with the “must have strong female character” mantra. Characters should be like people: they come in all types. Monotony is good for nothing and no one.

So then I tried to disambiguate my feminist-flavoured outrage about submissive werewolf smexytimes, and I decided that I was probably missing several points:

I don’t like submissive smexytimes, but who cares what I don’t like? I was confusing my opinion with some sort of moralistic standpoint about what a liberated woman should read or write.

Writers tend to like the sound of their own voice, and as typical writer, I let this sentence ramble for too long. It should have gone like this:

Did our mothers and grandmothers fight for women’s rights just so that women could publish submissive [expletive] like this?

And yes, they certainly did. Because let’s not forget that in the past, and in many countries in the world, women don’t have a voice at all. Whether they should or should not use that voice to write submissive smexytimes is really not up to me, and I have no right to tell other women how to be a feminist, or, for that matter, how or when to be outraged. This goes both ways.

*peace, sisters*

*goes back to hating submissive smexytimes*


I am not a feminist (thought of the day) was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants


this is not the 1950’s

I guess ‘most people’ will know that. One thing that disturbs me a bit is the frequency with which I come across 1950’s style fiction in workshops or the slush.

Yes, I totally get that you may have adored the SF greats. I am in no way suggesting that those writers weren’t great in their time, and some perhaps even now. However, a lot of that fiction has aged badly. I don’t mean technology. OK, we now have the net and computers, but sometimes it’s fun to read about a society at the time when a computer with the capacity of my geriatric laptop took up an entire room. This is part of the setting, and can be used successfully in new fiction.

I don’t mean 1950-style plots, those reminiscent of the great SF works. I love SF and space opera and while there is nothing edgy about the subgenre, it’s a lot of fun and still sells.

I mean the treatment of certain people in fiction, OK, ‘minorities’ and I’m especially talking about women.

The 1950’s style fiction will probably have women. It may even have women as major characters, but the way those characters are treated is patronising, or alternately, they exist solely to make a point. The woman is either a bitch or an object of sexual fancy, and viewed as a woman, not as a character or a person. The woman will be pretty and young. The woman will be a secretary in an office (if you’ve read my fiction, you’ll know that my secretaries are almost exclusively male). The woman won’t be a mother. If the woman is married, she will exist solely to serve dinner. The men will be protective and often kind.

The ultimate feeling I have about 1950’s style fiction is that the woman is a prop and a shallow character, a token, part of the scenery.

That’s why I will reject those stories which smack of 1950’s style fiction.

I am the last person to call myself a feminist. When I think of a one-word tag to identify myself, I think ‘writer’, ‘science nerd’ or ‘parent’. ‘Woman’ is a tag that comes very low on that list.

So, by all means, write golden-age-inspired SF, but treat all your characters like real people.

So you want to be a space farmer?

You are writing space-based Science Fiction, and have decided your world is going to have a self-sufficient space station, base or space ship. A lot of Science Fiction books have this assumption in common. Any human colony, whether on a moving vessel, space station or on the surface of a planet, will need to produce its own food, since vast distances and transportation costs will make import unpractical. Being self-sufficient means growing stuff to eat. Here are a few points to consider to make your food production system more realistic.

There is a fair bit written about the design of the habitat. It ideally needs to be in the habitable zone of a star or closer to make optimal use of light. Artificial light is expensive and mineable energy is scarce in the depths of space. If you do position a habitat far from a star, make allowances for vast amounts of energy needed to grow plants. Without cheap and easy solar energy, the energy source would probably have to be nuclear and would have to be shipped in.

Other requirements run parallel with those for human habitation. The habitat needs to have radiation shielding. It needs to have adequate air circulation, temperature control and day-night cycles.

(ETA: this interesting article was published a week or so after I wrote this post. It deals with the effect of radiation on crops and how it seems plants can evolve to deal with it)

As an agricultural scientist, I often get annoyed when SF books suggest that ‘magic happens’ inside a food-producing habitat. You just chuck in the necessary elements, wave your fingers and POOF, there is food on the table.

In reality, things are lot more tricky than that. Once you add a biological element to your controlled environment, the system becomes complex and liable to unexpected and sudden failure.

The nutritional needs for plant growth are simple enough, but since you’re in space, you’ll have to cart everything in. Plants need the following to grow: Main elements: C, H, O. Main nutritional elements: N, P, K. Also essential: S, Ca, Fe, Mg, Mo, Mn, B, Cl, Zn and Cu. A lot can be recycled, but you’ll need to replenish occasionally.

One of the lessons learned from the Biosphere 2 experiment is that maintaining a viable ecosystem in a closed environment is damn hard. Biosphere 2 was a mixed ecosystem, containing many species. An agricultural centre aboard a facility in space is more likely to contain a much smaller range of species, making it much more vulnerable. For example, the grass family (maize, wheat, rice), the nightshade family (potato, tomato, capsicum, egg plant), the cabbage family and the cucumber family (pumpkin, cucumbers) provide a huge chunk of our daily vegetable needs. A virus only need take out one of those families and you have a severe problem.

Closed ecosystems are extremely vulnerable to pests & diseases resulting from less-than-optimal air circulation and light conditions. When something goes bad, it does so in spectacular fashion, quickly and without easy remedy. I’ve seen this happen several times… in glasshouses… on Earth.

For that reason, you’ll want backups. Don’t rely on one system, or one crop, or one station.

There will have to be some artificial tofu-like foodstuff produced for easy protein and nutritional value. Most plants are extremely wasteful in their useful crop/waste ratio. Compost works very well on a farm in the open air, but in a space station, it just…. stinks.

A process of rigorous, dare I say neurotic, quarantine will be necessary. You cannot risk anyone bringing in the tiniest mite or aphid from outside.

Some crops and livestock are much more suited to high production per unit area than others. Use tropical crops with a fast cropping cycle (C4 crops such as rice and corn) over temperate crops. Breed varieties of crops which can efficiently utilise a higher-than-usual CO2 percentage. Plants grow bigger in low-gravity conditions, and use more water.

There are some crops you won’t be able to grow no matter what. They’re either too expensive to grow or for some mysterious reason defy all attempts at growing them in any sort of health or quantity in a controlled environment. You can’t always explain why this happens. Biology is funny like that. Of course, those crops will be the most valued.

Where are you going to get your initial seed-stock and how are you going to conduct breeding and renewal? I could see a situation where each growing condition requires a different type of plant. The more variety, the less risk of wipe-out due to disease.

To sum up, a food production scheme needs to be reliable and robust. Diversity is the key to risk-spreading. My guess is you’ll probably end up having to resort to some quick & dirty chemical shortcuts, such as mining O2 from comets to make sure you have the capacity to quickly act in case of impending ecosystem collapse due to disease.

the science fiction writer’s motto

It’s taken me six years of writing science fiction to come up with a short phrase that encapsulates the very essence of writing in the genre, and today I was clobbered in the face with it twice:

Must Use Bigger Elephants

OK, that makes no sense at all, does it?

Let me explain.

Say, for example, you filled up the entire available surface of the Moon with elephants, and you found that even when you did this, the combined mass of the elephants was only 0.00065% of that of the Moon, and that was really a lot smaller than you wanted… Well, the answer to the problem is easy: Must Use Bigger Elephants.

Science Fiction is about finding bigger elephants, or faster space ships, or stronger metals, or better medicine.

Meanwhile, I must do something with that phrase in terms of the title of this blog…

why you should read military SF

A discussion of a Worldcon panel ‘Military SF revisited’ with panel members Toni Weisskopf (Baen’s editor of military SF), Howard Tayler (Hugo nominee and cartoonist of military SF) and Jean Johnson (novelist)

What is it with the military in Science Fiction?

I’m not talking solely of the subgenre military SF, a market well and truly cornered by Baen’s, but the fact that the military has a place in a lot of SF. In fact, point me to an SF novel that doesn’t involve military, militia or police.

I think the reason may be this:

In order to mount large operations, and space flight and space colonisation are prime examples of large operations, you need to have an organisation with tight discipline and fairly authoritarian decision-making processes. A military-style organisation is supremely suited to fill that spot.
They could be mercenary armies or merchant forces, but it is likely they will all function to a fairly rigid command structure. The military provides logistics, rescue and defense and simply people to do things.

Hence, military SF.

This was a very well-attended and emotional panel. It was the last panel of the day. The room was packed. I mean emotional in that it engaged a wide range of emotions. There were many panels I enjoyed and found useful, but this was the one where I felt most ‘right’.

Toni started by asking the audience who had served in the military (many hands went up), or who had a family member who had. I fall in the latter category. My father was an air traffic controller in the air force for seven years. He’d taken a civilian job by the time I was old enough to remember, but military life was still fresh for him. If I remember anything about my youth, it’s his stories of life in the barracks. Mostly, they’re stories of discipline, of consequences. This is precisely what I like about the military. The discipline is harsh, but the consequences of not following protocol and orders are clear and straightforward. In fact, I believe that every parent-to-be should hear or read these stories so they can understand the sequence order, disobedience, consequence.

Today, perhaps thankfully, the military is a long way from the lives of a lot of people. Most countries have abolished compulsory conscription. On the other hand, governments make decisions that require military involvement. In other words: someone’s got to do the dirty work. People go out and serve in whatever locality the government decrees, most often in third world countries these days, and find themselves in hostile territory once they return home. Their former civilian friends have seen the brutal images on tv; they never agreed with the government sending troops anyway, and why can’t we all get along and be happy. Who needs the military anyway?

One of the functions military SF can fulfil is to bridge that gap, by making soldiers’ lives real through fiction.

And ‘real’ is neither good nor bad.

Military SF as subgenre is about the military, with military applications and problems, but not the glorifying of killing (Toni called this military porn). Military SF can involve an army representing a government, a private force or mercenaries. Characters often face crises of command. The military doesn’t have to be portrayed as either good or bad (there are examples of both within military SF). Most often, the military just is, a part of life, necessary. Sadly, perhaps, but necessary.

It is important that the writer knows the military, and has access to readers in the military. The everyday situation of soldiers is important, a life which is often monotonous and involves a lot of waiting.

For me personally, this panel put a lot of pieces into place. I had previously been hesitant to call my upcoming novella Charlotte’s Army military SF. It does involve a character in the military, but being a doctor, she’s on the outside. The story neither glorifies nor vilifies the armed forces, and involves a serious breach of command.

Military SF further allows us to look at the military aside from the political baggage that it comes with in the real world. Whereas a novel about a present-day military situation always draws questions about whether or not the conflict is justified, stupid, racist, or whatever, in SF, the adversaries aren’t real, and military processes and attitudes take centre-stage. Hidden in the pages of military SF are gems about human behaviour, about social structure, and about human reactions in extreme situations.

For all the reasons above, you could do worse than pick up a military SF novel.

P.S. Howard Tayler is an incredibly fun person, aside from his amazing boots (does anyone have a picture of his boots?). While most nominations for graphic novel involved an entire team of writers and artists, Howard does Schlock Mercenary all by himself. I haven’t read graphic novels, but meeting him makes me think I should check them out.

the trouble with Science Fiction…

The trouble with Science Fiction, especially near-to-medium future SF, is that it frequently seems… dated.

Consider the following two books (both of which I enjoyed tremendously, btw):

Greg Bear’s Eon, written in 1985, features two groups of space explorers: the Americans and Soviet Russians as per pre-Berlin Wall communism. Oops.

Stephen Baxter’s Titan, published in 1998, features the Space Shuttle Columbia. Oops.

Do you think a fantasy book, or even a literary book written in either of those years would feel so out-of-date?

Now if I were either of these two authors, I’d have been bashing my head against the wall after the historic events that screwed up my fiction had taken place. You know, Science Fiction is meant to be futuristic and all that and how dare one little event date my book so much? You do all the work to make your book as realistic as possible, and then real life turns around and provides some dramatic change from an angle you hadn’t considered and renders your work dated.

Of all the time periods writers can write about, the future dates most quickly.

So what do you do? Writing Historic Fiction is one option, but not one I find attractive.

I can’t say I have a clear-cut answer, but:

– I’d try to avoid being too specific about things like politics, countries and companies (although you may try giving the voodoo kiss-of-death to big-name companies everyone loves to hate by featuring them clearly in a novel, and hope that this will ensure they go out of business).
– I’d assume the world will change dramatically, and portray a dramatically changed world-political landscape. The only thing we know is that the world will change, so no change isn’t a believable option. To this end, one of my future worlds has no US, the philosophy being that no empire lasts forever.
– I might just shrug and recognise that my fiction is a product of the year it was written, but realistically, I’d like my fiction to remain fresh for longer than a few years.

Alternatively, many writers of space-based SF excise Earth from their fiction altogether. In those books, Earth was a planet where people once came from, but it is either too far away to matter, it has been destroyed or lost or just doesn’t feature at all in the story.

You have any ideas on how to make realistic SF date-proof?

About series

One of the things new writers are told in various workshops is that your first book must absolutely stand alone if you are to sell it.

Here is what agent Kristin Nelson has to say on the matter

I feel it’s one of those things where new writers are being ‘advised’ by slightly more experienced writers who think they know the ropes but haven’t sold anything either and are regurgitating rumours. Of course it depends on the genre, but I’ve read debut novels that absolutely do not stand alone. People I know have sold trilogies as their first sale. To me, it seems pretty silly, from a publisher’s point of view, to commit only to the first book. Either the marketing department likes the premise, or it doesn’t.

Fantasy and Science Fiction worlds are hard to build within the space of 100,000 words while telling a cracking story at the same time. Often, more word-space is needed to convey the story, so a large story is split into two or three volumes. A publisher would buy the concept of the entire series. Readers of SFF love series, so where’s the problem?

damned if you do, and damned if you don’t

There’s been a fair amount of kerfuffle recently about the representation of certain groups in Science Fiction, both as authors and characters. Granted, it feels like Science Fiction is one of the last remaining bastions of traditional white males.

I think part of the male/female problem is the very nature of Science Fiction, and the boundaries of definition of the genre. When reading SF anthologies or magazines, invariably the stories written by women represent ‘softer’, more sociological aspects of culture. Technology doesn’t seem to draw interest from many women, and there aren’t many of us writing anything near what could be termed ‘hard Science Fiction’. A lot of SF written by women slants off into fantasy, and one could argue, by some definitions of the genre, whether it is Science Fiction at all. For myself as writer, I can see a practical solution to the under-representation problem. I am a woman. I write hard Science Fiction.

A similar debate is raging over race/culture representation in SF. Alastair Reynolds says it eloquently here.

For me, as writer, this brings a different set of feelings. Yes, I’m a woman, and I also happen to be white. Not much I can do about that. I write about characters from different races, but often those races are made-up. I feel uncomfortable about writing characters from different existing cultures. I feel I’m intruding upon their turf. I feel like I have no authority to write about them, because they’re not my culture, and using the culture in a story may be construed as ‘patronising white person’. I just don’t want to go there. So I write about existing Earth cultures only in future worlds.

Race is not the issue, I think. I don’t spend a lot of time describing my characters, and don’t really care what colour they are on the outside. I leave that for readers to fill in. Culture, though, is on the inside, and I can only truly represent cultures that are my own, either real or made-up.

All of which means that my present-day characters are usually white.

Hugo nominations ahoy!

I’ll be going to Worldcon, and have paid for my membership, and can vote and nominate for the Hugos.

I believe strongly that voting is private. I will not use my nomination to make a statement, and frankly I’m getting tired of people doing just that.

I haven’t been writing much recently, because I’ve been reading suggested stories and novellas I hadn’t yet read. My question is this: why do we see the same little group of works mentioned again and again by the same people who are mostly each other’s friends? Surely there is more to good fiction than that? Surely this is why voting is private?

I am involved with a magazine that’s eligible for best semiprozine. Does that mean I’ll nominate them? That’s private and should remain that way.

However, it’s impossible of course for any one person to have read everything, but I want to make sure everyone who nominates considers the widest possible set of candidates.

I’m tired of hearing about the same old, same old recommended by the same old. What else should we be considering? It must have been published in 2009. Put your suggestions in the comments below.

a thought about Science Fiction

… put in a seperate post, because it gets confusing when you mix up subjects in blog posts. On second thoughts, cross-posted from my personal blog.

A while ago, everyone was discussing the boundaries between Science Fiction and Fantasy. I don’t know that anyone got a satisfactory answer out of the discussion, but just recently, I was wondering: what is the boundary between *some* space opera and hard SF?

Where does hard SF stop being hard SF and become something else?

Any opinions?