Diversity doesn’t mean Tobias Buckell should write magic realism

Tobias Buckell talks about being light but not white, diversity and how it can become mired in cliche:

But even as that happens, I also get annoyed with narratives that try to require me to fit into a certain ‘type’ of diversity. It seems the white power structures like immigrant narratives and magical realism from brown-identifying folk. Man, is that ever true, and even allies can fit into this. There’s been a heavy pressure on me to drop doing the action and to write about magical immigrants. I’ve been offered book deals and better money, and it’s funny, I’ve had three editors in the last ten years point blank sketch out the outline of the same novel: immigrant from the Caribbean arrives in the US and does something magically realist.

The reasoning here seems to be: Buckell is from the Caribbean, that’s almost Latin America and Latin American writers write magic realism, not technothrillers or space opera. It’s a Small World diversity, with your cultural background reduced to a series of cliches and no clue that you might want something else instead. It’s the dominant culture looking for the exotic, the thrill of the novel but only within rigidly defined borders.

In science fiction, as in much else, the dominant culture is American and American assumptions about race, gender and culture drive much of the debate about diversity. Somebody like Tobias Buckell who can (ugh) “pass as white” can fall through the cracks. Not exotic enough that he can be easily pigeonholed, but not “assimilated” either. A novel like Hurricane Fever is driven by assumptions and a worldview an American writer wouldn’t share, even if at first glance it’s just a technothriller.

As readers we should always be wary of cliches, of the conscious and unconscious ways we ourselves think about various cultures. It’s not just that we expect writers to adhere to certain cultural cliches, it’s also that we may see them where they aren’t. We’ve seen that with dialect and the use of “non-standard” English in science fiction, not just dismissed as a literary trick by some, but also seen as racist when writers use e.g. African-American vernacular English.

I’m not innocent of these things myself; I’ve tried several times to get into Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring but keep getting stuck on the first few pages, by the way one of the characters talks. Similarly, with several of Aliette de Bodard’s science fiction stories which draw on Vietnamese history and culture, I’ve felt they came uncomfortably close to cliche images of despotic and authoritarian, hivebound Asia, but is this her fault or am I guilty of seeing a much more complex setting through orientalist lenses?

Your Happening World (September 22nd through September 24th)

  • Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds – The Daily Beast – Fixating on a woman from afar and then refusing to give up when she acts like she’s not interested is, generally, something that ends badly for everyone involved. But it’s a narrative that nerds and nerd media kept repeating.
  • #GameOverGate (with images, tweets) · strictmachine · Storify – Zoe Quinn blows #GamerGate wide open.
  • Timothy Snyder’s Lies | Jacobin – In Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, Hitler and Stalin are one and the same. And the partisans — Jewish fighters included — only encouraged German crimes.
  • Whirling Nerdish: Asthma and THE MIRROR EMPIRE – I’m particularly interested in how Hurley handles this character because all my life, I was told by movies and TV that people with asthma were nerds. They were geeks, dweebs, losers. Pathetic little wastes that fly into a wheezing, gasping fit when things get difficult while, meanwhile, the HERO goes and kicks the bad guys ass and handles his shit.
  • A few disjointed thoughts on other cultures and diversity in SFF – Aliette de Bodard – Researching another culture is freaking hard work, PLEASE do not undertake it lightly (and when I say “freaking hard work”, I don’t mean a few days on Wikipedia, or even a few days of reading secondary sources at the library). And PLEASE do not think you’ll be exempt of prejudice/dominant culture perceptions/etc. No one is.
  • Public Domain Super Heroes – Public Domain Super Heroes is a collaborative website about comic book, comic strip, film, literary, pulp, mythological, television, animation, folk stories, etc… Characters in the public domain fitting in genres such as the masked vigilante, caped crusader, villains, scientists, magicians, robots, jungle lord, and their supporting characters.
  • Pioneer winners — Butler: Thirteen Ways of Looking at the British Boom – “There certainly seems to be something of a boom. To a certain extent these things are always artefacts―there’s no objective criteria by which one can judge ‘boom-ness’ (boomitude? boomosity?―so the fact that everyone’s talking about it is to a certain extent definitional of the fact that something’s going on”

All the Shah’s Men — Stephen Kinzer

All the Shah's Men

All the Shah’s Men
Stephen Kinzer
258 pages including index
published in 2003

If you read the name Roosevelt, you probably think of the American president during World War II, or perhaps his predecesor Theodore Roosevelt, who gave his name to the teddy bear. But there’s another Roosevelt who has been of some influence in world history, a grandson of Theodore, Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., the man behind the coup against the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953. That was the coup that overthrew a government nominally an ally of the United States, on the behest of a British oil company to install a dictator whose father had had nazi sympathies, who himself would be overthrown a quarter century later in the Islamic revolution of 1979, when Americans were baffled to realise most of Iran hated them, a ahtred that had its roots in 1953.

That 1953 coup is one of those monumental changes in history that are far less well known than they should be. Though not exactly a secret, the American involvement and leadership of the coup is even less known, or at least that was the case when this book was published, in the year the US would invade another former client state, Iraq. These days the sad and sordid story of American meddling in the Middle East is well known, at least to those who paid attention to what happened after 9/11. I’m not sure how much Stephen Kinzer’s book contributed to this though.

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Get the complete Bold as Love series for under 12 pounds

Moving on from yesterday’s post, the bad news is that Gwyneth Jones had to self publish The Grasshopper’s Child, the sixth novel in her Bold as Love series as an ebook. The good news is that her entire series is available as ebooks on Amazon.co.uk for less than 2 pounds per book. That’s a little under 12 pounds, way less than a normal priced hardback for what is one of the most important, if much less well known than it should be, British sf series.

(My review of Bold As Love.)

Whither the British SF boom?

Around the turn of the Millennium and for a couple of years into the Bush era, it seemed that British science fiction was were most of the interesting writers were coming from, so much so that people were seriously speaking of a British sf boom, overshadowing their pale and inward looking American cousins. A decade later and people are writing gloomy articles about the British sf bust and how much of the earlier promise of British science fiction seems to have been lost. Now I remember being excited for and convinced that this boom was happening at the time, but looking back on it I wonder. Was there ever a true British SF Boom or was it all smoke and mirrors conjured from China Miéville’s instinct for self promotion and J. K Rowling’s runaway and unexpected success with Harry Potter?

The latter is of course the most important, getting millions of children, young and not so young adults to read fantasy, inspiring a legion of now twentysomething readers to read and write fantasy and science fiction themselves. Rowling’s impact on the existing sf and fantasy scene in the UK seems more limited though: published by Bloomsbury, as far removed from a genre publisher as you can get. The same goes, to a lesser extent to writers like Philip Pullmann and Jasper Fforde, new, popular, but with limited (direct) impact on the science fiction genre.

Instead the dominant figure of Turn of the Millennium UK science fiction was China Miéville: young, politically engaged, erudite, sexy. He became the voice of a new, Guardian acceptable form of science fiction, a generation of writers that also included e.g. Justina Robson, Adam Roberts, Liz Williams and Alastair Reynolds, who all had their debut novels around 2000. In that regard you could say that there was a boom of new, interesting writers, one that for once had recognition in mainstream media.

Similarly, the case Andrew M. Butler made for the boom back in 2003, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the British Boom, which took a longer term view, has some merit. But the weak point in it remains that it counts several generations of British writers as part of the boom, everybody from M. John Harrison to Gwyneth Jones and Charlie Stross, many of which were writers who’d been writing for years or decades like Harrison and Jones or, who’d like Stross, might have been British but were clearly focused on the American market.

Looking back then, in my opinion the boom was largely the result of a benificial media climate, open to the appeal of fantasy and science fiction due to the success of Rowling, Pullmann, Fforde and Jeff Noon with mainstream readers, as exploited by media friendly writers like Miéville. This exaggerated what was a normal cyclical upturn in new published writers. The good news is, if there wasn’t really a boom, there can’t be a bust either, just the absence of media attention and buzz…

And yet the participants in the latest Coode Street Podcast do seem somewhat pessimistic about the current state of British SF and I have to agree with them somewhat. There are a lot of interesting things happening in science fiction, but it seems to come from outside the UK at the moment. What’s really galling to me is the lack of attention to female sf writers in the UK as opposed to elsewhere. N. K. Jemisin, Kameron Hurley, Ann Leckie, Karen lord, Aliette de Bodard: all non-UK writers broken through in the last few years, joining others like Nalo Hopkinson or Elizabeth Bear. Meanwhile British authors like Gwyneth Jones, who is easily as important a sf writer as any of the Baxter-McAuley-Banks generation and who started publishing at roughly the same time a decade or so earlier [1], has to self publish the latest novel in her best known series.

Justina Robson, Liz Williams, Tricia Sullivan, Pat Cadigan, Mary Gentle, to a certain extent, all British female authors who should’ve had the same success as writers like Ken MacLeod, Charlie Stross, Adam Roberts, John Meaney etc, but never quite seem to have gotten the same support of their publishers. It’s this lack that I’m more and more convinced is why British SF is going through a bust, because only the male writers are left in the Serious Science Fiction ghetto and they’re not enough to sustain the hights of the boom.

[1]: Thanks Ian!

Your Happening World (September 18th through September 22nd)

  • Black Men Need To Support Black Feminism | Media Diversified – Being a black man over the past couple of weeks has been interesting, as it always is. I’ve stood in solidarity with the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri – both virtually and in a march at Notting Hill Carnival. There is a long history of black women leading movements for change and the most inspiring occurrence to come out of the recent protests has been the support black men have received from black women. However with that, it revealed a harsh reality, we aren’t always there for black women.
  • The Most Feminist Moments in Sci-fi History — The Cut
  • For women, heart attacks look different – and so do heart health outcomes – The study also found that women often fail to realize that they are having a heart attack – and so do doctors. This is because heart attack symptoms in women can be different than they are in men. The symptoms we most commonly associate with a heart attack, like pain in the left arm and tightness in the chest, don’t always occur in women. The study found that 42% of women who have heart attacks never experience the “classic heart attack symptom” of tightness or pain in the chest. Instead, they may develop pain in the back or jaw, light-headedness, nausea, vomiting and shortness of breath.
  • Don’t be like Jennifer Lawrence, girls – it’s bad for your health – Fleet Street Fox – 3am & Mirror Online – There’s only one way women can avoid the stuff every woman on Earth has to deal with daily
  • Sultana’s Dream — Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein – Sultana's Dream was originally published in The Indian Ladies' Magazine, Madras, 1905, in English. This edition is transcribed from Sultana's dream; and Padmarag: two feminist utopias by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain; translated with an introduction by Barnita Bagchi. New Delhi (India) : Penguin, 2005.

So much for the inevitable truth of the market

Vox Day has been talking smack about John Scalzi and his sales again, you know the schtick: “nobody really likes him the real proof of a good writer is how well he sells all a conspiracy he’s on the bestseller list people like Larry Correira sell much better blah blah blah”. Funny thing that, according to John Walker in a comment at File 770:

Well, according to Bookscan Larry’s sales are in freefall. His first mm pb book sold some 51,000 copies, but that was back in 2009, which was an entire different publishing world, then. His latest book in mass market? 3500 copies, at best. He seems to be trading on past success,but honestly most of his books (and his compatriots) are selling poorly. Hoyt’s latest? 200 copies. Freer’s? 600 copies. If anything a lot of this is just knee-jerking on their part, and suggestive that perhaps they should figure out why their sales are plummeting, instead of picking on others for their misfortunes.


Worse, as Nick Mamatas shows in comments at James Nicoll’s, Sarah Hoyt isn’t doing well either, downright awful in fact:

231 copies for a book released in July by a mainstream publisher, by an author with a number of series and award nominations, and whose blog posts receive 100s of comments, is a big problem. But it doesn’t appear to be far from wrong, given the other available information.

The only possible conclusion you can draw from this is that all the rightwingers who like to hang around at Day’s, at Hoyt’s, like to talk a lot and give it all that with their circlejerks about how nobody likes all those politically correct gamma authors and it’s only the effeminate critics at whatever the latest target of their ire is who pretend they are popular, seem damn reluctant to acually, you know, buy the books of the authors that they supposedly support.

Rightwingers are moochers. They only wage culture war if it’s free or if they can get wingnut welfare for it, but actually spending money? Never.

Your Happening World (September 10th through September 16th)