Tags: books


Most Necessary for (Wo)Men to Know.

So, back in the ninth century, having established himself as king of Wessex, Alfred the Great initiated a programme of education of his male aristocracy and oversaw the translation into Old English of a number of books he considered to be 'most necessary for men to know'. These were mainly religious, but also included Bede's A History of the English Church and Peoples, and Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy.

What books would you recommend today, aside from sacred books and standard chestnuts like Shakespeare? Mine would be Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, which to my mind is the finest early history we possess and a textbook introduction into how we construct, create, manipulate and interpret the varied histories that make up our past; Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which despite dated sections is still a clear cold look at the intersection of greed for money and power, faith and modern society; and Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo, which is a masterclass in plotting, pace and colour by a mixed-race author who was always proud to be exactly who he was, and as a result wrote characters who stand up for their principles. (I love the Musketeers more; and his best female characters are Claire and Manon in The War of Women, but Monte Cristo is probably his strongest book).

Over to you.

Skirt of the day: blue flags.

On political agenda in sff (and other fiction)

So, over on twitter, I have a personal hashtag of #redwriter. I use it for those moments when I'm explicitly talking about my socialism, and sometimes when I realise that something in whatever I'm working on is bouncing off that. I do it, because I am of the age and type that agrees with the slogan 'Politics is life.' And it keeps me thinking, which matters to me. I want to be mindful, in my work, in my words, in my actions, in my life. I fail all the time -- I did so earlier this morning. But I try.

And I'm following the debates about politics in books, and whether they 'belong' and the calls for 'just good stories' and so on, and, well.... Politics is life. We are soaked in them, we are created by them. As with gender and race and class and ability and sexuality, our political assumptions and the political assumptions that we grew up with help to shape and form who we are, our way of being, our expectations, our interpretations. Which means that there cannot be such a thing as a politics-free book. Every decision the writer makes in their work -- who the protagonist is, what the latter wants and approves, the nature of the threat or problem they face, the types of backgrounds depicted, who is left out -- all of those are marked by the author's own expectations and experiences. We all do it. Most of the time we don't even notice. But as a result, how a book plays for different readers depends on how close those readers' experiences and expectations are to those of a writer. 'Just a good story, no politics' is not a simply a call for books to be entertaining. It's a call for books to make specific readers comfortable. But all readers are different: we all have different levels of comfort and familiarity. The easier it is for you to find a book that mirrors your experience -- a 'politics-free' book -- the chances are, the closer you are to the hegemonic centre of society.

None of this is new: people have been saying this for years, usually in response to other people complaining about politics 'spoiling' books. People who are highly privileged are most likely to complain if they meet something that's not comfortable, not because they are necessarily bad people, but because they're used to seeing themselves at the centre of everything, and they're startled. People who are less privileged, less central to social norms are used to reading about characters and ideas and foods and places that they don't recognise, because mainstream books tend to reflect mainstream expectations.

It takes work to notice this, especially if you're one of the privileged. We don't notice things that to us are 'normal' and we expect what we read to reflect that. When we write, we often write to our internalised norms without noticing it. I can see that everywhere in my own writing. I'm a feminist and a socialist, but most of the characters in my first book are rich and powerful. The plot is mainly driven by the male characters, and the three main characters are all men. I made a conscious decision that most of the characters were not white, but I did not, in my own opinion, do anything like enough work to back that up, and I failed. Thew female characters have a lot of political and social power, but at least three of them are self-sacrificing, placing duty and the welfare of others above their own needs and survival. My internalised misogyny was speaking: women cannot succeed without sacrifice, pain and loss. I worked harder of breaking out of misogyny and Euro-centrism in my second book. I made a conscious effort to depict foods and traditions, landscapes and buildings and ways of organisation that were not just versions of what I grew up with. And I still didn't succeed. I really struggled to write Aude as a person with agency: inner training steered me towards making her weaker, more dependent, more timid and diffident. I've never found a character so difficult to depict. (The twins were easy. Ferrets do what they like, regardless of gender. Writing them was hugely freeing and great fun.) But I'm sure there are many places in the book where I failed, because I am marked by my culture, I am trained and shaped by it and it infects everything I do.

We can always find excuses for defaulting to our norms. Let's take an explicitly political book that is also a good fun read -- and often marketed as a children's book -- Watership Down. I love WD; I read it when it first came out (I was 12 or 13) and it was a big part of my teens. It's an adventure with rabbit heroes. It's also an analysis of different political systems and their good and bad points. Richard Adams comes down on the side of a sort of democratic anarchy, with a charismatic leader setting the tone. He set out consciously to write a political novel.

And yet, his assumptions and training show through. The characters are nearly all male, and such female characters who are present are weaker, more anxious, less able to act with agency -- and presented as potential mates. The rabbits are monotheists. Male leadership is assumed as natural. Threats come from outside, not within. Creatures who are not like you are dangerous. Now, most of this is based on the fact that the characters are rabbits. It's natural for rabbits to fear predators, for instance, and wandering bands of young rabbits tend to be male. But at the same time, Adams -- and the scholars whose work he used -- were affected by their social training when they wrote and researched. Humans live in a society in which behaviour is heavily gendered. It feels natural. So when we look at other species, we assume they do the same. Yet more and more research is now questioning this -- researchers have broken the bonds of their social conditioning -- and finding that in fact, many species do not express gendered social behaviour in the ways humans do. I don't know explicitly what has been observed in rabbits since Adams wrote, but I suspect that the norms his sources detected were refracted by ingrained gender bias. And he was writing a fantasy, in which rabbits have a religion, tell stories, invent political systems. He could have made some of the active central characters female. He didn't. He was comfortable with his own status quo. And he had the excuse, if needed, of 'Oh, but the book I read said...' That books said stranger danger and few women; it did not say religion, but he included the latter anyway. He made an unconscious political choice, just as I did with how I depicted Yvelliane and Iareth and Firomelle in Living With Ghosts.

And here's another thing. Of all my characters, Iareth is the one closest to me. That drive she has to do her duty, come what may, and the problems it causes her, is mine. One of the hardest scenes for me to write in that book was the one where she agrees to stay with Valdarrien. All my instincts -- and thus hers -- were screaming at me that she must not, that it was not Good Behaviour. The first time I wrote it, she said 'No' to him despite the plot. I had to argue with myself for two days before I could rewrite it. And I still think that, had he lived, she would have left him again, in a few months or years, because of that iron sense of duty. That's my own internalised female guilt, right there. I am not supposed to put my own wishes at the centre of my life, because good girls live for others. Like Yvelliane. Like Firomelle. Not at all like Aude, who I struggle to write.

What about 'non-political' books; books in which our personal cultural comfort zone is the default? Let's take Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight, another book I read and reread, and loved as a teen. There is no over political agenda in the book: it's the story of a young woman having adventures, finding love and saving the world. At 14, it was the best book ever for me, because it was a fantasy (my favourite type of book) with a female lead who was always right. Usually female heroes are corrected by men several times in a book, but Lessa talks back all the time, does what she wants -- and the men climb down. It was wonderfully liberating. And yet.... Though the role of Weyrwoman is important, Lessa is a Unique Heroine. She is explicitly different to all the other women around her, she is special. And there can be only one of her (6 by the end of the book). Her life is very, very unusual. Everyone else important in the book is male: the other female characters are minor, unimportant and occupy gendered space: wives, servants and sluts. The political structure assumes male leadership -- and aristocratic, born-to-rule leadership at that -- and the solution to the poverty, suffering or distress of the 'common people' is not more agency in their lives, but having a better Lord (or Weyrleader). Bad lords are overthrown by good lords. Everyone is white, and the trappings of their culture reflect that. The book normalises and even romanticises sexual violence, to the point that it's almost unnoticeable. (When in the sequel F'Nor rapes Brekke, I noticed, and I was never entirely happy with their love story, but I accepted that to Brekke the rape was minor, even good, because the writer said so.) As far as I know, the only agenda McCaffrey had when she wrote Dragonflight was to put a women at the centre (just the one). But the other things are there, because they were part of her cultural norm.

All books are political. All books have agenda, conscious or not. Because we are all products of our cultures, and those cultures show.

Skirt of the day: blue cotton parachute (in non-parachute mode).

Forgotten writers?

So, The Guardian has an interesting article today about forgotten writers. Literary Hero to Zero

Being me, I am of course certain that I will be forgotten myself (without having ever reached the heights of minor recognition, let alone 'hero') apart perhaps for some of my academic pieces. And that's fine with me, too. Also being me, I've read at least 3 of the 'forgotten' writers mentioned here (Morgan, Dreiser, Wilson) and heard of all the others apart from Mary Mann. But I'm not typical, I suspect (I have a widely -read mother and I have been known to read historical literary criticism for fun and then tracked down the books.)
The article focuses on 'literary' writers. There are names it doesn't mention -- Rosamund Lehman, John Fowles, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen -- which I hope means people are still assumed to be reading them. There are, of course, far more 'forgotten' genre writers who were huge in their time -- Weyman, Sabatini, even Michael Innes, who was A N Wilson under a pseudonym.
As the article shows in the case of Virigina Woolf, writers can go out of fashion and be rediscovered, or indeed rescued from obscurity entirely. Dumas has never stopped being read or being in print but he has only begun to be accepted by the literary establishment as more than just a 'popular' writer in the last quarter century or so. On the flip side, Dickens was canonised almost at once, despite his popularity, and remains so despite the problems of misogyny, classism and sentimentality in is work. (I do not like Dickens. If I'm going to read social realism of that period, I'll take Balzac and Dostoyevsky.)
Who are your favourite forgotten writers? And who do you predict may be the writers canonised into fame by later generations? I'd like to see a rise in the recognition of Anne Bronte over her sisters, of Emily Eden, Rosamund Lehman and Rumer Godden. And, moving closer to now, Patricia Geary, Pat Murphy, Tanith Lee (who really belongs up there with Angela Carter already), Justina Robson, Judith Tarr and Zenna Henderson.

Skirt of the day: embroidered jeans.
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Guest Post: Kameron Hurley

I have a guest today, the talented Kameron Hurley. Her novels were published to great critical acclaim by a small US press, and have now been picked up by a major house here in the UK as well as being republished in the US. She's a wonderful writer and it's a privilege to have her here today, talking about gender (on which her writing is fascinating).

Over to Kameron:

Women and Gentlemen: On Unmasking the Sobering Reality of Hyper-Masculine Characters
In the movie The Jewel of the Nile, sequel to Romancing the Stone, romance author Joan Wilder has written herself into a corner. Pirates have boarded the ship containing her heroine and the heroine’s lover. First, Wilder writes that the hero sacrifices himself to the pirates, allowing the heroine to get away in a rowboat – women and children first, after all.
But Wilder found herself deeply unsatisfied with this turn of events. It’s pretty cliché, after all, and this was 1985 – women’s lib, all that. So she rewrites it so the heroine sacrifices herself to allow her lover to get away. Stuck now with her heroine in the hands of the pirates and her formerly swashbuckling hero cowering in a rowboat, Wilder, frustrated with her choices, throws her typewriter overboard.
Whatever option she chose, it all felt ridiculous.
After almost twenty years writing fiction, it’s an impulse I can sympathize with.
When I started writing short fiction, I spent a lot of time writing sword-and-sorceress stories. I wrote about women who wielded swords and magic, who sacrificed themselves for greater causes, whose concerns were lovers and children. If I flipped them from women to men, they would be considered, perhaps, softer sorts of heroes – goody-goodies, a little too warm, a little too self-sacrificing. For boys, away.
Odd, I thought, that I would read these characters differently with a gender reversal. Why was that?
There was something that bugged me about how I wrote these women. It was like I put a sword in her hand and it didn’t change her. It’s like I didn’t consider how a life of violence would transform a person. I didn’t consider how training a person to kill, and putting them into violent situations, would badly damage the way the interacted with the rest of the world outside a battlefield.
Like Wilder, I felt like I was writing my characters into situations that simply weren’t satisfying.
I had a deep love of 80’s post-apocalypse movies and science fiction classics. Lone-gun hero types with no attachments; incapable of forming long-term relationships, valorized for their ability to bust down walls and shoot bad guys, but often incapable of living in civilized society. I looked at these male action heroes and wondered if we would cheer and celebrate them, their anti-social behavior wholly unquestioned, just as loudly if they were women.
So I began to write about the sort of heroes I loved – whiskey drinking, gun toting, lone wolf types – and I made them women.
I thought, at first, this was going to be really fun. I’d have these swashbuckling, heroic women who didn’t care about anyone or anything, forging off to do battle. And yeah, for the most part, it was fun. But then something interesting started to happen.
By turning squads of soldiers committing war crimes into women, and invading forces from other shores into women, I started to peel back the “normalcy” we attach to this extreme sort of masculinity, and uncover the rottenness at much of its core – while simultaneously creating more interesting and complex visions of women.
In my novel, God’s War, I created a former government assassin turned bounty hunter who was also a war vet. She could accomplish some insane acts of violence. She was notoriously tough to kill. But becoming a killing machine had taken its toll. For all the blood and glory, achieving this pinnacle of strength and perfection her society encouraged required her to give up being able to function within any kind of settled civilization. She couldn’t have normal relationships. She struggled to have friends. She self-medicated with whiskey and mild narcotics. She found the idea of motherhood suspect at best.
I had, I realized, created a monster. I’d created an 80’s action hero.
By putting women into these hyper-masculine roles, I was simultaneously challenging the portrayal of women in fiction as the people who do (as opposed to the people who have things done to them) and encouraging readers to take another look at both the benefits and severe drawbacks of that type of masculinity.
We toss men into the maw of war and call them weak or shell-shocked or mad for coming back physically changed. We say a man who hits women and children is a bully coward, but call him weak for expressing emotions beyond anger and rage. By putting my female characters into this masculinity trap, where they were expected to perform violence and shut down emotion, it gave me a new view of the expectations we have of many men in this society, expectations that linger in the broader media even as we, as individuals, cry out for change.
Expectations of masculinity can creep up on you, because to some extent we still view “masculine” as normal, the default, and “feminine” behavior as “other.” If you think this is not the case, see what happens when you send your son to school in a dress. We can pretend all we like that women are equal, but as long as men and women are continually encouraged to suppress the broad aspects of their humanity which we decry as “feminine” – we’re all screwed.
Because it’s those things we celebrate as “other” that make us truly human. It’s what we label “soft” or “feminine” that makes civilization possible. It’s our empathy, our ability to care and nurture and connect. It’s our ability to come together. To build. To remake. Asking men to cut away their “feminine” traits asked them to cut away half their humanity, just as asking women to suppress their “masculine” traits could be crippling.
What makes us human is not one or the other – the fist or the open palm – it’s our ability to embrace both, and choose the appropriate action for the situation we’re in. Because to deny one half – to burn down the world or refuse to defend the world from those who would burn it – is to deny our humanity and become something less than human.
When I see other writers celebrating their masculine stories in worlds which are 90% male, I wonder, often, if they’re forgotten the full humanity of the people they’re writing about. If they fail to see and interrogate what happens when they erase half an individual, and half the world, they’re suffering an incredible failure of imagination. A willful blindness. It’s celebrating a broken world that never was.
I, too, grew up on Conan stories and Mad Max. I grew up celebrating dangerous alpha males who fucked and drank and blew shit up with no consequences. But whereas other authors, perhaps, grew up to emulate those sorts of hyper-masculine heroes without question, I started to think about how Conan would actually get along in a world. I started to think about ways that hyper masculinity would affect the quality of their lives. I realized that Conan would never have a happy ending. Whether or not that’s something to celebrate, I don’t know. But it’s something we should talk about.
What I found when I started to explore the full potential of my characters is that my stories got better, too. I wasn’t crippling my characters with lazy stereotypes, expected conflicts, and failures of imagination. I was looking at all the different ways we express our humanity.
I was writing about people. Not caricatures.
When we go forward to forge new worlds – fantastic, science fictional – we could do worse than remember that just as our worlds are constructed, the people within it are constructed, too. We create boxes and toss people into them, regardless of their intrinsic ability to fight or nurture or build or destroy. How your characters navigate those social expectations and responsibilities has less to do with their physical sex than it does the ways they choose to adhere to or fight those expectations.
So maybe it’s your hero who gets the rowboat, or your heroine. Or maybe, in truth, there’s another option – maybe they turn and fight the pirates together. Maybe they skillfully talk them out of plunder with a witty, well-chosen story or clever ruse.
Maybe there’s another way out. Maybe it’s not either/or.
That’s the far more interesting story – what our characters do when they’re allowed to be people, not parodies of our own flawed expectations.

ABOUT Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley is an award-winning writer and freelance copywriter who grew up in Washington State. She is the author of the book God's War, Infidel, and Rapture, and her short fiction has appeared in magazines such Lightspeed, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Years Best SF.

Why the Three Musketeers have Girl Cooties (according to the Paul Cook school of thinking)

Ten Reasons Why the Three Musketeers have girl cooties
1. They are obsessed with their love relationships
2. They care about how they dress
3. They hug and kiss one another all the time
4. They have sleepovers
5. They like horses
6. They gossip
7. They go everywhere together (possibly even the bathroom, though Dumas does not specify. I bet Porthos hogs the mirror, though).
8. They love to go to parties
9. They swear to be BFFs
10. They are awesome, swordfighting heroes.
This sequence inspired by the thoughts expressed in This article
NB The musketeers are my all-time literary heroes and favourites.

Skirt of the day: blue wedgwood

On duty, censorship, fantasy and madness.

So two things I read last week have set me thinking. The first was this post on principles by Nancy Jane Moore at the Bookview Cafe website. The second was a question posed on twitter by kateelliott on twitter. Two proposals, two remarks -- 'the first thing a principle does is kill someone' 'do you self-censor and why/' -- that spoke straight to my core, to that part of me that sits back and tries to drive. To, if you like, my madness, and the ways in which I work with, through, around the world.

I've talked before about rules and how they accrete in my head. I am trained to accept rules, to be mindful of them, to be, I suppose, law-abiding. I'm trained to be, as the tag sometimes notes, a Professional Good Girl. Professional Good Girls keep to the rules and remember all the things their friends and relations and acquaintances don't like, don't want, don't approve of. Professional Good Girls end up with a head full of voices telling them about all the things they are not allowed to do. Don't say X or do Y, because person P hates that. Don't think Q or wear R, because person S doesn't like them. Don't think the mean things, even in the space inside your head, because Good Girls don't. Good Girls sit still and accept the blame, the pain, the anger, because Other People matter more than they do.

It's not an easy space, being so Professionally Good. And that's just the bit about what I'm allowed to do and say and think.

Then, there's Other People. Other People have more rights than me. Other People are more important. Other People must be pandered to, served, obeyed, deferred to. It gets, frankly, tedious. Especially when all this Goodness and deferring runs up against a principle.

You see, I believe in principles. Principles matter. Principles are the flood defences, the storm shelters, the shields that hold back cruelty and injustice and unfairness. Principles stand between us and the madness of pure, unbridled self-interest. In my head, anyway. Principles matter to me, because they are at the foundation of who I am, of what I believe. I may be, as my friend M once said, the last old-fashioned socialist in captivity, but that's fine with me. I'm proud of my principles. It matters to me, to stand by them.

I don't want to bore you explaining what my particular principles are. That's another post. But the thing that caught my attention, between Nancy Jane Moore's blog post and Kate Elliott's question was this: what happens when the rules and the principles collide.

The answer is fairly simple. I get into hot water. Any time I have my throat exposed in public, any time I post one of my rants or long commentaries, you can be pretty sure that a rule and a principle have met. The last time I really got into an on-line mess? That started because I felt that a third party had been harmed, and should be defended. That's one of the principles, you see. I cannot stand by and let someone else be bullied, harmed or undermined. However much I hate conflict -- and I do -- I am not allowed to look away, because someone has to do something, and I can't be sure that anyone else would. Because Good Girls help. This particular behaviour -- which is a rule and a principle (It Is My Duty To Help, combined with Bullying shouldn't be condoned) has been getting me into trouble my whole life. But I can't unlearn it. In my head, that need -- that duty -- to stand up for others is bigger than any inconvenience or pain it may cause me, however much it may frighten me. In my head, it's never right to put my self-interest or comfort ahead of the need of others who are less privileged than me, who are being belittled or dismissed, who are being treated unjustly. I may, alas, be the stuff of which martyrs are made. It is my duty -- and my sense of duty is harsh and strong and unrelenting -- to speak out, to act, to Do Something, because somebody has to, but the only person I can be sure will is myself. It doesn't make me nice to know, sometimes. It certainly doesn't make me comfortable, to myself or others. There's a piece of me that empathises on some level with that cold, principled, unkind man Robespierre, who on a number of occasions chose what he considered the common good over his own wishes and desires. (I don't agree with his policies. But, pace Simon Schama, he wasn't a monster, only a man driven to his extremes by his harsh, unforgiving principles. Saint-Just may have been a monster.) Principles can be hard, and cold and even cruel. But they matter, because without them, the tentacles of selfishness grow too strong.

This attitude of mine is, frankly, somewhat annoying. It drove my teachers mad 'don't get involved'. It used to drive my colleagues mad, because I would insist on asking the questions that the powers that be did not want asked. It drives the marquis mad, because I get myself into messes and arguments. It drives me mad. I am harsh on myself, and, sometimes, judgemental of others. I am bound up with ideas of duty that drive me bonkers. But I can't not do it.

And yet, I self-censor. I think most people do, in one way or another. There are lots of reasons. Other people's privacy, for instance. It's not up to me to decide what to say, what to reveal, sometimes, when others are involved. Rules -- those noisy things that infest my head. There are things I don't say, because I know it will upset or annoy or distress others. There are a handful of things I don't say because I don't want to deal with the consequences. There are things I don't write about because I feel they are better expressed face-to-face. And there are lots of things about which I don't think the world really needs my opinion, where I don't know enough. None of this means I don't care about those things. But I have chosen not to join in.

And then there are the ones that make me angry. The places I self-censor because of the Rules. The places I am silent because I've been taught that I Am Not Allowed. Don't say X, Kari: Y won't like it. Here's a list of things I self-censor not out of principle, not for any of the reasons above, not even entirely out of fear, but because someone else's voice is too loud in my head.

American exceptionalism
Gun control
The Labour plan for I.D cards in the UK
Scottish Independence
Julian Assange
Private education (in certain circumstances)
My own blasted country and its history
Why I really, really don't enjoy sunshine and heat

In a sense, none of this matters. Except... One of my principles is that I should not silence others. Silencing someone, particularly someone who has less power, or less privilege, is never good. Free speech -- if you believe in that (and I only do up to a point, because I live in the UK which has different rules on hate speech to those of the US, say) -- must be granted to all participants in a discussion, not just those with the loudest voices or the biggest sticks. Any statement that begins 'Your opinion doesn't matter because...' is a warning sign. It's an attempt to control, to dominate, to insist on a single story. Other people may well be right or they may well be wrong, but they should be listened to with respect.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to fantasy -- and to sf, for that matter. Principles are out of fashion right now. Since the 80s, at the latest, we have lived, in the west, in the realm of the Individual. It's all about Us. Heroes are mavericks, doing it Their Way. Other people have to get on board or be run over.

I'm generalising, of course I am, but a lot of current sff is about personal success, personal goals, personal achievement. Even when this is set against a background that refers to improving conditions for others, the latter is very much a sideline, an also ran. The focus is on the hero and how -- while saving The Suffering -- he or she achieves personal gratification and happiness. There are very few heroes who walk away from their own interest for the sake of others. Sacrifice is as unfashionable as principles. You have to go back a way to find examples. Galadriel rejecting the one ring, and accepting that she must dwindle. Gandalf holding back the Balrog. Michael de Sandoval of Dorsai and his companions, holding the castle against high odds. The pilot who stays on board the dying spaceship to let others escape. These days, there always seems to be a get-out, a back door via which the hero escapes at the last minute to enjoy the glory. A happy ending, yes, but it's a cheat. Principles are not easy. Duty is not easy. And when we don't show that, when we cheat, we undermine them, we reduce them to toys and poses. We undermine their value and their importance. And we reduce those acts, those choices made by the characters to just high-jinks and flash. The story becomes all about the hero. The poor who are always better off under the stable-boy king become no more than window dressing, because they don't really matter to the plot. They are just there to make the hero look good. In a sense, such fantasy is dangerous, because it makes change look easy and cheap, and it seldom questions the idea that what really matters is the individual getting what they want. This kind of narrative silences the underprivileged, the poor, because it reduces them to tokens, subordinate to the personal success of the chosen few. They have no agency. They are a voiceless mass, awaiting rescue, and nothing more. That, frankly, is a pretty patronising approach. And this story -- Wam the trainee pilot saves the galaxy and becomes admiral -- is a lie. It's never that simple. History shows us that, over and over.

In the real world, self-interest and the interests of others will conflict, probably on a daily basis. Uncontrolled, unchecked, it leads to exploitation, deprivation, huge social inequity and the Conservative Party (also the US Republican party) (Yes, my personal political prejudices are showing). Greed is not good.

There's a reason why Yvelliane makes the choices she does in Living With Ghosts. A number of readers didn't like those choices much. They wanted her to live happily ever after. In the very first draft of that book (which was hugely different to the final version) she did. And everyone got ice cream and kittens. (Or, all right, that's not the case.) It was a rotten draft and a rotten ending. I was lying to myself, offering fluff and nonsense. Power comes with responsibility, and responsibility should -- must -- be shouldered. It's a matter of that cold thing, principle.

And it matters. It should matter in our genre, because books have power. Books effect those who read them, though seldom in the ways the authors expect or intend. When we omit people or belittle their experience, we harm them. When we imply that following our own self-interest is all that matters, we contribute to a culture that grows ever more selfish and unkind and unfair. PRinciples may be out-of-fashion, but they have a lot to offer us.

And there are authors now who still speak of them, write of them, write with them. Patricia Bray, pbray, whose heroes do what they must, what is right, in the teeth of their own wishes and needs. kateelliott, who writes about the effects of war and wealth on ordinary people. Ken MacLeod. Walter Jon Williams. Aliette de Bodard, aliettedb. Lois MacMaster Bujold, sometimes. The comforting ending, the personally advantageous decision are all too often not the best. The stable-boy king or space admiral is not really a hero, if it's All About Him. Because the world is always bigger than us, bigger than the hero. And that should be remembered.
Edited to add: Ursula K LeGuin has written about principles today, much more insightfully than me: http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2012/10/08/restraint/
Skirt of the day: denim.

Guest Post: Morgan Keyes (plus a giveaway)

Today I have a guest blogger, the fabulous Morgan Keyes, talking about her new book (aimed at younger teens) Darkbeast. I've been a fan of hers for years: she writes with wit and charm and tremendous pace. And this new book is fabulous.
There's also a giveaway, for US readers only, sadly (due to postal problems). Anyway, over to Morgan.

Darkbeast 150 dpi

Many thanks to Kari, for allowing me to visit and tell you about my middle grade fantasy novel, Darkbeast. Due to the generosity of my publisher, Simon & Schuster, I will give away a copy of Darkbeast to one commenter chosen at random from all the comments made to this post by 11:59 p.m. EDT tonight.

In Darkbeast, twelve-year-old Keara runs away from home rather than sacrifice Caw, the raven darkbeast that she has been magically bound to all her life. Pursued by Inquisitors who would punish her for heresy, Keara joins a performing troupe of Travelers and tries to find a safe haven for herself and her companion.

In preparing to write Darkbeast, I realized that some animals have all the fun. I mean, just look at The Grass King's Concubine – those ferret women have instant charisma. In Kari's own words, they are "short and sharp and, sadly, very smelly, all teeth and noses and curiosity." Like Keara's companion, Caw, the ferret creatures draw our attention from the first moment we meet them.

But what about animals with less charisma? What about snakes? And spiders? And lizards? And toads?

Sure, there are some people who can't get enough of amphibians and arthropods and reptiles. But a whole lot of people – a whole lot of readers – are frightened by certain animals. Some might even say they are repulsed.

So what is a conscientious author to do?

Right off the bat, I decided that I couldn't cater to people's animal fears. If snakes aren't your thing, well, I'm sorry, but Slither is an important supporting character on Keara's journey. (If you're truly phobic, I'm especially sorry, but you probably have a lot more severe problems avoiding the beasts than merely reading a middle grade fantasy novel.)

Next, I decided to help my readers along a bit, to ease them over their animal-dislike humps. I gave them characters to read about who change their attitudes about uncharismatic animals. Now, if I gave you specific examples, I'd be spoiling the story, but suffice to say that Keara herself starts off hating snakes. If a twelve-year-old girl can overcome her aversion, a lot of adult readers can also.

Finally, I reminded readers that these aren't just ordinary animals. These are darkbeasts. They are magical creatures, with the ability to bond with humans, the capacity to absorb evil deeds and take away negative emotions. Darkbeasts can guide a child along twisting paths between right and wrong, helping that child to become a mature, responsible adult.

And the darkbeasts know, the entire time they're doing their job, that they are doomed. They will be sacrificed when their human turns twelve years old. Nevertheless, the darkbeasts serve, bound by tradition, bound by religion.

That selflessness, that dedication actually makes me feel quite sympathetic to the darkbeasts. What are a few extra legs, or a slimy skin, or a few warts in the face of such commitment?

You can discover your own darkbeast by taking this personality quiz:

What darkbeast did you get? And what animal would you choose if you had all the animal kingdom as an option?

Morgan can be found online at:


Darkbeast is for sale in bricks-and-mortar and online bookstores, including: Amazon | B & N | Indiebound

Morgan Keyes grew up in California, Texas, Georgia, and Minnesota, accompanied by parents, a brother, a dog, and a cat. Also, there were books. Lots and lots of books. Morgan now lives near Washington, D.C. In between trips to the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery of Art, she reads, travels, reads, writes, reads, cooks, reads, wrestles with cats, and reads. Because there are still books. Lots and lots of books.

Morgan Keyes

Coming shortly: Thieftaker

One of the things I'm liking about this summer is the number of books that I'm really looking forward to that are due out in July and August. And one of them is due out tomorrow: Thieftaker by D. B. Jackson, who is also the awesome David B Coe. I love David's books, and this new one looks even better than his previous ones.

"Murder and magic stalk the streets of pre-revolutionary Boston. Ethan Kaille, a thieftaker of some notoriety, and a conjurer of some skill, is hired by the father of a murdered girl to find her killer. Soon he is swept up in a storm of intrigue and magic, politics and treachery."

You can see the cover (which is gorgeous) and read sample chapters on David's website. Go, read, buy!



Swords and romance and magic, oh my!

So, a while back the wonderful deborahjross invited me to be in an anthology she was putting together of stories of fantastical swashbuckling romance. Of course, I leapt at the chance -- swords! swashbuckling! my favourite things -- all with the chance to work with Deborah, who is a fantastic writer and editor. The anthology is called The Feathered Edge and it has a great line-up of writers, including Sherwood Smith, Judith Tarr, Tanith Lee, Diana L Paxson and Jay Lake. I am startled and delighted to be in such company.My story is called 'Featherweight' and is about ghosts and lost love and misunderstandings and, yes, a duel. For those who have the NewCon Press anthology Anniversaries, it's set in the same city as 'The Birthday of the Oligarch'.
The anthology is out today in e-book form: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0073BFYR8/sherwoodsmith-20 (for those in the US)
http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Feathered-Edge-ebook/dp/B0073BFYR8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1328013569&sr=8-1 (for those in the UK)
http://www.amazon.fr/The-Feathered-Edge-ebook/dp/B0073BFYR8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1328013885&sr=8-1 (for those in -France)
It's also available from Barnes and Noble, for those in the US who are avoiding Amazon.

The paperback is due out in a few days.


The Four Musketeers has been borrowed 58 times in the last year. I find that obscurely pleasing. (This is in British public libraries). Welsh Kings is over 100, but it's a text book, so I find that less intriguing. It's good to know around 58 people wanted to know about the musketeers.