Category Archives: Writing

Ad Astra, 2014: A convention report

Why is it that, no matter how I travel to a convention, I always seem to wind up with not enough space in my luggage on the return? If I'd my copy of The Curse of Chalion to hand, I'd pull out Cazaril's quote about overflowing saddlebags, although this trip's luggage crisis was made up of two parts: I had left my larger duffle bag on the other side of the continent, and I needed to pack business casual clothes for a second conference immediately after Ad Astra.

So it was with a snugly-packed small duffle bag, a computer case, and a Vancouver Public Library book bag with copies of the Darkborn trilogy – just in case – I headed out on Friday morning, April 4, to meet my ride to Ad Astra, and the launch of Breakpoint:Nereis – minus, it transpired, my camera and dental floss. Half way to Toronto, we met the forecast rain-front and spent the rest of the way in intermittent grey outs.

Ad Astra was at the Sheraton Parkway Hotel in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto, where World Fantasy Convention was a couple of years ago. I was staying at the associated Best Western Hotel, along with several hockey teams from a med school charity meet. I was in a suite: tucked under an arch to one side of my room was a small bar area. I didn't spend much time in the suite, though. I made it into the swimming pool twice, on both mornings – one of the swimming pools, since I only discovered the Athletics Club with the second swimming pool on Saturday evening, looking down from the tenth floor party suite, and only went looking for it, wet swimsuit in hand, after the second swim, after I realized that geometry made it impossible that the pool I had swum in was the pool I had seen. Next time.

I was scheduled for three panels and a book launch (mine).

The aesthetics of SF, with Donato Giancola (artist), Michael Martineck (writer), and Zainab Amadahy (academic/activist, who proposed the subject and prepared a slideshow that looped on the screen throughout).

Colour schemes in 'serious' science fiction and fantasy tend to be muted – even monochromatic – messes. Is it because we equate bright colours with children and immaturity, or just plain ugliness? Which (if any) SF/F works get away with a colourful palette? Open your mind, and maybe your crayon box, for this colourful discussion.

We talked about trends in illustration and visual design for film, and how it anecdotally did seem to be moving towards a more muted display, with examples from the field of artists being asked to desaturate their colours. About whether that was due to the current fashion for dystopia, which tended to hark back to the grimy drabness of 1984 and post-WWII Britain, and how drab seems to be 'right' for poverty to the Northern-Western eye, even though in Latin American and Asian cultures, poverty keeps a vivid palette. About how colonialism influences our aesthetics, by associating bright colour with tropical 'primitive' cultures. We compared the available, living palettes of the tropics and the north, and the economics of colour. We brought in the influences of militarism, and religion – austerity was one of the ways that emergent Protestantism (particularly its strains of Calvanism and Puritanism) contrasted itself to Catholicism. We considered the gendering of colour, how in North Western societies the allowable palette for men's dress is much more muted than that for women (though professional women are advised to emulate the male), and how women's dress historically was for attracting mates and displaying family wealth. We got a bit into the uses of colour by writers, and how the meaning of colour changes across cultures. I mentioned how I had used the colour yellow in Contagion:Eyre (sequel to Breakpoint:Nereis), and brought up JM Synge's use of the meanings of white, black, red and grey in Irish mythology to heighten the fatalism in his plays Riders to the Sea and Deirdre of the Sorrows.

The Once and Future Plague, with David Stephenson (see the panelist page), Hayden Trenholm, Katrina Guy, Stephen B. Pearl.

From the Black Death to schistosomiasis to zombie hordes, infectious diseases and the plagues they cause have made for many a fascinating read. Even as we progress towards eradicating disease, we continue to tinker with tailor-made germs. This panel will explore how historic traumas shaped classic stories, and where the fear they create overlaps with present-day anxieties to create something altogether new, yet familiarly terrifying.

Alas, I scrambled in late, and I missed everyone's introductions. But we talked about forensic anthropology and accidental rediscoveries of burial grounds from the Black Death and other epidemics, SARS and how it exposed a the vulnerability of healthcare workers as well as the effect of political distraction and denial, what kind of fatality rates would change society forever, vaccine politics and renascent outbreaks, accidental releases and bioterrorism, synthetic biology and the eventual possibility of rolling our own bad bugs, and the fact that the most devastating infections might not affect us directly, but might affect our food sources. As a finale, we got a chance to speculate on how a devastating pandemic would play out in the here and now. My answer was it depends – largely on whether we recognize and react soon enough. (Which you can guarantee not to see in fiction; after all, where's the fun in that.)

Biotech, Identity and Personal Freedom, with Shirley Meier.

In Donna McMahon's Second Childhood, one of the characters comments that nobody living in the twenty-second century can know for certain that memories and thoughts are one's own. In this panel, discuss this concept along with whether advances in biotech and greater understanding of our genetic makeup will make us more free, or less.

This is a topic I've pitched before, and it's different every time, depending upon the constitution of the panel. Shirley talked about the tech, since her interest was steampunk, artificial intelligence, and identity, and mine was in neurobiology, psychology, and ethics. We coincided on the subject of liberty and internal and external threats to freedom, whether resulting from programming or our own biological circuits.

The Bundoran Press launch on Saturday night, for Strange Bedfellows, Breakpoint:Nereis, both from Bundoran Press, and Robin Riopelle's Deadroads, from Night Shade books. Strange Bedfellows is Bundoran's kickstarter-funded anthology of politically themed science fiction. Deadroads is a novel about family, ghosts and devils, three Louisiana siblings who have inherited their parents' paranormal abilities, as well as their – in several senses – demons. Hayden read from Gustavo Bondoni's short story “Gloop” from Strange Bedfellows, I read the scene from the cover of Breakpoint:Nereis, of Aeron Ivesen reluctantly visiting a relic of the pre-plague settlement, Robin read a scene in which Baz makes what is clearly going to be a very bad deal in exchange for the whereabouts of the sister he has not seen since she was a small child – spooky and a perfect length for a short reading, and Andrew Barton read from his short story “Three Years of Ash, Twenty Years of Dust”, also from Strange Bedfellows.

As for the rest of the weekend, I didn't leave the hotel, though occasionally I noticed there was bright sunshine out there. I had a couple of hours stint in the Dealer's room, watching books get sold. I dropped by the SFCanada table, hosted by Ira Nayman. I met Matt Moore, of the Ottawa ChiSeries readings, and Annette Mocek, of the Merrill collection, and James Alan Gardner. I said hail-and-farewell a few times in the hall to a Doppler-shifted Julie Czerneda. I signed books. I finally got to meet Derek Newman-Stille, of the Speculating Canada blog, in person. I met my editor (Hayden), and Bundoran Press' publicist (Beverly Bambury), and Alyx Dellamonica, author of Indigo Springs (winner of the Sunburst Award), Blue Magic, and a memorable and – dare I say it, very Canadian – urban fantasy from Tor.com, “The Cage”. While I enjoy butt-kicking heroines as much as the next woman, I love civilization even more. Dellamonica's heroines in “The Cage” defend themselves and each other with guile, law, and community. Her forthcoming novel, Child of a Hidden Sea, promises to scratch more of my itches: portal fantasy, with oceans. Anyone I missed mentioning, sorry, not on purpose! I did not meet the guest of honour, David Weber, which was a shame, because, yes, I'm an Honor Harrington fan, but I know he's coming north again this year.

Book tally, in my overflow bag (remember the Vancouver Public Library bag in the opening act):

  • Eight author's copies of Breakpoint:Nereis
  • Michael J Martineck's The Milkman.
  • Robin Riopelle's Deadroads
  • Tom Barlow's. I'll Meet You Yesterday.
  • Plus two geeky T-shirts from Antimatter Apparel.

Darkborn goes academic

Derek Newman-Stille, author of the Speculating Canada blog*, who previously reviewed Darkborn, has just published an academic article on “Where Blindness is Not (?) a Disability: Alison Sinclair’s Darkborn Trilogy” in the September 2013 issue of Mosaic: a journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature. He examines the trilogy in the context of literary portrayals and conventions of disability in general and blindness in particular, and compares and contrasts those with the descriptions of blind people themselves as to how they perceive the world. He points out the parts that worked, and the parts that did not, in places because of accommodation to genre and in places because, yes, I did not think something all the way through. It’s a very enjoyable read**, accessible to the non-English academic, and my one niggling criticism is that Mosaic is not open access. But I’m sure Derek has reprints.

* Which just last weekend won the Aurora Award for Fan Publication
** Which is not just authorial ego speaking!

Canada Writes – A Sci-Fi Odyssey

For the latter part of this month, CBC (Canada Broadcasting Corporation) has turned its Canada Writes pages over to the SFnal set, in “Canada Writes – a Sci-Fi Odyssey“.

I’m a bit late on this (one of those weeks when I growl “You did this to your own self,” at my own pathetic put-upon face in the mirror) but here are the entries so far.

And yes, my name is there! I get to stand under the Twitterfall on Wednesday as one of the readers for their Twitter competition. (Further details, including theme, coming soon).

Excuse me, is this my timeline?

In response to coffeeandink’s post on “The erasure of women writers in sf & fantasy“.

There are times I wonder whether, at some point when I was not looking, I slipped between timelines, and wound up in an alternative time-line where a whole body of fiction and criticism that I distinctly remember reading just didn’t exist.

I’m talking about the (yes, I am going to do it, I’m going to use the f-word) feminist science fiction of the sixties, seventies, and even the eighties.

I recall my first moment of wondering, reading a blog exchange bemoaning the lack of “women’s SF”, where strength was not defined by physical aggression. I pointed out that that “women’s SF” had actually existed for a long time, and gave some references, but had to stop and reattach my jaw when one of the respondents characterized “feministic SF” as being the very kind of “kicking butt” SF she didn’t want. Away, whisk, whisk, went the complex imaginative renegotiations of masculinity and femininity by both female and male authors.

Then this week, on Tor.com, an essay on dystopian fiction and control of reproduction, which discussed a range of novels without acknowledging that they were part of an extended dialogue by writers, literary scholars, sociologists, and bioethicists dissecting that very subject which went back decades. And of course the f-word was not mentioned.

And this gem, from the Independent (Title: “How women are winning sci-fi’s battle of the sexes“), which has had me doing a slow burn since it showed up in my twitter feed. I was reminded of a slightly exasperated review of a film about a woman leaving her unsatisfying marriage and seeking independence, where the reviewer remarked on the perpetual first steps phenomenon in Hollywood films – Liberation (what it was called back then) being constantly reset to the beginning.

Hello, women have been writing SF for as long as there’s been a field. Hello, we ditched the Barbarella stereotype in the seventies. Hello, we never went away. Hello, I was actually there, in the 90s.

Or maybe I wasn’t, not in this timeline.

Lessons learned along the way

In an exchange on a listserver I am on, the question of writing lessons learned along the way came up. This was my list . . .

  • Published novels are the finished product: one never sees the messes, failures and train-wrecks on the way, so one is completely misled as to how easy certain things are to execute. The downside of a diet of the best is that the emerging writer can become inadvertently overambitious and try things that are too difficult for them.
  • I did two dumb things and two smart thing in my first novel. Dumb things (ie, things I wasn’t developed enough to do): writing a quest novel, and using that past-present structure that Ursula Le Guin made work so beautifully in Dispossessed. I didn’t realize until a year or so after Legacies came out where I’d got it from, and why I was so wedded to it. The sort-of-quest structure is difficult to pull off because it doesn’t innately have a strong narrative drive behind it. Smart things I did: having a single viewpoint, and having a character I had deliberately written as attentive and extremely perceptive. Sometimes, wrestling with the need to convey something essential via a viewpoint character for whom it’s not in character to notice that, I miss Lian.
  • Certain plots are more bomb-proof than others – they carry their own structure and drive with them. Blueheart’s initial plot is a mystery, and once I’d got that – the dead body in the ocean – it found its shape quite quickly, carried along by the central question of who and how. By midway through the book the reader actually knew everything, and it turned into a political novel, but by then the central conflict was established and on its way to the climax. I did myself an inadvertent favour, there.
  • Quest plots – frequently the first plot an SF&F writer tries – are not as easy as they look: certain choices have to be made to ensure the quest plot gets and keeps its narrative drive and doesn’t become picaresque (a right-on editorial comment about an early draft of Legacies). If I were writing a quest, even now, I’d make sure that what was being sought and who was seeking it were established in the first chapter, and not lose sight of that for a moment. I’m still not sure enough in my plotting to do the young man/woman goes off all unknowing and find his/her destiny on the way. I was unwittingly smart enough to have the quest front and center in the beginning of Legacies’ frontstory, interspersing it with the interleaved backstory in which Lian had to find his mission.
  • Passive, reflective characters fall under the heading of Advanced Work. Again, writers have pulled off the reluctant hero wonderfully, but life is much easier if a character wants something and goes after it. Lian climbing over the wall, throwing himself into the path of Lara and Rathla and the story itself, was a wonderfully liberating moment for me.
  • Sometimes the writer just has to give up and do what’s obvious – usually because they’ve set themselves up that way. In one of my unpublished novels I was resisting a particular idea because it seemed too obvious. When I finally accepted that it had to be that way, a whole lot of other problems were suddenly solved, because my characters’ repugnance (they didn’t like the idea any more than I did) prompted them to actions that led directly to the showdown. Moral: It’s a bad idea for the writer to argue with their own story.
  • Even after (almost) 9.5 novels, I still don’t get control of the plot until my second draft (or later). I’ve just had to do a massive overhaul to keep two of my main characters on the scene for a major action setpiece (this was Shadowborn). I also had difficulties setting up a crucial event in that conflict, because I needed not to surprise the reader, but I knew that if one of the characters knew about it, it would be out of character for him to leave. So overhaul. And it works. So. Much. Better. Moral of the story: keep the viewpoints where the action is. As long as the action is essential to the plot.
  • If I reach the end of my first draft, and it isn’t right (usual metaphor: large plate of spaghetti, stands slithering over the sides), I start cutting. I usually have a fixed idea of the endpoint from fairly early on in the novel, and I reshape the novel to line up with the end. I cut out everything that that isn’t related to the end. Then I put in everything that’s missing.
  • On the other hand, all the scenes that end up on the cutting-room floor mean that by the time I get the scene I need, it practically writes itself because all the decisions are made and I have the characters rounded out. Ibsen described his growing familiarity with his characters through successive drafts. In the first draft he knew them as if he had met them on a train (‘One has chattered about this and that’). By the second draft he might have spent a month at a spa with them (‘I have discovered the fundamentals’). By the third draft, he knew them thoroughly (‘as I see them now, I shall always see them’).
  • I try to obey Chekov’s Law (‘One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.’), which usually means I have to round up a certain amount of unused artillery during revisions. One of the downsides of writing a trilogy is that once Darkborn was committed to press, I was committed to firing off the guns lying around. Twelve of them, when I did the inventory in my notebook. I was delighted when I found a way to get four to pop off at once in the archduke’s breakfast.