Hello World, Once Again

This is an introduction post. It might seem strange for a blog that’s somewhere around a decade old to post an introduction, but in that decade I don’t really think I’ve made much of an impression on anyone, so it seems like a fresh start might be in order. (Plus my About page probably needs an update.)

My name is Alan, I’m a 30-something guy from the UK, and I’ve been reading fantasy novels for pretty much my whole life, and regularly reading comics for around a decade. This blog is a place for me to talk about those things, along with my other interests, and hopefully share some of my enthusiasm for that stuff with like-minded readers.

Because I think it’s worth stating, I’m a liberal; I support intersectional feminism and reject discrimination of all kinds, be it about appearance, ethnicity, disability, sexuality or gender expression, and I believe in promoting representation and diverse voices in our media. I hope I can live up to those beliefs in writing about that media here.

I’ve been very quiet at times over the years – which I’ve blamed on things like World of Warcraft addiction (not true for some time now) – and despite all the times I’ve come back and said I’d write here more frequently, it’s never stuck, and I never allowed myself to develop the habit of regular updates. I’m hoping to finally fix that. Obviously my past performance isn’t very promising, but I want to do more with this space than I have, and I want to finally put in the effort that requires. This might mean more personal posts, and it’ll definitely mean posts about more than just books. I’ll see what I can come up with.

I’ll end with this: Hello, and thanks for visiting my site. Hopefully you’ll find something interesting here.

(Also, you can follow me on Twitter @sometimesKysen.)

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Some Half-Formed Thoughts on Dwarfs and Gender in Discworld

This is a quick post just to get something out of my head that’s been rattling around since I finished Raising Steam a couple of weeks ago. I tweeted most of this at the time; this is just pulling those thoughts together without the character limit.

On a surface level, the dwarfish race in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld has gender equality: all dwarfs look alike, and gender is considered a secret relevant only to the dwarf theirself and their significant others. This has apparently been the case for the whole of dwarfish history. However, the emergence of female dwarfs who want to imitate female humans’ presentation of gender is a repeated subject of the novels. On the one hand, this is presented as an issue of self-expression in the face of restrictive cultural norms, but the sense is generally there in the books that these cultural norms are not just a restriction of what all dwarfs can do, but a specific repression of females from presenting as such.
But, as I’ve said, dwarfs on Discworld don’t appear to have any cultural history of a gender binary in terms of dress and behaviour. This is something that seems as though it can only have come from outside influence, through observation of human culture on the Disc (significantly, it is the more “modern” dwarfs of the human city of Ankh-Morpork who initiate this movement of female gender expression), however dwarfs in the books are depicted in some cases as harbouring pre-existing resentment of the requirement to present as “male”.

The result of it all is the impression that Pratchett is presenting the gender binary of human culture (specifically the 19th-century cultural analogue of the Discworld) as something that is innate and desirable even by those that have no history of such. In Raising Steam specifically, part of the climax of the book is the Low King of the Dwarfs, Rhys Rhysson, declaring herself to be a Low Queen and adopting a feminine name – an act that makes little sense in a culture that has no history of gendered names, but it’s intended as a symbolic gesture. Following this event we are told a significant number of dwarfs rush to “out” themselves following her example.

This is not to object to the idea of individuals choosing their own gender expression, but it is telling that this is something that only applies to female dwarfs, and the depiction leaves the reader with the impression that almost all female dwarfs have just been waiting for the moment to come where they can begin to openly acknowledge their gender by adopting these human practices. I couldn’t help coming out of the ending of Raising Steam with the feeling that Pratchett was, through the dwarfs, promoting the idea of our culture’s gender binary as something that is right and proper.

Now, I’m a little concerned I might just be showing my ass here, as I’m not sure I have found the best way to express my thoughts on the topic, and I’ve got the lingering feeling I might be reading too much into things. But this isn’t the only area where Pratchett has appeared to show an unquestioning acceptance of stereotypical gender roles and behaviours – he’s quite fond of clichéd marriage jokes in many of the later books, for example – and it seems like this is one of the places where his well-intentioned attempts to reflect real-world struggles for equality and freedoms has fallen foul of problematic implications.

All of this is not intended to take away from the fact that Terry Pratchett was a great writer, and one who was as far as I can tell funny, intelligent, and a genuinely good person. But every one of us has our blind spots and unintentional biases, and even the best of us has moments where those show through despite intentions.

Some thoughts on the Sad Puppy Hugos

I wasn’t intending to write about the Hugo Award controversy directly on this blog, but I hit upon something this morning that led me into a brief twitter rant, and decided I had something to say after all.

Whatever is being said about the politics of the sides involved, whatever the accusations being thrown around; regardless of my own distaste for many of the nominees, and regardless of the well known fact that Vox Day, 2014 Sad Puppy nominee and creator of the Rabid Puppy slate, is a racist, sexist bigot, the one fact that remains important in this whole mess is that the Sad Puppy campaign stole the Hugo Awards nomination process.

This really became clear to me when I was once again reading defences of the Sad Puppy slate that talked about how they were open, they asked for suggestions, they created a list more diverse than their previous ones, that they wanted to create a slate based on meritocracy… It’s been in my mind the last couple of days that if they really were seeking more democracy and meritocracy in the Hugos, all they had to do was encourage their followers to nominate. This defender of the Sad Puppies was literally describing the purpose of the Hugo voting process itself. Instead, what the Puppies did was to hold their own nomination process, pick their own ballot, and encourage their followers to vote the slate as curated by themselves. Aware as they were of how few nominations it takes to get onto the ballot, they created a situation where the nomination process for the Hugo Awards was, at least in part, taken out of the hands of the WSFS and given to Brad Torgersen and Vox Day.

I should emphasise that nothing they did was against the rules. I can also believe that Torgersen and the others involved in the Sad Puppies did not anticipate just how skewed the final ballot would look; they did not actually list a full slate of 5 works in each category. What complicated things there is that Vox Day’s Rabid Puppies slate piggybacked on their own, filling in the gaps with works from Day’s own publishing house, and seemingly encouraging a large number of people from outside the usual Hugo voting fandom to take part in order to stick it to “SJWs” in fandom. It’s not clear to me whether there was any real connection between Torgersen and Day’s slates, or if Day simply copied their list.

The fact remains, however, that the Sad Puppies gamed the nomination process – they knew very well how few nominations it takes to reach the ballot. An organised campaign of voting has a huge advantage when all the other votes are uncoordinated.

And that brings me to a second point, which is that those involved in the Sad Puppies slate will often justify their campaign by claiming that this is something that already happens, that people have been campaigning (often they’ll bring up “backdoor deals”) for certain works to make the ballot, and that the more diverse Hugo Awards ballots of recent years is nothing to do with quality and all about these campaigns. It is true that the short fiction categories are notorious for being a broad field with low numbers of nominations and, in the Short Story category particularly, often struggling to place 5 works on the ballot because of the rule that nominees must receive at least 5% of the total nominations – in other words, it doesn’t take many votes to get in. But the very fact that it is so easy for a campaign like the Sad Puppies to flood these categories demonstrates that no such coordination on that scale is being done by other groups. The reason they were successful is precisely because other voters are uncoordinated, their votes spread out based on their own tastes. By succeeding on this scale, I’d argue they’ve proven their own arguments false.

What they’ve proven is that it is possible to steal the Hugo nomination process. They’ve also made it clear that they were the only ones trying to do so.

In Which I Ramble On About Hugo Nominations

The nominating period for the Hugo Awards ended on Tuesday. Last year I made a point of posting my initial and final nominating ballots, but this year I’ve been silent here, although I tweeted about the process plenty. It’s too late now to offer recommendations, and I doubt posting my ballot would be all that interesting now. Instead I thought I’d just talk about it generally.

The big difference between this and last year is that I was making nominations in the short fiction categories – novella, novelette, short story. I’ve never read a whole lot of short fiction, but this year I tried to save anything I saw recommended, and I read something like 50 stories in those categories. There were a whole lot more I didn’t get to.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t always have a lot of awareness of what venues have published the stories I’m reading. I save everything to the Pocket app, and read them in there. So Sunday, when I started on my ballot, involved a lot of googling the story titles and a little cut and pasting into Word to find out wordcount. As it turns out, a lot of good stories came from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a couple of which ended up on my ballot.

Picking 5 to go on a ballot is not easy. I had only read 3 novellas, it turned out, so there wasn’t much to do there. I’m mainly wondering if Benjanun Sriduangkaew will make the Novella cut, and what kind of drama will ensue. The rest of my reading was split evenly between short stories and novelettes. There’s a reason these categories have a hard time getting enough nominations on the ballot: there are way too many good stories for everyone to have read, and the choice of what to nominate is very subjective. My ballot changed several times in the last few days of nominations, including the addition of stories I only read on the last day. There are a few I wish I’d found time to read.

I don’t know if it’s possible to predict what will make it onto the short story or novelette ballot. I saw Aliette de Bodard’s The Breath of War mentioned in a few places (one of two Bodard stories on my ballot), and Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Devil in America seemed popular – but who knows what will have come to voters’ attention, and what will fall afoul of the 5% rule. Votes get spread very thin in short fiction. Kelly Link published a story last year, I Can See Right Through You, and that perhaps is the only thing I’d be willing to place a bet on.

Best Novel was a little unusual this time. I did something some people don’t like, and nominated two complete trilogies on my ballot (Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach and Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky). It’s within the rules, and precedent was set by Wheel of Time last year, but I’m still not sure if it was the right choice. Ancillary Sword got on there too, and I’m expecting it’ll make the final ballot. Like last year, I wasn’t entirely confident in my last picks, but everything I put on was good enough. Again, I failed to read everything I’d hoped to in time: I haven’t read Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, or Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem, both seemingly strong contenders.

Beyond the writing categories, my ballot wound up a little thin. Dramatic Presentation: Long Form is too predictable this year. Short Form I failed to really come up with anything for – Legend of Korra is getting buzz, but they haven’t even released season 3 on DVD over here yet, so I’m two seasons behind. I’m sure Doctor Who will be on the ballot as always (“Listen” will be the top pick, and maybe the Christmas special), Game of Thrones will have “The Mountain and the Viper”, and who knows, maybe Agents of SHIELD will make the cut. I couldn’t pick anything, so the only thing I nominated was an episode of Orphan Black.

Graphic Story is the only other category I made a full set of nominations for. Saga is all but guaranteed a spot on the ballot at this point; the rest will be interesting to see, as this was a very good year for comics. Ms Marvel is a title I’d be happy to see make it. Some posts elsewhere have me wondering if Sex Criminals will appear on the shortlist. I don’t know if any Doctor Who related comics were published that could steal a spot. Who fans are nothing if not committed to the cause, and they managed it last year.

Whatever the results, we’ll find out in a few weeks. All I know for certain is that there’ll be drama on social media come Easter weekend.

Book Posts I Want to Write But Can’t Seem to Finish

It has been a long time since I’ve written full length posts about books I’m reading. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to say anything – it’s that the times I’ve tried to write, nothing has worked. There are several posts I’ve started since, oh, April or May last year that wound up languishing in my Drafts folder, forever unfinished, some of which are still there now. Here’s what I tried to talk about but couldn’t, for whatever reason:

Tehanu, by Ursula Le Guin – This was the big one, the one I actually finished. I wrote 2000 words on Tehanu, the fourth book in Le Guin’s Earthsea series, and in particular on its strong feminist themes in contrast with the lack of women with agency in the three books that preceded it. I passed it to a couple of other readers to look it over before posting, and one of them came back and let me know that the premise of my post was fatally flawed. My option then was to completely rewrite the post with the new information in mind, which probably could be done. Turns out I’m terrified of revising. No idea where to start. The unaltered, incorrect post has been in my drafts for well over a year.

Women in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – Until I sat down to write this bit right now, I could have sworn that last year I talked here on the blog about The Last Dark, the final book in Stephen R Donaldson’s ten-book, four-decade series, and mentioned that I wanted to write about the series’ issues with women. Looking back, I can’t find anything about it. Maybe I only tweeted it. In any case, I made a few attempts to write a big blog post, about the problems the series has in its depiction of women, and also the problems with fan response to the series’ female lead. I could never work out how to say it well, though, and found myself too often just describing plot points. Eventually I gave up trying.

Quick Book Thoughts on RupettaRupetta by N. A. Sulway was one of my favourite novels published in 2013, and was on my nomination ballot for the Hugo awards. Back when I was reading all those 2013 books for nomination ideas, I intended to do a quick thoughts post on each of them, but only got around to posting one – about Ancillary Justice, the eventual Hugo winner. I did make a couple of attempts to write about Rupetta, but could never quite order my thoughts in a way that formed a good post. I recommend the book highly, but still can’t work out how to write a full post about it.

The Eternal Sky Trilogy, by Elizabeth Bear – I’ve mentioned this one before, recently. I read the full trilogy in August this year, and it is really great. There are so many things I want to talk about regarding this series… but when I try to write them down, I can’t get it right. I have half a post written, but I can’t work out how to structure my thoughts in a way that works.

The problem I’ve been having for most of these, clearly, is “how do I put all these thoughts into the shape of a blog post”? When I try, I find myself very unsatisfied with the way my words are coming out. I’m much the same with fiction writing for the last nine months or so: nothing comes out right. I can’t say I’ve been all that good at book blogging in the past, but I’ve written some posts I still feel fairly happy about. I just can’t seem to hit that any more.

Loncon3 – Sunday

Another day, another Stroll with the Stars; I said hi to a few people but once again didn’t really manage to chat with anyone. On the panels side, I started with The Spies We (Still) Love, all about spies in mostly TV and movies but also a little in literature. This was one that kind of got into just a series of people calling out names of spy shows they like, and it felt like the 1 hour slot didn’t give much room for discussion.

After a lunch break, I ignored some of my instincts and went to Learning the World, a panel about worldbuilding in secondary world fiction. I figured it’d be interesting, and the panelists – mostly experts in one area or another, like medicine or archaeology – did offer some good points on various things, but the panel seemed to spend a bit too much time focusing on small details. There were a couple of pretty bad questions from obvious amateur writers in the audience, and the moderator had a tendency to talk at length about what he was doing in his own work-in-progress (the words “In my fantasy novel…” came up too many times to count).

The Wrong Apocalypse was next, a panel about climate change and the environment, and the ways our media does, does not, and should tackle this serious issue. It was a good, interesting panel, which gave a lot of things to think about. I was planning to hop straight into another panel afterward, but by that point I was sore from sitting so long and very thirsty, so I didn’t go to my next panel. Not sure that was the right decision, because it left me with nothing to do for most of that hour and a half.

When I did get back to programming, it was for the We Have Always Fought panel, which used Kameron Hurley’s essay as a starting off point for a discussion of depictions of women’s roles in fiction, in history, and just in general culture. This was one of the more interesting panels, which touched on a lot of topics: real female figures in combat roles in history, particularly discussing female pilots; how gendered pronouns in language affect perception of characters; the gendered perceptions of genre as pertains to the labels “hard” and “soft” sci fi… There were just a lot of good points here, although the moderator got a little lost in her notes now and then. I was also happy to hear Rupetta by Nike Sulway recommended, because I really loved that book. I still need to get around to James Tiptree, Jr and Joanna Russ, sometime.

The last thing before the big event of the night was a reading by Elizabeth Bear; she read a portion of her short story Shoggoths in Bloom, which has me very tempted to go buy her collection in the dealer’s room tomorrow before I leave…

Finally, I did in fact attend the Hugo Awards ceremony. I’m not sure I gained anything from being there in person, other than tired hands from all the clapping, to be honest. I would’ve tried to chat with people beforehand, but I wound up sat between a group of friends talking in French and another guy who didn’t come across as feeling sociable. As for the results of the awards, I wasn’t very surprised, although I really didn’t expect Charles Stross’ story to win; I’ve come to think of Wakulla Springs as the best thing on that ballot (even though you may recall I actually voted it second place to Cat Valente). I’ll be taking a look at the full results at some point soon, and might decide to write about it a little.

So, that was my Worldcon. I leave tomorrow, and don’t really have time for any programme items at all, so this is the last of Loncon3 I’ll see. I have of course only seen a tiny portion of all that’s on here, and one person’s Worldcon will be very different from the next, there is such a huge variety of things to do. Being as unsocial as I am, my experience is certainly not representative of what the convention is for a lot of other attendees.

I have enjoyed the con a lot, though the question is still unsettled in my mind as to whether cons are my type of thing. It’s supposed to be a very social event, but as expected I myself have gone through it pretty isolated. While I’ve enjoyed the programming, generally, I’ve not so much enjoyed the dead spots in between panels, where I, not knowing people and not being able to go up and talk to people I don’t know, would find myself lapping the fan village, dealer’s room, and exhibition area, or just sitting on a bench checking twitter. If I’d had longer here I might have eventually started to relax about starting conversations, but almost as soon as it’s started this is done, and who knows how long it might be until I come to something like this again. I don’t know if I could manage the same thing while also having to travel into a foreign country for it.

I didn’t talk about it here on the blog, saving it for Twitter, but my anxiety issues hit me pretty bad yesterday, and I don’t know if that was just a single specific incident, or a sign of what I’m likely to go through if I keep putting myself in these situations. Maybe I just can’t cope with it.

As always, I wish I knew more people in real life who shared my interests in science fiction and fantasy. I wish I knew how and where to find those people. It would help me a lot to actually be able to engage with people about the things I love, rather than only the kind of shouting into the void I do here. This trip was supposed to give me a taste of that, and it did, briefly, at Friday’s Welcome Party, but I guess I just can’t get past the way I am.

Anyway, I did not go into this post intending to run off on this particular tangent; I came here to talk about the things I did do at Worldcon, not what I didn’t do. And what I did was hear a lot of interesting, informative, and entertaining discussion of science fiction and fantasy and related issues. I enjoyed that side of it and that’s the memory I want to try to take away with me.

Reading Short Fiction

My reading habits have changed a little recently, in that I’ve started to fairly regularly read short fiction. Usually I spend all my reading time on novels; I’ve had a few magazine subscriptions (Electric Velocipede, Weird Tales, Fireside Magazine), but what always happens is after a few issues I start putting them to one side and never getting back to them – I still have years-old issues, unread. I get the Tor.com newsletter and follow them on Twitter, but rarely visit the site directly.

What’s happened now, though, is that I started collecting links people share on Twitter. I’ve been doing it for a while with articles, but now whenever a piece of short fiction is mentioned I save that link in Pocket, too. It can take me a while to get round to reading these – I usually do it on a train ride into Newcastle two or three times a month – but I’ve been really glad to have read this stuff I would have missed otherwise. I’ve only read some of Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s stories because I saw links on Twitter, and now I know she’s one of the best writers out there right now.

The interesting thing to me is that deliberately keeping up with publications – whether print or online – has failed for me, and I’ve found myself now reading stories where the venue is irrelevant, where I’m barely aware of which site is hosting the piece I’m reading. I read individual stories, not publications.

Obviously I realise that kind of reading behaviour is bad news for the sites in question – particularly when I do so through an app that mostly just pulls the text and images from the body of the page and leaves out everything else, such as ads. I know I want to support sites that are providing me with this content, but I’m not inclined to want to visit all of these pages on a regular basis and see what’s there – I’ve grown accustomed to just having certain ones picked out and directed my way by names I trust (ie, writers and other book people I follow on Twitter). So I have a conundrum there.

There’s a panel at Loncon3 on the Friday called A Reader’s Life During Peak Short Fiction which looks at things like how people find short stories and pick out what to read in the current environment. It looks like an interesting one, and I’ll be looking forward to it, and looking for insight to apply to my own habits here. Of course they’ve scheduled it alongside the Diversity in Comics panel, which I’ll be disappointed to miss, but oh well.

I’ve rambled on long enough without reaching any conclusions. Now I have to get to sleep. Less than two weeks to go until Loncon3!

(I’m going into Newcastle on Saturday. I wonder what stories I have saved up.)