Posts Tagged ‘Catherynne M. Valente’

Some books resonate at the exact frequency of the human heart. Silently and Very Fast is one of them.

Elefsis is a machine intelligence who first learned to speak in similes, whose habitat is the internal brain- and dreamscapes of five generations of the same family, and who now has now found itself bound to Neva – the final angry, secretive scion of the Uoya-Agostinos – under circumstances it does not fully understand, and which Neva herself is reluctant to explain. Who is Elefsis? How deep a routine is love? How long a lesson is grief? What, ultimately, does it mean to be human?

No matter what she writes, Valente herself seems to function as a literary triple-goddess: a three-in-one of Poet, Mythmaker and Mythbreaker. Her stories crack fairytales open like eggs, mixing their yolks with myth and grief and feminism and the outrageous beauty of poetry until something wholly new is produced: a critique of the mythic that nonetheless refracts the power of our oldest stories and turns them seamlessly to new ends. At various points, Silently and Very Fast evokes comparison with China Mieville’s Embassytown, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, Tad Williams’s Otherland and Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone – and yet it is also Inanna and Psyche, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Hansel and Gretel, Prometheus and Matryoshka dolls and turtles all the way down and, because this is Valente, Persephone emerging from the underworld. (It is not coincidental that Elefsis begins as five bright jewels – five pomegranate seeds – only one of which is taken into the body of a girl-who-is-more-than-a-girl, and whose consumption initiates transformation.)

The whole novella is an exquisite balance of grace notes; at one point, Alan Turing is reborn as the Prince of Thoughtful Engines in a story-within-a-story that is itself a reworking of Snow White. Beautifully structured, poignantly characterised and breathtakingly relevant, Silently and Very Fast is a paean to the idea of stories as identity, with everything from family to consciousness to grief described as an ever-evolving narrative told both by and for its participants. It is an exploration of the mythic and the human whose fulcrum rests on the truth and power of interior landscapes, the worlds we hold inside ourselves becoming oroborous with the worlds we help to make.

Unlike with Valente’s Fairyland, I didn’t cry out loud while reading this book. But its depth and beauty kept me vibrating on the edge of tears the whole way through, that pulse-tight gasping where every word lands on the heart like a kiss, like electricity, and leaves behind a mark. This year, Silently and Very Fast has been nominated for a Hugo award for Best Novella, and I will be extraordinarily startled if it doesn’t win. But even if the unthinkable happens, you need to read this book. Trust me: you won’t finish it the same as when you started.

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So, in keeping with the feminist themes of my previous two flarf poems (Is She A Whore? and Women Can’t Write), here is another. This one was inspired by Catherynne M. Valente’s excellent post on the Christopher Priest scandal, wherein she points out that women are not generally allowed to get as angry as men without suffering worse social consequences.

Angry Women Are

What to do when a woman is angry?
More than anything, it’s time that we answer.
Women usually get the message
that anger is unpleasant and unfeminine.
(Women are often ashamed.)

.

The angry women
are sitting in Encorpera cubicles across the nation,
seething with rage
that following feminist directives has turned them
into control freaks, looking for an alpha male.
(Anger is unacceptable.)

.

Angry women screech about equality,
and ensure it is only you
who may one day be drafted.
(Anger hurts a female candidate.)

.

An angry woman, a she-monster melding
images of Medea, the Furies, harpies – see,
other women hate her. They see her as a threat,
a great big husband-stealing threat
in a semi-permanent state of panic.
(She is rarely welcomed.)

.

Angry women are angry.
Since when were artists,
especially female artists, required
to prostrate themselves and allow
people to verbally ejaculate on them?
(Don’t be angry.)

.

Why do women feel so angry?
Angry women are powerful women.
Angry women are sharpenin’ their knives.
Welcome to the age of female rage.

.

Angry women are right here and
we’re not going anywhere.

 

2011 involved unprecedented levels of book-related awesome. That’s a big call to make, because as you may have noticed by now, I read voraciously, constantly, and have done my whole life.  Undeniably, one of the things that made 2011 so special was my discovery of Amazon – or, more specifically, the belated realisation that I am a grown woman with my own income and can, as such, buy books on the internet whenever I want. I can’t rightly explain why it’s taken me so long to realise this without delving into the twisted warren of personal psychology, but the practical upshot is that for the past few years, every time I’ve heard about an interesting book or author whose work I can’t find that the local bookshop – which, frankly, is most of the time – I’ve been tagging it on my Goodreads shelf and then sighing over its inaccessibility. Internets, I don’t know what to tell you: I am a complete moron, basically, but all of a sudden, it suddenly occurred to me that I could buy these books online. Hallelujah!  Huzzah! And so I did, and it was awesome.

It is worth pointing out that my husband is suddenly very, very keen on the idea of me getting a Kindle. Every time a new book finds its way into the house, he twitches. There are two good reasons for this, namely:

1. We are rapidly running out of shelving space; and

2. The next time we move, he’ll be the one hauling all my boxes of books down four flights of stairs.

The point being, it’s not just my consumption of books that went up in 2011, but the purchase of them, too. Not only was I trying new things, but suddenly I had a back catalogue of literally hundreds of books I’d been wanted to read for ages, plus the means and opportunity to buy them. And I am here to say, they did not disappoint. Of the 156 titles I read in 2011, only a very few rubbed me the wrong way, and even those still tended to be worth reading. The rest were, by and large, brilliant, which perhaps explains why I chewed through so many so fast. And here is where we come to the reason why 2011 was such a staggeringly awesome year, bookwise: because not only did I read many an awe-inspiring book, but in the process, I became infatuated with many an awe-inspiring author. Not since I was a teenager discovering SFF through the greedy acquisition of second-hand paperbacks has there been a time when so many new writers have instantly made the transition from ‘person whose books I enjoy’ to ‘canonical favourite author’, the latter state being distinguished by the fact that I must have their books, all of them, NOW.

There’s something very special about being made to feel that way again – as though a genre you’d thought you’d known had suddenly opened back up again, richer and even more awesome than ever. And thus I give you, in order of their discovery, my:

Top Ten Authors of 2011

1. China Mieville

A few years ago, I bought a beautiful but unwieldy copy of Perdido Street Station. Perhaps I was just too young for the book, or my expectations of it were such that I couldn’t get into the rhythm of it – either way, I ended up putting it aside. Not long after that, I tried again with Un Lun Dun, but despite enjoying the story, I was so distracted by its similarities to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere that, three quarters of the way through, I put it down and never remembered to pick it up again. And then, in 2010, I bought a copy of the newly-released Kraken – third time’s the charm, I thought – and decided to save it for just the right occasion. And then came Worldcon, during which time I actually ended up meeting China Mieville. Very kindly, he signed my copy of Kraken – and then I heard him read a chapter of it aloud. All of a sudden, it was like a key had turned in my head: everything about his writing that had puzzled me locked into place, and though I was too overwhelmed and exhausted to tackle such a big book at the time, when I finally picked it up in January 2011, I devoured it in something close to a day. Mieville is powerfully, sometimes exhaustingly awesome: his intertwined language and concepts appeal to something deep in the brain, and once you’re inside his stories, it’s impossible to let go. Even better, he’s become an author whose work I can share with my husband: we both loved The City & The City, and were subsequently blown away by Embassytown. Since then, I’ve also finished Perdido Street Station and have a copy of its first sequel, The Scar, ready to go.

2. N. K. Jemisin

Back before its release, I read a free sample chapter of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms somewhere online. I don’t remember who, if anyone, directed me towards it, but the story stuck with me, and when the novel hit shelves, I wasn’t surprised to see it getting great reviews. Not being able to find a copy locally, this was one I had to wait to get, during which time friends kept recommending it, amazing reviews kept cropping up, and I kept getting impatient. And then I finally bought a copy, and it was brilliant, and shortly devoured both sequel volumes, The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods, which were equally as good. Jemisin’s worldbuilding is exquisite, her style both poetic and gripping, but it’s her psychology that really sells me: ambition, need and culture all shape her characters as well as their innate, sometimes difficult personalities, and their interactions are a pleasure to read. She also writes an entirely awesome blog about entirely awesome things, thanks to which I’ve come to think about a lot of important issues I might not otherwise have considered. Her next novel, The Killing Moon, is out this year, and I absolutely cannot wait to lay hands on it.

3. Cory Doctorow 

Technically, this is a cheat, because I first read and loved Little Brother way back in 2009. But for whatever reason, I didn’t follow through with more of his work until last year, when I ended up reading For the Win and Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Doctorow’s strong technology themes – and the ease with which he makes them not only interesting, but significant, to relative laypersons like me – are a large part of what makes his work so compelling; but it’s the social justice elements that get me in the chest. The rest of his books are now in my scopes, and hopefully I’ll get to one or more of them at some point in 2012.

4. Octavia E. Butler

I’d heard of her. I wanted to read her books. But I had no idea where to start, and I was tentative in the way I always am when it comes to science fiction greats, because so often I go in optimistic and then find out that really, these stories aren’t for me. But when I came across an omnibus edition of Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy in the local second-hand bookshop – Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago in a single volume – I decided to plunge ahead. And oh, man. Look, internets: you don’t need me to tell you how amazing, how absolutely jaw-dropping Butler is, because you already knew before me. I was literally broken apart by these books, and though they’re still the only ones of hers I’ve read – stories that powerful need to be rationed, like absinthe or Belgian chocolate – they nonetheless burned themselves into me forever.

5. Paolo Bacigalupi

This is something of an odd one. I made sure to read The Wind-Up Girl after it won the Hugo, and when I did, my reaction was… mixed. (For the curious, my review is here.) There were parts of the story I loved, and others I hated; I came away with a lot of thoughts, but despite the more negative aspects I perceived in the book, I also couldn’t get it out of my head. It’s difficult to articulate why, but sometimes I can have a very Slap Slap Kiss relationship with certain stories: for all my criticisms, I’ll end up loving them more than other works with which I found no fault, because they challenge me. Uncharitably, this is just because I’m a deeply contrary person, but I also suspect it’s because when you see things you absolutely love laid alongside things that make you bristle, you’re forced to rip apart various narrative seams – both in the book and in your head – to find out why you’re reacting that way. This process cannot help but be informative, if not transformative, and the upshot of all my angsting was that the very next month, I ended up buying Ship Breaker. Which, flat out, I absolutely loved. Could not put it down. So not only is Bacigalupi an awesome author, he’s one who makes me think, too – and that is always good.

6. Catherynne M. Valente

The book I started with here was Palimpsest, and – as with The City & The City and The Wind-Up Girl – part of the reason I read it was the Hugo nomination. As is often the case with me, I was nervous: I’d picked up a copy in a bookshop once before, but due to whatever quirk of mood or temper that particular day, I’d decided against buying it. But during a trip to London that happened to coincide with my birthday, I’d decided to give Valente a try, and so set out to acquire a copy of In the Night Garden, which a friend had recommended. Alas, London did not yield me that particular book – but I did find Palimpsest, and so decided, on the basis of the Hugo nomination, that my younger self had no idea what she was talking about. Thus, I bought it, and read the whole thing in a single sitting, curled up in bed in an excruciatingly cheap hotel in the middle of the day. Valente is a poet, and the way she braids this skill with mythology and imagery and longing absolutely kills me. Later in the year, I won an ARC of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making in a Twitter contest. It quite literally moved me to tears, and my review of it is here. After that came Deathless, which was unbelievably good; and in my pile of books-to-be read for 2012 are copies of In the Night Garden and Myths of Origin, which I’m really looking forward to. And, like Jemisin, Valente also writes a kickass blog.

7. Carrie Vaughn

I briefly met Carrie Vaughn at Worldcon in 2010. She was a really lovely person, and on the strength of that I decided to check out her work. This started with Kitty and the Midnight Hour, the first of her best-selling urban fantasy series: there was a lot to like in terms of writing and characterisation, but what really hooked me was Kitty’s job as a radio DJ. So often in UF, the heroines are kickass women doing kickass jobs from the get-go, and while that’s also a type of story I also adore, there was something really special about Kitty being (so to speak) an everywolf – a kind, competent woman doing something she loved, then rolling with the punches when things went sideways. Even so, I was intrigued by the variety of what Vaughn was writing, and so my next port of call were her stand-alone novels: Discord’s Apple, After the Golden Age, Voices of Dragons and Steel. Of these four, my far-and-away favourite was After the Golden Age, which is about a forensic accountant whose parents are both superheroes. What continually impressed me was Vaughn’s versatility: her willingness to play with different ideas to see what happened, and the fact that her heroines – much like Kitty – always feel like very real, relatable women, rather than untouchable action heroes.

8. Lois McMaster Bujold

Early in the year – on the same London trip where I bought Palimpsest, in fact – a writer friend strongly recommended I read some Lois McMaster Bujold. I stored his advice away, and then, during a particularly fulsome Amazon binge, ordered Shards of Honour, the first novel in the Vorkosigan saga. You may judge my reaction to this book by the fact that its heroine, Cordelia Naismith, is now one of my fictional rolemodels for 2012. I cannot even begin to describe how much I love these books. The politics are vicious, intricate and utterly believeable, the action is breathtaking, and the characterisation is pitch-perfect. In addition to Shards of Honour, I managed to get through Barrayar, The Warrior’s Apprentice, The Vor Game, Cetaganda, Ethan of Athos and Brothers in Arms before the end of December; Mirror Dance and Memory are sitting in my to-be-read pile, and as of this afternoon, so are all three volumes of her Chailon series, fortuitously acquired at the second-hand shop. If I could marry her brain, I would. In a nutshell: squee!

9. Laini Taylor

I picked up a copy of Daughter of Smoke and Bone at the local Waterstones. I’d been seeing it reviewed online, but for whatever reason, it hadn’t really registered. The fact that it was shelved with fantasy rather than YA is what made me notice it, because it’s not so often that you see a book that transitions like that; and besides which, it was a signed special edition. So I decided to give it a try, which  turns out to have been one of the best decisions I made all year. As well as being an author, Taylor is also an artist, and her visual imagination comes across beautifully in her worldbuilding. And just, you guys: THE WORLDBUILDING. And the plot. And the characters. And the everything. Without wanting to give too much away – which is actually sort of impossible, so spoiler alert – this book is now my benchmark for any and all stories featuring:

1. Angels and demons;

2. Impossible romance; and

3. Reincarnation plotlines,

because Daughter of Smoke and Bone manages all three like a boss. (End spoilers.) So then I looked up her other works, and was kicking myself when I realised I’d actually seen her Dreamdark books when they first came out, and hadn’t picked them up! Truly, Past Foz is an idiot. But this has now been rectified: both Blackbringer and Silksinger were marvelous, and I cannot wait to see what she writes next.

10. Nnedi Okorafor

I can’t remember whether I first heard of Nnedi Okorafor because of Who Fears Death or because I’d been seeing reviews of Akata Witch cropping up around the place, but either way, I wound up following her on Twitter. The more I heard about her  talk about the themes in her books, the more I knew these were definitely stories I wanted to read, and so without having read anything more than a short story of hers, I ordered Who Fears Death, Akata Witch and Zahrah the Windseeker online. I read Akata Witch first, by way of easing myself in: at least one person had warned me that I might find Who Fears Death harrowing, and in case that were so, I wanted to have read some of her other work beforehand. As things turned out, though, I loved all three books. Okorafor’s constant themes are Africa, culture, feminism, and the power of the outcast, and all her books are breathtaking. Right now, there’s a copy of The Shadow Speaker sitting in my to-be-read pile, and I know that it won’t disappoint.

So, there you have it! Ten awesome authors, all discovered in the space of a year. Seriously though, this whole list should be subtitled How Foz Was Late To The Party, because these are all writers whose excellence has been well-known to other people for years. Only the stubborn idiocy of my younger self is to blame for not having discovered many of them earlier. Damn you, Past Foz! But then, if Past Foz hadn’t been an idiot, I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of finding them all in one go, and 2011 wouldn’t have been nearly so amazing. Nonetheless! To compensate for the fact that everyone on Earth was quicker off the mark than me, here is a secondary list of excellent books to see you on your way. In no particular order:

Five Awesome Books from 2011

1. Water to Burn, by Katharine Kerr

The second book in Kerr’s new urban fantasy series about the exploits of psychic agent Nola O’Grady, following on from by License to Ensorcell, with the third book, Apocalypse to Go, which I was lucky enough to read in draft, about to be released. Rather than rhapsodize anew about why these books are amazing, I’ll direct you instead to my previous review, but in case you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing, just trust me: they are.

2. Delirium, by Lauren Oliver

This book is easily my favourite YA dystopia. The worldbuilding is brilliantly in-depth without being overbearing, the writing is excellent and the characterisation solid, but the sheer power of it is what works: a broken world disillusioned by the problems of 21st century romance, twisted into a passionless society from which only the young or mad can escape.

3. The Shattering, by Karen Healey

Three friends. Three dead brothers. A perfect town. A secret. Read this book; it’s amazing. My review is here.

4. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

An incredible circus. A contest between magicians. Forbidden love. Beauty! Magic! Adventure! What more do you want? Exquisitely written and characterised, The Night Circus took my breath away.

5. The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells

Shapeshifter Moon doesn’t know who his family were; he doesn’t even know what race he is. Finding out takes him on a journey across an amazing, vivid fantasy world, full of a gorgeous variety of cultures, peoples and magic. This is the sort of book you didn’t know you’d been yearning for until you picked it up – so trust me, and do.

So that’s it, folks – my year in books for 2011! What was your year like?

Thanks to the awesome of Twitter contests, I recently won an ARC of Catherynne M. Valente’s new book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which officially has the Best Title Ever. Apart from the usual squee that accompanies the acquisition of a new book, I was particularly excited by this one, having been utterly blown away in February by Palimpsest, which makes reference to Fairyland as a sort of book-within-a-book. Let the record also state that any story featuring a wyvern-library hybrid – that is to say, a wyverary – is destined to occupy a special, warm nook in my heart, in much the same way that delicious chocolate placed within easy reach is destined to be nommed. That being said, approaching anything with greater-than-usual expectations always brings with it the proportionate fear of greater-than-usual disappointment. We do not want to be betrayed, and yet we brace for it, just in case, preparing to heal our hurt hopes by denying we ever had them.

Fairyland does not disappoint.

In fact, it is fair to say, it exceeded my expectations so profoundly, so beautifully, that I was left breathless. Here is the thing about fairy tales: you grow up with them, know them and love them, but even when you try to keep them close – even when you endeavour to remember them – somehow they still slip away from you, because childhood is transient. Even its strongest passions fade and splinter with time. The truths we believed in then are like stained glass windows, and as we age, they grow dirty, or break, or are cast in shade; glass falls away from the leading, and brightens only when some stray sunbeam fires the colours again. Adulthood makes us into archaeologists and scientists, probing at the things we used to love, asking what they mean and how they work, and even though such knowledge is worthwhile, it also changes us: we cannot unsee, unfeel, what it makes us recognise.

Or at least, we can – but only when someone like Catherynne Valente gives us a book like Fairyland. Because as much as the story of September, a girl from Omaha picked up by the mischievous Green Wind and taken to Fairyland, is written for children and young adults, it is also written for all of us who grew up – willingly or not, consciously or not, yet always inevitably – and never stopped wondering how it happened. Fairyland is not folklore as we remember it, but rather a successor tale to Alice in Wonderland: a story on the cusp of things, where adult knowledge has taken the simple rhythms of once upon a time and embroidered them into something richer, stranger: an allegory for everything we used to feel intuitively, but now have learned the hard way. Which isn’t to say that folklore itself is devoid of allegory or hard lessons – far from it. Rather, the resonance of those lessons is for other times and other places, cautionary tales about worlds and mores that no longer exist, so that even if we have been lucky or persistent enough to read the unsanitised versions of Little Red Riding Hood or Rapunzel, we take away only a sense of resonant history, and not a warning about the dangers of our own time.

But Fairyland is written now: its dangers apply to our own world, our own time. September faces fairy-perils, yes, but underneath, the real monsters are bureaucracy, fascism, censorship, prejudice, caste systems, detention and fearmongering; and though she wields fairy-weapons and is helped by fairy-friends, September’s real allies are courage, agency, egalitarianism, fairness, feminism, free speech and compassion. Late in the book, when the titular moment – circumnavigating Fairyland in a self-made ship – finally arrives, it is utterly piercing, an act of beautiful bravery. As September builds her raft from every material to hand, she is left, despite all this effort, without a sail; until she remembers that her own skin is nothing to be ashamed of, and gives up her dress to make one. ‘My dress, my sail!’ she declares, and when I read that, I closed the book and cried, because sometimes there is a truth to words that goes beyond their construction. I can count on one hand the number of stories that have had that effect on me. Fairyland is one of them, and I will never forget it.

Reading this book was like wrapping myself in a blanket. I didn’t read the words; they read themselves to me, and the voice in which they spoke was my mother’s, my father’s, my favourite teacher’s – a synthesis of everyone who read me stories at primary school, in class or the library or putting me to bed, and I suspect that I won’t be the only adult reader to have had that experience. Some stories go to the core of you, and this is one of mine.  The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is an amazing, beautiful, funny, moving, frightening, powerfully imaginative book, and if parents are not reading it to their children five generations from now – or if, at the very least, Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t beg on bended knee for permission to adapt it – then there is no justice in the world.

I’ve just been reading this interesting post over at Katharine Kerr’s blog about trying to define what constitutes a work of literary fiction, as opposed to a work of genre fiction. She also talks about the dangers of arguing against litfic and the literary establishment by way of derogatory strawman arguments, not only because this is exactly the kind of negative pigeonholing SFF fans and writers have always railed against when it’s turned our way, but also because it’s unhelpful in trying to understand what literary fiction actually is. It’s an interesting question, but in trying to answer it, I ended up in quite a different place to where I started. Rather than hijack the conversation, therefore, I’m going to take the comment I left as a starting point for answering a slightly different question: how might a lack of named literary subgenres be impeding the success of women literary writers?

As a casual glance at the blogsphere will reveal, there’s been considerable recent debate in SFF quarters about the feminisation of epic fantasy and the nihilism of gritty fantasy, conversations that have been in no small part facilitated by our ability to distinguish between the different SFF subgenres. We know that Tolkien is the Mitochondrial Eve of fantasy writers: one way or another, all our works descend from his. But as with the human race, things have grown more and more diverse with successive generations, such that trying to use fantasy as an exclusive, catch-all terminology has become, except in the most general sense, both useless and inaccurate. Without a language of subgenre terms with which to discuss these differences, it seems inevitable that SFF writing would automatically default to using Tolkien as a blueprint for all new stories – and indeed, up until very recently, we can see that this was the case. Only when writers started trying to break new ground did an alternate language spring up to try and describe their efforts. Partly, it must be admitted, this happened as a means of distancing such heretical works from their canonical predecessors, but also because it was suddenly necessary to look back over everything that had happened since Tolkien and ask whether fantasy could – or should – be more than just the same old Eurocentric, medieval vision of elves, dwarves, men and halflings fighting a succession of ultimate Dark Lords over and over again.

Suddenly, fantasy ceased to be a universal term, and once we started talking and thinking in subgenres, it became easier to understand why new types of story were arising; to pinpoint the tropes their authors wanted to address or change, and for what reasons. True, it also became harder to classify individual works, and the need to fit each and every book into a particular box is something we’re all still arguing about. But the fact is that language is important. Naming a thing allows us greater control over it, and that’s true regardless of whether we’re talking about the magic of Earthsea or the politics of Earth. Consider, for instance, this article by feminist philosopher Jennifer Saul, wherein she talks about the significance of language in feminism. To quote:

“Languages may also lack words for things that matter a great deal to women. This sort of gap is another way that a language can be seen as encoding a male worldview. The term ‘sexual harassment’, for example, is a recent feminist innovation. Women’s discussion of their experiences led them to see a certain common element to many of their problems, and as a result they invented the term ‘sexual harassment’. Once the problem was named, it became much easier to fight sexual harassment, both legally and by educating people about it.”

Which brings me to the matter of the Orange Prize – or rather, to the recent suggestion that an equivalent award is necessary to combat sexism in the Australian literary scene. It’s none too encouraging a sign when women take steps to set themselves apart from men, not because they want or ought to, but because discrimination has left them with no other means of achieving success. For an intelligent and comprehensive rundown on the issue, I highly recommend this excellent piece by writer Benjamin Law, wherein he says, among other things:

“If you take Brookner’s insistence that a meritocracy exists, what are you supposed to make of the raw figures? Books written by women are reviewed less. Women win fewer literary prizes. If that is a meritocracy, then you have to buy into the argument that books by women must be inherently inferior. I can’t accept that. The danger on relying on meritocracy is assuming one actually exists.”

But what, I hear you cry, does any of this have to do with SFF subgenres? Only that women SFF writers seem to have a stronger platform from which to argue their case for equality, simply because their dialogue about content, bias and narrative is so much more linguistically robust than in the literary community. This is not to say that the problems outlined by the recent VIDA statistics on the representation of women vs men in literary reviews are absent in SFF; indeed, it has been demonstrably proven that they aren’t. But when it comes to the question of awards, it doesn’t seem unduly optimistic to say that change is in the air. The Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel in 2011, for instance, are all, with one exception, women, and the situation is identical when it comes to the Nebula. The 2010 Campbell Award was won by a woman, Seanan McGuire, and for the purposes of my argument about subgenre, it doesn’t strike me as irrelevant to note that McGuire’s debut novel, Rosemary and Rue, was the first work of urban fantasy to win its author the Campbell, nor that it did so in competition with another female-authored UF novel: Gail Carriger’s Soulless.

So much of the debate I’ve seen about the disenfranchisement of women literary writers centers on anger at the perception of women’s novels as being “domestic” (where such a label is pejorative) compared to those written by men, which naturally deal with Big Themes and Important Issues. What has always struck me about this complaint – aside from the fact that it appears to be correct, both intuitively and in terms of critical perception – is the difficulty these writers seem to have articulating the problem. They talk about literature and literary fiction as a single entity, grasping after a magical phrase that will allow them to explain simultaneously why women might indeed be more prone to writing about domestic topics, why this is not a bad thing, and why it still counts as literature. Because such amorphous justifications are exactly what subgenre terminology exists to prevent, allowing us to acknowledge that two different types of storytelling are related to one another, that they share a common ancestry and ultimately a common genre, but that their conventions and approaches may nonetheless be very, very different. As in the case of last year’s Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel, it allows us to put vastly different works like China Mieville’s The City & The City, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest on the same ballot, despite the fact that the first is heavily noir/New Weird, the second is dystopian SF, and the third is urban fantasy/mythpunk.

It also puts the SFF community in an excellent position to discuss tropes and archetypes. A communal, cultural resource like TV Tropes provides a go-to lexicon for discussing narrative structure in shorthand, with many such terms finding their way into the mainstream dialogue as a matter of course. Perhaps it’s because the origins and inspirations of SFF are so heavily rooted in jargon-heavy areas like mythology, science, linguistics, pop culture and folklore that the community has taken so readily to isolating and naming its parts; alternatively, it seems reasonable to assume that any group of people who spend a significant proportion of their intellectual lives reading made-up languages, interpreting new cultures and memorising invented systems of magic will inevitably come to appreciate the deep precision and relevance of language. Whatever it is, the literary community doesn’t seem to share it – or if it does, then to nowhere near the same extent.

As more than one would-be inventor of slanguage has come to realise, there’s no telling which new terms will enter our collective vocabularies or die a series of quick deaths. But as corny and New Age as it might seem, it strikes me that the writers most deeply concerned with the state of literary fiction and its biases against women could do a lot worse than trying to coin some terms of their own: to name the archetypes they wish to invert or criticise and thereby open up the discussion. If authors can be thought of as magicians in any sense, then the root of our power has always rested with words: choosing them, arranging them and – most powerfully – inventing them. Sexism won’t go away overnight, and nor will literary bias. But until then, if we’re determined to invest ourselves in bringing about those changes, it only makes sense to arm ourselves with a language that we, and not our enemies, have chosen.

There’s an interesting post by Matthew David Surridge over at Black Gate about defining epic fantasy, and an equally interesting response by author N.K. Jemisin. Being as how this is a subject near and dear to my heart, I can’t help but contribute some thoughts of my own. Surridge concludes his article with the following definition:

“An epic fantasy is a very long and fundamentally serious story set mostly or entirely in a fantastic secondary world, typically defined by the existence of magic and often fleshed out with maps, appendices, and other paratextual devices; it’s usually an encylopedic, stylistically direct, structurally uncomplicated story in which characters notable for their active agency combat a defined evil, often by forming an alliance, and generally are involved with a world-transformative event.”

It’s a comprehensive definition, and the article itself makes some very good points – and yet, I can’t quite bring myself to agree, because the more I think about it, the more it feels like a definition of one particular type of epic fantasy, and not the genre as a whole. To begin with, I’d like to consider Surridge’s suggestion that epic fantasy is fundamentally serious: that the world and story cannot be comedic. At first glance, this struck me as a reasonable requirement – until I remembered Redwall, a lengthy series of books created by the recently deceased Brian Jacques. Given that Surridge is willing to include William Horwood’s Duncton Wood in his epic canon – which, insofar as animal protagonists are concerned, falls within the same thematic territory as Redwall – Jacques’s work becomes a very interesting test case. For starters, and perhaps most importantly, it is indisputably aimed at young adults. One thing never discussed as part of Surridge’s definition was whether a series should be excluded on the basis of being YA, presumably because most people consider the answer, whatever they think it is, to go without saying, and perhaps also because, if we accept his requirement (I don’t) that epics be not only written in trilogies at a minimum, but trilogies with a combined minimum wordage of 250,000, then most YA books are automatically disqualified.

But Redwall, which runs to more than 20 stories set in the same world, is a definite contender. The vast majority of novels feature overlapping characters – that is to say, characters who appear in more than one book – and at least four whole volumes are dedicated to the lives of historical characters whose exploits underpin the mythology of all later adventures. Paratextual elements abound in the form of poetry, songs and maps. The crisis and conflict of each book is always a world-transformative event, the evil is always well-defined, quests are quested and alliances are most definitely made. And yet the series is also defined by its humour. The hares of Salamandastron, who count among the fiercest warriors in Jacques’s world, are innately comical creatures, affecting the mannerisms and speech patterns of the British aristocracy to such a degree that many of them, sans the fact of their species, wouldn’t be out of place in a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Though the lead villains are always dastardly, their vermin armies of rats, ferrets, stoats and foxes are equally as prone to slapstick and fearful blubbering as they are to ruthless brutality. Comedy is built in to the bones of Redwall, not only as a means of softening characters and concepts that might otherwise be too frightening for younger readers, but because Jacques actively chose to write stories that were equally as capable of eliciting laughter as they were tears.

Beyond the comedy question, and with an eye to further unpicking the Black Gate article, Maria V. Snyder’s excellent Poison Study series stands as strong contender for the notion of YA epic fantasy – as, quite arguably, do the works of Tamora Pierce. But rather than build my definition only in accordance with existing titles, I’ll stop here and consider the question in abstract. The one aspect of Surridge’s definition with which I wholeheartedly agreed was the requirement that epic stories be set either mainly or entirely in a secondary world, one which is frequently (but not necessarily) typified by the presence of magic. In fact, I would go so far as to make it the starting point for my own definition, minus his clarifying remark that most such worlds are similar to medieval Europe. But in order to do that, I must first ask a different question: what are the other fantasy genres, and how are they different from epic? Surridge makes passing mention of heroic fantasy and gritty fantasy, and high fantasy is certainly a known term, but all of these share the secondary world qualification, and having chosen that single factor as a building block, I’ve brought myself to a place where any novel can constitute epic fantasy, regardless of scope, focus or direction, provided it belongs to a secondary world.

This makes for a helpful starting point: nothing more. Because, as tempting as it might sometimes be to have done with the whole question of fantastic subgenres by autocratically declaring everything set in a magical, non-earth world to be epic fantasy, with any other label like heroic or gritty relegated to the nomenclature of individual taste, doing so would be both an oversimplification of epic (hah!) proportions and a gross unfairness to writers who want to find their own, distinct use for secondary worlds. Were I to stop now, for instance, Catherynne M. Valente’s breathtaking Palimpsest would end up categorised as epic fantasy, which it isn’t. And here we encounter the real crux of the matter: a dilemma I’m tempted to refer to as the shelving problem. As things stand, even specialty SFF bookshops will have very few sections, despite the large number of admissible genres. Fantasy, SF and Horror will be honoured with their very own shelves, as, increasingly, will Paranormal Romance – though since coming to the UK, I’ve seen more than one bookstore boasting a Dark Fantasy section, which seems to be a rough equivalent. But the thing about shelving books is that, regardless of content, you cannot put them in two places at once*. Obviously, this is a stricture that applies only in the physical world, and not to definitional debates. And yet, when we think about genre, there is a tendency to behave as if the former principle – the shelving problem – is still the most important consideration; as though, in shaping our notions of genre, we must establish our definition after the fashion of international borders, trying to control not only what goes in, but what can be taken out.

This is not an entirely illogical endeavour, as shown by the above flirtation with an exclusively secondary world definition of epic fantasy. Cast the net too wide, and you end up trying to argue that black is white just because homogeneity is easier to describe. But by the same token, the borders of genre cannot be rigid things. Enforce them too stringently in accordance with too specific a set of principles, and last week’s debate is the inevitable result. Because ultimately, the most common conventions of genre should not be mistaken for the genre itself. The fact that many epic fantasies run to multiple volumes and hundreds of thousands of words, for instance, does not mean that length must be a defining characteristic of epic fantasy. To steal from scientific parlance, that is an instance of confusing correlation with causation. Definitions should not hinge on establishing what is most common; rather, they should ask what is most indispensable.

And so – tentatively, as I am not a perfect, all-seeing, all-tapdancing omniscient – I would suggest that epic fantasy can be defined by the following conditions:

1. Any story which is set, either mostly or totally, in a secondary world; and

2. Which is concerned, either mostly or totally, with the politics and/or history of that world; and

3. Whose arc and resolution, either mostly or totally, involves the use of either magic or technology specific to that world; and

4. Whose characters, either mostly or totally, are instrumental in bringing about the conclusion.

Of all those points, the one I’m least confident in is 3. To my knowledge, I’ve never read a fantasy novel that lacked for magic of some description, or whose fantastic elements weren’t justified by some type of mythic, unobtanium-fueled or genius-dreamed technology. However, that is not to say that such a novel is a thematic impossibility, and if one was written that still met the criteria for 1, 2 and 4, I would be hard-pressed not to term it epic fantasy. For me, the question of whether magic is a necessary component of genre lies right on the borderland between a common characteristic and an indispensable characteristic. For now, I’m working with the assumption that it’s slightly more the latter than the former, but in the end, given that the act of creating a secondary world is automatically an engagement with the fantastic, regardless of whether that world functions exclusively according to the laws of Earth science, I could be persuaded otherwise.

So, that’s my two cents. What’s yours?

*Unless you’ve got multiple copies, but that’s not really the point.