Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

Earlier this week, K. Tempest Bradford wrote an article encouraging readers to forego books by straight, white, cismale authors for a year, the better to “change the way you read and the way you go about picking things to read”. Bradford is not alone in her approach; as she herself mentions, Sunili Govinnage read only authors of colour in 2014, while Lilit Marcus spent a year reading only books by women. The point of such experiments should be obvious to anyone who’s been paying even a small amount of attention to literary and SFFnal politics over the past few years: thanks to a combination of conscious and unconscious bias, works by straight white men are reviewed more, praised more, promoted more and generally given disproportionate prominence in the literary scene than those by other writers, and as such, it’s easy to miss out on excellent books – to say nothing of contributing to a culture where their authors are routinely dismissed – by never questioning what and who we’re reading.

Enter Laura Resnick, who has missed the point so spectacularly, it’s hard to know where to begin. To quote:

…my reaction to being challenged to give up Straight White Male writers for a year goes like this.

I can’t think of any writers whose names indicate their sexual orientation. Can you? Is there any such thing as a gay/lesbian/transgender name? Or do authors routinely list their sexual orientation in their formal jacket bios?…

Nor does an author’s fiction give the reader a reliable indication of his or her sexual orientation. For example, the New York Times bestselling Lord John novels feature a gay protagonist; the author of his adventures is heterosexual (Diana Gabaldon). There are also gay authors who write straight protagonists. I can think of several current examples, but since I’m not sure how public they are about their sexual orientation, I’ll stick with naming the late E.M. Forster and the (very) late Oscar Wilde.

And even when an author’s photo clearly indicates their gender and racial/ethnic heritage, how often do photos reveal their sexual orientation? (Rarely, if ever, would be my guess.)

And what if there is no photo?

And I just.

OK.

This is one of the stupidest strawman misdirects I’ve ever fucking seen. Christ on a bicycle, Resnick is literally writing this on the goddamn internet while flapping her hands like the internet doesn’t exist; like there’s just no way to learn anything about an author’s identity beyond what’s contained in a physical fucking paperback; like Bradford is really just asking us to stand in a bookstore and guess. Bradford, in fact, doesn’t say anything about how readers should go about determining authorial identity, presumably on the basis that explaining how to Google things might come off as condescending. I mean, look, yes: Resnick is correct to assert that you can’t just assume someone’s race or sexual orientation on the basis of their name or the content of their writing, and that identity is a thing with many facets. Obviously. But Bradford has never claimed otherwise, and acting like there’s literally no easy way to learn these things, the whole enterprise is tragically doomed from the start when you are, as mentioned, actually on the internet, is just a whole new level of derailment.

Because once you get down a few paragraphs, Resnick’s real problem with Bradford’s challenge becomes clear: it’s not that she thinks this information doesn’t exist, but that she can’t be bothered to look it up:

So in order to ensure that I am not reading straight white male authors, I’d have to do far more googling and research on writers than I am willing to do, since my interest is in their fiction rather than in the authors or their personal details. And even if I wanted to go to such effort, some of that information isn’t available without a bizarre intrusion into their privacy, since some writers choose not to discuss various aspects of their lives in interviews and social media.

My god, it’s just so hard.

The way Resnick has it, you’d think that Bradford was exhorting us all to start acting like digital stalkers, as though considering the personhood of the author is necessarily synonymous with needing the author’s details any cost, regardless of time or privacy. I mean, does Resnick even understand the part where this is proposed as a challenge – that is to say, as a call or summons to engage in a contest – rather than a set of hard rules for everyone to adopt, forever and ever, amen? And even if Resnick was minded to accept, it’s hardly a policed event: K. Tempest Bradford isn’t lurking outside her house, machete in hand, ready to barge in and demand an accounting if she accidentally reads a straight dude’s book. The actual point in all of this, which Resnick has stubbornly missed, is to encourage people to read more widely; to engage with perspectives other than their own; and to maybe consider the race, the gender, the sexuality of the authors they read as relevant, given the proven cultural bias towards promoting the works of straight white men over others.

The idea that this approach is somehow inimical to having an interest in the content of a writer’s fiction is the exact opposite of what Bradford and Govinnage are positing: namely, that an author’s real-world identity and experiences are sometimes – though not always – reflected in their works, and that if we’ve defaulted to reading only or predominantly one type of author, then perhaps we’ve defaulted to only or predominantly reading one type of content, too. As such, if we are, as Resnick claims to be, sincerely interested in reading good stories, then ignoring the relationship between author and work – as though every book, like the goddess Athena, is cut fully-formed from the flesh of some oblivious, authorial Zeus – is something we should be wary of doing.

And then it gets worse:

Additionally, apart from having no interest in trying to research writers’ personal information before deciding whether to read their fiction, my reaction to Bradford’s article is that I would have found her argument more effective if phrased in a positive and constructive way, rather than phrased in the negative, counter-productive way she chose—by advising on authors (straight white male) not to read.

Ladies, gentlemen and others of the internet, behold this sterling example of tone policing, aka You Didn’t Discuss Your Experiences Politely Enough (According To Me) And So I Choose To Disregard Your Argument. The fact that this approach is favourite among sexists – the “I’d listen to feminists if they weren’t so angry” brigade – makes it doubly cringeworthy when deployed by a white woman against a woman of colour: as Flavia Dzodan famously said, my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit, and in the wake of Patricia Arquette’s tone-deaf call for women who aren’t straight, white or cisgendered to step up and help white ladies achieve equality for themselves, I find myself with even less patience for this sort of White Feminism than usual. I don’t know if Resnick identifies as a feminist or not, but for the love of god, fellow white women: do not fucking tone police women of colour on issues of diversity. More to the point, what article was Resnick reading? Bradford’s piece isn’t an angry polemic against the evils of patriarchy; it’s a calm, articulate acknowledgement of the fact that yes, there’s a bias in the literary world, but here’s a suggestion for countering it.

Again, I feel obliged to point out that nobody is forcing Resnick to read anything she doesn’t want to. Hell, it would’ve been quite easy for her to say, for instance, “I support the sentiment of Bradford’s article, and even if you don’t want to skip your favourite white male authors for a year, there’s still a lot to be gained by diversifying your reading”, and left it at that. Instead, she goes out of her way to attack the logic of Bradford’s challenge, which makes what she says next seem more than a little insincere:

I agree completely that reading a wide variety of authors and themes is a wonderful idea, one to be embraced. This practice has always been encouraged in my family, and it’s practiced by many of my friends, too. I also agree that reading about women, other societies, and other sexual orientations from the perspective of authors who are women, or who are from other societies than our own, or who have other sexual orientations other than “straight” is a suggestion to be embraced. But I don’t agree that limiting my reading in any way is a good idea. Not even if it’s the group—straight white male writers—whose voices have been heard the longest, loudest, and most consistently in our society’s reading culture.

I say again: Bradford is proposing a fucking challenge. By definition, a challenge in any context has rules and limitations, which is how you differentiate your participation in it from the norms of everyday living. That being so, it’s fair to ask: is Resnick opposed to all reading challenges on principle, or just to this one? And if Resnick is really so concerned with the prospect of limited reading, then why has she just spent umpteen paragraphs complaining about how unreasonably difficult it is to try and read diversely?

Years ago, some stranger at a party asked me what I read, as people often do with writers. I named a bunch of books I’d read lately, and named a bunch of writers that were among my favorites, and when I was done… The person asked, “Don’t you ever read any male authors?” I had named only women, and I hadn’t even noticed! Not until this person remarked on it.

Although I still tend to read more women than men, ever since that conversation made me realize I’d been limiting my reading, I make more of an effort to read male novelists. Your mileage may vary, but eliminating straight white male authors from my reading would probably set me back, in terms of the variety I read, since male authors (of any ethnicity or sexual orientation) used to be noticeably absent from my fiction reading.

Look, I’ll be honest: I tend to read mostly women these days, too. But when it comes to my cultural consumption in other areas – when it comes to films, comics, TV shows? Those arenas are pretty fucking heavily male-dominated, even when you actively want to diversify, and as such, I feel no particular urge to try and redress the balance when it comes to written fiction, which is the one narrative arena in which I can come anywhere close to finding parity, let alone surpassing it in my favour. Straight white dudes have a fucking monopoly on visual storytelling, and not just in front of the camera, but behind it, too – directing, scriptwriting, animation and countless other fields are all so squarely white and male, it’s like staring at a box of envelopes. And while I’m not suggesting Resnick should tailor her fiction consumption to fit my preferences, I take issue with the inference that there’s no correlation between straight white male dominance in fiction and straight white male dominance elsewhere; as though this isn’t a single facet of a bigger, more complex problem.

Look at it this way: if you’re eating bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but have fruit for desert, and someone comes along and exclaims over how strange it is that you don’t eat bread for that one last meal, too, then switching to a baguette before bedtime will not add variety to your diet, even if you keep the strawberries. By all means, Laura Resnick, read what you like – but don’t confuse your personal reticence to change your habits, even temporarily, for a reason why the rest of us shouldn’t even try.

 

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Whenever we watch a film or read a book, regardless of genre, we always approach the narrative with a set of basic assumptions about its content. If the story is set in the present day, we’ll expect a certain degree of familiarity with the context, though obviously, these expectations will vary in accordance with where we live and where the story is set. If the story involves a discipline or profession with which we’re intimately acquainted, we’ll likely be more critical of its portrayal than otherwise, because any liberties taken or errors enforced will stand out to us. By contrast, if the subject matter is new, or if it involves something we only recognise as a vague conceptual outline, we’ll be more inclined to take the writer’s word for it – an accurate until proven in- mentality. Which is, somewhat paradoxically, how genre stereotypes often get started: if our only, first or primary exposure to a concept is through fiction, and if we automatically assume that what we’re shown is well-researched, then seeing it presented differently at a later date – even if the subsequent portrayal is more accurate – might trigger our scepticism, especially if we’ve seen multiple versions of the original lie, now leant a greater authority by the act of reiteration.

As such, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between an assumption based on fact, like our own, first-hand knowledge of a profession or practice, and an assumption which is itself based on other assumptions, like a popular, romanticised version of a certain historical era. For all that humans are voracious learners, we don’t always consider how or why we’re absorbing information until someone asks us to provide a source, and by then, it’s often too late.

But what happens when you apply this habit of assumptions to purely fictional concepts?

Science fiction and fantasy stories are full of impossible ideas which nonetheless influence our thinking, taking on lives of their own. Dragons don’t exist, but depending on how we first encountered them, we’re likely to have an opinion about their essential nature; on whether (for instance) they’re more properly treasure-hoarding monsters like Smaug, mystical protectors like Falcor, or soul-bonding companions like Mnementh and Ramoth. But while we might prefer a certain type of dragon, we’re also willing to accommodate changes to their mythology: our assumptions are more fluid than fixed, and if we see something new, our first thought won’t be that the writer is incompetent or misinformed, because we understand that fictional truths are malleable.

As such, we’re supremely unlikely to challenge the presence of a wide and varied range of dragons in SFF: the comic swamp dragons of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld don’t preclude the ferocity of Daenerys’s Drogon or the thoughtfulness of Temeraire, and even when we encounter dragons who completely subvert our Platonic ideal of the species – who don’t breathe fire, who can’t fly, who might be feathered instead of scaled – we still accept the possibility of them, because, well, it’s fiction! Dragons aren’t real, and so they can be whatever we want them to be, up to and including a shapeshifting race of scaly humanoids who live in a mountain-tree. But at the same time, we often hesitate to extend the same degree of narrative diversity to persons who actually exist, even within the parameters of fiction, because it violates one of our assumptions-based-on-assumptions, that women can’t or Vikings didn’t, and therefore hits a mental stumbling-block.

Which, as I’ve said before, is a problem. Particularly in SFF, we’re used to the idea that unreal elements – magic, dragons, FTL travel – are anchored to the narrative by the presence of realism in other areas, like believable characters and settings; but when we start using familiar as a proxy-term for real, we run the risk of letting ill-formed assumptions dictate the limits of the possible – and when we’re dealing with fundamentally impossible situations, that’s an even more pernicious habit than usual. Which begs the question: what are our limits, exactly, when it comes to accepting fictional scenarios? Obviously, there won’t be a universal answer, but in terms of trying to establish a personal one, I’m going to borrow a terminology of limits from BDSM, which is surprisingly applicable: that is, the concept of hard limits, soft limits and requirement limits.

For these purposes – that is, a discussion of narrative preferences – I’m using the following definitions: a hard limit is an element whose inclusion we won’t tolerate under any conditions; a soft limit is an element we’ll entertain under particular conditions, but which otherwise breaks us out of the story and/or compromises its realism; and a requirement limit is an element without which we’ll struggle to enjoy the story at all. Speaking personally, then, and by way of quick example: I would consider the presence of three-dimensional female characters to be a requirement limit. If you effectively eliminate women from the narrative, then you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that you’ve constructed a realistic setting; and even if you include a host of plausible, plot-centric reasons for their absence (all male armies, gender-based plague) I’m still going to look askance at your decision to do so. By the same token, a soft limit would be something like owner/slave romances: I’m not wholly averse to them, but I strongly dislike seeing the issues of consent and power imbalance handwaved Because Feelings.

As to my hard limits, though: that’s an interesting question. Certainly, there are narrative elements for which I have a strong dislike, but in most instances, I’d still classify them as soft limits – that is, as devices that only bother me when they’re done badly, instead of at all – and with the exception of specific triggers, I suspect the same is true for most people. But if we’ve only ever seen an element written badly, or if it’s something we haven’t encountered before, we might reflexively write it off as unrealistic, when what we really mean is that it pushes a limit we weren’t conscious of having, or that its unfamiliarity takes us out of our comfort zone. Engaging with narrative is ultimately a question of immersion, the willingness of a reader to suspend their disbelief, and as with BDSM scenes, it’s difficult to do that if we don’t trust the other party not to accidentally hurt us.

(I have a theory that the emotional comedown we sometimes feel on finishing a powerful story is an equivalent phenomenon to sub-drop, which suggests the interesting counter-possibility that the lethargy and self-doubt often experienced by authors on completing a novel is a type of dom-drop, too. In both instances, there’s a neurochemical rush brought about by intense emotional stimulus – the act of either connecting with a story, or controlling it – that comes to a sudden end, and if we then, for instance, find ourselves feeling guilty about the extent to which we’re obsessing over fictional characters or frightened that what happens next is beyond our control, I see no reason why that couldn’t lead to other knock-on, physical effects. That being so, there’s a commensurate argument to be made that participation in fandom may work as a form of aftercare for creators and consumers alike: a way of reassuring ourselves that our feelings are valid and reaffirming our preferences, which adds a whole new dimension to creator/fan interactions. But I digress.)

Perhaps, then, our idea of realism in this context is less to do with facts and more a question of feelings. A story doesn’t have to be literally realistic, in the sense of conforming to real-world rules, in order for us to believe in the premise; rather, it just has to feel authentic, in the sense of convincing us that the setting is internally consistent, and while our notions of narrative authenticity are always going to be informed by our assumptions, we can still take a flexible approach.

Enter the concept of fanfiction: stories written about settings and characters with which we’re already familiar, but which exist for the express purpose of changing them. By its very nature, fanfiction plays with our expectations: we go in knowing exactly what happens in canon, but every story still interprets and alters that canon differently, and if the original work is incomplete – a show still airing, a film trilogy missing the final instalment, an ongoing series of novels – any fics written before the end are going to have different jumping-off points to those written post-completion. For instance, while it’s common practice for fanwriters to reverse or ignore particular canon deaths, not every fic which features canonically dead characters is a retcon. Instead, it might have been written at a point in time before the deaths had happened, extrapolating future events on the basis of an endpoint that was subsequently superseded: a bifurcation in the timeline, rather than an attempt at overwriting it, and readers will have to navigate the distinction.

As such, fanfiction requires its audience to continually adjust their assumptions, not just about what might happen, but about what has happened already, even when this means uprooting our base concept of the original story. Donald Rumsfeld’s famous line about known unknowns is a strangely apt description of this process, and is therefore worth quoting, not least because the man himself would probably shudder at the comparison:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Or, to put it another way: we know the fic will draw from canon (known knowns) and that parts of it will be excluded or altered (known unknowns), but not what original material the writer will contribute (unknown unknowns). To this, I would also add a fourth category, constituting our base assumptions about narrative and worldbuilding in general: things we hold to be relevant or true, but don’t consciously take into consideration unless forced to do so (unknown knowns). And fanfiction likes to play with these, too – for instance, by making small, pertinent alterations to an otherwise real-world setting and treating them as normative, rather than as an integral aspect of the plot. Which isn’t to say that original fiction doesn’t do likewise. It’s just that, for whatever reason, fanworks seem more willing to take the concept further, making blanket changes to social/sexual norms instead of simply inserting magic into familiar settings.

By way of example, I recently read a Wild West AU where everything was as you’d expect, except for the blanket social acceptance of homosexuality and lack of racism; the primary romance was between two newly married men, while the external conflict involved a pernicious neighbour trying to steal their ranch, and none of the cultural changes were ever questioned. For all that Hollywood can produce something as utterly batshit and ahistorical as Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, I’ve never seen a mainstream narrative write an alternate history for the express purpose of exploring social equality in a different era – but steampunk guns, anachronistic swearing and giant mechanical spiders? No problem.

As an inevitable consequence of being human and having opinions about the world, we’re always going to take our assumptions with us into fiction. But being concerned with realism – or rather, with authenticity – and Malinda Lo has a fascinating essay on the subject, for anyone who wants to explore it in greater detail – doesn’t mean we should have to sacrifice whole fields of narrative possibility for lack of historical or personal precedent. The point of SFF isn’t to convince us that these stories could happen here, but to create a hypothetical elsewhere, parallel to our own, that’s sufficiently internally consistent, or engaging, or preferably both, for us to immerse ourselves anyway.

And if there are dragons involved, then so much the better.

 

 

 

Back in 2008, I found myself somewhat hilariously fired by humourless bureaucrats for, among other things, daring to read Nick Harkaway’s debut novel, The Gone-Away World, by the photocopier. The fact that TGAW is merciless in its mockery of, among other things, humourless bureaucrats only added to the delightful, ironic savour of the experience. More recently – which is to say, this year – Nick has released two more books: fiction/SFF work Angelmakerwhich is a sort of blackly comedic gangster-spy-steampunk novel set alternately in the modern day and WWII, and non-fiction work The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World, an exploration of the many intersections between digital culture and human life – which, quite coincidentally, the wonderful Nick has consented to discuss with me, despite my tendency to ramble. So, without further ado: Nick Harkaway on The Blind Giant

Given its subtitle – Being Human in a Digital World – the casual observer could be forgiven for assuming that The Blind Giant focusses more on technology than it does on being human. In fact, I’d contend, the opposite is true: rather than using the digital world as a lens through which to view social issues, it instead uses humanity and the human condition as a means of analysing what part digital culture plays in society.

I think that’s exactly right – when I did an event at the School of Life the other day, one of the people there described the book as ‘a call to active citizenship’. So much of the digital debate is actually a cipher for debates we should be having about our culture, so a lot of what I’m doing is teasing out technological strands from cultural ones…

At the very least, it alternates between these perspectives in a way that makes the technological elements easily comprehensible to the layperson. Being of the geekish persuasion yourself, and given also the book’s iteration of the importance of constant engagement with the world, was it difficult to keep to a particular structural path and within the intended scope?

The aim was to produce a book with a very wide possible readership – something which would be readable whether you were an absolute blazing Luddite or a grade 1 digiphile. My hope is that there’s something of interest for everyone, that the book can be appreciated at a number of levels, but obviously there are limits on that. Staying within scope was relatively easy, because the idea was to go as broad as possible, to show the top metre of the ocean over a wide area rather than attempt to follow a single narrow fishing line down to the bottom – but staying coherent was harder. I was writing fast and sucking in information as I went along, organising it in Scrivener, trying out pathways. It was genuinely an iterative writing process and I could easily still be doing it. My ideas have evolved since the book came out, largely through dialogues with readers and with fascinating people like Anab Jain, Simon Ings and Andrew Keen. But seriously: the contract and the software kept me sane. I didn’t have time to write Gödel, Escher, and Bach.

Early in the book, you talk about the importance of the digital hearth, deliberately choosing a word with ancient, preindustrial connotations. This is a particularly effective image for many reasons, but chief among them – for me, at least – is the simultaneous invocation of the mythic: of the idea of lares and penates, those minor household deities who were honoured as being integral to hearth and home. In our current world, where both the fluidity of texts and the hearth-extending properties of social media have allowed us to define our digital homes through endless recombinations of the ideological, the sacred and the personal, what sort of figures – whether real or imagined, familiar or unknown – do you think have taken on the equivalent roles of our guardian household gods?

That’s part of our problem, in a sense – they’ve faded into us and we haven’t entirely realised it yet. We’re still looking for external sources of influence and protection – we blame the phone for ringing, the Internet for serving up information, the TV for strobing ads at us. And that’s ridiculous. If we ever make self-aware appliances with volition of their own, we can come back to that, but right now we’re alone with ourselves and if something happens it happens because we did it. We allowed it. I think the alienation comes from the metaphor of cyberspace, which proposed a foreign country behind the screen, and I think that’s breaking down now – thank God – as a consequence of the arrival of the touchscreen. When you can drag data around with your finger, it’s no longer other, it’s immediate. Things are not emerging from a TRON landscape in a subatomic alien world, they’re coming from other people using technology. We don’t need household gods in a literal sense – we need to understand that they were always reflections, and accept the role we took from them.

You talk, too, about the problem of ‘locked in’ systems, which – to quote the book – are defined as such ‘because while we might wish to break out of [the system], we cannot do so without also unravelling everything that has been constructed on top of it, and many of those things are hugely profitable and hence powerful and able to defend themselves. They refuse to be undermined, even while the individuals within them might privately recognise the need.’ This is a very apt description, and one which fits a distressingly large number of systems and institutions. I’m especially concerned about its application to our current educational frameworks; secondary school in particular. Given the myriad disconnects between the old world our educational systems were originally built to support and the worlds – both digital and tangible – that exist now, do you think it’s possible that part of what you describe as ‘the growing sense of abandonment and contempt’ that fuelled the anger of youthful participants in the UK riots could stem, however subconsciously, from the awareness that they’re being trained to enter a society that no longer exists?

I think there’s an element of that. They were told they’d always get richer, that that was the natural state of being in an information economy (which we don’t have, by the way, as Ha Joon observes in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism). They can see in front of them that the pathways they’re on don’t lead anywhere very cool, and that was fine so long as the economy was on the up and they could still expect a rising standard of living. Not any more. Alexis Tsipras told the Guardian the Greek financial situation was part of a war between the people and capitalism. I think he’s almost right: it’s a struggle between sanity and a particular style of finance-based fairydust capitalism which is a bit stupid, a bad iteration which consumes too much fuel and throws up too much waste and benefits a very, very few in the short term. But look, all the rioters knew was that they were getting screwed, and they didn’t like it. That’s what revolutions are in the first place: a sense that you have to push back even if it kills you.

Which locked in system would you most wish to see torn down, and why?

I can’t pick just one. There are simply too many. Gender inequality has to be the most wasteful human-aspected one one. Petroleum is probably the most interconnected, along with beef farming, which results in famine, soil erosion, environmental damage, poor health in the industrialised world, and economic shenanigans around subsidies. The reason to tear them down is the same throughout: they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. They’re aberrant. They cause problems rather than creating solutions. I’m not saying “no oil” and “no beef” – I’m saying that the entrenched systems around those commodities are obnoxious.

Midway through the book, you make a fascinating and deeply significant point about the correlation between the preservation of online privacy on the one hand, and the retention of intellectual property rights on the other. To quote again, ‘You can’t trash privacy and hope to retain a sense of respect for IP.’ Bearing in mind that this is an enormously complex issue, if you woke up tomorrow as King of Earth, what measurements would you enact to try and foster a united sense of ownership and privacy in the digital sphere?

Well, I’d have anyone who pulled what the FBI just did in the Megaupload case tarred and feathered. To clarify: they took a bunch of data they may not have had a right to from New Zealand and are now defending the action on the ironic basis that because it’s non-physical the law does not apply. I mean, seriously? In a copyright infringement case, this is your position. It’s insane. You can’t respect IP if that’s how it is defended.

More seriously: I think I’d legalise encryption globally and institute powerful protections for keys under – at the moment, in the UK, you can go to prison for refusing to hand yours over. In Russia you can go to prison for just possessing encrypted data. Personal data should have the same robust protections as personal space. I’d need to find a balance between powerful protections for the individual and the rights of a free press, but I’m not sure that’s as tricky as people make out. I’d also require a new policy of reasonable enforcement from content owners, since we’re making me dictator. The problem is that they’ve already gone so far down the bad road that it’s going to be really hard to establish a proper social contract again – but it’s the only way they can go, in the end. The alternative is slow exsanguination.

The notion of deindividuation through adherence to impersonal systems is a terrifying one, particularly as exemplified through experiments like those conducted by Zimbardo and Milgram. It’s also a significant theme in both your novels: The Gone-Away World and, more recently, Angelmaker. In the former, it appears as a chilling warning about unyielding and ultimately sadistic bureaucracies, while in the latter, it comes across in the comparison of personal, ‘friendly’ gangster crime, with its weirdly chivalric rules and its black sense of humour, with the impersonal, devouring autocracy of greed and mechanisation. Despite – because of? – being fictional, these stories seem to treat the deindividuation problem as much more of a binary issue than The Blind Giant, which appears to be more optimistic about the possibility of a viable middle path; perhaps because fiction provides the luxury of usurping such locked in systems as would otherwise prove intractable. Even so, the introduction to Giant, wherein you posit both a dystopian and a utopian future as a starting point for discussion, is still titled Dreams and Nightmares – one of the most archetypal binaries of all. How optimistic are you about our ability to change problematic systems without wholly uprooting them?

I know more about deindividuation now than I did when I wrote TGAW, so inevitably there’s more nuance. I still don’t know nearly enough to answer that question. I tend to think the only way it comes right is at a micro-level: citizen action to rehumanise everyone’s relationships. It’s a big ask, but a necessary one if we want a friendly society. It can start small. Smile at the irritating person on the other side of the ticket office glass, say. Get them to smile back if you can. And so on. Day by day, inch by inch, we inhabit a less divided society. It only works bottom up, though.

On a more positive note, something you blogged about recently was the verisimilitude of coincidence in writing. ‘In the small world of the novel, coincidences can multiply. The people about whom you’re telling the story are the people to whom significant events occur, otherwise you’d be telling the story about other people… We recognise the level of connectedness in the world, and we want it to be appropriate.’ This is definitely something I’ve noticed and appreciated in your fiction, but it also seems a fitting description of the way in which you’ve coherently united disparate (or seemingly disparate) ideas in The Blind Giant. Interconnectedness is obviously relevant to the digital world – arguably, in fact, it’s what it does best. Do you think this has changed or is changing the stories we tell about ourselves and our interactions with the world, and if so, how?

I think we’ve become increasingly aware of our connectedness over the last century. Chains, the story by Frigyes Karinthy which began the ‘six degrees’ discussion, was published in 1929. The mathematics of (pre-digital) social networks became apparent before digitisation really took off, though of course the Internet made the connections more discoverable and concrete. So the answer is probably part of the history of 20th Century storytelling, but I don’t know what it is. The stories we tell about ourselves change constantly, and stay the same.

One final query about informed behaviour: you end the book on what is arguably a cautionary note, exhorting the reader to engage with the world, and to be particularly aware, not only of the choices they make, but the many opportunities they have to make them, and of the idea that being the person we want to be ‘is a matter of constant effort rather than attaining a given state and then forgetting about it.’ This is a timely piece of advice, and one that applies just as significantly to our relationships with equality, privilege, politics and popular culture as to our use of technology and the digital world. With this in mind, how best would you advise people only newly aware of the fluidity of our culture to engage with it critically?

The important thing is to ask questions. That is, after all, the heart of the critical process: you ask what a thing is, whether it is what it appears to be. One of the simplest and most effective tricks in a political or a social context is to ask, of any phenomenon, whether it’s really a noun or a fixed situation, or whether it’s created, constructed, and held in place by a continuing action. Mostly, things are the latter, and when you see how they’re held in place you also see in whose interest it is to maintain that they’re part of the natural order of things. Then it becomes a question of what to do next…

Nick Harkaway can be found online at his blog, on tumblr and on TwitterThe Blind Giant is available in both ebook and hardcopy formats. 

So far this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about Broken Bird characters – and apparently, I’m not the only one. Why are they overwhelmingly women? What does their popularity say about our narrative-cultural obsession with romanticising damage, and particularly female damage? Is it possible to write Broken Birds without romanticising their trauma? Can we really say that most Broken Birds are strong female characters when the trope overwhelmingly rejects femininity? And why do such heroines abound in UF and PNR in particular?

It’s an issue I’ve had Feelings about for some time. I learned and fell in love with the trope as a teenager; which is to say, uncritically and before I knew there were words for the patterns I saw in stories, let alone how to apply them. I gravitated to Broken Birds so wholeheartedly that my own early writing is saturated with them. Unconsciously, I’ve built my whole understanding of narrative on a bedrock of Broken Birds – and that makes me deeply uncomfortable, because the logic of such characters is ultimately founded on the deeply problematic romanticising of damage.

No human being is perfect. As the tattooed left arm of a recent bus driver so eloquently proclaimed, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. Even the most well-adjusted person has hang-ups, and as conflict drives stories, it only makes sense that drama and damage be omnipresent in narrative. Traumatic origins make for interesting reading, just as terrible occurrences make for good story-fodder. No matter how grand or intimate the scale of events, calamity and catastrophe stalk the pages of every novel – and rightly so. Small wonder, then, that we routinely exalt characters who rise above the horrors they’ve endured while still being influenced by them. Show us tormented souls struggling for redemption. Show us travel-weary nomads, battle-scarred warriors, guardians of grey areas and hard-boiled detectives. Show us heroes with pasts and antiheroes shackled by honour. Show us doctors who can’t heal themselves and untrusting cynics searching for love. Show us unseen scars and visible. Show us pain, and that pain is survivable.

But never forget that damage has a cost.

Romanticised damage is heroin chic for the soul: no matter how angry, hurt or soulful it looks,  its expression is ultimately constrained by glamour. Real damage is rampant, inconvenient and frequently unbeautiful. Romanticised damage self-medicates, but is never addicted; represses and explodes, but never unfixably; abuses friendships, but never beyond salvation; drinks, but never vomits or blacks out;  seeks self-destruction, but always nobly; hurts itself, but never others; expresses sarcasm, but never joy. On a fundamental level, romanticised damage is an expression of authorial image-consciousness: a limiting awareness of the fourth wall that shies away from having the protagonist behave irredeemably, lest their sympathetic status or morality thereinafter be called into question.

Which is, in a nutshell, how Broken Birds work. Their tortured pasts provoke a specific empathy that their darker impulses must never negate, in order that the one continue to justify the other. It’s a precisely calibrated balancing act that annoys the hell out of me, because – among other things, which we’ll get to – it effectively hardwires the character for emotional stasis. Too much healing, and they stop being broken, which nine times out of ten kills the narrative premise; too much distress, and the dysfunction stops being cute and starts looking villainous, or at best obscenely selfish. Both transitions are narratively workable, but Broken Birds are meant to be beautiful, haunting, troubled: if they can’t rescue themselves, we have to want them to be rescued; if they can rescue themselves, then they’re not broken; and if they can but don’t, then the reason – whether selfishness or stupidity – must render them less attractive, and therefore less birdlike.

Which is where we come back to our first two questions: why are most Broken Birds women, and what does that say about our obsession with female brokenness? By way of answer, I’m going to propose a radical notion: that damage has, narratively speaking, become the go-to justification for escapism.

Consider the following hypothetical premise: a successful, happy twentysomething with a loving family, interesting friends, a good career and a caring partner is suddenly drawn into a fascinating, chaotic and hitherto unknown world of action, adventure and intrigue. This world, however, is swiftly proven to be incompatible with living a normal life. Instantly, the question becomes: Which do they sacrifice? Who gets hurt? Obviously, narratively, we know they’re going to choose whatever this new world entails, because that’s the point – but even though we’re already gunning for a particular outcome, we still want the transition to be painless. This is why so many characters in YA novels are orphans, or have distant, absent or abusive parents: because when the action calls for them to leave home and face the forces of darkness – as it invariably will – we don’t want their loved ones to be injured by the choice. Even though we’ve already chosen a thousand times over in favour of quests, we still don’t want there to be a cost to starting them, because we don’t want to begin by thinking of our protagonist as a selfish, hurtful ass – which is what we, the reader, would be if we upped and left our comfortable life for one of thrills and adventure.

But damage excuses all that. If a character has nothing to lose by jumping headlong into their brave, new world – if nobody will miss them, or if they’re so broken that it excuses selfish decisions – then the usual cost is waived. The damage heaped on the characters is a way of alleviating not just their guilt at going, but our own for wanting it to be easy. For wanting to like them right from the outset.

For wanting to run away, too.

Because no matter what else they might achieve, stories with a new world component are always going to have escapist elements. Narratively, damage is used to justify that escape, to the point where trauma preceding adventure has long since become a cultural default. As a result, we readers absorb the pattern. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we connect damage with freedom; and that makes damage romantic, because it implies – however carelessly, however unintentionally – that the best way out of our everyday lives is to wait for them to implode. In the real world, enacting life-altering change takes extraordinary courage. Travel, changing careers, moving away from our loved ones, swapping partners, going on adventures, living wildly – none of this comes easy, or quickly, or free. But in stories, we can fantasise about all our responsibilities being taken away by fate, thus freeing us up to go on as many adventures as we like without ever having to justify wanting more than what we have.

And this is not a bad or unhealthy thing. The very attraction of ‘my life explodes and then I have adventures’ fantasies is that the vast majority of us never really expect – or, crucially, want – these things to happen. Their safety and entertainment value both stem from their supreme unlikelihood. We know we only get one life, and yet it’s human nature to want more than that; infinitely so. Stories, at their most fundamental level, exist to mitigate this knowledge. Like the third good fairy at Princess Aurora’s christening, we cannot alter this truth entirely, and so, instead, we soften it a little. Thus, like Aurora, instead of pricking our fingers and dying, we enter prolonged dream states and become Sleeping Beauty. We conjure up the ghosts of other existences so that we may live more, not less, continuing down internal roads when real ones are closed to us. Or, as Lewis Carroll put it:

Anon, to sudden silence won,

In fancy they pursue

The dream-child moving through a land

Of wonders wild and new,

In friendly chat with bird and beast —

And half believe it true.

But there is a world of difference between the offhand way we can treat with personal tragedy in our own private, escapist fantasies and the way we ought to treat them out loud, in reality, on paper. Because the thing we all know – the thing we must forget in order to dream our funny, broken, parallel lives – is that real trauma isn’t romantic. Without wanting to imply any necessary, absolute causation between an author’s personal experiences and the stories they write, I would suggest, as a matter of empathic intuition, that someone who has (for example) suffered the loss of their closest family members would be much less likely to casually include this fact in their protagonist’s backstory than someone for whom such personal grief remained purely hypothetical. Or, to put it another way: we respect such rights and losses as we have taught ourselves to respect, which is why good authors – or at the very least, well-intentioned ones – do research. If, on setting out to write a story, we can recognise our own cultural, sexual, historical and/or racial ignorance in areas relevant to our narrative, then why not acknowledge emotional ignorance, too?

In SFF, the simple answer is: because half the fun is making things up. If escapism is still the order of the day – if we can still tell stories where the culture, sexuality, history and races are imaginative extrapolations on the real – then why are emotions any different? And on the surface of things, that’s a fair point. I don’t have to think it’s plausible that a group of sheltered Hobbits from the Shire would find the courage to walk into the fires of Mount Doom in order to enjoy the story, because part of the willing suspension of disbelief inherent in the fictional act – and particularly in SFF – is accepting that, however rare such people might be in the real world, the majority of leading characters tend to be exceptional. Fiction is not like reality TV, shoving a metaphoric story-camera into the homes of ordinary folks in the hopes of striking an eventual dramatic jackpot. Instead, we have already decided our protagonists are different or special, because that is why we are there.

But the leeway this buys us is limited. Real-world causality must always apply to some extent, so that even if we’ve already decided the protagonist is exceptional, their actions still have to make sense. In order to create believable stories about imaginary cultures, races, gender relations and histories, the narrative has to be grounded in something familiar. And, while there’s no rulebook stating this has to be emotional content – which could easily prove impractical in stories about alien, hybrid or other inhuman characters  – more often than not, we mean it as a default. No matter how strange the society or how impossible the scenario, protagonists must still adhere to the rules of the world we’ve written them; and where we’ve left humanity as the default social setting, that means we have to understand their emotions.

Which is why romanticised damage comes off as an indicator of bad writing: even allowing for the fact that your mileage may vary, it still suggests a lack of emotional research; and as such damage is arguably a defining characteristic of Broken Birds, that puts them at a high risk for poor characterisation. To be clear: this is not a blanket attack on stories whose protagonists have traumatic pasts or origins or who continue to undergo suffering, for the simple reason that not all damage is romanticised. As a rule of thumb, romanticised damage is damage portrayed without realistically negative consequences, or whose consequences tend towards the protagonist being cursed with awesome. Such as, for instance, describing a character who has all the behavioural hallmarks of being an alcoholic without ever actually calling them one, or making them black out, or showing them throw up, or do anything but function at 110% while living almost entirely on hard liquor.

This is, I suspect, the main reason why Broken Birds abound in UF and PNR – or rather, the reason why Broken Birds in those genres stand out as being particularly problematic. Remembering the implied covenant of exceptional characters, it can be harder for readers to gauge how exceptional a protagonist situated in a sufficiently distant or fictitious setting actually is, comparatively speaking. If we don’t know anything about their world, its culture and history except what the story tells us, then the emotional narrative becomes something of a closed system: the only facts available to us are those the author chooses to relate, and unless some misstep of writing or characterisation makes us question that system’s integrity, then it only makes sense to accept what we’re told as true. If, on the other hand, a story is set in the present day – however altered by magic, weird technology or alternative history – then the system is automatically thrown open for comparison with our existing knowledge-base; and that’s where things get interesting. Because if the story fails to invoke the unquestioning sanctity of our private loss/escape fantasies – if we expect greater emotional verisimilitude from a published narrative than from our daydreams – then we can claim to know exactly how exceptional a character must be in order for us to believe in their survival.

And Broken Birds, by definition, are limited. Integral to their nature is the requirement of our sympathy: there are some lines they cannot cross, yet they must still be damaged and mangled by circumstance enough that the question of their doing so arises. This creates what I’ll call the Dark Side Shortfall: a contradiction between the negative emotional trajectory objectively suggested by their circumstances and the author’s desire to keep them looking beautiful. A successfully written Broken Bird is one where the writing, characterisation and worldbuilding are solid enough that this limitation never looks like a limitation, but rather the only natural course of events: one where we believe, despite the existence of the trope, that the character would always have made those choices. But if we suspect we are being shielded – if it feels as though the only reason our hero keeps faith is because the author wants them to – then Houston, we have a problem.

Which is where the gender card comes into play, because despite all the advances of feminism and equality, we still think it’s less acceptable for women to be made unbeautiful, whether physically or emotionally, than it is for men. The reason most Broken Birds are women is precisely because we’re more prone to limiting female characters than male, and especially when those limitations are designed to keep us sympathetic – and attracted – to the characters. This is not necessarily a conscious process, although it certainly can be. Rather, it’s a problem of lineage. The classic literary antihero is the hardboiled detective, who, when recombined the femme fatale, becomes the Broken Bird  – an incestuous bleeding together of noir’s most powerful archetypes. But unlike Blade, who inherited all the strengths and none of the weaknesses of his diametrically opposed parents, the Broken Bird is a creature of contradictions. From the detective, she takes strength, cunning and a certain maverick flare. From the femme fatale, she takes vulnerability, a damsel complex and tragedy. In other words, the Broken Bird’s strengths are masculine, while its weaknesses are feminine. And, not unsurprisingly, this is not a combination that works out well for female characters.

Femme fatales, as the name suggests, are dangerous and duplicitous, with both qualities invariably tied to their gender. Classically, if they were ever redeemed, it was through love; but otherwise, while the hardboiled detective was constrained by a personal code of honour (if not the actual law), the femme fatale remained morally suspicious. She was traitor and adulteress, whore and heartbreaker, a liar on the run and a bad girl out for what she could get – and yet, crucially, never an antihero. That mantle was reserved for the men, who worked outside the letter of the law in order to preserve its spirit. In noir, it was the women who made the hard choices, who rode their downward spirals and betrayed to stay alive; but they were also feminine, owning their sexuality and their gender even as they defied the culture and times that sought to label them.

But the typical female Broken Bird rejects femininity. Not sexiness – she’s still the femme fatale’s daughter, after all – but sorority, domesticity, and anything else that’s traditionally been deemed the purview of women. She will not like fashion; she will not wear dresses; she will not want children; she will not cook or clean or shop. She will, instead, be hard and beautiful and broken and, in the vast majority of cases, emotionally vulnerable, unsettled by her love for a man (or possibly two men) with whom, for various reasons, a traditional life is impossible. That’s a key word, impossible, because it points to a redaction of choice. Always, Broken Birds are sculpted by fate and damage: they can’t have normal lives or be like other women, they can’t can’t can’t – so loudly and so frequently that the question of want becomes buried. Broken Birds have trouble wanting. They’ve been burned so many times that they don’t (can’t) know their own desires; they don’t (can’t) know what’s possible in terms of their own happiness, except in the immediate short-term. But it’s this very confusion which frees them up for complicated, uncertain – but undeniably passionate – relationships, and for being rescued, over and over again, by white knights: men who, in a weirdly Freudian twist, quite closely resemble their hardboiled, femme fatale-redeeming fathers.

Does this make them inherently bad characters, or mean that they can’t be strong women? On both counts, no – but as an archetype that seems only to be growing in popularity and whose appeal is often taken at face value, I am much more uncomfortable with the idea of not asking these questions than with poking the trope and seeing what it means.

Footnote: I have, of late, become extremely leery of the phrase ‘strong female characters’ – or rather, of the fact that trying to identify protagonists as such invariably means holding women to higher standards than we do men, because we’re more invested in their measuring up to our personal, feminist ideals. This bugs me, because while the goal of encouraging more and varied fictional ladies is one I endorse wholeheartedly, the risk of unconscious left-wing bias actually making things harder for the groups we mean to support – whether characters or writers – is very real, and something I think we’re blinding ourselves to. Which possibly negates this whole post, inasmuch as I’m talking almost exclusively about the gender-oriented problems inherent in a particular trope, but still: if equality and progress is what we ultimately want from our stories, then we really need to start unpicking male tropes at least as vociferously as we do female; not just in terms of how those characters interact with women, but in terms of the negative lessons they unconsciously impart to men. That includes Broken Birds – and the romanticising of damage – across all genders.

Keen observers of this blog may have noticed my penchant for quoting that Douglas Adams masterpiece, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in reference to real-world events. Today, I will take the time-honoured sentiment that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ and amend it ever so. Because sometimes, truth is exactly as strange as fiction.

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide, a ship from Golgafrincham – containing an entire useless third of that planet’s population – crash lands on prehistoric Earth. Being composed of morons, the crew adopts the leaf as currency, but as mass availability means that three major deciduous forests purchase one ship’s biscuit, they take steps to combat inflation. Bold, visionary steps, viz: burning down all the forests.

Fast forward to Zimbabwe and today’s news: the paper company on which Robert Mugabe has been printing his ever-rising currency denominations has severed its ties to the government. Which means, in practical terms, that in addition to being worthless – the largest note is $50 billion, with a street value of one American dollar – the money will now be scarce. So scarce, in fact, that within two weeks, printing more will be impossible. Mugabe won’t be able to pay his thugs. In all probability, the country will collapse. And Fidelity Printers, whose principled withdrawal over the recent election has precipitated the crisis, will effectively become the first corporation to deliberately and visibly destroy a government.    

It’s almost on par with Morgan Robertson’s 1898 novella Futility, or Wreck of the Titan – published fourteen years prior to the sinking of the Titanic – in which the world’s largest, unsinkable ocean liner hits an iceberg and sinks in the North Atlantic. Seriously.

Which, on many levels, is just plain weird – but arguably no weirder than a beer that costs $150 billion and isn’t brewed from unicorn giggles.

Truth and fiction? Let’s blur dem lines.

I’ve never been one for straight fiction. Maybe it’s because I was entranced by mythology at a young age; or maybe I veered towards mythology after watching The Flight of Dragons, She-Ra and Lady Lovelylocks as an under-six. As far as my subconscious is concerned, however, it’s a chicken/egg debate, because all I’ve ever wanted to read is fantasy.

Socially, we have a tendency to forget – or to not realise – how much of children’s literature and programming is fantastic, adults assuming that if it’s not for them, then normal rules of genre don’t apply. This holds true to a certain extent, biography, crime fiction and romance not being notable picture-book or Sesame Street themes, but there’s still a strong distinction between different types of story.

Fantasy is not commonly used as a blanket antonym to fiction – at least, not by the knowledgeable. Rather than constituting a be-all, end-all, the term becomes a shorthand substitution for science fiction, speculative fiction, steampunk, horror, high fantasy and other such genres, each valid in its own right, but linked always by inclusion of the otherwordly, mythologic, futuristic, magic, make-believe or other such inventive permutation of reality. This diversity, perhaps, is why adults don’t consider children’s stories in the same light: a talking rabbit isn’t fantasy, but childish.

And yet, how else might such narrative be classified? To recall some favourite children’s books, The Wind in the Willows is fantastic, as are The Jungle Book and Watership Down: contrastingly, Two Weeks With the Queen and Tomorrow, When The War Began are not. Looking at television and film, it’s tricky to find purely fictional examples of children’s entertainment – the younger the audience, the more likely that anthropomorphised animals and good fairies will make an appearance.

Personally, I find this all to the good. Beyond escapism, my love of the fantastic stems from its versatility in conveying ideas. Unlike straight fiction, an imagined setting can bestow impartiality on an audience, even if the politics of a story might, when set on Earth, create instant polarisation. It also causes us to drop our guard, with profound meaning conveyed beneath the veneer of unreality. This is the wonderful paradox of make-believe: that any human elements must be more convincing than in straight fiction, lest the reader reject the scenario entirely. The most superficial elements of fantasy genres are, ironically, the same things which distinguish them: wizards, spaceships, werewolves and parallel worlds. The real meat of any story is the characters.

Which leads to the ultimate question: why do adults so cheerfully expose their children to fantasy, even where – as is the case surprisingly often – they dislike it themselves? Apart from inattention, the most likely answer harks back to mythology and the Brothers Grimm. Put simply: fantastic stories are best suited to conveying complex ideas in a memorable, enjoyable fashion. Entranced by Care Bears, Snow White or the exploits of Herclues, children don’t consciously realise the lessons they take from narrative. This is because good fantasy isn’t obvious: the left hand dazzles, while the right hand teaches. Religious critics of J. K. Rowling roundly failed to comprehend this point – that magic is a vehicle for stories, not the purpose. Bad fantasy (or sci-fi, or steampunk) is worse than bad fiction, because it fails on two levels: without substance, the envisaged world quite literally falls apart.  

The oldest stories of humanity are myths: gods and heroes, monsters and magic, quests and curses. These are the templates from which all narrative is built, but which we are often quick to dismiss. Ultimately, all tales are fantasy, in the sense of being invented, and when literary institutions embrace only ‘pure’ fiction as worthwhile, they are, in essence, performing a reverse amputation: cutting off the body to save an arm. Because genre – and the fantastic – constitutes the bulk of narrative, whether filmed or written. Human experience is one thing, but the single most defining characteristic of that experience is the ability to imagine, invent and explore. 

Pretending otherwise is the real fiction.