Posts Tagged ‘History’

Hot on the heels of the Jonathan Ross/Hugo Awards fiasco, Baen publisher Tony Weisskopf has written a post, The Problem of Engagement, which has gone up both at the Baen Books site and as a guest post on the blog of Sarah A. Hoyt, a Baen author. Though ostensibly calling for unity in fandom, Weisskopf’s piece has thus far had the exact opposite effect. Already, the piece has provoked a great deal of commentary, both on Twitter and elsewhere – these posts by John Scalzi and Ana of the Book Smugglers are both good examples – and, if you give it a read, it’s not hard to see why.

It begins as follows:

The latest fooforaws in the science fiction world have served to highlight the vast cultural divide we are seeing in the greater American culture. SF, as always, very much reflects that greater culture.

On its own, this might seem like a fairly innocuous statement to make – until you read further on, to the penultimate paragraph, and find this:

…SF is mirroring the greater American culture. Our country is different because it, like science fiction fandom, was built around an idea—not geographic or linguistic accident, but an idea—we hold these truths to be self evident. And it is becoming more and more obvious that the two sides of American culture no longer share a frame of reference, no points of contact, no agreement on the meaning of the core ideas.

Here’s my problem: intentionally or not, Weisskopf has begun by framing both SFF itself and the current tensions within the  community as being a purely American concern, grown from American politics and American culture. The fact that much of what she’s observing  stems rather from a deliberate rejection of this attitude – from the idea that SFF is a global community – seems completely to have escaped her. Which isn’t to say that internal American politics aren’t evident within fandom: obviously, given the size of the US and the breadth of its political concerns, they are. But in the age of international blogging and social media platforms, where it’s possible to communicate daily with fans and authors from all over the world; where Tor Books is about to publish Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, the first Chinese SF novel ever translated into English; where Japanese anime and manga have so long been staples of global fandom that it’s impossible to try and deny their relevance; where award-winning authors like Nnedi Okorafor, Aliette de Bodard and Helen Oyeyemi are writing (among other things) about cross-cultural politics through an SFFnal lens; where there are whole conventions dedicated to diversity and inclusivity, like WisCon and Nine Worlds; and where many of the field’s best writers are anything but straight, white and male, then acting as though every conversation and argument surrounding these issues is simply the result of Americans misunderstanding each other is, to put it bluntly, utterly wrongheaded.

That’s the real “frame of reference” Weisskopf is missing: the ability to consider American SF as just one part of a wider whole, rather than the be-all, end-all of fannish existence.

Having thus missed one point, Weisskopf promptly goes on to miss another:

When fandom was first starting there was the “Great Exclusion Act” when a group of young, excitable, fanboys attempted to spread their political/fannish feud propaganda at the first Worldcon in New York, and were not only prevented from doing so but not allowed back into the con. All fandom was aflame with war! (The fact that this line is a cliché is also a clue that fandom is not, and never has been, a calm peaceful sea of agreement.)

The reason we have a fandom to disunite now, is because calmer heads prevailed. Bob Tucker in particular, with intelligence and humor, led fandom to the idea that it ought have nothing to do with greater world politics, but should concentrate on the thing we all loved, that being science fiction. (Mind you, his sympathies were with the ones who were excluded, but he was able to overcome his own political inclinations for the best of fandom.)

What I find most curious about this section isn’t the fact that, within the space of two sentences, Weisskopf manages to effectively contradict herself, simultaneously asserting that divisive arguments are both an inherent aspect of, and a potentially fatal menace to, fandom; it’s that she’s speaking in familiar, eye-witness language about events that happened almost thirty years before she was born. Though she carefully doesn’t say so, the “Great Exclusion Act” took place in July 1939, a mere three months before the outbreak of WWII – a time when most people, let alone most intellectuals, were rightly concerned with the links between political action and culture. That being so, it hardly seems reasonable to write off the excluded writers – all of whom were members of the Futurians, a group which included Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl – as little more than “young, excitable, fanboys” trying to spread “feud propaganda”. (Especially when the man doing the excluding, Sam Moskowitz, apparently had a habit of selectively interpreting facts.)

Given her fondness for Americanising the issue, let’s put things in perspective with some American history: Weisskopf is citing a conflict that took place fifty years before the invention of the modern internet, twenty-six years before the overturning of Jim Crow, twenty-four years before women became legally entitled to equal pay, and twenty-three years before  the first American state decriminalised homosexuality as a reason why modern fans should stop sullying the community with politics. Never mind that, thanks specifically to these and other startling political developments over the past seventy-five years, even American fandom is now a much more diverse entity than it was in 1939, with a commensurately greater investment in erasing such barriers to global participation as still exist: why should we bother? It’s not like science fiction is the literature of ideas or anything. Oh, wait.

The fact that fandom as an open culture survived more than seventy years is a testament to the power of that simple, uniting concept.

Yes: the concept that anyone can openly enjoy science fiction and affiliate with others who do likewise, provided they don’t live outside America or belong to any group of individuals whose rights are either currently or historically being curtailed by the US government, thereby limiting their ability to engage without being subject to abuse or discrimination.

That we are once again looking to be rift by a political divide was perhaps inevitable. But as fandom has grown, expanded and diluted itself –

By “diluted”, I assume Weisskopf means “made accessible to more non-white, non-straight, non-male persons than in 1939, on account of all the human rights they’ve been granted since then that have steadily made our community more accessible to others, whether we like it or not.”

– we may have won the überculture wars and lost our heart.  We have not been able to transmit this central precept to new fans. Geeks are chic, but somehow we’ve let the fuggheads win.

And, from my observations, this is an inevitable consequence of the creation of any kind of fandom, from tattoos to swords to us. There is a thing people like. Thing people make initial contact with each other to discuss things and thingishness. At some point a woman (and it’s usually women, no matter what the thing) organizes gatherings, and thing fandom grows bigger and better. At some point, the people who care not about things, but merely about being a big fish in a small sea, squeeze out the thing people. Sometimes thing fandom just dies, sometimes it fissures and the process is recreated. So the fuggheads always win. The only question is how long can we delay their inevitable triumph?

SF fandom has managed to stave it off for a long time. Sadly, we no longer have a Bob Tucker. We don’t have one fan who is so widely respected and loved that his pointedly humorous yet calming voice can soothe the waters. Again, simply a reflection of the greater culture. When SF was aborning, radio and the pulps created huge mass audiences for entertainment. All of fandom read and were influenced by essentially the same small pool of creative endeavor. Now we have not only 300 hundred channels of cable (and nothing on), but the vast output of the Internet, both pro and amateur. It is possible to be a science fiction fan and have absolutely no point of connection with another fan these days.

“People who care not about things, but merely about being a big fish in a small sea”? What does that even mean? Up until now, Weisskopf has ostensibly been asserting that “fuggheads” are those who think political arguments are relevant to SFF, and as such, I can’t help but view her claim that “the fuggheads always win” as lamenting the fact that SFF has progressed in parallel with society. Which is why I tend to get very twitchy around arguments about genre purity and “real” fans: because at base, they invariably constitute a rejection of change. Once upon a time, fandom consisted of a group of people who’d read and loved a finite, specific subset of works: the “thing people”, as Wesisskopf has it, and their “things”. The problem is, of course, that the number and type of SFFnal works has dramatically increased in the 75 years since the Great Exclusion, such that newcomers are now defining themselves as fans – and, by extension, the concept of fandom itself – in reference to a very different subset of offerings, which – horror of horrors! – might not necessarily include any of those beloved, original works. This is what is meant by genre purity: that fans are not fans unless they discover fandom via a strictly limited canon of historical works, an unchanging core around which all subsequent offerings must necessarily orbit. But fandom – like genre, like society, like politics – is a culture,  and no culture which lives is static. Contrary to Weisskopf’s Yeatsian fear that the centre of fandom hasn’t held, unleashing the rough beast of new SFF to slouch towards some politically correct Bethlehem, what’s really happened is this: the centre has shifted, and will continue shifting for as long as SFF remains a living entity.

For instance, a slur that has been cast at people who dare criticize the politically correct, self-appointed guardians of … everything, apparently, is that they read Heinlein. Well, Heinlein is one of the few points of reference those fans who read have. Of course we all read Heinlein and have an opinion about his work. How can you be a fan and not? The answer, of course, these days is that you can watch Game of Thrones and Star Wars and anime and never pick up a book. And there’s enough published material out there that it is entirely possible to have zero points of contact between members of that smaller subset of SF readers.

So the question arises—why bother to engage these people at all? They are not of us. They do not share our values, they do not share our culture.

Apparently, Weisskopf is unaware of the deeply ironic hypocrisy inherent in criticising the “self-appointed guardians of… everything” while taking on exactly that role to excommunicate whole swathes of modern fandom with the damning (and rather medieval) indictment, “they are not of us”.

And as for this false narrative of True Fans vs Pretenders – which categories are here defined as “those fans who read” (all of whom, apparently, have read Heinlen) and those who “watch Game of Thrones and Star Wars and anime and never pick up a book” – well. I’ve seen some pretty bizarre statements about SFF in recent years, but arguing that devotees of two of the biggest, most universally beloved and popular geek franchises plus an entire subset of cultural outpourings aren’t “real” fans has got to take the cake.

And I’m not sure there is a good enough argument for engaging them. There is only the evidence of history, which is that science fiction thrives on interaction. 

You’ll have to excuse me for thinking that Weisskopf just answered her own question, though she goes on to debate it at some length. Why should fans continue to engage each other, not just about the stories they love, but about politics and the political dimensions of SFF? Because it makes us better. We are better, both as a genre and a community, when we confront historic racism and its ongoing implications. We are better, both as a genre and a community, when we endeavour to make our conventions free from sexual harassment. We are better, both as a genre and a community, when we celebrate diversity and the global nature of SFF and fandom.  We are better, both as a genre and a community, when we acknowledge that we cannot be the literature of ideas without letting some of them change us. Yes, it can sometimes be exhausting and strange and disorienting to feel as though your beloved pastime has become nothing more than a series of scandals and angry reactions – believe me, I feel it too. The tectonic plates of fandom are shifting beneath our feet, and that can often lead to fire and explosions. But what’s happening isn’t the End of Days. We’re changing, evolving along with culture and the rest of human endeavour. By demonising the new dimensions of fandom, you’re not keeping the foundations pure and your devotion true – you’re dooming yourselves to extinction, like a species that feeds on a rapidly vanishing food source.

So the core of science fiction, its method, is still a valid way of creating the cultural artifacts we want. But is it necessary to engage those of differing political persuasions to get this method? I feel the answer is probably yes. You don’t get a conversation with only one opinion, you get a speech, lecture or soliloquy. All of which can be interesting, but not useful in the context of creating science fiction. But a conversation requires two way communication. If the person on the other side is not willing to a) listen and b) contribute to the greater whole, there is no point to the exercise.

I quite agree. The problem is that Weisskopf and I apparently disagree on what constitutes “the greater whole”. Those of us who view SFF as a global concern are trying to expand its horizons, seeking stories from a greater range of perspectives, voices and contexts than we’ve ever had before; and of necessity, that means pushing past boundaries – both political and narrative – that were previously seen as the limits of the genre. But it’s these same boundaries that Weisskopf and other traditionalists ultimately want to enforce, drawing a tight, neat circle around that same old subset of stories and interactions to make an immutable centre, only expanding the perimeter after enough time has passed that nothing brought within it could possibly be considered radical, in the sense of being upsetting or unfamiliar. Even if we don’t read him ourselves – and some of us do, and some of us don’t – nobody in the global camp has ever said that reading Heinlen doesn’t make you a real fan, because he’s not the right kind of author; but plenty of people in Weisskopf’s position have said exactly that about the works of N. K. Jemisin, or Faith Erin Hicks, or Hayao Miyazaki, or any number of other creators, because they’re not pure enough. I’d rather fandom be a space for anyone to pass through,  no matter how briefly, enjoying what they like and bringing new things with them, than a zealously-guarded kingdom of roadblocks manned by gatekeepers who demand to see your Tolkien Credentials before letting you inside.

And yet, I can’t help but think that at some point, you have to fight or you will have lost the war. The fight itself is worth it, if only because honorable competition and conflict leads to creativity, without which we, science fiction, as a unique phenomenon, die.

This, then, is the real problem of engagement: that fandom isn’t apolitical, and never was. The idea that debate within the community is fine, provided you don’t go bringing politics into it, is a holdover from the days when politics, by virtue of actively excluding so many different and dissenting people, was therefore considered optional by everyone else – an exterior pursuit wholly disconnected from the business of everyday living. But political debate is only considered optional by those so obliviously content with the privileges afforded them by the status quo as to not understand how any further social change could constitute an improvement, on the basis that it either fails to benefit them directly or appears to diminish their power. As such, the current mania for protecting SFF from politics is synonymous with attempting to protect it from reality. Because it can’t be done, you end up instead with a group of people who’ve managed to convince themselves that their politics aren’t politics, but neutral defaults, angrily decrying those who admit their politics openly as the wilful contaminants of some sacred, apolitical space – as if SFF was ever such a sterile, boring thing! As with the devil, the greatest trick privilege ever pulled was convincing its beneficiaries that it doesn’t exist – but all they really need to do is peek behind the curtain.

Three days ago, Kameron Hurley wrote an amazing piece on the erasure of women’s stories in particular, but especially their contribution to combat, in the course of which she linked to something I wrote last year about default narrative settings. The response to her article – and, by way of the domino effect, to mine – has been overwhelmingly positive, which is both encouraging and wonderful. This being the internet, however, there’s also been some reactive dissent, some of it outrageously trollish (as per one Redditor’s complaint that “not every book has to appeal to females and you have the entire romance genre if you want to read from a females point of view,” which, AUGH), but also a special type of defensive hostility that manages to completely miss the point – in this case, for instance, by asserting that, as the majority of soldiers are still male, it’s a fantasy to pretend that the female ones matter. And as this is an argument whose variants I’ve encountered a lot – not only in response to my PSA post, but generally elsewhere – it’s one I’d like to properly address.

So: Yes. The majority of soldiers in history have been male – that fact is not in contention. Nor am I arguing that women in history never experienced sexism, or that discrimination on the basis of race, class or sexual orientation never kept anyone down. What I am saying, though, is twofold: firstly, that our popular notions of how historical prejudice worked are not always accurate (or are, at the very least, prone to oversimplification), and that this is worth examining, especially in instances where most of what we think we know about history comes from fictional extrapolations of it which are themselves inspired by earlier fiction; and secondly, that acknowledging the reality of historical prejudice is neither the same thing as saying that nobody ever overcame it, nor as believing that such prejudice is inherent to every possible permutation of sentient society. By which I mean: whatever you believe about history, unless you think that human beings are predestined to perpetrate specific injustices regardless of the setting in which they find themselves (which is incredibly depressing, and also intellectually suspect, when you consider the extent to which culture is shaped by context), then admitting the existence of historical prejudices doesn’t obligate you to incorporate them in your fictional worlds.

But, says my hypothetical interlocutor, what about realism? Aren’t all these examples you’re giving me about lady soldiers and crossdressing spies ultimately just outliers and exceptions to the norm? 

To which I say: if your definition of realism hinges on idea that foregrounding a perceived minority is inherently unrealistic, then firstly, I’m going to question whether you’ve ever actually read a fantasy novel, and secondly, fuck you.

No, seriously: have you ever fucking read a fantasy novel? All the oldest, most beloved tropes of epic fantasy are predicated on the idea of taking some impossible scenario, unusual person and/or mythical creature, and then writing an entire fucking story about them – preferably all at once! You think real history was littered with bastard princes raised in secret by wise monks or noble farmers and then sent off on quests to obtain the Magic Sword of Destiny? You think sexy assassins are ten a penny? Do you even know how many fantasy stories explicitly establish the incredibly rarity of dragons, and then spend the rest of the fucking novel trekking to meet them? Are you even reading the same genre as me?

Fantasy is all about foregrounding outliers – quite often, in fact, it does little else. So when you sit there, straight-faced, and tell me you couldn’t get into Novel X because the main character was a black female pirate and that’s so unrealistic, what you’re actually saying is, the only exceptional people I want to fantasise about are the ones who look like me. Because the thing is,  if you’re making this argument in the first place? Then the chances are astronomically good that you’re either a straight white cisgendered male or someone who checks at least one of those boxes – which is to say, someone who sees themselves so well represented in narrative that it’s downright unusual to encounter the alternative. And thanks to the prevalence of those sorts of stories, it’s easy to slip into justifying their monopoly by assuming that any departure from the norm would be, on some fundamental level, unrealistic. I mean, why else call it normal if it’s not the base state of being, right?

Except, no, it’s not. On a global scale, white people are an ethnic minority. Women make up half the population of Earth. Straight away, that’s two of your apparently immutable majority axes defeated by basic math – and as for the rest? Let me put it this way: of all the people on this planet, two percent are naturally blonde, while one percent are natural redheads (and before you ask, no: that doesn’t correlate directly with having light skin – genetically, you can have pretty much any combination on offer). That might sound like a comparatively small number – and yet, if I were to do a random tally of the number of blonde and redhaired protagonists in SFF novels, I’ll bet you I could hit over a hundred just from the books in my house. Given that there are at least as many QUILTBAG persons as redheads worldwide – if not more than all the blondes and auburns put together, the data being understandably hard to measure – then statistically, they ought to have equal representation in the foreground of SFF novels. That would, after all, be only realistic. And yet, if I were to do a similar sweep of the books in my house, I doubt I’d find even a quarter as many such protagonists. We foreground what seems realistic to us, is what I’m saying – but that doesn’t mean our perception of reality is either all-encompassing or accurate.

 

So, yes. Sometimes, when we’re talking about amazing women or queer individuals in history, we’re talking about anomalies. Sometimes – but not nearly as often as you’ve been trained to think. And even if they are outliers, who the fuck cares? Stories about determined underdogs overcoming adversity to do awesome things and make their mark on history are some of the best ones out there. But you know what? That doesn’t make them the only stories you can realistically tell about members of perceived or actual minority groups. The fact that there were incredible women in history who took up swords and played at politics doesn’t diminish the narrative potential of those women who managed their families and held the fort instead – in fact, those two groups aren’t even mutually exclusive. Human beings are versatile creatures, and as rich a source of inspiration as history is for SFF stories, it’s not the be-all, end-all of what’s possible. The only limit is your imagination – or rather, the biases with which you’re content to constrain it.

 

Victorian Women SmokingImage taken from tumblr.

Recently, SFF author Tansy Rayner Roberts wrote an excellent post debunking the idea that women did nothing interesting or useful throughout history, and that trying to write fictional stories based on this premise of feminine insignificance is therefore both inaccurate and offensive. To quote:

“History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.

History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.

But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and other writers of what we now consider “primary sources” simply didn’t think about women and their contribution to society. They took it for granted, except when that contribution or its lack directly affected men.

This does not in any way mean that the female contribution to society was in fact less interesting or important, or complicated, simply that history—the process of writing down and preserving of the facts, not the facts/events themselves—was looking the other way.”

The relevance of this statement to the creation of SFF stories cannot be understated. Time and again, we see fans and creators alike defending the primacy of homogeneous – which is to say, overwhelmingly white, straight and male – stories on the grounds that anything else would be intrinsically unrealistic. Contrary to how it might seem at first blush, this is not a wholly ironic complaint: as I’ve recently had cause to explain elsewhere, the plausibility of SFF stories is derived in large part from their ability to make the impossible feel realistic. A fictional city might be powered by magic and the dreams of dead gods, but it still has to read like a viable human space and be populated by viable human characters. In that sense, it’s arguable that SFF stories actually place a greater primacy on realism than straight fiction, because they have to work harder to compensate for the inclusion of obvious falsehoods. Which is why there’s such an integral relationship between history and fantasy: our knowledge of the former frequently underpins our acceptance of the latter. Once upon a time, we know, there really were knights and castles and quests, and maps whose blank spaces warned of dragons and magic. That being so, a medieval fantasy novel only needs to convince us that the old myths were true; that wizards and witches existed, and that monsters really did populate the wilds. Everything else that’s dissonant with modern reality – the clothes, the customs, the social structure – must therefore constitute a species of historical accuracy, albeit one that’s liberally seasoned with poetic license, because that vague, historical blueprint is what we already have in our heads.

But what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?

The answer tends to be as ugly as it is revealing: that it’s impossible for black, female pirates to exist anywhere, that pixies and shapeshifters are inherently more plausible as a concept than female action heroes who don’t get raped, and that fairy tale characters as diverse as Mulan, Snow White and Captain Hook can all live together in the modern world regardless of history and canon, but a black Lancelot in the same setting is grossly unrealistic. On such occasions, the recent observation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz that “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3rd elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they (white people) think we’re taking over” is bitingly, lamentably accurate. And it’s all thanks to a potent blend of prejudice and ignorance: prejudice here meaning the conviction that deliberately including POC, female and/or LGBTQ characters can only ever be a political action (and therefore an inherently suspicious one), and ignorance here meaning the conviction that the historical pervasiveness of sexism, racism and homophobia must necessarily mean that any character shown to surpass these limitations is inherently unrealistic.

Let’s start with the latter claim, shall we?

Because as Roberts rightly points out, there’s a significant difference between history as written and history as happened, with a further dissonance between both those states and history as it’s popularly perceived. For instance: female pirates – and, indeed, female pirates of colour – are very much an historical reality. The formidable Ching Shih, a former prostitute, commanded more than 1800 ships and 80,000 pirates, took on the British empire and was successful enough to eventually retire. There were female Muslim pirates and female Irish pirates – female pirates, in fact, from any number of places, times and backgrounds. But because their existence isn’t routinely taught or acknowledged, we assume them to be impossible. The history of women in the sciences is plagued by similar misconceptions, their vital contributions belittled, forgotten and otherwise elided for so many years that even now, the majority of them continue to be overlooked. Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie are far from being exceptions to the rule: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Leise Meitner and Emmy Noether all contributed greatly to our understanding of science, as did countless others. And in the modern day, young female scientists abound despite the ongoing belief in their rarity: nineteen-year-old Aisha Mustafa has patented a new propulsion system for spacecraft, while a young group of Nigerian schoolgirls recently invented a urine-powered generator. Even the world’s first chemist was a woman.

And nor is female achievement restricted to the sciences. Heloise d’Argenteuil was accounted one of the brightest intellectuals of her day; Bessie Coleman was both the first black female flyer and the first African American to hold an international pilot’s licence; Nellie Bly was a famed investigative journalist, not only travelling around the world solo in record time (in which adventure she raced against and beat another female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland), but uncovering the deplorable treatment of inmates at Blackwell Asylum by going undercover as a patient. Sarah Josephine Baker was a famous physician known for tracking down Typhoid Mary, tirelessly fighting poverty and, as a consequence, drastically improving newborn care. And in the modern day, there’s no shortage of female icons out fighting racism, sexism, homophobia and injustice despite the limitations society wants to impose on them: journalist Marie Colvin, who died this year reporting on the Syrian uprising; Burmese politician and activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent some 15 years as a political prisoner; fifteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban for her advocacy of female education; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman, who jointly won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for their work in support of women’s rights.

But what about historical women in positions of leadership – warriors, politicians, powerbrokers? Where do they fit in?  The ancient world provides any number of well-known examples – Agrippina the Younger, Cleopatra, Boudica, Queen Bilquis of Sheba, Nefertiti – but they, too, are far from being unusual: alongside the myriad female soldiers throughout history who disguised themselves as men stand the Dahomey Amazons, the Soviet Night Witches, the female cowboys of the American west and the modern Asgarda of Ukraine; the Empress Dowager Cixi, Queen Elizabeth I and Ka’iulani all ruled despite opposition, while a wealth of African queens, female rulers and rebels have had their histories virtually expunged from common knowledge. At just twenty years old, Juana Galan successfully lead the women of her village against Napoleon’s troops, an action which ultimately caused the French to abandon her home province of La Mancha. Women played a major part in the Mexican revolution, too, much like modern women across Africa and the Middle East, while the Irish revolutionary, suffragette and politician Constance Markievicz, when asked to provide other women with fashion advice, famously replied that they should “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver.” More recently still, in WWII, New Zealander Nancy Wake served as a leading French resistance fighter: known to the Gestapo as the White Mouse, she once killed an SS sentry with her bare hands and took command of a maquis unit when their male commander died in battle. Elsewhere during the same conflict, Irena Sendler survived both torture and a Nazi death sentence to smuggle some 2,500 Jewish children safely out of the Warsaw ghetto, for which she was nominated for a Nobel peace prize in 2007.

And what of gender roles and sexual orientation – the various social, romantic and matrimonial mores we so frequently assume to be static, innate and immutable despite the wealth of information across biology and history telling us the opposite? Consider the modern matrilineal society of Meghalaya, where power and property descend through matrilineal lines and men are the suffragettes. Consider the longstanding Afghan practice of Bacha Posh, where girl children are raised as boys, or the sworn virgins of Albania – women who live as and are legally considered to be men, provided they remain chaste. Consider the honoured status of Winkte and two-spirit persons in various First Nations cultures, and the historical acceptance of both the Fa’afafine of Samoa and the Hijra of India and South-East Asia. Consider the Biblical relationship described in the Book of Samuel between David and Jonathan of Israel, the inferred romance between Alexander the Great and Hephaestion, and the openly gay emperors of the Han Dynasty – including Emperor Ai of Han, whose relationship with Dong Xian gave rise to the phrase ‘the passion of the cut sleeve’. Consider the poetry of Sappho, the relationship between Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, the tradition of normative, female-female relationships in Basotho, and the role of the Magnonmaka in Mali – nuptial advisers whose teach women how to embrace and enjoy their sexuality in marriage.

And then there’s the twin, misguided beliefs that Europe was both wholly white and just as racially prejudiced as modern society from antiquity through to the Middle Ages – practically right up until the present day. Never mind that no less than three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table – Sir Palamedes, Sir Safir and Sir Segwarides – are canonically stated to be Middle Eastern, or the fact that people of African descent have been present in Europe since classical times; and not just as slaves or soldiers, but as aristocrats. The network of trade routes known collectively as the Silk Road that linked Europe with parts Africa, the Middle East, India and Asia were established as early as 100 BC; later, black Africans had a visible, significant, complex presence in Europe during the Renaissance, while much classic Greek and Roman literature was only preserved thanks to the dedication of Arabic scholars during the Abbasid Caliphate, also known as the Islamic Golden Age, whose intellectuals were also responsible for many advances in medicine, science and mathematics subsequently appropriated and claimed as Western innovations. Even in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds, it’s possible to find examples of prominent POC in Europe: Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was of Creole descent, as was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the famous British composer, while Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole was honoured alongside Florence Nightingale for her work during the Crimean War.

I could go on. As exhaustive as this information might seem, it barely scratches the surface. But as limited an overview as these paragraphs present, they should still be sufficient to make one very simple point: that even in highly prejudicial settings supposedly based on real human societies, trying to to argue that women, POC and/or LGBTQ persons can’t so much as wield even small amounts of power in the narrative, let alone exist as autonomous individuals without straining credulity to the breaking point, is the exact polar opposite of historically accurate writing.

Which leads me back to the issue of prejudice: specifically, to the claim that including such characters in SFF stories, by dint of contradicting the model of straight, white, male homogeneity laid down by Tolkien and taken as gospel ever since, is an inherently political – and therefore suspect – act. To which I say: what on Earth makes you think that the classic SWM default is apolitical? If it can reasonably argued that a character’s gender, race and sexual orientation have political implications, then why should that verdict only apply to characters who differ from both yourself and your expectations? Isn’t the assertion that straight white men are narratively neutral itself a political statement, one which seeks to marginalise as exceptional or abnormal the experiences of every other possible type of person on the planet despite the fact that straight white men are themselves a global minority? And even if a particular character was deliberately written to make a political point, why should that threaten you? Why should it matter that people with different beliefs and backgrounds are using fiction to write inspirational wish-fulfillment characters for themselves, but from whose struggle and empowerment you feel personally estranged? That’s not bad writing, and as we’ve established by now, it’s certainly not bad history – and particularly not when you remember (as so many people seem to forget) that fictional cultures are under no obligation whatsoever to conform to historical mores. It just means that someone has managed to write a successful story that doesn’t consider you to be its primary audience – and if the prospect of not being wholly, overwhelmingly catered to is something you find disturbing, threatening, wrong? Then yeah: I’m going to call you a bigot, and I probably won’t be wrong.

Point being, I’m sick to death of historical accuracy being trotted out as the excuse du jour whenever someone freaks out about the inclusion of a particular type of character in SFF, because the ultimate insincerity behind the claim is so palpable it’s practically a food group. I’m yet to see someone who objects to the supposed historic inaccuracy of, for instance, female cavalry regiments (which – surprise! – is totally a thing) raise similarly vehement objections to any other aspect of historically suspicious worldbuilding, like longbows in the wrong period or medical knowledge being too far advanced for the setting. The reason for this is, I suspect, simple: that most people with sufficient historical knowledge to pick up on issues like nonsensical farming techniques, the anachronistic presence of magnets in ancient settings and corsetry in the wrong era also know about historical diversity, and therefore don’t find its inclusion confronting. Almost uniformly, in fact, it seems as though such complaints of racial and sexual inaccuracy have nothing whatsoever to do with history and everything to do with a foggy, bastardised and ultimately inaccurate species of faux-knowledge gleaned primarily – if not exclusively – from homogeneous SFF, RPG settings, TV shows and Hollywood. And if that’s so, then no historic sensibilities are actually being affronted, because none genuinely exist: instead, it’s just a reflexive way of expressing either conscious or subconscious outrage that someone who isn’t white, straight and/or male is being given the spotlight.

Because ultimately, these are SFF stories: narratives set in realms that don’t and can’t exist. And if you still want to police the prospects of their inhabitants in line with a single, misguided view of both human history and human possibility, then congratulations: you have officially missed the point of inventing new worlds to begin with.

Don’t let the title put you off. This isn’t what you think.

With few exceptions, there comes a point in every little girl’s life when she first suffers exclusion on the basis of gender. For me, this happened regularly in primary school sports: the boys didn’t like it when I wanted to play cricket, and would actively gang up to ensure I was either kept away from the bat or relegated to the furthest reaches of the outfield. Children aren’t paragons of political correctness: unlike later in life, I knew definitively then that gender was the reason for this behaviour, because I was openly told as much. Over and over again, whether it was soccer or cricket or handball or football or some other thing the boys were doing, I had to fight for inclusion, because even at the tender ages of seven and eight and nine, boys knew that girls were no good at sport; that my presence on the field, let alone my desire to play, was aberrant, and that my foregone incompetence would spoil it for the rest of them.

This isn’t the only way it can happen. Some of the exclusion is even orchestrated by adults, who, whether intentionally or not, project onto children their subconsciously-absorbed ideas about who should be doing what. Don’t play with the truck, dear – it’s for boys. Wouldn’t you rather wear a dress? Only boys have short hair; yours is lovely and long. The inverse happens too, of course, and to equal detriment: in fact, when adults police the behaviour of children, the crackdown on boys who behave in feminine ways is far more severe than what transgressing girls experience, with the result that boys are much more likely to be mocked and policed by their peers, too, and from an earlier age. My own experiences bear this out: only at high school was I ostracized for being masculine. Prior to that, none of my female friends ever minded my tomboyishness – but from the earliest years of primary school, my male friends were actively persecuted by other boys for hanging around with a girl.

The above scenarios are not atypical. Thanks to the hyper-gendering of children’s toys, clothes, television shows, picture books, dress-up costumes and perceived interests, the basic rules of childhood play are rife with learned gender politics. The ubiquity of school-sanctioned sports and games – that is, things boys are stereotypically meant to be good at – during primary education, especially when placed against the comparative dearth of stereotypically girlish activities, means that the dynamics of exclusion work primarily against girls. This is because, while boys are seldom confronted with or encouraged to participate recreationally in ‘feminine’ activities, girls are regularly taught and told to engage in ‘masculine’ ones. This means that unless, like my childhood friends, boys decide on their own initiative to befriend girls or take up ‘feminine’ activities, they may never experience gender-exclusion at school; but that girls, thanks to the gendering of sports and particular play activities, almost certainly will. Perhaps more importantly, however, this skewed dynamic means that both boys and girls are taught to associate exclusion with femaleness. In the vast majority of cases, girls aren’t penalised for behaving like boys – after all, teachers encourage them at sports, and girls are allowed to wear boyish clothing – but for being girls doing masculine things. Boys, on the other hand, are penalised both for behaving like girls AND for being boys doing feminine things. Throw in the fact that boys are invariably penalised more harshly for their transgressions than girls – adults police boys who wear dresses; peers police boys who play with dolls – and you end up with a situation where all children, regardless of gender, are absorbing the message that for many things, it’s better to be masculine and male than feminine and female.

We also teach children they live in an equal society.

Clearly, this isn’t true; and as the above should demonstrate, examples of its untruth abound in childhood. But children, by and large, are not critical thinkers, and adults, by and large, are sadly averse to questions from children that challenge the status quo. Asked whether boys can wear make-up, for instance, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that many, if not most parents would answer that no, they can’t; or that they could, technically, but don’t; or that make-up is just for girls; or even that it’s wrong for boys to do so. And because their question has been answered in accordance with what they see in the world, most children will probably nod and store that information safely away, so that if, some time in the future, they do see a boy or man wearing make-up, they’ll instinctively find it troubling – even though their original question has long since been forgotten. And all of that only concerns gender differences: throw in the additional and equally complex problems of race, nationality, sexual orientation and culture, and you’ve got yourself a maelstrom of youthfully-learned biases.

The point is, childhood matters. A lot.

Which is where we come to the inherent problem of telling these same children, once they’ve grown into teens and young adults, that society is equal. It doesn’t help – and is, I’d contend, actively harmful – that lessons which mention equality are almost always tied to the achievements of a particular historical group (the women’s suffrage movement, for instance) rather than to the pervasive bias that made their actions necessary to begin with. This creates the false impression that, as the movement ultimately succeeded, the equality of the outcome was absolute – and as the lesson tends to be about the movement itself, rather than what came afterwards or its ongoing relevance in the present day, students are left, quite literally, with the feeling that a chapter has been closed. Even if accepting the existence of total equality as gospel means actively discounting our own experiences with inequality as anomalous, the majority of students will do so – because even though teens frequently question the relevance of school or the utility of its lessons, questioning the truthfulness of their content in the absence of external prompting invokes a far greater conspiracy.

How, then, does any of this relate to the frankly incendiary notion that teaching equality hurts men?

Because of everyone, straight, white men are the least likely people to experience exclusion and inequality first-hand during their youth, and are therefore the most likely to disbelieve its existence later in life. Unless they seek out ‘feminine’ pastimes as children – and why would they, when so much of boy-culture tells them not to? – they will never be rebuked or excluded on the basis of gender. Unless someone actively takes the time to convince them otherwise, they will learn as teens that the world is an equal place – an assertion that gels absolutely with their personal experiences, such that even if women, LGBTQ individuals and/or POC  are rarely or never visible in their world, they are nonetheless unlikely to stop and question it. They will likely study white-male-dominated curricula, laugh ironically at sexist, racist and homophobic jokes, and participate actively in a popular culture saturated with successful, varied, complex and interesting versions of themselves – and this will feel right and arouse no suspicion whatever, because this is what equality should feel like. They will experience no sexual or racial discrimination when it comes to getting a job and will, on average, earn more money than the women and POC around them – and if they stop to reflect on either of these things, they’ll do so in the knowledge that, as the world is equal, any perceived hierarchical differences are simply reflective of the meritocracy at work.

They will not see how the system supports their success above that of others, because they have been told that equality stripped them of their privileges long ago. Many will therefore react with bafflement and displeasure to the idea of positive discrimination, hiring quotas or any other such deliberate attempts at encouraging diversity – because not only will it seem to genuinely disadvantage them, but it will look like an effort to undermine equality by granting new privileges to specific groups. Never having experienced inequality, therefore, the majority of straight white men will be absolutely oblivious to their own advantages – not because they must necessarily be insensitive, sexist, racist, homophobic or unaware of the principles of equality; but because they have been told, over and over again, that there is no inequality left for them – or anyone else – to experience – and everything they have experienced up to that point will only have proved them right.

Let the impact of that sink in for a moment.

By teaching children and teenagers that equality already exists, we are actively blinding the group that most benefits from inequality – straight white men – to the prospect that it doesn’t. Privilege to them feels indistinguishable from equality, because they’ve been raised to believe that this is how the world behaves for everyone. And because the majority of our popular culture is straight-white-male-dominated, stories that should be windows into empathy for other, less privileged experiences have instead become mirrors, reflecting back at them the one thing they already know: that their lives both are important and free from discrimination.

And this hurts men. It hurts them by making them unconsciously perpetrate biases they’ve been actively taught to despise. It hurts them by making them complicit in the distress of others. It hurts them by shoehorning them into a restrictive definition masculinity from which any and all deviation is harshly punished. It hurts them by saying they will always be inferior parents and caregivers, that they must always be active and aggressive even when they long for passivity and quietude, that they must enjoy certain things like sports and beer and cars or else be deemed morally suspect. It hurts them through a process of indoctrination so subtle and pervasive that they never even knew it was happening , and when you’ve been raised to hate inequality, discovering that you’ve actually been its primary beneficiary is horrifying – like learning that the family fortune comes from blood money.

To be clear: these personal hurts are not the same as cultural disadvantages (though in the case of men being forced to adhere to a restrictive masculinity, they can certainly cause legitimate pain, distress and disadvantage, the discussion of which would merit a blog of its own). This post isn’t about bemoaning the woes of the privileged, but about making clear the circumstances under which the existence of that privilege can so often go unquestioned and unnoticed by those who have it; and to point out why, when the question of their being privileged is first raised, so many people react with disbelief and anger. I say people, because although I’ve focused this piece on the privileges of straight white men, they are not the only privileged group. Intersectionality must be a serious part of any discourse centered on equality, or else those of us who aren’t straight white men but who nonetheless enjoy privilege will only be training ourselves to unsee our advantages in just as problematic and damaging a way.

We all, right now, need to stop the pretense that the world is anything near an equal place. Sexism, racism and homophobia are not only commonplace, but actively institutional. Universal suffrage and the civil rights movement are not, and never have been, the be-all, end-all of either our legal or cultural freedoms. Fraternities of straight white men have equality – but when you consider that this selfsame group has majority control of Western government, it shouldn’t be hard to understand the ubiquity of the lie that everyone else has it, too. The only way to fight for equality is to acknowledge that we don’t yet have it – and to admit that sometimes, our self-perception, no matter how well-intentioned, is the very thing at fault.

Because teaching equality doesn’t just hurt men. It hurts everyone.

OK SO.

I’m writing right now, it’s late, I don’t have time for a full post explaining why Avatar: Legend of Korra is balls-out awesome, plus and also we’re only two episodes in, and I’d love to have a bit more plot-arc under my belt before I attempt such blogging.

BUT.

The second Katara came on screen in episode one? I started crying – a pattern which repeated itself through each of her appearances. And it’s not like I’m someone who never cries at stories or shows or movies, because IMAGINARY CHARACTERS GET ALL MY FEELS, but there was a weight, an enormous sense of complexity to the feelings just a glimpse of Katara provoked in me – a reaction I hadn’t expected, and which, if I had, I would have assumed could be brought on just as handily by all the gifs and screenshots I’ve been seeing since the first ep leaked (which it wasn’t).

And the difference wasn’t in hearing her talk (though that was part of it) or watching her interact with Korra and Tenzin and her grandchildren (though that was part of it, too) or even seeing her crop up in narrative context rather than abstractly on tumblr (though that strikes nearer the mark).

It was being hit – viscerally, powerfully – by the sense of her as a person, as someone whose youth and formative years I knew by heart, who had lived through the long, rich narrative of her own adventures and survived to become a woman, a waterbending master, a mentor, a mother, a grandmother and a widow, and yet who was giving way gracefully to the new generation: a human grace note in someone else’s story. And even though Korra knew who Katara was and understood the significance of the role she’d played in shaping her world, it was somehow me, the invisible viewer, who had the greater claim on her kinship; because for me – for us – the years of her life had passed in a blink, and in her smile and humour we saw the echoes and strength of a girl that Korra could never know.

And it brought me to tears, because this is the thing that stories do that the real world never can: they show us first-hand the passage of generations, how young men and women grow old and change, and in so doing remind us of all the things in history we can never truly see. Because even though I know my grandmother is an extraordinary woman – that she defied her Irish Catholic family to marry my English Protestant grandfather; that when her husband turned anti-Japanese after the deaths of his friends in WWII, she defied his hurt and taught English to Japanese refugees; that she worked as a gemologist, cutting and polishing precious stones, and learned to paint, and raised two children, and wept when her daughter was able to attain the university education she could never have, and who just before my wedding became a widow – I cannot, not matter how great my empathy, reach into the past and watch the days of her youth unfold. I can glimpse it in photographs; I can search for it in her stories; I can imagine it through her actions.

But I cannot live it the way I can live the fictional growth of a fictional girl who is reaching the end of her beautiful, fictional life. And so I cry, because just for a moment – when I look at age and remember youth – I can almost touch the wealth and the depth of my grandmother’s hidden life.

She turns ninety this month; she was born in 1922. Not long ago, I called and spoke to her on the phone, and when the question of her age came up, she laughed – baffled, wistful, wry – and said, ‘It sounds so old! But I don’t feel any different.’

Ninety years old. And inside her, a girl of five, a girl of fifteen – an endless parade of every girl and every woman she’s ever been. I love my grandmother dearly, and yet I will never know her youth as fully as I know Katara’s, because that’s what stories do: they make magic and turn our hearts inside out, so that just for an instant, reality bends and lets us glimpse what would otherwise vanish forever.

When considering/plotting future UF stories, I strive to be culturally diverse, and not just Eurocentric. I want to have characters from a range of backgrounds, and what’s more, I want to draw my magical inspiration from a range of different sources. My aim is to do this respectfully, without ignorance or appropriation. I am, however, plagued by the following worries:

  • My default setting on magic in the real world is usually some variant of All Magic Everywhere Is Really Part Of The One System, Despite Regional Differences. This is because most world mythologies, at least at the outset, grew up in ignorance of each other, and can therefore only be unified by an amorphous Bigger Picture. I don’t like the idea that only one part of the world got magic (via mythology) right, and inventing new systems that are purely Eurocentric in origin feels like another way of saying that the rest of the world was wrong. But it feels like there’s a difference between rooting around in my own cultural heritage to make new versions of vampires, werewolves and the Greek pantheon, and rooting around in someone else’s to make new versions of celestial dragons, the Egyptian pantheon and djinn.  So I worry that the desire to explain everything as being part of a single system is itself a Western idea, and that there’s no respectful way to get around this.
  • When it comes to choosing the magic of non-Anglo characters, I’m very leery of creating a Captain Ethnic, where someone’s powers are directly linked to their ethnicity. At the same time, I worry that taking a multi-ethnic cast and giving everyone magic that’s derived from Eurocentric mythology, fantasy and folklore is an act of cultural erasure. Neither do I want to invoke the Avatar/Pocahontas plot of a white character inheriting the burden of someone else’s culture. Obviously, these aren’t the only alternatives, but they’re currently the scenarios I worry about the most.

So, internets: any advice?

I just took a photo of a photo

of myself.

 .

In it, a twelve- or thirteen-year-old me

sits on a wedge of carpeted stair,

a GameBoy in her hands as a fixed stare

rearranges TETRIS blocks, with her gold hair

lopped at shoulder-length, tan arms bare

and noticeably darker than a chest more fair,

a pale slope yet without cleavage; and a still air

of concentration. I doubt she knew the camera was there.

 .

My mother sent me the photo. A friend of hers

dug it up, then passed it on.

None of us can recall where it was taken, or why:

the steps are unfamiliar, the occasion itself, if there was one,

lost to history. Still, I recognise things:

the green shirt, favourite, acquired at Christmas – my best friend had one, too;

the black crepe skirt I wore to the theatre;

the sandals, as yet new, which I wore and wore

until they fell to bits.

 .

The GameBoy isn’t mine, though.

This one belonged to my godmother’s son,

a special clear case with black and white graphics

made (or so I can Google now) in 1995.

Mine was yellow, a colour model

not released for another three years, at which time

I saved my birthday money to buy

what my parents wouldn’t. Either way,

it dates the photo: December ’98, I think,

or early ’99.

 .

And now I hold the image twice: once in the print

propped up on my desk, the physical copy passed

from hand to hand, plucked from some album

and mailed overseas; and now, again,

in digital form. I pull out my camera

and suddenly, I’m sucked through time and space,

back to that unknown date and unknown place

to take a photo of my younger self

with a camera more advanced than the game she holds

by a full decade –

 .

And then I’m back, sitting at my rented desk

in Scotland, staring at a tiny screen

and the unblinking face of the girl I was,

wondering what else she knew, and did,

that was never seen.

As has been mentioned previously, I took it upon myself last month to reread all fifteen volumes of Katharine Kerr’s excellent Deverry series – or rather, to reread the first thirteen books in preparation for broaching the final two. Reaching the end of a story you’ve been following since adolescence is always a precarious act: for any number of reasons, the potential for betrayal and disappointment is enormous. I won’t lie, internets. I was nervous. But despite those fears, the ending made me cry, the plot was skillfully was closed out, and I walked away with a feeling of profound satisfaction. Roald Dahl once wrote that “no book ever ends when it’s full of your friends”, and I’ve never felt this to be truer than in the case of Deverry, if only because the entire premise is one of reincarnated characters – as long as they keep being born, their stories will always continue. In final paragraphs appended to the glossaries and pronunciation guides of almost every volume, as well as in quick asides throughout the narrative proper, Katharine Kerr has adopted the voice of Cadda Cerrmor (as the last book names her) – a writer inhabiting modern-day Deverry who she credits as the ‘real’ author. It’s a small detail, but one which lends a wonderful balance to things. Through all its twisting timelines, the series is as much about the history of Deverry itself as it is the myriad lives of the characters, and by providing a glimpse of that country’s future, Kerr has imbued it, not just with a sense of lineage, but potentiality.

In that sense, there’s tremendous significance in the small details which help to close out the series. Though Branna’s invention of the spinning wheel and Neb’s discovery of germs might seem like small things when placed alongside dragons and the end of the Horsekin war, we still experience a little frisson of excitement on hearing them mentioned:  a recognition of the seeds of modernity, and an unshakable sense that Deverry is one of those rare worlds which keeps on turning even in the absence of a reader. Though there are battles, false goddesses and magic aplenty in Kerr’s series, we’re never fooled into thinking that the fate of all Deverry hangs on any one of them – or rather, if it does, then not in the traditional way.

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right. Tolkien, as always, gets something of a free pass for having invented the trope, but even in his case, the whole point of Middle Earth’s elaborate backstory is that everything has already happened: the climactic battle with Sauron is literally the last hurrah of a world in decline, a handover between a magical, imagined past and our own, human future. But where Tolkien was fully cognisant of the shape of his own story, many subsequent authors copied his pattern without, perhaps, a full appreciation for its consequences. Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

The different cultures and races present in Deverry, while seemingly cast in traditional molds – humans, elves, dwarves, dragons, shapeshifters and hordes – are each dealt with in respectful, original ways. Though the elves have long since lost their fabled cities and are reduced to living as nomadic plainsdwellers, Kerr doesn’t fall into the trap of making their previous civilisation a perfect one, even though we still mourn its loss. Rigidly maintained caste systems and a fearsome body of magician-priests stood side by side with beautiful architecture and advanced magics, contrasting sharply with the comparative egalitarianism of their nomadic descendants. Though an elven royal family has been maintained even down the long years of exile, it has never held any special power, being more a ceremonial acknowledgement than anything else. As the elves grow settled again, reuniting with their lost colonies and living openly alongside humankind, there’s a sense of genuine loss: not just for the end of an era, but in the slow, encroaching return to their old monarchy, as Prince Dar becomes increasingly important in response to the Deverrian respect for kings.

At the other end of the scale, the Horsekin and Gel da’Thae, while cast as the villains both historically and in the more present struggles, are never reduced to the role of bogymen. Though undeniably savage in parts, their culture is whole and internally consistent, and as much damaged by their past actions in some respects as was the elven civilisation they destroyed. The bard Meer is a beautiful example of this, not only because he’s a genuinely compelling character, but because his blind devotion to false  lore confronts us with the damage that results when knowledge is lost or destroyed, or when actions are undertaken in ignorance. To a greater or lesser extent, all the cultures of Deverry suffer this particular affliction. Records have been lost, oral traditions have become mired in half-truth, and the steadfast commitment of one character or another to their chosen way of life is always threatened when they encounter other cultures. Just as the shapeshifting Drwgi contrast the dwarves both elementally and in terms of identity, so too do the differing human communities – the free, isolated families of the Rhiddaer, the feudalistic Deverrians and the democratic yet slave-trading Bardekians – contrast each other. Though some practices and thoughts are held almost universally in contempt or esteem, there are always exceptions. Despite what the characters might believe, nothing is fixed.

This sentiment comes out particularly in how the series handles religion. Just as Raena and Rocca, devout priestesses of Alshandra, display pure, heartfelt faith in a being who, unbeknownst to them, only ever pretended to be a goddess, Meer’s trust in his sacred traditions provides a sharp counterpoint to the faith of Deverry men and women, whose deities, if not actually malevolent entities in disguise, were still only ever a product of belief, and not the other way around. Though the only true zealots we ever encounter are devotees of either Alshandra or Aranrhodda, we’re nonetheless forced to ask ourselves why we find their beliefs so discomforting. It’s not just the content of the rituals which matters, nor even, to a certain extent, the violence with which those beliefs are pursued. Rather, it’s our knowledge of whether particular beliefs are true, beneficial, benign, false and/or hostile which ultimately shape our reactions. The dweomer of the Light is both true and beneficial- representing the great Light that shines behind all the gods – while the worship of most established deities, if ultimately false, is still benign. Aranrodda’s worship is equally false, but hostile, concerning itself with vengeance and malfeasance; the same is true of Alshandra, but to a much greater extent. At the far end of the continuum is the dark dweomer, being both true – the actual counterpoint to the Light – and hostile in its practices. As Deverry is a fantastic place, we are in a uniquely objective position when it comes to passing such judgement on the beliefs of other people. In the real world, of course, things are never so simple – but then, the people of Deverry are all real in their own minds: they cannot judge as we do, and so act largely in ignorance of truths they cannot possibly know.

Sexuality – particularly as relates to feminism – is another main theme of the books. Though there is no one definition of strength, many of the strongest characters are female, almost all of whom must struggle to follow their own desires in opposition to various cultural demands. A throwaway Cadda Cerrmor line in one of the later books, noting that the stories are set in a time before women learned to control their pregnancies through the dweomer, pointedly underlines the reality of life without contraception. If the series can be said to contain a dearth of women who are willing mothers, this is only because we’re witnessing a society in which willingness has absolutely nothing to do with motherhood, even for those who embrace it. Lacking any control over their own pregnancies in a society where producing heirs is paramount, women have children as a matter of course: not only is doing otherwise almost impossible, but wanting to remain childless is unthinkable. By focusing on women who actively challenge this mentality, Kerr might seem to modern women, who have a choice in childbearing, to be pushing an agenda: but in fact, she only demonstrates the process by which they came to have that choice. However we might judge a character like Dallandra, for instance, we cannot help but be pierced with rage and sympathy at the plight of Bellyra, a fiercely intelligent queen driven to suicide by a combination of royal imprisonment, a well-meaning but careless husband and, significantly, post natal depression.

Though possessed of original magic, brilliant characterisation and memorable storytelling, in the end, it’s the worldbuilding, history and cultural commentary I love most about Deverry. By creating a world with a unique sense of its own past, present and future, Katharine Kerr has succeeded in building a real place – a sprawling, fascinating realm adjacent to our own, and made accessible through the mother roads of mythology, imagination and truth.

In her book A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom examines the history of marriage and its cultural evolution. “How,” she asks, “did the notion of romantic love, a novelty in the Middle Ages, become a prerequisite for marriage today?” Not having read the whole book, I’m not in a position to comment on its conclusions, but when I saw this article on corporate dating services, her query was the first thing that sprang to mind.

No matter your point of view, modern marriage is in a state of flux. Is it broadening to include homosexual couples? Might polygamy, as was recently asked, evetually become legal? Should our definition of the term remain purely religious? Is marriage on the out, as indicated by rising divorce rates and the attraction of remaning in a de facto relationship? Or is the union overdue for a revival? These are all relevant questions, but even accounting for wide gulfs of disagreement, most people would still acknowledge that marriage, more than anything else, should be about love. Socially, we disdain the notion of marrying for convenience, to the point where that phrase – a marriage of convenience – now carries negative connotations.

So how, then, does the Simply Drinks Exclusive Dating Agency fit with our perceptions?

In keeping with current social norms, the accepted schedule is to fall in love first and maybe get married later. But we baulk at the reverse: the idea of getting married for whatever reason, and only then falling in love. For reasons that might trouble us to articulate, it smacks of wrongheadedness. Why would we want to risk unhappiness? Isn’t it, well, cold to get married without any thought beyond pragmatism? And this, here, is the nub of it: pragmatism. For thousands of years, marriage was, for various socio-cultural, moral and religious reasons, a largely pragmatic institution. It was the done thing; and, more, a thing to be done by a certain age, or before any illegitimate children could enter the picture. It was how families made alliances, gained lands, played politics, ended feuds, claimed kingdoms and produced heirs, because these were the lynchpins on which society was founded. Love was all very well, as the troubadors sang, but in popular mythology and literature, it was frequently tragic.

Nowadays, our belief is that, what with women in the workforce, single and unwed parenthood being destigmatised and no societal pressure to get married at all, any idea of pragmatism in wedlock should be outdated. All you need is love, as the singer sang. But despite our deepest hopes, this isn’t the case. As a species, we aren’t that great at distinguishing love from lust, and psychologically, we seem troubled by the idea that fiery passion is, as a matter of course, transmuted over time. We want to believe that love will be enough, that any deliberate thought of pragmatism need not sully our hands: that we need no stronger foundation for wedded bliss than what we feel in the moment. Love conquers all, as the poet wrote.

But there have always been multiple considerations. What makes Simply Drinks different from other dating services is the level of screening that takes place: the idea that someone, somewhere is carefully vetting potential applicants in accordance with a list of desired attributes – not love, not lust, but basic physical acceptability, financial status, and a certain level of intellectual interest. And from a distance, the process resembles nothing so much as the marriage brokering of past centuries: entering into a relationship, not because of how you feel together, but because of what, potentially, that union brings. The fact that the service is tailored to the rich and, dare we assume, powerful only helps the comparison, as it was noble families who traditionally kept a closer eye on what (or who) a marriage would bring the clan.

Recently, Sam de Brito blogged about a phenomenon which is, in various permutations, becoming more and more common: perfect man syndrome, or the idea that today’s singles seem to be getting pickier about the qualities they look for in a potential mate. Previously, I’ve been content to shrug the issue off, but in light of Simply Drinks, I’m wondering if such high standards actually reflect a desire, however unconscious, to make pragmatic – and not purely romantic – matches.

If this is the case, then it’s easy to see where things fall down: society tells us that we must marry, first and foremost, for love, thus throwing a not-inconsiderable barrier in the path of would-be marital pragmatists. Just as older cautionary tales involve disobedience and recklessly marrying for love, their modern equivalents warn of the other extreme: marrying lovelessly, and the dangers thereof. To be trapped in a loveless marriage is one of our great social fears, and while I’m enough a child of my time to share the sentiment, it’s worth noting that on one level, the very phraseology suggests that the whole of marriage should concern love, and that if it dies, then only a shell remains.

Which brings us, in a very roundabout way, to Jane Austen. Beyond the fact of narrative quality, Pride and Prejudice is romantically timeless for one simple reason: by the end of the story, Elizabeth and Jane have married, not just for love, but with undeniable pragmatism. In Mansfield Park, Fanny is confronted with the prospect of opting, as her mother did, to marry poor for love, and the picure painted is a stark one: yes, there was love, but when it comes to feeding, clothing and caring for multiple children in Cheapside, money has something to recommend itself. The balance of each story, one feels, is a struggle to be both loving and pragmatic: fortunate for Austen’s heroines, in that they inevitably find what they’re looking for, but the dichotomy is real.

At the end of nine paragraphs, it feels like base commonsense to say that the best marriages should be founded on equal parts love and pragmatism. Day to day, there will always be practical considerations, and as most people have an idea of what they want from life, it makes sense to find someone who’s heading in the same direction. Personalities are all-important: just as some will inevitably find happiness in marrying purely for love, others are better off taking the path of Jeff Bridges in The Mirror Has Two Faces (only without Barbra Streisand). But unless we stop and look at the history of marriage in all our talk of renovating it, we’re in danger of moving from one extreme concept to another: privileging love above what it brings to the relationship, confusing balance with lovelessness and compromise with failure. Me, I’m happily married to a loving husband, but when we chose to tie the knot, it wasn’t just for love. We each have goals the other can help fulfill, and, more importantly, wants to help fulfill: we have plans beyond being in love. And if that degree of pragmatism makes me wrong, then baby – I don’t wanna be right.

What is it about human beings and rarity?

When it comes to wealth, fashion and the cultural perception of attractiveness, exotica and the uncommon dominate our tastes. Abundance equals boredom: the easier a style or item is to obtain, the less chic it is – within the given parameters of taste. It’s a mindset that harks back to earlier times, when for most people, ‘luxury’ meant something like glass, lace or satin. Fashions that were strenuous to maintain, expensive to possess and hard to come by were for centuries the hallmark of the nobility, an exclusionary hauteur designed to exhibit wealth and status. The difficulties involved in making purple dye pigments, for instance, meant only Roman emperors were allowed to wear that colour; similarly, the use of rare white ermine to trim royal garments showed how much time and effort the wearer was able to expend on their clothing. In both instances, the scarcity of the components was socially evident: not only were they rare, but the rarity was common knowledge, thus creating an obvious visual distinction between those with wealth, and those without.

In the last few decades, however, traditional Western class and monetary barriers have been eroded. With the creation of a global society and the advent of mass production, there is no longer any implied wealth to wearing this type of material, that type of trimming – and so, by way of development, the concept has evolved in two different directions. Firstly, there is the fashion industry, which praises not the components of clothing, but the notoriety of the maker. This works in a strange reversal of past practice, a kind of fashionista oroborous: designer clothes are fashionable because their expense implies wealth and status in the wearer, but their pricing is linked to random fashionability. In order for this system to function, an entire industry exists to determine which aspects of style – cut, colour, coordination – should bestow fashionability at whatever time. Ultimately, however, the arbitrariness of these opinions mean that fashion is always in flux. Because people must constantly be told what denotes status, as opposed to knowing it as an innate part of their social reality, styles must constantly alter in order to avoid commonality. If lesser designers have time to mimic the desired look for less, thereby spreading it below the intended elites, the entire effect is ruined.

Secondly, however, is the idea of physical beauty. Just as with clothing, human beings have usually preferred a certain physical type or epitome. For much of European history, paleness in men and women was a sign of aristocratic birth, implying that one need undertake no outdoor (physical) labour. Soft hands and long, well-maintained nails meant a woman had servants to do chores for her. The idea of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan beauty was lauded by more people than Hitler, and continues to be echoed, however unconsciously, as a Western ideal. More recently, being tan implied the social status of leisure time: working less and spending more hours in outdoor persuits. Preferred body shapes have fluctuated throughout history, as any quick stroll through an art gallery will show; now, of course, slenderness is emphasised above all else – both for women and men – to such an extent that, socially, we have started to worry.   

Given the origins of fashion, however, I wonder if our present fixation on the physical form is also based on rarity and status. Not long ago, the obsession was fitness – outdoor tans, big muscles, Amazon women, sporting men – in an era when going to the gym was a newly-burgeoned craze. Extreme fitness implied not only the wealth and time for training, but effort. Now, the trend is reversing: slight, skinny and pale are in, while socially promoted leisure has turned away from daytime sports towards nighttime clubbing. Like tightening the notch on a belt, we expect more from our bodies, trying to set ourselves apart from whatever has become average. With fitness currently inseperable from the cultural idea of attractiveness, we are interested in more stringent physical discipline, paring ourselves back to even more exacting standards.       

This isn’t a road down which we can head indefinintely. Already, it seems, we are on the verge of another reversal. Which makes me wonder: what future rarity will sculpt our concepts of beauty and fasion? And might the process ever collapse entirely?