Posts Tagged ‘Scott Westerfeld’

Warning the First: The following views are those of a disgruntled person. Long-term conclusions may be more moderate with hindsight.

Warning the Second: Spoilers for All The Things.  

Internets, I have finally snapped on the subject of YA dystopias.

Half an hour ago, I ran myself a bath and settled in with¬†Fever, the sequel to Lauren DeStefano’s Wither, which I read last year and particularly enjoyed. Rather than recap the story so far, I’ll refer you to Goodreads should you require a detailed plot summary, but in brief, the setting is a romantic/sexual dystopia, and at the end of Wither, protagonist-narrator Rhine had just escaped her forced marriage with the help of her love-interest Gabriel.¬†Fever¬†picks up their story immediately after this point, with our two young lovers scrambling out of the ocean to – they imagine – freedom. Heading inland, they encounter a carnival and are quick-smart captured by Madame, the proprietor, for whom this title is also a job description. Within about ten seconds, Madame has given Rhine a new name – Goldenrod – and taken her up in the still-operational Ferris wheel to talk about becoming one of her girls, where, despite her fear, Rhine can’t help but marvel at the beauty of the world seen from on high:

The seat rocks a little as I settle into it. Madame sits beside me and pulls the overhead bar down so that it locks us in. We start to move, and I’m breathless for an instant as we ascend forward and into the sky.

The earth gets father and farther away. The tents look like bright round candles. The girls move about them, shadows.

I can’t help myself; I lean forward, astounded. This wheel is five, ten, fifteen times taller than the lighthouse I climbed in the hurricane. Higher even than the fence that kept me trapped as Linden’s bride…

Even my brother, who is all practicality, would have his breath taken away by this height, these lights, the clarity of this night sky.

And that’s when I stopped reading.*

Because all of a sudden, it hit me: I’d seen this device before. In the opening scenes of Carrie Ryan’s The Dead-Tossed Waves,¬†the second volume in her YA zombie dystopia series, protagonist Gabry and her love-interest Catcher defy the rules to enter a zombie-infested amusement park. Not unsurprisingly, things go wrong pretty quickly; nonetheless, there’s still time for some opening nostalgia about carnivals:

The story goes that even after the Return they tried to keep the roller coasters going. They said it reminded them of the before time. When they didn’t have to worry about people rising from the dead, when they didn’t have to build fences and walls and barriers to protect themselves…

Even after the Forest was shut off, one last gasp at sequestering the infection and containing the Mudo, the carousel kept turning, the coasters kept rumbling, the teacups kept spinning. Though my town of Vista was far away from the core of the Protectorate, they hoped people would come fly along the coasters. Would still want to forget.

More recently still, a decaying carnival appeared in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, another YA dystopia about which I had very mixed feelings. Midway through, heroine Tris and her love-interest Four climb an abandoned Ferris wheel to use it as a vantage point during a wargame:

Four sits down on the edge of the carousel, leaning against a plastic horse’s foot. His eyes lift to the sky, where there are no stars, only a round moon peeking through a thin layer of clouds…

When I stare up at the Ferris wheel from the ground, my throat feels tighter. It is taller than I thought, so tall I can barely see the cars swinging at the top. The only good thing about its height is that it is built to support weight. If I climb it, it won’t collapse beneath me…

When I look at the city again, the building isn’t in my way. I’m high enough to see the skyline. Most of the buildings are black against a navy sky, but the red lights at the top of the Hub are lit up. They blink half as fast as my heartbeat.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with three separate YA dystopias all including amusement parks. After all, they’re dystopias! It makes sense that the characters would encounter the ruined edifices of modern times, and from an aesthetic point of view, there’s something particularly powerful and haunting about the imagery of an abandoned Ferris wheel. But what jerked me out of Fever was less the presence of a repeated motif than what its usage seemed to represent: the romanticising of our present, and therefore a softening of the pertinent social criticism that ought to be an inherent part of dystopian fiction.

That’s a big claim, I know. But before I go on to defend it, I’d like to present a fourth except in contrast to the previous three, taken from yet another YA dystopia: Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies. Here, protagonist Tally and her friend Shay are hoverboarding along the tracks of an old roller coaster – something Shay has done before, but which Tally has not.

It was like a hoverboard course made solid, complete with tight, banked turns, sharp climbs followed by long drops, even loops that took Tally upside down, her crash bracelets activating to keep her on board. It was amazing what good shape it was in. The Rusties must have built it out of something special, just as Shay had said…

Tally followed at top speed, rocketing up the spindly track. She could see the ruins in the distance: broken, black spires against the trees. And behind them, a moonlight glimmer that might have been the sea. This really was high!…

Suddenly, the board dropped out from under her. It simply fell away from her feet, leaving her flying through midair. The track below her had disappeared…

Then Tally saw the framework of the roller coaster ahead. Only a short segment was missing… Her momentum had carried her to the other side of the gap! The board must have sailed along with her, just below her feet for those terrifying seconds of free fall.

She found herself cruising down the track, to where Shay was waiting at the bottom. “You’re insane!” she shouted.

“Pretty cool, huh?”

“No!” Tally yelled. “Why didn’t you tell me it was broken?”

Shay shrugged. “More fun that way?”

“More fun?” Her heart was beating fast, her vision strangely clear. She was full of anger and relief and… joy. “Well, kind of. But you suck!”

At first glance, it might seem fairly arbitrary as to why I’ve chosen this final scene as a contrast to the others. All four excerpts show female protagonists either experiencing or thinking about the decaying rides of modern-day theme parks; all four mention the height and the view – which is understandable – and all four ladies are in places they shouldn’t be: Rhine has been captured by Madame for trespassing, Gabry is going into a forbidden area, Tris is risking her neck to climb a rickety structure and Tally is breaking multiple laws to follow Shay’s lead. Stylistically, there’s an obvious divide in that DeStefano, Ryan and Roth are all writing in the immediate first person, while Westerfeld uses omniscient third, but that’s vastly less important than the subtext of each scene. Neither is it divided along romantic lines. True, Tally is the only one not thinking about or travelling with a boy, but that’s only because she hasn’t met her love-interest yet, and this is a long-game point.

No: it’s¬†that Westerfeld’s characters are the only ones to find a new use for their carnival, and whose appropriation therefore makes us critique its original purpose. Tally and Shay are the only ones having fun.

Rhine rides her wheel passively – she’s been forced onto it, after all – but takes the chance to reflect on how carefree our world used to be, before it broke into hers. Gabry’s thoughts run down similar paths, despite the fact that she never actually makes it onto a ride. Tris and Four turn their own wheel into a vantage point, true, and there’s a moment prior to their¬†ascension¬†when another character jokes about what a present-day version would entail –¬†‚ÄúA Dauntless Ferris wheel wouldn‚Äôt have cars. You would just hang on tight with your hands, and good luck to you.‚ÄĚ –¬†but this introspection ultimately goes nowhere: the scene is about Tris’s bravery and her relationship with Four, not a commentary on funfairs, and though their climb is dangerous, the Ferris wheel is not forbidden territory.

But in Uglies, there’s a double subversion to Shay and Tally’s scene. Not only have they broken the rules by visiting the ruin, but their use of the tracks as a hoverboard route is much more dangerous than if they’d found and ridden a still-functional roller coaster. Where the original ride was safety masquerading as danger, Shay turns the tables on Tally, tricking her into doing something genuinely risky: jumping an unknown gap. And while Tally’s first reaction is anger, she’s also a bit elated, too – her success is thrilling, empowering, and all the more so because the threat of mishap was real. While DeStefano and Ryan invoke a deliberate nostalgia for the present day through the inner thoughts of their characters, and where Roth’s narration makes us consider the image of a decaying past without offering hope for the future, Westerfeld makes his audience realise that, compared to Shay and Tally’s world, our own is safe – but perhaps, in some fundamental way, less satisfying because of it.

As a subgenre, dystopia has its roots in social criticism. The big adult classics – Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – all end bleakly for the protagonists: their purported futures are warnings, and at least part of their purpose is to make us wonder what horrors our own bad, real-world decisions could ultimately engender. This is not to say that all adult dystopias are concerned with social what-ifs: Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning The Road is unremittingly bleak, devoid of human society – an apocalyptic vision more than a twisted take on human folly – while William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a study of children breaking down into violence, barbarism and anarchy in the absence of any higher moral guidance. By contrast, the archetypal YA dystopia – Lois Lowry’s The Giver –¬†ends on an ambiguous note, leaving its young protagonist, Jonas, hovering somewhere between death and salvation; either way, though, he is free. While Orwell’s Winston is crushed into conformity, Huxley’s savage driven to suicide and McCarthy’s nameless father murdered, Jonas’s story ends on a vision of hope. The closest comparison is with Atwood’s Offred – we don’t see whether her escape succeeds, though the epilogue assures us of her world’s eventual¬†recuperation¬†– but even then, this knowledge is divorced from Offred’s voice. If the job of adult dystopia is to caution, therefore, it seems fair to suggest that the role of YA dystopia is to reassure: not, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, because they tell us that broken societies are¬†survivable, but because they tell us broken societies can be changed.

Which tradition is now upheld by Fever, The Dead-Tossed Waves, Divergent and Uglies¬†alike: even in the case of any as-yet incomplete series, the narrative arc is such that progress is definitely on the agenda. And yet, for all that, there’s a maddening dearth of danger and consequence both in the bulk of YA dystopias – danger, which is here distinct from action, and consequence, which is here distinct from loss. Battle scenes and dead companions are staples of YA dystopia, and yet they tend to feel like punches pulled, potential roundhouse blows swerving away from successive protagonists and into their nearest and dearest. Loss¬†is the moment when Divergent’s Tris loses both her parents and keeps on fighting; consequence,¬†though, is where Katniss Everdeen – the battle-scarred heroine of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy – is left to live with PTSD, irrevocably haunted by the catastrophe of war. Loss, to draw a comparison with another recent bugbear of mine, hints at romanticised damage; consequence does not. Similarly, action is successive protagonists being thrown into battles where the stakes are either death, which seldom afflicts main characters, or the sort of coercion that leaves no marks (and which, when combined with loss, is typified by an absence of psychological scarring). Danger¬†is when the risks involve actual physical and/or mental change – and when the protagonist doesn’t emerge unscathed.

For reasons which are complex and fascinating enough to merit an essay of their own, a staggering number of YA dystopias with female protagonists are concerned with sexuality and romance. In these stories, partners are chosen by higher powers (Matched and Crossed, Ally Condie), love is branded a disease (Delirium and Pandemonium, Lauren Oliver), teenage pregnancy is a way of life (Bumped and Thumped, Megan McCafferty), and brides are stolen freely (Wither¬†and Fever,¬†Lauren DeStefano). At the other end of the scale are female warriors: gladiators-turned-revolutionaries (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire¬†and Mockingjay,¬†Suzanne Collins), questing cage-fighters (Blood Red Road, ¬†¬†Moira Young), face-changing dissidents (Uglies, Pretties, Specials¬†and¬†Extras,¬†Scott Westerfeld), soldiers-in-training (Divergent¬†and Insurgent, Veronica Roth) and zombie-fighting survivors (The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Dead-Tossed Waves¬†and The Dark and Hollow Places,¬†Carrie Ryan).¬†All of these books provoke questions about identity and agency;¬†all of them, too, relate to ongoing political discourse about the role of women in society, whether in terms of sexual freedom or women as front line fighters. But while some of them actively embrace this critical aspect – seeking, in the spirit of dystopia, to make us question both the real world and the fictional – others instead provoke only a sense of gratitude for our distance from their settings. They might still be reflective of current issues, but they shy away from making us make the connection, because their ultimate purpose isn’t to encourage questions.

And this, to return to my opening statement, is why I’ve finally snapped. It’s the Ferris wheel effect: a nostalgia for the present day rooted in being grateful for what we have, rather than in asking where we’re headed. It’s dystopia with the safeties on¬†– and that is, to me, an alarming inversion of how the genre should work. I have nothing against stories being written purely for escapist purposes, but dystopia is not the ideal genre for it. Of course, as in all things, your mileage may vary,¬†in which case you’re wholly entitled to disagree. Yet I’d ask that you ask yourself: what, exactly, is escapist about an uncritical dystopia? While critical protagonists set out to change society, allowing us the fantasy of ¬†being world-altering revolutionaries, uncritical protagonists remain wrapped up in themselves, dealing with immediate, personal obstacles rather than tackling their root causes. Such characters can still change the world, of course – or rather, be instrumental in its change – but the difference is one of intention: their rebellion stems from a desire to be left alone, not to combat injustice, and this difference shows in how the story treats them. They are kept safer than their critical counterparts – exposed to action and loss, rather than danger and consequence – because if something sufficiently bad were to happen or be realistically threatened, then their stories would no longer stand as purely escapist fictions: the audience would no longer want to share in their experiences.

Trigger warning for this paragraph, because we’re going to talk about rape and sexual assault – which are, for me, the crashing, trumpeting elephants in the room in far too many dystopias. On the one hand: these are big issues that ought not be treated lightly. I can understand entirely why authors shy away from mentioning them. They are dark themes, frightening and raw, capable of completely transforming the tone and scope of a book. On the other hand, though: if you build a dystopian society based around the capture, sale and slavery of women – and particularly if the reason for this is tied to pregnancy – then you are automatically inviting this threat to exist. More, if your protagonist is female and she’s trying to escape this world, then you have guaranteed the relevance of this threat. This doesn’t mean your character must be assaulted. It does mean, however, that you need a convincing explanation as to why. Not mentioning it at all, even in passing, strikes me as a form of erasure; a denial of consequence, and a dismissal of the very real trauma suffered by millions of women. If the audience can reasonably infer that rape is a thing that happens in your dystopia, then you are doing a disservice both to us and to the intelligence of your heroine to keep it hidden. The real world has a vile enough culture of silencing without extending a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy to fiction, too.

To be absolutely, brutally clear: I am in no way saying that what YA dystopias need is for more teenage girls to be raped. I am saying that in instances where the plots of YA dystopias are heavily concerned with the control of women’s bodies and female sexuality, failing to even mention rape or assault as part of those societies is not only unrealistic, but an undermining of discourse.

In Delirium, Lauren Oliver does an excellent job of pointing out the perils of her society – all save one. In a world where everyone is effectively lobotomised at eighteen to ‘cure’ them of amor deliria nervosa – love – it makes perfect sense that kindness, hugging, casual touching, kissing and other such tactile displays of affection would all be taboo, reclassified as symptoms of the disease. She mentions, too, the reality of cured parents sometimes killing their children out of anger or exasperation, unable to form the usual parental bond, while married couples – forbidden to choose each other for emotional reasons – consent to be matched by the state. The book is beautifully written and world-built, exquisitely characterised and absolutely compelling. Yet there’s a hole in the heart of it, a question I can’t quite shake: the cure erases love, yes, but what about sexual desire? The two are not synonymous, and though there’s some overlap in which areas of the brain control them – both involve the anterior cingulate cortex, which is connected to the amygdala – sexual brain-mapping lights up multiple other regions. Which begs the question: in a world without love and greatly reduced compassion, where emotions are muted but where – we assume, given that people still reproduce the traditional way – human beings continue to experience sexual arousal, what sort of horrors go on behind closed doors?

Oliver’s world is totalitarian. Its military forces are cold and unyielding, freed from the usual human compassion for their charges. Love might be impossible among the populace, but as the story continually demonstrates, violence is not – and at least for me, that opens the door for a society rife with sexual abuse. Incorporating that possibility into the story, however, would have radically changed its scope. I understand why Oliver chose instead to tacitly infer that the cure, as well as erasing love, also eliminated rape. Delirium is still one of the best dystopias I’ve read in years, and a book I heartily recommend. For all that it doesn’t treat with societal sexuality, it nonetheless counts as a critical dystopia, commenting powerfully on freedom of choice, totalitarianism, propagandising, religion and individualism, inviting direct contrast with present day issues. Yet it, like far too many of its fellows, shrinks from discussing institutionalised misogyny and the specific issues of female oppression.

And this is a problem for me, because it seems to cut to the heart of a different discussion: the perennial questing after strong and varied female characters in SFF. I dislike the oft-floated image of YA books didactically Teaching Lessons To Teenagers; dislike, too, the inference that writing for young adults inherently entails a greater moral responsibility than writing for adults. The primary point of fiction – any fiction – is not preaching. But the lack of a moral burden is not the same as an absence of critical thought, and it strikes me that maybe one of the reasons we’re still having this conversation about the merits of various female characters is because, despite our best efforts, we’re still stuck in a mindset of gender protectiveness, particularly in YA. By which I mean: if you consider the image of a little boy hitting a little girl to be inherently worse than if he were hitting another boy, then we have a problem.

To be clear: targeted physical violence against women is still as much of a global epidemic as sexual violence. It would be hypocritical to suggest that YA dystopias ought to tackle the latter but ignore the former, especially given their penchant for producing physically aggressive heroines who are just as strong or stronger than men, and seemingly without effort. Quite the opposite: I’m actually starting to wonder if, rather than representing an idealised physical equality, such warrior-heroines are really gifted with strength in order to keep them safe, in much the same way that their romance-seeking counterparts are protected from sexual violence by the pretense that it doesn’t exist. In both cases, it seems like the fictional solution to two of the biggest women’s issues going – our physical and sexual vulnerability – is not to confront them, but to erase the reason they exist. That’s what I mean by protectionism: we’re afraid to have our heroines suffer the same dangers as real-world women, and so we keep them safe, bestowing on them unnatural strength if they’re going to fight battles, or removing the threat of rape if they’re going to encounter sexual prejudice. This is by no means a problem exclusive to YA or even dystopia, but my suspicion is that this combination of genres in particular serves to magnify it.

Under such circumstances, then, is it any surprise that we’re still asking ourselves how best to write a wide and gorgeous range of women? It’s not that we don’t understand female versatility – it’s that deep down, we still shy away from having our female characters confront real danger and consequence. Fearful of writing victims, we pretend that victimisation doesn’t exist, and so disengage from the dialogue about how such victimisation might be halted; but of all genres, dystopia shouldn’t shrink from ugly truths – regardless of the age of the audience.

By the end of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, Tally Youngblood has undergone multiple transformations: from her natural self to a cosmetically enhanced Pretty, and last to a fearsome Special. Offered the chance to return to who she originally was, she refuses and finds herself imprisoned: her allies want to indoctrinate her into thinking such a reversal is for the best. But Tally is stubborn. As dangerous as she’s become, the only way forward is for her to rewire herself, alone: to become something new, no matter how uncomfortable her self-acceptance makes other people.

And if YA dystopias are serious about offering social criticism – if they really want to discuss the role of women in society – then they need to do the same.

* For now. I do plan to finish the book!

There has been some controversy on the internets this week. Specifically – as this is otherwise a useless and self-evident statement akin to pointing out that the Earth revolves around the sun – on the subject of steampunk.

Now: I get that it’s in the nature of human beings to be critical. We all have little mental pressure valves that sometimes need to be vented in full, no matter how slight the final provocation. The results of this are not always entirely rational, and don’t even necessarily represent our day-to-day views; or, if they do, then in a more polarised, less compromising format. For instance: when my husband and I were cycling along the Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand in the first week of our honeymoon, a territorial magpie flew right into the side of my un-helmeted head, causing me to fall to the dirt, cry just a little bit out of shock, and – once I straightened up – to bleed from the temple. This prompted my significant other to launch into an angry, fifteen-minute long tirade about how all magpies were basically just flying rats, they’re bloody dangerous and their singing’s not even that great, fucking magpies, flying around like they own the place, and so on until I had a little less blood streaming from my head and had recovered enough to point out that, one, the magpie had gone; two, I didn’t think it had actually meant to hit me, if its stunned retreat was anything to go by; and three, magpies are actually pretty cool, when they’re not defending their nests.

Thus assauged by my recovery, my beloved came to see the humour in the incident, and returned emotionally to his default state of Magpies Are Fine, Or At Least Not Worth Getting Constantly Worked Up About. And thus, the point: while a little vitriol from time to time is both healthy and human, the important thing is to recognise when the rage has passed, and to compensate accordingly. Which brings me to Cat Valente’s recent blog on the problems of steampunk, a post that was clearly written while in the throes of anger, and which she has subsequently followed up with both a concession to that fact and a list of ten things she actually does love about steampunk. My reactions to her initial post aside, these efforts at conciliation are worthy of respect, in that Valente has been both brave enough, while impassioned, to share her views publicly, and then adult enough to try and engage afterwards in a more constructive dialogue. So, points for maturity.

Charles Stross has also written an anti-steampunk post, one which predates Valente’s and to which she makes passing reference; and then, in seeming response to both these views, but specifically to that of Stross, we have Scott Westerfeld’s defence of steampunk. In case you have been living in a hole, it is not unrelevant that Westerfeld’s two most recent novels are themselves works of YA steampunk: Leviathan and its immediate sequel, the newly-released Behemoth. There have also been other sundry responses lurking about the webnologies, notably this piece by Kirstyn McDermott, who agrees with Valente, and a critique of the anti-steampunk position by jadegirl (props to marydell for the link). But in case you’d rather skip the links, here is my breakdown of both camps:

Anti-Steampunk

1. As a sub-genre, steampunk is more concerned with the visual aesthetics of sticking goggles and cogs on top hats than dealing with the actual, complex and fascinating social issues of the era in question, a complaint which is best expressed by this comic. (Sidenote: no matter who you agree with, Kate Beaton is awesome.)

2. That this preoccupation is not only detrimental in terms of encouraging the production pulp, adventuristic works rather than meaningful narrative, but actively problematic in terms of glamourising a deeply flawed Empire: a Dickensian time characterised by the oppression of women, minorities and anyone not actually an Earl; an expansionist and militarised culture; the gruesome rise of industrialisation and crippling factory-work as was frequently undertaken by the disenfranchised masses, especially children; and prohibitive sexual mores. Furthermore, the -punk suffix of the genre itself should imply an innate receptivity to counterculture, and that by ignoring these issues, steampunk is effectively betraying itself.

3. That the end result of all of the above is yet another fad being pounced on by the Great Marketing Machine, resulting in the premature cheapening of something that could have been good, if it had only been kept in the hands of those interested in doing it well, but which has instead become a cheap, conglomerate, prepacked affair with as much sub- and counter-cultural cred as Ronald McDonald, pandering to steampunks who all dress the same while trying to be different. There are no more heroes, etc. (See again Kate Beaton, re: hipsters ruin everything.)

Pro-Steampunk

1. Yes, there is a visual element to steampunk. And it involves goggles! But the presence of a coherent aesthetic style does not prevent meaningful social discussion within the genre, any more than wearing a pretty pink dress prevents a woman from holding intelligent opinions. By critiquing steampunk foremost on the basis of how it looks, rather than providing concrete examples of what it does – and by using aristocratic female fashion as the lynchpin of this argument – its detractors are committing the same sin against which they are endeavouring to protest, viz: the use of corsetry to conceal a lack of substance.

2. Examining mainstays of the current canon, such as Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age or Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius, it is undeniable that steampunk is far from inimical to adventure. However, these are also stories with a strong focus on female characters negotiating the perils of Victorian society, which question militarism and the potentially perilous uses of science, the consquences of poverty and industrialisation on children, and the place of minorities within that society. On this latter point, it is also important to note that steampunk afficionados are by no means exclusively white/privileged, and that there is a great deal of discussion on all of these issues within the community itself.

3. All genres have problems. To contend otherwise is ludicrous. Specifically within the wider fantasy/SF subset, however, to act as though issues of class privilege, race and suffrage are unique to steampunk purely by virtue of its relationship to Victorian society is deeply inaccurate. Beginning with the works of Tolkein and moving forward from there, these are questions that the entire SFF fandom is concerned with on all fronts, and has been for some time. That doesn’t mean that none of the criticisms leveled specifically at steampunk are invalid, but in the current climate of people claiming genre fatigue, such apostasy begins to smack of the elitist proposition that once something has become mainstream, it is made fundamentally irredeemable, or at least deeply untrustworthy, and therefore void of meaning.

So!

Allow me to lay my own cards on the table. Some of my favourite stories of recent times have been steampunk – not only the titles mentioned above, but also Michael Pryor’s fabulous Laws of Magic series (featuring a female character who is both a suffragette and a ninja); Stephen Hunt’s ongoing Jackelian sequence, which begins with The Court of the Air; and Sydney Padua’s brilliant and stunningly researched comic 2D Goggles, about the further adventures of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. There has also been Gail Carriger’s Soulless, which is unashamedly a lighthearted mashup of romance, steampunk and urban fantasy; and, at the other end of the stylistic spectrum, Kate Elliott’s brilliant Cold Magic, which the author describes as an “Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy with Bonus! airship, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons.”

Re this last, and specifically the word icepunk: it is not uncommon nowadays for certain members of the geek community to flinch and/or start foaming at the mouth whenever -punk is appended to something else in order to – hopefully – coin a new genre term. Others, like Valente, have no objection to the practise, so long as the work in question, in her words, “is as punk as it says on the tin.”

Which is fine: but as many a pub debate about the motion of linguistics has long since made clear to me, what a word means originally and how it develops over time are two different things, and while there are some instances where fighting against the change is a fine and noble thing, there are some battles better left unfought. I’m not yet sure into which category steampunk (and all the other suffixd -punks) will eventually fall, but being as how I’m not consciously a fan of punk music and have never particularly noticed any connection between the one and the other – unless we’re talking in a generic, rebelling-against-the-norm sort of way, rather than as is specifically relevant to stories about countercultures fighting the dominant trend – then my money is, for now, on the former. The point being, I’m not really fussed about the whole suffixing issue in this instance, because for whatever reason, it’s never flicked my Rage Switch. But I get that it does for other people, and so am willing to credit their outrage as something more than just preferential aggravation. (By way of solidarity, the record is fairly clear on my hatred for -gate being appended to not even mildly shocking political scandals. I mean, seriously. GAH!)

All of which, to come to a point, puts me in the pro-steampunk category. Yes, there are problems. Authors and fans alike are working on them, thinking about them and generally paying attention. Yes, steampunk often involves adventure. That’s not a sin! Part of what I love so much about fantasy is its versatility in this respect: that what would otherwise be a purely issues-based story if set in the real world can take on a dimension of swashbuckling, humour and magic to balance out the social grief and piercing moments of inequality. Also: the fact that Tor.com has struck its flag is less a sign of the Apocalypse than it is the turning of the world. What was once an obscure subgenre is now a more well-known and popular subgenre, with all the attendant perils and pleasures that implies. That’s all.

And you know what? I like the goggles.

Yesterday’s launch at Kinokuniya was, to put it simply, awesome.

There are a number of reasons for this.

1. I woke up, hopped online, and was confronted by two very shiny emails: a lovely missive from someone who’s read the book saying the kind of nice things which, did I have feathers, would cause me to preen them; and a note from my publisher alerting me very favourable review in the Sunday Age, which can hopefully be seen here. It says Solace & Grief is “a well-plotted novel…a little Scooby-Doo, a little bit Buffy, and a lot of fun for readers 15 and up.” Whee!

2. My parents went above and beyond in providing food, nibblies and service, and with the help of Helene, our Kinokuniya contact person, and her organisational magic, everything was laid out perfectly. A big thanks to the staff, who were friendly, interesting and wonderful. There’s a reason why Kinokuniya is such a fantastic store!

3. Once things got underway, Scott Westerfeld launched the book by saying a series of extremely flattering things about Solace and her friends, such that the sides of my mouth started to twitch from grinning too much. It was twelve kinds of awesome to meet Scott, not to mention Justine Larbalestier, and even though my base instinct was to lose all communictive skills in their presence, abandon myself to the squealing fangirl within and go all I’m Not Worthy a la Wayne’s World, I think I managed to actually act like a sensible adult and hold a conversation. I know, kids. I’m scared, too.

4. The people. Everyone who showed up was lovely – thank you all for coming, making yourselves known, and being generally shiny! Special mentions go to Kat from Book Thingo, who I now know in the flesh as well as via IM, and to the Capsicum Girls, who made me a gift of a yellow capsicum with a heart drawn on the stem to remember them by. (They also gave Scott a watermelon.) It took me a while to pin down why I was so wildly excited to receive a brightly coloured vegetable, but apart from the fact that all the Girls were cool and friendly and liked my Pwnies shirt, it struck me later that Ms Catalysta’s blog entry about giving Idina Menzel a pumpkin might have something to do with it. Yay for random produce!

5. After lots of signing, book-selling, photo-taking and talking with peeps both new and old, a few friends, Toby and I retired to the Edinburgh Castle pub for drinks. These went on for a while, and eventually culminated in a pizza dinner with friends-of-a-new-friend in Newtown that was both tasty and full of cool conversation. And then we walked back up King Street to¬† Elizabeth’s, where we bought the first Anita Blake novel and the volume one trade paperback of Angel: After The Fall, before stopping in at one of the two King Street bookshops to possess an ambient cat called Shakespeare, whom we patted, and then we caught a cab home and fell into well-earned, exhausted slumber.

So, that was Sunday. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who made it work! By way of reward, here is another happy-making review, courtesy of Sue Bursztynski. It made me smile: I hope it has the same effect on you.

People of Earth, your attention please – as of today, being 1 March 2010, Solace & Grief is officially on shelves! Woo! Here is a nice review to celebrate! Pan Galactic Gargle-Blasters all round!

Due partly to the fact that all good things come in threes, but mostly because launches are fun, Solace & Grief is being treated to three of them. The first, as keen observers of this blog may be aware, was held on Saturday 20 Feb at the Carlton Library, and was awesome, if a little nerve-rattling, owing to the fact that I am now an Author Person and was therefore unable to persue my usual ploy of loitering near the cheese platter until rather late in the day. The second launch took place during Friday night’s portion of Continuum 6, courtesy of the wonderful Lucy Sussex, who not only said a series of very nice things indeed about the book, but also gave me a rather delicious bottle of red champagne, the subsequent lifespan of which was, as one might imagine, brief. However, there is still one launch to go, and if you are a native of Sydney or any of the surrounding burghs, it would be a thing of extreme shinyness to see you there. Thus, I give you: the details!

Where: Kinokuniya Books, Level 2, The Galeries Victoria, 500 George Street, Sydney.

When: This Sunday 7 March from 12:30 onwards.

The proceedings will be MC’d by the illustrious Scott Westerfeld. There will be little sandwiches, and things to drink, and books to buy and have signed – in short, it will be an awesome day, and more in these instances is always merrier, so come along! Bring friends, bring fun, and together we will talk vampires. Mua. Ha. Haaa.

The official release date for Solace & Grief is Monday, 1 March – a mere five days away. Are you excited? Because I am!

To tide you over in the interim, here is a roundup of recent reviews, interviews and mentions the book has had, all of which make me a very cheery Foz indeed. Thus:

Steph Bowe has written a very happy-making review, in which she says, “This is a vampire novel, and I think it’ll appeal to paranormal romance fans, but also to people who don’t like the whole vampire trend. It’s just different enough to make it refreshing but also appeal to the people who already love books like these.”

– I have been interviewed by the lovely Tynga of Tynga’s Reviews.

– Donna of Fantasy Dreamer’s Ramblings has not only reviewed the book and interviewed me, but is offering one lucky comentator the chance to win a signed copy. She says: Solace & Grief is a good setup novel for the start of what I see to be an excited and different take on the world of vampires, shifters and the magical… [it] has darker elements than what‚Äôs normally seen in YA urban fantasy, that older teens and many adults would enjoy reading.”

– There is now an online version of my original interview with Bookseller + Publisher Magazine, available here.

– The amazing Scott Westerfeld has spruiked the book in advance of the upcoming Sydney launch, which he will be hosting at Kinokuniya on 7 March. Squee!

And, for those of you who are interested, here are some photos from the Melbourne launch, which took place this past Saturday at Carlton Library:

1. My publisher, Paul Collins, kicking things off.

2. The crowd.

3. Me, reading the prologue aloud.

4. Kirstyn McDermott being awesome (but looking away from the camera!)

6. Me, expostulating.

And yes – that is a Beware of the Leopard t-shirt in honour of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, given to me by a cool and froody friend. Thanks, Smott!

UPDATE: I’ve also been interviewed by the wonderful Liv Hambrett of Trespass Magazine, for whom I also write a weekly column. Check it out!

I have a theory.

Firstly: these are four little words which should strike fear into the hearts of men, especially when coming from me. You have been warned.

Consider, then,¬†the stereotype of hardcore science fiction: heavy on detail, short on character, long on nitty-gritty and emotionally ambivalent. A crude stereotype, but despite being far from universally accurate, there’s an argument to be made that hard SF is the traditional province of male geeks exactly because of the above descriptors. Which isn’t to say that women don’t or shouldn’t read it, or that¬†a given work¬†ceases to be hard SF if it invalidates any of the above categories, or even that the genre lacks female characters. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, for instance, is both fabulously philosophical and supported by a wonderful knowledge of human nature, while Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire is built on immaculate details of technology and society, with chapter time shared equally between vividly written male and female protagonists. But if you were of a mind to analyse the readership of hard SF, it still seems likely that most of them, regardless of other¬†demographic factors, would be male.

Of itself, that shouldn’t surprise us. Little boys have been raised for years¬†with rockets and trains and plastic guns, and for much of the¬† – still¬†relatively recent¬† – history of geekdom,¬†things like video games, Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer and¬†even straight fantasy¬†were deemed by normal society to be the sole province of dysfunctional, dateless nerds. The idea¬†of geekhood as an equal opportunities employer is¬†something which,¬†it seems, despite the long-established existence of female geeks, has only recently¬†occurred to¬†the mainstream world. There are various reasons fo this, and a great deal of iconic female sci-fi/fantasy at which to point the expostulating finger. For instance: Tamora Pierce, author of The Song of the Lioness quartet, grew up resenting the lack of female warrior heroes in fantasy novels and thereinafter set about writing some of her own, with brilliant results. Gene Roddenberry was prevented by¬†network politics¬†from making the first Star Trek captain female, but that didn’t stop Uhura and Janeway from getting their dues. Most obviously from the point of my generation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer proved that popularity and geekdom weren’t like oil and water: not only was it possible to put a beautiful blonde in a horror setting¬†who didn’t get killed off in the first five minutes, but TV shows could be fantasy-based and still pull in the big ratings.

In fact, if you look at the past fifteen years of film, books and broadcasting, you’ll see a meteoric rise in mainstream awareness of fantasy. Commensurate with the rise in special effects technology, there have been¬†innumerable film adaptations of classic sci-fi/fantasy novels – not to mention TV shows –¬†once computer processing power made the concept seem¬†more viable and less cheesy. Even before the advent of J.K. Rowling in 1997, the mantle of World’s Best-Selling Author belonged to Terry Pratchett. Throw in a diverse range of sci-fi fantasy programming – The X-Files, Roswell, Charmed, Firefly, Stargate, Sliders, Farscape, True Blood, Heroes, Supernatural – and it’s plain to see that public awareness of the geeky sphere is bound to have skyrocketed since the mid-nineties, if only by dint of a casual glance at the TV guide or ticket office.

All of which has helped to¬†take social notions of geekdom away from the hard SF, lone-nerds-in-basements days of yore and instead present something friendlier, more gender-neutural. Women, of course, have been reading fantasy alongside men for as long as it’s been a separate genre, but with the patina of mass-appeal thus gained, publishers have seemingly¬†felt able to try something new, with the consequence that previously well-established genre boundaries in the world of sci-fi fantasy have started to fall by the wayside. Ever since¬†the established stereotypes of Who Buys¬†What went flying out the window – and¬†though¬†this has undoubtably occurred, it’s still debateable as to when – geeks en masse have proven to be such a diverse demographic that the¬†blurring¬†of¬†genre lines, far from deterring¬†potential readers,¬†has acutally become an individual draw.

Which brings me to the current trend in paranormal romance and urban fantasy, and that¬†particular proliferation of vampires. While there’s a case to be made that fanged fiction is the literary equivalent of a dot com bubble – certainly, no trend goes upwards forever – I’m sceptical of the notion that it will all come to nothing. Urban fantasy, apart from anything else, has always been the gateway drug of make-believe: particularly on television, viewers who might otherwise be put off by fantastic elements are comforted by the simltaneous presence of what is real and familiar, while others of us get our kicks from seeing the norm subverted. The fact that Harry Potter and Edward Cullen have helped move this phenomenon from screen to page seems overdue, and not in the least bit faddish. Which isn’t to say that public opinion won’t steadily turn elsewhere until the Next Big Thing – that’s only human nature. But for all that vampires are the current flavour of the month, the idea that they’ll vannish between airings is absurd – Stephenie Meyer no more invented the oeurve than did¬†Anne Rice.

Both¬†despite¬†and because of this broadening of geekishness to new and wonderful realms, hard SF¬†remains a beloved, male-dominated genre in its own right.¬†But¬†if one were interested in drawing conclusions about the varying ends of a given spectrum, paranormal romance would seem to be as feminine and popular a fantastic subsidiary as hard SF is masculine. Which is why,¬†to reach a long-awaited point, I don’t think it’s going anywhere: because for the first time, fantasy has found a foothold which isn’t mainly male or gender-neutural by virtue of diversity, but expressly, purposefully¬†feminine – and proud of it.¬†More than anything else, the current boom in paranormal romance¬†feels like the response of¬†a¬†market which has hitherto existed, but remained largely untapped, populated by the kind of intelligent,¬†imaginative women who might shy away from picking up a Harlequin romance novel, but who still – often without realising it¬†– have been hankering for a little bit of literary lust.¬†

Ironically, it’s taken¬†a surge in YA fantasy for this to become apparent, assuming the legions of¬†grown women¬†lining up to buy Twilight are anything to go by. But if there’s one thing the sexual revolution and the mainstreaming of fantasy have taught us, it’s that guilty pleasures – even when they’re not so much guilty as wildly,¬†passionately longed-for pleasures – are nothing to be ashamed of.

I was in a fey mood last night, but ‘fey’ didn’t quite seem to cover it. Burdened with the need to update my Facebook status accurately and appropriately, I scanned my knowledge of the English language for a suitable adjective – fruitlessly. Finally, after many minutes of struggle, I put on my thinking boots and¬†invented¬†a new¬†word: mnemencholy, derived from mneme (memory) and melancholy (sadness). Content at last, I slept.

On waking, I discovered that the illustrious Nick Harkaway, that well-known Englishman and little-known lexicographer, had already found my word and proceeded to blog a better definition for mnemencholia than I could possibly articulate. I am therefore stealing it; or rather, approving it for future usage. So, for those who are interested, mnemencholia (from mnemencholy) now officially means:

“Nostalgic sorrow brought on by recollection; melancholia triggered by an object, phrase, or scent and its associated memories; the wide sense of understanding and regret rising from the apprehension of one’s own history.”

Awesome.

I love the idea of¬†neologisms. Above any other quirk, I¬†cherish¬†the malleability of the English language. It rewards linguistic creativity, and, indeed, encourages it. There’s something profoundly satisfying in creating or stumbling on a new term, particularly if we find it clever, or funny, or apt, or (especially) all three. I love that crazy, screwball, onomatopoeic¬†slang like woot and clusterfuck can breed successfully in darkness, like forest mushrooms. I love that Shakespeare¬†has left us with Shylock and seachange; that A. A. Milne gave us heffalump, tigger and wol;¬†that crazy British aristocrats gave us sandwich, sundowner and¬†pukka while equally crazy Londoners gave us yob and Cockney rhyming slang. I love that tactile imagery like whale tail, muffin top and¬†bridezilla made their way to the dictionary, while gribblies, grock and meme are increasingly of the now.

What I don’t like, however, is corporate jargon. I shudder at every mention of swings and roundabouts, blue sky thinking, synergistics, action items or actioning tasks. Some people might (and, indeed, have) called that hypocritical, but the difference is one of joy and functionality. Corporate jargon doesn’t delight in itself. It isn’t clever, nor do buzzwords become popular because people enjoy their use. Rather, they become awkward, mechanical mainstays, often more cumbersome and less helpful than the plain language they replace. Technical jargon, in its proper sense, means words that are part of a specialised¬†vocabularly, as in the medical, legal and IT professions, but this is not true of corporate jargon. It obfuscates, generalises, hinders. Many terms¬†grow, not from¬†playful creativity, but uncorrected¬†malapropisms. Whereas slang¬†is viral in the¬†digital sense, passing rapidly¬†by word of mouth through a series of enthusiastic adapters, corporate jargon is a virus in the medical sense,¬†infiltrating healthy cells and using them to manufacture new infections, which then spread¬†through a mixture of¬†force, proximity and submission.¬†Cliches, at least, began as¬†sturdy concepts: their very effectiveness¬†lead to overfamiliarity, like playing a favourite song so¬†frequently that it becomes¬†unbearable. The best mutate into aphorisms. Not so corporate jargon, which is¬†propagated¬†purely on¬†the basis of necessity, and not¬†effectiveness. ¬†¬†

In short, good language is just another way of thinking clearly, or creatively, or at all. Like all new things, neologisms need to be tested, experimented with, tried on – our choice of slang is just as relevant¬†to our personalities as our¬†taste in clothes, films or music, and yet, quite often, we fail to even make a conscious decision about the words we use, or the circumstances under which we use them. Language, it’s been said, is the most singular achievement of our species, and¬†even without an alphabet, it’s still something unbelievably special.

So don’t take¬†your speech for granted. Read up on collective nouns (they’re pretty awesome); put old words into new contexts;¬†watch Joss Whedon shows; read Scott Westerfeld or Shakespeare or Kaz Cooke or Geoffrey McSkimming or anyone at all; think. But more than that, have fun.

It’s what words are for.

There’s a particular sci-fi/fantasy subgenre to which I’ve always been partial: dystopia. Writers of all shades have been understandably fascinated by it, from George Orwell and Aldous Huxley to Isobelle Carmody and Joss Whedon. There’s a dreadful allure to the idea of society reaching¬†its technological peak, dissolving into cataclysm and then rebuilding from fragments, or else morphing into some non-functional travesty as the ultimate consequence of current politics. Dystopia is a potent combination of our most powerful fears and hopes: fear, that we will destroy utterly what is safe and familiar, and hope, that we might yet survive the experience. It evokes a deeply satisfying narrative cynicism, wherein the reader can sit back and feel utterly validated in their belief that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket, because that’s what humanity does, as well as providing fertile ground for in-jokes, like future archaeologists confusing the jukebox and the iPod.

Still, there are different kinds of dystopia.¬†Forced to choose between the¬†societies of¬†Nineteen Eighty-Four¬†and Brave New World, the latter is unequivocally preferable: it’s certainly warped, but compared to the inescapable brutality of Orwell’s London, Huxley’s alternative of sex, clones and soma looks like a candyland. In books like Scatterlings and¬†Obernewtyn, Isobelle Carmody’s dystopia hinges on a struggling, semi-agrarian, post-nuclear holocaust world, where technology is elevated to¬†the¬†level of magic (and where actual magic makes an appearance, too).¬†Unsurprisingly, the most popular dystopia is also the kindest, stretching to the borderlands of straight sci-fi. To¬†paraphrase Joss Whedon’s summary¬†of his comic, Fray, this version of the future is much like everyone else’s: the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and there’s flying cars. These four variations more or less encapsulate¬†the different subgenres of dystopia:¬†political warning (Orwell),¬† what if (Huxley), neo-feudalism (Carmody) and same-but-worse (Whedon). Creatively and imaginatively, it’s the latter two which hold the most sway; and¬†with examples like¬†The Fifth Element and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, it’s easy to see why.¬†

Because for all it hinges on distruction, dystopia can be devilishly joyful. We savour it,¬†not sadistically, but because¬†it represents the ultimate¬†escapism: seeing the rules and restrictions¬†of our own society wrecked, inverted and¬†removed. Just as children fantasise about blowing up their school, adults fantasise about society¬†crumbling –¬†not¬†out of anger or a desire to hurt, but simply because they, like their younger counterparts,¬†don’t always want to attend. On this base level, dystopia is the glee of¬†impractical opportunism: without actually having to live through a cataclysm, we thrill to imagine what role¬†we’ll take in the new order of things, or¬†wonder how¬†that order might arise. Although the characters struggle, the audience doesn’t: instead, we live vicariously through survivors of a world which would most likely break us.

We’re funny like that.

Since Huxley’s novel, brave new world has become synonymous with an ironic, stunted dystopia, drained of hope: we hear the phrase, and any laughter is mocking. But Huxley was¬†quoting Shakespeare, as his book makes clear: Miranda’s lines from The Tempest. A naive girl raised on an unknown island, Miranda has never encountered¬†villany or vice; and when¬†finally confronted with the prospect of other people – schemers, drunkards, sages and¬†politicians all –¬†she is overjoyed.¬† ‘Oh, brave new world/that has such people in’t!’¬† Here, then, is the ultimate source of Huxley’s cynical title, and a perfect metaphor for dystopia:¬†beautiful youth¬†embracing a more treacherous future than it can possibly realise.

Which is why, in another dystopian in-joke, the Reaver-world in Joss Whedon’s film Serenity is called Miranda. Meta-cathartic, ne?