Friday, 14 December 2018

Meddle with a Rubliw poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'm sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Like a Brontosaurus, this poem is thin at one end, much much thicker in the middle, and then thin again. The first line has 2 syllables, the next 4, then 6, then 8, then 10 – then it goes back down to 8, then 6, then 4, then 2.

The rubliw is another handy little short form, like the elevenie, but with no constraints other than the number of syllables on each line. Limiting your syllables, rather than the number of words or rhyme or metre, does interesting things to your writing - try it out and see for yourself. It was invented by Richard Wilbur, based on the cinquain – that's the one that goes 2–4–6–8–2.

Here's a draft rubliw I wrote to try it out, based on a delightful snippet of folklore:

Bramble
flowers; berries
harden to red nubs, swell
and glitter black between the thorns:
soft and plump to the lightest tug until
Old Michaelmas Day: the devil’s
piss wizens and sours
fruit to gnarls on
bramble.

By the way – if you're wondering how to pronounce "rubliw", I thought it was Welsh and have been going with "rooblee-yoo". I've just realised it's his name, Wilbur, backwards. Numpty.

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


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Friday, 7 December 2018

Meddle with a coupling poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'll be sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Like someone else’s words? Use their lines and write your own new lines in between each of theirs. You can do this with articles you’ve screengrabbed, fiction snippets, other poems, whatever you fancy.

Like someone else’s words? Use their lines and write your own new lines in between each of theirs.
You can do this with articles you’ve screengrabbed, fiction snippets, other poems, whatever you fancy. Part of the pleasure is twisting or enriching the meaning of the original lines, playing with or against them and toying with the grammar, especially when sentences run across lines. This is a very new form, invented by Karen McCarthy Woolf.

A quick note on copyright: the person who wrote the original words owns their copyright. If you want to share your poem (online or by publishing it), you'll need to get their permission or pick words that are already out of copyright (in most countries, that means where the author has been dead for more than 70 years). Alternately, you can do a double-coupling poem: write your lines in between theirs, then remove their lines and write your own new lines between yours.

For variation, you can also try a hidden coupling poem, where you pick a poem which you haven't read and cover it with paper. Reveal the first line, copy it out, then write a line yourself, then reveal and copy out their second line, and so on. It's a thrilling way to work, not knowing what's coming next, but a word to the wise: get someone else to pick the poem for you and check its length and suitability. I chose a poem from the index of a book based on its title and that it was out of copyright – it started out well enough, and then I found myself trapped in swathes and swathes of lyrical pastoral description! By the tenth line rhaposidising about mountain scenery, while I tried to add stuff in between, I was losing the will to live.

In this example, I'd screengrabbed three quotes from an article on fugue states which had struck me deeply. The words not in italics are from "How a Young Woman Lost Her Identity" by Rachel Aviv (2 April 2018, New Yorker), reproduced with her permission.

Fugue


dissociative fugues are organised and
I can still drive, as if this metallic blue momentum were
purposeful, operating according to some
enduring physics, though even my hands have lost
internal logic. The person’s thinking is
smeared around a conversation under a tree,
dominated by a “single idea, that
escapes her fingers, trying to reach him, which
symbolizes or condenses (or both)
the event horizon around this singularity, which swallows
several important ideas and emotions,”
nimbused by bereft light particles, partnerless now. Read what
Lowenstein writes.

Furious sun fought air conditioning. I think by then I had driven
for several hours. “I had lost the ability
to park, to decide turnings, but I stopped,
to understand categories,” she said. “I
sat in a deli. I didn’t know what food I liked. I
no longer had a chronological measure
of selves – if that self had gone, the singularity had eaten all
of time. I no longer experienced myself
but thought, once, I had eaten sundried tomatoes
in a specific place. I didn’t have an
idea beyond that, but ordered some.” No-one

understood why someone might forget
her own mouth, or how to move in time, might lose
her identity during the storm. “There
I sat, immobile, with the sundried tomatoes. I knew I
was a lot of trauma,” she said softly. “It
spilled from me, in Hawking radiation. I
cracked things wide open.” A man
had vanished; this anti-particle self appeared.

If you want to give it a go, check your own screengrabs folder for inspiration (remember you'll need the other person's permission if the poem goes public) or try an out-of-copyright poem or book - here's a helpful starter list of poems in the public domain.

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Friday, 30 November 2018

Meddle with a fold poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'll be sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Lovely repetition and light rhyme make a flexible, flowing form: 11 lines, with all the odd lines rhyming, and the end of line 1 repeated at the end of lines 5 and 11.

A fold poem uses a bit of repetition and very light rhyme (only every second line rhymes) which makes it a wonderfully flowing form to write.

It has 11 lines, and the end of line 1 repeats as the end of lines 5 and 11. (That can be one word, a phrase, or most of the line, as you wish.) All the odd lines rhyme (1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11) - but because 1, 5, and 11 are the same words anyway, you actually only need four rhymes total. Here's what the form looks like:

1   ~~~~~~ refrain      a
2   ~~~~~~~~~~~    *
3   ~~~~~~~~~~~    a
4   ~~~~~~~~~~~    *
5  ~~~~~~ refrain       a
6   ~~~~~~~~~~~    *
7   ~~~~~~~~~~~    a
8   ~~~~~~~~~~~    *
9   ~~~~~~~~~~~    a
10 ~~~~~~~~~~~    *
11 ~~~~~~ refrain      a

refrain is the repeated bit; a is the lines that rhyme; * means no rhyme. As with any poem that uses repeated lines, you can play with twisting the meaning, or just use it as obsessive repetition

The fold peom was invented by Gillena Cox, who also specifies that there must be a reference to nature (as with haiku) and how it affects you as the poet, moments that are "special, simple and exactly". I take that specification with a pinch of salt: I write more than enough about nature as it is and I think the form is more flexible than that.

Here's the first fold poem I wrote, about choosing a perfume. The repeated bits are underlined and the rhymes are in bold - and yes, there is an invariable reference to nature, but that's more because it's me writing than because I was obeying that requirement! Anyway, is perfume distilled and bottled still nature?

Inhale: English oak and hazlenut,
cedarwood and juniper, cedrat,
amber, oud, and bergamot – the glut
drags you, gasping, country after country,
but… English oak and hazlenut
is home. Your skin says yes and welcomes in
its pheremonal counterpart to rut
in glee upon your wrist: it knows you well,
your smell of onion, sandalwood, and slut,
your lazy warm delight, your greenish gown,
a spell of English oak and hazlenut.


Have fun folding your own poems, with absolute freedom to ignore any rules you wish!

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Friday, 23 November 2018

Meddle with a wreathed poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'll be sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Instead of rhyming the words at the end of the line, each end-word has a rhyme somewhere in the next line. That’s it! You can combine this with any other form of poetry as well – wreathed sonnets, wreathed golden shovels, etc.

Instead of rhyming the words at the end of the line, each end-word has a rhyme somewhere in the next line. That’s it! You can combine this with any other form of poetry as well – wreathed sonnets, wreathed golden shovels, wreathed anything really. If this is your first wreathed poem, then try it out on its own first, before combining it, or if you're combining it with another form, pick one you already know well.

In this example, the end-words rhyme as well (a b a b a b a b a b), but they don't have to. I've marked the end-words and their matching rhyme in the next line in bold colours.

The balsam bobs. The narrowboat’s paint flakes.
Blackberries glisten, where bramble snakes its way
through the hawthorn, and pray for lips. A breeze rakes
the trees’ reflections; breaking through leaves, a ray

wobbles on ripples. A spider’s ballet makes
geometry of sun and waits for prey.
The hops and hay ripen while the lakes
give up their geese. It takes its time, decay:

while leaves fray, twigs brittle, and wasps hold wakes
by drizzlelight, mud cakes the memories of May.

I've used some half-rhyme in this (makes / waits, rakes / break) and also, because the rhyming word is in the middle of a line, you don't have to rhyme the whole word, just the heavy-syllable bit (rakes / breaking).

Try it out with some free verse, enjoy the freedom it brings to rhyming, and have fun!


Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Friday, 16 November 2018

Meddle with a cinquain poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'll be sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Cinquain is Fancy French poetry-speak for a fivey, each line longer then the last one short. Line 1: 2 syllables. Line 2: 4 syllables. Line 3: 6 syllables. Line 4: 8 syllables. Line 5: 2 syllables.

This is a concise, and wonderfully versatile little form, which also has some delicious variations. ("Cinquain" is basically Frenchified poetry-speak for a "fivey".) It's super simple: no rhyme or metre requirements, and just 5 lines, which steadily increase in length, then abruptly jump back down:

Line 1: 2 syllables
Line 2: 4 syllables
Line 3: 6 syllables
Line 4: 8 syllables
Line 5: 2 syllables

For example...

I walk
the Erl-King's wood
of beechmast, berries, ripe
decay, and golden pools of sun
that lie.

You can use iambic metre (de-DUM) if you like, as I did, but you don't have to.

Then you can also spin it through all sorts of fun variations, if you don't feel like stopping at just one. You can write a cinquain "chain", where the last line of one cinquain is the first line of the next. You can also write a "cinquain swirl", which is a bunch of them linked together, sharing the two-syllable line as the last/first, and the two-syllable line is the same each time.

Here's a draft cinquain chain I wrote, from the prompt "falls to the soul" (a snippet from Pablo Neruda's poem, "Tonight I can write the saddest lines"). In each stanza, the last line becomes the first line of the next stanza. Right at the end, it ties in a circle by using the first line of the poem as the last line.

Frost-dark
falls. To the soul
tiny stabs of light are
constellations, a sparse dot-to-dot
promise.

Promise
five dots can make
the big dipper, nineteen
are somehow Orion, and that’s
the sword.

The sword
of Damocles,
hanging by a horse hair
above the throne, mocks what you wished
on stars.

On stars,
we pin such shapes,
wildly drawing contours
of beasts and gods, between dots, on
frost-dark.

And here's a draft cinquain swirl I wrote a couple of months ago, to try it out. It's very similar, but the two-syllable line is shared between each cinquain.


Silent
cowled figures haunt
the pool and wrap the wind
in their cloaks. Empty deckchairs lie
silent.
Deserted tiers
rise under curved clay tiles
where windows stare blankly over
silent
terraces. Chairs
line the long glass table
past which leaves scud, awaiting the
silent
feast of unseen
guests. The cowled figures wait.
Clouds swell. Only the wind is not
silent.


Start with a cinquain or five, try it out, see how it feels, and then chain or swirl to your heart's content!


Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Friday, 9 November 2018

Meddle with an ekphrasis poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'll be sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Meddle with an ekphrasis poem: Choose a picture or a work of art that you like and describe it, in a poem – any style, any length. For added fun, you could play with matching your writing style to the artwork’s style.

Ekphrasis simply means describing an artwork in a poem – usually visual art, a painting, a sculpture, etc, but you could equally describe a piece of music or a dance, if you wanted. It's a lovely form when you want to write, but aren't sure what to write about. You can write in free verse (no set rhyme or metre) or use it to write in another form, like a sonnet, a sestina, or whatever you fancy. Depending on the artwork you're using, you might write a narrative which the picture suggests, about the person in a picture, or a description of the scene. Matching your writing style to the artistic style can be a fun extra challenge, to stretch your writing in new directions - to copy a loose flowing style, or a stark bold one, or whatever the picture suggests.

Don't feel like you have to stick to Fine Art or established art - photographs, 3D art, digital art, graffiti, use anything you fancy. Bookmark pictures you like on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc, so you have a collection to dip into. I follow Helen Warlow on Twitter, who posts several pictures a day from a cross-section of artists and styles, and a bunch of artists I like on both Twitter and Facebook. Fantasy art and 3D / digital art can also give you a doorway into wonderful worlds and story-poems.

The most famous ekphrastic poem is probably "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats ("Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness..." etc) – which, incidentally, he published anonymously and the critics hated. The example below was written about Henri Rousseau's painting, "The Dream", taking its very bold stylised lines and colours as an exercise in writing only in heavy syllables. The painting's below the poem.

Greens: lime, fern, moss, jade;
leaves limned, strong lines rise,
spike, spread, splay: soft blade,
rich light, thick white skies.
Blue blooms burst; bold birds
perch, peach; deep-shade eyes
peer past full fruit; words
drown; gold flesh curves, thighs
heaped, breasts ripe; apes play
brass notes, sharp fierce cries;
stems stand; horns curl; day
stops, struck here: warm, wise.

Henri Rousseau, The Dream.

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of other contemporary poems.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Friday, 2 November 2018

Meddle with a triolet poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'll be sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Meddle with a triolet poem. Like your first two lines? Just keep using them!
FIRST LINE
SECOND LINE
new line, rhymes with first line
FIRST LINE
new line, rhymes with first line
new line, rhymes with second line
FIRST LINE
SECOND LINE

The triolet is a fabulously compact repeating form, where the first two lines make up most of the poem. If you've got two good opening lines, why not make the most of them?! Part of the fun, too, is seeing how much you can shift their meaning around each time they're repeated, by using words with two meanings, or with the different lines that lead in, or by punctuating them in different places. That said, the lines can also be repeated for the sheer force of repetition, the insistence of it.


FIRST LINE a
SECOND LINE b
new line, rhymes with first line a
FIRST LINE a
new line, rhymes with first line a
new line, rhymes with second line b
FIRST LINE a
SECOND LINE b

The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-a-a-b-a-b, but because of the repetition you actually only need 3 a-rhymes and 2 b-rhymes. For the metre, people often use iambic pentameter, but you don't have to. Here's an example:

At the prod of a finger, a sea anemone closes.
It can’t unfurl its tentacles till danger has passed.
It tickles so lithely at tides, one hardly supposes
at the prod of a finger, a sea anemone closes.
The rockpool is tight and clenched, where just before. roses
were laughing and loose in the water – then sealed, aghast
at the prod of a finger. A sea anemone closes:
it can’t unfurl its tentacles till danger has passed.

It's also known as a French medieval rondeau, and is part of a group of repeating forms that all have almost the same name and slightly different lengths and patterns: the rondeau, rondine, roundelay, roundel, rondeau redoublé...! So if you find repeating lines fun, there's a ton more out there to play with.

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Saturday, 27 October 2018

Meddle with a golden shovel poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'll be sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Meddle with a golden shovel poem. Have a favourite quote or lyric? Write it down the right side of the page and use those words as the last word in each line of your poem. See where it goes – it might surprise you.

A golden shovel is a lovely form of free verse - no rhyme scheme or set metre (rhythm) and a great form when you're not sure what you want to write about or what exactly you want to say about something: the quote gives you something to riff off and explore, and the end words shape your thoughts. As you write each line towards its end word, you follow the flow and discover what you want to say. It was invented by Terrance Hay.

Here's one of my golden shovels. Read the words down the right-hand side for the original quote. (The title and the quote are from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry - you don't need to know the story to enjoy the poem, but it's so delightful that I've put it at the bottom of the post, under the poetry course pic. He died in 1944, so it's out of copyright now.)

Drawing #1

Orchids grow so high in the jungle, if you didn’t know then
you’d say they didn’t exist, waxy-lined – not you, though; you and I
understand how the furtive petals splay, out of sight; we would
never betray the dark pink secrets of its lapping labellum, never
expose the dappled shadows of its soft throat to careless talk.
Those who can’t dream their eyes up through the humid canopy to
where they peachly, whitely, redly lick the air think that
all truths are down to earth, punchable facts and grids. A person
like that needs the word “epiphytic” to believe anything about
roots that live off air, dangling and loosely draped like a boa
around an outstretched branch. Such people cling to facts like constrictors
till they still the delicate pulse. Perhaps they just don’t know or
perhaps they’re angry that orchids elude them in the hot wet air. Primeval
things are always the hardest to prove, deep in forests
where perhaps we used to fly. We can’t explain or
convince such people. We can only climb lianas, through the orchids, towards stars.


Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


The Little Prince

Chapter One

Once when I was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book, called True Stories from Nature, about the primeval forest. It was a picture of a boa constrictor in the act of swallowing an animal. Here is a copy of the drawing.
boa constrictor swallowing an animal

   In the book it said: "Boa constrictors swallow their prey whole, without chewing it. After that they are not able to move, and they sleep through the six months that they need for digestion."
   I pondered deeply, then, over the adventures of the jungle. And after some work with a colored pencil I succeeded in making my first drawing. My Drawing Number One. It looked something like this:
Drawing Number One 
 
   I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups, and asked them whether the drawing frightened them.
But they answered: "Frighten? Why should any one be frightened by a hat?"
   My drawing was not a picture of a hat. It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. But since the grown-ups were not able to understand it, I made another drawing: I drew the inside of a boa constrictor, so that the grown-ups could see it clearly. They always need to have things explained. My Drawing Number Two looked like this:
Drawing Number Two 
 
   The grown-ups' response, this time, was to advise me to lay aside my drawings of boa constrictors, whether from the inside or the outside, and devote myself instead to geography, history, arithmetic, and grammar. That is why, at the age of six, I gave up what might have been a magnificent career as a painter. I had been disheartened by the failure of my Drawing Number One and my Drawing Number Two. Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.
   So then I chose another profession, and learned to pilot airplanes. I have flown a little over all parts of the world; and it is true that geography has been very useful to me. At a glance I can distinguish China from Arizona. If one gets lost in the night, such knowledge is valuable.
   In the course of this life I have had a great many encounters with a great many people who have been concerned with matters of consequence. I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn't much improved my opinion of them.
   Whenever I met one of them who seemed to me at all clear-sighted, I tried the experiment of showing him my Drawing Number One, which I have always kept. I would try to find out, so, if this was a person of true understanding. But, whoever it was, he, or she, would always say:
   "That is a hat."
   Then I would never talk to that person about boa constrictors, or primeval forests, or stars. I would bring myself down to his level. I would talk to him about bridge, and golf, and politics, and neckties. And the grown-up would be greatly pleased to have met such a sensible man.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Poetry form: Elevenie


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'll be sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Meddle with an elevenie poem. A nifty little quickie, just 11 words total: 1 word: a noun 2 words: what it does 3 words: where it is 4 words: further explanation 1 word: a feeling about all this

The elevenie's an absolute beauty and a very handy form to have up your sleeve when you want a quickie. The form is blissfully simple and creatively constrained, so you can launch in with just your noun (that's a thing word) and discover the rest as you go, through following its strict rules. You can also write double and triple elevenies if you want, or as many as you please. Here are some of my draft elevenies:

Single elevenie

Spiderwebs
catch petals
strung in midair
elf-veils suspended, decaying
uncertainty.


Elevenie series: Colour elevenies

Clouds
bulge lavender
over slate roofs
ragged with distant rain
privately.

Beech
brittles copper
against red brick
glowing in late sun
inviting.

Featherboards
slide creamily
around the courtyard
wrapping the edges in
calm.

Willow
curls greenly
in humid stillness
every twig twisting with
delight.

Variation: for a fun / silly group game, try playing these "Consequence" style: each person writes a line, folds their paper, and passes it on. The resulting poems can end up hilarious, nonsensical, or uncannily brilliant. This was one I wrote with my nieces, Isabel (11, black pen) and Harriet (8, orange pen). Remember that we couldn't see what each other were writing!

Parrots
hover, untidily
up down everywhere
They dream of jungles
terrified



Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts will only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Friday, 20 January 2017

Creating a balanced reading list: speculative fiction by women and people of colour

One of the joys of creating a new course is putting together the reading list, finding a wonderful cross-section of authors, heaping up a pile of your favourite books, anticipating the pleasure of students recognising favourites or discovering fabulous books they might not yet know. Recommending books to people is always a delight. And then there's the more logical, intellectual pleasure of balancing out the list: in this case, for the Imaginary Worlds course, I'm looking for top-notch examples of each week's theme, but also thinking of a matrix of other factors. Have I included all the genres, do I have steampunk, urban paranoramal, alternative history, Young Adult fiction, dystopia, literary fiction, epic fantasy, space opera, hard sci-fi? Are any of the genres over-represented? Are these all the best examples I can think of? Is it a satisfying range of styles?

I sit back, study the completed list, and sigh with pleasure. This is a beautiful list of books. And then I do the gender count.

The gender count pisses me off. Guess what, my list is skewed towards men again. Well, so the hell what? This is a great list of books! And it's carefully balanced and I don't want to change it! Why should I try to change a fabulous list of recommended reading just to include more women?

Every time I do the gender count and strike out for gender balance, I get frustrated - not frustrated that even as a feminist, I've always chosen more books by men, but frustrated at doing it at all. I feel resentful and irritated. I grit my teeth and do it anyway, because it always ends up being worthwhile. I have always missed out brilliant, canonical work by women that absolutely should be on the list. When I wrote a blog post about unsympathetic characters, something female authors are far more criticised for than men, I easily thought of Kazuo Ishiguro's Mr Stevens and Ian McEwan's revolting Michael Beard in Solar. Only after I did the gender count did I think of Jane Austen's Emma and AS Byatt's Frederica. Emma is the definitive example of a character "whom no-one but myself will much like" and Byatt is my all-time favourite author, but both had slipped my mind. When I created the reading list for the Magical Realism workshop, I'd included Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (which has a tangential claim to magical realism at best) and forgotten both Laura Esquivel and Isabel Allende, both Latin American authors at the absolute heart of the genre. For the Imaginary Worlds course, probably the most glaring error was including Stephen King's Green Mile as an example of theme (good theme, but it's barely speculative fiction) and forgetting The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. I'm not even a huge fan of Stephen King - I don't read much horror and that's the only of his books that I've thoroughly enjoyed - whereas I've studied Margaret Atwood, and read, loved, and own everything she's written.

Why does this happen? Because male authors are just more visible. Male names count for more. To everyone. It's systemic sexism. Systemic means it's in the system: it's not nasty men oppressing noble women. That's worth repeating: it is not men against women. Both men and women are sexist, and that sexism isn't coming from some inner evil, it's coming from the system, ie, our culture. To really grasp this, it's worth looking at just how widespread it is throughout our culture.

One of the most famous anecdotes is about an orchestra trying against the odds to get a gender balance of musicians. In Geena Davis's telling, 'In the 80s, after a long effort to equal the gender composition of orchestras in the US, where they’d slowly increased the number of female musicians from 5% to 10%, they came upon the idea of “blind” auditions. If the panel, behind a curtain, couldn’t see who was playing, then they wouldn’t be able to discriminate. It worked! Sort of. The numbers of female musicians rose, but not significantly.' At that point, no doubt some people suggested that maybe some women were as good as men, but women clearly didn't have an equal talent, because even without gender, they still weren't equally represented. But the orchestra kept at it: 'Was some element revealing their gender and skewing the results? I’d love to have been in that room when they finally rasped: “Carpet the stage!” After the next round of auditions, Davis grinned, the orchestras were 50% women, because the panel had been able to hear their heels.'

It's hard to work out whether something really is sexism, rather than other confounding factors: maybe men are just better than women at some stuff, maybe women have different preferences, maybe the competing demands of childcare mean women can't pursue an area to the same level of excellence, and so on. The only way to be certain is to find a way to strip out gender completely, as the orchestra did, or test responses where the only change is gender.

One double-blind peer-reviewed study on academic hiring took the second option. They created application packs where the male and female 'candidates' were identical, except for gender, and got a range of participants to evaluate them. 'Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant.' The 'men' were rated more highly, purely for having male names. Importantly, the gender of the person making the decision didn't change anything: both women and men discriminated against women and in favour of men. Again, sexism is not something men do to women: it's an unconscious bias that both men and women have.

The value of studies like these is that it completely removes any confounding factors, including any arguments about whether the women are really as good as the men, arguments which can (and are) thrown at any real-world study. If you read a real-world study that women are cited less in academic papers, you might argue that maybe their work isn’t as good or there's less of it. But in another blind study, 'students gave higher ratings to identical abstracts submitted with male author names, associating them with greater “scientific quality.”' Again, quality was rated more highly, just because of a male name. (If you want more on gender and racial bias in academia, there are a heap more studies collated here.)

It's not just orchestras and academia. The same thing repeats across sector after sector: having a male name is an advantage; having a female name is a disadvantage. In tech, hires of women increased from 5% to 54% when gender indicators were taken off all applications. That's from 1 in 20 hires being women to more than half.  In medicine, in another of those nifty double-blind just-change-the-gender studies, doctors looked at reports from 'patients' of their symptoms: 'Females were rated less seriously ill, less likely to require laboratory tests, and more likely to receive medication than males. Among depressed patients, counseling and reassurance were more likely for females, and a nonpsychiatric consult was more likely for males.' Remember: again, these were from identical reports. All that changed was the gender.

The disadvantage of being perceived as female runs across our culture. Even in maths tests – surely the most objective of exercises? – boys are marked more favourably than girls if the teacher knows their gender. Somehow maths can be more right if it has a boy's name attached. External examiners, who didn't know the children's genders, marked them equally.

Despite what all the stats and all the double-blind studies say, though, our perception can be very different. Crowd scenes in films famously have around 17% women, on average, and it doesn't strike anyone as odd, on screen. Even more startlingly, as Davis told NPR, from the studies of Gender in Media, 'If there's 17 percent women, the men in the group think it's 50-50, and if there's 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.' The same skewed perception crops up in conversation: we think women are dominating a discussion when actually the men are. And when I say "we", I mean both men and women. (There’s a whole lot more on how we perceive men and women talking compared to what actual linguistic studies show here. Tl;dr: every cliche is wrong.) Even on Twitter, men are retweeted twice as much as women.

That's what systemic means: it's throughout the culture, replicating itself, as a bias that everyone has in favour of male names and against female names. And in today's No-Shit-Sherlock Awards, the world of books is not magically immune to this. Just as you'd expect, having a male or female name affects who gets reviewed, who gets recommended, who gets prizes, and who gets onto reading lists.

One of the longest-term studies into reviews was a 28-year study from Australia by Dr Julieanne Lamond of the Australian National University and Dr Melinda Harvey of Monash University, looking at 1985 to 2013 found that 'two-thirds of the books being reviewed are by men – a ratio that has remained largely the same for 30 years.' It hasn't changed since the 80s. And in case you're thinking maybe that's just Australia, the VIDA Counts yearly tot-up doesn't show anything like parity here in the UK: 'One of the worst culprits was found to be the London Review of Books which featured 527 male authors and critics on their pages in 2014, compared with just 151 women.' That's 7 men for every 2 women. 'It also saw a rare drop in reviews of books written by women from the year before, with 14 fewer than in 2013.'  And in the US, 'The New York Review of Books displayed a similar imbalance, featuring an overall 677 men to 242 women.' That's 3 men for every woman. 'The New York Times book review featured an overall 909 male contributors and authors, compared with 792 women; the Nation’s male-female split was 469 to 193; and at Harper’s fewer than half the authors reviewed were women.' That's a lot of visibility going to men and not to women.

Prizes show an even more striking discrepancy. In the sweet summer days of naivety, before I knew anything about how anything in publishing worked, I used to think that prizes simply went to the best books. I don't know how I thought that. Gradually, though, I learnt how prizes actually work and how much opportunity the process holds for that invisible bias. In the big prestigious prizes, it's usually the publishers choosing who to put forward for that prize - and of course they're not immune to the male-name effect, but they might also reasonably consider which of their authors have had the best reviews. (Let that sink in.) That's before the judges even see the books. In fandom prizes, it's a lot of nominations from a bunch of fans, and then people voting from a slate, which seems like a very level-playing-field crowd-sourced way to go about it, until you remember that the men have way more visibility, and male names, and we all take stuff by men more seriously and rate it more highly. (Which all the studies at the start of the article were saying.) To imagine that a prize process could happen without being touched by this widespread cultural bias is... nonsensical. Of course it's affected. And the stats bear that out.

Nicola Griffith 'conducted an audit of the past fifteen years of books that won the Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics’ Circle Award, Hugo Award, and Newbery Medal. She found that the overwhelming majority of prize-winning books were by men. No surprise there, perhaps, but the rabbit hole went deeper: when Griffith looked at the gender of the protagonist, she found that the overwhelming majority were male. In fact, over the fifteen years of prize-giving, the Pulitzer was awarded to a book with a female protagonist a grand total of zero times. Even the best man for the job of protagonist is a man.' (You can read the full breakdown of the audit here.)

In all the double-blind studies above, when gender was removed, we got gender parity; when gender was included, and nothing else changed, we got a strong bias in favour of male names. And that strong bias in favour of male names bears out exactly what we see in the large-scale real-world data. So on average, men and women's work is of equal quality, but work with a female name is rated weaker.

In 2015, Catherine Nichols conducted her own “blind” study in book submissions. Frustrated by a stream of rejections, she tried sending out her manuscript under a male name, let's say 'George', using the same novel and the same submission letter. Only the name changed. She discovered, 'He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.' Of 'his' 50 queries, he had 17 requests for the manuscript; under the author’s actual name, her figures never went above 1 in 25.

All this visibility, for male authors, adds up. The bias is definite and real and we can show it again and again with large-data reviews and blind-data studies, but we never want to think it applies to us. 'I just chose the best books!' I huff. Funny how I never end up with more women’s books when I 'just choose the best books'. Nobody wants to think they’re sexist. Everybody is sexist. Because it’s not a nasty thing that nasty people do, it’s a systemic unconscious bias. I'm sexist. Of course I am, I'm not immune to my culture. My only weapon, when I'm compiling lists of recommended reading, is the gender count. And still, even being committed to it, I’m intensely irritated by the process. Every time, I find myself thinking, 'Why should I include authors just because they’re women?'

But actually, I'm choosing men just because they're men – just because being men, having male names, makes them more visible. More reviewed, more recommended, given more prizes, taken more seriously, rated more highly. The stats show incontrovertibly that women are unfairly rejected, for their gender, in sector after sector. But what we often fail to consider is the flip-side: that men are being unfairly favoured, for their gender.

Every time I do the gender count, I find better examples when I force myself to think of books by women. The flipside? I'm instinctively choosing weaker examples because they're written by men. Recently, when my partner was choosing between two new books by authors he knew nothing about, one male and one female, I said, 'Pick the one by a woman. It'll be better.' Statistically, a book by a woman will be better than a book by a man. The bar is set higher. That seems such an inflammatory statement, and goes so against our unconscious bias, that it’s worth breaking it down statistically.

Firstly, we know the quality of work is evenly spread: when gender is taken out of the equation, men and women’s work is chosen equally. So the available quality looks like this:

So if you were taking 50% of each, judging purely on merit, this is what your selection would look like:


You've got all the A and B quality work from both, and a sprinkling of Cs from both. But that's assuming absolutely zero interference from our cultural bias. That's assuming 'George' isn't eight and a half times better at writing the same book as its actual female author, that men and women are getting equal reviews, prizes, and visibility, that they're getting equal levels of recommendations and retweets, and that there's no male-name effect suggesting that work with male names is better and more serious. But of course none of that's true. Our culture runs interference at every point, through our own unconscious bias.

So let's say our culture swings it just 20% in favour of men. Women’s share goes down to 30%, men’s goes up to70%. And this is our selection of books:


All the A-quality work still gets through. But overall, there is less B quality work and more C-quality work. And suddenly,  D-quality work starts appearing.

Now choose, at random, one from the red group and one from the blue group. Statistically, the one from the red group will be better. In other words, you have more chance of choosing a good ‘un from the red group than you do from the blue group. Statistically, once a book with a woman's name has made it through the various hurdles of the male-name effect, only the top stuff gets through.

But of course, that’s not how we choose, because we’re also choosing on visibility and with the same cultural bias that creates this situation in the first place:

 Choose one of the first ones you can see. It’s blue. The work by women is still there. It's just... not as visible, somehow. The Gaimans, Kings, and McEwans come easily to mind while you have to scratch your head and squint to spot the Atwoods, Byatts, Equivels, and Allendes. Again, and I cannot repeat this enough, this is not men against women. Both sexes show systemic gender bias. Men benefit more from it, but we all do it.

I did my gender count. I gritted my teeth, grumped and harrumphed, scratched my head, and resented it, and did it, and I ended up with a much better selection of work, as always. I felt the same delight I feel every time, at the much better reading list I've compiled, and the same embarrassment at the work and authors I'd forgotten, and I leant back, sighed happily, and scanned my gender-equal list.

Then something in my head twisted. I don’t know what removed my usual spectacles. I think I was questioning whether I had a really good example of urban paranormal, and thought of Ben Aaronovitch - then I thought, 'Hold on, wasn't his protagonist black? Is Ben Aaronvitch black?' Googled him - nope. Then I suddenly looked at my list through different eyes, and scanned down the author names. Everyone on the list was white. Not one person of colour.  At least I'd had a few women, to start with, in the original list. And if the bar is set higher for women, how much higher is it set for people of colour? In other words: how much incredible stuff am I missing out on? How much A-list work am I not including?

I have years of curated studies and stats on the systemic bias against female names. When it comes to race, though, I have the clear gulf of my own blindness. The 2015 VIDA count was the first to count race as well as gender, and just as my whitewashed reading list indicated, it only gets worse. For instance, in 2015, the New York Review of Books featured 4 men for every 1 woman. But women of colour were only 10% of the women. I hone in on data about bias against female names, because that affects me directly, but had stayed oblivious to bias against non-white names, even when the same articles were flagging that up, as in the VIDA count.

The same picture of name-bias emerges as something deep, systemic, and running across fields. A just-change-the-colour study into job applications in the US found people with black-sounding names had to send out 50% more CVs to get a call back - ie white names were 50% more likely to get a positive response. A similar study in the UK found that people with white names were 75% more likely to get a positive response. The same pattern shows in academia. Researchers sent out almost 7000 emails from 'potential students' enquiring about a course, changing only the students names between male / female and white / other groups, and found it's not just a male name that helps: it's a white male name. And again, in the No-Shit-Sherlock awards, the same sytemic bias pops up in publishing. The Bookseller found more people called David reach the bestseller list than people of colour: in the top 100, you have 11 Davids to 1 person of colour. Nine months after it launched, the new Jhalek Prize for books by BAME (Black and Ethnic Minority) authors had received a paltry 51 submissions from publishers.

Nonetheless, my first reaction to my all-white reading list was just the same as the gender count: 'Well, so the hell what? This is a great list of books! And it's carefully balanced and I don't want to change it!' The amount of resistance I feel trying to rebalance my own bias is extraordinary. In this case, I had to combat not only my own resistance but my own blind ignorance. My bookshelves weren't a total whitewash, but they were when it came to speculative fiction. (I'm discounting magical realism, because that uses world-building completely differently so it isn't included on the Imaginary Worlds course.) The temptation to brush it aside was so strong, but I didn't, for the most selfish of reasons. If work by women that makes it through is statistically better, and the bar is set even higher for people of colour, how much incredible stuff am I missing out on?

Cue lots more research. I started Googling and finding long list after long list after authors I’d never heard of. I drew up complicated spreadsheets to see which names were recurring on multiple lists and trying to work out just how much I could read. When I was totally tangled in my very long lists, I asked for help on Twitter - I really was trying to do my own research, I said, but I could do with some hand-recommendations as well. (It's always tricky, asking the people who're on the receiving end of your unconscious bias to help you with your homework.) Lea Fletcher, Joanne Hall, Aliette de Bodard, Cheryl Morgan, and 'Old Sareemaa Witch' all came to the rescue, listing further suggestions, advising which of the names on my long list were canonical authors, and flagging up names that were missing that really should be there.

Having thought I'd completed my reading list, I now had a list of 37 other authors to consider and a ton of reading to do. That, at least, was the very very good news! I started downloading Kindle samples, buying books at Blackwells, devouring a book a day, and hungrily happily immersing myself in new worlds. I'm always looking for new speculative-fiction authors and suddenly discovering a whole range of new authors was Christmas! I also had a new logical puzzle with a fresh complicated spreadsheet, to include at least 50% authors of colour, once more make sure the list was gender balanced, that fantasy and sci-fi were equally represented, that all the subgenres were represented, that each week's theme had top-quality examples of that particular aspect - and that the books I wanted to include were actually available for my students, in physical bookshops in Oxford.

The final reading list is, frankly, dazzling. It's a full 16 books (on average, we'll look at two extracts in each week of the eight-week course), so I don't expect my students to read all the books before the course, but I am thrilled at the calibre and range of books I'll be introducing them to. It's not meant to be “the 16 best 16 SFF books” – there are far too many fabulous authors not on the list – but it is a fantastic cross-section:

     Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveller's Wife     Cixin Liu, Three Body Problem     George RR Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire     Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go - NB: Read this one in advance, to prevent SPOILERS     Ken Liu, The Grace of Kings     Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale     Malinda Lo, Ash     Nalo Hopkinson, Midnight Robber     Nisi Shawl, Everfair *     NK Jemsin, Fifth Season     Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix     Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind     Peter F Hamilton, The Neutronium Alchemist     Robin Hobb, The Farseer Trilogy     Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games     Terry Pratchett, Jingo


Working against one’s own systemic bias is frustrating and irritating at first – until you start discovering the amazing stuff you’ve been blind to, because it’s just not as visible. Like creating an imaginary world, you have to throw out some of the assumptions you didn’t even realise you were making, to discover a new world full of exciting new possibilities.


The Imaginary Worlds course starts in Feburary 2017 - email me to book or read more about it below.


Develop your world-building to improve or invent your own imaginary worlds: the Imaginary Worlds course is an eight-week evening course on writing the genres of imaginary worlds, starting February 2017, and covering... • the many genres • how to constrain magic • making unlikely stuff convincing • your world's physical detail • why your world matters • ripple-through effects • names and language • your characters' political and economic realities • techniques for exposition. Read more about it and book here.


Particular thanks, again, to  Lea Fletcher, Joanne Hall, Aliette de Bodard, Cheryl Morgan, and 'Old Sareemaa Witch' for helping me discover so many fabulous new authors. The eight works of speculative fiction by people of colour that are on the final reading list are Ash by Malinda Lo, Everfair by Nisi Shawl (pending final confirmation of its availability; since it won a prize recently, the publishers seem to be struggling to keep up with demand), Fifth Season by NK Jemsin, Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson, The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor, The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (the one author I already knew!)

Some fabulous authors that I wanted to include, or would include on a longer reading list, I had to leave out - most notably, Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney, Angela Carter, Scott Lynch, Neil Gaiman, Aliette de Bodard, Ben Aaronovitch, and Juliet McKenna, for starters. These were for various reasons: whether they were available in hard-copy in Oxford, whether they wrote novels rather than short stories, whether a particular sub-genre was already well-represented, avoiding overlap with my reading lists for other courses and workshops, not covering magical realism in this course, and simply limited space on the course.

The other speculative-fiction authors of colour I found through recommendations and assorted blogs are below. So if you're also looking for new worlds and incredible stuff you've been missing out on, fill yer boots!
  • Aliette de Bodard
  • Charles Yu
  • Cindy Pon
  • Daniel Heath Justice
  • David Anthony Durham
  • Derrick Bell
  • Gerald Vizenor
  • Jewell Parker Rhoades
  • Jy Yang
  • Kalpa Imperial
  • Karen Lord
  • L. A. Banks
  • Lee Perry
  • Octavia Butler
  • RSA Garcia
  • Saladin Ahmed
  • Samuel Delany
  • Sarah Kuhn
  • Silvia Morena Garcia
  • Stephanie Saulter
  • Steven Barnes
  • Tade Thompson
  • Tananarive Due
  • Terry Bison
  • Tobias Buckell
  • Vandana Singh
  • Wesley Chu
  • Yoon Ha Lee
  • Zen Cho

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Imaginary Worlds ~ suggested reading batch 4 of 4



The reading list for the Imaginary Worlds course is a fantastic cross-section of the imaginary genres, from classic epic fantasy to literary fiction to dystopias to steampunk. Each week on the Facebook page I'm introducing one of the 16 books in more detail, and each month I'm gathering up a cross-section of four of the books here. (By the way, if you think you don't like reading fantasy or sci-fi, you should read this article first: Why you like reading fantasy and science fiction even though you think you don't.) This month, we haveThe Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor, Everfair by Nisi Shawl, and Jingo by Terry Pratchett.


The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger


This is the extraordinary love story of Clare and Henry who met when Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-two and Henry thirty. Impossible but true, because Henry suffers from a rare condition where his genetic clock periodically resets and he finds himself pulled suddenly into his past or future. In the face of this force they can neither prevent nor control, Henry and Clare's struggle to lead normal lives is both intensely moving and entirely unforgettable.

Like The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, this novel is marketed and presented as mainstream or literary fiction, rather than sci-fi / fantasy, though Henry's time-travelling condition is definitely the stuff of sci-fi in its widest sense. How a book is defined is often more to do with a marketing decision or an author's wider identity than the book itself. For instance, some of Octavia E Butler's work has fewer features of sci-fi/fantasy than this book, but is generally grouped with SFF because of her other work.

As with urban paranormal or a near-future sci-fi, The Time Traveler's Wife is set in our world, but with this additional thing: Henry's "Chrono-Displacement Disorder". Niffenegger could have treated that in fantasy style (just as a magic) or as magical realism (without explanation), but instead goes for a medical, chromosonal explanation, which is what nudges it towards the sci-fi side of the spectrum. Actually, the medical explanation is the least convincing part of the novel; it feels like an awkward stretch, and the fancy name "Chrono-Displacement Disorder" isn't enough to make it believable. What does make it believable, though, or at least make the reader willing to suspend any disbelief, is her detailed exploration of how this plays out in their lives.

What this book does especially well: This is a brilliant example of how to make an unlikely / impossible thing believable by exploring how it plays out in real life. Seeing is believing, feeling is believing, and throughout the story we see and feel what both characters experience, to the point where we don't even care about any lingering scepticism.



The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

They call her many things - a research project, a test-subject, a speciMen. An abomination. But she calls herself Phoenix, an 'accelerated woman' - a genetic experiment grown and raised in Manhattan's famous Tower 7, the only home she has ever known. Although she's only two years old, Phoenix has the body and mind of an adult - and powers beyond imagining. Phoenix is an innocent, happy to live quietly in Tower 7, reading voraciously and basking in the love of Saeed, another biologically altered human. Until the night that Saeed witnesses something so terrible that he takes his own life. Devastated, Phoenix begins to search for answers - only to discover that everything that she has ever known is a lie. Tower 7 isn't a haven. It's a prison. And it's time for Phoenix to spread her wings and rise.
 
The Book of Phoenix
is the prequel to Okorafor's multi-award-winning Who Fears Death, as the truth behind the mythologised prehistory of *Who Fears Death*. Every book site and reviewer has a stab at naming its genre - sci-fi, magical realism, magical futurisim, dystopia, etc - but The Book of Phoenix definitely has more of a sci-feel to it than Who Fears Death, and while it draws on magic, that's given more of a scientific underpinning.

Wrangling about genre aside, this is a brilliant and extraordinary book, fast-paced, dramatic, wholly convincing, and with those epic goosebump moments that make your skin prickle and which live in your mind's eye long after.

What this book does especially well: convincing scientific underpinnings for otherwise unlikely stuff, strikingly powerful theme, and drawing on a different cultural palette to the overly familiar white-western-sci-fi fare, even down to the literal fare, the characters' food. You don't realise how tediously ubiquitous the usual spaceburger is until someone's eating injera, instead.




Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Everfair is a wonderful Neo-Victorian alternate history novel that explores the question of what might have come of Belgium's disastrous colonization of the Congo if the native populations had learned about steam technology a bit earlier. Fabian Socialists from Great Britian join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo's "owner," King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.
 
Steampunk is one of the most delightful aesthetics there is - all cogs, steam machines, brass rivets, wood, goggles, cogs, leather, etc, and a generous helping of Victoriana - but that can at times mean a story can get caught up in only the aesthetic and not go any deeper. Plus all the Victoriana can end up an uncritical celebration of Victorian customs and norms, glossing over or even celebrating the nastier side of the era. Everfair takes the machinery of steampunk (quite literally), roots it firmly in the dark side of the times, and uses it to create an incredibly striking alternative history of the Congo. The fanciful automata of other steampunk novels here become equally ingenious but much more necessary prosthetics to replace the hands of those who had them chopped off in slavery - and replace them with better, more skilled, and more dangerous hands that can also be weapons.

What this book does especially well: The perfect marriage of genre and theme, steampunk and colonialism, as if this is exactly what steampunk was supposed to do all the time, we just hadn't learnt how to use it yet.




Jingo by Terry Pratchett

'Neighbours...hah. People'd live for ages side by side, nodding at one another amicably on their way to work, and then some trivial thing would happen and someone would be having a garden fork removed from their ear.' And when the neighbours in question are the proud empires of Klatch and Ankh-Morpork, those are going to be some pretty large garden tools indeed. Of course, no-one would dream of starting a war without a perfectly good reason.such as a 'strategic' piece of old rock in the middle of nowhere. It is after all every citizen's right to bear arms to defend what they consider to be their own. Even if it isn't. And even if they don't have much in the way of actual weaponry. As two armies march, Commander Vimes of Ankh-Morpork City Watch faces unpleasant foes who are out to get him...and that's just the people on his side. The enemy might be even worse. Discworld goes to war, with armies of sardines, warriors, fishermen, squid and at least one very camp follower.
 
Anyone who's read Terry Pratchett won't need any intro, so this is for the people who're newcomers to his work. He's often seen as "fantasy comedy" - and yes, this is a fantasy world, and he's extremely funny, but that description belies the depth of his satire and his extraordinarily nuanced and compassionate worldview. I usually advise newcomers to start with one of his later books - "Jingo", "Monstrous Regiment", "Making Money", "Going Postal", or "The Truth", where his social satire is at its peak. The very early books tended to satirise 80s fantasy, which is hilarious if you were reading 80s fantasy, but if you don't know the target, the satire can fall a bit flat. (Most of the Rincewind novels fall into that category, to my mind.) As the books progress, the target of his satire shifts - first a few other fantasy genres (fairytales, The Phantom of the Opera) and then into wider social satire. His warm, wise, and very sharp worldview runs through all the books, but find more expression in the storylines of the later books.

You don't need to read the books in the order they were written, but some do form "runs" that follow the same character. This is one of my favourite infographics of which books go together.

What this book does especially well: It's Pratchett, at the peak of his power, so there's far too much to choose from, but the thing we'll be particularly looking at on the course is how he uses his fantasy world to make broader social statements, and how he plays with narrative expectation to create an ending with real-world complexity.


The Imaginary Worlds course starts in Feburary 2017 - email me to book or read more about it below.


Develop your world-building to improve or invent your own imaginary worlds: the Imaginary Worlds course is an eight-week evening course on writing the genres of imaginary worlds, starting February 2017, and covering... • the many genres • how to constrain magic • making unlikely stuff convincing • your world's physical detail • why your world matters • ripple-through effects • names and language • your characters' political and economic realities • techniques for exposition. Read more about it and book here.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Imaginary Worlds ~ suggested reading batch 3 of 4



The reading list for the Imaginary Worlds course is a fantastic cross-section of the imaginary genres, from classic epic fantasy to literary fiction to dystopias to steampunk. Each week on the Facebook page I'm introducing one of the 16 books in more detail, and each month I'm gathering up a cross-section of four of the books here. (By the way, if you think you don't like reading fantasy or sci-fi, you should read this article first: Why you like reading fantasy and science fiction even though you think you don't.) This month, we have The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Fifth Season by NK Jemsin, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.


The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. But Katniss has been close to death before - and survival, for her, is second nature. 'The Hunger Games' is a searing novel set in a future with unsettling parallels to our present. Welcome to the deadliest reality TV show ever...

This is one of the best Young Adult dystopias out there - and that's a broader category than you might realise! The films did the books a real disservice, so if you've only seen the films, get hold of the books immediately. The films were faithful to the books' events, but they completely lost the sense of Katniss's interiority, which is one of the most powerful aspects of the books. Throughout the events of being filmed, hated or adored by the public, dressed up, paraded, etc, Katniss is extremely aware of other people's perceptions of her and plays that with brutal intelligence. This is the flip side of "the male gaze" - the young woman who despises the system and knows exactly how to game it for survival, however reluctant she might be to do that. In the film, all that is shorn away, and all we're left with is Katniss's outward display. I don't know how one would show interiority in a film, but it felt like the most crucial aspect of the book had been stripped out.

What this book does especially well: The political and economic realities of this world play out in every single aspect of these characters' lives, right from the first scene where Katniss illegally goes hunting. It's a masterclass in how to turn politics and economics, which might seem "dry" subjects, into the stuff of story..

The Fifth Season by NK Jemsin

This is the way the world ends ... for the last time. It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world's sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun. It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter. It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester. This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy..

Given the book's unbelievably gloomy blurb, I expected an extremely gloomy and dystopic book, perhaps even verging on grimdark - one of the few speculative-fiction subgenres that I actively avoid. But that's not how the book felt at all. The events, on reflection, are often dark, but the book itself is good at chiaroscuro, and rather than dark it feels absorbing, gripping, fascinating. It also has a powerful moral centre, whereas grimdark is more usually amoral. I'd also call it fantasy rather than dystopia, even if it is about a world ending, because it's set in a world that's not ours, with magic..

What this book does especially well: beautiful literary prose, playing with the language and idiom of its world, and a variety of magic unlike anything I've found in other fantasy.


The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

'I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me' So begins the tale of Kvothe - currently known as Kote, the unassuming innkeepter - from his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, through his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-riddled city, to his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a difficult and dangerous school of magic. In these pages you will come to know Kvothe the notorious magician, the accomplished thief, the masterful musician, the dragon-slayer, the legend-hunter, the lover, the thief and the infamous assassin.

The Name of the Wind is epic fantasy at its best, and rather than centering around castles and people of power, it centres around a more marginal figure, at least politically. It's rich, fascinating, completely absorbing - when you've run out of Robin Hobb and are wandering the house in despair for what else might match up, reach for this. Much of the first book is set in the university, with the particular enjoyment that brings - think of the pleasure of reading about Hogwarts, in Harry Potter. Well, this is the grown-up version of that. It's also a valuable reminder that tension in a book, especially a fantasy book, doesn't have to be from huge brewing wars and dramatic quests, but can be something as seemingly ordinary as a character you care deeply about trying to raise the money for their next term of education.

 Money is Rothfuss's particular thing - currency, actually - and he pays close attention to it, and manages to make it equally compelling for the reader. If you ever meet him, ask him about his currency system, and then sit back to enjoy the flow of talk and his burgeoning beard for the next few hours. Make sure to stock up with a bottle or barrel beforehand. Everyone has their particular geekery, and this without doubt is Rothfuss's - though he also has a fabulous line in inventing idioms and figures of speech from within his world, or using our idioms and giving them new origins from his world.

My only criticism is that his female characters can be quite weak - absurdly fey, or, if they're a "strong character", borderline psychotic. I've noticed a few male fantasy authors gamely try to write "strong female characters" and end up creating these erratic psychotic people whose behaviour is completely inexplicable (to the reader as well as the hapless man) and in any man would be recognised as violent, abusive, and manipulative. I wouldn't mind if the book seemed to recognise that she's mad as a bag of rats and behaves inexcusably, but she always seems to get a pass. That's the main love interest, alas, but some of the secondary female characters seem quite normal, so that's good.

What this book does especially well: economics, plot tension through small-scale events building, and playing with language.


Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

In one of the most memorable novels of recent years, Kazuo Ishiguro imagines the lives of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewered version of contemporary England. Narrated by Kathy, now 31, Never Let Me Go hauntingly dramatises her attempts to come to terms with her childhood at the seemingly idyllic Hailsham School, and with the fate that has always awaited her and her closest friends in the wider world. A story of love, friendship and memory, Never Let Me Go is charged throughout with a sense of the fragility of life.

It's almost impossible to say anything about this book without committing massive spoilers, or just plumping for adjectives like "extraordinary" and "thought-provoking", so for this, I'm just going to have to say, READ IT. Don't even look at the back-cover blurb, just READ IT. You have to trust me on this. I'm not going to be the one who spoils it for you.

What this book does especially well: JUST READ IT. Sorry, I can't say more.



The Imaginary Worlds course starts on 9 Feburary 2017 - email me at megan@thewritersgreenhouse.co.uk to book or read more about it below.


Develop your world-building to improve or invent your own imaginary worlds: the Imaginary Worlds course is an eight-week evening course on writing the genres of imaginary worlds, starting February 2017, and covering... • the many genres • how to constrain magic • making unlikely stuff convincing • your world's physical detail • why your world matters • ripple-through effects • names and language • your characters' political and economic realities • techniques for exposition. Read more about it and book here.

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