Tag Archives: Mieville

Genrecon 2013

Well people Genrecon’s inaugural event in 2012 was one of the highlights of my year and was a real kick-starter to help me get serious about the craft and business of writing. It introduced me to some wonderful writers at various stages of their careers, from fellow amateurs with an ambitious pitch to professionally published authors, self-published authors, agents, editors, publishers, international award winning best sellers. It had it all, and while it certainly fired my enthusiasm and drive it also opened my misted eyes to some of the harsh realities which lie behind the dreams of auctorial super-stardom.

So it is with great excitement that I receive the news that Genrecon 2013 is up and running. The start of the guest list was announced today and none other than Chuck Wendig is one of the International guests. I’ve mentioned his work and his website here before. I’m a big fan. When I came away from 2012 and thought about who would make a great guest for 2013 Chuck Wendig was right at the top of the list. I and several others tweeted as much at the time and if you don’t believe me check the records.

So what a year 2013. Neil Gaiman was here recently. China Mieville’s at Perth Festival (unfortunately I won’t get to go to see him, unless I make some irresponsibly hasty decision to skip work and fly across the continent).Apparently as part of the Supernovas and as side shows both Raymond E Feist and George R R Martin will be in Australia this year. It’s like my bookshelf come to life.

So check out Genrecon 2013 people, but not yet. Wait until I get in on the early bird special, then you can check it out.

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Fact in Fiction

This morning something happened to me which was so trite and clichéd I would have been embarrassed to have written it.

Just near my house a car sped through an intersection, the passenger door swung open and a woman inside half flung herself out screaming “Help me please! Somebody help me!”. The car pulled over and I went to help, and interrupted an apparent situation of domestic violence. I convinced the driver to let the lady out of the car and he drove off. For her part, once she was out of the car, she wanted nothing from me but to get away and offers of hospitality or kindness or further assistance were declined. She went on her way and I had the sense that the situation was unresolved. I warned her he could easily come back, and sure enough when she was half a block away he did. There was no more violence and he spoke to her briefly before driving off again and she walked away. I called the police but they couldn’t do much without her reporting the incident or making a complaint against him.

I post this here because once the adrenaline had died down and my head was returning to normality my first reaction was: there’s a story in this.

Perhaps that is the life of the writer: that all the events we observe become fodder for our craft, grist for our mill.

My next reaction though was that it was too unrealistic – too clichéd! Are we supposed to believe our narrator just happens to be at that intersection, at that time? Are we supposed to believe the antagonist just drives off? That the ‘damsel’ rejects her rescuer as quickly as she rejected her attacker? And what kind of ending does this story provide. In the denouement does she return to the abusive relationship? Is the climactic intervention of our protagonist entirely pointless, merely a temporary disruption to the status quo?

It occurred to me that if this tale were to make good fiction it would need some serious amendments and revisions – perhaps some heavy re-writes.

So what role does fact have in fiction? and how beholden are we as creators of fiction to fact?

China Mieville populates his world with living cacti, scarab-headed beauties and trans-dimensional spider-gods, they move amid forests of frozen lightning, clouds of gaseous rock and cities polluted by thaumaturgic effluent, and yet they work because there are some facts that make them relatable. People are greedy and kind and nasty and brutal and selfless and contradictory, exactly as we know them to be. They behave factually in the most fictitious setting. Lord of the Rings works for the same reason (though despite Tolkein’s objections it is easier to read as a bucolic allegory of post-industrialism). Star Wars likewise: inter-stellar travel, alien races and an inexplicable Force (midichlorians be damned – The Force should not have to be explained) but amidst that a relatable human story (boy meets girl, boy likes girl, girl likes smuggler, Wookie misses out on a medal, boy is trained by a muppet backpack, boy and girl are siblings… the usual).

Conversely “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” opened this week. If I type ‘Abraham’ into Google the auto-search function has ‘Abraham Lincoln’ as top suggestion, and ‘Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter’ second. Here the setting is ostensibly (in that Steam-punk / Alt-history way) a factual one. Real historical figures at a real point in history, acting out a plot of pure fiction. To what extent then do the writers owe us a ‘factual’ Lincoln. I suspect to no extent whatsoever.

And what then of the cases on the indistinct borders of these realms. What of the ‘based on an extraordinary true story films/ Films like ‘The Blindside‘ for instance, which presents the story of Sandra Bullock pulling Michael Oher out of ghetto-crack-oblivion, teaching him to play football, giving him Kathy Bates to lift his GPA and basically providing him with professional sporting success. A great story of heart-warming selflessness and triumph over adversity. To what extent did this film owe us such facts as Michael Oher’s recognised success in football pre-existing the intervention of Sandra Bullock’s character (he had achieved all-state selection and was rated 5th best lineman prospect in the country a year before he met Leigh Anne Tuohy), or that he lifted his GPA by taking online courses through Brigham Young University; scoring As in English to replace the Ds and Fs he was awarded in school?

Is the story not better if he comes into her care hopeless and becomes exceptional? Doesn’t that work better as a narrative arc? Isn’t it better fiction if his sudden success can be traced to a single inspirational speech rather than a montage of repetitive training? I think undoubtedly so.

So perhaps I will use my experience for a short story. It will be ridiculously over the top and require a great suspension of disbelief… and you will know those are the factual bits.

As TVTropes point out, reality is unrealistic, and as a famous Australian children’s author once said: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn”.


On the Literary and Genre

Here a ‘literary author’ (whose work is unfamiliar to me) decries the popularity of ‘genre’.

To summarise:

Edward Docx (has he taken a file extension as a Nom-de-Plume?) has had an initially cheerful, but subsequently less cheerful experience on a recent train ride. Firstly to the positive – everyone was reading. This he hails as a triumph of the novel over the gadgetry and distractions of the modern world. Too soon though his cheer is soured by a realisation that they are all reading Steig Larsson (and presumably none are reading any of his three published ‘literary’ novels). This he bemoans.

Docx makes his targets two of the most successful (read profitable) authors of recent decades. The aforementioned Swede and the American Dan Brown. On the basis of these exemplars he proceeds to rail against the popularity of ‘genre’ (as if these two authors of formulaic thrillers can somehow represent the diversity of all genre fiction). He compares genre fiction to the multinational hamburger chain and Lit-Fic to eel lasagne (I think this is meant as a positive for Lit-Fic).

The problem of course is that these analogies are abject nonsense.

To accuse Brown and Larsson of amateurism is hardly revelatory. That they are populist is demonstrable. That their writing is replete with clichés, unimaginative metaphors, derivative plotting, unenlightened gender politics, naff wordplay and unoriginal formulae… these things can remain undisputed. They are inconsequential to the argument.

What is of consequence is that these writers are not exemplars of ‘genre’ writing. To these authors I could easily add others: E.L.James of ‘Fifty Shades’ fame (infamy) springs quickly to mind, as does Stephanie Meyer and her sparklingly ‘vampiric’ creation. The fallacy here is a classical ‘straw man‘ (or straw woman in my examples). That Literary Fiction should be of surpassing quality to these examples is obvious, but it is no less obvious to me that genre fiction (if indeed there is a coagulant to combine sci-fi, fantasy, crime, romance, thriller, noir, dystopian… into a single category of fiction still somehow distinct from ‘literary’) should not also surpass a standard set so low.

‘Genre Fiction’ is susceptible to the misconception that its success is defined by sales figures, and to some extent this is true of any creative work, be that literary, statuary, musical or acrylic on canvas, but to make this the sole determinant is erroneous, and no less so simply because the work is genre fiction.

To be fair to Docx he does admit that Brown and Larsson are not ‘good genre’ writers, but he never raises any examples of those that are. Where’s his discussion of China Miéville? of Neil Gaiman? even Stephen King, who amid the airport-shelf dross and formulaic horror has written some enduring cultural touchstones – The Shining, Misery, Carrie, The Green Mile, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, The Body (Stand by Me), not to mention the Dark Tower series.

And what of the ‘literary’ authors who write genre? What of Michel Chabon? What of Alan Moore’s Hugo Award winner?  Or Ursula Le Guin’s? What of Cormac McCarthy’s dystopia? or Margaret Atwood’s? And that’s before we begin on Yann Martel or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Le Guin herself has written frequently on the ‘false dichotomy’ of literary and genre fiction. Here she responds (brilliantly, and with a zombie) to Ruth Franklin’s review of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The implication here seems to be that Chabon has transcended genre because Chabon’s writing is ‘good’. He hasn’t been limited by the constraints of genre… but this is a stifling and rather dated view of genre. I defy anyone to read Perdido St Station or American Gods or The Lies of Lock Lamora and suggest that its genre has curtailed the imagination of either Miéville, Gaiman or Scott Lynch (and of course generally people don’t; generally they declare these works genre-defying, or cross-genre – an ad hoc rescue of their argument that genre confines).

Perhaps the solution is in Ursula Le Guin’s hypothesis that “literature is the extant body of written art. All books belong to it.” That’s not to say that all books are good literature of course, but all are literature (yes, even Twilight).

I went through the Guardian’s 100 greatest Novels of all time and found eighteen (nearly 1/5)  ‘literary’ novels that are (secretly or openly) genre fiction (as defined by… me):

Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift:                                                      Fantasy / Alternative World / Satire

Frankenstein Mary Shelley:                                                                    Sci-Fi / Horror

The Count of Monte Christo Alexandre Dumas:                       Adventure / Revenge Thriller.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll:                  (Children’s) Fantasy

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson:                          Sci-Fi/Fantasy

The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde:                                        Uncanny / Fantasy

The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame:                                  Animist Fantasy

Brave New World Aldous Huxley:                                                          Dystopian Sci-Fi

The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler:                                                          Crime Noir

Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell:                                                 Dystopian Sc-Fi

Charlotte’s Web E. B. White:                                                                       Animist Fantasy

The Lord Of The Rings J. R. R. Tolkien:                                               High / Epic Fanatsy

One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez:          Magical Realism

The New York Trilogy Paul Auster (with which I’m unfamiliar but which is described by The Guardian as a “metaphysical thriller”)

The BFG Roald Dahl:                                                                                          Children’s Fantasy

La Confidential James Ellroy:                                                                     Crime

Wise Children Angela Carter: (with which I’m unfamiliar but which is described by The Guardian as a “Magical Realism”)

Northern Lights Philip Pullman:                                                               Young Adult Fantasy


“The City & The City” Review

“The City & The City” Review

My first contribution to “Disinformed”


Strong female protagonists

Where are they?

I recently got drawn into a discussion about whether Katniss Everdeen is a strong female protagonist (SFP). I haven’t read the books so I’m basing my arguments on secondary sources and what I know of the film and plot synopses of the novels. This may lead to a flawed understanding of the character (and please point out those flaws when you see them), but I’m not sure she’s what I would be looking for in an SFP.

The discussion broadened, as it so often does, and I realised I was struggling to find examples of what I would call SFPs. Hence this musing.

One problem I think comes from what we see as strong. Often an author will attempt to create an SFP by simply making a male character and assigning female pronouns and a female name. This creates a character that most people see as strong, but at the expense of any femininity the character possesses. This, aside from being lazy characterisation, kind of defeats the purpose of the SFP. Surely the protagonist is there to show that female’s can be strong, but I don’t think the message here should be that strength is only achieved at the expense of femininity.

Part of the problem here is sociological. Carina Chocano wrote this last year in the New York Times Magazine:

‘ “Strong female character” is one of those shorthand memes that has leached into the cultural groundwater and spawned all kinds of cinematic clichés: alpha professionals whose laserlike focus on career advancement has turned them into grim, celibate automatons; robotic, lone-wolf, ascetic action heroines whose monomaniacal devotion to their crime-fighting makes them lean and cranky and very impatient; murderous 20-something comic-book salesgirls who dream of one day sidekicking for a superhero; avenging brides; poker-faced assassins; and gloomy ninjas with commitment issues. It has resulted in characters like Natalie Portman’s in “No Strings Attached,” who does everything in her power to avoid commitment, even with a guy she’s actually in love with; or Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy… ‘

In part Katniss is one of these SFPs’ (if Salander is a protagonist, I suppose not exactly). She fights, hunts, avenges, assassinates, with the best of them. Better than the best of them. Twice. Occasionally she feels kind of bad about it, or contrives ways to kill in which she’s less morally culpable, or scatters petals on a corpse in a moment of ‘femininity’, and it has been argued that she is feminine in that she is motivated as a family matriarch and that she does all she does to protect her family. But is this a feminine trait? Would we really be surprised if a male character was motivated to protect his sister?

One of the other issues I have with this whole discussion is that we have to specify ‘strong female character’ as an archetype. This is not necessary with male characters. The label ‘Strong male character’ is seen as being unnecessary, even tautology. Often the default means to give male characters ‘depth’ is to load them with weaknesses, uncertainties or neuroses. Is this some sense of ‘feminising’ them? And if so what does this say of our default view of the feminine?

The example I gave was Jane Eyre, of whom China Miéville wrote, “Charlotte Brontë’s heroine towers over those around her, morally, intellectually and aesthetically; she’s completely admirable and compelling. Never camp, despite her Gothic surrounds, she takes a scalpel to the skin of the every day.”

I think too that there are several examples further back in literary history. Shakespeare’s women are often strong female characters. Lady Macbeth belittles her husband for his perceived weakness. Juliet is prepared to take all manner of risks for the sake of her love and is arguably stronger than her melancholy Romeo. King Lear’s daughters, Cleopatra, Rosalind, Viola, Katherine…

But perhaps the problem was one of differing definitions. The ‘kick-ass chick’, Buffy imitators, are common enough, but when I speak of a strong female protagonist I mean a character which is at once feminine and strong, not a character in which one aspect is sacrificed to the other. Too frequently a character is de-feminised in an effort to make them ‘strong’. This is not helpful. I can’t accept as examples those characters who seem to be strong only to be dis-empowered by their femininity or by the consequences of their feminine aspects.

Consider Éowyn. In many ways she is the warrior-woman archetype, but she is more than this. When Háma is asked to select a leader to defend Edoras he suggests Éowyn, and when the men return home she has ruled successfully in their absence. Her femininity is precisely her strength in defeating the Witch King of Angmar on Pelennor Fields.  But then what happens to her… she meets Faramir and her love for him reduces her to a wife. She discards what has, until this point, been the driving motivation of her character and settles into the life of wife and mother. She is, in a sense, tamed. This is of course in keeping with Tolkein’s Christian conservatism, but still a disappointing end for his strongest female character.

Consider too what Disney did to Hua Mulan. In the original Chinese ballad she is presented doing stereotypical women’s work, but takes her father’s place when he is called to war. By her own skill she rises to general and commands troops for over a decade. In Disney’s version she survives largely through luck and the interventions of men or magical creatures.

There are some success stories of course:

Hermione Granger is arguably the strongest of the three central characters in JK Rowlings books. She is intelligent and resourceful, the best magician of the three, and though she (spoiler alert) loves Ron her love for him doesn’t disempower or reduce her as Éowyn’s love for Faramir did. Perhaps this is the influence of the female authorship?

Molly Millions is a warrior-woman, and more. Her history and personal conflicts (such as her time as a meat-puppet) are uniquely female. She defines her relationship with Case, being at times unattainable to him and at other times tender. She has sexual agency and power which she uses not as a relative experience for men but for her own purposes. Despite her relationship with Case she remains independent and self-sufficient, never defining herself through this relationship.

Buffy has had more column inches of analysis for her role as a feminist character than I will be able to allude to here, but Whedon, and his fellow writers, never shied from her femininity. Given the initial concept of the character it is a remarkable achievement. She is stronger than she looks, figuratively and literally. She struggles with her sexuality and relationships, recognising her attraction to the wrong men. She becomes a leader, a nurturer, and we see her struggle with the responsibilities of her maturation. It helps too that she is surrounded by other strong females. Willow grows to power and her relationship with Tara is particularly genuine and mutually empowering, Cordelia (largely in her time with Angel) learns of the greater role of women than simply vapid beauty, Faith deals with her power differently to Buffy and demonstrates the dangers Buffy avoids, in series 5 Glory is given the role of the ‘big bad’, a rare role for a female character.

Action hero women like Ripley and Sarah Connor (in T2) are great examples because they are not just butt-kickers, nor are they defined by their beauty. Ripley was the security officer in Alien, so she already had some cred. Having a female security officer on a mostly male crew would still be noteworthy in film; Ridley Scott did it in 1979. Sarah Connor in Terminator 1 is a pretty standard damsel-in-distress, except that her protector male fails and she defeats the implacable terminator herself. Her strength is then so much the greater in T2, not because she is better at combat (she is) but because she has devoted her life to the goals she has set for herself. She’s motivated not by her relationship to a man (except her son), but by her own goals.

The greatest success story though is Game of Thrones. I can’t even pick one. Catelyn Stark’s absolute commitment to her children neither diminishes nor limits her strength. Cersei’s pursuit of power is unapologetic and though she uses her femininity as a tool she never does so in the service of a man but only ever in the service to her own power (or the power of her children). Arya’s refusal to submit to social expectation is in direct contrast to her sister Sansa. Daenerys’ ability to meet all the myriad challenges thrown at her. Asha is the preferred heir to Pyke and is judged for her strength. Even relatively minor characters like Olenna Redwyne can be strong, shown to be sharply intelligent and unafraid despite her frailty and age.

As a reader I want to read about these characters. As a writer I want to write them.

Jane Espenson speaks of the joy to be had in writing strong female characters, and though it has never been a strength of mine it’s something I’m working to improve.

I believe Aisha is a strong female character. I believe my novel Exile has strong female characters, in Jacqueline, Mallorie, Monique, and probably most significantly in Marianne. I also have been working on some short stories with female protagonists, either in my Fantasy setting, or in the modern day.