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

Read More »

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.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Imaginary Worlds ~ Suggested reading batch 2 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 Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin, The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, and Ash by Malinda Lo.


The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire - neither Offred's nor that of the two men on which her future hangs.  

The Handmaid's Tale is an absolute classic dystopia - first published in 1985, it still feels chilling and prescient today. Although it's set in the future and definitely a dystopia, it's usually counted as "literary fiction" rather than sci-fi / fantasy. There's an unfortunate snobbery at work, where some circles refuse to consider that any sci-fi or fantasy could be literary, and if something is clearly literary as well, then it somehow gets elevated to "not sci-fi / fantasy" even though it clearly is. The same happens with Atwood's other books (in fact even she says they're not SFF) and with Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let me Go. It's a shame that people insist on this snobbery and these silos - but if anything, it goes to show how very vast the genres of "imaginary worlds" actually are.

What this book does especially well: Atwood's prose is beautiful, pure and resonant as a crystal chiming (hence the literary accolades, which she certainly deserves) and its theme is strikingly powerful.

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
Winter can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun. As Warden of the north, Lord Eddard Stark counts it a curse when King Robert bestows on him the office of the Hand. His honour weighs him down at court where a true man does what he will, not what he must ...and a dead enemy is a thing of beauty. The old gods have no power in the south, Stark's family is split and there is treachery at court. Worse, the vengeance-mad heir of the deposed Dragon King has grown to maturity in exile in the Free Cities.

A Game of Thrones barely needs any introduction any more, though you may not know that that's the name of the first book only, and the full book series is called A Song of Ice and Fire. And if you're feeling impatient for the next instalment of the HBO series, spare a thought for readers who started the books when the first one came out in 1996!

If you only know the story from the TV series, or were put off the TV series by the excess breastage, then I highly recommend the books. The TV series has done a fantastic job of condensing and adapting the story, and the casting is particularly rich, but there's a wealth more detail in the books, and they are absolutely not sexist at all. Everyone suffers, and the forces of war and patriarchy play out exactly as they genuinely would, but this is in no way misogynistically done, and if anything it's an extensive critique of our feudal-fantasy dreams, where we fill fantasy books with castles and wars, not thinking carefully about how that would actually work. These books take it seriously.

Also, while the TV series is all about the sex, the books are much more obsessed with food. Seriously: lay in plenty of food before you start reading. In particular, you'll need roast chickens, wheels of cheese, vegetables drowned in butter, stuffed chillies, and loaves of fresh bread. For starters.

What this book does especially well: George RR Martin's world is exceptionally well realised, with vast detail in every aspect of culture and people's lives, and close attention to the ripple-out effects of every choice.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
1967: Ye Wenjie witnesses Red Guards beat her father to death during China's Cultural Revolution. This singular event will shape not only the rest of her life but also the future of mankind. Four decades later, Beijing police ask nanotech engineer Wang Miao to infiltrate a secretive cabal of scientists after a spate of inexplicable suicides. Wang's investigation will lead him to a mysterious online game and immerse him in a virtual world ruled by the intractable and unpredicatable interaction of its three suns. This is the Three-Body Problem and it is the key to everything: the key to the scientists' deaths, the key to a conspiracy that spans light-years and the key to the extinction-level threat humanity now faces.

This is hardcore hard sci-fi, taking particular scientific principles and exploring them fully. If you're happy reading A Brief History of Time and the like, you'll love this - it's chokka with genuine science, fascinating extrapolations, and physics dilemmas. But if physics isn't completely your thing, you might find this hard going, because lengthy passages are devoted solely to the physics, and the story wouldn't make sense if you skimmed them - the science is the story. A Marmite book, then! Incidentally, it was translated from Chinese by Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings, who's also on the recommended list.

What this book does especially well: it uses meticulous science to develop an idea that would otherwise seem outlandish and even cliched, it embeds the political realities in its characters' lives, in the future it imagines as well as in the historical past, and its theme - whether or not humans even should be saved - feels painfully relevant at the moment.

Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash by Malinda Lo
In the world of Ash, fairies are an older race of people who walk the line between life and death, reality and magic. As orphaned Ash grows up, a servant in her stepmother's home, she begans to realise that her beloved mother, Elinor, was very much in tune with these underworld folk, and that she herself has the power to see them too. Against the sheer misery of her stepmother's cruelty, greed and ambition in preparing her two charmless daughters for presentation at court, and hopefully royal or aristocratic marriage, Ash befriends one of these fairies - a mysterious, handsome man who grants her wishes and restores hope to Ash's existence, even though she knows there will be a price to pay. But most important of all, she also meets Kaisa, a huntress employed by the king, and it is Kaisa who truly awakens Ash's desires for both love and self-respect... Ash is a fairy tale about possibility and recognizing the opportunities for change. From the deepest grief comes the chance for transformation.

Ash is a children's book (shelved in the 9-12 range) retelling the story of Cinderella, with a few twists - most significantly, in dismissing the traditional trajectory. If you've read Angela Carter's fairytale retellings in The Bloody Chamber, then the "twists" in Ash might seem tame in comparison, but remember who the book's readers are: as an intro to feminist fairytale retelling, this is captivating, and reminds you that you're always allowed to rewrite the stories yourself. Its world-building is light, in keeping with it being fairytale rather than epic fantasy, but the description is still vivid and its use of magic is deft, interesting, and well-described.

What this book does especially well: overturning the usual familiar tropes of its genre and the obvious choices for an unexpected approach.


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, 8 December 2016

A writerly Christmas

Gift vouchers ~ Christmas stars with old drafts ~ presents for writers ~ the hilarious present game ~ and some writing prompts to give you a much needed snippet of creativity in the midst of the festivities

Gift vouchers

You can now get gift vouchers for any of the Writers' Greenhouse courses or workshops: the Story Elements course, the Imaginary Worlds course, and the Summer of Writing workshops. You can also get vouchers for any amount towards a course or workshop. Read more about the vouchers here and maybe, if you're hoping for one yourself, discreetly leave the page open or forward it on Messenger, WhatsApp, text, Facebook, and Twitter, and tag them on Instagram...?

Christmas stars

These stars are very easy to make (eight-year-olds manage fine), very striking, and a beautiful use for piles of old writing print-outs. The writing becomes a texture of fragmented words, rather than something one reads, as if your prose is breaking free and into poetry. If you're using your old writing print-outs, make sure to cut the squares from the centre of the A4 sheets, so you get writing across the whole square. Find out how to make the stars here.

More present ideas

Lots more ideas of presents for writers across a wide range of budgets, from Poundshop stocking-fillers to suggestions for subscriptions and writing tools. Get more present ideas.

The Present Game

This isn't especially writerly but it's massive fun as an alternative to Secret Santa or to Christmas Crackers. Everyone gets presents - YAY! - and then passes them round, swaps them, steals them, et cetera, all in accordance with the rules which, being a good teacher, I have helpfully typed out on a doc for you to download and chop up. You can ask people to bring presents (generally cheap ones or regifting) or, if you forget, do a shopping-swoop somewhere cheap and cheerful. (I did very well with my one-pound-shop raids a couple years ago.) How to play the present game.

12 days of writing: The maps

Why did the protagonist fake those maps? A mini writing course with prompts to explore twelve elements of story-building by creating your own story. You can also use the prompts to develop a premise of your own. These are the twelve topics explored in Story Elements: premise, characters, place, time, plot-layering, tension and stakes, beginnings, themes, symbols, detail, and endings. Sneaking off for some writing time each day, or every few days, can help keep you calm and sane during the festivities.

12 days of writing: The spices

Why did the protagonist steal those spices? Another mini writing course to explore the twelve elements of story-building, looking at the same elements but using different prompts. Again, you can also use the prompts to develop a story of your own, or combine the prompts from both 12 Days of Writing on one of the premises. 


Happy Christmas and have fun writing!

Friday, 18 November 2016

Imaginary Worlds ~ suggested reading batch 1 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'll gather up a cross-section of four of the books here, to introduce you to. (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 Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice, Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber, Peter F Hamilton's Neutronium Alchemist, and Ken Liu's Grace of Kings. Note: if you're coming on the course, don't panic - the 16 books are recommended reading, not required reading! It's fine if you don't read them before the course, we'll be looking at their blurbs and extracts during the course.

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

The kingdom of the Six Duchies is on the brink of civil war when news breaks that the crown prince has fathered a bastard son and is shamed into abdication. The child's name is Fitz, and his is despised. Raised in the castle stables, only the company of the king's fool, the ragged children of the lower city and his unusual affinity with animals provide Fitz with any comfort. To be useful to the crown, Fitz is trained as an assassin; and to use the traditional magic of the Farseer family. But his tutor, allied to another political faction, is determined to discredit, even kill him. Fitz must survive: for he may be destined to save the kingdom.

The blurb for this book reads like fairly standard "sword-and-sorcery" style epic fantasy, but Robin Hobb's books are anything but standard. They're definitely within the genre of epic fantasy and use a lot of the genre's features, but with fabulous freshness, they duck a lot of the usual cliches and take an unexpected approach to some of the familiar tropes. The characterisation and sense of place are especially good, and the books are shot through with a deep sense of wisdom. I don't think I've ever used my Kindle's underlining feature so much.

This is the first book in the Farseer Trilogy, and if this one hooks you, you're in luck: several other trilogies follow the same characters and world, alternating between the Farseers and the Rain Wilds, all with gorgeous cover art by Jackie Morris. The chronological order for the trilogies goes...
  • The Farseer trilogy
  • The Liveship Traders trilogy
  • The Tawny Man trilogy
  • The Rain Wild Chronicles (four books)
  • Fitz and the Fool trilogy (in progress)
What these books do especially well: so much to choose from here... A fully realised world and sense of place, with varying geography and cultures; well-constrained magic; making small changes to the usual "fantasy world" and allowing those to ripple through fully; not using the usual feudalism=sexism trope.

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

It's Carnival time and the Caribbean-colonized planet of Toussaint is celebrating with music, dance, and pageantry. Masked 'Midnight Robbers' waylay revelers with brandished weapons and spellbinding words. But to you Tan-Tan, the Robber Queen is simply a favorite costume to wear at the festival -- until her power-coprrupted father commits an unforgivable crime. Suddenly, both father and daughter are thrust into the brutal world of New Half-Way Tree. Here monstrous creatures from folkklore are real, and the humans are violent outcasts in the wilds. Here Tan-Tan must reach into the heart of myth - and become the Robber Queen herself. For only the Robber Queen's legendary powers can save her life... and set her free.

Midnight Robber is a wonderfully unexpected mix of genres, starting off in a future world with some exciting new tech, feeling more like fantasy for much of the book, mixing in folklore and myth, and towards the end starting to feel a bit magical-realist, all sprinkled with Carribbean dialect. In the prologue, I found the dialect a tiny bit heavy, as I'm not used to it, but after a couple of pages I could tune my ear into it more easily (and I also checked ahead to see if the rest would be a bit lighter, which it was). Once I was into the story, the dialect felt lighter and also an essential part of creating the book's atmosphere. Most of all, the book's world is splendid and rich - I was gutted when it ended, because I'd have happily spent a full trilogy living in and exploring that world! A lot of fantasy draws on vaguely European landscapes of fields, mountains, plains, etc, and in the weaker books a paucity of animals, just foxes / hares / snakes / birds; to be in a compelling and fully realised jungle, replete with a jungle's many creepy crawly bitey things and humidity, was pure delight.

What this book does especially well: Many things - but for the Imaginary Worlds course, it's a particularly fine example of creating a world that doesn't follow the usual sci-fi / fantasy template, and also of filling it with flora and fauna.

Hopkinson's other novels use a similar freestyle approach to genre and play with language, so if you like Midnight Robber, you have another five novels you can read: Brown Girl in the Ring, The Salt Roads, The New Moon's Arms, The Chaos (Young adult), and Sister Mine. She's also published six anthologies of short fiction.

The Neutronium Alchemist by Peter F Hamilton

**** SPOILER ALERT! **** This is actually the second book in the Night's Dawn trilogy - the first book in the trilogy is The Reality Dysfunction. So if you want to start reading at the beginning, then skip the blurb.

The ancient menace has finally escaped from Lalonde, shattering the Confederation's peaceful existence. Those who succumbed to it have acquired godlike powers, but now follow a far from divine gospel as they advance inexorably from world to world. On planets and asteroids individuals battle for survival against the strange and brutal forces unleashed upon the universe. Governments teeter on the brink of anarchy, the Confederation Navy is dangerously overstretched, and a dark messiah prepares to invoke his own version of the final Night. In such desperate times the last thing the galaxy needs is a new and terrifyingly powerful weapon. Yet Dr Alkad Mzu is determined to retrieve the Alchemist - so she can complete her thirty-year-old vendetta to slay a star. Which means Joshua Calvert has to find Dr Mzu and bring her back before the Alchemist can be reactivated. But he's not alone in the chase, and there are people on both sides who have their own ideas about how to sue the ultimate doomsday device.

Peter F Hamilton writes fantastic beasts of books, great whopping volumes. I love long books and series of books - I've never understood some people's dislike for them, because what are you going to do when you finish besides read another book? Why not carry on with the same book? That's even better! If you like long books as much as me, this author's a winner: most of these tomes clock in around 1000 pages, and they come in THREES.

Hamilton writes serious solid sci-fi. Most sci-fi gets divided into "actual sciency stuff" (extrapolating a scientific principle) and "space opera" (lots of planets and aliens), but he does both together. His books are huge in scope as well as actual size, with a substantial cast and usually about five plot threads running together, but absolutely worth any momentary confusion of "Who's that again?" The metaphysical payoff at the end of his novels is invariably spectactular, leaving your mind reeling with ideas.

I do have a couple criticisms of his work. He definitely has a sexual "type", which becomes increasingly clear across the books. By the seventh nubile girl with freckles across her breasts - well, le sigh, but whatever. That said, his female characters are generally strong, complex characters. He also goes into more detail than necessary sometimes with the tech - by the third page explaining how a spaceship works, I tend to think "I wasn't planning on building the bloody thing!" but some might enjoy that aspect. And sometimes, with 5 threads, the tension is lost, because when you return to that thread, you've forgotten the cliffhanger you left it on. But these are very minor quibbles compared to his book's strengths.

What these books do especially well: fantastic themes, which culminate powerfully in each trilogy's ending; heaps of new ideas with careful thought of how these ripple through the society; some brilliant science.

I heard Peter F Hamilton speak at a panel at the World Fantasy Conference, and afterwards asked the panel which of their ideas they thought most likely to come true some day. Hamilton said that his idea of OC tattoos, circuitry under the skin, were already true, and he was kicking himself for not having patented the idea!

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Emperor Mapidere was the first to unite the island kingdoms of Dara under a single banner. But now the emperor is on his deathbed, his people are exhausted by his vast, conscriptive engineering projects and his counsellors conspire only for their own gain. Even the gods themselves are restless. A wily, charismatic bandit and the vengeance-sworn son of a deposed duke cross paths as they each lead their own rebellion against the emperor's brutal regime. Together, they will journey to the heart of the empire; witnessing the clash of armies, fleets of silk-draped airships, magical books and shapeshifting gods. Their unlikely friendship will drastically change the balance of power in Dara...but at what price?

The Grace of Kings is book 1 of The Dandelion Dynasty, but feels and works like a standalone book, with narrative satisfaction at the end. It's epic fantasy, in the sense of being set in an imaginary world and exploring its large-scale politics, but without many of the usual tropes of that - notably, no magic and no mythical beasts - and using tech with steampunk leanings, while not overtly being steampunk in other ways. Its main concern is with politics: how political machinations work (or fail), changing perceptions, and the personalities behind it. It had much less description than epic fantasy usually does, which is a shame for me, as that's what lets me imaginatively inhabit a world, but the rest was good enough to keep me engaged.

What this book does especially well: Its precise exploration of politics is fascinating, especially in how tightly this is woven with an understanding of characters. Each time a character does something that thrills or disappoints you, you have a sense that that was, perhaps, inevitable in their personality.


New recommendations are coming out each week before the Imaginary Worlds course. You can follow me on Facebook/writersgreenhouse or Twitter @writersgreenhse to see the latest, or sign up to the newsletter to get the next blog-batch sent to you and other occasional interesting things:


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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.

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