Choosing Your Favorite Baby

Hey blog! Long time no see.

A couple of updates: BEHOLD MY EDITING & PROOFREADING SERVICES PAGE! I’ve been editing & proofreading for years–eight years, actually!–but I have never officially hung out my hat. Hat is hung. If you or someone you know needs mentoring, editing, proofing or just some guidance, hit me up.

Also, I’ve posted a few drafts from my current songwriting project to Soundcloud. Nutritious liquid lunch for the ears.

I did an interview at the most talented Rachel Swirsky’s blog.

I’m currently staring down the end of my most productive Saturday in ages. I ran! I wrote (a little) and I went out with the family and I painted a room. The productivity gods, they are with me.

Left with a couple of hours before bedtime, and the family running errands, I… don’t know what to work on! I have three, count em THREE big projects that I am excited about. One’s science fiction, one’s historical, and one’s fantasy. All are saleable, I think, to various editors or through self-pubbing.

And they all look so shiny. I am reminded of the time my grandmother took me to Toys R Us, showed me the shelves full of amazing Transformers & said “pick one.”

PICK ONE. HOW CAN I JUST PICK ONE. THEY’RE ALL SO SHINY.

What’s your criteria for picking a project?

NorWesCon Schedule

Urrrgh, blog, I love writing in you, but this has been the worst quarter. So much sick. So little writing. So much REMODELING. but I’m at Norwescon today, and tomorrow, and here is le schedule!

Fri 1:00 PM-2:00 PM – Evergreen 3&4
Comics on TV
Nina Post (M), Spencer Ellsworth, Lilith Whitewolf, J. Rachel Edidin

Fri 3:00 PM-4:00 PM – Cascade 13
More Than Just Scorned Victims
H.M. Jones (M), Laura Anne Gilman, John (J.A.) Pitts, Spencer Ellsworth

Fri 6:00 PM-7:00 PM – Cascade 10
Creativity & Disabilities
Kevin Mathews (M), Liv Rainey-Smith, Mark Chapman, Luna Lindsey, Spencer Ellsworth

Fri 9:00 PM-10:00 PM – Cascade 5&6
Indie Comics -v- the Big Two
Ogre Whiteside (M), Spencer Ellsworth, Brenna Clarke Gray

Sat 11:00 AM-12:00 PM – Cascade 7&8
Why Fantasy Matters
Cat Rambo (M), Peter Orullian, Catherine Cooke Montrose, Carol Berg, Spencer Ellsworth

Sat 12:00 PM-1:00 PM – Cascade 7&8
…But It Was Always So Awesome!
Mickey Schulz (M), J. F. High, Lisa Bolekaja, Spencer Ellsworth, John Lovett

Sat 1:00 PM-2:00 PM – Cascade 13
Hyper-Sexualization vs Power Fantasy
Mickey Schulz (M), Spencer Ellsworth, Torrey Stenmark, J. Rachel Edidin

Sat 2:00 PM-3:00 PM – Grand 2
Autograph Session 1
Amber Bariaktari , Caroline M. Yoachim, Dave Bara, Dean Wells, Erik Scott de Bie, G. Willow Wilson, James C. Glass, Jennifer Brozek, John (J.A.) Pitts, Kristi Charish, Django Wexler, Frog Jones, Rhiannon Held, Sonia Orin Lyris, S. A. Bolich, Morgue Anne, Robert J. Sawyer, Spencer Ellsworth, Steven Barnes, Tori Centanni, Cat Rambo, Don Maitz, GregRobin Smith, Jeremy Zimmerman, Laura Anne Gilman

Sat 7:00 PM-8:00 PM – Cascade 3&4
You Can’t Take the Sky From Me: Mixing Genres
Nina Post (M), Raven Oak, Spencer Ellsworth, Adam Rakunas

Sat 8:00 PM-8:30 PM – Cascade 1
Reading: Spencer Ellsworth
READING MY UPCOMING TOR.COM STORY!!!!!!!!!!!
OMGWTFBBQ!!!!!
Spencer Ellsworth (M)

Star Wars & Me, Episode 3: Return Of The Monomyth

It is 2016 and I have seen a new Star Wars movie. This time, my date was my daughter.

Who kinda had to be talked into it.

Okay, confession time: my kids have still not seen the original trilogy all the way through. We’ve tried. They made it halfway through A New Hope and Empire, then got bored and ran off. When it came time to watch Return of the Jedi, I started it halfway through so we could do the ending and get them to bed.

They liked the Ewoks okay.

I can’t really blame them. They are swimming in awesome speculative fiction. They’ve got Harry Potter, and even more crucially, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Both of these series are rich, full of deep characters struggling with the war between light and darkness, and tend to have better representation as far as female characters go.

Star Wars is kind of slow. And boring. And, until recently a sausage party.

So even though the films are really gospel to me, they have nowhere near that pull on my kids’ imagination.
I had to really sell my daughter on The Force Awakens. Daddy-daughter date. Candy and popcorn. (I’m cheap enough that we snuck the popcorn in. It’s like a dollar a bag at Trader Joe’s!) And I promised to get her home in time to play with her friends. For an eight-year-old, she was already doing a good impression of teenaged bargaining.

So we saw the movie. I was rather moved by the central father-son conflict, of course, and thought Harrison Ford hammed things up appropriately. Daisy Ridley came straight out of the Hermione Granger School of Heroines, which was okay by me. Other bits–like the obvious Save-The-Cat formula used for the script–were annoying.

But I was mostly interested in my daughter’s reaction. Would the mythology that shaped me be interesting to her, here in its new form?

“So, did you like it?” I asked as we walked out of the theater, aware that the franchise closest to my heart was competing with a whole lot of other, possibly better, stories.

“Yeah! I like Rey!”

Victory.
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Workshop Envy

Twitter tells me today’s problem: it seems that Neil Gaiman, for once, chose his words badly. He has shared the following, out of enthusiasm for Clarion, a six-week summer intensive science fiction workshop.

This is not pleasing to many people.  Including me. Because Clarion is expensive already, and it mandates six free weeks in summer. I don’t have the money now and I don’t have the time. Luckily, half my friends went to Clarion, I myself went to the one-week Viable Paradise,  I’ve had enough stories published that I feel confident I don’t need Clarion, etc (plug here for my own best story of 2015).

But if you, like me, can’t take that time off and can’t get someone to watch the kids and unlike me, you’re just starting out as a writer, that tweet might make you pretty darn depressed.

I’m sorry.

I know how it feels.

I have three small children and two jobs. I get on the bus at 6:15 every morning so I can write from 7 to 7:30 at work, and I get a couple of hours on Sunday morning to revise that writing.

It’s nowhere near the time some of my friends have.

But to paraphrase a younger (perhaps wiser) Neil Gaiman, I get what everyone gets. I get a lifetime.

You don’t need Clarion. You need to write on a regular schedule, and possibly get a (GOOD) writing group, and you might want to study craft in some way, but you don’t need Clarion.

However… now’s the cautionary tale. Please don’t be an ass to those who CAN go.

They have a rare opportunity, and they only get a lifetime, too.

When I was young and a much worse writer, I applied to Clarion several times and never got in (shortlisted once). I did this because I had no kids and my parents supported artistic commitments like writing workshops and I was in college working a succession of disposable jobs. In 2005, I decided to apply to a “backup” workshop–Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. If I didn’t get into Clarion, at least I would get the one week intensive with Card.

Right before I attended OSC’s camp, I ran into a friend and gushed about the cool experience I was about to have at Literary Boot Camp. To my surprise, my friend, who was a struggling new mom, got quite cold. “How can you afford that?”

I was honest. “My parents paid for it.”

“Oh.” Colder. Ice cold. Freezing. She said, “Well, I can’t just ask my dad for money.”

Ouch. I felt terrible after that. I felt terrible that she couldn’t go, I felt terrible that I could, I felt terrible for being overprivileged, and I certainly wasn’t about to mention that this (much cheaper) workshop was my BACKUP and I’d actually planned to go to a six-week workshop in Seattle, but didn’t get in.

When my dad changed jobs, and started trying to retire, and I started having kids of my own, I understood a little more of how she felt. These days it’s all I can do to go to an occasional con. I would have to be between jobs and financially well in the black to go to Clarion. I managed Viable Paradise, which is one week, five years ago, only by grading papers and teaching online classes while I was there.

There are writers in a position to go to Clarion. A lot of them go on scholarships, especially writers of color. Many of my good friends went in college, or went in between periods of employment, or went when they could take advantage of family support. I’m encouraging some of my students to apply.

You may never be in that position, but if you were, you would take it. So have a little compassion, and remember that it’s not a magic ticket either. I didn’t sell any stories until well after I finished both Boot Camp and VP.

It’s a lifetime.

Star Wars & Me, Episode 2: Attack Of The Girl

I imagined a lot of stuff when I was a kid. Space battles, fantasy worlds, robots and dragons and hobbits oh my.

Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Transformers, with their mix of myth and pulp sci-fi, and their almost entirely male casts, made the tentpoles of my imagination. They made me want to tell my own fantasy and sf stories.

But for all that, I didn’t often imagine, y’know, women as heroes.

In 1992, I read a little something called Heir To The Empire. And I have to credit Timothy Zahn, to this day, for Mara Jade. Fighting compulsion for free will, shading between light and darkness–Mara’s journey was one of the first epic, serious tales I read for a female character. She wasn’t overly sexualized, or made a plot device for the male characters. She was everything good about Luke, Han & Leia, and the Thrawn trilogy worked because it was her story.

However, after I’d read enough of it, the Expanded Universe became… ah, unwieldy is a good word.

So is lumbering slobberbeast created by a barn full of drunk writers only allowed to refer to each other by call signs.

Three years out, in 1995, I stopped drinking from the fire hose of EU novels and comics. Not before, though, I gave, I not you shit, young Jedi, a presentation explaining the EU to my high school freshman English class.

After that presentation, the girl I had a crush on actually walked with me to the bus, and talked to me for the first time. I was fairly shocked. Hadn’t I just outed myself as the world’s biggest nerd? It never occurred to me, even though I had Mara Jade to guide me, that my crush could 1) be a nerd herself, 2) actually find someone interesting when they expressed their passion, no matter how nerdy, or 3) a combination of the two.

Here is where it would be nice to say “Reader, I married her,” but no. I stuttered through one or two conversations with her.

Instead, I decided that conventional wisdom had to be right. Girls didn’t dig nerds. I traded the EU for neo-Beat cool. I dropped all my regular comic buys and dialed down the nerdiness in all aspects of my life for a while. (This is why I am the only fantasy writer in the world who never played D&D. )

Based on religious programming, cultural programming, and yes, the lack of women in the stories I grew up on, I ignored Mara Jade and bought into the idea that women were like another strange race of beings, and couldn’t understand the nerdy boys’ world.

And then, as hope was lost and nerdiness lay fallow behind pseudo-cool, the prophecy came true.

STAR WARS EPISODE ONE.

Okay, sonny, you really have to try to understand how COOL that sounded.

EPISODE ONE!!!!!!!!  FINALLY THE TALE OF YOUNG VADER, WHICH WOULD NO DOUBT BE COOL BECAUSE how could THAT be bad?

For this movie, I accepted that I would go full nerd again. I waited for the midnight show tickets. I watched Empire Strikes Back a good thirty times in the months leading up to Phantom Menace. (I also watched Trainspotting, to brush up on young MacGregor, and learned the hard way that one wasn’t much of a date movie.)

I saw it aaaaaand…

I loved The Phantom Menace!

At first.

Specifically, I loved the bit setpieces. I maintain that Episode 1 has the shape of Star Wars–cool lightsaber fights and a space battle and a podrace–but after the fourth showing, there was no soul behind those set pieces. All the story beats felt wrong. Why were we wasting time on midichlorians and trade agreements? Why was the movie about Qui-Gon, with Obi-Wan relegated to a supporting player? Why was Jar-Jar such a one-note doofus, with zero redeeming qualities?

The story, if you really squinted, was a good one–young Anakin Skywalker, a slave with nothing to his name, becomes a Jedi and helps save the galaxy. But it didn’t flow! The characters didn’t connect the right dots! This obscure dude  Timothy Zahn was able to write a realized, complex character like Mara Jade, and George Lucas couldn’t make Padme and Anakin interesting?

I began obsessively rewriting the movie. In retrospect, it was very good for me as a writer, if not as a Star Wars fan.

My experience with Episode 1 was more positive than negative. It showed me that I was going to be both a normal successful adult and a raging nerd and that there was no way around it. Sometime in 1999, I realized that all people, men and women, worked on a balance between a dreamy-eyed kid and a practical adult.

(I soon had the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, X-Men and Spider-Man movies to make things better, although not entirely on the female representation front.)

So when I met a girl in college who liked comic books, and we were having a good time together, and I was trying to 1) keep the fun times moving, and 2) find out just how nerdy she was, I asked the fateful question.

“You want to see my Star Wars toys?”

She did. This time, reader…

I MARRIED HER.

She doesn’t even like Star Wars, and here’s the crazy thing: it’s because she felt pressured to like it as a teenager. She’s a raging geek otherwise, who loves anything animated, tried to change her name to Harley Quinn, collects Legos, and still makes a fortnightly trip to the comic store with me.

My wife might not get it, but she and I both owe a little hat tip to Mara Jade, now erased from canon, but not my heart, and my mind.

Star Wars & Me, Episode 1: The Nerd Awakens

My first Star Wars movie, my parents tell me, was Return of the Jedi, in 1984 on a pirate VHS copy, before the mass release of the film. According to my folks, who had obtained the tape through dubious means, I jumped up and down excitedly, spewing out explosion noises through the entire battle on Endor and finished the film draped in a sheen of sweat.

I don’t remember this.

My first memories of Star Wars occurred after the fateful viewing, and they are of playing with the figures and knowing who the characters were, creating scenarios where Han was hunted by Bossk. At no point do I remember realizing, hey, Star Wars is a thing.

And that might be the best way for me to explain the effect of Star Wars on my psyche. Star Wars is a Jungian monomyth, or so people say. In my case it’s literally true; it’s seared into my unconscious.

I was really sick when I was a kid. Celiac disease was way underdiagnosed in the 80s, so when I was about four I lost all my energy, puked all the time and looked like a famine victim. My first memories involve: a) throwing up after eating pancakes, b) being too tired to move around, because of said throwing up, and c) watching Transformers and playing with Star Wars toys when I was too sick to move.

Most of my memories of the house we lived in circa 1984 are of the bathrooms.

I didn’t become a big geek because of celiac, but it certainly helped. My body didn’t work well, but my imagination worked just fine.

The gluten-free diet worked, mostly, as I got older, but I would never be a jock, or even someone comfortable in his own body.

I watched those bad pirated tapes for years, until we could tape the films off TV, and eventually, (gasp) buy our own VHS boxed set. But films pshaw; I remember the toys. THE TOYS. We now take for granted the cross-promotion in cartoons, movies, comics and TV that was only made possible by Ronald Reagan and the FCC in the 80s.

The hardware store had a row of Star Wars toys, as did Walgreens and just about every other store at the time. Every time my dad had to buy anything, at any store, I could usually talk him into a toy.

The paradise didn’t last. In those days, the thought of an ever-present toyline without media tie-ins was crazy. I still remember the moment when my baby brother bit the head off one of my last surviving toys. THE PAIN. THE TOYS.

I still collect toys, and I’m conflicted about them. On the one hand, they’re money drains that I don’t pummel to death like I did when I was a kid, and they draw on vast quantities of petroleum and take advantage of the poor. But when I see a rack of Star Wars toys, I am five again, and my imagination is suddenly the best place to be, way better than this lousy physical world.

 

“Clockwork of Sorrow” & “About The Bear”

I have two new stories out!!!!!! THE EXCITEMENT!!!!!

The first is “About The Bear,” a flash fiction at Podcastle, who also published The Child Support of Cromdor The Condemned.  Podcastle had an open call for stories about bears. Truthfully, they had a pun-tastic call for stories about bears. “Pawedcastle is seeking koality stories that will not be polarizing.”

I love that sort of stuff.

I wrote the story in about an hour. It was a simple matter of mating a true story, about a friend who wrestled a bear (not kidding) with a fantasy world I have been working in for several stories and a novel.

The reader absolutely slays it. And you get to hear four other fantastic bear-themed stories, plus my pun-tastic list of previous credits. I’ve been published at The Magazine of Furtasy & Science Furtion, Urson Scott Card’s Intergrowlactic Medicine Show, etc…

Um. You get it. Bear pun.

Clockwork of Sorrow was written entirely for the great anthology Ghost In The Cogs from Broken Eye Books. This was a fun prompt: steampunk ghost stories. I was really happy to be part of Broken Eye, which puts out wonderfully creepy books with amazing covers. Look at that cover! Holy crap dudes!

This story ties into my novel The Great Faerie Strike, and takes place in the same world. The novel is still being shopped around, but you can get a glimmer of how the world works in this piece.

 

Nancy Fulda – When Kids Get Older

Hey! It’s back! The writing and parenting blog series strikes again, this time with an excellent post from Nancy Fulda about how to deal with kids of–gasp!–different ages.  Nancy Fulda is a Phobos Award winner, a Jim Baen Memorial Award recipient, and a 2012 Hugo and Nebula nominee. During her graduate work at Brigham Young University she studied artificial intelligence, machine learning, and quantum computing. In the years since, she has grappled with the far more complex process of raising three small children. All these experiences sometimes infiltrate her writing.

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When Spencer invited me to do a post for his Writing and Parenting series, I froze up for a long time. What can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said? The guest bloggers here have talked about poison changeling daughters and tossing pee out of car windows, for crying out loud. I cannot top that. (And that’s probably a good thing.)

But as I skimmed through the posts, an idea started to form.

Each post shows a snapshot, a here-and-now in the author’s life, combined with really awesome survival information. We’ve got a lot of authors, and a lot of snapshots, and a LOT of really good survival tips. But here’s the piece no one’s mentioned:

Kids don’t hold still.

I’ve been writing-while-parenting for twelve years. Trust me on this one: As soon as you get it all worked out, as soon as everything is working perfectly, something will change. They start crawling. They start walking. They get tall enough to reach the flamethrower. They get smart enough to realize that “Uh-huh. That’s nice, honey.” means you’re not actually listening to them and you care more about your computer screen than about your own children.

Over the years, I’ve gone through more strategies than a chameleon in a paint store. When my kids were little, I had no hands. I’d carry the fussy baby around while trailing the toddler and the preschooler to make sure the latter did not inflict bodily harm on the former. Every second of keyboard time was precious. If the baby napped, I typed. If the kids were watching a movie, I typed. And I knew exactly what to type because I’d had hours and hours of time to plan out the next piece of manuscript.

When my kids hit grade school I got my hands back – and lost my brain. (Do you have any idea how many school memos, emails, fundraisers, Scholastic Book orders, homework reminders, and PTA volunteer requests are involved in the average grade school in my area? Boy, let me tell you, it’s not pretty.) I expected to have beautiful swathes of hassle-free writing time when the kids left the house.

Instead I ended up with piles of e-mail, to-do lists, scheduling and brain frazzle. I adapted, of course. I’ve gotten used to that by now. But over the years I’ve found a couple of principles that never change. These may just be specific to me of course – to my specific situation, to my family’s specific needs. But they’re the lesson’s I’ve learned and re-learned over the years, the ones that keep me sane throughout my topsy-turvy world of growing children. And so now I pass them on to you.

1. Be a parent first

This doesn’t mean “Let your kids steal all your writing time”. Believe me, if given half a chance, they will. But it does mean look to the needs of your children first. Are they getting enough snuggle time? Is there a space in the day when they can talk and know they’ll be listened to? Are they getting fed on a regular basis?

This is as much a survival skill as a noble family principle. Unhappy children are more emotionally needy. They interrupt work time more often, take longer to console when upset, fight more often with their siblings, and basically eat up more time and energy. I learned early on that it takes less time to give my children what they need up front than to deal with meltdowns later on.

2. Listen to your guilt

Extra note of caution on this one. I am not prone to depression, and by all accounts my brain chemistry is pretty stable. This means my guilt can be trusted. THIS IS NOT NECESSARILY TRUE FOR EVERYONE.

We’re clear on that? Okay, good. Moving on.

In a properly functioning brain, guilt functions as an early warning system. It’s the brain’s way of saying, “There’s this thing that ought to happen, but it’s not happening. Why isn’t it happening?” While it’s technically possible to ignore guilt and forge onward anyway, I’ve found that it’s usually not productive. The bad feelings tend to moosh on top of each other, and eventually you get to a point where nothing’s fun anymore and the stuff you’re writing feels kind of flat.

Better solution: Use your guilt as a tool. It’s like those cool little tricorders on Star Trek, beeping louder as you get close to something interesting. Follow the beeps and figure out what’s going on. Then fix it.

3. Don’t be surprised when things change

Have I mentioned that children don’t hold still? When things stop working, don’t assume it’s because you did something wrong. Your child may have hit a developmental spurt, or the addition of new activities may have shifted the balance of the day.

Get used to the idea that you’re going to have to recalibrate your writing strategies every few years, or perhaps even every few months. Stay flexible, and roll with the punches. That way it’s easier to get back on your feet.

4. Let your children be part of the process

This amazing thing happened when my kids hit grade school. They started talking to me. Really talking, not just asking for a cup of water or showing me the puppy down the street. We could like, have actual conversations about abstract concepts.

Which meant they could be used as minions. When my son turned twelve I started using him as a beta reader. He didn’t like everything I wrote, but he was good at finding plot holes and logical errors. And since I was paying him a modest reading fee, he never complained.

More importantly, he finally understood why I spent all day at the computer. My work became real to him. (Or at least, I flatter myself that it did.)

Since then, I’ve started asking my children for opinions on character development, plot twists, and potential story concepts. A few weeks ago, when my brain decided to write an unauthorized manuscript, I let the children be part of the process. It was incredibly rewarding.

So… that’s it. The sum total of the Advice That Doesn’t Change. Everything else is variable.

Here’s the thing. Writing is hard. Parenting is hard. Doing both together is hard. But it’s also exciting and relaxing and joyous and memorable. Don’t lose sight of that.

PSSSST You’re My Favorite

I’ve neglected the blog again, after it had such a renaissance with those wonderful guest posts. There’s been a lot to say, but the truth is that I’ve been feeling a bit snowed under. But. I have a story out! I like to blog about my paper babies.

“What’s your favorite of your stories?” is one of those dumb questions that authors get a lot. It feels a bit like a kid asking “Who do you love more, my brother or me?” (I do know someone who genuinely said, “You’re my favorite; don’t tell the others” to her daughter. NO PRESSURE THERE.)

Most of the time, writers don’t want to admit that they have a favorite. You want people to approach a story on their own terms, rather than thinking, “even the writer didn’t like that story like I did.” Also, why give an excuse to ignore your other works?

That said, screw it… The Child Support of Cromdor The Condemned is my favorite.

The story is a Conan pastiche/parody/deconstruction (you’ll laugh, you’ll quaff ale, you’ll go “hmm”) about a retired Conan type whose previously unknown son shows up and asks for a favor not even Cromdor The Condemned may be able to fulfill, though he will, with his trusty loincloth and sword, try.

When I first read Conan, at the age of 15, I was dimly aware that, along with James Bond films (I had just seen Goldeneye), he presented a specific model of manhood, one where being taciturn, confident and rough led to constant success in life and with women. Twenty years later, this story grew out of my reflections on who I was then, and who I am now. Despite reading the Conan stories, I am now a father, a writer, and not a taciturn dude who quaffs ale and sends panties flying with a smoldering gaze.

I’ll unpack more of this in future blog posts, but FIRST I hope you’ll go give it a listen (iTunes link here), as it’s only on audio right now, or you can leave a comment, Tweet at me, or FB at me, and I will email you a text version.

And I’ll just say these two things.

1) This story got me my first reeeelly real FAN MAIL. Squee! An excerpt:

I’ve read it 3 times and listened to it twice now… Your story did something I’ve never seen a piece of fiction do so well, and with a character like Cromdor/Conan especially. It showed me a man who is both shaped by contributes to a culture of misogyny, balancing the tragedy of it for Cromdor against the damning fact that his personal tragedy does not excuse or ameliorate the impact of his behavior on the people around him.

2) If you are a member of SFWA or Worldcon, and you’re nominating for Hugos or Nebulas next year, well… *humblebrag* *humblebrag* a few people have told me this is on their early nomination list. Keep it in mind.

It is my favorite. Just don’t tell the other stories.

 

The Stories I Didn’t Know I Wanted To Read

I’ve got a good three posts half-written for you, blog, but I just wanted to chime in on this wonderful piece by Aliette de Bodard, and add a couple of thoughts of my own.

Unlike Aliette, I fit right in to the dominant culture represented in SF when I began reading it. Other than the rabbits of Watership Down, the heroes of the stories I read mostly looked like me, talked like me, had my gender and ethnicity, and I never really questioned that. Aragorn, Hari Seldon, Ender Wiggin, Rand al’Thor, Valentine Michael Smith… they were easy to identify with, not only because they were white men, but because they dominated. They were concerned with the system. When the system broke down, the story was about how they fixed it, or made it better. Where the system was intrinsically broken, they discovered the source of the problem to build a better system. Their antics inspired me, and gave me ridiculous confidence in myself and the idea of a working system. Of course! Not many young, Mormon, cisgendered white man lacks for successful role models.

It wasn’t until I started writing that I came across Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. I discovered the book because Orson Scott Card’s How To Write Science Fiction & Fantasy used it as a prime example of a well-written SF book, but as much as Card lauded it, he still couldn’t quite capture the reason why Wild Seed blew my mind.

The main characters in Wild Seed are both of African extraction, Anyanwu in West Africa (not specified), Doro upper Nile, (although Doro, who jumps from body to body, can inhabit anyone).

I read it in one day and I knew I just read one of the best fantasy/sci-fi novels ever written, if not the best. Wild Seed was different from my other books, but not just because it starred black characters–because everything was different. The other books I had read seemed to imply there was some basic fairness in the system. Nothing was fair in Wild Seed. Doro was determined to survive not just by being vicious and killing at random, but because, in this world of slavery and codified violence, ruthlessness was intrinsic to survival. Anyanwu argued for a better way, by killing only when necessary. The peace they brokered was a fragile, brittle thing that depended on their mutual need for each other outlasting their moral incompatibility.

I read everything by Butler that year. She quickly replaced Card and Jordan as my favorite writer. She was far bleaker, but far, far more satisfying.

She didn’t give easy answers. Or any answers at all, sometimes.

Here’s the thing about reading Butler: I do not believe a white man could have written Wild Seed. Speaking for my cultural demographic, white men are ingrained with the idea that faith in the system rewards itself, that alternative means of survivance are too bleak to consider and hope is a constant. And yet, in the years to come as I became more and more disillusioned with hope in the system, I found hope in the rugged, sparse nature of Butler’s novels. In Earthseed, the religion that marks Parable of the Sower, (a novel that seems as informed by urban Black experience as Wild Seed was by the generational trauma of slavery) one doesn’t hope for a fixed system. One has a stark, almost unreasoning belief in the potential of the human species. But that belief is a distinct choice, not a value.

I believe that the current kerfluffles within SF are really about the strength of the system. The strength of tradition, and the inherent flaws that are carried over in the preservation of tradition, are set against the growing realization that the system hasn’t worked. There is no better literature than the literature of imagination for working that question out. Butler has been gone for ten years, and her best novels are twenty-five, thirty years old. Hell, The Wire is ten years old, and that’s a series written primarily by a white man for a mostly black cast about the broken system. (I know it’s not SF, but it has better worldbuilding than most SF.) The Hunger Games skirts on Butler territory.  The wonderful NK Jemisin uses Butler’s themes, but in lyrically written fantasy instead of starkly written SF.

So if you know a young, white male writer, take it from me: the best thing you can do is buy that fella a copy of Wild Seed.