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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Monday, 6 November 2017

In My Skin: Fashion and Fat (a guest post by Katie de Long)

Today I have a guest blog from Katie de Long!

In My Skin: Fashion and Fat


One of my favorite things about fashion is its capacity to highlight the individual in a way few other kinds of self-expression can. The industry has its problems, but for many, fashion can be something that helps them stay afloat in a hostile world, be they a gay cis man, or a fat trans woman.

But with increased eyes on the fashion industry thanks to the body positivity movement come additional pressures. As a fat woman, your desireability and sexuality is in question constantly: you’re desperate, you have no self-restraint, you’re lazy, a host of other judgments. Because of this, for fat women to assert their sexuality through fashion is something that may be needed to reclaim professional stature, or simply to feel that they can look at themselves in a mirror. But this presents a problem, since the most common way of “proving” their worth in a thin-centered world is to hype up their figure and sexuality in a way that thin women do not necessarily have to. We’re on board for fat women- so long as they still have a waist that appears nipped-in compared to their hips, and so long as their weight is carried in an evenly distributed manner, rather than in rolls or cellulite.

This is a problem. It saddles fat women with extra time spent on grooming, extra money spent on clothes that are priced proportionally higher- particularly vintage-inspired clothes that highlight the beauty in curves but that are considered “specialty”, or are priced up due to the additional detail and tailoring of the patterns, compared to drapey, minimalist clothes, simply in order to prove that they aren’t “sloppy” or tasteless. And this exacerbates classist problems that tend to affect marginalized people more strongly. That hourglass wiggle dress might make you seem more ladylike to your boss... but for a black person, would their boss have thought they were unladylike in the first place?

It causes a host of other problems, too, in that it may force people to perform femininity in a way that is toxic to them. Many survivors of childhood sexual assault grow up to content with eating disorders- including compulsive overeating- and many even see the additional weight as a way of rendering themselves invisible to the male gaze that has treated them so violently. By forcing these people to wear tight clothes for their professional or personal advancement, society may be forcing them deeper into dysphoria, or unhealthy mental triggers.

I don’t say that to say it’s always the case. I often joke that my style is “fuck-you femme”, because for me, exaggerated sexuality and performative femininity is liberating. It says that I don’t have to change myself to please people- who cares if my clothes are “frivolous” or “high maintenance?” It says that I deserve to experience my womanhood without gendered violence- something that’s crucial to me as a rape survivor- and without the pressure to hide my womanhood to obtain the benefits we afford those with “masculine” traits. I’ll bowl you over with a list of my achievements if you dare imply that my taste speaks ill of me as a person. My fuck-you femme clothes are a shorthand for the unbelievable pain and soaring pleasure of being a woman.

Many trans or nonbinary people, too, are haunted by these ideals- by sexualized clothes that are not intended to highlight their body shape, by ideas that say that a butch trans woman must not “really” be trans, to present so “masculinely”. Put simply, the idea that fat is okay, so long as you still prize your desireability in the right ways still amounts to a subtle tax on fat people who exist in public spaces. Women already spend more time and money on grooming and presentation, and the growing percentage of fat or obese women who nevertheless must gather goodwill and authority through their fashion choices only weights that balance further.

We’re all individuals, completely unique in how we relate to the world, each other, and the fashion we adorn our bodies with. And in that light, body positivity has quite a ways to go before it’s truly expanded fashion’s inclusivity.

Katie around the internet:
Katie's Facebook Reader Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/696177510494600/
Katie's Twitter: @delongkatie

Friday, 3 November 2017

In and Out of the Closet: A Fat Girl's Personal Style Journey

Content warning: this article deals with body image issues that may be triggering for some readers. Discretion is advised.

I am a member of the Disney Generation. This is hardly a revolutionary claim or point to make, but for a fat femme girl, who's also bisexual, it comes with invisible baggage and fears.

 Full skirts, improbably round breasts, delicate waists, paneled gowns, shimmering fabric, vibrant colours, and jewels shaped my idea of not only desire, but also royalty. Studying history from a young age, I saw rich fabrics, precious treasures, embroidered and lined gowns, and I admired it. Drawing endless pictures of dresses and gowns, often with surprise cut-aways and deep decolletage, I both desired them and wanted to be them. Formal garb was both my ambition and my most secret hope, but it was also something I believe impossible for myself. 

Fat girl life


My mother's body image issues left a deep impact on me, and readily transferred over to my own. I had always been sort of tall, but wished I was taller. Hating my muscles and fat, seeing the curves as proof of a lack of fitness - I didn't grow up within a corset, or with bound feet, but the cage and constant pressure of the BMI chart was just as strangling and hobbling.

In the 90s and 2000s, flatness and muscle and bones were the beauty ideal. I used to daydream about surgery and liposuction and waking up with a body that moved, looked, and felt different. For years, I tried to get by on 1000, 1200, or whatever number of calories per day would work - inevitably failing when encountering food, of course, or when sabotaged by my mother, who'd encourage me to 'live a little' and eat a salty or sweet treat, caving in to her own cravings. But soon, it'd be back on the wheel of nagging to exercise, not for the joy of movement, but to deal with the shame of my flawed body. 

  In this way, I spent my teens and a good portion of my twenties - trying different techniques to shed stubborn pounds that were as good as nailed to my flesh - due, unbeknownst to me to hormonal imbalances. I learned to like certain things, and aspired to climb buildings and corners and walls and roofs, assuming that only by losing weight could I attain those literal high hopes. 

At the same time, in the back of my mind, fashion and clothes I liked were often weighty. Elegant layers, oversized cuts, voluminous skirts, corsets swooping in to hug a waist I didn't think I had - these were things I associated not with femininity alone, but with being regal, imperious, and respected. Later, I became intrigued by swooping, voluminous clothes - Jedi robes, Amidala's gowns, even oversized boxy cuts in music videos. Finding ways to mingle these elements with layers has led to an unexpected but perfect style intersection for me.

#outfit #selfie #clinic #spoonielife

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I stopped confining myself to things I 'could wear', and started experimenting with revealing my skin, taking inspiration from slimmer models as necessary and trying out a variety of looks. Overly modest circle skirts, sarongs with jeans underneath, a million skin-tight black turtlenecks, black and white tiered skirts, fishnets and lacy patterned tights, steampunk leather corsets, knitted sweaters and business-like skirts. Eventually, I achieved a more defined and coherent look, featuring cocoon sweaters, leggy wrap dresses, layered corset-cut vests, flowing circle skirts, and oversized scarves - where I'm at these days. Older style elements make their way into clothes, but I dress with more deliberation, strategy, and joy these days, not seeking to hide my shameful corpse under oversized tie-dye t-shirts and baggy jeans or in ill-fitting and suiting button-up shirts. 

The personal is political - pencil skirts included


I've hit a point where I can not only incorporate a variety of influences, but I receive social praise for my skills in doing so. I've begin to feel like I inhabit my own body, that it is not broken, ugly, or in need of repair. The vibrant body-positivity movement has helped this immensely. Then I saw this

At first, I simply ignored it, because I didn't understand it and couldn't relate to it. But after talking about it with a friend, a sort of Pod People-like realisation snapped over me, and I considered that yes, most fat women ARE dressing according to this code. Pretend it's 1950 or face a return to the same old standards and shames. In my retail days, I had to wear carefully coiffed and chosen outfits and makeup, while my very tall, slim manager wore pilling sweaters and got not a word of criticism about it.

Chatting with my friend Katie de Long, who is also both a ferocious feminist and enthusiastic fashionista, I was dismayed and alarmed by the through-line of this pattern. In her words [edited slightly to remove my part of the conversation],

"...There are societal biases that make it MORE needed for fat women to prove their femininity.
No one ever thinks of the "hot curvy girl" as being draped in loose, structural clothes.
They see her va-va-vooming in a waist-training corset and full face of makeup. Anything that "erases" the figure or the curves is seen as undesireable, even if it fits properly and is well-tailored.
I think another thing is that plus sized women are trained to hide their size. We see Christina Hendricks or Amy Schumer's curves as being desireable.... so long as they're in a close-fitting pencil dress. 

But I do admit I'm pretty prey to that shit too. I avoid wearing loose clothes, wear things too tight rather than too lose.... and get really sexual, lots of cleavage, short skirts, slit-up-to-there, etc. I love exaggerated shapes. So I've always hated really drapey clothes, or close-fitting clothes that don't highlight the figure (fuck you, leggings).

Plus, and I know this is victim-blamey, my first semester of college featured a police officer advising the girls in the freshman class to NOT wear loose clothes because it's easier for a rapist to get them off, even without scissors.
So for me, when I wear loose clothes, I have really nasty panic attacks about the idea of someone peeling them off me without my consent. When I wear tight clothes, I feel confident, that they'll have to use scissors, which is more likely to give me an opportunity to either get away, or seize the scissors and take out an eye. As well, my style's fuckyou femme, so for me [as a rape survivor], I feel like my gender and the violence I've suffered because of it is erased when I put on loose, minimalist designs."


What to wear?


At the end of the day, even though clothing choices are fraught with danger and hidden signalling that can be hard to understand, finding a way to express oneself through attire can be very important. From talking to my nonbinary "enby" friends, I've gotten even more insight into this. What strikes me as funny and maybe even uplifting is that my experiences with feminism and trauma have taken me in a circle. Instead of pretending to be a man, or having no identity at all, or seeing my childhood dreams as unattainable, I've been able to make my innermost desires come true.
There's an old saw idea that feminists are ugly, hairy, unconventionally feminine, fat, and basically undesireable. But taking back a sense of inner worth has given me the tools to fight my inner ugliness, wear makeup without feeling as though I'm faking something, and stop hiding my inner exuberance. There is freedom in ugliness and invisibility, and a merit to reclaiming or defying constraints - but at least for me, there is more joy in this new, permissive ground.

Ultimately, I hope that my experiences can make people feel a little better about their own secret desires and hopes. A lot of hay has been made about how 'style has no size', but there's still fierce debate about 'who can wear what'. But simply wearing what one wants isn't as easy as it sounds, and takes time. If you need it, take this as official permission to try out that thing, regardless of your gender. You are not 'too old' or 'too fat' or 'too thin'. 

You are enough. 

And it's okay if it doesn't look right at first. What matters is that your clothing expresses who you want to be. 

Additional reading:

A Nigerian designer using fashion and style to explore feminism and self-expression

Information about the cost of existing in a female body and/or having periods and breasts

The ways we judge women and how it affects their careers 

***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Dungeons and Representation: How a Podcast Did Good

Hello hello!

So anyone who follows me on Twitter - or anywhere, really - has probably noticed that I am majorly into podcasts. I've alluded to my love of tabletop RPGs on more than a few occasions, and as a fledgling DM (Dungeon Master - the non-BDSM kind, though there's a surprisingly large overlap between the two communities...) I like to take inspiration from the best.

Before I explore today's topic in detail, a few recommendations - in no particular order, Critical Hit, How We Roll, One Shot, Campaign, The Adventure Zone, and Dungeons and Randomness are all funny and wonderful programs that showcase both inclusive gaming (on and off the table, for the most part) and really, really good storytelling. Writers and geeks should check them out. Don't worry about the rules; these podcasts are almost all story-focused, so it doesn't get too mathy and crunchy.

With those recs out of the way, I'd like to focus on D&R in particular. Having recently completed its 200th episode, the four (!) groups sat down with the DM, Jason Massey to talk about their experiences.


What happened 


Now, two hundred episodes of anything is a trip, but I'm a binge-listener and a completionist, so it wasn't a big deal for me. However, the beginning of the series was pretty rocky. The first group to form, known as Group 1, was an all-male group of friends who'd met through the wrestling fandom. There are a lot of wrestling fans who also play D&D, for some reason, so that's not a problem - but the group dynamics were.

Beleagured DM Jason and hapless party leader Rob Wiesehan, playing tiefling warlock Malchus Grimnas, then spent about fifty episodes trying to rein in the murderous and careless shenanigans of this initial group. It's honestly a fascinating tour through toxic masculinity - players screw, rob, and murder their way across the land of Theria, and as Jason's worldbuilding becomes increasingly intricate and rich, most of the players enjoy being dicks more than they do abiding by the social contracts of D&D, to quote Rob.

What social contract? 


Here's the thing about Dungeons and Dragons and most other roleplaying games - it's pretty essential, as Rob explained, that the other members of your party are trustworthy enough to not murder you in your sleep, screw you out of things like healing potions, share resources, and fight on your side during battles - and not, say, engage in player vs player combat or act in needlessly antagonistic ways. Interestingly, a couple of the early players from the group seemed genuinely baffled about why it might be a bad idea to act like dicks and fight people who are supposed to be on their side.

Now, group dynamics are an inevitable part of human interaction. We're social animals, and that means we're liable to be jerks and conflict with each other, but it's totally possible to ride out those painful spasms and create a lasting D&D group. Sometimes people leave, which is why inviting a few more people than you think necessary is often prudent. But it's a very important and basic part of this system, and most systems, that you do not screw over the people who are on your side.

The fact that multiple players in Group 1 just didn't understand this is fascinating, and honestly, only seems to have happened because it was an all-dude group. Broish humour is fine, but ripping on each other, jockeying for leadership, and being unnecessarily and often destructively subversive often led to doom and disorganization.




Have some eye bleach: fan art of characters from the Adventure Zone, in Halloween costumes as *other* characters from The Adventure Zone - who are also lesbians. This picture has lesbians ^2. You're welcome. 



When it got better


Perhaps because of Jason's expert implementation of consequences in the storylines, to an extent that many traditional creators should follow, the actions of many Group 1 members caught up with them. It seems that murdering, betraying, and robbing people willy-nilly is kind of not great. While the other groups and players sometimes made ethically questionable choices in the storyline, they always weighed them carefully. Una Anhelada, a gutsy devil-may-care paladin played by Izzy Chadwick, often spearheaded these - but her seeming recklessness and impulsive nature still included concern, empathy, and care for both her party members and fellow players.

As time went on, the DM added more groups, each of which went through their own growing pains.  Holding auditions for new players meant screening and better integration of people, something important for a show, and interestingly, also brought a flood of lady players, as well as at least one non-binary and later trans male player. Not everyone there was white, either, which is a silent problem besetting many D&D games, but a welcome change here. Among the new blood was Brienne Marie, a delightful pixie of a person with a filthy sense of humour and a sparkling laugh. Quickly becoming Jason's platonic soulmate, her addition to the cast marks a sharp change in the show's style - very much for its benefit.

This isn't to say that GIRLS ARE ALWAYS BETTER, because a few of the new lady inductees were pretty irritating - and left quickly - but the most destructive players in the game were definitely all men. Their behaviour patterns had a lot in common, too - a determination to have their desires and goals met, often at the expense of the party; a refusal to accommodate others' needs and priorities, and toddler-like tantrums and antics when their requests were denied.

Back to Group 1 


Group 1 went from being the primary party in the setting to an exception.As the other two, then three, then four (! counting a bonus group made of existing players) groups quarreled and debated and resolved conflicts in satisfying and interesting ways, Group 1 remained somewhat stuck in the past. When party members finally began to murder each other, in a culmination of the rivalries and toxic dynamics, virtually only Malchus remained. Because the players either selfishly focused on their own gimmicks and jokes or sabotaged each other, often both, Malchus (and Rob, his player) were exceptional. As the group reformed once, then twice, it gained lady members and non-toxic male members - and underwent a drastic transformation.

Even as Malchus grappled with the impact of his actions, the group would discuss their decisions carefully and cautiously. Not exploiting others, picking up a dorky and endearing young NPC wizard-fighter (who subverts the trope of that combo brilliantly), and helping each other in heartwarming ways, Group 1 became radically different from its roots.


But Not All Men 


The thing is, men don't have to suck. Male and female players can both participate in toxic masculinity, but focusing on sharing the spotlight, resolving conflicts without in-character violence, not plotting and planning about other player characters behind their backs - and out of character - and above all, just not being awful dicks to each other, will all result in much better table experiences. It's fine to create evil or morally ambiguous, selfish characters. But it's vitally important and mandatory for people to keep their character personas and grudges separate from in-person dynamics, and to settle table conflicts as soon as they happen.

D&D is easy to get invested in. The shared storytelling, improv with dice, and creating a world are intoxicating and empowering. Add in the capacity to be something impossible or better than one is in the real world, and you have a heady brew - but it's easy to get emotionally invested in one's persona and the storyline. When everyone's invested, and at least somewhat working together, it's a hit of pure magic. But even if the characters are planning to double-cross each other, players at the table have to use boundaries and not harm each other.

Failing to do this results in Reservoir Dogs - like chains of revenge and can absolutely ruin friendships forever, because of the basic lack of respect they represent. But working with the other players and keeping in-character conflicts and rivalries separate from real life makes sure everyone at the table can walk away with a spring in their step and an easy mind.


***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Monday, 24 July 2017

Diversity Isn't Enough: The Importance of Radical Inclusion

Hello hello!

Well, a friend of mine has now been to 78 agents and gotten as many rejections. Surely, this indicates that the book is simply Not Good Enough, right?

That's the thing. I've read it, and the book is excellent. Featuring a character with PTSD, who is both gay and from a mixed heritage background, it's full of funny moments, intelligent thought experiments about robotic consciousness, and has a very solid mystery through the core. The cast is populated by well-rounded and differentiated characters - of mixed abilities, genders, ethnic heritages, and sexualities. And in this setting, their societal and work crew composition is pretty normal. So in addition to featuring a robot love story and a murder mystery, there are plenty of moments where the night crew assembles, and a deaf character sits at a table with a young hijabi clinic worker and her mechanic girlfriend, and two divorced people who remain friends, as well as the main character - all so they can play cards in the park, out of the sight of a nearly omniscient AI.

The thing is, while audio-visual projects - which often spring from book series these days - such as A Wrinkle in Time, American Horror Story, Sense-8, American Gods, The Adventure Zone, Welcome to Night Vale, Penumbra, Who Fears Death (Nnendi Okorafor), Steven Universe, Blackish, Dear White People, Master of None, Switched at Birth, Fresh off the Boat, Luke Cage, Dark Matter, The Expanse, and Westworld include cast members of many shades, there's still a focus on able, attractive, mostly straight people - not to mention that in more than a couple of these, white characters still end up dominating front and centre roles. Yes, this is getting better, but there seems to be a genuine fear of addressing the (surprisingly large) populations of trans and genderqueer, aromantic or asexual, Deaf, visually impaired/blind, and visibly and invisibly disabled people. Not to mention that a lot of these populations intersect. I personally know plenty of people who are people of colour, genderqueer, and disabled. I've read articles by a surprising number of genderqueer, mentally ill people of colour. Add present and former sex workers to the mix, and you have a pretty good sampling of humanity.

So what's the problem?


The problem is that these diverse shows, which are not radically inclusive yet, are only the tip of the iceburg. Producers and studios and publishing houses tend to hire just one or two people to demonstrate their wokeness, and keep the rest their content steaming along as though it's business as usual - teen YA love triangles, stubble-covered male power-fantasy thrillers, gritty sex murder mysteries, soft and juicy chick lit, spicy supernatural sex romps, and tooth-gritting fast ship space porn.  I've edited these books, read them, and enjoyed them - but the fact remains that the market's determiners keep orienting themselves to what they think is a safe bet, an easy seller. 

We still live in a world where an alternate history series where the South won was greenlit by HBO. So yeah, Nnedi Okorafor's series is getting a production deal, but so is a slavery fantasyland series. So is Ready Player One, too. A Minecraft book by Max Brooks is at the top of the bestsellers right now. So yes, diversity's making inroads, but The Problem Is Not Fixed. Radical inclusion, i.e. just treating people like people, and writing stories where non-white, non-able, non-cisgender, non-heterosexual, non-Christian people are allowed to exist and be in starring roles is absolutely revolutionary. 


Ready Player What, now? 


For those not familiar with RPO, it's basically a pop culture slurry of references; another Teenage White Boy Saves The World book, with virtual reality, and somehow he's the only one who knows Stuff About the Eighties - and Steven Spielberg is attached. You'd think he'd pick a more challenging project or have better taste, but no, fanboy fantasy it is.

The biggest problem is that people think Ready Player One is like, subversive somehow? Or self-aware? But it absolutely isn't. It's sincere. Max Brooks is one of the guys who launched the zombie craze--he's very good at commercial writing, to the extent that he's actually a Name, but yeah, he's not exactly known for challenging or artistically mold-breaking projects.

And all of this would be fine, except that it, and the dozens of imitators who crop up to try and skim that flavour, crowd out the more innovative and interesting projects.

Is this another Commerce vs Art rant? 


Absolutely not. It's not that Commerce and Art are Enemies. Heck, it's *fine* to monetize the daylights out of something. Art's relied on Commerce for basically all of modern history. If it wasn't Commerce, it was religion. But - the problem is *how* those selections are done, and the way people trust their preferences to be free of bias. Which just isn't the case.

It's OKAY to have biases. The problem is that we treat a certain kind of bias as objective, and it gets far, far more sway over the stories that get told than anything else. To the point where just including people is considered revolutionary and gamechanging. Simultaneously, there are so *few* of these inclusive stories that individual properties are often torn apart for being 'not good enough'. Yet meanwhile, mainstream stories with sparkling white casts somehow get a break.

But including people is how you GET different kinds of stories. Now, to be clear,  I LOVE the Hunger Games. A lot. But we have a market where agents are like, 'eh, this sold, let's get ten more that are basically variations of this flavour'. There's very little willingness to risk the core of the market, and it becomes a self-fulfilling cycle of, well, crap. 

Like, if you go to a corner store you can buy some chips. And chips are good, I like chips, but even if you put zesty spice or cool ranch or sour cream on them, they're *still* chips. they're not zucchini chips, or sweet potato crisps, or whatever, ya know? The problem is that the market tends to focus on chips, and assume nothing else will sell...

Wat do? 


The solution is simple. Readers have to step outside their comfort zones - unfortunately, the readers who might not even read this blog are the ones I'm addressing - and writers and publishers have to band together. There is definitely a need and an audience for diversity, and moreso, radical inclusion. People often talk about 'not seeing colour', which is an issue I won't even get into right now, and complain that they want stories that are 'normal', and aren't focused on 'identity politics'.

That's the most bitter irony of all - these stories exist, and they're fun and delightful. And yes, inequality issues do crop up in some of them, because of how those issues affect people's lived experiences - but a lot of the time, people across the ability, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality spectrum just want to have fun.

A transgender plus-sized psychic lady who talks with the dead to solve murder mysteries? Yes. A deaf Chinese-American engineer who discovers the secret to time travel and accidentally changes the course of history? Definitely. A love story featuring an asexual mobility-impaired Indian woman and a Zulu warrior king from an alternate world? Why not? 

***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Monday, 17 July 2017

When to Say Goodbye: Finishing Things

Hello hello!

With recovery on the way and good changes starting to happen in my life, I managed to finish a draft of The Meaning Wars today (July 17th, as of the day I started working on this post). I'm sure some time will elapse before its publication, and the publication of the book, but it feels good to make forward momentum.

In my personal life, I recently finished a skirt pattern that's taken years - inspired by Katniss Everdeen's fire dress in The Hunger Games, making the triangular tiered fringe work was tricky as hell.




Of the Dungeons and Dragons and roleplay campaigns I'm currently playing, one is coming to a close, one is nearly done a major plot arc, with a character's death being very imminent, and yet another is about to begin.


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In the world of pop culture, the seventh season of Game of Thrones also started recently. I read spoilers, because George R.R. Martin seems to have no intention of finishing the books and I am curious about what happens to the characters. Meanwhile, The Doctor's 13th incarnation has been revealed as a Time Lady, and Ava DuVernay's vision of A Wrinkle in Time swept me off my feet. Just as importantly, The Adventure Zone podcast's final arc is in progress.

All of this is to say that I'm in a mood to finish things. With Instagram and fashion shoots putting me in a mood for summer adventures, I've been crafting and uploading beadwork for the first time in months and years.


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With that momentum, I had the courage to ask my readers how they felt about the change of monthly or biweekly blog posts rather than weekly blog posts (which haven't been happening, as astute readers may have noticed). I don't intend to end my blog, because I often have things to say and think about in public, but figuring out this admittedly more forgiving solution should make that easier.


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I am, however, thinking about new stories and new characters - which have only been alluded to in passing, and in private, with friends. Stories I have in my backburner files. My beadwork put me in a salvager mood, and made me want to work on my long-abandoned Nightmare Cycle. 


The Underlighters (The Nightmare Cycle Book 1) by [Browne, Michelle]


Now, I suppose there is a whole cycle of life thing one could go into here, but I'm still hoping that transhumanism will help me avoid having to die at all, so I'm going to dodge that particular topic. Regardless, a life has to be marked by periods of change and renewal, and it's impossible to get something new started without ending something else.

Maybe that means you, as a theoretical writer, gotta let go and write something inspired by a story rather than focused on the main characters of an arc. Maybe that means moving onto a new world and storyline altogether. But it's deeply important to let things end rather than sucking the joy and goodness out of them.

Even the deservedly maligned Supernatural is setting up a spin-off; the show is a living cautionary tale of how to ruin a story. While it can be scary to let go of characters, it's better than holding onto them forever, sucking out every drop of joy from them like a food dehydrator making meat into jerky, and wondering why the story is nothing but a dry, leathery husk of what it used to be.  It’s easy to hold onto a story past the completion of its plot arcs, resolutions, and conflicts, and introduce a million Complications and Plot McGuffins in order to stretch things out - but it’s easier still, in a way, to be honest and write ‘The End’ when the time comes.

So give yourself permission to finish that draft, writers. Give yourself permission to change something or re-schedule it if necessary, too. Don't worry about Making The Thing Good Enough. There are only so many revisions that can happen before a story goes from juicy grape to raisin of sadness. And the more you finish, the more you can do, and make, and be.

***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!



Sunday, 18 June 2017

Hey Queers, What the &$%#

Hello hello!

Well, it's Pride month, and I'm feeling a little feisty and punchy.

I'm a proud part of the Queer Sci Fi group on Facebook, and as many readers will know, I'm no stranger to writing about queer characters.

I was talking to a mentor of mine about something recently, and my dander's up. The problem is this. The lesbian stigma is absolutely real, and a problem. When seeking out books about queer characters, readers say they want f/f couples. But m/m books outsell f/f books handily, and so do stories with m/f 'straight' couples. (For those unacquainted, 'm/m' is 'male/male', 'f/f' is 'female/female', and yes, I realise that's very gender binary, but that's the industry right now.)

If a book has the most carefully designed and well-blurbed cover it can, and has all its marketing data lined up, at some point, this comes down to readers. It's no coincidence that m/m books on Queer Sci Fi make up the majority of titles.

As my mentor said,

#1. Go to teh LGBT subcat bestseller list- tally how many titles are which "branch" of LGBT. You can also just look at the LGBT subcats and note how many more MM titles there are than basically all the others combined.

I don't have an analytical article today - merely an admonishment and a call to arms. If you are a queer person who has publicly asked for f/f lit in the past, or even just privately wanted to read it - put your money where your mouth is! This year, seek out books about queer women. You can still buy m/m, I'm not going to tell anyone to stop doing something they like, but please support diversity within the LGBTIAPQ/QUILTPBAG community.

It's not that f/f books are 'too special' or 'too good' for mainstream readers. I know a lot of people - even people who have mainstream sexual and gender identities - who like stories about ladies in love. It would seem that although lesbians still get that ol 'pornographic' stigma, presentation of lady-lady or femme-femme love has not hit the mainstream.

So here's my request - whether you are an ally or a QUILTPBAG person, please share, talk about, and read f/f fiction this year. It will help those of us who love the stories get more of them, and push back against the unintentional but ingrained misogyny of the publishing industry.

***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Where did the Magpie Go?

Hello hello!

This has been an interesting year. And admittedly, my longest blog hiatus in three or four years of running this thing. What have I been doing, exactly?

  • Mostly working on editing projects. A lot of manuscripts. Like, a lot. 
  • Trying to fix my sleep schedule. (For a while, it was untenable and I felt awful. This happens regularly. Cross your fingers for my ability to keep the current track up.) 
  • Knitting and listening to podcasts on days off (or when focus eluded me). 
  • Helping my partner look for a job
  • Staring at my drafts folder and wondering if there's any point in posting, given the state of the world and the arts, and whether what I have to say still matters
  • Reading articles on Medium, especially from The Establishment, and cowering in fear at the state of American politics 
  • Resurrecting my editing site from the grave
  • Wrangling my biological family 


That about covers it. However, I'm working on a bunch of scheduled posts right now, so you can start checking on Sunday nights/Monday mornings for your usual dose of SciFiMagpie.

At least, that's the plan. In the meantime, reach out. Leave a comment, ask a question, let me know what you want to hear about. Let me know that you're reading! I've seen the page views, which have been surprisingly steady for years, so I know some of you are definitely having a look at my tiny blog.

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Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Wish it Away: The Dystopian Side of Positivity Culture

Hello hello!

As I tidy up the loose ends and incorporate beta-reader feedback for The Meaning Wars, the third installment in the series of the same name (also including And the Stars Will Sing and The Stolen: Two Short Stories), I find myself on Quartz and The Establishment fairly often, doing research and reading coincidental articles that often align with ideas I'm trying to express. Recently, Quartz had a piece on a psychologist's research about positivist and 'happiness culture' that struck home.  Then I saw this on Facebook, and after a short, friendly conversation on Twitter, an article was born.





What is 'positivity culture'? 


The Self-help and pop psychology industries are sources of this, but it's not without links to modern Christianity, either. "How to Win Friends and Influence People" author Dale Carnegie, and more recently, The Secret have endorsed the idea that, in a nutshell, thinking about good things makes them happen and makes bad things less likely to happen.

This sounds simple, innocent, and feasible, and that's partly why it's so popular. It's hard to object to something as inoffensive as the proposition, 'be happy to be happier'. In a world where mental health issues are at an all-time high, though, it has sinister and unpleasant ramifications. Since the self-help industry preys on people in distress, these books - and many employment policies - effectively end up telling people in bad situations to 'just think differently' to fix their problems.

This is at best, naive, and at worst, insulting. When the issue is a lack of neurotransmitters and the right chemicals, wishing them into existence doesn't do the trick. But as with eugenics in the old days, it's more pernicious than just accentuating 'good traits'. The problem comes from refusing to deal with, accept, or acknowledge negative emotions and experiences on an institutional level. When people essentially get punished at work or socially for not faking happiness, it gets difficult.

Anyone who's worked in the service or retail industries (hello!) can relate to this; faking a cheerful, peppy, or calm attitude even when one feels otherwise, and being subservient in most or all interactions causes a sensation of distress and can be triggering for those with anxiety issues or depression. More dangerously, the fake happiness can mask more severe symptoms of depression and other disorders, and train people in these situations that reaching out and being honest about their feelings is more dangerous or less safe than 'faking happiness' or normalcy. Particularly in the early stages of depression, this is a serious danger, because treating depression and anxiety early on can help prevent nervous breakdowns - like the one your dear author had a couple of years ago.


What's the worst that could happen? 


This is one of my favorite question, because it can lead to absurdist or sinister trains of thought in almost any situation. The thing is, I've had a taste of the weirdness that is extreme happiness culture. After surviving the strangely repressive experience and the weird culture of fake enlightenment that permeated the Addictions Counselling faculty where I studied for my degree, I got a taste of what the worst looked like. Even as I studied ways to make clients open up and feel safe talking about the most difficult events in their lives, myself and other students were graded on our weekly lab sessions, where we had to disclose real personal information and family trauma or risk failing the course.

Without so much as a legal waiver to protect us from gossip and each other, people learned to be selective about what they disclosed and how they protrayed events and emotions. Being comfortable with trauma was treated as 'not understanding it enough yet', but being too honest about, say, any sort of bad decision led to peer disapproval and shunning. In the context of a degree program where authenticity and acceptance were supposed to be the ideals, it was bizarre and not a little damaging.

Through my mother's social circle as well as the department, I also got a unique look into the dark side of the New Age movement. There were no sex cults or drug orgies to be found, disappointingly; no, in the realm of yoga classes taught by and for white people, positivity and motivational posters (yes, the real ones, with black borders and inspiring photos and vague captions), and wellness retreat weekends, there was only Healthy Living.

I'm not saying my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood were entirely a wasteland of vacuous smiles, diet Buddhism, culturally appropriated rituals, and crash diet and exercise routines, but those elements were certainly omnipresent. A stint in a private school with unique and bizarre architecture - classrooms facing into windowed halls, a library that could be entirely observed through indoor windows, and a perfectly positioned stair platform, no hidden corners or stairwells - also gave me a taste of what it was like to watched constantly by professors and other students without any form of egress.



No joke, I grew up with these around the house and school. 

The dark side of 'enlightenment' 


Combined with the pervasive whiteness - both in the interior decorating sense and the cultural group context - of these settings, I got a deep look into the weirdness that is the liberal side of conservatism. In more recent times, as the 'All Lives Matter' crowd rose up and discussions of white feminism took to the air, I had another opportunity to see how certain forms of debate and discussion could be suppressed once people found them 'too unpleasant'. It's the Taylor Swift school of feminism: 'girl power' that has no impact on anything, no ramifications, no real cost. It spliced neatly with happiness culture, because discussing actual inequality issues can conflict with the goal of 'not focusing on negativity'.

What this has to do with science fiction 


It's a common element of dystopias that citizens are miserable, often in a sort of pseudo-Communist situation - highly ironic, in the context of current events and the lack of adequate housing and nutritious food for so many in America. But instead of merely swallowing their feelings for stoicism, I wanted to explore a world of vigilant attention to peacefulness. Taking inspiration from both dark sides of some North American Christian cultures and the suspiciously similar white Buddhist/spiritual movement, I merged the values to create a setting of oppressive faux-tolerance, where real inequality and deprivation were comfortably distant, but people nonetheless lived in fear of judgement from others and humiliating or dangerous punishment.

And thus, The Meaning Wars were born.

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Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Censorship and 'Censorship': Who Gets to Speak?

Hello hello!

In the increasingly surreal absurdist comedy that is current international politics, the issue of free speech has been awfully prevalent. With the new development of sensitivity readers and an outsized backlash to their existence, as well as cries of outrage over the cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos' book contract, a lot of people have taken these as 'attacks' on free speech. Meanwhile, Beauty and the Beast is being banned from certain theatres because the character Le Fou will be openly gay.

There will be people who say that these actions are on par. Neil Gaiman, who I love and respect, wrote an essay to that effect about nine years ago.

There was a time when I would have agreed with that essay, because after all, who does get to speak? Is there really a difference between public censorship and government censorship? Is refusal of a business to deal with an individual really censorship at all?

The thing is, all taboo or unpopular comments are not created equally. The people who would like to have the freedom, or 'freedom' to support violence and harassment against others are eager to make the claim that they're doing so for the sake of provocation, but it's funny how they never stand up for, say, the gay or 'ethnic' people who are also saying socially unacceptable things.


"Censorship" versus lack of support 


Censorship refers to the practice of an official, government-led organization removing or culling content for the sake of a moral agenda. Refusal to allow a speaker or publish a book due to protesting is not government censorship, it's a decision for the sake of consumers. That's well-trodden ground and I don't plan on tramping it into smoothness yet again. Rather, I'd like to focus on the real issue - that all 'unacceptable' speech, as I'm going to call it, is not created equally and does not come from equally supported, safely-positioned, societally enshrined sources.

Who's the target? 


For a long time, the broad left and the liberal segments of the right have grappled with the idea that people want to voice and discuss things that aren't socially rewarded. Sometimes these things are simple, like, 'black people are treated badly', and sometimes these things are basically underage teen girl porn by famous authors.

There's a certain idea that's been prevalent since the 90s; namely, that offending people is automatically good or moral in some way. In television, from my understanding, there's a weird attitude of equality in terms of who is allowed to be targeted for offensive jokes, which gives the inaccurate idea that all groups have equal weight in choosing targets. With this idea, offending everyone is fine, even moral, because it 'makes people think' or 'shakes them up'.

But pretending that all ugly speech is created equally is a fallacy that has allowed the proliferation of hate speech and violence of various kinds. It comes from the same idea that everyone is born with the same opportunities and advantages, when that simply isn't the case. Black people in the USA die four years earlier than white people, Trans people experience disproportionate rates of mental illness and violence, leading to a shockingly low life-expectancy - roughly age thirty. Simply being born or developing a particular set of circumstances has a drastic effect on people's lives.

It's an ugly but empirically proveable fact that being a woman subjects one to greater risks of sexual violence and limits career advancement, that being transgender has the same results but multiplied, that being disabled in any way  results in a lower lifespan, that being a sex worker carries both danger and stigma, and that being a person of colour, or fitting into intersections of any of these groups, has a magnified effect of inequality. I haven't cited every one of these ideas to avoid turning my post into link soup, but it's not hard to find support for them.

Who gets to say what?


The problem comes from the fact that some people are used to hearing certain things on a regular basis, and some experience disproportionate harm from these things. A black woman listening to a "n---" joke from a fellow black comedian may experience commiseration in the context of talking about a shared experience. The same joke from a white comedian plays into historic and present inequalities, and even if it's intended in a friendly way, can reinforce those inequalities.

With that in mind, considering the audience targeted by a certain piece of art is essential to deciding on whether or not to support that art's expression. The time has come for us to choose which 'free speech' we're going to support, and I personally plan to use the audience and targets to determine the people I'm going to stand behind. The idea of 'punching up' compared to 'punching down' is unquestionably vital here. Sometimes intersectional nuances can make it difficult to choose a side, and in those cases, a full-force attack is less necessary than a careful, mediated conversation. But in a lot of situations, the people experiencing blocks and resistance tend to be those disempowered by social circumstances.


"But everyone protests things!" comes the counter-argument. "We need to be able to say awful things just in case..." 


In Canada, as well as many other countries, hate speech is punishable by law and considered separately from other forms of free speech and self-expression. In the US, that is not the case, and it's because of a refusal to acknowledge that saying ugly things about people who can be harmed by them is different than annoying people.

It's really worth considering why it's so important to demonstrate one's freedoms by vocalizing aggression or violence towards others. Since white people and men in general tend to be protected by social structures and the way laws are enforced, it's vital to realise that things that hurt our feelings seldom hurt us in ways that leave a lasting impact. Feelings do matter, but in the context of violence and poverty, refusing to be criticized because it's annoying seems awfully greedy.

What does this mean for writers? 


Those of us who create content play a role in creating culture itself. Instead of being upset about sensitivity readers, it's better to embrace them and appreciate their role in helping us improve our fiction and ensure its fairness. Sure, there will be times when an issue is nuanced and sticky and effects a couple of groups of people on the sharp end of prejudice, or when people from the same group have multiple differing opinions on content. For example, Asian people are divided over Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon, which provide casting opportunities but reinforce prejudiced ideas. While it's seldom possible to please everyone, doing the best to satisfy most people, or at least the important people, is generally advisable.

As for situations where portraying a troubled or troubling character is 'part of a story', it's important to think about one's own 'artistic integrity' in the context of the social world we live in. Where have your ideas about this character come from? Art can feel like magic sometimes, but treating it as an uncritiqueable sacred cow both cheapens its quality and lets creators get away with not challenging themselves or their beliefs. At the end of the day, it's not easy to strive for equality, but it's the right thing to do in so many ways - and that's why I support some forms of challenging media and art, and refuse to support others. Milo Yiannopoulos can get phuqued.

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Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Saturday, 18 February 2017

God's Away On Business: Moral Ambiguity in Sci Fi

Hello hello!

Been a while, hasn't it? I have an enormous backlog of ideas, but I'm letting my fragile brain rest after completing a draft of The Meaning Wars, so that means it's time to return to my blog. I'd love to write more often this year, and any reader suggestions or requests for content are very welcome. What do YOU want to see?

Until I know the answer to that question, I'm going to share some thoughts that are, shall we say, pertinent to the current sociopolitical situation in the world. Specifically, when it comes to science fiction, who calibrates the heroes' moral compass? To understand authoritarian organizations and to resist them better, it doesn't hurt to look at a couple of the 'nicer' examples. It's hard to fight what one doesn't understand, and unlike a Lovecraft story, fainting isn't going to get us out of this situation. So let's talk about goodest of the bad guys!


Who are we rooting for?


Sure, it's easy to romanticize the rebels, but what are the consequences of that action? I'd argue that giving protagonists in dystopian fiction carte blanche in terms of resistance methods is a bad idea. People have to do what they have to do, but let's be honest about those actions and their cost. Still, doing the nice things or not punching Nazis isn't always an option. Every dictatorship story requires a cast of tough, ethically grey people in the spotlight, because the nice people tend to be the collaborators.

In the case of The Hunger Games, the resistance movement has some very fractious members who seem keen on seizing power. In Rogue One, it's clear that the Alliance isn't as tidy and unified as it seems in the later films. Cassian's actions, which I won't spoil, also make it clear that horrible tactics aren't out of the question. In my beloved Farscape, the storyline soon makes it clear that while Peacekeepers are sometimes hypocritical or oppressive, they do have some ethical standards, and are still often less evil than some of their employees or collaborators. However, standing up to them drives the characters to steal ships and sabotage infrastructure, as well as kidnap people. Sometimes they even just walk away from a situation when the more morally correct answer would be trying to interfere and support the people in fixing it.

However, the balance between altruism and self-preservation in dystopian settings is one of the things that makes them so captivating. Therein lies the appeal. As in real life, even good people have to make bad decisions, and the lingering popularity and love for Firefly over a decade and a half later show that people need imperfect heroes. But one of the interesting things about the show is that the organization the heroes are resisting, The Alliance, isn't...all bad, and the heroes are highly questionable.

 And Mal isn't exactly a portrait of consistent ethical actions and good decision-making, so the Firefly crew certainly count as somewhat unreliable narrators. The treatment of Shepherd and Inara is really unsettling, and the show frames them both as somewhat whiny or demanding - even when they are being reasonable.


Not bad (Or even drawn that way) 


The Alliance allows sex workers to control their own situations and at least tries to make sure colonists have food. Obviously, the secret science torture program and the initiative that created Reapers are bad, but the rest of the systems exist in a functioning democracy that doesn't have to bow to warlords like Niska, To put it another way, there aren't all that many differences between The Alliance and Starfleet.

In the context of authoritarian benevolency, Starfleet deserves a mention. They do have a lot of power within the interspecies alliance, and sure are happy to let their somewhat colonialist explorers to regularly break the Prime Directive ('we don't interfere except that it's what we do on every episode').  They have good intentions and mostly function well, but have done some really sketchy things. All governments have dirty laundry. It doesn't justify crimes against humanity, but what about times when crimes against humanity are the 'solution' to taking down an enemy? Certain events in Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind, and the Japanese internment camps of WWII or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are vitally important real-world instances.

The ends of taking down an oppressive state may justify the means, but how far? The collaborators deserve what they get, but how far does that go? There is a point where the demand for justice shifts into a thirst for revenge, and the reasons for this are perfectly understandable. The thing is, a state IS its people. Rebelling against the state does also mean fighting people with wives and kids and pet dogs at home. Yes, they chose to be there, but questioning why and how can also help prevent further mobilization of bigotry and injustice. If, that is, the (usually white) heroes can restrain themselves from gleeful payback time.





The price of peace and stability


One of the reasons dystopian governments are often very controlling is that it's perceived as the trade off for mere survival. Warhammer 40K and the Cthulutech setting both make use of this, so that there are no 'good guys' and one ends up rooting for the totalitarian side just because they're ultimately working for preservation. In this respect, there's an uncanny overlap with a lot of rebel factions, in that ends do sometimes justify the means.

Sometimes, however, the price is far greater than the results; the populace in 1984 is in poor health, tends to die in the army, and is very ignorant. At least many dystopias, such as the one in The Giver, try to justify their techniques by pointing to the over all health and sustainability of the population. Even then, the government in 1984 is very ineffectual in its way. It's NOT a stable system. The government keeps a huge chunk of the population ignorant and keeps the intellectuals working so hard on propaganda that they can't question what's going on. The crumbling infrastructure of plugged sinks and stinking cabbage and food shortages - in contrast, to say, the Alliance's elegant infrastructure in the Core - shows how badly this particular system is running.

Are dystopias hyperbolic and foolish?


However, all of this may sound very objective and distant, a problem that does plague sci fi. Talking about monster hoards and invasive alien species and plagues and sexual and reproductive control can feel ludicrous in the context of current events, which aren't usually as lurid. And sometimes rebelling in fiction quells the urge for real action when necessary, imply naysayers.

There's a lot of salt and contempt for dystopias these days, partly because people assume that they are frivolous make-believe experiments in losing privilege for mostly white readers. That's not entirely without merit, but considering how many dystopias are aggressively post-racial and diverse, I'd argue that it's more about showing oppression in more than one context.

And finally, fiction offers opportunities to explore both sides of a discussion without having to invoke real atrocities or cheapen them, which can be stressful for survivors. Israel and Palestine's relationship certainly looks like a modern-day dystopia, not to speak of the current American government, but trying to talk about ethics in that context seems insensitive at best. Fiction allows us to explore possibilities without exacting a human cost for the experiment. And because of that safety, understanding how the rise to power happened can just be easier and less horrible when viewed through the lens of sci fi. And that is important, because seeing institutions as a group of people rather than an immobile and immortal bloc also makes them easier to defeat.


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Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!


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