Post-cake and post-birthday we talk Kickstarter, Tiptree and Hawking: plus the Rights of Women. Get us at iTunes or Galactic Suburbia!
Thanks for the cake love!
WHAT DO WE CARE ABOUT THIS WEEK?
Tansy’s Kickstarter 😀 Bring back the Creature Court
Stephen Hawking died
Alex: Olympe de Gouges, The Declaration of the Rights of Women; Lord of the Rings films; Fringe re-watch
Tansy: Jessica Jones S2 & Tor.com essays, Rise, The Underwater Ballroom Society (Ysabeau Wilce), Get To Work Hurley Ep 8
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Nike Sulway is an author and academic. She is the author of several novels, including Rupetta, which—in 2014—was the first work by an Australian writer to win the James Tiptree, Jr Award. The award, founded in 1991 by Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler, is an annual award for a work of “science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender”. She teaches creative writing at the University of Southern Queensland, loves rabbits, chocolate and children. Not all for eating or cuddling.
1. Your novel Rupetta won the Tiptree Award and the Norma K Hemming Award this year – congratulations! It’s a grand novel about love and family and history and automatons – do you feel that it accomplished all that you hoped?
I’m very pleased and grateful to have received both of these awards. Among other things, they have helped the book to find more readers – or perhaps that should be the other way around (it has helped readers find the book!).
As a writer, I’m incredibly ambitious. Perhaps all writers are. Not in a worldly sense, but in terms of what I want to achieve in the works themselves. For me, every work exists in an ideal state … before I start writing. Writing is, in one sense, the process of dismantling the Ideal/dream version of the book, and instead creating its shadowy reflection. A kind of fall from the Platonic Ideal to the Shade. So, in that sense, nothing I’ve ever written is a perfect realisation of all the dreams I dreamed for that work. I can’t remember which writer said that that’s why you write the next thing: because you still have work to do, ambitions to realise.
I’m very proud of some of the things I achieved in Rupetta. I’m pleased with small things. I love little Perihan; I love the relationships between Henri and Miri, and between the Salt Lane Witches. I’m proud of the fact that love is central to this book about war and ambition; that the daily experiences of women are at the centre of the story. Its strong, strange, complex spine.
But, there’s always more work to do.
2. You’ve written books for children as well as for adults… which do you think is harder? And do you start with an audience in mind, or a story?
I think writing both for children, and for older readers, are incredibly complex and difficult tasks. I think in writing for children, you have to work hard not to be condescending or overly romantic about children, and childhood. Not to diminish your sense of who your readers are, or your characters. I have this little bit of something I wrote on my blog called ‘How to write a story for a child’ which begins: First, consider the child. That’s not as easy as it sounds! I think of writing as being about a particularly unusual and strangely intimate relationship between writer and reader. You have to be willing to encounter the other person as themselves, warts and all. I think building emotionally (and narratively) rewarding relationships is hard work! No matter who that relationship is with.
I start with … hmm … I start with an image, usually, and the image most often includes a character. With Rupetta, this was an image of a half-broken, half-repaired neglected piece of clockwork slowly decaying in a country barn. I’m trying to remember which comes first, but I think – for me – the two (readership and story) arrive together. Entwined.
3. Not all of your work has been speculative fiction. Do you anticipate writing more speculative fiction, or does the story idea dictate the genre?
When I sit down to write, I don’t really think of myself as working in a particular genre. Not exclusively, at least. I enjoy reading and writing speculative fiction; I enjoy reading and writing contemporary realist fiction, and picture books, and non-fiction. And the things I’m working on slide across all those boundaries, especially while I’m working on them.
I’m working on a trilogy at the moment, the first book of which is called The Orphan King. I’ve done a picture book version – no words – and a graphic novel version, and a textual version that draws a little on my reading of Henry James Turn of the Screw, in that whether you read it as speculative or realist depends on … well, depends on you. The text itself (the writer herself?) hasn’t yet decided. The final version will be a novel; if I think of it as belonging in a genre at all, I would like to think it is in the same little sub-genre/cross-genre field that Gary Wolfe uses to describe Karen Joy Fowler’s work. He said her stories are “trapdoor genre stories”; stories which they can be read as non-genre until that one moment when you realise this isn’t quite what it seems.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
I absolutely adore Lisa Jacobson’s The Sunlit Zone, which is a verse narrative set in a dystopian future. It is astonishingly beautiful, and moving, and strange.
Marie Williams’ memoir Green Vanilla Tea will never leave me. I was lucky enough to work with Marie on this book about her family, and particularly about what happened to her family when her young husband is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and dementia.
Finally, Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby is a work of grace, courage and humour by an Australian writer we should all be reading more often. If only she would write more!
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be writing in five years from now?
As a writer, I have a rather ambivalent relationship to the writing and publishing industry. I know a little bit about it, and I try to stay aware of what’s going on, but at the same time I don’t want to let the market unduly influence what I write. At least, not in a negative, limiting way. Plus, I think of ‘The Writing Industry’ as being a bit like the many-headed hydra, or at least of myself as being like one of the blind people who are asked to describe an elephant: what I think it is depends on which bits and pieces I get hold off on any particular day.
So, I’m not going to write a sparkly vampire erotic fan fiction in which lead characters are killed off at unexpected moments just because those are some aspects of some popular books right now.
I’m not going to lead the charge into hypertextual/hybrid forms of narrative, because I’m a writer, not a multi-platform artist. Though I would embrace working collaboratively with other artists/craftspeople across a range of mediums.
I can’t see myself pioneering a radical new form of storytelling cos, really, I like the old form. Words, in sentences, one after another, that somehow perform this magic trick of transforming into people, places, experiences and emotions.
I’m also, in the end, a bit of a romantic; I think stories and storytelling will endure, though perhaps the medium through which stories reach readers will change beyond recognition.
Five years from now, I’ll still be snuggled up in a comfy chair with a book of some kind, lost in some other world, with some people who never existed, and when I get up to make tea, I’ll stare out the window at the leaves all over my unraked lawn and wonder what on earth I’m going to write about next.
This interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and archiving them at SF Signal. You can read interviews at:
In which Alex eats fig frangipane made by her friend Dan… and Alisa and Tansy are bad at birthdays. If you eat cake while eating this podcast, let us know what kind! You can get us from iTunes or at Galactic Suburbia.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY US WE ARE THREE!
NOTE: Since we recorded this, revisions have been made to the Random House imprint contracts.
ALISA: the life of a publisher…
TANSY: A Game of Thrones (the book) and nothing else ever again because THERE ARE MORE BOOKS.
ALEX: Warehouse 13, season 1; Shadow Unit; Arc 1.4; The Triangle; Anita Sarkeesian’s first Tropes vs Women in Video Games
Since we recorded this, Sean the Blogonaut has also posted about his thoughts on rape threats & gender issues in “grimdark” fantasy.
Please send feedback to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!
Since I wrote this review last year, The Secret Feminist Cabal has placed on the Honour List of the James Tiptree Jr Award, and I received a Chronos Award (voted on by the Victorian SF community) for the review itself. Allow me this gratuitous moment of reposting! The other exciting thing that has happened since is that I got to spend time with Helen Merrick herself – an utter delight.
The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms
Aqueduct Press, 2009
“… what kind of self-respecting cabal would openly advertise its ‘secret’ existence through websites and conventions, identify its members through the wearing of garish temporary tattoos, and fund itself by the sale of home-baked chocolate chip cookies?” (p1)
I did not grow up considering myself a feminist; I have no idea whether my mother would identify as a feminist or not. That said, I grew up in the ’80s with a younger brother and there was never a time at which I felt that I could not do exactly the same things as my brother, if I wanted to, so I know (now) that I benefited from second-wave feminism – and from liberal, caring parents. I was regarded as a feminist by at least some people by the time I was in my late teens (looking at you, high school teachers), probably because I was loud and everyone loves a stereotype. It’s only been over the last decade (my twenties) that I have consciously thought of myself as a feminist. And it’s only been in the last couple of years that I have consciously sought out feminist books, feminist perspectives on historical issues, and really come to grips with the idea that feminism is not a singularity.
All of this is by way of contextualising my reading of The Secret Feminist Cabal, a marvellous book that has challenged the way I think about science fiction, fandom, and feminism. Merrick had me from her Preface, where she describes her journey towards writing the book in ways that resonated deeply with me, from the nerdy adolescent to the discovery of feminism and the dismay that many female acquaintances not only do not share our love of science fiction, they are completely mystified by it. Having only recently discovered the niche community that is sf fandom, the fact that so much of this book is concerned with expressions of feminism within that community – and how they impacted on sf broadly – was the icing on the cake.
Merrick begins by examining the very idea ‘feminist sf’, defining which – much like attempting to define sf by itself – is like the proverbial attempt by blind women at describing an elephant. She approaches it by discussing the multiplicities that are the reality of the genre, which is indicative of the approach she takes in the book overall and an incredible relief for those of us who are sick of being told THIS IS THIS and if you don’t fit, get lost. She also gives some space to justifying the use of literary criticism on science fiction, tackling that persistent and derogatory argument that science fiction doesn’t count as literature. While accepting that sf and popular fiction generally have an ambivalent position, as far as literary critics – including feminists – are concerned, Merrick makes no apology for using their tools. The rest of the introduction lays the groundwork for the book: what feminist fiction is or can be, the potentially problematic nature of feminist genre writing, and the ongoing divide that exists between mainstream criticism and feminist sf criticism. I particularly enjoyed that while Merrick engaged with these issues, at no point does her discussion become a polemic against those who have disagreed. Rather, she situates her investigation within the ‘grand conversation’ of feminist sf, and demonstrates constructive ways in which that can be extended to mainstream criticism – to the advantage of both.
I was forced to stare into space for some minutes when I read the opening to chapter 2. Merrick quotes from a letter written in 1938 wherein an sf reader opines that: “[a] woman’s place is not in anything scientific. Of course the odd female now and then invents something useful in the way that every now and then amongst the millions of black crows a white one is found” (p34). If nothing else, this book has made me grateful for the changes that have occurred over the last century, such that I have never been personally confronted with such a statement. This chapter provides an overview of the ‘invasion’ of women, sex, and feminism into sf, with a fascinating if horrifying look at the arguments of the 1920s and 30s for and against women being allowed into the genre. (She makes the point that of course women were already there, both as authors and readers, and that it’s hugely problematic when those foremothers are written out of history, as happens too often.) The 1960s and 70s saw some changes to the field, and the disputes that attended this period of ‘sexual revolution’ make for fascinating – if, again, horrifying – reading. My favourite section is that on Joanna Russ writing letters and criticism and the way such respected names as Philip K. Dick and Poul Anderson responded to her and her comments. I love the fact that what now generally appears on blogs as a long and convoluted comment-thread then featured in magazines, albeit at the mercy of the editor. This chapter alone is worth its weight in cookies for outlining the milieu in which both male and female sf writers and fans existed for so much of the twentieth century – an invaluable resource for a newbie like myself.
The third chapter takes up one strand mentioned in the second and runs with it: the idea of ‘femmefans’. The fact that female fans were distinguished by a separate moniker goes some way to revealing how they were regarded, at least by some males of the community. It’s almost heartbreaking to read of the letters written to pulps such as Amazing Stories by women who imagine themselves as the only female readers of such stories – another reason I love the future that is blogdom. What I particularly love about this chapter is its uncovering of specific women involved with sf fandom, in many and varied ways. Instead of making generalisations about readers and contributors to zines, Merrick goes out of her way to trace named individuals and outline their experience within the scene. Appropriately, there is a section on Australian women, who seem to be even more hidden from view than their American or British sisters.
The development of specifically feminist criticism of sf is discussed in chapter 4, with a fair amount of space given to Joanna Russ, as one of the progenitrices of formal feminist criticism and the name to which many others felt themselves to be responding. Merrick chronicles the rise of feminist fanzines in the 1970s, and the impact these had on writers and fans, as well as the increasing numbers of feminist anthologies being produced. The chapter moves through to the 1980s and ’90s, noting trends and struggles as feminists of those times attempted to define themselves as well as understand their histories. As with the previous chapter, Merrick provides copious accounts of individuals here, and an extensive reading list of both criticism and fiction.
Bouncing back to fandom, chapter 5 examines the development of feminist fandom concurrent with the development of feminist criticism of chapter 4. Again going for the intensely personal stories to illustrate a broad, diverse narrative, Merrick weaves a story of female fans and their involvement in the fannish community from the 1960s to the 2000s. The feminist fanzines sound like an amazing community to have been involved in. Her discussion of the place of Marion Zimmer Bradley in this community – beginning as a fan, becoming a well-known writer, and causing all sorts of controversy over her (at least early) non-identification as a feminist – is enthralling, and beautifully illustrates the axiom that the personal is always already political. The chapter ends with a discussion of how WisCon (a feminist sf convention) and the Tiptree Awards were established.
The last two chapters of Cabal “examine how recognition of the cultural work of sf feminisms filters out into other critical communities,” and as a consequence have a heavier, more literary-critical, feel, which may make them more opaque to some readers than the first five chapters. Chapter 6 deals with sf feminim’s response to cyberpunk, a 1980s sf movement that some saw as eclipsing or superseding the feminist sf fiction of the 1970s. Merrick connects this with theorist Donna Haraway’s call for feminists to consider the cyborg as a way of considering the fundamental issue of what it means to be human. The movement also connects with a growing sub-genre of cultural studies, that examining techno-science and cyberculture. A feminist take on these issues is an intriguing one, especially in its observation that much cyberpunk is opposed to the material, the body – and how problematic that can be.
Interestingly, Merrick takes her discussion in what feels like quite a different, although still relevant, direction for her last chapter: the connection of feminist sf with science itself, and how feminism is and can be in dialogue with that discipline. She suggests very strongly that sf feminisms can and should play a vital role in dialogues negotiating the interplay of science, nature, and culture, and gives examples of a number of ways in which this has already occurred productively.
Finally, Merrick has a provocative conclusion. She addresses new challenges such as those posed by queer theory and postcolonialism, and where or how feminism might still fit in. Along with a consideration, appropriately enough, of what the Tiptree Award has taught us since its inception, Merrick considers the question of whether the science fiction field is ‘beyond’ questions of gender. She argues that feminism – as long as it remains the challenging and diverse field it has been until now – still has a great deal to offer science fiction writers and readers.
A critical work based in a deep-seated love of the genre, Cabal is a testament to the enduring impact of women, feminism, and fandom on the fractured behemoth that is science fiction. 2010 saw it shortlisted on the Hugo ballot for Best Related Work, and win the fan-voted William Atheling award for best critical work. These are well-deserved honours. I hope coming generations of both writers and fans will make use of the cornucopia of references Merrick has gathered, both to understand the history of the field and because most of them make for wonderful reading.
Diana Wynne Jones passed away.
Strange Horizons: dealing with the low numbers of female reviewers.
The Age on the poor numbers of women’s work being reviewed (in the literary “mainstream”), and coverage of a panel on the gender disparity, again in the mainstream.
Prometheus Awards nominees, from the Libertarian Futurist Society.
Authors, editors, and controversy: Running Press, Tricia Telep and Jessica Verday (links not necessarily linked to individuals).
Kristine Kathryn Rusch discusses the business of being an author
Woman wins award, man gets attention
Ian Sales’ SF Mistressworks & starts the SF Mistressworks meme
Hugo reminder: get your nominations in!
Competition open for another fortnight – keep sending in entries! Email us with fave GS moment and what cake you ate.
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Tansy: Burn Bright, by Marianne de Pierres; Laid (ABC TV)
Alisa: Star Trek Enterprise Season 4, Fringe eps 11 -13,
Alex: Genesis, by Bernard Beckett; Redemption Ark, Alastair Reynolds; Version 43, Philip Palmer (abandoned)… Battlestar Galactica
Please send feedback to us at email@example.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!