Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions — #7

By Chris M. Barkley:

Stuff I’m Nominating for the 2017 Hugo Awards, Part Two

Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form

Arrival (Paramount Pictures/Sony Pictures, 116 minutes) Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on the novella “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder and David Linde.

Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg and Tzi Ma.

I have no doubt that some of the nominees on the BDP Long Form ballot that will probably be slam dunks:  Star Wars: Rogue One, Doctor Strange, Star Trek Beyond  and (fingers crossed) Stranger Things. I will not be nominating any of the aforementioned films because I know they have their fans and they’ll get plenty of support.

However, I will be nominating one movie I want to be on the final ballot, one that towers above all the rest: Arrival.

Arrival has the top spot on my ballot this year and in my heart as well. Based on the Hugo and Nebula Award winning novella by Ted Chiang, it is expertly brought to life on the screen by screenwriter Eric Heisserer, director Denis Villeneuve and actors Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. It was honored by the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards with multiple nominations (and winning an Oscar for Sound Editing), it also serves as a brilliant textbook example of a successful adaptation from page to cinema.

The story of linguist Louise Banks (Adams) and her encounters with the mysterious aliens whose motives she’s trying to understand is not only intriguing, it’s also moving and full of love and empathy as well. As good as the other nominees in this category are, none of them can even approach Arrival, which will be considered a classic film in EVERY sense of the word in coming decades.

Extra: Here a link to an Entertainment Weekly feature on how Denis Villeneuve and Eric Heisserer worked on the screenplay.

Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

The Expanse – Season One (Penguin in a Parka, Approx 440 minutes, ten episodes), based on The Expanse novels by James S. A. Corey.  Written by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, Robin Veith, Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck, Jason Ning, Naren Shankar and Dan Nowak. Produced by Daniel Abraham, Ty Franck, Lynn Raynor, Ben Cook and Dan Novak.

Starring Thomas Jane, Steven Strait, Cas Anvar, Dominique Tipper, Wes Chatham, Paulo Costanzo, Florence Faivre, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Frankie Adams

The Expanse is based on series of novels by James S. A. Corey, the pseudonym of two authors, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who also produce the show as well.

Spanning for a crowded Earth and Moon, Mars, the asteroid belt and beyond, this sprawling and exciting space opera is the best sf show produced for television since the heydays of Firefly and Babylon 5. Two hundred years in the future, several fractions of humanity are struggling for control and political power in the solar system. Little do any of them know that a much larger game is being played and that humanity’s survival is hanging in the balance.

The Expanse (and other excellent shows of this length, like HBO’s Westworld) are practically advertising for a change in the WSFS rules to establish a Best Dramatic Series award. Just Sayin’, folks…

NPR’s Cosmos and Culture called The Expanse the “Best Science Fiction Show in a Decade”.

Best Related Work

William Schafer, Publisher – Subterranean Press, Burton, Michigan 48519

One of the things that I have been meaning to do over the past few years is to nominate William Schafer for a Hugo Award.

I should have done it while Subterranean Press Magazine was still being published on a regular basis. (It published its final issue in the summer of 2014). Since he cannot be nominated as an editor, I will do so in the Best Related Work category.

William Schafer does not merely reprint classics and contemporary books, he masterfully commissions and creates magnificent works of art which immediately become THE treasured collector’s item of anyone’s book collection.

I should know since I own several of his books, including the ultimate edition of Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories, The Jack Vance Treasury edited by Terry Dowling and Jonathan Strahan and Project Moonbase and Others, a collection of Robert Heinlein’s teleplays based on his own works.

Here is a list of the books published by Subterranean Press in 2016, which can be viewed on the SubPress website:

  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
  • Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
  • Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds by Alastair Reynolds
  • Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon
  • DJSTURBIA by David J Schow
  • Down and Out in Purgatory by Tim Powers
  • Downfall of the Gods by K. J. Parker
  • Early Days: More Tales from the Pulp Era by Robert Silverberg
  • Eternity’s Wheel by by Neil Gaiman, Michael Reaves, and Mallory Reaves
  • Freedom of the Mask by Robert McCammon
  • Half a War by Joe Abercrombie
  • Hell’s Bounty by Joe R. Lansdale and John L. Lansdale
  • Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
  • Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
  • Medusa’s Web by Tim Powers
  • Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • Soulless by Gail Carriger
  • Summer of Night by Dan Simmons
  • The Authentic William James by Stephen Gallagher
  • The Case of the Bleeding Wall by Joe R. Lansdale and Kasey Lansdale
  • The Days of Tao by Wesley Chu
  • The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred by Greg Egan
  • The Further Adventures of Langdon St. Ives by James P Blaylock
  • The Purloined Poodle by Kevin Hearne
  • The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons
  • This Census-Taker by China Mieville
  • This Year’s Class Picture by Dan Simmons
  • White Night by Jim Butcher

Convincing, yes?

Best Related Work

The Fifty Year Mission: The First Twenty Five Years (June 2016) and The Next Twenty Five Years (August 2016) by Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross, Thomas Dunn Books and St. Martin’s Press.

Many histories have been written about Star Trek, one of the most phenomenal, influential and culturally significant television shows of the 20th century. What makes Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross’ oral history of Star Trek so significant is that for the first time, nearly ALL of the participants get to tell the inside story of how the series and movies were made from their point of view.

It is breathtaking to read directly from the creators, producers, actors, writers, artists and fans on what happened and how it happened. And none of the participants, deceased or otherwise, spare any detail on the triumphs, mistakes, tragedies and screw ups that made Star Trek what it is today.

It would be a marvelous to reward Mr. Altman and Gross with a Hugo nomination for collecting these anecdotes, memories and interviews over the past thirty years to bring us the inside dope on one of our favorite indulgences…


Leonard Nimoy (actor, “Mr. Spock”) I went in to see Gene at Desilu Studios and he told me that he was preparing a pilot for a science fiction series to be called “Star Trek,” that he had in mind for me to play an alien character. I figured all I had to do was keep my mouth shut and I might end up with a good job here. Gene told me that he was determined to have at least one extraterrestrial prominent on his starship. He’d like to have more, but making human actors into other life-forms was too expensive for television in those days. Pointed ears, skin color, plus some changes in eyebrows and hair style were all he felt he could afford, but he was certain that his Mr. Spock idea, properly handled and properly acted, could establish that we were in the 23rd century and that interplanetary travel was an established fact.

William Shatner Captain Kirk and I melded. It may have been only out of the technical necessity; the thrust of doing a television show every week is such that you can’t hide behind too many disguises. You’re so tired that you can’t stop to try other interpretations of a line, you can only hope that this take is good, because you’ve got five more pages to shoot. You have to rely on the hope that what you’re doing as yourself will be acceptable. Captain Kirk is me. I don’t know about the other way around.

David Gerrold (writer, “The Trouble With Tribbles”) The problems with Shatner and Nimoy really began during the first season when Saturday Review did this article about “Trek” which stated that Spock was much more interesting than Kirk, and that Spock should be captain. Well, nobody was near Shatner for days. He was furious. All of a sudden, the writers are writing all this great stuff for Spock, and Spock, who’s supposed to be a subordinate character, suddenly starts becoming the equal of Kirk.

PHILIP KAUFMAN (Writer-Director: Planet of the Titans) I still remember the night when it was getting very close. I was then writing and I stayed up all night, but I knew I had a great story. I remember how shaky I was trying to stand up from my writing table and I called Rose, my wife, and I said “I’ve got it, I really know this story,” and right then the phone rang. It was Jerry Isenberg saying the project’s been cancelled. And I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “They said there’s no future in science fiction,” which is the greatest line: there is no future in science fiction.

Excerpted from The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years © Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman, 2016

Best Novella

Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling, November 2016, Tachyon Press.

I am ashamed to admit that even though I work in a bookstore, my knowledge of the yearly offerings of short fiction is woefully inadequate. Annually, I depend on recommendation sites, word of mouth and the actual nomination lists to catch up.

BUT, this year, I have at least one recommendation: Bruce Sterling’s darkly comic novella, Pirate Utopia.

Set in a small Italian town of Fiume off the Adriatic coast after the First World War, a disparate group of artists, veterans, scientists, criminals and various political fanatics have come together to form the Free State of Carnaro which has dedicated itself to explore and exploit every form of libertine and social excess in every shape and form.

Based on a true story of a similar city that actually existed between 1920 and 1924, Sterling takes a small piece of obscure history and turned it into a brilliantly funny and by turns, grotesque piece of alternative-diesel punk history.

Among the cast of characters who are part of the action are Guglielmo Marconi (the inventor of radio), Benito Mussolini (as a newspaper editor!), Harry Houdini and H.P. Lovecraft (as American spies?), and Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels (as innocent bystanders?).  The crazy quilt of a plot is just barely on the sane side of satire and is always twisting and turning in unexpected directions. Bruce Sterling deserves a lot of credit for turning many of the tropes of the genre of its head to make the story work.

Finally, a word about the artwork; all of the marvelous and madcap illustrations in Pirate Utopia are the work of John Coulthart, who also wrote an entertaining essay about how his work in the book  was influenced by Futurist artists of the period.

There a LOT packed into this little volume and it is quite a triumph for Bruce Sterling and Tachyon Press.

Cat Rambo Interviewed By Carl Slaughter

Cat Rambo

By Carl Slaughter: From Clarion West grad to SFWA President, Cat Rambo has an experience-filled resume and works hard at “paying it forward.”

CARL SLAUGHTER: You spent 10 years camping out in a speculative fiction bookstore. How did that affect you?

CAT RAMBO: Not just any speculative fiction bookstore, but the Griffon Bookstore in South Bend, Indiana, which holds the longest continuously running game room in the United States, and which still exists and is a major part of any visit home. I go down and do exactly what I did in high school: hang out for hours talking with its owners, Ken and Sarah, who I count as part of my extended family. I always figured I’d get my degree and then go work there for the rest of my life. It’s still a pretty appealing notion.

I was extremely lucky — I hit that bookstore when it had just opened and I was twelve, and I found a refuge where a smart, bookish kid could be with other smart, bookish kids — and also with grownups who treated us as peers. I was there gaming every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday night, and all day on Saturday. Luckily the store closed on Sundays; otherwise my family might have never seen me.

As a result, I will always and ever be most comfortable when surrounded by books, although nowadays I’ve usually got my e-reader close at hand too. I can’t travel without reading material; it’s important to always have an emergency paperback handy. I was part of an experimental reading curriculum in kindergarten that apparently took particularly well with my brain, and I read very quickly. I also seem to exempt from something that happens to a lot of my author friends, who complain that writing has spoiled reading for them, because they end up focusing on the flaws. I still happily read and revel in all sorts of crap, along with the good stuff.

CS: You spent a lot of time in college and your curriculum emphasized writing. How much of this helped you later, how much of it hindered, and how much of it was a waste?

CR: Is “a lot of time” gentle phrasing for “you dropped out of college twice”? Because I did, each time taking time off to work in a bookstore, either the Griffon or Waldenbooks #882. I didn’t really start taking writing classes until I went back the second time and got really serious about things. I won some prizes for writing while there, but I don’t know that the undergrad writing classes were useful in the way they might have been. After that I went off to Hopkins and studied with John Barth and that was useful as could be, because Jack lives and breathes writing, and he’s an amazing teacher.

That was a great time in many ways: I got to learn from and interact with a lot of writers, poets, and scholars, including Madison Smartt Bell, Tom Disch, Steve Dixon, Allan Grossman, Hugh Kenner, Jean McGarry, Grace Paley, and Larzer Ziff, to name some of the people that were strong influences in one way or another. It was also my first teaching experience, and I loved it.

Time spent learning anything is never a waste, but I don’t know that the time I spent at Indiana University learning that I was not as well suited to academia as I thought was the best use of it that I could have made. I did learn a lot and produce papers ranging from an analysis of the virtual sublime in cyberpunk, the transformation of Tank Girl from comic to movie, and a Marxist reading of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” The latter involved watching the Christmas special enough times that I can never watch it again. But you would be amazed at the class and economic stuff in it once you start looking, starting right off the bat with Burl Ives the snowman caroling about silver and gold and proceeding to the implications of the Bumble being reformed and turned into a worker. All kidding aside, I learned a lot about literary analysis and theory, but I also learned that I wanted to hang with the writers.

CS: Your curriculum also emphasized gender studies. How much of that affected your career as a writer, editor, and SFWA administrator?

CR: I was part of the first group of students to come through the Gender Studies program at Notre Dame, and I owe a great deal of my success in my last two years there to the encouragement and mentoring of those professors. I referenced one, Charlene Avallone, in my story “All the Pretty Little Mermaids,” and will undoubtedly bring in others in future stories

Gender Studies taught me how to look at social structures and question them, how to look to see what power structures exist and what is supporting them, and most importantly, to look at language and what role it plays in that. I was at one point contemplating a linguistics major (other possibilities included economics and computer science; I’m not sure English was the most career-minded pick) and I’d read Dale Spender’s book Man-made Language, which ended shooting me down a reading path that I’ve never left. Later on I taught in the Women’s Studies department at Towson State University.

Teaching an Intro to WMST class there was a revelation, because in order to teach something, you’ve got to research and know it. I hadn’t read much 19th-century American history before then, but as a result of that class, the latter half of that century has become an era I love to write it, to the point where one figure from it, Victoria Woodhull, ends up traveling through time to appear in several far future stories.

Feminism has been a guiding principle throughout my life and one of the reasons that I agreed to run for SFWA President is that I think it’s important for women to lead and act as leaders and role models. I strongly believe that many of the artificial structures imposed on us from day one end up hurting people of all genders. And I think that we are often not aware how many of those artificial structures shape our perceptions. Look at the trope of “drinking liberal tears” that has surfaced repeatedly in recent years. There’s gender implications to that that start getting interesting once you pull them apart. And that, to me, is feminism’s greatest use – as a tool that helps me understand some of the underpinnings in a way that lets me not just think, but write about them.

As far as SFWA administration goes, feminist principles lead me to try to work to make sure voices that might not otherwise get heard do get listened to, and that’s a group that includes voices that are younger, independently-publishing, economically disenfranchised, QUILTBAG, differently-abled, and a whole slew of others. It also shapes my leadership style, which tends to work towards consensus, rather than being particularly authoritative.

Connie Willis and Cat Rambo

CS: What did you learn from Clarion West from people like Octavia Butler, Connie Willis, and Michael Swanwick?

CR: I learned that I could write a story that people would enjoy reading. Octavia, to my unending sorrow, has left us, but Connie and Michael are both people who have continued cheerleading, supporting, and generally kept me going.

It wasn’t till I got to Clarion West that I got to hear people talking about the nuts and bolts of writing. Less philosophy than in the MFA program, much more peering under the hood. Tool after tool after tool for my writerly toolbox.

Also that I was at home in a way I had never been among the literary writers. The F&SF writers are kinder and much more about supporting each other, about recognizing how people have helped them and paying it forward. That’s been an ethic that I embraced wholeheartedly.

CS: Describe a typical Cat Rambo story. Or is there such a thing as a typical Cat Rambo story?

CR: Man, I have had people say to me after they’ve heard a piece, “That’s such a Cat Rambo story,” and I am always mystified. I try to deliver something unexpected, and I try to do it with beautiful language that is clear. That’s the target, at least.

CS: Tell us about your time at Fantasy Magazine, good and bad.

CR: I really enjoyed working with Fantasy Magazine for a number of years. It was a great chance to get to see what the editorial side of things looks like, and I always urge my students to do a stint reading slush if they can.

It was always such a joy to find something good in the slush. I have a whole bunch of authors whose work I always look for because I was one of the first editors to publish them, like Genevieve Valentine and Lavie Tidhar. And it was fun to go after some stories as well, and be reading overall in the field, thinking, “I’m going to drop this author a line and see if they won’t send me something.”

I got to work with so many wonderful writers. It was pretty early on after I’d done Clarion West, and it was a great introduction to the field. I will always be grateful to Sean Wallace for giving me the chance to do it for a while, and I learned so much from doing it.

If there’s one story I really am proud of publishing, it’s “Superhero Girl,” by Jessica Lee, which actually had been rejected already by one of the slush readers. I had opened it because of the title and once I read it, I immediately mailed her and said, “Well, actually, hold on…”

Fantasy Magazine was bad in that I am very good at coming up with lots of clever ideas for things like upping circulation and raising numbers and all of that, and considerably less interested in implementing them. I found that it was a randomizing force in my life, and I was constantly biting off more than I could chew.

Which actually was a great lesson to keep in mind with SFWA, and I’ve been a lot better about it there.

CS: Why did you decide to get involved with the SFWA?

CR: In 2004, I went to the Writers Workshop at DragonCon, which was run by Ann Crispin. Ann informed the class in no uncertain terms that we were to write stories, pursue an associate member, join SFWA, and start volunteering. I heard and obeyed.

CS: What SFWA positions have you held and what did those positions involve?

CR: I was on the Copyright Committee assembled after the Great DMCA Takedown Disaster of 2007 and served on it until its dissolution. After that I was not particularly active until a number of years later, when I was asked to come in and take over moderating the boards when a volunteer stepped down.

I did that for a while, which was interesting, and something I was peculiarly well suited to, having administered a message board for an online game with very impassioned players. I started coming to the Nebulas, and then at some point Steve Gould asked if I’d consider running for VP. I said sure and gave it a shot. It was interesting enough that I stuck around to run for President, and I’m finishing out that term this year and running again.

CS: What was the SFWA’s state when you became president, what have you done while in office, and what has been the result of your work?

CR: SFWA President Russell Davis had started the process of reincorporating in California, and I reaped the benefit as well as curse of coming in towards the end of the long waiting period for that. Benefit in that I’ve been around at a point where we could finally act on some things, like admitting independently published authors, small press authors, and game writers.

That transition hadn’t been as smooth as it could have been. Some board members over the years had tried to keep doing things the old ways, others had tried new things, but there hadn’t been enough thought given to planning what would happen once the moment had arrived.

A sub-issue was that SFWA somehow never really evolved a good internal communication system that preserved institutional memory. I found some great stuff that had been forgotten, and a few situations that had, in my opinion, gone awry. In all of this, I had the benefit of having been a Microsoft manager, and having some idea of how to look at management issues, try to figure out what’s going on, and come up with possible solutions. There was a lot of people going in a number of different directions, and some gaps as a result of that.

I’ve pushed a number of efforts along, many of them started by other people. I also tried to make sure the independent people were represented and that SFWA had things to offer them. For example, I reached out to Jeff Bezos because I’d heard he was an SF fan. Nowadays we have a representative at Amazon who we can go to with issues and feedback from our members, and I’m looking forward to some of our other joint plans. Along the same lines, we’ve got two SFWA-specific Storybundles coming out this year. My hope is incorporate game writers and offer them useful resources in the same way.

But overall my main accomplishment is that I’ve tried to make it so the awesome people got a chance to shine and do the awesome things I knew they were capable of, and to fix some snags that were creating issues. As a result, SFWA is in a place where it’s doing some awesome things, with more yet to come.

CS: Why did you decide to run for another term as president?

CR: God, I am not sure. People kept coming and looking at me with hopeful looks in their eyes and I finally said okay. I had to spend a while talking about it with my spouse, because he worries that I put writing time into it. Which he’s absolutely right about. But last year I managed to finish a novel and a bunch of stories, teach, and keep running my Patreon, so it hasn’t killed my productivity entirely.

I wouldn’t have done it except I really love the team and trust them to help make it great. They have my back and they know I have theirs.

CS: What’s on the horizon for the SFWA?

CR: More outreach! A Nebula extravaganza that includes amazing programming and more music! Greater ability to give grants to the community in order to help promote F&SF writers! Greater outreach to gamewriters, continued looking at ways to serve them, and a Nebula for game writing. The “Preserve Your Legacy” campaign, aimed at educating authors how to set up their literary estate and dedicated to the memory of long-time volunteer Bud Webster. Continued and better recognition of our amazing volunteers. More going after people trying to take advantage of the writers. A continued pushing to help writers make a decent living from their work. We are exploring health care, but I don’t know what to expect from that so far. More partnering with other organizations. Temporary tattoos.

I’ve got a notebook full of ideas. And a team that will help me put some, at least, of that in place.

Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions — #6

Stuff I’m Nominating for the 2017 Hugo Awards, Part One

By Chris M. Barkley:

Best Dramatic Presentation – Short Form

Blackstar by David Bowie,  ISO Records – Columbia, Music and Lyrics by David Bowie with Maria Schneider, Paul Bateman and Bob Bharma on “Sue (Or A Season of Crime)”.

Album Personnel

David Bowie – vocals, acoustic guitar, mixing, production, string arrangements, “Fender Guitar” (3), harmonica (7)

Length: 41 minutes 17 seconds.

It has been a year and a month since the passing of David Bowie. His final gift to us, Blackstar, is a testament to his musical sensibilities and genius.

In the fall of 2014, Bowie and his longtime producer Tony Visconti secretly gathered together a group of New York City jazz musicians and began to record this album. Although he knew his days were numbered, Bowie desperately wanted to add one last note to his majestic musical legacy.

Blackstar is not a conventional rock album by anyone’s standards. If anything, his use of the jazz ensemble more resembles a throwback to the jazz-fusion era of the 1970’s and ’80.

Besides showing Bowie was well aware of his fatal cancer diagnosis, he was also keen to show everyone that he would not let death get in the way of his artistic and creative endeavors.

Blackstar’s Hugo worthiness, in my opinion, rests on the title track, “Lazarus” and the accompanying ten-minute music video of “Lazarus.” Reading between the lines of his lyrics, Bowie’s symbolism and longing for something beyond death are there, even though he doesn’t know exactly what it might be or what form it might be in. There is no morbidity or fear in these musings, just a sense of wonderment.

You can view the full version of the “Lazarus” video here:

Two previously released songs, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” and “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”, were re-recorded for this album, replacing bridges that Bowie had originally played with new saxophone parts played on the latter song by Donny McCaslin.

Blackstar was released on January 8, 2016, coinciding with Bowie’s 69th birthday. David Bowie succumbed to liver cancer two days later.

Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form

Stranger Things (Eight Episodes, 395 minutes, Netflix) created and directed by Matt and Ross Duffer. Produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Cohen and the Duffer Brothers. Written by The Duffer Brothers, Jessica Mecklenburg, Justin Doble, Alison Tatlock, Jessie Nickson-Lopez and Paul Dichter.

Starring:  Mille Bobby Brown, David Harbour, Winona Ryder, Matthew Modine, Finn Wolfhard , Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp and Shannon Purser as “Barb” Holland.

When I first heard about the premise of Stranger Things, my eyes rolled so hard they nearly catapulted from my skull. And I have never been more wrong and delighted in my life.

The setting:  Hawkins, Indiana, November 1983. When young Will Myers (Noah Schnapp) goes missing , a nightmarish chain of events is set into motion that include a government conspiracy conducted by a local science facility, an unhinged mother’s (Wynona Ryder) desperate search for her child, an alcoholic sheriff (David Harbor) involved in an investigation that’s way over his head, mysterious deaths and other disappearances of citizens and three pre-teen boys (Finn Wolfhard , Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin,) who happen upon an unearthly young girl with paranormal abilities (Millie Bobby Brown).

And there’s a monster.  A BIG ONE! From ANOTHER DIMENSION!

If you haven’t seen this phenomenal blend of horror, sf, fantasy, conspiracy thrillers and cultural tropes of the 1980’s, it would be criminal of me to say anything else do actually describe it. To those of us who actually grew up in that era (and I am one of them, to be sure), Stranger Things nostalgically calls out our cultural past and its tropes in practically every scene; Stephen King novels, the films of John Hughes, John Carpenter, Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas among many, many others.

The cast is uniformly spectacular and earned them all the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series for 2016 against such world-class competitors like as The Crown, Downton Abby, Game of Thrones and Westworld.

So don’t count Stranger Things out if (or when, more likely than not) it goes up against heavyweights challengers like Star Wars: Rogue One, Doctor Strange, Star Trek Beyond and Deadpool on the final ballot.

Best Novel

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, Mulholland Books, published 5 July 2016, 336 pages.

Victor, the narrator of this novel, is a clandestine US Marshal in contemporary America. His job is hunting fugitives. Victor does it and he does it well. But there are a couple of wrinkles to this situation:

Abraham Lincoln is assassinated before his inauguration and the Civil War never happens.

Slavery is kept viable through a series of political compromises by the ruling parties. By the 20th century though, only four southern states still have legalized slavery and the rest of the country is “civilly” segregated for everyone’s protection.

Victor is hunting African-American fugitive slaves under the Fugitive Persons Act.

Victor himself is black, is STILL a “Person Bound to Labor” and has the freedom to roam the country at will, but only at the brutal expense of the people he captures.

When Victor is sent to track down an outlaw abolitionist codenamed Jackdaw, he is forced to come to terms with his work, his life and the country he serves.

Even more daring than the plot of Underground Airlines is the fact that the author, Ben H. Winters, is white. A white author, even a well-meaning one, writing about such an explosive cultural topic today, with a black narrator, might seem to be professional suicide in the literary world. Winters, a skilled professional whose previous works have won the Edgar Award (The Last Policeman) and the Philip K. Dick Award (Countdown City) for Best Novel, has won over critics and readers with this brilliant alternate history thriller.

I will be very disappointed if Underground Airlines does not make the final Hugo Award ballot this year.

Jacey Bedford, Author of the Rowankind Series

By Carl Slaughter: DAW fantasy author Jacey Bedford continues her Rowankind magic/alternate history series with Silverwolf, released January 3 by DAW.

Jacey Bedford is a British writer from Yorkshire with over thirty short stories and four (so far) novels to her credit. She lives behind a desk in an old stone house on the edge of the Pennines with her husband and a long-haired, black German Shepherd – that’s a dog not an actual shepherd from Germany. She’s the hon. sec. of Milford SF Writers’ Conference, held annually in North Wales.

CARL SLAUGHTER: First, let’s talk about the protagonist. What type of relationships does she have?

JACEY BEDFORD: Silverwolf is the second in the Rowankind series. Rossalinde (Ross) Tremayne is the main character in the first book (Winterwood), and she’s also the narrator in the second. The other protagonist is Corwen Deverell. In Silverwolf he gets a family and a history.

By the time we get to Silverwolf, Ross and Corwen are deeply committed to each other, though it was a rocky start since (in Winterwood) the ghost of Ross’ first husband, Will Tremayne was still hanging around and Ross wasn’t ready to let him go.

Ross had a poor relationship with her mother and younger brother, especially after her father died at sea. She thought her mother didn’t understand her, but later (when it was too late) discovered that her mother probably understood her too well. Discovering that she had a half-brother, David, and then that her mother’s sister, Aunt Rosie, was still alive gave Ross a welcome second chance at having a family.

Her relationship with her ship’s crew—barely reformed pirates, the lot of them—is close. She treats them like the family that she didn’t have growing up. Hookey Garrity, for all his rough, piratical ways, is like a big brother; Mr. Sharpner, a hugely knowledgable sailing master, is like a wise uncle, and Daniel Rafiq, an ex-slave educated for a high position in an Eastern potentate’s household, is like a cultured cousin.

CS: What type of personality/temperament?

JB: Ross first. She’s independent and intelligent with a hard edge when she needs one. She’s loyal to her crew and to her friends. She’s got a sense of decency and fair play and thinks hard about consequences. She’s not going to let an innocent get hurt if she can help it, but for all that, she’s got a practical streak. And don’t forget she captained a privateer vessel for three years. She’s not soft.

Corwen’s physically fit and quick-witted, but he’s also got a sense of humour and can be prone to teasing. He’s a man who tries to do the right thing, sometimes putting himself in harm’s way because of that.

CS: What about her character. What’s her moral compass?

JB: When Winterwood opens, Ross is the captain of a privateer vessel—essentially a legal pirate as far as the British are concerned, but simply a pirate in the eyes of the French. Thanks to her late husband, Will Tremayne, the Heart of Oak has a fearsome reputation. Ross would rather rely on that reputation and intimidate enemy vessels into giving up without a fight. She’s not unnecessarily cruel, but if they want a fight then she’ll give them one, and that means deaths on both sides. She’s not afraid to strap on a pair of pistols and board an enemy vessel in a skirmish. By the time Winterwood ends, she’s realised that the pirating game is not for her, but she keeps the ship, setting up Hookey as captain, and still takes her owner’s share. I suppose that makes her morally ambiguous. When faced with a problem she’ll meet it head on and if the only solution is physical action, she’ll not shirk the necessity.

CS: Natural abilities and paranormal abilities?

JB: When she first ran away to sea with Will Tremayne Ross was barely eighteen years old and had led a pretty sheltered life in the family home in Plymouth. Her mother was trying to make her into an elegant young lady who would attract a good husband. Ross ran away with Will and her life changed in an instant. Will taught her how to dress as a boy and become a sailor by day, and how to be a woman by night. She can fight with sword or pistols and shin up the rigging. After Will’s death she took over as ship’s captain.

Her magical abilities are very specific. Ross is a witch, but that doesn’t mean she has wand-waving, spellworking power to get her out of all scrapes. She’s a weather-worker, with control over wind and water. She can create light, but has to work very hard to turn that light into heat. She’s also inherited the family ability to summon. This means she can mostly summon spirits of the dead, but if she’s very close to someone or something she can call them to her. She can always call the Heart of Oak to her, mainly because of the sliver of ensorcelled winterwood laid into the sip’s keel.

Corwen is a wolf shapechanger. He’s very quick to point out that he’s not a werewolf and he’s not moon-called. He can change from man to beast and back again in the blink of an eye. He doesn’t have any magical powers as such, but the Lady imbued him with the minor ability to create illusions. Like all magical creatures he can see spirits, though can’t summon them himself.

CS: She’s got more than one person/organization opposing her. Who are the antagonists, what do they want and why, and how do their actions affect her actions?

Her main opposition—because it’s the main opposition to all unregistered witches in Britain—is the Mysterium. It’s a government organization which enforces the protocols governing the use of magic. Anyone showing magical talent must register by their eighteenth year and submit to the regulations, which tend to allow small magics, but not big ones. Anyone not registering will hang if caught.

Separate to, and above the Mysterium is also a position that has existed since the days of the first Queen Elizabeth’s Sir Francis Walsingham, her spymaster. As well as spies, Sir Francis was also concerned with magic. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot of Winterwood, but in the intervening two hundred years there has been a small and secret government department concerned with greater magics.

CS: What’s the fantasy premise?

JB: Britain in 1800 with magic. Winterwood: A cross-dressing female privateer captain (who is also a weatherworking witch) who has inherited a half-brother she didn’t know she had and a task she doesn’t want. Silverwolf: Ross and Corwen trying to deal with the aftermath of what happened in Winterwood. Expect magical creatures, more from the Fae, the Mysterium getting tough(er), family problems, and a spanner in the works of the Industrial Revolution.

CS: This series is also alternate history. What’s the setting?

JB: Something happened in 1588 which brought the magical world closer to the non-magical. If you know your British history, you can take a guess at what that might be. It’s now Britain in 1800 – 1801. The British and the French are at War. Napoleon Bonaparte is hammering at the door. The Americans have gained their independence. Mad King George III is on the British throne. The Industrial Revolution is underway, but it’s still early. There are steam pumping engines, but the railways are almost 30 years in the future. It’s still the era of the stagecoach and the canal.

CS: In Silverwolf, there’s a lot more characters than in Winterwood and a lot more turmoil. Who’s doing what to whom and why?

JB: Ross and Corwen are hoping for some happy-ever-after time together, but it turns out that there are consequences to what happened in Winterwood. Magical creatures—the like of which have not been seen for centuries—are once more roaming the land. The gentle rowankind, long a source of free labour, have regained their magic. Some have gone through the gates into Iaru, the home of the Fae, others have determined that they should make a home for themselves in Britain as free rowankind.

Corwen is called back to Yorkshire to sort out some family trouble (so we meet all of Corwen’s family at last.) The family woolen mill, largely run with rowankind labour, is in trouble (exacerbated by a little local interference). Corwen has to negotiate with the rowankind, and then Ross and Corwen have to protect the mill’s rowankind from the Mysterium, which has suddenly woken up to the fact that the rowankind now have wind and water magic. In the meantime Corwen’s twin brother Freddie has skipped out on his responsibilities, but when Ross and Corwen track him down to London they discover an even bigger plot against the rowankind and other magical creatures. Turmoil pretty well describes it, but Ross and Corwen have to sort it all out and concentrate on what’s important.

CS: The action in the first novel is at sea. In the first sequel, the protagonist and her partner go ashore. How well does she function out of her element?

JB: Ross is adaptable, and she has Corwen to help her. She’s been at sea for seven years, but before that she grew up ashore. Her magic is natural magic from the forests, so it’s always been stronger on land than at sea. This suited Ross at first because she was uncomfortable with her own magic and being at sea damped it down, but now that she’s more at ease with herself, being on land helps. She misses her seagoing family, though, so it’s a good job they turn up in the book and make themselves useful. There’s still a fair bit of sailing in Silverwolf, too.

CS: Give us a peek at the final story in the series.

JB: Most of it is still in my head, but Ross and Corwen have an obligation to the Fae to protect the rowankind, and they can only do that by making a deal with King and Parliament. That’s not going to be easy, of course. Having magical creatures in the workforce could also derail the Industrial Revolution. For instance why would you need to invent gas lighting if you could light streets and buildings by magic? Why invent steamships if a weather witch can power a sailing ship?

Corwen’s brother, Freddie is an ongoing problem which they will have to solve.

An unexpected peace between England and France in 1802 (Treaty of Amiens) curtails the Heart of Oak’s privateering. Also, if the French and English exchange prisoners during the peace there’s every chance that Ross’ old enemy Walsingham will reappear.

There will also be a shock for Ross when she discovers that bad-boy pirate, Gentleman Jim, her one-time lover, didn’t die in the big conflagration in Winterwood. There’s lots of unfinished business to wrap up. I’m looking forward to writing it.

CS: What other projects do you have in the works, especially DAW projects?

JB: I’m currently writing Nimbus, the third book in the Psi-Tech series. This will complete Cara and Ben’s current story arc and round off the trilogy. It’s due for publication in October. Empire of Dust and Crossways are the first two books in the trilogy.

CS: Will we be able to catch up with you at a convention?

JB: I’m in the UK, so most of the cons I attend are there. I’m always at Eastercon which (surprise) is always at Easter, but rarely in the same place. This year it’s in Birmingham (and next year in Harrogate). I always like to attend Fantasycon, too. That’s the British Fantasycon which usually happens late in September. Both cons are heavily into literature. There are a couple of smaller conventions I like to attend if possible and that’s Bristolcon (28th October 2017 in Bristol) and Novacon (10th – 12th November 2017 in Nottingham). Of course 2017 is also the year of the Helsinki Worldcon in August, so I’ve already signed up for that, and I’m hoping to take a side-trip to Tallinn in Estonia (just 2 hours from Helsinki by ferry) because I have a book on a back burner which is set in a version of the Baltic States in around 1650. That’s not under contract yet, so watch out for news.

Thanks for having me drop by for an interview, Carl. As ever your questions are insightful and interesting to answer.


DAW will give a couple of copies of Jacey Bedford’s novels to a Filer — the winner to be randomly selected from those who e-mail me at with “Bedford Books” in the subject header by February 6.


Psi-Tech Series

  • Empire of Dust (Psi-Tech series #1)

  • Crossways (Psi-Tech series #2)

  • Nimbus (Psi-Tech series #3) Due October 2017

Rowankind Series

Winterwood (Rowankind #1)

Silverwolf (Rowankind #2)



Tools and Problems of Human Neuroscience

Benjamin C. Kinney is a speculative fiction author and SFWA Associate Member whose writing touches on themes of science and faith, the human mind and the inhuman mind, and where these four intersect. Kinney is a pen name, to differentiate his sf from his nonfiction work. He is a neuroscientist currently working in St. Louis. His research interests include how the brain changes after amputation, and how handedness interacts with (and changes during) rehabilitation.

By Benjamin C. Kinney: Technological advancement has driven our understanding of neuroscience since at least 1887, the year when the Golgi stain allowed scientists to identify individual cells in the nervous system. As decades passed, the forefront shifted. Tissue stains and anatomical dissection were displaced the oscilloscope, patch clamp, and neuromodulator drugs. Nowadays, scientists can scan and manipulate human brains – but this technology isn’t limited to university laboratories. You can get a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan at any major hospital, or order a brain modulation rig delivered to your home. As neuroscience technology becomes a part of our everyday lives, it’s more important than ever to understand what it can do – and what it can’t.

The history of brain modulation is the history of human civilization. Beer is over 10,000 years old, possibly predating bread as the original driver of agriculture. These days, fermented grains remain a popular way to alter the mind, but modern drugs and electronics offer a wider array of psychoactive effects, both medicinal and recreational. My expertise lies on the electrical side of brain function, so here I’ll explain the three big new technologies modern scientists use to interact with the human brain. I won’t go into detail about how they work; you can learn that from Wikipedia. Instead, I’ll give you a neuroscientist’s insights into what these technologies can do, what they can’t, and what potential they might have in a science fictional future.

Two warnings: First, links are not endorsements, of techniques or products or even data. Citations could be good examples or bad. Second, please remember these are all new technologies from the last 10-20 years. Long-term safety is unknown, though we know of neither reasons nor mechanisms that might cause late adverse consequences.

Brain Measurement – Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)


How it works: fMRI measures brain activity by observing the flow of blood in the brain. Specifically, it exploits the iron atoms in the hemoglobin in your red blood cells: those cells’ magnetic susceptibility varies depending on whether or not they’re carrying oxygen. As a result, hard-working parts of the brain respond differently to a magnetic field.

Myths and Risks: MRI fields are safe, as long as you keep away anything magnetically susceptible. MRI machines will indeed accelerate such objects to dangerous speeds, but the Die Another Day (2002) clinic fight scene illustrates some misconceptions about this process. (Nobody watches James Bond movies for scientific accuracy, but it’s a good illustration.) First, objects are drawn into the center of the tube, not against the machine. Second, nobody would store metal objects in the same room as a MRI machine. That’s because of the biggest inaccuracy of all: that Bond turns on the MRI machine. MRI machines cannot be turned off! Their superconducting magnets depend on liquid helium, which evaporates if it ever gets warm. An actual magnetic-field shutdown (a “quench”) would cause hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage.

Major Problems: fMRI analysis is an extremely difficult and controversial beast. An Ig Nobel-winning 2009 study found brain activity in a dead fish, but that’s no reason to distrust current research; that study’s purpose was to illustrate the need for a now-universal statistical control. False findings are always possible in science, but there is one special danger to fMRI studies: the variability of the human brain. All of the brain’s folds and valleys and connections are unique from person to person. Moreover, each little parcel of brain real estate will have different functions at different times, except for basic sensory and motor areas of the brain. Combine that with the necessity to average data across many people, and you run into the problem illustrated below. The average might tell you nothing about anyone’s individual brain – and that problem gets worse as you measure more abstruse and cognitive things, far from sensory and motor processes, where the link between “cognitive/behavioral function” and “a single specific brain function” grows tenuous. Once a fMRI study purports to connect brain activity to political opinions, be very skeptical.


Science fiction: I can’t imagine that fMRI will still be in use in a space-opera future. It’s the best we have right now, but it’s an incredibly indirect measurement. fMRI uses magnetic fields to measure whether or not the iron atoms in hemoglobin are carrying oxygen. That provides a measure of blood oxygenation, which is related to brain blood flow, which is related to brain metabolism, which is related to neural activity. Three levels of abstraction lie between what we can measure and what we want to know. Someday we’ll develop totally new methods that skip some of those intervening steps, and at that point, fMRI will probably fall by the wayside as a tool to study brain activity.

Brain Stimulation: Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)


How it works: TMS uses brief, powerful magnetic fields to induce an electric current in the brain, and activate (or inhibit) neurons. It can be delivered in single pulses, usually to measure connections or activate sensory or motor nerves; or in long trains involving 1-15 pulses per second for 6-40 minutes. That second method is known as repetitive TMS (rTMS) or theta-burst stimulation (TBS) depending on the details.

Myths and Risks: TMS can be slightly painful, because the magnetic fields can make scalp muscles twitch. Moreover, TMS pulses to motor areas of the brain create “spontaneous” twitches of muscles anywhere in your body. When your hand moves without your volition, it some people find it uncanny or unsettling. However, TMS is quite safe unless you have a medical condition that places you at risk of seizures. Harmless syncope (fainting) can occur rarely, but most researchers – myself included – demonstrate TMS on their own heads with casual ease.

Major Problems: Many scientific studies have shown that rTMS and TBS can modulate learning. Unfortunately, many scientific studies have also shown that rTMS and TBS cannot modulate learning. I’ve heard senior researchers advise that “you have to try ten rTMS studies before you get one that works,” which is a warning sign for false findings. It doesn’t look like TMS will help us acquire new skills more quickly, though rTMS can help with depression and possibly neuropathic pain (pain originating within the nervous system). There’s no good evidence yet for other clinical uses.

However, TMS isn’t all bunk – it has obvious effects on brain cells, as demonstrated if you stimulate motor areas of the brain. This, unfortunately, is also why TMS research is full of individual studies with false positive findings. When each TMS pulse brings noise and discomfort, it’s difficult to blind a patient to whether or not they’re getting the treatment, so there’s a strong placebo effect.

A long-term problem of TMS is its lack of specificity. If you want to pass a magnetic field through the skull and skin, there are limits (and tradeoffs) on precision and depth.

Science Fiction: TMS has a lot of room for improvement. The big technological advancement that made TMS possible is the special capacitors for rapid on/off switching of the magnetic field. (It’s the change in field that causes an electrical current, which is why the constant field of fMRI produces no such effects, even though the two methods reach similar magnetic field strengths. The MRI is always on, Mr. Bond.) In the future, we’ll have magnetic coils with novel shapes able to reach into the brain at ever-greater depth and precision. With faster coils, and a better understanding of human neural function, we might be able to dynamically match rTMS patterns with neural activity, and thus reach the elusive goal of accelerated learning.

Brain Modulation: Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS)


How it Works: tDCS sends a weak electrical current (1-2 milliamps) across the scalp, to shift baseline voltages in the brain. Basically a nine-volt battery, a couple of sponge electrodes, and some control/safety features. Part of a larger category of transcranial electrical current stimulation (tCS or TES); everything I say probably applies to the whole category, but I’ll use the term tDCS, since that’s the form most commonly used and best-understood in today’s neuroscience research.

Myths and Risks: tDCS can produce an unpleasant burning-like sensation at the skin, but is generally safe. However, the biggest myths are on the “benefits” side. You can find claims all over the internet about how tDCS can enhance alertness, focus, learning, and sport performance. But the FDA does not regulate any of these consumer devices or their marketing claims! Despite many clinical trials, there’s no good evidence that tDCS helps with any clinical condition except possibly major depression, and there are some reports of psychiatric side effects in patients. Among home users who depart from laboratory-tested guidelines, some report a panoply of side effects. Most worryingly, learning and alertness aren’t merely dials that the brain has set too low. Changing the brain’s functional parameters would require some kind of tradeoff – and we don’t really know what that tradeoff might be!

Major Problems: tDCS has a glaring fundamental problem: it’s not clear whether it does anything to the brain. If you apply current to the scalp, most of it shunts across the scalp, and very little actually reaches the brain. However, these results remain highly controversial. Even a tiny amount of current might have an effect. The major tDCS “debunking” study was performed in cadaver brains, which have somewhat different electrical properties from live brains, yet still showed some change in current. Overall, some scientists think tDCS is entirely bunk, but others think it still has potential, perhaps at higher currents (2-4 mA).

Science Fiction: tDCS in its current form has a limited future, but I expect it’ll spawn some great technological descendants. Currents across the scalp can never have precise effects on the brain, given all the flesh and bone in the way. Such currents also may never have strong effects, since higher currents (4+ mA) can be hard to tolerate even with anesthetized skin. However, even if we can’t deliver that current now, the principles make sense. If we can find new ways to introduce weak currents across the brain itself, we may be able to induce the functional tradeoffs that suit our needs.

A Speculative Kerfuffle

The Science Fiction Poetry Association is taking nominations from members for the Rhysling Awards until February 15. A.J. Odasso, Strange Horizons Senior Poetry Editor, nominated two poems published by Strange Horizons (which is within the rules) but originally one of them was rejected as insufficiently speculative. The nomination was soon restored – amid charges of racism against Rhysling Award decision makers,  and raking up the personal history of another SFPA volulnteer. And debate continues over the elusive definition of “speculative poetry.”

A.J. Odasso protested against the original decision in a January 14 tweet and followed up on January 17 with a blog post “Concern re: removal of a 2017 Rhysling Award nomination”.

Since nominations are currently open until February 15th for this year’s Rhysling Awards, I did what I usually do: nominate one short poem and one long poem, both of which happened to be poems that I and one of my co-editors had published in Strange Horizons during the course of 2016.  In addition to meeting the line-count requirements, both poems were published in the correct year, in a magazine of speculative literature.  There are rules against nominating your own work, but there are no rules against nominating work you’ve had a hand in publishing.  And it’s a good thing there aren’t, because reading submissions guarantees you’re at the front lines of reading the most exciting new work your community has to offer.

[The poem was selected for Strange Horizons by another poetry editor. Strange Horizons has four.] 

… While I was at Arisia this past weekend dashing from panel to panel, I received an upsetting message from the current Rhysling Anthology Chair [previous SFPA president David Kopaska-Merkel].  My nomination for the Short Poem category, Layla Al-Bedawi’s “Propagation,” had been accepted, but my Long Poem nomination, Tlotlo Tsamaase’s “I Will Be Your Grave,” had been rejected.  I was being asked to find a different long poem to nominate because Tlotlo’s piece was apparently not speculative enough.  First of all, I’d never heard of nominations being rejected; second of all, the nomination had already been made public on the website.  Poets had already been engaged in excitedly congratulating each other on their nominations for more than a week.  I was instantly outraged on Tlotlo’s behalf, as I can’t think of any universe in which publicly announcing a nomination and then deciding to revoke it after the fact isn’t bad form.  I spent a number of hours on email urging the [award] Chair to reconsider this decision in light of the fact that it would be deeply, deeply hurtful to the poet after they’d already seen their nomination, but Tlotlo’s piece was removed before the day was over.

… Mistake or not, this action is problematic for more reasons than I can reasonably delineate in one blog post.  At worst, it’s exclusionary and, yes, even racist to claim that a poem by a writer of color, published in a speculative magazine, is not speculative enough by white/Western standards to be worthy of nomination.  At best, it really is just a mistake, but even at that juncture, it had been publicly posted before being revoked.  It’s flat-out bad form to essentially tell someone, hey, congrats, you’ve earned this honor, and then say, oh, oops, sorry, our bad, it just didn’t conform to standards, we’ve got to pull it.  No matter which way you consider it (and, frankly, I consider it in both), Tlotlo’s owed an apology.

SFPA President Bryan Thao Worra responded the same day as the first tweet —

The same day that Odasso’s post was published, Lev Mirov took up the racial issue.

Elizabeth Barrette, in “Rhysling Award discrimination”, vigorously prosecuted the charges of racism and cultural insensitivity, beginning with an explanation of the African literary context of the poem, then launching into populist arguments against SFPA leadership.

…These perspectives are routinely excluded from white society and, especially, recognition such as awards. Often there’s no representation at all; when black people win awards, it tends to make the news because it doesn’t happen much. It’s usually not because the people rejecting them are the kind of racists who think black people are inferior. It’s because they think black ideas are uninteresting and irrelevant — in this case, “not speculative enough.” Not “good enough.” Not “really” speculative poetry. Not “worthy” of being permitted to compete at all. The awards typically go to things closer to the middle of the bell curve. Usually it’s because people don’t vote for black literature; the perspective shown by the award chairs and officers of the SFPA is common, though by no means universal. But sometimes it’s enforced from the top down, like this case when an African poem shows up to the literary lunch counter and is thrown out the door by organizational fiat. The member who nominated it is not permitted to have a voice regarding what speculative poetry “is,” the poem is not permitted to compete in the award despite meeting the technical standards, its author is excluded from the privileged circle of nominees, and the general membership is prevented from voicing our opinion about what is or is not “speculative enough” and “good enough” through our votes for the Rhysling Award. At the same time, this high-handed move directly blocks everyone else’s mindful efforts to promote diversity in speculative poetry by forcibly removing the option of voting for this poem. Our opinions and work don’t matter; we don’t get a choice. Someone else gets to decide that. Someone with more power. Someone more important. Someone who gets to say which poems and poets can sit at the literary lunch counter, or not. Institutionalized racism is difficult to fix precisely because of examples like this where someone in power can directly thwart other people’s hard work in solving the problem.

The Twitter exchange continued on January 17 –

Then, on January 18, this bluntly-worded tweet came out from the SFPA Twitter account.

And A.J. Odasso, in a comment added to the orignal post, asserted —

The SFPA is populated by a handful of people who really are as exclusionary as they appear to be, and they’ll go to any lengths to insist that they aren’t. And they don’t even seem to understand that a thing can still be racist even if they don’t intend it to be. Like we haven’t covered that enough?

In a further exchange of comments, Odasso laid the blame for the SFPA tweet at the feet of F.J. Bergmann, because SFPA’s webmaster had earlier tweeted an unsympathetic response from her personal account, and immediately dragged Bergmann’s WisCon controversies into the discussion.

However, Bergmann proved not to be the author of the SFPA tweet, that was SFPA officer Diane Severson:

I am Diane Severson, membership and communications chair of the SFPA, who tweets from @sfpoetry . It was not FJ Bergmann who made those blunders on Twitter, but me. I feel sick about this whole situation. I find it very difficult to respond to accusations such as had been made within the context of a tweet.

… We put our collective foot in it with Tlotlo Tsamaase’s poem. I hate that this sort of thing keeps happening to us. We are not evil. An unfortunate few (6 people) are tasked with running the organization. It is the desire of ALL of us to increase inclusivity and diversity within the organization and in our publications. I know that many feel it is not our job to police what is SpecPo. It has never been our intention to do so. With regard to early nominations, we had an unfortunate misunderstanding among those of us determining a nominated poem’s eligibility, which is not just whether it is Spec or not, since there are actual mistakes nominators make in regards to eligibility (year of publication, length, nominators membership, etc.). It was always our intention to ask the nominator for an “explanation” in the event the chair thought it didn’t seem speculative. It’s unclear to me whether that happened, AJ. Barring that we had intended that if only one of the officers thought it was “spec enough” it should be included. In this case, they were split in their impressions and the chair mistakenly thought we’d agreed it should be unanimous.

Odasso responded with an apology to Severson:

I’d like to apologize for my less tactful moments in all of this, too, up to and including assuming the identity of who made the tweets.

Severson continued:

It’s so hard to navigate these issues. No one gets the benefit of the doubt that missteps are unintentional and therefore one is always put in a defensive position. Instead of being informed of one’s errors and given a chance to rectify things, accusation and yes, intolerance is very often what’s led with. Like I said, I’m sick that this keeps happening, but I also have a hard time understanding why people don’t talk to us before tearing us a new one.

Severson also told Odasso that she actually owed the apology to Bergmann, but Odasso replied that Bergmann was deserving of her comments.

SFPA President Bryan Thao Worra made a public statement on January 19, to which he appended this unofficial comment showing he favored the restored nomination:

I always hope that we respect the premise that even if we don’t think of a particular poem as speculative by our personal definitions, at least one of our other members esteemed that poem enough to nominate for consideration. It stands, then, that we recognize those works as a professional courtesy, within reason. Or unreason, if that’s your thing.

The next day, on January 20, SFPA Secretary Shannon Connor Winward, gave her perspective in “Arbitrating Spec”.

….I’d like to share my thoughts, as both a writer and fan of speculative poetry as well as an SFPA officer with firsthand knowledge of the events that transpired.  I believe that, although it may be at times uncomfortable, this is one of those difficult conversations that needs to be had.


One of the first issues to appear on my radar as an elected officer of the SFPA was the fact that, even within an organization dedicated to speculative poetry, not everyone agrees on what “speculative” means.  While this may seem like a philosophical or semantic question, it’s also a practical one.  The SFPA exists to foster community among people who read and write speculative poetry.  Each year the SFPA publishes two award anthologies (the Rhysling and the Dwarf Stars) of speculative poetry, bestows the Elgin Award for chapbook and book-length speculative poetry manuscripts, and hosts a speculative poetry contest with cash prizes, with the express purpose of highlighting the very best speculative poetry being written today.  Without a clear, working consensus of what speculative poetry is, what’s the fucking point?

…And yet.  As an officer of the SFPA, it is my responsibility to help recruit, vet, and assist those people we appoint as Editors and Chairs of our organization’s endeavors.  This year’s Rhysling Chair, David Kopaska-Merkel, is a notable member of the SFPA and the wider speculative poetry community – a person with a breadth of experience and demonstrated ability.  We were thrilled to have him take the helm for this project, and to vest him with the responsibilities as well as the discretion required for the role.

I am deeply troubled by the accusations on social media that David acted irresponsibly in deeming certain poems ineligible, or that his actions were done with malice, with the intent of purposely excluding some voices.  As Rhysling Chair, it is David’s job to ensure that all nominated poems meet the criteria for eligibility, which by extension includes determining whether the poems count as speculative, even though there is not – as yet – any clear policy to guide him in this.  David’s solution was to bring each poem that he found questionable to the attention of the executive committee, seeking our input, before making his final determination.  His was a measured, conscientious approach.  And while I did not personally agree with each decision that he made, I was willing to support them.

Members of the SFPA and in the greater community have questioned the right of one person to decide what counts as speculative – and given that as a community we’ve yet to land on a universal definition, it’s a valid question.  It has been argued that the fact the nominated poem first appeared in one of the most celebrated speculative markets in the field should automatically qualify the poem as speculative, which is also an excellent point—I even suggested as much myself at one point during one of the many discussions in our list-serv, saying that any poem published in a speculative journal had already been vetted by an editor and should get an automatic pass.

But on the other hand, a point that I haven’t seen vocalized is the fact that magazine editors, too, exercise personal discretion.  They make decisions based on the same personally or culturally defined and often arbitrary standards and preferences and biases that we, as readers, exercise—and they have the right to do so, because of the task that has been entrusted to them.  Similarly, the Rhysling Chair is tasked with interpreting the organization’s guidelines to the best of his or her ability, which also implies a degree of individual, even arbitrary discretion—and that is what happened.  Without any clear guidance in the form of official policy, and with only the less-than-unanimous opinions of the executive committee (a microcosm of the larger spec community), he made a judgment call.

Personally, I am glad that “I Will Be Your Grave” was reinstated.  I believe that surrealism has a place in the speculative genre, and that poems like this are doing interesting things with language and imagery and genre tropes that should be recognized.  But as an officer, I believe the takeaway from this issue has less to do with righting a perceived injustice, and more to do with improving the Rhysling process.

I think, as a community, we need to look at the central issue –how do we define speculative, and, more importantly, who/how do we empower to apply that definition when it comes to featuring poems in our annual award programs—including our anthologies, which we hold up to the world as the best representatives of what speculative poetry is?

To accomplish this, we need to move away from the merry-go-round of debate (and name-calling) that is endemic in our social media and forums.  We need to work together to define clear and equitable guidelines for both the nomination process and the vetting system—assuming a vetting system for “speculative” should even exist….

It so happened that Winward had already opened a poll on her website asking people what is and isn’t “speculative.” Now the results are in — establishing that, much like the definition of “science fiction,” few can agree on what it is.

[Thanks to Robin A. Reid for the story.]

Checking out The Invisible Library from Genevieve Cogman

Tor / Pan Macmillan UK, 2014

Tor / Pan Macmillan UK, 2014

By JJ: It’s been more than a year-and-a-half since I first read Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library, and a year since I read its sequel The Masked City. I absolutely loved these books when they first came out, so when I recently got hold of the third book in the series, The Burning Page, I decided to do a re-read of the first two books (something I rarely do these days, due to the size of Mount Tsundoku and a burgeoning awareness of my own mortality) before cracking open the new one.

The Invisible Library is an institution located outside of Time, at the crossroads of many similar parallel universes which range from extreme chaos at one end to highly-ordered at the other. The more chaotic universes are the demesne of the Fae, the dragons have more power in the more orderly universes, and the midrange universes are generally up for grabs and can be tipped one way or the other – but humans in all universes are generally unaware of the supernatural beings which actually hold much power over their worlds.


Tor / Pan Macmillan UK, 2015

The Librarians of The Invisible Library are (or are supposed to be) politically neutral in terms of power and alliances. Because they spend much of their lives inside The Library and thus outside of Time, they live much longer than normal humans. They have secret doors into the numerous “real-world” universes, and their purpose is to obtain variant copies of books, the contents of which can vary widely in different universes (or may not even be written in some universes). Librarians are therefore highly-trained in surreptitious (albeit generally benign) tradecraft, in terms of infiltrating these universes and obtaining access to pilfer the volumes they seek.

While not magical, Librarians do have a “special power”: use of The Language, with which they can command objects to behave in a certain way, or people to believe a certain thing. The more closely the command aligns with the natural nature of the object or person, the longer the power of words spoken in The Language will persist; in the meantime, the Librarian needs to get their goal achieved and get the hell out of there, before the alteration wears off.

Tor / Pan Macmillan UK, 2016

Tor / Pan Macmillan UK, 2016

This series features Irene, the book-loving child of Librarians who has been raised in The Invisible Library, and who has all her life wanted to be a full-fledged Librarian making risky, adventurous trips into other universes to obtain rare and special volumes. She has – for better or worse – been saddled with Kai, an apprentice whose personality mysteriously changes from naïve to worldly depending on the circumstances, on a mission in a universe where a Sherlock-Holmisian analogue, Peregrine Vale, becomes their unexpected ally.

Into the mix are thrown Silver, a powerful but somewhat sympathetic Fae with his own agenda; Alberich, a legendary centuries-old renegade Librarian with an evil agenda, and Bradamant, Irene’s personal rival and nemesis inside The Library, who attempts to undermine and sabotage her at every turn. Make no mistake, there is plenty of darkness and ethical ambiguity – in all of the characters – in these stories.

One of the biggest delights of this series for me has been anticipating what novel usage of The Language will be concocted by Irene to get her out of each new dangerous circumstance she encounters. Her strength – and her wonderful pragmatism – make her a character with which I can identify, and one whose triumphs I can cheer. The inventive worldbuilding, backed by a solid understanding of myths and legends, makes these books a pure pleasure to read.

The Invisible Library is on my 2016 Hugo Nomination list for Best Novel, and next year this series will be on my list for Best Series.

The author was kind enough to respond to my request for a written interview.

Genevieve Cogman (copyright Deborah Drake)

Genevieve Cogman
(copyright Deborah Drake)

Q: When did you know that you really, really wanted to be an author, and what made it a driving need for you?

GC: I’m not sure that I’ve ever exactly always wanted to be an author. But I’ve been telling stories all my life – to myself ever since I first learned to daydream (though in those stories I was the heroine, naturally), and then shared with others while playing or running role-playing games, and then later on writing both fanfiction and my own attempted novels. I suppose it depends how we define “be an author”. If an author is someone who tells stories – either to themselves, or to other people – then I’ve wanted that ever since I discovered stories.

Q: Which books or authors have been most influential on your life, and why?

GC: I read so much that I don’t know where to start with this one. Consciously, I could mention Bujold, Barbara Hambly, Tolkien, John Dickson Carr, Emma Lathen, Edmund Crispin, GK Chesterton, Barry Hughart, Kage Baker, Moorcock and others. Subconsciously… I honestly don’t know. I suspect that most of what one reads filters through to influence what one writes to some degree, and I read a lot.

Q: How did you get the idea to create a storyline centered around a library?

GC: I think a lot of people before me have had the idea of hidden libraries, or libraries that connected multiple worlds: Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman… I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. And it’s come up in role-playing games, such as the In Nomine game (or in French, the In Nomine Satanis / Magna Veritas game). The idea appealed to me. It had an inherent feeling of rightness. In a way, one wants to believe that a library might have doorways to alternate worlds.

Q: Most authors (and most actors) have stories about strange jobs they worked while they were trying to “make it big”, and the bizarre things which happened to them at those jobs. Would you be willing to share your strangest on-the-job experience?

GC: I’m afraid I’m going to be really disappointing here, because I don’t have such a story. My regular job career has been in the NHS, as a data analyst, purchaser liaison assistant, clinical coder, and now classifications specialist.

Though my weirdest experience during that was probably the time I was in a lift in the hospital where I was working as a clinical coder, together with several other people, and the lift broke down mid-ascension, and one of the people trapped in the lift turned out to be the person who was in charge of such things at the hospital. It did at least mean that we got a point-by-point breakdown (ha!) of what was being done and how it was being sorted out.

Q: What’s the most special/unique/touching/powerful comment or response you’ve received from a reader of your books?

GC: When I was at the Nine Worlds convention in London in 2016, a reader told me that The Invisible Library had helped her get through a difficult time. That was a very heartening thing to hear.

Q: If you could get one book, which was never written/finished in this universe, from one of the alternates, what book would it be?

GC: The book which contains all those cases Holmes investigated which Dr Watson filed in a dispatch-box in a bank vault somewhere, and which never got published.

Q: Which books have you been acquiring recently for The Library?

GC: Currently by my bed are France: Fin de Siecle (Eugen Weber), Penric’s Mission (Bujold), English Gothic: classic horror cinema 1897-2015 (Jonathan Rigby), The Last Hieroglyph (Clark Ashton Smith), Everfair (Nisi Shawl), and City of Blades (Robert Jackson Bennett). And quite a few more, but those will do for a start.

Q: What do you do for enjoyment, when you’re not reading or writing?

GC: Watch television; do patchwork/quilting; knit; bead; sleep in.

Q: What’s next in the authorial pipeline for you? Will there be more adventures for Irene, Kai, and Vale? Or something different?

GC: At the moment I’m working on books 4 and 5 for Irene and co. Further than that, I’m not sure. I do have more story there to be continued, but I’m also vaguely trying to put together some ideas about demon-summoning, Goetia, decoupage, a dark school of magic, and a heroine who likes cats. There just aren’t enough hours in the day!

Other works by Genevieve Cogman:

Genevieve Cogman got started on Tolkien and Sherlock Holmes at an early age, and has never looked back. On a more prosaic note, she has an MSc in Statistics with Medical Applications, and has used this in an assortment of jobs: clinical coder, data analyst, and classifications specialist. She has also previously worked as a freelance roleplaying game writer. Her hobbies include patchwork, beading, knitting and gaming, and she lives in the north of England.

Genevieve Cogman’s website

(Fair notice: all Amazon links are referrer URLs which benefit non-profit SFF fan website Worlds Without End)

Roc / New American Library, 2016

Roc / New American Library, 2016

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman [Invisible Library #1]

One thing any Librarian will tell you: the truth is much stranger than fiction…

Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, a shadowy organization that collects important works of fiction from all of the different realities. Most recently, she and her enigmatic assistant Kai have been sent to an alternative London. Their mission: Retrieve a particularly dangerous book. The problem: By the time they arrive, it’s already been stolen.

London’s underground factions are prepared to fight to the death to find the tome before Irene and Kai do, a problem compounded by the fact that this world is chaos-infested – the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic to run rampant. To make matters worse, Kai is hiding something – secrets that could be just as volatile as the chaos-filled world itself.

Now Irene is caught in a puzzling web of deadly danger, conflicting clues, and sinister secret societies. And failure is not an option – because it isn’t just Irene’s reputation at stake, it’s the nature of reality itself…


Roc / New American Library, 2016

The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman [Invisible Library #2]

The written word is mightier than the sword – most of the time…

Working in an alternate version of Victorian London, Librarian-spy Irene has settled into a routine, collecting important fiction for the mysterious Library and blending in nicely with the local culture. But when her apprentice, Kai – a dragon of royal descent – is kidnapped by the Fae, her carefully crafted undercover operation begins to crumble.

Kai’s abduction could incite a conflict between the forces of chaos and order that would devastate all worlds and all dimensions. To keep humanity from getting caught in the crossfire, Irene will have to team up with a local Fae leader to travel deep into a version of Venice filled with dark magic, strange coincidences, and a perpetual celebration of Carnival – and save her friend before he becomes the first casualty of a catastrophic war.

But navigating the tumultuous landscape of Fae politics will take more than Irene’s book-smarts and fast-talking – to ward off Armageddon, she might have to sacrifice everything she holds dear…

(includes The Student Librarian’s Handbook, Secrets from The Library, Irene’s Top 5 Book Heists, Legends of the Library, and an interview with the Author)

Roc / New American Library, 2017

Roc / New American Library, 2017

The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman [Invisible Library #3]

Never judge a book by its cover…

Due to her involvement in an unfortunate set of mishaps between the dragons and the Fae, Librarian spy Irene is stuck on probation, doing what should be simple fetch-and-retrieve projects for the mysterious Library. But trouble has a tendency to find both Irene and her apprentice, Kai – a dragon prince – and, before they know it, they are entangled in more danger than they can handle…

Irene’s longtime nemesis, Alberich, has once again been making waves across multiple worlds, and, this time, his goals are much larger than obtaining a single book or wreaking vengeance upon a single Librarian. He aims to destroy the entire Library – and make sure Irene goes down with it.

With so much at stake, Irene will need every tool at her disposal to stay alive. But even as she draws her allies close around her, the greatest danger might be lurking from somewhere close – someone she never expected to betray her…

(includes Official Library Travel Advice)

A New Year of Bradbury

(1) A GREEN AND ANCIENT LAND. Justin Hamelin strolls through Bradbury’s childhood hometown of Waukegan in “Ray Bradbury: The Wordsmith, The Gentleman and The Icon” at Terror Time.

Over eighty-five years have passed since Ray Bradbury walked the streets and crossed the bridges of Waukegan as a boy, but his legacy in the town does, indeed, live on.

Annual events such as the Ray Bradbury Storytelling Festival occurs every Halloween in Waukegan.  The Dandelion Wine Fine Arts Festival occurs each summer, as well.  The library, albeit in a different building than the one Ray grew up in, holds several contests and programs throughout the year inspired by Bradbury and his work, as well.

The Carnegie Library still stands today and is in relatively good shape.  A local movement to have the building deemed a national landmark continues to pick up momentum with each passing month.  Currently, the library is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a local landmark building.  One of the many things I learned recently is that the Carnegie building is also a PokeStop in the Pokemon Go game, which would no doubt illicit a chuckle from Mr. Bradbury, I’m sure.

(2) HALL OF FAME CALLS. Ray Bradbury was inducted into the California Library Hall of Fame in 2016.

One of the greatest and most prolific authors of the 20th-century, Ray Bradbury was a passionate supporter of libraries, calling them “the center of our lives.” A 1938 graduate of Los Angeles High School, Bradbury sold newspapers on the street until 1942, continuing his education at his local public library. His most beloved work, Fahrenheit 451, famously began as a novella, The Fireman, in UCLA’s Powell Library, where he fed dimes into a pay typewriter. Bradbury was proudly self-educated in libraries, proclaiming that he didn’t believe in colleges and universities–instead he believed in libraries! He once joked to the NY Times that he spoke for free at over 200 California libraries. He also allowed libraries to sell his autographed books and keep all the profits. Bradbury spoke at California Library Association annual conferences and constantly sang the praises of California libraries. When libraries in Pomona, Long Beach, Ventura, South Pasadena, and other areas were threatened with budget cuts and even closure, he was an outspoken, articulate, and attention-getting advocate for their survival. In 2004 Bradbury was awarded the Medal of Arts Lifetime Achievement Award and, in 2007, the Pulitzer Board recognized him with a Special Citation for his incredible lifetime achievements. A crater and an asteroid are also named after him, plus he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

(3)  HOLLYWOOD ICON. LA Weekly reports the closing of the Formosa Café in West Hollywood, where Ray Bradbury would have lunch/dinner with the likes of Sam Peckinpah and John Huston.

Its neighbor was the Mary Pickford– and Douglas Fairbanks–owned studio complex, later known as Samuel Goldwyn Studio, then as Warner Hollywood Studios and finally as Lot Studios. A group called Friends of the Formosa saved the structure from demolition in the early 1990s, though five nearby studio buildings ultimately were razed. The West Hollywood Gateway project next door, which includes a Target and a Best Buy, towers over the Formosa, but its street-clogging traffic doesn’t appear to have nourished the eatery with sustainable business.

This scene of L.A. Confidential was shot there.

(4) QUOTABLE QUOTE: “Rich men can afford the luxury of cathartic murder.”  ~ Ray Bradbury

(5) LESS THAN 24 HOURS LEFT. And only rich men can afford this Bradbury script on eBay

The Strawberry Window Original Typed Script with Hand Written Notes! – 17 Pages – 3rd Draft – 1954 Signed and Inscribed by Ray Bradbury

(6) YOUR WHALE-SHAPED CRAFT. Maria Popova quotes from “Ray Bradbury’s Unpublished Poems and His Meditation on Science vs. Religion” at Brain Pickings.

In the last few years, I have found myself returning again and again to the problem of science and theology. This problem has thrust itself into the center of a series of poems I have written. I have for some time now thought that the conflict between religion and science was a false one, based, more often than not, on semantics. For when all is said and done, we each share the mystery. We live with the miraculous and try to interpret it with our data correctors or our faith healers. In the end, survival is the name of the game.

One upon a time we created religions which promise us futures when we knew there were no possible ones. Death stared us in the face, forever and ever.

Now, suddenly, the Space Age gives us a chance to exist for a billion or two billion years, to go out an build a heaven instead of promising one to ourselves, with archangelic hosts, saints waiting at Gates, and God pontifical on his Throne.

(7) 451. She chose Bradbury. Fate chose her: “Student at University of Texas in Austin Wins a New Hardback Book a Month for Life”.

Heywood Hill, the legendary independent London bookshop, announced today that Mariadela Villegas, a third year student at the University of Texas in Austin, has won the Library of a Lifetime, the world’s first major literary prize focused on readers of books. To win, readers entered the name and author of the single book that has meant the most to them, drawn from any book published in English since Heywood Hill was founded in 1936—eighty years ago this year. The bookshop received more than 50,000 submissions from more than 100 countries during the submission period, October 1 – 31, 2016, and Villegas was notified on November 25th that she had won the grand prize: one newly published and hand-picked hardback book per month, for life, delivered to her home….

Villegas submitted Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury for the competition, describing her choice with the following: “The mere thought of a world where books are forbidden both fascinated and terrified me. The idea of a band of nomads who are the only remaining links to great works of literature kept me up at night imagining what it would be like for them to know that if something were to happen, a literary classic would be lost forever.”

(8) RETURN TO THOSE TITILLATING DAYS OF YESTERYEAR. Omni reprinted a Ray Bradbury interview that originally appeared in Genesis, a softcore magazine, which accounts for why every question is about sex.

Why is there very little sexuality in your work?

I think it’s because I have no hang-ups. People often say to me, “How come you don’t fly? You don’t drive? Isn’t that ridiculous for a science-fiction writer? How do you explain this paradox? You’re writing about these things and you don’t do them.” And I say, “Of course, that’s exactly it.” A writer writes about those things that he can’t do. His hang-ups. Now I was afraid of the dark until I was twenty-one, twenty-two years old. Perhaps some of that is still in me. So my first books are excursions in darkness, trying to make do with my fears. And out of these weaknesses I made strengths. So it is with sexuality. If sex doesn’t appear in my novels, I must be giving forth these energies, exploding my sexual energies in correct proportions. Loving people in just the right way. So I don’t have to write about them.

(9) THE GRADUATE. Entropy tells the story of the Bradbury mural at his alma mater – “Learning from Masters: Ray Bradbury and Richard Wyatt Jr. at Los Angeles High School”.

Originally founded in 1873, Los Angeles High School is the oldest secondary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Located on Olympic between La Brea and Crenshaw, Los Angeles High School is undoubtedly one of the most iconic high schools in Southern California. Considering its storied history and its celebrated alumni like Bradbury and Bukowski, the recent transformation of the library makes perfect sense. The central organizer and visionary of the renewal efforts is teacher-librarian, Tikisha Harris. Harris started at Los Angeles High School in the fall of 2013 and when she first arrived, the library was in desperate need of being rehabilitated.

The idea to paint a mural at Bradbury’s alma mater was an event that gradually unfolded and it began ironically enough at an iconic Los Angeles restaurant less than a mile east of Los Angeles High School. The eatery is El Cholo on Western and the reason it all started here is because a teacher from the school, Sonia Hanson was eating there over a year ago and she somehow struck up a conversation with Richard Wyatt Jr. while he finished his meal a table over. After having a great conversation, Wyatt gave Hanson his card and let her know to contact him if he could ever help the school and her in any way.

Flash forward several months to October 2015 and Sonia Hanson was in a meeting with librarian Tikisha Harris discussing Ray Bradbury and how they can get the school interested and involved in Fahrenheit 451 for the citywide initiative called “The Big Read,” which had selected Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as the book for the year. “The Big Read,” is an initiative of the National Endowment of the Arts where libraries, schools and cultural organizations unite together to all read the same book. The Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs spearheaded the project throughout the city, distributing copies to participating schools and libraries. In the midst of brainstorming how their school could participate, the idea came up of painting a mural of Bradbury in the library.

Bradbury mural Wyatt

[Thanks to John King Tarpinian for these stories.]

Sheri S. Tepper

By Robin Anne Reid:

NOTE: Spoilers for a number of Tepper’s novels occur throughout the essay.

WARNING: For references to rape and abuse of young women as an element of Tepper’s novels.

The Fan

I found my first Tepper novel in the early 1980s. I remember standing in the University of Washington bookstore reading the opening pages of King’s Blood Four, the first of what would become the nine-novel triple trilogy The True Game. Had Tepper’s work continued in that vein, interesting world-building with a male protagonist, I am not sure I would have become such a fervent fan.

However, even this early novel had threads of the feminist themes Tepper would develop in more detail in her later work. Peter starts out as a typical fantasy orphan hero. He is a young man, a foundling, raised in an all-male environment, who almost immediately embarks on a quest. The setting is the world of the True Game where characters have fantastic powers echoing medievalist fantasy conventions. But the initiating event is an attack on King Mertyn in which Peter is used and injured by his male lover, and the outcome of Peter’s journey is learning about the Immutables (those outside the Game who lack any of the powers valued in the Game) and meeting his mother (not his father!). Those differences were different enough to keep me reading the trilogy and keeping an eye out for her other work.[1] I was lucky since she published so many novels so quickly: her entry in Wikipedia lists ten novels published in 1983-1985.

The later trilogies in the True Game series, Mavin’s and Jinian’s, turn away from the male bildungsroman to twist fantasy conventions on multiple levels. Suddenly, as with Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series, I found myself in a science fiction narrative of sorts, a lost colony settled by humans. But even before I read the later trilogies in the True Game series, I found the Marianne Trilogy.


Reading the first in this series put Tepper’s name immediately on my “buy as soon as they appear” list of authors, and that response never changed although some of her later works appeal to me much less than the earlier ones. I tend to be completist when I love an author’s works even if I do not love all of them.[2]

The opening paragraph of Marianne, The Magus, and the Manticore remains one of my favorites:

During the night, Marianne was awakened by a steady drumming of rain, a muffled tattoo as from a thousand drumsticks on the flat porch roof, a splash and gurgle from the rainspout at the corner of the house outside Mrs. Winesap’s window, babbling its music in vain to ears which did not hear. “I hear,” whispered Marianne, speaking to the night, the rain, the corner of the living room she could see from her bed. When she lay just so, the blanket drawn across her lips, the pillow crunched into an exact shape, she could see the amber glow of a lamp in the living room left on to light one corner of the reupholstered couch, the sheen of the carefully carpentered shelves above it, the responsive glow of the refinished table below, all in a kindly shine and haze of belonging there. “Mine,” said Marianne to the room.  The lamplight fell on the first corner of the apartment to be fully finished, and she left the light on so that she could see it if she woke, a reminder of what was possible, a promise that all the rooms would be reclaimed from dust and dilapidation. Soon the kitchen would be finished. Two more weeks at the extra work she was doing for the library and she’d have enough money for the bright Mexican tiles she had set her heart upon. (1).

This scene is vital, so present in its appeal to the senses (the sounds of the rain—a sound I often lie awake listening to—the light reflecting off bookshelves, a “refinished table,”), that I become immersed in the world immediately. Marianne’s achievement differs greatly from that of most fantasy novels: she is remodeling an old house and refinishing furniture primarily through her own labor in order to reclaim the color and feel of her childhood home, lost with her parents’ death. The fantasy worlds in this trilogy seem unique (even in the context of Tepper’s work), and I fell in love.

I love Marianne and her momegs, Marjorie and her horses, Mavin’s refusal to compromise, Jinian and her animals, Jinian’s Seven, and the Seven–Carolyn, Agnes, Bettiann, Ophelia, Jessy, Faye, and Sova—in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.


I love Tepper’s world-creation, the animism and ecological/environmentalist themes in her work, the creativity of her names for characters and animals, and, most of all, her descriptions of trees and forests. Tepper and Tolkien’s work seem so alike to me in their love for trees although I wonder how many readers would see any similarity.

I love the feminist elements (some of them!): my love for Grass is not only because of Marjorie and her horses but because of Marjorie’s quest to save her daughter. An additional feminist elements (which I had not thought of until the early drafts of this essay) are some of the male characters who do not fit the model of heroic (or toxic) masculinity: there are two of them in Grass (Rillibee Chime and Brother Mainoa).[3]

I also (and I’ve not seen many reviews talking about this element!) love the skewering of academia that Tepper does in some of her novels (notably in the True Game series and in Sideshow).


The opening paragraphs of Chapter 1 of Grass are also very high on my list of favorite openings:


Millions of square miles of it; numberless wind-whipped tsunamis of grass, a thousand sun-lulled caribbeans of grass, a hundred rippling oceans, every ripple a gleam of scarlet or amber, emerald or turquoise, multicolored as rainbows, the colors shivering over the prairies in stripes and blotches, the grasses—some high, some low, some feathered, some straight—making their own geography as they grow. There are grass hills where the great plumes tower in masses the height of ten tall men; grass valleys where the turf is like moss, soft under the feet, where maidens pillow their heads thinking of their lovers, where husbands lie down and think of their mistresses; grass groves where old men and women sit quite at the end of the day, dreaming of things that might have been, perhaps once were. Commoners all, of course. No aristocrat would sit in the wild grass to dream. Aristocrats have gardens for that, if they dream at all.

Grass. Ruby ridges, blood-colored highlands, wine-shaded glades. Sapphire seas of grass with dark islands of grass bearing great plumy green trees which are grass again.  Interminable meadows of silver hay where the great grazing beasts move in slanted lines like mowing machines, leaving the stubble behind them to spring up again in trackless wildernesses of rippling argent (1-2).

Tepper’s books occupy a major part of my “favorites” bookshelves (the ones in my bedroom as opposed to the ones in the library or in my home office or in my office at school). I took this picture of her books stacked up on my bedroom chair the day after I heard of her death.



I wrote Mike to ask if he would be interested in a tribute essay when I learned Sheri Tepper died (October 22, 2016). I began scribbling notes and re-reading some of her books immediately. I got (immediately!) sidetracked (academic habits now ingrained), looking at the scholarship and some critical discussions of her work online. I kept writing, and cutting, and cutting, and writing, until I realized there was a huge amount I wanted to say that I did not have time for and could not yet develop at this point.

My original impulse was to write a fan tribute, but apparently, I am a different kind of fan in 2016 than I was in 1986.[4] I still love (some) of Tepper’s work passionately (and find I am immediately grabbed/immersed in my favorites the moment I open them and read the first paragraphs) even though I can see the validity of many of the criticisms I’ve read. It’s nothing as simple as the suck fairy visiting loved books from my early years (I’ve been reading Tepper, like my other favorite writers, more or less continuously since I found her work thirty-four years ago).

I haven’t yet figured out what has happened although I am beginning to think that the flaws in her work are representative (for me) of some of my own flaws, and some of the flaws in some feminist discourses, and even in the broader American culture. To figure that out, I have to write more, but that has to come later. It’s all connected to my life and experiences, and to the development of Anglo-American feminist speculative fiction and to the current political situation in the U.S.

I wrote the first draft of this piece Wednesday, November 9, nearly twelve hours after it became clear that Donald Trump would win the presidency. The weeks since then have featured events that I think go well beyond what Tepper in even her most “heavy-handed”[5] message fiction thought of writing even though her focus on the dangers of patriarchal authoritarianism, particularly that flavored by a certain flavor of American evangelical fundamentalism (similar to that of the Quiverfull Movement) seems prescient to me.

For some years, I have thought that Tepper, among all the sff writers whose work I know, was the most focused on detailing the threats to women’s rights, especially the right to reproductive choice, that have been the focus of the GOP/Tea Party/social conservative movement the past few decades and which are reading unprecedented heights.[6] These attacks are not the only threats from the social conservatives/GOP who are exulting in the chance to dismantle the legislation and overcome court rulings that addressed systemic sexism, racism, homophobia, and poverty in this country, but I do not see much contemporary sff addressing this particular issue.[7] Tepper’s work is informed by the feminist discourses that are labelled “Second Wave Feminism,” a focus I see as connected to the strengths of her work as well as its flaws.[8]

One of the quotes from her 2008 interview at Strange Horizons is very much reflective of what I’ve been feeling since the election:

SST: Post-apocalyptic, post- or mid-holocaust? You say that’s a grim place to go on a daily basis, yet we both do it every day, don’t we? We’re living in it, Neal. Did you think it was still in the future? Read the daily paper. How do I hold myself there? I read the daily paper. How do I recover? I don’t. Do you?

I discovered Tepper, as I found so many other women writers, after I left academia in 1982 because of sexism in a graduate theatre program where I was doing a Master’s in playwriting (some of my experiences in that graduate program, and others, are why I do not see Tepper’s male antagonists as “straw-men” or unrealistically flat). I spent several years working in low-level clerical jobs and adjunct teaching while reading nothing but feminist theory and women writers. I started by finding and reading all the writers discussed in Joanna Russ’ brilliant How to Supress Women’s Writing, but I also pursued a longtime strategy of mine that predated becoming a feminist: read the bookshelves at libraries and bookstores. If a title or a cover caught my attention, I’d read the first page and see what if it grabbed me.

That’s how I found Tepper.

At the time, I was happy to see the feminist ideas in her work and did not see some of the more problematic aspects relating to Second Wave feminism, particularly in regard to the whiteness of her characters and a view of sex / gender / sexual orientation that defaults to straightness and erases or condemns queerness, flaws that are typical in most cultural productions, of course, as the debates in sff fandom the past few years have highlighted.

I returned to academia in the late 1980s because I could do feminist work in a doctoral program; I did not realize how much intersectional feminist work had been done during the 1970s/1980s until I took my first theory course. That course, and the ones following, changed everything for me. Among other things, critical theory freed me from the limitations of the training I received in my undergraduate days (which excluded popular genres by fiat): Foucault was the one whose work gave me my first tools for writing about science fiction in an academic context (though I had to sort of sneak it into my dissertation­). The work by intersectional feminists gave me an entirely different perspective on the sff I loved.

The Academic

As a lifelong fan turned academic who got a Ph.D. in English in part so I could teach sff, I have always been aware of how literary canons are built to exclude. The exclusionary nature of canon-building did not disappear when the 1970s led to so many challenges to the Anglo-American canon of literature: what came about was more an “explosion” of canons.

Thus, there is a feminist sf canon that developed over time, with scholars focusing until recently on the relatively small body of text known as the “seventies feminist utopias” (or the lesbian separatist utopias). Feminist sf scholarship has grown and developed in recent years, and I think the early focus on utopias/dystopias was inevitable given that utopias/dystopias were the only “science fiction” allowed in literary studies at the time.[9] I love some of the novels (particularly those by Joanna Russ and Marge Piercy), but never felt that I had much of anything to say about them as opposed to work by other women sff writers.

My love for Tepper’s work was one of the main reasons that I became interested in the ways in which (some) women writers publishing in the 1980s integrated feminist ideas into their sff in ways that differed from the 1970s feminist utopias (a genre which has nearly disappeared, as Peter Fitting discusses in his excellent essay, “Reconsiderations of the Separatist Paradigm in Recent Feminist Science Fiction,” published in Science Fiction Studies in 1992).

The Marianne trilogy, along with Mavin’s and Jinian’s, and the Arbai Trilogy (Grass, Raising the Stones, and Sideshow are my favorite Teppers.[10] My first major academic presentation in 1991 was on Grass as feminist epic revision of Frank Herbert’s Dune. I have published one article on Tepper’s work in which I talk about the trilogies in the context of feminist utopias, arguing that Tepper’s work explores feminist themes through the concept of “momentary utopias” or “momutes.”[11] The paragraphs below echo some of what I discussed in that essay.

The early trilogies (Marianne’s, Mavin’s, and Jinian’s) are all stories about young women who resist the expectations of their male-dominated families and cultures in ways that differ from the 1970s feminist utopias (with the exception of Woman on the Edge of Time). Since more women began publishing in the 1980s, a greater range of feminist ideas began to appear along with a greater range in genres. Tepper did write one book that can arguably be considered a feminist utopia or dystopia (The Gate to Women’s Country) but I consider most of her work to be feminist speculative fiction with strong fantastic/fantasy elements.

The blend of fantastic worldbuilding and systems of magical powers existing with stories of male family members raping girls, restricting their education, and forcing them into marriages inform these novels. The protagonists resist/escape family pressures but focus on individual resistance for the most part. All the protagonists escape their families but only one is involved in an attempt to change the dominant culture.

Marianne changes her life by changing the time-line (with the help of the momentary gods which she learns how to use by watching her aunt, the villain of the narrative) rather than by changing social expectations or cultural systems. Her power comes from her birth as a Kavi, a member of the hereditary ruling class in Alpenlicht. This trilogy stands out as one of the few of Tepper’s stories in which heterosexual marriage is presented as a positive relationship. I loved it for its worldbuilding, the momegs, the beautiful descriptive prose of the natural world, and the secondary worlds.

Mavin is born into an oppressive extended family, a group of Shapeshifters in the Land of the True Game. Mavin escapes by leaving the Shifter compound, rescuing her younger brother, and, much later, her older sister, and others along the way. Not only does she face rape as she as she is deemed adult (is able to Shift), but the ongoing rape and abuse of her older sister is revealed. Mavin’s trilogy is very much a quest narrative covering twenty years of her life, but she never marries. She loves Himaggery, a wizard she meets in the first novel, but does not stay with him. One of her quests is to rescue him, and shows that they were happy only when shifted into magical beasts (singlehorns described as very similar to unicorns).  Mavin gives their son, Peter, to her brother to raise. Mavin does not change the cultures or communities she passes through, but she goes beyond what Marianne does by rescuing women and girls. The extent of the world beyond the Land of the True Game is shown in Mavin’s journeys—and the environmentalism/ecological elements are very strong.


Jinian’s trilogy moves from the focus on the individual to that of the groups attempting to change the dominant culture before the world dies. On her quest, Jinian learns about the origin and history of human settlement on Lom. Humans colonized the planet, not realizing that Lom (embodying the Gaia hypothesis) was sentient and able to communicate with all its native creatures. Lom tries to bring humanity into the web, but humans resist; then, Lom grants humans magical Talents. But their increased power leads to more violence against each other and the destruction of the environment.  The groups working to try to change human society, the Wizards and Dervishes specifically, are mostly (but not exclusively) women.[12]

Jinian is raised in an abusive family (who turns out not to be her birth family), but is helped from the start by a group of older women, called a Seven, who are Wizards /Wize arts. She is a Wizard and a beast-talker, able to communicate with animals and the other sentient beings of Lom. She is the one who discovers that the spirit is trying to commit suicide. As a result of the efforts Jinian leads, Lom decides to live but takes away the humans’ Talents. Jinian becomes involved with and marries Peter during the course of her quest, but also has strong relationships with other women, not only with her Seven, but with Silkhands the Healer.


Over time, as I read Tepper’s late work in the context of my graduate courses and first attempts to write feminist scholarship on science fiction, I became aware of the problematic aspects relating to race and heteronormativity. Those patterns are not unique in sff either at the time or today. Additionally, I saw the tendency in her narratives to construct sexism as institutionalized by authoritarian religions and regimes as a genetic component of humanity.[13]

Thus, her novels showed that only a change in the human genome could change human nature, leading to eugenics/breeding programs (explored in detail in The Gate to Women’s Country but also central to The Waters Rising and Fish Tails. Some novels show groups of humans running the breeding programs while others feature external agents causing the change, at times with the cooperation of some humans (the Goddess in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, the Arbai device in the Arbai trilogy, the Pistach in The Fresco).[14]


The Question for the Future

I am ending this piece by noting the question that I keep coming to as I’ve been working on the drafts: the extent to which Tepper’s gender/genetic essentialism is representative of popular ideas in feminism specifically and more broadly in U.S. culture.

The entry on Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender shows that some feminist theories are essentialist (meaning the assumption that sex or gender differences are “natural,” or genetically created).

P. Z. Myers noted in a recent post in his blog, the idea that “male” and “female” DNA exists is so widespread that even a Young Earth creationist cites “science” (incorrectly, but still tying the claim to “scientific knowledge”) to support his claim of the essential differences between men and women: There’s no such things as male and female DNA by P. Z. Myers.

This genetic essentialism is heavily implicated in concepts of “race.” This conversation between two anthropologists, (which Myers linked to in another blog post) covers the widespread and common understanding that DNA is “race”: New Articulations of Biological Difference in the 21st Century: A Conversation, Agustin Fuentes and Carolyn Rouse, at Anthropology Now.

Agusti?n: The core problem here remains that biology courses in high school and college are taught by individuals who, at least subconsciously, buy into the “race as biology” and “genetics as deterministic” perspectives. There are very, very few high schools in the United States where accurate information on human biological diversity is offered. There are few courses even at the college level where such information is provided or where contemporary evolutionary theory and biology are the norm. Inside and outside the classroom, students are mired in implicit “race talk” related to issues of biology and an overemphasis on genetic control of behavior. Think about discussions of professional sports, testosterone, violence, sexuality.

The history of deterministic genetics is tied to the history of genetics, with the impact on popular understanding of sex, race, and sexual orientation being documented fairly extensively.[15] The tendency to assume a “natural” (aka genetic) cause for differences is widespread.

Tepper’s work definitely assumes a genetic component, but stories/novels are sneaky. They twine around and bite their own tails. As I was re-reading Tepper’s work for this essay, I kept thinking about how Fish Tails, unlike some of the earlier novels, seems to critique the common trope of breeding programs as solutions in the two plot lines: Lillis and Needly’s life in Hench Valley, one of Tepper’s most clearly delineated (and yes, heavy-handed!) portrayals of patriarchal authoritarianism, and Xulai’s story (which began in The Waters Rising. I agree with the various critical reviews I’ve seen that this trilogy has a number of problems in narrative technique, characterization, and themes, but it also contains some criticism of the attempt to improve the human race through breeding programs that did not exist in the earlier works.

So this piece seems to be the start of something longer trying to figure out what I see going on in Tepper’s work, and how people (including but not only me) have responded to it over the years. I don’t really need any more projects added to the mountain, but I don’t think this one is going to go away anytime soon.


[1] One of my favorite parts of Raising the Stones is the way in which the narrative deconstructs the “father quest” in Samasnier (Sam) Girat’s arc. Sam, having been brought up on Hobbs Land after his mother Maire escaped from Ahabar, misses the legends and religion, or his idealization of them, and embodies those ideals in his father.

[2] My least favorite work is Beauty (so much so that I don’t think I have ever re-read it), and others that I rarely reread are The Awakeners duology North Shore and South Shore), The Companions, and Shadow’s End).

[3] The major male characters who are antagonists can be described as flat characters/stereotypical villains (and there are many of them) although I keep thinking of the behaviors Tepper must have observed over her years working at CARE and Planned Parenthood, and of behaviors I growing up in the 1950s/1960s. This reviewer’s comment struck me as revealing: criticizing the characterization of Rigo (especially the sections in which he is the point of view character) in Grass as stereotypical, they also say: Sadly, I’m sure this isn’t too far afield from some real battered spouse situations, but it’s not anything I wanted to read about. Real life may be like this, but if any author is going to put it into a book, I want the catharsis of Marjorie kicking his ass by the end of the novel. I’m left wondering what they would define as “kicking ass” because Marjorie saves her daughter, saves her horses, convinces the Foxen to intervene, helps solve the mystery of the plague, rejects the handsome younger male who is trying to restrict her to his romantic ideal, walks away from Rigo and her religion, and then leaves for her own quest (bits and pieces of which we get in the other novels in the trilogy) with First.

[4] In 1986, I was just starting my doctoral work which focused on which focused on gender, queer, and critical race theories and was years away from learning how to be a fan of problematic things.

[5] “Heavy-handed” is in quotes because I tend to think one person’s heavy-handed message fic can be another person’s incisive description of reality. Tepper is pretty up-front about preaching in her fiction (and rejecting “literary fiction” as she notes in this 2008 interview. And after two decades of reading (and enjoying but aware of) the “heavy-handed” message science fiction by men about men written for a (perceived to be) male audience, I was pretty happy to find a feminist message back then.

[6] Politics USA details various legislative attempts to restrict women’s rights to reproductive care, especially abortion services. It’s worth remembering that there’s a major push to define most contraceptive methods as “abortion.”

[7] I have been recommending Meg Ellison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife to everyone I talk to: it’s a brilliant post-apocalyptic dystopian evocation of the fundamental importance of reproductive rights: and one that speaks directly to current circumstances in the wake of the Zika virus.

[8] I’d imagine the majority of feminist readers can identify the Second Wave elements in her work; a very good review of Tepper’s dystopias by The Rejectionist can be found at

[9] Given the dominance of feminist utopias in the feminist sf canon, it’s not surprising the more articles have been written on The Gate to Women’s Country than on Tepper’s other novels.  When I checked the Modern Languages Association International Bibliography, I found 23 articles or book chapters listed: not all of them are peer-reviewed because the MLA currently includes popular criticism (such as reviews from the New York Review of Science Fiction) and dissertations. Nine of the articles are on Gate; six of those focus on the topic of feminist utopias. Beauty is the second most popular (three articles), and there are single articles on Raising the Stones and Six Moon Dance. I’m the only one who has written on her earlier novels, or the trilogies.

[10] My favorite stand-alone novels are Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, The Family Tree, The Fresco and, in other genres, her horror duology about Mahlia and Roger Ettison. I enjoy her two mystery series, published under the open pseudonyms of Orde and Oliphant, but they do not do the kind of work her sf does.

[11] “Momutes”: Momentary Utopias in Tepper’s Trilogies.” The Utopian Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Twentieth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Edited by Martha Bartter. Praeger, 2004. 101-108.

Thesis paragraph:  First, to explain the origins of my invented word, “momutes.”  In Marianne, The Madame and The Momentary Gods, Tepper’s second novel of the Marianne trilogy, Tepper introduces creatures/creations called momentary gods, or “momegs.”  Momegs are “basically a wave form with particular aspects,” beings who “give material space its reality by giving time its duration” (53-4).  An infinite number of momegs exist, each with its own locus, and the momegs describe themselves as both a wave and a particle.  I argue that Tepper’s trilogies are feminist science fiction and include “momutes,” or momentary visions of utopian possibilities. However, a reading of the trilogies in order of publication reveals that the momutes change over the course of the novels and that the changes in the nature of these momutes correlates with the development of a more complicated narrative structure and with a decreasing trust in human beings’ ability to create feminist/utopian societies.  The correlation between the nature of the momutes and narrative structures reveal a change in emphasis from Tepper’s focus (perhaps also reflecting differences in feminist theory) upon the feminist empowerment of an individual woman within a patriarchal and oppressive culture, to the problem of how cultural change on a larger level occur.  Cultures are rarely if ever changed by the actions of single individuals who call for such change.  Instead, systemic changes beyond the agency of any single individual, involving demographics, technology, and economics, are what lead to cultural changes.  Considering the change in culture, the subject of feminist utopias, is a more complex task than the changes in a single individual.

[12] The Plague of Angels trilogy, completed in 2014 with Tepper’s last published work, Fish Tails, crosses over into the True Game World. As a fan of the earlier trilogies, I enjoyed this attempt which I consider equal to if not superior to the similar attempts by Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov to link up all their earlier works as well.

[13] Octavia Butler explores similar themes, notably in the Xenogenesis series in which the Oankali ‘diagnose’ human’s flaws as our intelligence and hierarchical natures and begin a breeding program, and in her Patternmaster series, from a very different perspective and with different results. The difference in their respective handling of this idea—and I think it’s a very important one—is that Butler complicates/explores the negative results of such attempts while Tepper does not (though I think there are some attempts at such complication in her later work).

[14] James Davis Nicoll noted Tepper’s tendency towards eugenics in one of his reviews, and Wendy Gay Pearson wrote an excellent critical analysis in “After the (Homo)sexual: Queer Readings of Anti-Sexuality in Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country,” <em>Science Fiction Studies</em>. Vol. 23 Iss. 2 (1996).  The Abstract for Pearson’s work is here; I am not able to find a version online, though SFS used to have it available.

[15] A Short History of Scientific Racism


Villains and Conflicts

By Ron S. Friedman: How to use evolution, consciousness and behavior science to create a three-dimensional villain that can believably confront the hero. Eliminate the BS factor and the pitfalls of a simplistic moustache-twirling bad guy.


By the way, that’s not me.

This blog post is based on a 50-minute visual presentation I gave at Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo and When Words Collide festival for readers and writers in 2016.


Let’s plunge right into our first example:


This image shows a scene from The Walking Dead TV series. The two people above are the protagonist, Rick Grimes, and The Governor, his adversary during multiple seasons.

Both Rick and The Governor are natural leaders. Each of them leads a group of people who are trying to survive in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Both are motivated by the same goals—to ensure the survival of the people who are dependent on them. Both want to protect their families and friends. Both are willing to do horrible things, overcome moral dilemmas, make hard choices, fight and even kill to achieve these noble goals.

These two characters are almost identical. Not much difference, eh?

So, why Rick is the hero, and The Governor the villain?

There is one profound aspect that’s set them apart. The Governor, to increase the survival chance of his people, is willing to prey on the weak. He will ambush, rob and kill people outside his group to ensure a supply of ammunition, medicine and other valuables critical for survival. This is a step Rick will not endorse, at least not as his first choice.


Type of conflicts:

On my way to deliver the Villains and Conflict presentation at Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, my neighbor stopped me for a chat. I told her I was about to give a presentation on Conflicts.

“Wow! That’s my favorite topic,” she said, smiling.

“Conflicts?” I scratched the back of my head. “Really?”

“Yes, conflict resolution. Love it.”

“Oh no, no, no.” I waved my hands and laughed. “You got me wrong. I’m a writer. My speech has nothing to do with conflict resolution. On the contrary, I will talk on how to create conflicts. I want conflicts.”

Conflict are essential plot device. Conflicts are the main drive that moves your story forward. Without them, your story will be as dull and boring as a TPS report.

Granted, there’re many types of conflicts, traditionally covered in many creative writing classes. The major conflict types include: Character vs. character, character vs. self; character vs. society, society vs. society, character vs. nature, character vs. technology, character vs. supernatural and character vs. destiny.



We’ll focus primarily on character vs. character conflicts, which is, in my humble opinion, the most interesting type. And besides, isn’t that what villains are all about?


How not to write villains:

Let’s start with the bad example—the cliché.

Here are some essential steps you can undertake, assuming you want to create an awful villain and ensure your story is rejected by publishers and mocked by readers.

Step one: Make sure your villain dresses like a villain, talks like a villain, and look like a cliché villain. Your favorite color is black, and yes, a moustache is a crucial fashion statement.

Step two: Make certain your villain acts villainously with no obvious motivation. Do evil just for the sake of evilness. Also, you want your villain to be flat and with no history.

Step three: A bonus. Include a weak female character who is only there to be kidnapped by the villain and saved by the hero, and be grateful for that. And yes, a powerful screaming voice is a plus.

If this can’t ensure a rejection, I don’t know what does.

Proviso: A cliché villain may work in some rare cases, such as in a parody, as was seen in the latest do-gooder Dudley Do-Right movie.


A good character vs. character conflict:

My theory on how to create an appealing villain and a grabbing character vs. character conflict could be summarized in one sentence: Conflict occurs due to a disagreement over fictional realities.

To understand that, we’ll start from the beginning. And when I say beginning, I mean roll back the clock the appearance of life on planet Earth, and the evolution of the human brain.


Life’s most basic function:

What is life’s most basic function?

It doesn’t matter what kind of organism you are. You could be fungus, bacteria, plant, zebra in the savannah, a chimpanzee in the jungle or humans in the office. Whenever I ask this question during conventions, the answer I almost always get is:


Let me repeat that. Life’s most basic function is to survive. Whatever we do is directly or indirectly derived from our wish to increase our survival chances, or the survival of the people close to us or our species.

Sometimes someone may say that life’s most basic function is procreation. That may be true. But if you think about it, procreation is crucial for the survival of the species, hence, survival.

We eat to survive. We breath to survive. We go to the doctor to survive. We go to work to earn money, to buy food, shelter and healthcare to survive. We engage in office politics to survive in the office. We study to increase our chance to find better opportunities to earn more so we could … do better in this survival stuff.

Hold on to that thought.

We’ll go back to survival. I promise. But first I want to review the evolution of consciousness and the human brain. Then, I’ll tied that to our survival instinct to create the survival model—the perfect villain machine.


The evolution of consciousness:

  • Level one: React to light or heat -> One dimensional. Flowers have consciousness level 1. They open themselves to the sun, and follow it as it moves along the sky.
  • Level two: Space. Maneuver and interact in a 3D space. Most animals are at this level. Animals such as fish, insects and reptiles. Today’s most advanced autonomous robots and drones are at this level.
  • Level three: Social. Animals that can socially interact with other animals. Coordinate. Hierarchy. Birds and Mammals. Wolf, Chimpanzees and Dolphins are examples social animals of level 2 consciousness. Now, it is true that some insects, such as ants or bees do have social structure, but it’s not as flexible as a wolfpack or a human society which can lean new tricks and quickly adopt to new conditions. Ants can cooperate in large number, but their cooperation is derived from their genetics, and not from their intellect. To change their social behaviour, ant colonies will have to change genetically over many generations. Worker ants are incapable of deposing their queen and establishing a communist dictatorship or a democracy in its place.
  • Level four: Ability to simulate the future. Frontal cortex.

We, Homo Sapiens human, have this extra brain mass in the front of our head. A part called the frontal lobe, or the frontal cortex. We, humans, can simulate the future and act upon it. We can build pyramids designed to survive for thousands of years. We can plan our career and our retirement. We can plan projects, such as the space program, that may take decades to implement. And we can worry about climate change in the next century.

Now, it is true that it appears that some animals, such as squirrels who collect nuts for the winter, seems to think about the future. But like the ants, this behavior is derived from genetics and not from drawing intelligent conclusions.

Non-human mammals can only plan a few minutes into the future. Coordinate a hunt or other short-term endeavors. If you tell your cat that you lost your job, and you won’t be able to pay the mortgage next month, it won’t even register.

Yes, my dear readers. We, humans have great powers to predict the future. Jedi Powers.

Conclusion: To avoid the pitfalls of a flat villain, give him or her a level four consciousness. The ability to create a model of the world, calculate how it will evolve in order to achieve a goal.


More about creating a model of the world – The cognitive revolution

We are almost ready to dive into the survival model and create the perfect villains. All that is left is to discuss the cognitive revolution. The next evolutionary step that had allowed Homo Sapiens to become the dominant animal of planet Earth.

Before the cognitive revolution, early human could only cooperate in small bands of no more than a few dozen individuals. In that respect, we were no different than apes, wolves and other social animals. Cooperation was limited to personal connections. The leaders and the members of the band or the tribe knew each other on an intimate basis, and using those personal connections the groups was able to function, cooperate, plan and quickly adapt to changing conditions.

There was no common story, an ideology or a unified world view that would allow millions of strangers to cooperate to achieve a common goal. Each small band had its own goals.

About 120,000 years ago, we, Homo Sapiens, had tried to leave Africa. We were repealed by the Neanderthals.

Then, between 30,000 and 70,000 years ago, something changed. Suddenly, we were able to cooperate in large numbers, and in a relatively short timeframe we managed to take over the world.

What happened?


The ivory statue above is called the Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel. It was found in Germany, and it’s dated to 35,000 – 40,000 years ago.

Have you noticed something weird about it?

You are absolutely right. The statue has the body of a man and the head of a lion. The truth is that such an animal does NOT exist in nature. Trust me. There really is no animal in nature with a human body and a lion head.


A cave man 35,000-40,000 years ago created a statue of an animal that does not exist?

How is this possible?

Welcome to the cognitive revolution. Fictional story had just become a reality.

Scientists are not sure what happened. One theory suggests that a minor evolutionary change to the human brain had allowed better communication between the left and the right parts.

Regardless, we, Homo Sapiens, heroes and villains, now have the ability to create imaginary stories, and attract others to believe in them.

These fictional tales gave us a huge evolutionary advantage over other human spices and other animals. They allowed us to cooperate in large numbers toward a common goal, giving us the evolutionary advantage that other Human species didn’t have.

Examples to imagined realities that allow large-scale cooperation includes: Corporations, national borders, countries, money, religions, ideologies etc.

I have to say it once more. Now, millions of people who don’t know each other, are willing to work together and even follow a charismatic leader and wage war.

Splendid. Imagined reality had made Homo Sapiens inherited the Earth.

How is this knowledge be used to create reliable villains?


The Survival Model—the plot thickens

If you want to take only one thing from this essay, make it the survival model.

In the survival model we combine what we’d learned so far about Survival, Consciousness and the Cognitive Revolution.

  • All humans, including villains, want themselves or people close to them, to survive. They will act to increase their survival chances.
  • All humans, including villains, have intelligent consciousness that provides them the ability to create a model of the world, calculate how it will evolve and act in order to survive.
  • That model of the world can be fictional.

Here is a diagram of the survival model.


An event happens, (represented by the “What happened?” the circle on the left). That event is interpreted differently by different people, based on their culture, language, identity, sex and other factors. (represented by the “What I made it mean” the circle on the right).


Different people can see the exact same image and interpret it differently. The person with the pessimistic world view may say that the picture above is a glass half empty. Another person may say it’s half full. And a third person may say that the glass is fully filled, half with water and half with air.


O.J. Simpson’s trial and verdict is another example where different people with different perspectives interpreted the same event differently. Some people sympathized with the victim and the police, while others sympathized with the defendant.


The good villain and the bad villain.

The key for creating a good villain is to make him or her make choice like a human, based on the survival model. Don’t create a villain who acts villainously for no reason but to fulfill his antagonist role. Make the villain a real person with real human motives, real needs and real dilemma.

A good villain sees himself as a hero. A good villain only wants to survive and to protect his world. The only reason he is a villain is because he sees the world differently, and he make choices to survive based on his unique world view that results in a conflict with the protagonist.

I’m a big J. R. R. Tolkien fan. Tolkien invented the epic fantasy genre. I love Lord of the Rings.

Having said that, I, personally believe Saruman is a better villain than the main antagonist, Sauron.


I couldn’t understand Sauron’s motivation. Yes, he was evil. He was powerful and badass. He wanted to kill the Hobbits, destroy Minas Tirith and take over the world. But why?

I could relate much better to Saruman. I could understand him and his motives. Who knows, in his shoes, I may have acted in the same way as he did. The way he saw the world made him believe that Middle Earth had no chance of winning a war with Sauron. From his perspective, joining Sauron was the wise choice. The only logical choice to survive. As an act of friendship and kindness (in Saruman’s perspective) he even offered Gandalf to join him.

The conflict with Gandalf only occurred because Gandalf saw reality differently. Gandalf believed a war with Sauron is not a lost cause.

Wouldn’t you agree that Saruman is a much better villain than Sauron?


A few examples:


Erik Lehnsherr, known by his villain name Magneto, is the main antagonist in the X-men universe. As a child, he saw his family being exterminated in the Holocaust because the Nazis thought Jews were genetically inferior.

Magneto sees today’s world as the reflection of his childhood. In the modern world, he sees mutants being marked and targeted by genetic discrimination. He hears that some normal people view mutants as a threat, and they propose to act against mutants. Based on his Holocaust survivor viewpoints, he believes that all the non-mutants are a threat, and he will act to destroy this treat in order to ensure the survival of his fellow mutants.

Isn’t Magneto a much better villain than that flat alternative who just want to kill normal people for no apparent reason but evilness?


The Borg queen is the Federation’s most malevolent adversary in the Galaxy. The queen is not a traditional leader like in many human societies. She is the face, or the representative of the Borg Collective, which is structured in a similar principle of the internet, with no centralized control.

The Borg are not evil just for the sake of being evil. The Borg Collective see themselves as the most advanced form of civilization in the Galaxy. They believe that the best strategy to ensure the long-term survival of the Collective is by assimilating other species into the collective and adding their technological and biological distinctiveness to their own.

Again, the Borg Collective see the universe in a certain way, and act to increase its own survival chances.


When Evil Doesn’t make sense.


I really liked Guardian of the Galaxy. A vivid movie, great dynamics between the characters and just the right amount of humor.

Having said that, I don’t really understand the antagonist’s motivation. Yes, it was mentioned in the movie that Ronan the Accuser had an old hatred toward the Xandarians. But as a viewer, it didn’t sink. We didn’t see the ancient wars. Maybe the Xandarians had inflicted terror and horror upon the Kree. Maybe it only occurred in Ronan’s mind. Regardless, as a viewer I didn’t believe it.

It wasn’t natural for me to understand why Ronan took the suicidal risk and use the deadly Infinity Stone. Why did he defy Thanos, the most powerful entity in the galaxy? It goes against the survival model.

The movie itself was fun and entertaining. But wouldn’t it be even better had the motivation behind the villain’s actions been clearer and more humanlike?


The crazy ones.


In the initial DC Comics the Joker was crazy. A nut case. Batman and the readers could not explain why he acted the way he did. It looked like he did so just for the sake of being an interesting Batman’s antagonist. It’s not like being cracked had helped the Joker to achieve a goal that could increase his or his loved ones’ survival rate.

This deficiency had been noticed by the readers and the writers. In later Comics issues and in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight movie, the Jokers behavior was explained. The Joker saw himself as an agent of chaos. He truly believed that by spreading chaos, society would improve itself. (a.k.a. increased its long-term survival chance.) This motivation is similar to the Shadows’ motivation in the Babylon 5 series. Bringing the villain’s motivation back to an explanation that fits the survival (of society) model.

The new Joker is a much better villain. Wouldn’t you agree?


Real live villain vs. the unthinkable out of this world villain.


A recent survey tried to list and rank all the villains in the Harry Potter series. The top two villains turned out to be Voldemort and Dolores Umbridge.

Umbridge is a school teacher, a senior undersecretary which assumed the position of a school principal. She has a tendency to speak to people she feels are her lessers in a very condescending tone. And on occasions, she buses her authority to gain more control.

Voldemort is basically a Wizard Hitler. He is powerful. He is a racist who hates and despises anyone who is not a pure-blood wizard. He kills his opponents, he tried, and in one occasion succeeded, to kill Harry Potter. He even kills his close servants when it gives him an edge, no matter how minor. Remember Professor Snape?

Who do you think is the number one villain in the series? The school principal who abuses her authority, or the mass murdered Wizard Hitler?

You guested it right. Only 11% of the people who participated in the survey thought Voldemort is the main evil, while 56% of the survey participants gave that honor to Umbridge.

Why is that?

Clearly, Voldemort is much more dangerous and he causes significantly more pain and damage. However, he isn’t real. The series young adult readers had ever met a Wizard Hitler in their life. While a teacher who abuses her authority is definitely something Harry Potter’s readership can relate to.


More tricks for your arsenal:

The last tools I can provide that can help you create different world views, and better villains and conflicts are:

Free Will vs. Determinism. Causality – cause and effect

Philosophers and scientist are debating how the human mind works. On one hand we have free will, where we assume each person can decide her own action and fate. On the other, we have causality, cause and effect. The assumption that whenever we act, it’s only because something forced us to react.


These two philosophies are represented in the Matrix movie series, where the Oracle is the agent of free will, and the Merovingian (The Frenchman) represents causality.

Do we have the free will to act and change our fortune? Wars had been fought over this question. The most famous is Martin Luther’s reformation which eventually led to the schism between the Catholic Church and the Protestants and to the devastating Thirty Years War. What was the root cause for these millions of deaths? A disagreement whether a person can pay for forgiveness thus buy a spot in heaven.

Scientists don’t have an answer if we have free will or not. But our legal system is based on the assumption that we do. Without free will, no one can be accountable for anything.

Causality – cause and effect is an excellent way to generate disagreement among characters.

This philosophy exists for more than 2500 years, since ancient Greece. It’s embedded in our thought process since childhood.

What is the beauty of cause and effect in term of creating villains? People will NEVER agree what was the initial cause that started a cause and effect chain of events. Someone can always find a cause for the cause … I’m originally from Israel. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be summarized as a disagreement of what was the cause of the conflict, and whether the clock should be turned back to 1967 (The Six Day War), 1948, 1947, 1917, 1897, 800 AD, 960 BCE and some people even go as far back as 1800BCE. But frankly, it all started with a Big Bang nearly fourteen billion years ago.

Disagreement over a root cause is a way to create conflicts and better motivation behind villains.


I hope the survival model and the science behind the way the human mind words, can help you create real, multi-dimensional villains and more reliable conflicts.

Ron S. Friedman

Ron S. Friedman

RON S. FRIEDMAN is a Best Short Fiction finalist in the 2016 Aurora Awards, Canada’s premier Science-Fiction and Fantasy awards. Ron’s short stories have appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Daily Science Fiction, and in other magazines and anthologies. Ron co-edited two anthologies and he received ten Honorable Mentions in Writers of the Future Contest.

Ron is a member of SFWA and SFCanada.

In March 2017, Ron is releasing his Short Stories Series Escape Velocity, which will include many of his Honorable Mentions stories.

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