Women in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

The other day I came across this article, published earlier in April by The Guardian. It’s well worth a read. The central point is that for the first time women are rivaling men in science fiction and fantasy, both as writers and as fans. As Sarah Hughes puts it: “A generation of readers raised on Harry Potter has had a knock-on effect on demand for fantasy fiction, and left publishers scrambling to sign up women.”

“There’s been a real sea change in the last five or six years. Not only are more women buying into and reading fantasy but we’re also seeing more female fantasy authors get recognition,” said Julie Crisp, editorial director at Tor UK, Pan Macmillan’s science fiction, fantasy and horror imprint.

I have been reading sci-fi and fantasy books for as long as I can remember –  over 20 years, and it is refreshing to see that the publishing industry is no longer afraid to publish a book in a traditionally ‘male’ genre. I wonder how many manuscripts were passed over in the last 50 years because of the belief that men wouldn’t read a sci-fi or fantasy book written by a female author. JK Rowling published the Harry Potter series using the initials ‘JK’, rather than her actual name of Joanne Rowling (no middle name) because her publisher thought that her audience would be largely male and would be put off if they knew she was a woman. (Source: interview with Oprah Winfrey). The irony is that the Harry Potter series has an almost universal appeal, and just as many (if not more) female fans, with JK Rowling herself being a vocal advocate for equal opportunities of all kinds.

And it’s not just female writers that we’re seeing more of. More and more books are featuring female characters as the lead. Again, this is all for the good – but this is where I have something to add to the Guardian article. I think that we need more than just more female authors and more female protagonists. What we need are books that have whole supporting casts that feature woman just as often as they feature men.

the-black-magician-trilogyTake, for example, the Black Magician Series by Trudi Canavan. Now, I absolutely love these books. I think they’re brilliantly written, exciting, and they were one of the first fantasy novels I ever came across to openly discuss homosexuality in a positive way – AND the lead character is female. That said, Sonea is the only well-rounded and complete female character in the book. The supporting cast is almost entirely made up of men – and the few women who do make it into it are shells of characters, or stereotypes. It doesn’t negate the value of the book – Sonea’s story is powerful precisely because the world is against her, and that includes being an isolated woman in a male-dominated world. I’ve not read any interviews with Canavan, and don’t know if she made a conscious choice to set it up that way or if it was an unconscious development.

If I look through the books I’ve read in the last year or so, I can see the same pattern repeating itself: the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J Maas; The Emperor’s Edge series by Lindsay Buroker; the True Blood series by Charlaine Harris (the books, rather than the TV series), the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, all feature strong female lead characters, written by female authors but surrounded by a largely male supporting cast. Where there are other female characters they far too often end up as stereotypes or caricatures without a developed sense of personality.

This is by no means an exhaustive analysis – do any of you know of books that contradict this? I’d love to read them.

My point, more than anything, is that we can’t just stop at having more female writers and more female heroes – we need to have a variety of characters who are well-developed, and not automatically assumed to be male. This goes for any men writing sci-fi and fantasy too – don’t stick to writing men because that’s what you’re comfortable with. Women shouldn’t be a token presence in these books – they should be as present, varied, and diverse as they are in real life.

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“Chewie, we’re home” – my New Hope for Star Wars

I’m a HUGE Star Wars fan, and have been since before I can remember. I grew up watching the films, and then reading the Expanded Universe books, and listening to the soundtracks on a loop whilst reading or doing homework… And then I lived through the disappointment that is The Prequels. So, as you can imagine, I was very wary when I heard that Disney were going to make Star Wars VII… I instantly resigned myself to further disappointment and I had all my arguments about puppets and stop-motion vs CGI all lined up.

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Some things you never grow out of… this was taken just a few weeks ago after I ran into Darth Vader on Brighton sea front. I had to wait for him to finish defeating – uh, I mean posting with – some children first.

… and then I heard that JJ Abrams was on board, and suddenly there was hope, where once all was dark. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still wary… Star Wars is so close to my heart, and such a strong part of my teenaged identity that I’m genuinely afraid that they’ll crap all over it like they did with the prequels (and by ‘they’, I mean George ‘contradict myself and then make up stuff to sound more science-y’ Lucas).

The first teaser trailer made me quite excited, but I still reserved my judgement and didn’t dare give voice to that little spark of hope that was rising inside me. But then I saw the glory that was Teaser Number 2 and I will now admit out loud that yes, I do think that this could be a good film.

In case you haven’t seen it (and as an excuse for me to watch it again)… here it is:

There are so many things about this that make me excited every time I watch it (and there have been a lot of viewings!). To really appreciate the genius that went into making this, it’s necessary to unpack this 2 minutes of joy.

1. That first, evocative strains of subtle music that appear with the Lucasarts logo, and then turn into the iconic Binary Sunset theme. Instantly recognizable to any Star Wars fan, and also an emotive piece of music that sets the scene for the uninitiated.

2. The speeder racing across a planet that is so obviously Tattooine. A graceful nod towards A New Hope.

3. The appearance of the skeleton reaching out in death, echoing the moment that Luke returns to the homestead and finds Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru murdered by the Empire. Again, emotive on it’s own as well as for the emotions of the original.

4. Just as we start to get that warm glow of nostalgia for the old film… there emerges a crash-landed Star Destroyer – a shape which has become ingrained in popular culture to the point that even non-fans will recognize it but shown in a way that we’ve never experienced before.

5. Vader’s burned helmet. I’m not such fanatic that I won’t allow a bit of artistic license as this is such a powerful visual (we all saw the size of the funeral pyre, right? There was no way anything survived).

6. Mark Hamill’s voice as Luke Skywalker, directly quoting Return of the Jedi. “The force is strong in my family. My father has it, I have it…. my sister has it.” Not only is it giving a very succinct back story in a few words, it is also another nod toward our Star Wars roots… and then they add an extra line that looks to the new content in a suggestive way: “You have that power too”. Who is this ‘you’? (We’re all thinking ‘me, me, it’s me!’, right?)

7. R2-D2. Need I say more?

8. The mechanical right hand of the cloaked figure – IT’S LUKE!!!! At this point I should point out that I have been deliberately avoiding reading lists of casts, and returning actors or spoilers of the plot because I want to enjoy it with a fresh approach – just as I enjoyed the original films the first time I watched them.

9. IS THAT LEIA?? PLEASE TELL ME LEIA GETS TO HAVE A LIGHTSABER!!

10. Lots of exciting footage that hints at the new storylines and characters, and yet throughout it run so many visual cues that bring us back to the original trilogy.

11. A strong female character. Yes! One of the many things I loved about the original trilogy was Leia – a sci-fi film with a strong, independent woman who was able to give the men a run for her money. I couldn’t have put it into words when I was first fell in love with Star Wars, but that was a huge win for me.

12. A lead male character who breaks with the hollywood norms of the buff white hero – and who in a few short seconds manages to give a sense of having more depth of character than Anakin Skywalker demonstrated in three entire films!

13. Finally… “Chewie, we’re home.”

Abrams has a track record that says he can walk that line between pleasing the hardcore fans and making a blockbuster that will refresh and welcome a new generation of fans. And that is what I think think this trailer does – it walks that line very delicately and with a very sensitive mix of the old and new. Instead of shitting all over everything that has come before (are you listening, George?), Abrams and his huge team have put together something that makes us all feel included – old fans and new fans alike.

For the die-hards like me, that final line of “Chewie, we’re home.” resonates powerfully – and that must go triple for people who have been with the fandom for the nearly 40 years since the first film was released in 1977. This is not only because it’s Han and Chewie back together, but also because, after three prequels that were varying degrees of abysmal and a cartoon series that offered me nothing I was interested in, I finally feel that as a fan I, too, am home.

Seraphina and Shadow Scale

I got very excited a few weeks ago when I logged in to Amazon at work and saw that Shadow Scale, the sequel to Rachel Hartman’s 2012 novel Seraphina had finally been published. I had read Seraphina a few years ago while on holiday, so decided to re-read it before I got stuck in to Shadow Scale, which I had really been looking forward to.

 

Seraphina is the story of a young woman, a talented musician, who lives in Goredd, a fictional world where humans and dragons have reached an uneasy peace. Seraphina harbours a dark secret, however, one which threatens her life if the truth were to come out. When the murder of a member of the royal family shows all the evidence of being carried out by dragons the fragile peace is suddenly at at risk and Seraphina find herself drawn into the investigation.

Shadow Scale follows on from from Seraphina and completes the story. I won’t say more about the plot, as it would give away the first book, let alone spoiling the second.

I thoroughly enjoyed both books, and read through them in no time at all, despite having little spare time at the moment (hooray for today’s bank holiday!). Seraphina, the first book, is especially good and it stood up to a second reading very well – the characters are likeable (or where appropriate loathable) and it is easy to identify with the protagonist.

Hartman has a lovely writing style and paints a rich portrait of an alternative world. One of the things that I like most about it is that Hartman doesn’t get drawn into unnecessary explanations of the minutiae of the politics, religion and social structure of the world like so many fantasy authors. The second book delves into the mythology of the world a bit more, but still manages to refrain from long-winded descriptions of socio-economic systems.

I did find myself having to remind myself from time to time that these are books written for young adults: I would have liked a bit more depth and a bit less naïvité in the characters’ relationships and developments. Particularly in the second book three was a definite sense of key characters making huge leaps forward in their thinking, without any real explanation or reason for it.

Shadow Scale completes the story nicely, but it isn’t as strong as Seraphina. There was a slight sense of it being rushed through and not given the attention that the frost book had. Given the time between the novels it’s entirely possible that Hartman was up against a deadline and wasn’t able to refine it as much as she might have liked. That said, the storylines that were started in Seraphina are tied off nicely in Shadow Scale and there are some nice twists that have clearly been planned from the start.

An all around enjoyable book, perfect for some pure escapism. It was exactly what I needed whilst in the middle of a frantically busy period at work, when I needed something to help me switch off.

Seraphina: 8/10, Shadow Scale: 7/10