Andrea’s Rule

Andrea is my feminist conscience. She is also a friend. For the past decade or so, I have been tossing my story ideas at her to see what sticks, much as an undergraduate might toss spaghetti at the wall to see if it has been properly cooked[1].  This has proven useful over the years, because a lot of my ideas come out half-baked.  I think it’s even more important now that I’m actively doing battle with the Men are Generic, Women are Special trope in my stories.Asimov's Oct/Nov 2014

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has composed a brilliant little piece in the October Asimov’s about a woman struggling to live in the stuffy world of country club golf. I would love to be able to write that piece[2]. Sadly, I am handicapped not only by my inferior writing ability, but also by the annoying interference of a Y chromosome in my genome. I can’t really know how she feels, because I’ve never lived it. Then again, I’ve never been a three-armed alien from the planet Zzax[3], either.

The key, of course, to writing about things you’ve never experienced is research. To research women for my fiction, I read biographies and relevant SF novels and talk with my wife.  And when that turns into a possible story idea, I consult with Andrea.

One tip Andrea gave me has recently become the mantra for my recent stories.  I hereby christen Andrea’s Rule:  When you create a character, ask why it has to be male. Lacking a strong reason, make her female.  This one small act has taken a scimitar to my character design, shifted my plots, and overall made my stories less drab and boring.Andrea's Rule

One side effect of this action has been to make me notice when other writers make the decision to let more characters be women. In Robert R Chase’s contribution to the same Asimov’s, his commanding officer Lieutenant Jansons is a woman.  It’s a valid decision, but I was surprised when (two pages in) she was first tied to a pronoun, and it was feminine.  And perhaps, that’s the point.

As long as people like me are surprised by a generic woman, we need Andrea’s Rule.

[1] My wife would perhaps be a better choice, but she doesn’t really enjoy SF.  She does like spaghetti, but to date I haven’t thrown any of that at her, either.
[2] Not literally. That would be plagiarism, and I don’t do that.
[3] I have no stories pending about this alien.  If you want to write about her, please do.

Reputation

My new Mars story isn’t done yet, so I’m not ready to write about how I did it. While you wait, here’s a brand-new anecdote from the Mostly True collection.wbhs2

Every class has one student known by his negative reputation instead of his name, and some have more than one. Unable to excel at education, he strives to be known for rebellion instead. He may become the class clown, taking foolish risks to gain attention. Other times, he lashes out in violence.

As a high-school freshman (9th grade), my crowded course schedule placed me in gym with a class of 8th-grade students. This wouldn’t happen in most school districts, because most districts don’t teach 8th-grade classes at their high school. Ours was different. Eighth-grade students were using the gym in my only available calendar slot, so I was assigned to their class.a bubbler, or water fountain if you don't come from Massachusetts.

This left me in the unexpected role of “big kid.” I have never been athletic, and to this day I cannot truly comprehend the idea of being a threat to anyone in gym. Still, I was the outsider, older than everyone else, a clear target for the Worf Effect. And I drew the attention of the class tough guy.

We were in the locker room after class, he and I, jostling for position at the bubbler (water fountain). I was not a selfless child, and probably did something to provoke his ire, but the response I got was entirely unexpected: without a word, he punched me in the head. And I–

Did nothing.

Okay, to be honest, that’s not entirely accurate. If you’ve ever taken a haymaker to the left temple, you know it hurts. And while he didn’t knock me down, he did surprise me. And I just stood there, looking at him, while tears of pain filled my eyes. After a few seconds, he took his drink at the bubbler, and life went on.

Looking back, I wonder why this day lingers in my mind when nothing ever came of it. I didn’t hit him back. I didn’t meet him after school to settle things at a time and place when school discipline wouldn’t be invoked. I didn’t even change my standing in gym class, because I’m not a jock, and never will be. But despite all this, the memory of that day still haunts me.

Maybe it haunts me because I’ll never know what would have happened. I tell myself I did the right thing, that he led a tough life, and had probably been beaten on by tougher people than I. I tell myself that I was the “big kid” at that bubbler, and social standing being what it is, I had nothing to gain by a fight, while he had nothing to lose.  But I also know it hurt, and I tell myself I could have punched him back, and won.

Science is beginning to prove that it’s not the larger-than-life personalities who make the best leaders. For men, however, social ranking is still achieved by a Rambo-sized physique or a Napoleon-sized ego.  Ninth-grade boys desperately need to feel like a man, and society tells our boys that violence is a quick way to get there. But I did nothing. The adult in me knows I did the right thing.

The 9th-grade boy in me still doesn’t know.

The Hard Work of Sex Equality in Fiction, Part I

It began, as all good stories do, with a conflict between a want and a need.  My want? To write a story, and get it published. My need? Write what you know. The conflict between these two emotional states is explained by my character backstory.

True confession: I am a white, male, CIS, hetero, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  I was raised in the suburbs by two parents who have remained married for more than sixty years. I went to college, got a job, got married, and fathered a couple of kids, in that order. My culture, if I even have one, is the standard against which minority cultures in the US are compared.  My life is one big cliché.

I discovered this when I started researching story tropes in an effort to avoid clichéd writing. Publishers claim to want unusual stories with characters that grow, so it’s really important to me that I avoid the typical two-fisted male action hero of pulp fiction.  I thought this wouldn’t be too hard, because that’s not me. I’m more verbal and more cerebral than that, so I started with characters I could at understand, expecting to write something different.  After all, men who discuss their emotions and admit their insecurities certainly don’t fit the stereotype.Olympus Mons as seen from space.

Enter “The Clouds of Mount Olympus”.  Inspired by Hemingway, Clouds is at its heart a love story between two senior citizens, set on Mars. The protagonist, Connor, has suffered an accident, and while his wife Lexi rushes to rescue him, Connor struggles with self acceptance because he feels she is too good for him. I believe in this story, but it hasn’t sold. In fact, I’ve acquired as many rejection letters for Clouds as I have for any other story I’ve written.

The problem seems to be my passive protagonist. Perhaps if I could have inverted the point-of-view on this tale, readers would have connected better, because it is Lexi who is active. Still, it is Connor who is changed by this story, and I really believe the story is his. I tell myself that while Eudora Welty can succeed with a passive protagonist, I haven’t got the literary chops.  Still, I wonder if I’m not running into the flipside of Men Act, Women Are, the ultimate sexist cliché. People may tolerate and even accept a woman who needs to be rescued, but if it’s a man, they can’t respect him.

Accepting this, I decided to reach further outside my comfort zone in search of a cliché to overturn, and settled on writing a female protagonist. While hard for me to implement, the decision itself is an easy one:  I have two brilliant daughters who enjoy SF, and I want them to like my stories. They deserve female characters with lines more sophisticated than “Yes, Doctor” and “Hailing frequencies are open.” I have read any number of stories by female SF authors with realistic male characters.  I ought to be able to cross that line in the other direction.

At least, that’s what I tell myself — but so far, I haven’t succeeded. My laptop is littered with unfinished short stories — and one novel — starring women or minorities, and even one woman of color.   I have hope for a few of these tales, but most I have set aside. I can’t finish them at present because I simply don’t know the subject well enough yet. Still, I think I see a light at the end of the tunnel, and in part II of this saga, I’ll elaborate.

Photo Credit: NASA/MOLA Science Team/ O. de Goursac, Adrian Lark.

 

Ancillary Justice

From time to time, I encounter a work of fiction that really makes me think. One such book is Ann Leckie’s debut novel, Ancillary Justice. Having encountered it in Asimov’s “On Books” column this month, I decided to buy a copy for my eReader, and I’m glad I did.

Leckie’s protagonist, Breq, is all that remains of a military ship’s AI, Justice of Toren. As Justice, Breq simultaneously inhabited a massive number of ancillary bodies, but is now limited to one of the solders from the unit One Esk she used to control. Breq has embarked on a mission to kill Anaander Mianaai, an enemy who likewise lives in thousands of bodies herself. It is an epic battle spanning multiple worlds and distinctive cultures.

These days, when I read fiction, I find myself doing so with my metaphorical red pencil in hand. I could blame my experience critiquing people’s work with Critters, but the reality is probably more mundane: I am teaching myself to edit my own work, and it has heightened my awareness of everything I read. As a result, I found myself considering a number of things Leckie does especially well with this novel and whether I could equal any of them in my own work.

Most superficially, I appreciate the way Leckie describes the interstellar empire in which her story is set. The Radchaai are polytheistic syncretists[1], and Leckie realistically integrates integrates their religious practices into the fabric of her story. As a strict monotheist, I don’t know if I could possibly attempt to portray this perspective. I don’t even know if I would have imagined something as elegant as Leckie’s use of gloves to portray Radch cultural ideals.

A second characteristic of her work, and the one which challenged me most while reading, is the fact that the Radchaai make no distinctions between male and female in their language. As a result, Breq uses a single set of pronouns — generally translated into the feminine third-person pronouns in English — to describe other characters of both genders[2]. It parallels the way I myself use masculine pronouns as the generic neuter, and while it’s not the way I usually think, it works here. Compared to other pieces I’ve read that use  alternative gender-neutral pronouns, this technique flows much better for me.

Third, and perhaps most noteworthy in Ancillary Justice, is Leckie’s deft handling of the multiple simultaneous perspectives of her protagonist’s ancillary bodies. While writing in first person point-of-view, Leckie takes advantage of her character to achieve an almost omnicient perspective on her plot. In any other story, this would break my suspension of disbelief, but here, it actually serves to to emphasize what is essentially an alien AI perspective.

Taken as a whole, Ancillary Justice is a solidly-written and creative novel, strong enough that Justin Landin of tor.com thinks it should win the Hugo for Best Novel. I don’t get a vote, and to be honest I haven’t read enough new novels this year to make a fair judgement, but this much I can say:  Ancillary Justice is a worthwhile read.

[1] In the extras, Leckie indicates that her Radchaai culture borrows heavily from Roman polytheism, but her description of their gods and the heavy use of doubled ‘a’ in character names makes it feel somewhat Hindu to me. Regardless, it is a consistently-portrayed culture, and it works.
[2] In my description above, I used these same pronouns to describe Breq and Anaander, though neither one has a single definitive gender. This was the author’s choice, and I think it deserves that respect.

 

Surviving Childhood

For the past few weeks, NPR has been airing a series of programs on Men in America. Since I think I have some applicable experience on this topic, I thought I’d tell you a story. And since I think the way to understand men is to understand male childhood development, I’ll tell you a story from my childhood.

Somewhere in the archives of the West Bridgewater Historical Society there is a high school valedictory address with my name on it. Looking back, I’m proud of that accomplishment, but I’m also somewhat surprised, because I was a major discipline case for the first eight years of my grade-school education. Faced with boring material in class, I constantly challenged my teachers. I wanted to know more at a faster pace than the system was ready to teach me, and when I didn’t get it, my frustration showed up in a need to move, to do something, to do anything but sit still.Spring Street School

The best teachers in our school system found creative ways to challenge me.  Whether it was delivering the attendance to the office every morning or asking me to solve problems the rest of the class didn’t have to consider, they kept me engaged, which in turn kept me out of the way.

The less successful teachers tried to block me directly from disrupting things, with limited success.  In second grade, a teacher seatbelted me to my chair with a scarf to keep me from running around, so I carried the chair with me just to oppose her. In third grade, my math teacher punished my disruptions with detention, so I made it my personal goal to identify and announce every mistake she made for the rest of the year.  In middle school I once gave an improvisational presentation in health class based on things I heard others present in class that day because I hadn’t bothered to write my own report the night before–a report in which I explicitly told people not to do the very things I was doing.

At the same time, I was a social disaster. My parents insisted that the growing trend for denim jeans in school was unacceptable, so I had to wear my (husky) corduroys instead.  But we were living on a teacher’s salary, so I had to find a way to make three pairs (all I owned) last through five days of school (between laundry days) without anyone finding out I was re-wearing my dirty clothes.  Since t-shirts were likewise deemed unacceptable by my parents, I paired those limited trouser choices with the only shirts I could wear to school–polo shirts, generally adorned with horizontal stripes that made me look even less attractive. Paired with my 1950’s-era haircut, my wardrobe guaranteed that I would fit in like a biker at the ballet–but faced with a list of “don’t” options, it was the only solution I could see.

Many boys use sports or other physical activity to feel part of a group. Being entirely incompetent at gross motor activities, I could not use this option. This was, however, a fact that my parents didn’t know about at the time. Indeed, I used false claims about intramural sports activity to cover up my excessive detention record through fifth grade. I’m not proud of this, but it’s true.

High School graduation, 1984.

It wasn’t until early in ninth grade that one of the “cool kids” in school talked with me about my appearance. Instead of telling me what I couldn’t do, he had some ideas about what I could do. With his guidance, I was able to swap out my polo shirts for regular dress shirts–an upgrade for my parents and my peers.  With the addition of a fuller haircut, I was able to shed my Steve Urkel image for one that was, if not debonair, at least marginally acceptable.

At the same time, I suddenly found myself able to select the high school classes I was going to attend. I wasn’t always the most successful, but by the time I graduated I had become an expert on maximizing my grade in each class while simultaneously minimizing the amount of work I had to do outside of class. It was an exercise in optimization that kept me occupied, and my delinquency rate dropped. This ability to optimize my education served me very well in college, and I still fall back on it today from time to time.

The takeaway from this story is that for me, I don’t need to hear what I can’t or shouldn’t do. What I need to know is the complete rules for this game we call living, negative and positive. Give me a puzzle with an actual solution, and some hope of finding it, and I’ll pursue it.

Modern society often leaves men with a set of conflicting requirements.  Express your emotions, except for the emotions other people don’t like. Take responsibility for everything, except where some other group wants that responsibility to move ahead.  Work hard and provide for others, and just accept the criticism when your job leaves you unavailable to do something else.  While women may be told “you can do it all”, men are often told the opposite.  I think this can change, and I think it has to change if we’re going to see the societal improvements from men that so many are asking for.

The Christmas Dress

A long time ago, when my eldest daughter was even tinier than she is today, my wife bought her a special Christmas dress.christmas-dress It was red, and decorated with a series of Christmas-themed buttons — a gift wrapped package, a Christmas tree, and so forth — each different from the next. She loved that dress.

One day, a button came loose from the dress, and my daughter was devastated. It was the kind of innocent pain that only a small child can express, the kind where no life experience can be used for comparison. She wept and wailed, and my wife sought to console her.

“Don’t worry,” my wife said, “the button is okay.  Mommy can sew it back on.”

My daughter’s tears stopped, and she looked at her mother, perplexed. “No you can’t,” she said.  “That’s daddy’s job.”

Periodically, I tell this story, and we all laugh, because it violates our preconceived idea of manhood. But it shouldn’t be funny.

Women still face a lot of discrimination in this world, and we need to correct that. If we want to succeed, though, we’re going to need a world where not only can a woman be accepted as she is, but where a man can, too.