Companion Piece

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Companion-Piece-cover-web-200x300 I may have squee’d when the request to write for Companion Piece, the latest in the Chicks… range, arrived. Could I possibly write an essay on Barbara Wright?

Could I? I snapped it up, then squee’d even more when one of the editors, Liz Myles, asked if I could actually cover Barbara and Ian Chesterton. Only my favourite ever companions, the ones I love more and more each year. The ones I admire for all kinds of reasons.

The essay I turned in may be one of the most personal I’ve written. It’s about being a fan who came to the show in the pre-video era. It’s about how fans experienced Hartnell before you could download Marco Polo off iTunes. And it’s about how the fan narratives developed between 1989 and 2005 have broken down the walls of canon/non-canon.

Companion Piece: Women Celebrate the Humans, Aliens and Tin Dogs of Doctor Who is edited by LM Myles and Liz Barr, and published by Mad Norwegian Press on 7 April.

You can read the full table of contents over on the publisher’s site.

You can also pre-order through the usual channels: print amazon | kindle | kobo.

Feel free to go off and order it now, as I’m about to get all political, in a post first drafted in late 2013 and therefore not mentioning a hate campaign targeting geek women that blew up in 2014…

ian and babs

My essay in Companion Piece is also about being a female fan when we were invisible. When a male fan could denigrate me in a convention bar as “not a real fan” because I didn’t care precisely how many episodes were in a Pertwee story. When I could literally name every fem fan in UK fandom (and most of the Australian ones). When I buried my romantic textual reading of Who because it made me too fem for fandom.

I’d love to say all that has changed. But there is still a culture in fandom that would prefer female fans to either not be fans, or not be fem in their fannishness. This manifested in 2013 with an element of fandom saying “good riddance to fangirls” when a subset of female fans said they’d stop watching as Capaldi was not a hot young man. As I pointed out at the time, if fem fans treated the response of a minority of male fandom as representative of all male fans, they’d rightly complain of stereotyping. Yet using “fangirl” as a derogatory term is still seen by some male fans as acceptable.

There’s a more subtle form of gender bias at work too. Paul Cornell has experienced this when he began his campaign for panel parity. There is a pretence that women as capable of discussing comics/books/films as men don’t exist. That if only there were more women to chose from then of course editors and con programmers would pick women. And you still get articles that think Jenny Colgan is the first woman to write a Who novel, over 20 years after Kate Orman became the first original novelist to be female.

There’s a risk that fem fans self-ghetto-ise. We did it in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I still laugh at my wikipedia entry and its claim about the Who fangrrl movement. Which was me, a Tav’zine and a yahoo group. There remains an understandable urge to create a space where we feel comfortable to respond to Who with our whole self, including the more fem elements we used to hide. A virtual room of one’s own where fanfic and going “Paul McGann! It’s Paul McGann! Squee!” to Night of the Doctor doesn’t attract sneers.

But that room of our own risks creating an echo chamber. It’s the problem of “women in [x]” panels at conventions, where the presumption is our gender alone is a worthwhile topic. This risk, that we end up being sidelined, would mean we fail to challenge the old patriarchal fandom culture. Our room of our own would keep up hidden, invisible and safely out of the way of “real” fandom. We mustn’t end up in a room with no doors. This was one of my concerns when first asked to write for the Chicks… series of books.

Like many fandoms that unite people who felt “other”, our fan culture has degrees of otherness. Go to some comic conventions and you see the same: women, cosplay or – the horror – cosplaying women are not as “real” as Grayson Perry’s (white, straight, middle class) default man. It’s this cultural problem that leads a convention like the World Fantasy Con 2013 to treat victims of sexual harassment as the problem, rather than the harassers.

I’m not prepared to accept those fan cultures. Comics conventions like Thought Bubble are inclusive. They don’t reinforce the old hierarchies. They understand that fan cultures can evolve to embrace all the fans, not just those in traditional positions of authority. And it’s important that those of us who want to have those more inclusive fan cultures support it.

In the end, I decided the Chicks… range is not a room with no doors. We don’t get endlessly poured over by fans on Gallifrey Base like some non-fiction books but no – no – non-fiction editor or con programme organiser can ever claim there are no women experts any more. There’s three books with dozens of fem fans writing about Who to chose from. We’re here, and we’re not going to be invisible.

When people began to complain there were disproportionately few female subject matter experts on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme, the initial defence was that there weren’t any female experts willing to appear. In response, The Women’s Room, a database of female subject matter experts was set up. In the last two years, as a listener, I’ve noticed a shift towards proportionality. Over breakfast I’m now as likely to be muttering “nonsense” about a woman as a man. The Today programme is, in effect, moving towards current affairs panel parity.

Consider the Chicks… books to be the Who version.

Hello.

We are fangrrl: hear us roar.

babs and ian and dr

Since I first wrote that in late 2013, things have improved. Women fans are more visible, and not confined to talking about traditionally fem interests like the emotional intelligence (or otherwise) of the Doctor. But we mustn’t stop creating rooms where everyone is welcome, irrespective of gender, colour, age or sexuality.

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Chicks Dig… Gaming

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

I’ve a new essay due out.

Professor Layton and the Passive Princess will appear in Chicks Dig Gaming on 11 November 2014.

Chicks-Dig-Gaming-cover-MNP2-192x300

In Chicks Dig Gaming, editors Jennifer Brozek (Apocalypse Ink Productions), Robert Smith? (Who is the Doctor?) and Lars Pearson (editor-in-chief, the Hugo Award-winning Chicks Dig series) bring together essays by nearly three dozen female writers to celebrate the gaming medium and its creators, and to examine the characters and series that they love.

Catherynne M. Valente (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, Indistinguishable from Magic) examines Super Mario Bros. through the lens of Samsara, the Wheel of Birth and Rebirth; Seanan McGuire (the October Daye series) details how gaming taught her math; G. Willow Wilson (Alif the Unseen) comes to terms with World of Warcraft; and Rosemary Jones (Forgotten Realms) celebrates world traveler Nellie Bly and the board game she inspired. Other contributors include Emily Care Boss (Gaming as Women), Jen J. Dixon (The Walking Eye), Racheline Maltese (The Book of Harry Potter Trifles), Mary Anne Mohanraj (Bodies in Motion), L.M. Myles (Chicks Unravel Time), Jody Lynn Nye (the MythAdventures series), and E. Lily Yu (“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees”).

Also featured: exclusive interviews with Paizo CEO Lisa Stevens and Dragonlance writer Margaret Weis.

What I like about this collection is that it has women of all ages talking about every kind of gaming. So there’s triple-A computer games, LARPing and chess. Gaming covers every kind of game, and gamers come in every gender, age and race.

The OED defines games as “A form of competitive activity or sport played according to rules”. [1]

There is no right or wrong way to be a gamer. Unless you follow that weird auction rule in Monopoly (yes, it’s in the rules but seriously, who does that?).

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The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill

Sunday, 22 June 2014

One of the things about crime fiction is there is always a new detective series to get caught up with. When I was younger, I worked my way through golden era detectives (courtesy of the now refurbished Exeter Central Library). My most recent series was Rebus, but I’m all caught up there. So I’ve been casting about for a new detective to follow*.

My latest investigation was into Susan Hills Simon Serrailler series, with The Betrayal of Trust.
the-betrayal-of-trust-pb2

Serrailler is in classic “middle class, middle aged” detective model. He has a complex family: in this case a widowed sister with three children, and an emotionally frozen father. He’s rebelled by going into detective work: the. Rest of the family are medical doctors. He has to deal with chippy colleagues. He has an artistic hobby: he paints.

This “posh DI” model is a procedural offshoot of the golden era’s “gentleman detective”. It essentially wonders what would happen if Wimsey or Campion had joined the police. There is something classist about it: the posh DI is always going against the family wishes, and is mildly distrusted by their colleagues.

None of that makes them bad – in this case, it was a really enjoyable read – but they never become series I become addicted to.

I enjoyed this for its interweaving of social justice and welfare with a cold case, but I mostly wanted to follow Cat Dearbon – the widowed sister – rather than Simon. I felt the constraints of the “posh DI procedural” genre kept pulling me away from a potentially more interesting story.

*I am obviously excluding Endeavour, as a) it’s a TV. Series and b) he’s not technically a new detective – just a younger version.

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Lady Oracle, by Margaret Atwood

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

There is a strong sense of déjà vu with Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood.

image

I realised, a chapter in, that I had in fact read it before. So I’ve no idea why it was on the ‘to be read’ shelves. But the sense of echo was increased as I read on: this is a early version of The Blind Assassin, with a Canadian woman writing in secret, books within books and blurring identities.

Joan, the highly unreliable narrator, seeks constantly to escape her lives. At first through mentally escaping, then physically (through both transformation and literally running away). The problems really come when all her lives, both internal and external, start to collide: she can’t be a famous literary feminist poet and a writer of historical romances. She can’t be a loveable but dim wife and a revolutionary. And she running out of ways to flee…

I’m still not sure where I stand with this book. Is the final chapter one by a woman accepting her responsibilities, or already looking for another identity? Are we meant to empathise with Joan, or not? Towards the end, Joan says she might take up writing science fiction which, if you are aware of Atwood’s oscillating embrace of the genre, makes you laugh quite a lot.

I do think Joan is a great fictional fantasist. Some of the teenage sections are heart-breaking, but her subsequent choices make her either utterly selfish or utterly self-delusional. Is Atwood attempting to defend the historical romance genre, or saying it’s ultimately unfulfilling as an escape?

I may not have decided what I think of this still, but at least I’ll shelve it on the read shelves this time.

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Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett

Sunday, 23 March 2014

I’m not going to review Raising Steam in any great depth. If you like Pratchett and Discworld then it’s another one. If you don’t then, well, I’m not going to change your mind.

Instead, I’m going to talk about how one of the themes accidentally aligned with how I read the book. For yes, dear reader, I’m an eBook reader.

image

One of the themes of the book is learning to accept technological progress, and the pace of it. I have been won over by ebooks. In part because it means I can pack some reading and music and writing tools in my overnight bag simply by chucking my iPad in it. I still prefer a paper book, in part because I wear reading glasses now, and it feels far less fuddy-duddy to put them on to read off a page. Vanity…

It seemed appropriate to cover this with a Pratchett book because his books are the ones that have taken me through all the major changes in publishing since the early 1980s.

In the mid-80s I took a punt on a Corgi paperback of The Colour of Magic. The Exmouth WHSmiths had put a end display of comedy SFF on, with Pratchett next to Douglas Adams, Harry Harrison and Robert Rankin. The Colour of Magic had a quote from Adams on the cover. In the pre-internet days, a quote like that was a beacon. It was a mass-market paperback, and I stuck with that format, waiting patiently for a year after the hardback release.

In the 90s, trade paperbacks started to be more common in bookshops rather than just being advance copies of the hardback used in the review trade. I switched to trades for contemporary, translated and classic fiction but stuck to mass market for crime and SF.

Pratchett was the first living SF author I bought trade paperbacks of. (The SF classic series’ reprints of Philip K Dick being the first SFF trades I bought). Suddenly, my bookshelf had a run of mass markets followed by a run of trades in the same series*.

So it’s inevitable that Pratchett is the first author where I happily switch to the ebook format whilst reading a series. In some way, I think it’s a legacy of that early connection in my mind between Adams and Pratchett. It ought to have been a new Adams novel. I’d been hoping for a new Hitchhikers book that day in WHSmiths. I still shelve Pratchett and Adams together, even though they are very different. Pratchett isn’t a substitute, but he is – in some small way – continuing Adams’ legacy.


..
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*Conversely, I’ve stopped buying Rebus novels entirely, due to the publisher’s refusal to release Exit Music in mass market format. Every other book up until “the last Rebus” was in hardback, trade, paperback. I had a whole run in matching mass market format. And they didn’t release the “final” book to match. Yes, it’s no longer the final Rebus but it still rankles enough that these days I borrow the hardbacks from the library instead. Sorry, Ian.

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Seeking a parity of authors

Sunday, 23 February 2014

I like the idea of the year of reading women. I’d been thinking a bit differently though. The aim of that project is to highlight the unconscious bias of readers (and the literary support network that guide readers’ choices). And reading female authors for a year sounds great: everyone should have read some Angelou, Atwood, Carter and Waters. But what happens at the end of 2014? Will people have trained their unconscious out of its bias?

So instead, for me, this year is going to be about reading parity. I’ve taken this from the panel parity movement in fandom. There the idea is that all-male panels should be actively challenged. In my view, all female panels should also be challenged. I’ve had enough of attending panels along the lines of “women in comics” or “women in SFF” or “women in Doctor Who” as if our gender is the only thing we can discuss.

So I’m going to bring in author parity: I’m going to try to get a balance of authors. I’m also going to run it from Christmas 2013 to Christmas 2014 as, in reading terms, the holiday always marks my new year. If the ultimate aim is to overcome unconscious sexism, then the result should be equality not bias towards any gender.

I also think it’s important to audit your unconscious bias: if you primarily read romances, for example, you’re unconsciously biased away from male authors. (Unsurprisingly, the list that kicked #readwomen2014 is genre-biased towards literary fiction.) So this first year is as much about seeing where my bias lies, so the choices I make lead towards a permanent shift of that bias.

How am I doing so far?
Books by female authors: 2
Books by male authors: 3

Broken down further…
Female-authored fiction: 1
Female-authored non-fiction: 1
Male-authored fiction: 0
Male-authored non-fiction: 3

I’ll review the split near my birthday, and irregularly after that.

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