K. Ceres Wright

SFFS: 8/31/13

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Aug 30, 2013

Here is my Science Fiction and Fantasy Saturday post. Calandra de’Medici is a demon hunter and is leading her first banishment, but things don’t go as planned.

Dantalion, a Duke of hell that commanded 36 legions of demons, had been plaguing the religious order of the Cavalieres of the Ramo del Sangue and the town of Seattle for weeks. Citizens had experienced headaches, malaise, and unexplained fevers. Doctors had said a bug was going around the city, but the Initiated had known——and dreaded——the cause.

“Veni, Creator Spiritus, mentes tuorum visita…” Calandra began.

All of the state’s Cavalieres had been called in to banish Dantalion.

“Tu septiformis munere, digitus paternae dexterae tu rite promissum Patris sermone ditans…”

All had fasted and prayed for three days.

“Hostem repellas longius, pacemque dones protinus: ductore sic te praevio vitemus omne noxium. Per te sciamus…”

And all had failed.

Genre vs. Literary: The SFF Experience

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Aug 29, 2013

This blog post has been in the formative stage for a few years, since I first began to learn the nuances of the genre vs. literary divide. Like a child stumbling into an unfamiliar situation, I had questions: Why don’t they like us? What’s the big difference? Can’t we all just get along?

For those unfamiliar with the debate, those in the industry would argue that literary fiction seeks to explore the human condition with a focus on character, while genre fiction seeks to appeal to a mass audience interested in escapism with a focus on plot. I won’t rehash all that’s been written on the subject, but you can read a pro-literary stance here: http://www.newyorker.com – Its Genre Fiction Not That Theres Aything Wrong With It and a pro-genre stance here: http://entertainment.time.com -Genre Fiction Is Disruptive Technology.

I have read several articles and engaged in a few discussions on the matter, but I am going to approach it from a different angle: the science fiction/fantasy (SFF) experience. Many fans have been reading or watching SFF since they were children (one of my earliest memories was watching Star Trek when I was three). They’ve experienced SFF across many different venues, countries, and languages—TV, movies, role-playing games (RPG), conventions, forums, volunteerism (Starship groups), jobs (especially Information Technology), Klingonese, Elvish, the list goes on.

SFF fans are some of the friendliest and smartest people I know. I’ve posted obscure questions on a Trek forum and received multiple answers within hours. I’ve read posts by people who have lost a family member to cancer or who are dealing with abuse, and the depth of sentiment and ability to relate reflected in the replies outstrips any literary story I’ve read. And they’ll also cut through any bullshit people try to post faster than a jaded gumshoe in a noir detective story.

If I see someone wearing a Red Dwarf t-shirt, boom, instant rapport. And when I see a “My Other Car is a TARDIS” bumper sticker, I smile…still. I had a conversation at work today with a woman who wrote and starred in a short film that won an award at a recent film festival. She mentioned she worked with a man who wrote for White Wolf. I told her I used to play White Wolf, and then discovered we were both Ventrue. Anyone outside the genre would have no clue what we were talking about, but if they were interested, we’d welcome them with open arms.

SFF fans will plan their costumes a year in advance for a convention. They’ll argue until the wee hours of the morning about what constitutes Trek canon or whether Han shot first. They’ll stay up until 3 a.m. to finish writing an RPG joint post with you. They’ll give you solid advice on how to get rid of corrupted registration files from a bad update. They’ll decide to become scientists after watching Star Trek and end up working for NASA. They’ll DO.

I don’t know how literary writers and fans interact across various platforms, but I don’t think the way they interact truly reflects the “depth” of the human condition they seek to portray. And to me, that’s the real difference.

Photo by Ryan LaRue

Having a Sexual Harassment Policy is not Enough

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Aug 22, 2013

The topic of sexual harassment, in general and specifically at science fiction (SF) conventions (cons), has been discussed online at length lately, due in part to the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) controversy (for a timeline of events, go here: http://www.slhuang.com/blog/2013/07/02/a-timeline-of-the-2013-sfwa-controversies/).

In response, John Scalzi, former SFWA president, has developed his own convention harassment policy (http://whatever.scalzi.com/2013/07/02/my-new-convention-harassment-policy/), which has been cosigned by more than 1,000 people.* Scalzi essentially says that a con must have a clear harassment policy, that the policy be well-publicized, and that complaints be dealt with promptly and fairly. But is just having a policy enough? I have worked in federal government contracting for 17 years, and although a con is not the same as a work place, following similar anti-harassment guidelines would not be a bad place to start. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” (http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/fs-sex.cfm). While the subject of filing a complaint has been addressed by Scalzi’s policy, the subject of sexual harassment training has not, which is an action the EEOC encourages. There are free online training courses that cons can make available on their website to those interested in taking them, or even as hard copies at the site of the con. One of these online courses (University of North Carolina [UNC]: http://freedownloadb.org/ppt/sexual-harassment-training-2006513.html) has a specific policy for not using “dangerous words” when addressing sexual harassment complaints:

  • “It’s just teasing. No big deal.”
  • “I know he/she didn’t mean anything like that.”
  • “It’s your fault for dressing so provocatively.”
  • “Just ignore it.”
  • “He puts his arms around everyone.”
  • “We’ve never had a complaint, so we don’t have a problem.”

These phrases should be avoided at all costs. However, similar phrases have been offered as excuses or justification when discussing sexual harassment at cons. If nothing is done to proactively change the culture of “business as usual,” then it will remain the same, or change too slowly. Ultimately, sexual harassment prevention should be a goal of any con, not the parsing of fine distinctions of how many times a person has to initiate unwanted behavior before it’s considered harassment. UNC has a handy checklist of self-reflective questions to ask before initiating any questionable behavior (some are listed below):

  • Does this behavior contribute toward achieving our goals?
  • Could this behavior be sending out signals that invite harassing behavior on the part of others?
  • Would you say it in front of your spouse, parent, or child?
  • Would you say it if you were going to be quoted on the front page of a newspaper?

And some general tips:

  • Keep your hands to yourself.
  • Keep compliments casual and fairly impersonal.
  • Avoid jokes, words, phrases, and gestures with sexual meanings.
  • Don’t assume that a friendly woman/man will be willing to go to bed with you. Assume only that friendly people are friendly.
  • Respect a person’s personal space.

These lists can be posted around a con site, on the con’s website, and/or discussed at a panel or opening ceremony. I personally believe that since unwanted behavior seems to be pervasive at cons, every con should have at least one panel on sexual harassment. In such a venue, the topic could be discussed civilly, with a moderator, and perhaps even with limited roleplay to instruct participants in how to recognize sexual harassment and decide how to react to it. Changing a particular culture is not easy, but it can be done, with time and effort. So let’s put in the effort to make cons fun and safe for everyone. *[Ed. Note: Including signed by the publisher of Amazing Stories.]

Stuck for a Story Idea? Go Old School. As in Old Testament.

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Aug 22, 2013

Face it. We writers get in a slump sometimes and find it hard to come up with a story idea. And when people ask what we’re working on, we’ll say, “It’s just the beginnings of an idea,” or “It’s not fully formed yet.”

Welcome to the club.

But fear not. Help comes to us in the form of stories told over the past few thousand years. Stories that will surprise you. And with some skill, stories that you can adapt to your own nascent thoughts and craft into a real plotline. You don’t have to be a believer to use these stories. Just a writer. Summarized below are a story from Genesis in the Old Testament and one deuterocanonical story from the Book of Judith, along with some tips on adapting them to your work in progress.

Gutenberg_BibleTamar the Widow:
Original Story—Judah was one of the sons of Jacob, who was the progenitor of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Judah had three sons, and married his eldest, Er, to a woman named Tamar. According to the Bible, Er was wicked, and God struck him down, childless. Hebrew Law required that a man marry the childless widow of his brother to produce a child who would carry the deceased brother’s name. And so, Judah married Tamar to his second son, Onan. However, Onan refused to impregnate Tamar, and he was struck down, as well. Judah told Tamar to wait until his third son, Shelah, was of age, and he would marry her off to him. But when Shelah was old enough, Judah did not give him Tamar in marriage. So Tamar decided to take matters into her own hands. She laid aside her widow’s clothes, put on her best finery, and sat in the open on the way to the city where Judah was going to shear his sheep. Thinking her a prostitute, he went in to lay with her. In return for her ‘services,’ Tamar demanded Judah’s signet, bracelets, and staff. He obliged.

When Judah left, Tamar went back home and put on her widow’s clothes again. Three months later, she was called out for “playing the harlot” and was scheduled to be burned. She, however, brought out Judah’s belongings and said the father of her child was the owner of the signet, bracelets, and staff. Judah admitted that “she had been more righteous than I” for following the Law. She was free to go, and eventually gave birth to twins.

How You Can Adapt It:
There are numerous characters to play off of in this story. Your protagonist can start off as a disenfranchised character, subject to the manipulations of those who are more powerful. However, when the protag finally figures out that those in power are only going to do what’s in their best interest, your protag can take action. Such actions should not be able to be interpreted as vengeance, but as “making things right,” or as adhering to a certain code of conduct you have established in your universe.
The villains in your story can take on a minor role, as Er and Onan, or a larger role as the main antagonist, such as Judah, or even, one might argue, Hebrew Law and patriarchal attitudes. You protag may have to fight both the antagonist and the “system,” or whatever rule of government you establish that hinders your protag from accomplishing her goal. Rules may not hinder her, per se, but the way your villains manipulate the rules can. In this case, your protag has to use her wits and unfailing knowledge of the rules in order to beat the antags at their own game.

Judith:
Original Story—King Nebuchadnezzar sent his general, Holofernes, to fight Israel, and all the people of Israel in the city of Bethulia were afraid, distressed at seeing the great number of the Assyrian army, and at the drying up of the cisterns, leaving them without water. The city’s leaders had declared that they would hand over the city after five days if the Lord did not deliver them. This proclamation reached the ears of Judith, who is described as a wise widow, who was also beautiful. She told the leaders that she would deliver the city and they should not tempt God by placing a time limit on Him. The leaders acknowledged her wisdom and told her to go in peace with God to deliver the city.

Judith puts on her finery and goes to Holofernes’ camp, along with her maid. There, she tells the Assyrians that she is fleeing the city because they will eventually surrender and that she knows of a secret passage that they can use to attack the city. Happy at this news, they bring her to Holofernes, who is taken with her beauty and eloquence of speech. He tells her she is safe in the camp and will not be harmed. She agrees to stay, but asks that she be given permission to go into the valley at night to pray. He acquiesces and she stays in the camp for three days.

On the fourth night, Holofernes throws a banquet and Judith attends. She feasts in his presence, and he is driven to drink more wine than usual. When the party finally ends, Holofernes lies passed out in his tent. Judith takes a sword and chops off his head. She gives it to her maid, who places it in a basket, and the two walk out of the camp to pray, as they had done on the previous nights. But instead of going to the valley, they return to Bethulia and tell the men to place Holofernes’ head on the wall and take up arms to fight the Assyrians. Once morning comes and the Assyrians are in disarray at knowing their general is dead, the Israelites win.

How You Can Adapt It:
Your protag can be someone who is minding her own business, doing what she loves in her own little protag world, when the antag suddenly breaks in upon her universe and forces her to react. The antag can be a person(s) with her own agenda, or agent(s) of a system that is opposed to the protag. In either case, they force the protag to take action in order to help preserve or maintain her current way of life. In other words, she has to deal with the issues at hand before she can continue to do what she loves, be it racing cars, writing novels, sculpting statues, or running a corporation. I use this scenario in my book, Cog. My protag, Nicholle, is a curator at a holographic art museum who is recreating the Prado in a disadvantaged section of the city. She loves exposing the public to fine art. Her father and brother, however, work at the family wireless hologram provider company and have a falling out. She is dragged into the situation, but then has to leave town to save her life. If she wants to quit living on the run and regain her former way of life, she knows she is going to have to deal with the mess her family wrought.

The villain(s) can be part of a large group, as Holofernes’ army, or a single individual with the power and arrogance of Holofernes himself. However, as with the Israelites, you can use one person, armed only with cunning, to take down an entire army or powerful group of persons. But make sure your characters’ actions easily arise from their backstory. Don’t write them acting in a manner that would seem false to the reader.

If you really want a character to react in a way that would seem alien, then trap her in an impossible situation with only one way out. Bonus points if you can craft the action to result in a good outcome for the society at large, which will not only help to soften the blow for your protag, but will also give her hours of soul-searching, angst-filled guilt in the sequel.

These are only two stories from the Bible, which contains a vast array of protagonists and villains; tales of war, sexual conquests, and romantic love; as well as tales of sacrificial love and acts of bravery. So the next time you’re stuck for a plot, just crack open the Old Testament and bring its contents forward a few thousand years. Who’ll be in your story?

Women in Science Fiction

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Aug 13, 2013

Here’s a guest post I wrote for FictionVale on women science fiction writers:

http://fictionvale.com/genre-spotlight-women-science-fiction-writers-by-k-ceres-wright/

My name is K. Ceres Wright and I’m a science fiction (SF) writer. I had the pleasure to attend Seton Hill University with Venessa Guinta, and she has asked me to write a blog post on women in SF, which I gratefully agreed to do. Although there are many women SF writers, I will focus on five in this post: Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, and C.J. Cherryh.

Octavia Butler
Ms. Butler was inspired to write SF after viewing a particularly bad movie called “Devil Girl From Mars.” She figured she could write something better than that, and promptly set about doing it. She was 12 at the time. And since then, she has won nine writing awards, one in 1995 for the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the “Genius Grant.”

One of the best known African American SF writers, Ms. Butler cited the women’s movement as having a profound effect on her writing. One of her teachers, Joanna Russ, encouraged women SF writers to stop writing under their initials, male pseudonyms, or androgynous names. Ms. Butler said that women breaking into SF without pretending they were someone else was a new idea.

Ms. Butler’s works include the novels, Wild Seed, Parable of the Sower, and Kindred, as well as a collection of short fiction and essays, Bloodchild and Other Stories. Her work explored the concepts of race, power struggles, gender, religion, and social class.

When asked why she wrote SF, Ms. Butler said, “Because there are no closed doors, no walls. I mean the only rule is, if you use science, you should use it accurately. You can look at, examine, play with, anything. Absolutely anything.”

Sadly, Ms. Butler passed away in 2006. She was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010.

Ursula LeGuin
Ms. LeGuin, like Ms. Butler, began writing SF at an early age. She submitted her first short story at the age of 11 to Astounding Science Fiction. It was rejected. However, she has since written a number of both SF and fantasy books, including The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, and The Lathe of Heaven. Her novels often feature people of color, which she notes as reflecting the non-White majority of human beings. Among Ms. LeGuin’s varied influences are J. R. R. Tolkien, Leo Tolstoy, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, and the Tao Te Ching.

Her book, The Lathe of Heaven, has been twice adapted for film. When asked why the story developed a loyal following, LeGuin said, “It’s kind of like old fairy tales, where somebody is trying to do good and is always defeated by reality, because trying to do good just isn’t enough. You’ve also got to be realistic… Poor Haber in the book is a do-gooder who’s self-defeated. He isn’t defeated by anybody evil. He’s not evil. He means well all the way through the book, but he’s doing it wrong. And I think people are intrigued by that.”

Ms. LeGuin was not an early success. Having raised three children, she often wrote at night. It would be 10 years before she would sell any short stories or novels. She noted that editors often said, “You write very well, but you don’t know what you’re writing about.” Unperturbed, she would continue submitting stories. As a result, she has received numerous writing awards, including several Locus, Nebula, and Hugo wins. In 2000, the Library of Congress made LeGuin a Living Legend in the Writers and Artists category.

Lois McMaster Bujold
Like Ms. LeGuin, Ms. Bujold writes both SF and fantasy and has received numerous awards. Her novella, The Mountains of Mourning, and novel, Paladin of Souls, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. She had an early interest in SF, which she attributes to her father, an engineer who edited the Nondestructive Testing Handbook.

On her writing process, Ms. Bujold admits that it developed over time. When her children were young, she wrote during small blocks of time at the library in longhand, then would return home to type up her notes. Her system evolved as her children grew and she had larger blocks of time to write. Ms. Bujold would outline the first draft, but has since abandoned the tactic. She now works straight from scene outlines, which she transcribes onto the computer. She notes that with so much structural work completed, she does not have much revising to do.

When asked if she had any secrets to pass onto aspiring writers, she said, “There are no real secrets. It’s the same advice you get all the time. You learn to write by writing. So sit down and write, finish things. That’s how it’s done. Writing is the least regulated profession in the world. They’re not going to stop you. A good blog advice column is by Patricia C. Wrede. She does writing posts twice a week, short and very practical.” (http://pcwrede.com/blog/)

In 2011, Ms. Bujold was given the Edward E. Smith Memorial Award for Imaginative Fiction, known as the Skylark, which recognizes someone for lifetime contributions to science fiction.

Connie Willis
Ms. Willis is a giant in the field of SF, with her works having garnered 11 Hugo, 7 Nebula, and
4 Locus awards, among others. Several of her books have dealt with time travel, with recurring characters from a future University of Oxford visiting various periods in history (Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog). Her most recent book, Blackout/All Clear (a two-volume work) concerns World War II.

A history buff and meticulous researcher, Ms. Willis admits she is a slow writer, which she partially attributes to the sheer volume of research she conducts. She divides her research time into three categories: General, specific, and “something that will illuminate your book.”

For Blackout/All Clear, Ms. Willis came across a story of a British ambassador and his wife who visited Washington, DC, in hopes of gaining funding for the war. An American had asked the ambassador’s wife, “How is civilian morale in London these days?” To which the wife haughtily replied, “There are no civilians in London these days.” Ms. Willis used this concept as the driving force for her book.

Ms. Willis’ books deal with the impact of technology, coming to terms with grief and loss, gender roles, and human psychology. She was inducted by the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Science Fiction Writers of America named her its 28th SFWA Grand Master in 2011.

C.J. Cherryh
When asked why she wrote SF, Ms. Cherryh replied, “As a child, I liked adventures, exploration, ‘what-ifs,’ and fairy tales. I liked sea stories and memorized all the parts of a clipper ship before I was eight. And this was in landlocked Oklahoma. Before I was nine, I wanted to see mountains taller than the Wichitas and I wanted to see an ocean. I wanted to see a narwhal. I wanted to ride camels and explore the desert. I halfway believed in lost worlds.”

When she finally became an SF writer, Ms. Carolyn Janice Cherry was encouraged to use her initials as her pen name by her first editor, and to add an extra “h” at the end to keep it from sounding like a romance author. Despite these restraints, Ms. Cherryh has published more than 60 books, some of which have received Hugo and Locus awards.

A student of Greek classics and teacher of Latin and Ancient Greek, Ms. Cherryh has incorporated her love of linguistics, history, archaeology, and psychology into her books. When writing her various universes, she addresses issues such as environment, diet, knowledge sharing, and death rituals in order to fully inform her alien worlds.

Says Ms. Cherryh, “Historians world build. You have to take information from the past and put it together in a way that makes sense. And if you’re a good historian, you try to keep yourself out of it as much as possible and not try to make “back then” an analog for “right now,” because that’s how you end up slanting history. … When I work, I borrow a little from this, a little from that, but I try to make them legitimately connected.”

In 2001, Ms. Cherryh had an asteroid named after her and in 2005, received the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Each of these women came from different backgrounds and disciplines, but each is an accomplished writer in the field of SF. I believe this fact reflects the diversity that SF celebrates, whether it be plot, style, or subgenre. And it is diversity that allows SF to incorporate technological and societal changes and craft stories that just may change the future.

Review for Destination: Planet Negro!

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Aug 8, 2013

7938634It’s 1939 America and the Black community’s greatest minds are searching for the solution to the “Negro Problem.” One answer? Build a spaceship, fill it with all of America’s Negroes, and fly to Mars, with the help of George Washington Carver’s peanut/sweet potato–based rocket fuel. And, like many plans, this one goes awry. Word gets out that Negroes are leaving and White folk get angry, so the departure is moved up to ASAP.

The intrepid team includes Dr. Warrington Avery, the physicist who designed and built the spacecraft (Director Kevin Willmott); Dr. Beneatha Avery, astronomer and lovely daughter of Dr. Avery (Danielle Cooper); Captain Race “Ace” Johnson, the best Negro pilot in the world and all-around chauvinist (Tosin Morohunfolo); and Strom, a robot that speaks with a colloquial Southern accent.

The team heads to Mars, but their ship gets pulled into a wormhole. They crash land on present-day Earth, in a deserted part of Kansas City. As in the Wizard of Oz, the film changes from black-and-white to color, seemingly to contrast the dark past with the promise of a bright future. Dr. Avery claims the planet on behalf of all the “poor, oppressed, and colored people of the world,” and then tells Strom to stay behind and fix the ship while they search the planet. Looks like the struggle is still real for nonbiological life forms.

dpn 1After stumbling into a barn, being mistaken for illegal immigrants, and hauled into the back of a truck, the three explorers escape. They make it to a convenience store, see a man wearing sagging pants, and mistakenly assume he’s malnourished and controlled by messages in his headphones. After boarding a bus and correctly “schooled” in the ways of the modern-day world by two rappers, B-12 and Mama Mau-Mau, played by Trai Byers and John McCluskey, they go to a local college and learn what’s happened since they left Earth in 1939.

The main characters play well off of each other, especially as they try to make sense of their new world. Strom, modeled after Dr. Carver’s old slave master, provides Stepin Fetchit comic relief during some of the more serious moments of the film. The scene with Mau-Mau, who is White, teaching Race how to walk “Black” is reminiscent of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in Silver Streak, with reversed roles. Walter Coppage plays an “Uncle Tom” villain you love to hate as Howard Horn, a man opposed to the launch, as well as his own great grandson, Congressman Howard Horn, who wants to take back the “victim welfare entitlement state.”

dp4A satire, Destination: Planet Negro plays off of the tropes of the classic science fiction movies from the 1950s: Rocket ships, robots with accordion arms, forward-thinking scientist, and lovely daughter who falls for the ship’s captain (Forbidden Planet anyone?). Many of the jokes are delivered through the mistaken perceptions of the time travelers and the evolution of the “N-” and “S-” words, but there are also plenty of moments for today’s viewers on which to reflect about race, politics, justice, today’s entertainment choices, and the future.

The movie guides the viewer—and the time travelers—along the path of societal change from the 1930s, and the movie sometimes lectures more than entertains. However, the comic one-liners and sight gags quickly diffuse those moments, and the audience is soon hurtling its way toward the twist ending.

“My overall message has to do with looking at how far we have come racially and how far we still have to go. One of the more subtle messages in the film is how African Americans have always had to love the country for its potential and not its reality.  Post-Obama, we are just now approaching a time where we can embrace the nation’s actuality,” Willmott said.

dp3Fans of Willmot’s previous movie, mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, will find the same tongue-in-cheek comedy, but with a different message and feel.

“CSA was an attempt to satire and reveal how the South did win the Civil War. I looked at our actual history and tried to show the other side of that legacy in terms of how it affected African Americans and others,” Willmott said.

Mr. Willmott has just completed the film, Jayhawkers, about Wilt Chamberlain’s time at Kansas University.  And shooting starts next summer on Emmett Till’s Black Body, about the murder of teenager Emmett Till and how it created the modern Civil Rights movement.

Read more about Destination: Planet Negro at www.planetnegro.com.