Casual Racism

A hundred years ago, racism was common in fiction written by white people. It can be shocking, when reading something by a fine writer like F. Scott Fitzgerald, to see him quite casually refer to a Jewish character using a stereotype. Today, the careful writer will naturally try to do better.

When writing a big-screen fantasy epic, however — a story not set on our Earth — it can be easy to fall into a racist stereotype without realizing it. “Hey, these characters aren’t even human! What do you mean, I’m racist? Don’t be silly.”

Today I finally, belatedly, noticed my own casual racism. Fortunately, Book 4 of my epic is not yet published, so as I’m rewriting I can change some things.

Portions of Book 4 are set in the ruins of a great city. If you imagine Imperial Rome in a warmer, wetter climate, with the ruins of stone buildings sticking up out of a swamp, you’ll see it clearly. When my characters enter this former city, they encounter some little men and women called imps. Terrible name, I know, but the epic includes dragons, elves, wizards, and an ogre, so why not toss in some imps? They’ll make the setting more picturesque, and add some colorful action and suspense!

I reached a point in the rewrite where I’m about to relocate a few thousand refugees (human) to the ruined city, where they will shortly come face to face with the imps. As I asked myself how that encounter would play out — what the imps would do, and how the two races could arrive at an amicable living arrangement — the one-dimensional nature of my imps rose up and smacked me in the face.

How might you detect that you’ve stumbled into a racist stereotype and need to rewrite, when the world you’re writing about isn’t even our Earth? Here are some vital clues:

  • All of the members of the race behave alike. If there are any named individuals, they have the same characteristics as the rest of their crew.
  • They have an odd appearance, often involving skin color or the shape of the eyes.
  • They jabber in an unknown language full of guttural sounds, and they all tend to talk at once.
  • They’re hostile without provocation, attacking in a group. When your good guys attack them, they all panic and run away in a group.
  • Their technology is primitive. Stone spears, wearing loin cloths, living in one-room shacks with thatched grass roofs, that type of thing.
  • They are superstitious, for example believing in spirits that must be placated with sacrifices.
  • They’re sneaky and can’t be trusted. They will agree to do something and then break the agreement.
  • They have nasty habits, such as eating raw meat or chewing vegetable leaves and casually spitting.

Your racist stereotype doesn’t have to have all of these characteristics to qualify as offensive. And note that the stereotype does not necessarily include the race being evil! Probably nobody will object if your elves are all good and kind and noble and beautiful, even though that’s an awful racist stereotype. On the other hand, if your story contrasts the good, kind, noble, beautiful elves with some dirty, conniving, violent, savage, weird-looking orcs, you’re in deep trouble. (Yes, Tolkien was a racist.)

Unhappily, seven of the eight bullet points above describe, in one way or another, the imps in my story. Oh, crap. Without for a moment realizing it, I was using a 19th century white European’s viciously distorted view of Africans. Time to break out the hammer and tongs and start rewriting.

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Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind

Writing a novel is very hard. There are so many ways to go wrong! This week I’ve been looking at an unpublished manuscript by a writer who is thinking of hiring me as an editor. I’m not going to mention his name, nor the name of the book, and I’ll do my best to obfuscate any revealing details about his story — but it occurred to me that some of the observations I made might be useful to other aspiring writers.

Story Focus. A novel has room for one or two subplots, but the writer does need to make sure the reader knows what the main action is. In the manuscript I’ve been looking at, each of the opening five chapters has a different lead character. The characters are in different parts of the world, and they haven’t yet met one another.

Deploying such a scattershot opening is not a smart move. Your readers will get very confused. They won’t know who to care about.

If those characters are all in physical proximity — on a battlefield, let’s say, or in different rooms of a castle — then the reader will trust that the writer will soon bring them together. But in this particular manuscript, that isn’t the case, unless “on Earth” counts as physical proximity. The things one character is doing appear to have very little to do with what another character is doing.

Meanwhile, the main action of the story seems to be happening offstage. The author has provided a few hints that suggest what may be about to happen — and providing hints can be a good technique, if the hints themselves are clear and interesting. But getting the main action onstage quickly is usually considered a good way to tell a story.

I haven’t yet asked the author to send me a plot outline. That will be the next step. I’ll also ask a few pointed questions, such as: Who is your main character? What is that character hoping to achieve? What obstacles will the character face? How will he tackle those obstacles? The answers to those questions are bound to suggest how the story should be ripped apart and glued back together in a different shape.

Details of a Scene. In the opening chapter of this manuscript, a character is doing something that may eventually turn out to be important. (I’ve only read a few chapters, so I don’t know yet.) But the chapter contains almost no visual cues about where the character is. In a room, most likely — but is it a large room or a small room? Is there a view out the window? Is the air fresh, or are there odors? Background sounds? What might the decorations on the walls tell us about this character, or about the world he lives in?

Getting your reader well-grounded in the physical scene is essential. Do not skip this step! You can’t mention every detail, nor should you try. Part of the craft of storytelling is to single out three or four details that are both colorful and meaningful, and bring them to the reader’s attention. The reader’s imagination will fill in the rest, but imagination has to have something to chew on. And you have to remember to do this in every single scene in the book.

I like to think of the process of writing a scene as being a lot like watching a movie. I stare at the wall, imagining the scene in as much detail as I can — the characters’ movements, what they’re wearing, the tone of their voices, the noises from the street, the odors from the kitchen, all of it. Watch the movie, damn it!

Standards of Manuscript Preparation. I’m going to go out on a limb here. I’m going to suggest that anyone who aspires to write fiction ought to sit down and spend a few days learning about the standard ways in which punctuation, dialog tags, and capitalization are used. Yes, you can hire a copy-editor. But the copy-editor’s job should be to catch occasional slips, not to turn your hashed-up mess into publishable paragraphs. If you can’t be bothered to learn this stuff, I’ll tell you straight up: You’re not serious about your writing.

If you’re not serious about your writing, why should anybody be serious about reading what you’ve written?

When it comes to grammar and word usage, the problem is worse. A copy-editor may not be certain what you meant to say in a particular sentence, either because the sentence is structured badly or because you used a word that doesn’t mean what you think it means. As a result, fixing the sentence will require a conversation with the author, and every such conversation takes time. A copy-editor shouldn’t be doing this in any case. If your sentences are shaky, you need a line editor.

Just to pour a little more gasoline on the fire, I should point out that freelance editors are not licensed. Anybody in the world can hang out a shingle and claim to be an editor. The person you hire may not be qualified. They may introduce mistakes into your manuscript while thinking they’re fixing something. They may fail to notice significant problems, which then go uncorrected.

If  your freelance editor’s main qualification is a B.A. in English from some university, even a prestigious university, my advice would be to keep looking. You haven’t found a good editor yet. A degree in English, even with a concentration in creative writing, is nearly useless as a credential. Possibly even worse than useless.

Beta-readers are even less reliable than self-appointed editors. “My beta-readers liked it” is not a sentence that you should ever use as an excuse for not getting it right.

This is why you really do need to take responsibility for learning the skills yourself.

Taking the Long View. The author I’m working with is concerned about the cost of editing. He asked me whether I thought a developmental edit (which I suggested would be wise) would enable him to charge more for the book or sell more copies, so he could break even.

Such a question is unanswerable, of course. The market for self-published fiction is intensely overcrowded, and sales are likely based as much on the author’s marketing skills as on the quality of the book.

I suggested to the author that it’s worthwhile to take the long view. If you aspire to write more than one novel, learning some writing skills now will pay off ten or twenty years in the future, when you have five or ten books to sell. Hoping to break even on your first book — well, that would be wonderful, but there are no guarantees.

Of course, I have enough money in the bank that I don’t have to worry about it. I spent $5,000 on a developmental edit for my own four-novel series, and it was money well spent. Will I ever earn $5,000 on the series? Probably not. But that doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me in my own writing — the only thing that matters, really — is doing the very best job that I can.

If your budget is limited, you’ll face some hard choices. And that’s all the more reason to learn the skills you’ll need. A good book on how to write fiction should cost you no more than $25. You can buy ten books for a fraction of what I would charge to edit your novel. Do yourself a favor: Start by buying the books.

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It’s a Marvel

I never read comic books when I was a kid. I read Mad Magazine, but that wasn’t a comic, it was freewheeling satire suitable for the warping of impressionable young minds.

Last week, at the local used book store, I picked up a pristine copy of Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks. I’ve never read any of Banks’s work, but I know he’s a successful author. For 50 cents. I figured I’d be foolish not to give it a try.

I’m pretty sure Banks read a lot of comic books when he was a kid. After 85 pages (out of 600), I’m ready to bail out on this one. It’s well written, if you like that sort of thing, but it’s not my cup of tea.

In the Prologue, a woman and her five-year-old daughter are riding a cable car up the side of a mountain. It’s winter. Apparently they’re on their way to a ski resort. The car stops abruptly and is riddled with gunfire; the woman and her bodyguard are both killed, but as the woman is dying she manages to push her daughter out the door onto the snow-covered slope below.

Wow, exciting, huh?

Turning to Chapter 1, we find that the little girl, whose name is Sharrow, is now in her early 20s. She’s filthy rich. Her cousin (also filthy rich) warns her that the people who killed her mother have now been given a hunting permit to assassinate her. More excitement impends!

What’s missing is any description of how a five-year-old girl managed to survive being pushed out of a cable car on the side of a mountain, alone, in the winter. Continuity does not seem to be a high priority for Banks.

So she’s walking on the beach, where her cousin has asked her to meet him (for no apparent reason other than that it’s a nice dramatic setting) in order to warn her. As they converse, Banks sprinkles the pages with the following bits and pieces, none of which has, at that point, any context: The Huhsz. Hunting Passports. The World Court. The Nul Church Council. Stehrin. Llocaran. Lip City. The Lazy Gun. Golter. Fian. Speyr. Trontsephori. Synchroneurobonding. The Universal Principles. (Italics in the original — eventually we’ll learn that this is the title of a book.) Miz. The Log-Jam. The Francks. Regioner. Antiquities contracts. Cenuji Mu. Caltasp Minor. Udeste. Nachtel’s Ghost. Gattse Ensil Kuma. Claäv.

As I said, there’s nothing wrong with Banks’s writing. I’m sure he did this on purpose. The point of it is to grab the reader. For some readers, a scatter of mysterious hints like these will be intriguing. Wow, this is gonna be good! Personally, I find it immensely annoying, but that’s just my own taste. When I’m reading a book, I like to know what’s going on. I’m funny that way.

Sharrow’s cousin hops on his animal and gallops away. Whereupon a robot cleanup machine that has been standing idle on the beach quite suddenly trundles up to Sharrow and starts a conversation. It wants to help her. Not only that, it knows her entire biography in detail. For several pages, Banks fills us in on Sharrow’s life history (not including, unfortunately, how she got down off that mountain when she was five years old) by having Sharrow and the machine alternate paragraphs of dialog. This is Banks’s clever way of giving the reader an info-dump about his lead character without stepping back and doing it in his own voice.

Actually, it isn’t clever, in my opinion. It’s clumsy. But again, it’s not going to be a problem for Banks’s readers. I’m sure they’ll eat it up.

At the end of the chapter, Sharrow refuses the robot machine’s help and hops on her hydrofoil to sail away across the water. At this point the side of the machine pops open — and there’s a man inside. She hasn’t been talking with a machine at all. The man begs her to stop and listen, he has something important to tell her. But she blows him off and sails away without learning who he is or what he’s hoping to accomplish.

This is just stupid. Specifically, Sharrow is being stupid. And as with the little girl freezing on the side of the mountain, we hear no more about the man inside the machine or what he was trying to tell her. She never gives it a moment’s thought! It’s a comic-book panel, and that’s all it is. Man pops out of machine, woman jets away across the sea on her hydrofoil. Zip, bang, moving right along.

In Chapter 2, she’s back in her luxurious home, packing to go on the run from the assassins. Her live-in boyfriend is begging her not to go.

Jyr looked distraught; he had been crying. “How can you just leave?” He threw his arms wide. “I love you!”

That’s his whole argument, right there. She’s being hunted by assassins, but he doesn’t want her to leave because he loves her. Sharrow is supposed to be a strong, intelligent young woman, but she has obviously shacked up with a self-involved idiot. This may tell us something about her that Banks himself didn’t know; or, just as likely, he’s writing every chapter in such a way as to have conflict and action in it, without regard to any deeper considerations of characterization or plot. Long and short of it, Sharrow socks Jyr in the jaw and leaves, and she never gives him another thought either.

The world in which this all takes place is a weird mix of futuristic and old-fashioned. There are electric trolleys on city streets, complete with electric sparks flashing off of the overhead cables. There are tenements with doorways that smell of urine. There’s a street-corner hooker wearing a micro-mini and high heels. There’s also some sort of internet, very like our own in terms of data searching, though we’re at least 9,000 years in the future and not on Earth at all. Admittedly, the book was published in 1993. A lot has changed in the past 25 years. Nonetheless, technology seems to have skidded to a stop at about the point where Banks’s readers will think it’s cool and neat and spiffy and picturesque. The hand-held weapons are futuristic, and the sky is dotted with satellites that are visible from the ground, yet there are also powerful religious institutions that are strictly Medieval.

The plot premise, briefly, is that the Huhsz are trying to kill Sharrow because of something an ancestor of hers did seven generations back. The Huhsz are religious fanatics, and apparently her ancestor kidnapped and raped a temple virgin. Or, depending on who’s telling the story, the two of them ran away together. In the process, apparently, they stole a relic — a terrible weapon called the Lazy Gun. Nobody knows where the Lazy Gun is now, but it seems Sharrow’s grandfather hid an essential clue in the Universal Principles, the book I mentioned earlier. Banks tells us that the book disappeared a thousand years before. Even Sharrow is mystified by how her grandfather could have implanted a cryptic clue in a book that vanished long before he was born. But now she has to find the book in order to track down the Lazy Gun and keep the Huhsz from killing her.

There’s more to it, but I think you’ve got the picture. As a comic book, it’s super. All it lacks are the actual drawings.  If you go for this sort of thing, you know who you are, and you won’t be disappointed. Me, I’m going to push little Sharrow out of the cable car and ride on up the mountain.

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Believe It or Not

I really wish I could stop insulting people’s religions. It doesn’t feel good. My fantasy series has a couple of evil religions in it, but they’re fictional — and that’s all you’re going to read in this post about writing. Sometimes I just need to clear the air by thinking out loud. This is one of those times.

If you’re not keen to have your fond ideas about religion challenged, I urge you — STOP READING NOW. I am not going to be nice, okay?

This topic came up because of the current administration’s proposal to enhance the support for religious organizations. Religion has become a hugely divisive issue in the United States.

The Founding Fathers were quite aware of the need to keep government and religion well separated. They knew about the suffering of the Puritans, who had to flee England because they were being persecuted by the main-line Church-of-England Christians, and of the Huguenots, a French Protestant sect that was viciously attacked by the Catholic government. When the government aligns itself with one religion, people of other religions suffer in various ways.

The problem boils down to this: Many or most of the people who belong to one religious denomination or another are firmly convinced that they’re right. Their views are Correct and Good and Approved By God, while other people’s views are in error or even dangerous. This tends to be especially true of the monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in all their varieties), because it’s a tenet of monotheism that there’s only one god. The preacher at your church knows what this “God” approves of or forbids. Those other preachers and rabbis and mullahs and imams and priests and cardinals and whatnot are obviously deluded, right?

There’s no film at 11:00 on this question. There is absolutely no way to figure out who is right (if any of them is) and who’s wrong. It’s all subjectivity and guesswork. But the folks in your church, whatever denomination it happens to be, will deny that it’s guesswork. They know what “God” approves of. Your holy documents are authentic and free of error. Everybody else’s documents — or, if you both use the same documents, everybody else’s interpretations — are mistaken.

Just to be clear, I’m aware that many good, kind people have sincere religious views. I’m also aware that some (though by no means all) of the moral precepts taught by various religions are entirely praiseworthy. More than a few fine and inspiring leaders, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., have been motivated by their religion. Religion can lead to good things.

There are no guarantees, however. Religion can also provoke believers to vicious hatred and various types of appalling cruelty. For every Martin Luther King, we have a Jim Bakker or a Joel Osteen, if not a boatload of them. Come to think of it, King died 50 years ago. Why is he the most recent high-profile example of a religious man who tried to move the world in a positive direction? Jimmy Carter is a very positive guy, but he builds houses and monitors elections — he isn’t fighting for social justice. Meanwhile, we’re being overrun by rabid zealots.

Why is it so easy for rabid, hurtful zealotry to gain a foothold? The difficulty is this: Religion is not fact-based. No fact-checking or error correction is built into the system. You may think your religion is fact-based, but if you think that, you’re just plain wrong. Religion is based entirely on emotion and social agreement.

If your favorite religious leader advises you to do something truly savage — to blow up a building, for instance — it may be very difficult for you even to notice that you’re being given bad advice, because there are no inconvenient facts that would contradict it. Naturally, you (meaning you, whoever is reading this) are certain that your religious leader would never give bad advice or urge you to do anything cruel! But again, there’s no error correction built into the system. Once you’ve signed on for the religion, you have no way of judging what you’re being told. Every religion will assure you that it is right.

Your conscience may whisper otherwise, but for reasons rooted deep in our species’ evolutionary past, the individual conscience often has less traction or sway than group consensus. Religion is all about group consensus, and group consensus is a powerful force. It’s powerful in part because it’s nearly invisible. We all go along to get along. And then our brilliant, active minds make up reasons why the group is right — reasons for why it’s right to be a happy little duckie and follow the leader.

Even the Scientologists are absolutely convinced they’re right, and if there’s a creepier, more dangerous religion than Scientology on the planet today, I haven’t heard of it. Yes, yes, I know — your religion is not nearly as bad as Scientology. Or so you’re going to try to tell me. But how can you be sure of that? You can’t, because religion provides no fact-checking and no error correction.

I don’t care what you believe. Honestly, I don’t. Depending on the content of your beliefs, I may feel mildly amused or I may be desperately angry at what you’re doing to your children, but I can’t save your children from your abusive beliefs. Except in cases of genital mutilation and child marriage, I’m not going to try. And maybe the business of trying to get in the way of gay couples adopting kids. That’s a case where your religion hurts kids who aren’t your own. When a loving and stable couple wants to adopt a kid, what your religion tells you about what the couple does in the privacy of their bedroom is irrelevant. Suck it up.

Here’s where I’m going with this: In order to give everybody religious freedom, government needs to stay out of the religion business. In the interest of personal freedom, government cannot favor one religion over another. Government, that is to say, must remain resolutely secular.

But religious believers tend not to understand secularism. To many of them, secularism is simply another competing belief system — and, in their view, a spectacularly evil one. If you’ve bought into this idea, then a secular government is promoting a belief system. And it’s not your belief system! It’s a false belief system! Secularism denies the “truths” that are proclaimed in your ancient and thoroughly moldy documents. Secularism will lure your children away from the One True Way!

Well, that would be nice. I certainly hope it does. But secularism is not a belief system — it’s the absence of a belief system. Secularism is based on science, and on fairness, and on humility. A secular government says, “Look, we don’t know which of these competing belief systems is right. Could be the Mormons, could be the Muslims, could be the Southern Baptists or the Catholics or the Orthodox Jews, or none of them. You all can believe whatever you like, but in all humility, we’re not going to try to sort that out, because sorting it out is impossible. So we’re going to stay well out of it.”

In Saudi Arabia right now, they’re putting people to death for disrespecting Islam. We don’t do that sort of thing here in the U.S., at least not in such blatant ways, though the rate of gay teenage runaways from conservative religious parents is appallingly high, and some of those kids wind up dead. But you know as well as I do that there are thousands of Christians who would put atheists to death if they could. And the more power they get, the more vigorously they will pursue their agenda.

Religion is capable of doing good, but as a system of human activity, it is undeniably evil. People who get sucked into a religious belief system no longer have a reliable way of perceiving what’s right and what’s wrong, because their judgments are warped by the system of beliefs with which they have been saddled.

To anybody who thinks their religion is the right one and everybody who disagrees with them is wrong, let me say this loud and clear: Fuck your religion. I don’t want to hear about how nice and pleasant your religion is, because the mere fact that you’re a believer means you’re not capable of discerning what parts of it are nice and what parts of it are stupid or dangerous. And if I try to help you figure that out, your religion will slam the doors of your mind shut. You’ll distort everything I say, quite unconscious of the fact that you’re doing it, in order to avoid having your beliefs shaken or shattered.

When you become willing to admit that you don’t know and will never know whether your beliefs have even a shred of validity — when you become willing to admit publicly that your most cherished ideas are just a gossamer of speculation, a tissue of idle fancy, that you may be entirely wrong from top to bottom, and that only a secular scientific process has any hope of revealing the truth and bringing about a world free of injustice and cruelty — then call me. Until then, you can go sit on a sharp stick, because I’m not interested.

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Claymation

I’ve been enjoying N. K. Jemisin’s science fiction and fantasy. I mentioned somewhere that I was delighted to see an African-American woman becoming a successful writer, so someone suggested I might like Nnedi Okorafor. From my inter-library loan system I ordered Binti, the first of a new series of books by her.

Not to keep you in suspense, Binti sucks. It’s just appallingly bad.

On realizing that, I had to step back and take a look at my own attitudes. Was I perhaps reacting negatively to this book, or proposing to criticize it publicly, out of unconscious racism?

I had a look around on the Web, to try to learn more about Okorafor. If she was a talented high-school student, I should certainly maintain radio silence, in Thomas Dolby’s phrase. But no. She wrote this novella at the age of 30. It’s not her first published book. Worse yet, it won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards for best novella in 2016. What the actual fuck??? Did I get a defective copy of the book that someone sandwiched an entirely different story into? Not a tenable hypothesis, but I’m grasping at straws here. How could something so deficient in basic science fiction technique possibly win those awards?

The story is easily summarized. Binti is a 16-year-old girl. She is part of a smallish and apparently rather isolated ethnic group on Earth. She’s also a math genius. She has secretly applied to and been accepted by Oomza University, a really big, prestigious university on some other planet somewhere in the galaxy. How she plans to pay her tuition or living expenses is never discussed, but we know she has run off secretly, not even telling her parents, so they’re not the deep pockets.

She smears red clay all over her body, and in her hair. All the time. It’s what her people do. They do it instead of bathing, because they live in an area where water is scarce. You may, if you like, imagine the colonies of bacteria that are thriving under the layer of red clay, but I’m not going to go there.

Here is Okorafor’s explanation for this bizarre habit. In Binti’s voice, “On my people’s land, fresh water, water humans can drink, is so little that we do not use it to bathe as so many others do. We wash with otjize, a mix of red clay from our land and oils from our local flowers.” I’m all for multiculturalism, but this is weird. First, they’re not bathing, because they don’t scrape the clay off the way the ancient Romans scraped off oil — they leave it smeared all over their bodies. Second, flowers don’t produce oils. Third, to grow flowers at all you have to have water. Fourth, if wikipedia is to be believed, clays “become hard, brittle and non–plastic upon drying.” Clay is only flexible to begin with because of its water content. In this case the water has been replaced with oil, but even if you start with dry, brittle clay and add oil, you have a worse problem. Your body is now covered with oily clay, which means your sweat can’t evaporate. If you live in the desert, as Binti’s people do, you will very soon die of heat stroke because your body can’t cool itself by sweating. Either that, or the clay will be dripping off of you as it mingles with your sweat (although oil and water don’t mix — I’m not planning to experiment in order to research this), so you’ll constantly have to apply more clay.

For reasons that would be tedious to explain and that also don’t make a lick of sense, the clay is an important part of the plot, so it’s smeared on practically every page. On balance, though, it doesn’t make much sense. It’s picturesque, but picturesque is not guaranteed to be good science.

Binti hops on an interstellar ship that’s going to carry a bunch of students off to Oomza Uni. The trip will take only a few weeks — major faster-than-light travel is part of the scenario. The ship is a bio-engineered shrimp, which is laughable, but whatever. Her private room in the ship has a window, which is pretty silly, both for safety reasons and because there’s not much to see out the window when you’re traveling faster than light. Okorafor never bothers to tell us what’s visible out the window. Also … a private stateroom with a window for a 16-year-old student? That’s a heck of a scholarship she’s got.

There are other weird little problems like this. The ship plainly has artificial gravity, because in one scene she’s struggling to pick up a tray that’s heavily laden. Yet toward the end of the book one of the aliens comments that Binti’s feet are wobbly because, now that they’ve landed, she needs to get used to the gravity. Also, when the ship enters the atmosphere her ears pop. This is a standard thing on airplanes, and might even happen on the Space Shuttle for all I know, but it would absolutely not happen on an interstellar spaceship entering the atmosphere.

The editing mistakes are minor — “peak” instead of “peek,” “sunk” instead of “sank,” a stray comma where one doesn’t belong. The editors at Tom Doherty Associates are supposed to catch this kind of thing, but these days editing ain’t what it used to be. The pacing tends to be tedious; Okorafor jets away from an action scene to tell us more about how Binti grew up, and that’s kind of unforgivable. Bottom of page 27: “Everyone was dead. The dinner hall stank of blood.” Top of page 28: “None of my family had wanted me to go to Oomza Uni. Even my best friend Dele hadn’t wanted me to go.” Head spinning now.

I’m getting sidetracked. The primary incident in the story is this: The ship, which is whipping along much faster than light in interstellar space, is boarded by a bunch of hostile aliens whose ship has docked with the human ship. Two or possibly three things about this are flatly impossible.

First, interstellar space is really, really big. Detecting another ship at all when it’s traveling along some other vector than your ship at a faster than light speed and then matching velocity with it so as to dock and board — wait, we can’t even call it “velocity,” can we? If they’re traveling faster than light, it isn’t velocity. Whatever. In an episode of Star Trek, aliens could possibly beam onto your ship, because beaming technology is just as silly as faster-than-light travel. But Okorafor specifically tells us that the alien ship docked with the human ship.

Note to aspiring writers: Spaceships are not at all like ocean-going ships. Do not confuse the two technologies. Just don’t.

Second, no alarm is raised when this happens. The students are quietly eating lunch in the lounge when the aliens burst in and gruesomely murder everybody. Everybody except Binti, that is. No alarm? How could the crew on the bridge possibly not have noticed an approaching alien ship?

Third, and maybe I’m being too picky here, to dock one ship to another when there are breathing entities in both ships, you have to produce a decent vacuum seal at the end of the docking tube so as not to lose air. But these aliens have been pretty much at war with humans for a while now — so is it credible that their docking tube would be mechanically compatible with the hatch on the human ship? Not really. And they must have blown open the hatch from the outside (without causing alarm bells to ring, but I already mentioned that, didn’t I?), because the hatches on spaceships are not often equipped with exterior door knobs.

From there, it gets worse. Binti happens to be carrying an artifact — some sort of mysterious “old technology” she picked up in the desert — that both protects her from being butchered by the aliens and then allows her to converse with them in their own language. Then we learn that the “chief” of these tentacled aliens has had his “stinger,” a lethal anatomical appendage, stolen by humans. How they managed to steal it without killing him is not explained.

The stinger is now, you guessed it, in a museum of weaponry at Oomza University. He wants it back.

Let’s assume (Okorafor is vague about this) that the chief is only the captain of this one alien ship. He’s not the head honcho of their whole spacefaring race, because what would the alien emperor be doing cruising around on a spaceship? The order-of-magnitude confusion between one ship of hostile aliens and a whole hostile alien society is something that Okorafor never bothers to clear up, but whatever. Let’s also assume that the chief has figured out (somehow) that this particular ship is full of students headed for Oomza Uni, which will enable him to use the ship as a sort of Trojan horse to land a bunch of fighters on the Oomza planet to try to get his stinger back. That’s his plan. This would be quixotic, as the aliens would quickly end up dead, but let’s assume his honor demands that he try it. Okay.

The conclusion of the story is, as you may have guessed, that Binti single-handedly manages to negotiate a settlement between the chief and the bigwigs at Oomza Uni. They return the chief’s stinger and invite one of the tentacled aliens to remain as a new student. Happy-happy joy-joy, interstellar peace and good vibes achieved at last. It’s not hard to see that Okorafor was likely inspired by stories about the return of pilfered archaeological treasures, and that’s certainly a worthwhile topic for a story. An amputated anatomical part is an awfully big stretch, not to mention that it can successfully be reattached, but I’d be willing to cut the author a little slack on that.

No, the problem that remains unresolved and indeed unaddressed at the end of the story is that the chief’s aliens have butchered several hundred passengers and crew members on the human ship — a huge crime — and yet they’re allowed to return to space and sail away, free and clear.

Isn’t that special?

I really ought to start voting in the Nebulas. It’s only one vote, but if I can do my part to prevent a repeat of this kind of train wreck, reading all those novels and stories would be time well spent.

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Those Darn Pronouns

The question of what pronoun to use (he? she? he/she? they?) plagues writers. With less frequency but deeper consequences, it plagues everybody else. Today I got into a wrangle with a guy — on Facebook, as usual — who referred to Wendy Carlos as “he/she.” I politely explained that this is not correct. “She” is correct.

The discussion went downhill from there.

Since the Oblong Blob is mainly about writing fiction, and has been for a couple of years now, I’ll try to bring writing into the discussion, but we’re going to go off on a tangent, so buckle up.

Recent fantasy fiction has gotten pretty good about portraying gender variance. Alison Goodman’s Eon has a character who is genetically male but socially female. So does Nora Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. And it’s no big deal. These characters are not brought into to the stories because of their gender variance — they’re part of the stories for reasons that have nothing whatever to do with that. Most writers have figured out by now that the real world does not resemble the 1950s fantasies of Ozzie & Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best. If you’re writing about real people, you’re going to encounter a variety of personal traits, including various sexual proclivities and various forms of personal identity.

As an aside, one of the first efforts in this direction in speculative fiction was Theodore Sturgeon’s “The World Well Lost.” You can read up on it in wikipedia if you want to know more. Its sympathetic depiction of male homosexuality was quite controversial when it was published in 1953.

By now only a few troglodytes in the writing community are insisting that “he” can be used as a pronoun to refer to a non-specific person who might be either male or female. Most of us have gracefully adjusted. You can use “he or she.” You can alternate between “he” and “she” in alternating paragraphs. Often, you can substitute “they” without harm. I will sometimes default to “she” as a sort of affirmative action, in order to counterbalance centuries of “he.”

Turning from the literary to the social, what still confuses many people about the greater visibility of trans women and trans men in our world is that they aren’t sure what pronoun to use. Really, though, this is just bigotry. They can’t seem to embrace the idea that a trans woman is to be referred to as “she” because the very existence of trans individuals alarms and upsets them.

The short version of what to say to people who try to insert “he/she” when talking about my friend Wendy or any other trans woman is, “Get over it.” But a more detailed discussion may be helpful, so let’s go there.

The usual defense of “he/she” is to point to the XY chromosomes of the individual in question. How can you be “she” if you have a Y chromosome? But in fact there’s a fair variety of genetic conditions that can influence sexual identity even at the cellular level. There is, to give just one example, a genetic condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome, in which an XY individual appears anatomically female because the relevant anatomical structures don’t “see” the male hormones in the bloodstream.

But this is a side issue. The chromosomal endowment of an individual is not what gendered pronouns reference. You may think it is, but it’s not. Gender (the question of whether someone is “he” or “she”) is a social construct, not a matter of genetics, nor of anatomy.

Consider: You wander into your local coffee shop and stand in line for a beverage and biscotti. You look around. Some of the people in your field of view will clearly be of the “she” variety, and some will clearly be “he.” More than 95% of the time, you will be in no doubt whatever about whether you’re looking at a “he” or a “she.”

And yet, you have not performed a genetic work-up on ANY of these people! You don’t even know anything about their anatomical endowment — you don’t know what they have or don’t have between their legs. Your judgment as to whom you should address as “sir” and whom to address as “ma’am” is based entirely on social cues, with possibly a little help from secondary anatomical characteristics such as facial hair or width of hips.

The structuring of your social activities (and possibly your emotions, which might include sexual arousal) is based entirely on visual information that is not even remotely scientific. So don’t start lecturing me about how someone with a Y chromosome is really “he” in spite of the visual evidence to the contrary. Just don’t.

Last month, as I was walking across the parking lot toward the gym, a charming three-year-old girl, a complete stranger, said to me, “Are you a boy?” I smiled and said, “Yes, I’m a boy. A boy with a ponytail.” The point is, this little girl was not asking about my chromosomes. She wasn’t asking about my anatomy. Whether she even knows that boys usually have a pee-pee and girls usually don’t — that’s none of my business, and even if she knows it, it was certainly not her primary concern. What she was asking was how she was to view me socially. Girls often have long hair, and boys, in her limited experience, usually don’t. She was researching social cues, because when you’re three you know that some people are “he” and some are “she,” but it can be hard sometimes to figure out which is which.

If you’re an adult and still resort to “he/she” in describing people whom everybody else accepts is a “she,” you’re acting like a three-year-old. Grow up.

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Cruel Encouragement

What is one to say to an aspiring writer who is truly bad? Today on one of the Facebook writers’ groups where I hang out, a fellow posted what he described as a pitch and a synopsis. They were among the worst pieces of writing I’ve ever read. His ideas were bad, his approach to describing his ideas was bad, and his control of punctuation and capitalization was appalling.

From his use of the word “pitch,” one could reasonably imagine that he intends to submit his work to agents. He will be ignored (no response at all) or summarily rejected — and that’s bound to be painful for him. Wouldn’t it be a kindness to say, “Look here: You really ought to take up ballroom dancing or stamp collecting, or just pop open a beer and watch some TV. You’ll never be a writer — it’s hopeless.” Isn’t it actively cruel to respond to his hideous efforts by saying, “Keep writing! Do what you love!”

Even those of us who already write at a professional level can learn and improve. As Joe E. Lewis says at the end of Some Like It Hot, nobody’s perfect. If something in one of my stories isn’t working, or if I’ve made a word usage error, I want to be told! But what good will it do to tell someone, “Even a professional editor couldn’t help you turn this into a publishable story. Throw it out — it’s a dead loss.”

Is it cruel to tell someone they’ll never be a writer? Or is it more cruel to let them persist, perhaps for years, in their folly? If you’re truly writing for your own enjoyment, then fine — write whatever you like, and then put it away in a drawer and forget about it. But if you intend to go public, even to the extent of posting a pitch and a synopsis on Facebook and asking for feedback, you’re clearly writing not just for your own enjoyment but in hopes of something beyond that. Possibly you hope to be praised, or possibly your goal is to provide readers with an enjoyable experience. (Those are quite different goals, by the way.) In either case, isn’t honest feedback warranted, even at the risk of causing pain?

When does honesty turn to sadism? I wish I knew.

There’s a sidebar to this question. It’s quite normal in a Facebook writers’ group for someone whom I know to be a bad writer to offer advice to someone else — either to someone who might have real promise, or to someone who is even worse. Should I respond by saying, “No, that’s not right”? Or should I let the halt lead the blind, as the saying goes?

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