Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Lori Selke's Earworm of the Month

Our friend and erstwhile guest editor Lori Selke has a new column/newsletter, the “Earworm of the Month Club,” based on a similar column Lori used to write for SF Weekly, but now written with complete editorial freedom and more space to rant. You can subscribe to the Earworm of the Month Club by going to Tinyletter and entering your email. It'll be sent to you once a month (at most), and your address won't be used for any other purpose.

If you’d like to support Lori or thank her for these posts, you can tip her the price of a cup of coffee (or anything else) at ko-fi.com/lselke.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Recommend: Optimistic SF

This time, we're asking for recommendations of optimistic science fiction. Please leave your suggestions in the comments below. First, a few ideas from editors, authors, reviewers and other friends:

Tracie Welser (author page)

A common enough complaint about science fiction is that much of recent writing in the genre is dystopian or deeply pessimistic. Gone are the golden age stories about exploration and hope, to which I say "good riddance," as much of the sense of wonder and speculation of those years drew heavily on imperialist themes and angles of approach to "others." It seems inevitable that trends such as social suppression of dissent, growing divide between economic classes, environmental degradation and rapidly changes in technology produce distinctly dark responses from science fiction writers. Lauren Buekes' Moxieland comes to mind. In the early aughts, this complaint seemed louder than usual (just search for "positive science fiction" to take a peek at posts from Time and others decrying the grimness of SFF books and film). There were even suggestions that negative stories stifle scientific innovation, rather than inspire.

I, for one, think dystopian narratives while not inherently hopeful are backdrops for hope, where solidarity and struggle are elevated. The popularity of dystopia themes in young adult fiction (ie, Hunger Games) is not so surprising, as the sub-genre is inclined to take risks and whack fascism firmly on the nose, a sensibility enjoyed by young readers and adults alike. Similarly, seemingly hopeless stories, of shattered civilization and economic despair (Oryx and Crake, The Wind-up Girl) offers some kernels of resistance and revolution. Attempts at overtly positive science fiction in the recent past are harder to come by.

Two that come to mind are METAtropolis edited by John Scalzi. A series of shared world stories by different authors, the collection posits some realistic (read: gritty) futurism but with hopeful notes about urban community. The second is the anthology Hieroglyph, which includes the notable, playful story by Charlie Jane Anders titled "The Day it All Ended." The history of the Hieroglyph Project itself is fairly interesting, a deliberate effort to create and publish more positive visions of science fictional future.

Maureen Kincaid Speller (Paper Knife)

The world is not an optimistic place right now; it’s been a long time since science fiction felt optimistic, to the point where the issues explored over the last twenty or thirty years in fiction have become commonplace in daily life. In common with many, I fear for the future and often find it hard to read sf these days because the brain can only stand so much dystopia. It was a genuine pleasure, then, to read Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station recently and to feel that perhaps not all has been lost. Tidhar’s fiction doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions but there is the promise nonetheless that life will continue, and not necessarily a bad life either. The people (and I use this term in the broadest sense) who gather around the Central Station to sell food, tend bar, collect books, solve problems, look out for one another, fall in love, practise their religions, aren’t so far removed from the people I know. It is both encouraging and comforting to know that at least one writer believes in the persistence of ordinary daily life, no matter what.

Don Riggs (faculty page; alumnus page)

When I was in the 8th grade, I first learned about the Big Bang theory—the actual theory, not the television sitcom. The ultimate implication of the universe starting off with a bang and an unceasing expansion is entropy, which is the tapering off of the energy of the universe until the Heat Death of the Universe happens. I was thoroughly depressed by this, and so, when our next theory was presented, the Oscillating Universe, where the universe expands as far as it goes until it then is sucked back into another primordial point of all matter, which will again explode in another Big Bang, I decided that was the theory I wished to embrace. “Utriusque Cosmi,” a short story by Robert Charles Wilson (in Neil Clarke’s Galactic Empires, 2017), combines the story of a sixteen-year- old girl living in a trailer with her meth-addict mother and her abusive boyfriend, with that of that girl’s future self, “raptured up” to the Fleet of the intelligences of creatures saved from dying worlds, itself pursued by the Invisible Enemy, which ultimately turns out to be a group of Elder Beings that in turn “rapture up” the Fleet and thus survive the next collapse of the universe.

Stephanie Saulter (author page)

It’s a shame that science fiction isn’t a more generally optimistic genre. Too often we extrapolate possible futures so dire and hopeless the message seems to be that humanity is aboard a rocketship to all-but-inescapable doom, or at best unalleviated misery. I can’t think of too many writers who buck this grim trend, but among the few is the late and greatly lamented Iain M. Banks, whose Culture novels are the ultimate vision of a far-future, galaxy-spanning, inclusive and egalitarian polity in which humans are only one of many species and virtually omniscient AIs, instead of being the harbingers of our destruction, are committed and wryly indulgent protectors of organic life. The Culture’s liberal ethos combined with flexibility and at times ruthless pragmatism allows it to withstand assaults from without and respond to concerns from within. I’d suggest The Player of Games for a first visit.

Another exception is the grande dame of speculative fiction, Ursula Le Guin. Her SF looks at harmful gender and social constructs, the iniquities of politics and commerce, and conflicts between ideology and idealism with an eye less to endless iterations of the problem than envisioning possible solutions. The Dispossessed is an extraordinary book.

What are some other positive examples of science fiction? Please share recommendations in the comments.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

New Issue: 2017.40

“One human life is deeper than the ocean. Strange fishes and sea-monsters and mighty plants live in the rock-bed of our spirits.”

—Ben Okri

Issue 2017.40

 [ Issue 2017.40; Cover art © 2017 Carmen Moran ] Flash fiction
Short stories
Full issue and editorial

Download e-book version: EPUB | Mobi

Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Present and Future Struggle for Teen Girls’ Self-Esteem

On the planet Soranen, the Sor people are a genetic mixture of the Ellarisor and Human species, both now presumed extinct. Teen twins Lerris and Graika, defying Soranen’s laws, dare to fly a mini-jet to the edge of the atmosphere. There they uncover a dangerous mystery that inspires them to seek the origins of their Human blood.
Guest post by Anne E. Johnson

The edict “write what you know” might not seem applicable to science fiction, particularly that which takes place in the far future and in another, unknown world. But I would argue this is one of the very purposes of science fiction. A purely imaginary setting somehow intensifies the realities we face in the mundane quotidian. I tried to demonstrate this in my YA novel, Space Surfers. One of its main characters represents my late sister, Allegra, and is meant to show what she might have become if she had lived.

The twin teen characters Gaika and Lerris have the blood of two species: Human and Ellarisor, neither of which are believed to exist anymore. One of the primary arcs of Space Surfers tracks how the two protagonists learn to relate to their heritage as they sort it out. Being part Human, they both go through some recognizable problems of adolescence. With Lerris, it’s the fear that his father will be disappointed in him, and the realization that he is, in fact, rather disappointed in his father. For Graika, the problem is more general, and oh, so common among girls: she doesn’t believe that she’s worth anything or that her natural gifts are something to be proud of.

That was Allegra, in a nutshell. She was smart, funny, musically talented, and unwilling to make those traits her focus once she felt the crush of teen peer pressure. She dated boys (and then men) who didn’t respect her, married one of them, and died of cancer at the age of 29. And the last months of her life, in her final brief bout of decent health, she told me a secret: she had a dream of getting divorced and opening her own greenhouse. But that dream never came close to being a reality.

So, when I wrote Graika’s character many years later, I gave her the chance Allegra never had. Space Surfers is in part about figuring out who you are, owning it, and being proud of it. There’s a specific parallel I was careful to draw between Graika and Allegra: each had adults in her life who supported her. It’s a different problem than that faced by girls with no backing at home. Just as my parents were both professional people who took it as given that their kids had brains and potential, so it is for Graika and Lerris. Their dad designs aircraft and their mom is a chemist. The father wants his son to be a pilot, but he also expects his daughter to become some sort of professional. Their mother’s fault is putting too much pressure on Graika to excel in the sciences. The result, similar to what happened to Allegra, is that Graika rebels by burying her intellect and trying to seem “normal.”

Anne E. Johnson
I won’t give too many spoilers, but I will say that Graika eventually finds her way. She doesn’t get all the answers, of course, because none of us has those, but at least by the end of the novel she’s uncovered a sense of self-worth and a way to move forward. She figures out what her best contributions to the world might be, regardless of what the well-meaning authorities in her life advise or expect. What goes along with that change is a willingness to let herself be loved, both by her family and romantically by someone whom she would never have considered before.

Although Space Surfers takes place hundreds of years in the future in a solar system I invented, I hope it resonates with young humans of our time and our planet, especially girls and women. Graika’s lack of love for herself and her dreams may well be a universal issue—no matter where you are in the universe. I just hope Allegra’s spirit is floating close enough to read over my shoulder.

You can purchase Space Surfers directly from the publisher or on Amazon.

Learn more about Anne E. Johnson by visiting her website or following her on Facebook.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Miguel Santos Ermal: Prologue (part II)

Here is part II of Miguel Santos’s graphic introduction to his webcomic, Ermal. (You can find the first part at last week's post.)

I am a freelance artist for pen and paper games, magazines and indie comics. I live in a periferal province of the pre apocalyptic European Union and I'm most interested in History/Politics, speculative fiction, outdoor activities and simple conversations while drinking a good stout or porter beer.

Last week we saw what happened when the cold war got hot. Now the story begins with the arrival of a rider in a small town recovering from the end of civilization.

(click for larger image)

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Recommend: mythological heroines

We're going to be running a new series of posts over the next few months, in which we ask readers to recommended their best examples of a particular literary genre, type of person, or other cool topic. To kick off the idea, we would like you to tell us your favorite mythological heroines—and why, what makes them amazing, heroic, feminist, progressive, compelling, whatever. Please leave a comment with your examples, justifications or pure gushings of love. To get you started, we’ve asked a few editors, authors and other friends of TFF to give their recommendations.

Margrét Helgadóttir (web page; FB)

Among the most famous and widespread of Inuit myths is the legend of the goddess known as Sedna, Nuliayuk or Taluliyuk, the Mother of the Sea. More than one version of the Sedna creation myth exists but each describes how her father, for different reasons, takes her to sea in his kayak, chops off her fingers, and then hands, when she attempted to return to the boat. She sinks to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and her body parts become the animals of the sea and she becomes the Mother of the Deep, the woman who controls all sea beasts and is half-woman and half-fish.

I find the legend about Sedna very fascinating. Despite her cruel death she gains a major role in the Inuit everyday life. The Arctic Ocean is a major food source and Sedna was worshiped by hunters who depended on her goodwill. She was considered a vengeful goddess, and hunters must placate and pray to her to release the sea animals from the ocean depths for their hunt. Other legends however tell about the good woman who lives under the sea who will keep children away from the dangerous places when they play on the shore. Mythology also says that when an Inuit breaks a taboo in society, Sedna’s hair gets filthy and entangles the animals, preventing the hunters from catching any food. The shaman must clean her hair and talk with her to find out which taboos were broken and communicate these lessons back to society.

Rachel Linn (author page)

The first time I remember hearing about Yuki-onna was in Kwaidan, a film by director Masaki Kobayashi that consists of a series of supernatural stories. Yuki-onna’s nature is difficult to pin down, but she is along the lines of a spirit or ghost and she often appears during snowfall. There are varied stories of Yuki-onna, though most of them begin with a mortal man falling in love with her and end with her disappearing like melting snow.

Yuki-onna is usually portrayed as a perilous influence, but I find the idea of her comfortingly heroic because of my own experiences with snow. I am particularly frightened of hypothermia because I became cold enough to hallucinate the first time I went for a hike in the dead of winter. I often feel that I am only a capable mountaineer with the help of modern insulation technology—water/windproof jackets, chemical warmers, etc.—and have a hard time valuing what I have done because of this. While on cold weather mountaineering or backpacking trips, as I fight with the cold, the image of Yuki-onna stepping out of a snowy forest in below-freezing temperatures (naked or dressed in a delicate kimono), is eerily reassuring. (The book Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost is a great account of ghosts and spirits in Japanese culture, if you want to learn more.)

Jessica Campbell (web page)

I first got excited about Psyche while I was working on my undergraduate thesis on fairy tales and discovered how similar “Cupid and Psyche” was to my favorite tale, “Beauty and the Beast.” Psyche’s story is complicated by the fact that for a long time she interacts with Cupid only in the dark and therefore does not know what he looks like; her jealous sisters feed her suspicion that he hides his appearance because he is some hideous beast. But it turns out that her mysterious lover is actually better than a human—he is a god, and an extremely attractive one at that. Now, as a queer person, I love the statement on nonnormative relationships that we can read into this development: a lover of an unexpected kind may turn out to be exactly the one you want. Oh, and did I mention that Psyche goes on a quest to recover her lover from the machinations of his controlling mother, Venus, at the end? For an intriguing fusion of this story with “Beauty and the Beast,” check out Tanith Lee’s story “Beauty” from the delightfully titled 1983 collection Red as Blood: Tales from the Sisters Grimmer.

Valeria Vitale (TFF)

I encountered Isis, Egyptian goddess of magic and the Underworld, when I was working on the 3D reconstruction of a temple dedicated to her. The story that won my heart is a peculiar one. During a (divine) family dinner, Set, a jealous rival of Isis and her brother-spouse Osiris, challenges all the guests to fit into a beautiful wooden box. If you think that it doesn’t sound like a good idea to step into something that your arch-enemy has built and that looks very much like a coffin, you are not being too suspicious. Once Osiris is inside the box, Set nails it quickly and dumps it in the river.

When Isis finds out what has happened, she immediately goes looking for the body of her partner, to properly bury him. She travels Egypt from corner to corner. I imagine her on a small boat, always followed by one or two silent crocodiles. And finally she finds the box floating! But Set, furious that his plan has been spoiled, chops the body into 14 parts and scatters them all around Egypt. Again, Isis starts her search. Patiently and stubbornly, she collects all the pieces of Osiris’ body to bring him back to life with magic. She finds all but one: his phallus. There are a couple versions of what happened next. One says that another god gave her a golden phallus for Osiris. In my favorite, though, she makes one herself, from mud, and then “blows life into it” (yep!). I love Isis’ determination, her proactive optimism, her faith in her own strength and resources, her unshaken loyalty. I like that it’s her rescuing the male character. Her story may also hint at the fact that a couple doesn’t need a biological phallus to have good sex :-)

Dolly Garland (web page; twitter)

A quintessential Hindu woman, idolized for her inner fire—born of the literal fire—Draupadi is often cited as the catalyst for the great war of Mahabharata. Though she plays such a pivotal role in the epic from which the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita is derived, Draupadi is rarely mentioned as a heroine or a central character, let alone a superhero. If she is, it is as the cause of the war, or as an example of a “typical” mischief-making female.

Though far from flawless, she was truly the woman behind the men. I believe the reason she was a designated catalyst of the Mahabharata (the Great War) in the long game played by Lord Krishna to rejuvenate the human race was because while her husbands—the mighty Pandavas—were brave and true of heart, they hid behind duty and tradition. Draupadi forced them to acknowledge that if they stand for truth and justice going to war was the right thing to do. She was the catalyst because she possessed the strength to do what hundreds of men could not—to raise her voice against injustice rather than hide behind duty and tradition.

In the Indian society which still, in 2017, often values traditions above everything else, Draupadi, a character that is so embedded in mythology and thousands of years old, is a true superhero.

Now tell us about your favorite mythological heroines in the comments!

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Miguel Santos Ermal: Prologue (part I)

This week we welcome Miguel Santos [DeviantArt] [TFF profile], who has been illustrating for TFF since 2009, to tell us a bit about his webcomic, Ermal. Like most artists, Miguel speaks best in images, so his introduction to the comic, almost a prologue, is in graphic form, below. This is the first of two parts…

I am a freelance artist for pen and paper games, magazines and indie comics. I live in a periferal province of the pre apocalyptic European Union and I'm most interested in History/Politics, speculative fiction, outdoor activities and simple conversations while drinking a good stout or porter beer.

I started Ermal in the summer of 2015, planning to launch a 6 page chapter every month. I didn't fail, yet. The webcomic will run at least until 2018. It has an end. Maybe I'll revisit it later with side stories and prequels. The first 6 pages are an intro to what is happening in the region where Ermal is set. Basically the cold war got hot.

(click for larger image)

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Interview with Isabel Yap

Today, The Future Fire Assistant Editor Tracie Welser talks to Isabel Yap about her story in Fox Spirit Books' Asian Monsters.

Isabel Yap writes fiction and poetry, works in the tech industry, and drinks tea. Born and raised in Manila, she has also lived in California, Tokyo, and London. In 2013 she attended the Clarion Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared on Tor.com, Book Smugglers Publishing, Uncanny Magazine, Shimmer Magazine, and Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume 2, among other venues. She is @visyap on Twitter and her website is isabelyap.com.

I was enthralled and horrified (in the best way) by your story "Grass Cradle, Glass Lullaby." Can you tell our readers more about the tiyanak, the story's monster, and how this story developed?
Filipino mythology is so rich that I had trouble deciding which creature I wanted to explore. I'd always wanted to write a story about a tiyanak and it's not one I'd seen that often, so I decided to give it a shot. Like many Filipino creatures, the tiyanak has many different depictions – in some versions it's a demon baby with sharp teeth; in others it's a baby that reveals its true nature as an old, goblin-like man. I asked friends about any possible encounters and also went poking around online.

Once I decided on using tiyanak, the story's other elements slowly came together. I wasn't planning on the fragmented narrative, but I tried a few times to tell the story directly and it didn't work. I realized the tone and the emotion of the protagonist would have to carry the story. I drew mainly on two themes: one is loneliness and isolation; the other is love without limits. I wrote the entire first draft by hand on a train because I was swiftly approaching the deadline.

On your website is the lovely line “I want the heartache, the broken glass, the stories that nibble at my guts”. This creepy tale of a would-be mother's desperate love is still gnawing at the insides of my mind! Did you scare yourself, writing this story?
I'm really easily scared – I don't watch horror movies usually because the images stay with me for way too long. But for some reason, I write quite a lot of horror, and my own stories actually don't scare me – probably because I feel somewhat in control with how things turn out. But if I'm writing really late at night, sometimes I get jumpy!

Also, that line actually came from an essay that was published on Interfictions – you can read it here! :D

The Asian Monsters anthology features several stories about creatures who appear to humans in innocent-seeming disguise. I've always struggled with stories about monstrous children (Pet Sematary, Children of the Corn and so on). Would you characterize this theme as a horror or the uncanny, and what about this appeals to you?
I think it's a mix of both horror and the uncanny. Children can be really frightening in and of themselves – there's something about that combination of innocence and being demanding and self-centered, almost to the point of ruthlessness, that makes horror stories about children have more 'creepiness' to them. It's like you don't want to believe it's possible that they can act that way – it goes against everything we know (or think we know). Personally, I always like themes that lend themselves well to ambiguity. I think it's more interesting that way. :)

What are you working on these days?
First up will be working on revisions for some stories I temporarily shelved due to 2016 craziness. One is a novella about a sorceress, a runaway princess, and a bird with a healing song set in a mythological precolonial Philippines. Another is a novelette about ex-child soldiers, trained in the use of weapons called Triggers, who are now bounty hunters...in space! Lastly I've been fascinated by the assignment of roles to boy and girl groups in kpop...I have nothing but that theme yet, but hopefully a story will come to me sometime. I have a lot of ideas, so I'm just working on getting some semblance of a writing practice back. I'm determined to make 2017 a good year for writing!

Friday, 17 February 2017

Interview with Yukimi Ogawa

Today, The Future Fire Assistant Editor Tracie Welser talks to Yukimi Ogawa about her story in Fox Spirit Books' Asian Monsters.

Yukimi Ogawa lives in a small town in Tokyo, Japan, where she writes in English but never speaks the language. She still wonders why it works that way. Her fiction can be found in such places as Fantasy and Science Fiction and Strange Horizons.

I enjoyed your gruesome and moving story, “Kokuri’s Place”. Can you tell our readers more about the monster, Kokuri Babaa?
Oh thank you! Kokuri Babaa is a monster of an old woman that strips corpses of the skin and eat the flesh, and weaves stuff with the dead’s hair. The part about Kokuri Babaa wearing the dead’s skin afterward is entirely my creation.

In the book in which I learned of her, the caption says she is “feared even more than Datsueba”, and Datsueba is an old-woman monster who strips the dead of their clothes if the dead don’t have enough money with them for crossing the river between this world and the world beyond. I see similarity here, and wonder if one of them had a strong influence on emergence/evolution of the other. Funny (and sad) thing, though, is that Datsueba somehow came to be admired by a certain number of people around the end of Edo era, while Kokuri Babaa is still only a lonely, unimportant monster to this day.

Otherwordly female creatures appear in several of your recent stories, such as the yōkai in “Town’s End”, and the skeleton woman in “Rib”. All three of these stories contain subtle sympathetic touches that made the horrific relatable and even beautiful. Can you tell us what appeals to you about the monstrous feminine?
I love flipping through books that catalogue yokai, and being a woman myself, I guess the female monsters tend to easily catch my eye. These yokai books – especially the ones by Sekien Toriyama, which offer only a few lines of caption at most for each drawing of monster – never go far enough into how they came to be, or why they came to be what they are. It’s just so much fun to try to visualise these hows and whys!

Also, I have to say, I’ve been called "yokai woman" by many people, not entirely in a bad way, but not entirely in a good way either (hehe). Perhaps by depicting the not-just-horrifying aspect of these female monsters, I’m trying to come to terms with this lonely, weird woman that is me.

The stories I mentioned, and especially “Kokuri’s Palace”, are about relationships between marginalized supernatural beings and humans as they come to understand and even aid one another. How did this story, told from alternating points of view, take shape in your writing process?
I remember wanting to tell a story where a human cannot help but call the monster “her”, instead of “it”; and the monster that calls the human “it”, because for that monster, “she”, “he” or any other pronouns just don’t make sense. And to this end, the only way I could think of was letting both of them take the first-person POV.

In my culture we see many stories where humans and monsters cooperate or become friends, and recent examples include GeGeGe no Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki, and Yokai Watch series. In many of these stories the humans are “the good ones”, with the “good” monsters trying to help the human fight the bigger threat – more evil, stronger monsters. But sometimes I find myself asking, “Really?” And this is a theme I enjoy playing with.

What are you working on next?
More stories of yokai! And a longish story about a lot of patterns and colours. Writing about things I love gives me so much pleasure and peace.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Round Table on Female Protagonists

Having being involved in the fundraising campaign for the Problem Daughters anthology in the past weeks has probably made me even more sensitive to the issue of the representation of women. The dearth of female protagonists in products of the cultural industry is hardly a news. But when reading an anthology of stories written by women, and having arrived at the fourth one without encountering a single female protagonist yet, I thought it was worth not only pointing out the issue, but also discussing it and trying to understand what makes active female characters so unlikely to appear, even in fiction written by women. After the initial surprise, I quickly realised that it was actually the same choice I made myself with my first stories some ten years ago. So I wondered what had made it easier and more natural for me to write stories from a male point of view? What were the variables that had played a role in my choice? Was the fact that I was writing horror, one of the genres with the most explicitly misogynistic tropes, one of the reasons? How much weight do our writing training, the models we are exposed to, and even the expectations of the public, have in our work? Does a story with a male character or point of view sound perversely more “right”, especially to a beginning writer? Does it feel like a “safer” choice from a publishing point of view? Lots of questions! So I invited four writers, Jo, Pear, Chinelo and Dolly, to talk about it, and to expand the discussion, including other axes of marginalisation that affect the representation of women of colour, queer, disabled and other marginalized women or non-binary protagonists.

Valeria Vitale: it seems that many women writers, especially at the beginning of their careers, still find it more natural to create male protagonists or to build their stories around men’s POV. Do you agree? And why do you think this happens?

Dolly Garland: I agree that yes it is common to create male protagonists. My first novel that I drafted has a male protagonists. After that, I moved into short-stories for a while and naturally started writing more female protagonists. As a result, the second novel that I am now hoping will be the first that I finish (editing stages) has a female protagonist. I've seen this amongst other writer friends too. I write fantasy and science fiction. I think genre you write matters because it influences what you've read. My exposure to SFF was quite male dominated. It was quite possibly a cultural thing that many of us grew up with. Men take action, and they take care of their women. I grew up in India, so this was particularly portrayed in Bollywood movies, and my general upbringing. Incidentally, when I've written non-SFF stories, I automatically tend to go for female POV because they are usually more "people" stories, focused on particular themes, which without ever being deliberate, turn out to be quite feminist in nature. And our fiction and our media needs to portray strong women but without demeaning men, or turning women into tomboys and stripping them off their feminine qualities.

Jo Thomas: I'm going to second (or are we on third?) that idea. I think it's part of the creative development cycle that, when we start, we tend to mimic what we have already been exposed to. Our creative efforts are simply part of a long conversation and representation in earlier statements / works shapes how we think of ourselves and therefore how we expect our own work to be. I had difficulty finishing work for a long time. I'm not one of those people who is gifted enough to have been writing, and only writing, from an early age but my mother did encourage self-expression so it's one of the things I used to do without really thinking or trying. However, it wasn't until my late twenties that I managed to finish anything, outside of school work, and I still have difficulty writing certain points of view or genres. Part of me knows it's because I'm not (yet?) capable of writing those things. But another part of me has come to realise it's just as much because these are not the things I need to say or see out in the conversation. The conversation needs to be expanded.

But, more than that, I think we need to make sure that people remember it expanded. It's not like there haven't been writers-who-are-women and main-characters-who-are-women, yet it seems like everyone seems to struggle to name them and they get lost. Hopefully not too far off on a tangent

VV: Absolutely not a tangent, Jo! And yes, the conversation needs to be expanded!

I agree that is natural to replicate what you have been exposed to, but I find appalling that still we are mostly exposed to stories written by men, in school as well as in popular culture, as Dolly said. Yes, there are women writers, and yes there are amazing female characters. But, in my case, I had (and still have) to go and actively look for them. And those rare times that they were presented to me, in an educational context, they were always the oddity, or the thing you "had to" include. They were never (or very seldom) presented as the masterpiece, the canon to emulate. Which might be one of the reasons it's so hard for many people to make a list of, I don't know, ten good SF writers that are not men. Also, I believe exposure affects not only the writers, but the public too. Which may make it more difficult and risky for an author to try something different.

About male-dominated genres in fiction, I come from horror and gothic and more often than not, the woman is not just passive, but literally dead (such a beautiful corpse, though...).

Lastly, I do agree that women can be kick-ass without necessarily have to be tom-boyish. But tomboys can, and often are, awesome too. I'm not sure "feminine" is a concept easy to define. Or that has a reason to exist at all.

Pear Nuallak: It’d be remiss to not mention Ursula Le Guin, who started off writing the Earthsea Books from Ged’s point of view (casually misogynist; what few women appeared were inferior and treacherous in comparison to Ged’s strength and authority). Later works in that universe feature more women characters, explorations of gender dynamics, and domesticity in a way that appears to be redressing the earlier imbalance. A more recent work is Lavinia (2008, winner of the Locus Fantasy Award), a re-telling of the Aeneid which gives Lavinia a strongly written voice and doesn’t shy away from domestic and emotional labour, parental abuse, civilian experience of warfare. That trajectory is interesting—not what you’d call statistical sampling, but worth thinking about.

I’ve tried, to no avail, to find a nice graph or juicy statistics which illustrate broader trends over time, or breaking down the newer crops of published works. (For interest, the authorial end of SFF fiction is definitely not diverse by any metric!) I know it seems stick-in-the-mud to mention figures, particularly since I’ve been asked to provide personal commentary—but I clarify this solely because I’m already highly selective about what I consume: I’ve only read one SFF novel by a man in the past few years, and I tend to get recommendations from peers with similar tastes to mine, so most of the time I read women authors writing women protagonists with uncorrupted happiness. I also mostly read short fiction. As to why I think this happens: I'm curious about whether markets are at least partially responsible for a paucity of women-centred SFF. I want to feel out whether there’s a disparity between short fiction and novels (and maybe novellas?). The most diverse venues are smaller ones. How many manuscripts have been forgotten because agents didn’t think women protagonists would sell to a big publisher?

To add to the overall agreement about the creative development cycle: it’s interesting because, in general, almost everyone who was socialised as a woman grows up managing, anticipating, and catering to men’s needs and emotions as part of everyday life; even though we’re told not to make a big fuss about it because it’s “natural” (it’s not), it’s a highly gendered form of emotional labour. Not saying it’s 100% true for all people/cultures! But it’s certainly a broad societal trend observable in multiple cultures. Even though I grew up in a more forward-looking household, that dynamic was still present in various ways; so many of us come away well-informed on intimate, detailed masculine self-narration in general. This, then, forms the landscape of the headspaces in which we write: even though we have the choice to write whoever we wish, we write men... even if that’s not actually our most authentic voice or point of view. When I began dabbling in writing during my late teens, I still featured male protagonists and had to consciously ask myself what I actually wanted to write. I struggle to think of woman-centred SFF writing available to me during that time; The Practical Princess And Other Liberating Fairy Tales is the only one which sticks out. Even though I read plenty of women’s autobiographies and literary fiction from women’s points of view, women-led SFF was a missing piece for me. How I wish I had today’s resources!

Chinelo Onwualu: Honestly I'm not sold on the idea that there is a scarcity of women POV characters in Speculative Fiction. I do agree that women are much better versed with men's interior lives than the other way around and this is why women often write better male characters than men write women's characters. Just as the pervading whiteness of the genre means that people of colour are much more attuned to white points of view than the other way around. I also agree that it's likely that many women writers start out writing male characters then move to writing closer to heart as their work matures - that certainly happened to me. However, I wonder if there is a geographical aspect to that. In reading speculative fiction from a lot of parts of Africa, I find women tend to stick with female points of view pretty consistently. In fact, when I begin a short story with a particularly well-written female character, the chances that the writer is also female-identified is usually high. I think in many societies on the continent gender distinctions are such that women are expected to write female points of view - in many cases, women writers are only ever recognised when they write women characters. In certain parts of SFF it may be the case that there are fewer female protagonists than male - I know that hard and military SF have reputations for being more male-oriented - but I would argue the assertion overall. Perhaps it comes from my own personal taste. I have never had much patience for the kinds of misogynistic male writing in which women were reduced to walking sex objects or half-baked personas whose only job within a narrative was to fall in love with the male protagonist - despite his overall awfulness. In the last two years I have been more conscious of my reading choices in that regard, but it hasn't been hard to avoid such stories. I think the perception comes from the fact that certain stories and books tend to get the lion's share of awards and recognition - and these are often white and male.

Now, if you were arguing about the number of female protagonists of colour versus others, I would have to agree that yes, there aren't enough of them at all. It's been incredibly difficult to find writers who portray the voices of women of colour in ways that feel authentic when they are not women of colour themselves. I think it comes down to who we are best able to relate to. Personally I began my career writing white men, but thankfully only one of those stories ever got published and the rest will moulder in my desk till the end of time. But the stories that sing for me are the stories that touch closest to the issues of my heart - and those voices often sound a lot like my own.

JT: I think there's a possibility that the perception of the gender numbers is screwed rather than the actual figures. After all, it's hard to mention "young adult" or "urban fantasy" without someone rolling their eyes and saying something about how there are far too many angsty teen girls and kick ass women as the POV for them, which leads to another set of questions about variety of characters and whether they have to be kickass in order to be the protagonist. I would put a lot of the skew down to memory and collective interpretation. Personally, I have a terrible memory and I forget other people's names, never mind authors, extremely easily and works that don't stand out for one reason or another tend to blur into one or get forgotten. I think it's more that we've collectively mislaid the memory of an awful lot of women writers and women characters. Although, obviously, there was and is definitely a class of writers aiming for a demographic that doesn't want to think about women beyond them being rewards for a hero. There's also a class of writers aiming for a demographic who like girl cooties, so it may even out. But recognition and awards tend to be somewhat clique-y... and affect the memory. The clique-y thing also shows in how we (UK? Western? Anglophone? Anglo-saxon?) tend to divide men's art and women's art. The great works seem to focus more on men writers and men protagonists - except when it's not in that we have key markers like Austen and the Brontes, and it's not like Hardy wasn't writing about people interacted, etc, etc. Human perception is a weird thing. But, anyway, it's okay for women to write women protagonists but if your only POV is one or more women characters, you can expect to be considered one of the more frivolous genres (like romance or "chick lit") rather than literature about the human condition. If it becomes a classic, it has transcended its author's and/or character's gender. Perhaps it's more of a glass ceiling scenario - women need to break into the higher ranks more often - than a lack of women at all. Chinelo's definitely got a point on the women of colour - as well as gender and sexuality and so on - it's still something "exotic" and often clumsily done by those of us who have no experience. (Again, I'm guilty of this offence and I'm trying to do better.)

VV: My (uninformed) feeling was that mainstream products, looking at books as well as movies, are definitely male dominated with respect to both authors and characters. But, probably like all the people in this conversation, I tend to read more diverse stories, and surely I'm not scared that I will soon ran out good stuff. So, I'd say that, luckily, there are a lot of excellent authors out there, and of interesting and authentic female protagonists. But, if it is true that things seem to be changing, do you feel that they're changing enough? As both Chinelo and Jo pointed out, for example, women of color or queer women are still under- and often misrepresented.

To come back to Jo's point about "second class literature", I definitely feel that there is, at least in the western European world, the unspoken prejudice that literature written by women and with women characters is less valuable and it's implicitly meant to be read only by women. And that the systematic exclusion of non male authors from big literary prizes and awards contributes to this generic perception. I also second Jo about the fact that a character doesn't need to be "kick ass" to be a protagonist. Actually, digressing slightly, literature is full of "inept" men as protagonists, especially in 20th century big novels. But I wonder how the public would have reacted then, and would react now, to an inept woman as protagonist. Can a female protagonist afford to be not extraordinary?

PN: Just to quickly add, Strange Charm Books (which exclusively reviews SFF by women) says that only fourteen of NPR’s Top 100 Sci Fi & Fantasy Books are by women. Had a quick look at the descriptions and, yeah--not many feature women protagonists, either. But they're also classic titles, many of them decades old; that does tend to be what the broader public thinks of genre. Whereas for my social circle, comprising people who keep up with what's coming out, the recently published works which got a lot of buzz and recognition are by Ann Leckie,  Kameron Hurley, etc., which are centred around women and agender people using feminine-default language. Off the top of my head: the recent first novels/novellas by Sofia Samatar, Zen Cho, and Cassandra Khaw feature male protagonists. Not a criticism, since I've enjoyed all their works! But I note their short stories frequently feature women. Again, hardly statistical sampling, and again, that is only the corner of SFF I dabble in. I'm a Brit but much of my SFF consumption comes from the NA market. I personally would be a lot more comfortable handling more data, and I think it's best for me to straight-up admit that I don't know a lot of things and have a lot of questions. I think it's more publishers and dedicated reviewers who'd have access to a big pool of titles from which to pull such information; as an ordinary reader/writer, I can't see the forest for the trees, really. But I do strongly feel, like Chinelo said, there's definitely a dearth of WOC protagonists. Oftentimes I look at a new ToC and find it contains many white women authors writing white women characters--and of course, if you asked people to name 10 or even 5 Black women writers, they would speak as one and say Octavia Butler. And I wish it was only about recognising Butler's paradigm-changing legacy, but rather it is an incuriosity bred from inequality in SFF publishing, as reported in Fireside fiction. I myself admit to this: though, as I mentioned before, I almost exclusively read women writers (and the one male writer has a well-written woman protagonist), it is largely white authorship.

Very interested in the point re: "inept" women protagonists. This is coming slantwise from manga, so not 100% on-message, but Sailor Moon features a protagonist who can be compared to LOTR's Frodo: Usagi not actually good at very much herself, but inspires other, more competent people to come together for a common purpose. She's been criticised for being a poor role model, though. Can we think of similar woman protagonists in fiction?

VV: I loved A Stranger in Olondria too! But I think Winged Histories, Sofia’s new novel in the same literary universe, features female protagonists. So, maybe, another example of the path we talked about.

I have one last question: what are the actions you would like authors, readers, publishers, reviewers to take? More books written by women, I guess is a given. But what else? More representations of women that belong to marginalised groups (or groups that often remain invisible)? More diversity in the kind of women protagonists (not only the heroine type)? More prizes reserved to women authors? More women in the juries of literary prizes? A different marketing for women writers that doesn't seem to address only women?

CO: I want to give a shout out to my "inept" anime heroines. They're a big reason why I watch both anime and J-dramas. Emphasizing that women can be powerful and influential without losing any to the traits deemed typically feminine or having to be capable of violence is very appealing to me. And I love seeing Asian women outside of the context of Western understandings which often give them such stereotypical depictions, it's difficult to handle. I would love more of those kinds of depictions to show up in Western media and literature - particularly extending to women of colour. I can't stand the association in the Western imagination with women of colour and violence (either as perpetrators or victims). I can be empowering every once in a while but when it becomes the basis of nearly every characterisation, it's tiresome as hell.

In terms of changing things, I think it really starts with exposure. Our imaginations are shaped by what we see and experience, and when you have a certain space or group dominated by certain voices, those exposed to it will come to think those are the only voices allowed there. We need to reassess what it is we consider canon at its most basic level. Last summer I was privileged to attend the James Gunn Science Fiction Writing Workshop in Kansas University and I met James Gunn himself. It was an amazing experience to be able to have serious discussions about genre and writing with one of the people who lived through the Golden Age of SFF and helped shape what we think of as SFF's canon. It was fascinating to see both the outer reaches to which his generation of editors could imagine when it came to discovering new talent and telling amazing stories. But it highlighted the limits created by unexamined prejudices against women, people of colour, and people writing outside Western contexts. I was lucky that Mr. Gunn had both the patience and the clarity of mind to express his points of view to me, but I am also glad that the genre has moved on from the thinking that characterised that generation. I think we shouldn't allow ourselves to be tied down by the definitions that were created by those that came before us. We should be willing to take things off the canon that no longer work and add things newer things that reflect the kind of world we're trying to build as well as those voices that may have been overlooked during their time.

So that's my two cents. It's been such a pleasure talking to you all! Thank you for inviting me to this!

JT: Once again, I find myself agreeing with Chinelo. Although "inept" has to be handled with care, otherwise we could end up in a world filled with... what is the name of the girl in Twilight? :)

I think the main thing we can do is broadcast our existence more and boost the signal of those who come from different groups. #DiversityInSFF is a good example but it's only noticeable on a few platforms (if relatively well-known ones). More awards and so on would be good, but there's only so much bandwidth or, probably more precisely, brain-space available. I'm not saying this should stop us but we need to be aware that this functions like tv shows: it's not possible to watch / read everything being created so it's highly unlikely that any one show or author or creator is going to have such a large share of the market that they will automatically win highly recognised awards. And with the more popular awards like the Hugos are suffering a bit of an image crisis with the associated campaigning and apparent "gaming". Which is not to say that shouting as loudly as we can about diverse authors and experiences is a bad thing, simply that we can't expect to be heard by everyone. Perfection will never be achieved but it's worth aiming for. (Says me, who never was very good at shouting these things from the rooftops.)

I suspect it's time to start making sure we're collectively recorded for posterity. There are people who focus on ensuring that women and people of various minorities get their pages on WIkipedia. I think perhaps we need to encourage more people to get involved in things like that and possibly commit to filling these things in ourselves. We need Goodreads and WIkipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica and the SF Encyclopedia (http://sf-encyclopedia.com/) and all those kind of sites to overflow with entries so that the record of the otherwise hidden or unseen people are there. But then we get into the whole "whose responsibility is it?" discussion, I guess.

DG: yes more books by women is a given, but also more diverse voices. I think prizes will definitely help - because that is what creates publicity, and publicity creates promotion, market demands etc. And that is what it comes to. Market demand. We must not forget the practical aspect. It is not merely enough to be artists in our own rights, or be good at representing the voices, or be good at what we do. The voices remain marginalized because they are not heard. So they need to be heard, and the best way to do that is by using the world we live in - whether directly, through loopholes, or by going around the "rules". Us, in our corner, talking about it is a start - but merely a start. It is not enough. Literary prizes, contests that invite only women, or reviewers who review women all add up to raising that profile. That is essential. Each of us can also take an active part in it, promoting women authors, talking about marginalized voices, and not hiding our own. I am presenting a paper in July in London which is titled, "Miss you've a very white name." It is about me - and my white name. That was a comment made to me by an A level student I was tutoring. He was right. I do have a white name. But what is a "white" name? How did we come to have such perceptions attached to names? Is my voice - that is in fact a very brown voice - weaker or stronger because of it? I don't know, but these are the questions that we need to answer when trying to amplify marginalized voices.

VV: Thank you all for your joining this round table and sharing your views. I think that you made some excellent points, rooted in your own personal experience. I hope this is only the start for a larger and even more diverse conversation that really need to take place. Everyone is welcome to add their voice in the comments to this post.

Valeria Vitale is assistant editor of The Future Fire and co-editor of the TFF anthologies TFF-X and Fae Visions of the Mediterranean. She is an academic researcher specialised in ancient buildings and forgotten place names. You can follow her on Twitter as @nottinauta

Dolly Garland writes fiction that is bit like her - muddled in cultures. Having lived in three countries, and several cities, she now calls London her home, though the roots of her fantasy have returned to India, where she grew up. You can find her @DollyGarland on Twitter, @DollyGarlandAuthor on Facebook, and www.dollygarland.com

Jo Thomas is the author of the Elkie Bernstein trilogy (Fox Spirit Books) and the co-editor of the anthologies European Monsters and African Monsters (Fox Spirit Books). Her fiction also appeared on TFF magazine (Hunting Unicorns, An Invisible Tide) and the anthology Outlaw Bodies (Good Form).

Pear Nuallak a London-based writer who also sometimes paints and crafts. They are interested in how people give and take, how we relate to and communicate with each other, the similar and different things we value. Their fiction was published on TFF, MouthLondon, For Books Sake, and WeAreCollision. Their story With her diamond teeth was featured on the 2016 Locus Recommended Reading List. They tweet at @pearnuallak

Chinelo Onwualu is a writer, editor and journalist living in Abuja, Nigeria. She is editor and co-founder of Omenana.com, a magazine of African speculative fiction. Her writing has appeared in several places, including Strange Horizons, The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, Ideomancer and several anthologies. Follow her on twitter @chineloonwualu or check her out at www.chineloonwualu.me