Worldbuilding: representative sexualities

One of the questions I got from my beta readers when editing the manuscript of Ryswyck, and one which I expect to get from readers from time to time now the book is in the wild, is a theme with variations: what are the sexualities of the characters, and how are they understood in the ‘verse? Are the questionable choices of — well, Barklay in particular — a function of sexuality, or of something else? Where does Douglas land on the spectrum, if there is one? Where does Speir? Just how friendly is your worldbuilding to non-het points of view?

Since it’s Pride month, I might as well address the topic now. And comment, incidentally, on the reactionary situation that has developed since I first conceived Ryswyck about seven years ago. And if I’m going to talk about the worldbuilding of my ‘verse, I’ll want to talk about the backstory of our own. (Those of you who don’t need the history lesson, bear with me for a couple paragraphs.)

Until 150 years ago, we didn’t have any descriptive words for what it meant to have non-heterosexual desires and experiences. We had a handful of extremely ethnically specific words, and we had a host of pejoratives. Western society, for hundreds of years, had nothing but a reified concept of human sexuality that excluded all but a certain range of heterosexual points of view. Anything in reality outside that range fell short of being human: it was bent, twisted, wicked, sick, or broken.

Then in 1869 the word homosexual was coined. It was intended to be a scientific/medical description of a certain pathology. But this had consequences. The word and concept of heterosexuality then needed to be invented. With that duality it was possible to talk about sexualities on academic terms and in public forums. People who identified themselves as homosexual began to have a way to talk about themselves without mirroring a reflex of disgust. They started reclaiming the pejoratives for their own use; more and more experiences and identities came into the light and were named, so that by the end of the 20th century we had what we call alphabet soup, and more descriptive terms for sexual and gender identity are coined and put into circulation all the time.

Some people have started to scoff at this. “This is ridiculous, we have L, G, B, T, Q, A, I, WTF, BBQ — where is this going to end?” I’m glad you asked that question, Imaginary Scoffer. It seems to me that the most reasonable and moral trajectory of this process would be to re-reify the concept of “human” sexuality, this time to include the increasingly obvious multiplicity of ways to experience love and desire. People could use descriptive terms for themselves without also having to press those terms into service as polemic, to defend themselves against the backlash of the heteronormative point of view.

But what’s happening instead right now is something I think very sad and short-sighted. There are some non-het groups who can’t or won’t conceive of a reunified human sexuality, and have turned on those whose identities resist definite labels. “You Bs, you Ts, you Is, whatever you are — you aces and aros, take your queer umbrella and get out! You belong with the enemy: the straights!”

None of this was on my radar when I was worldbuilding for Ryswyck. All I wanted, as Kameron Hurley saw, was to write a story without having to say, “Well, as you know, Bob, Douglas is pansexual and homoromantic!” So I invented context for him, and for Speir, and for Barklay and Stevens and Cameron and Rose and Corda and Darnel and Orla: context in which my characters were free of the pressure to see their identities as essentially polemic. The society they live in isn’t perfect, but it has advanced in this one area in part because the communities are small and everyone needs each other; needs to be able to trust one another, whatever their identity might be. The people who get to know Douglas come to know that he might like to go to bed with a wide variety of people, but the person he falls in love with is overwhelmingly likely to be male. Nothing else is needed. Everyone gets to say who they are. Everyone gets to rest.

But our interaction with such a story is unfortunately not simple. There are some authors and showrunners and creators who resist using labels for the reasons I sketch above, because they want to upgrade the whole context in which characters relate to one another. And then there are the authors and showrunners and creators who resist using labels because they want plausible deniability in case straight people get…het up about “forced” representation.

Nobody forced me to write from a non-het-centric point of view; I just did. I have enough age and experience now that I don’t feel my own identity as inherently polemic. I’ve done myself the same courtesy I deeply believe in doing others: letting them say who they are. Even if I think they’re wrong, or problematic (a word that covers a host of sins), or merely tiresome.

Everything doesn’t have to be a fucking polemic.

I know, I know: the battle lines being drawn right now are not imaginary. The Nazis have crawled out from under their rocks, and brazen cruelties march across every television chiron, and it’s hotter in Alaska right now than it is in Kansas City, and I-29 opened for five minutes before going under again.

But what is speculative fiction for if not for featuring to ourselves a way of being that is recontextualized, recentered, reimagined — while still being ourselves? All this noise may cover it up from time to time. But people are always people. And courtesy is still a thing.

And it’s time our context got an upgrade.

Worldbuilding: Standing in mother’s place

In some ways, worldbuilding is like unsnarling a necklace chain found in a drawer, particularly at the beginning. It takes patience and mental energy to tease the links apart, to soften and separate the knots, to draw one loop free of a ball of metal tangles. Very often it can’t be done in one sitting; one has to put it away before ragequit takes over — take a break, take a walk, rest one’s inner and outer vision.

This is because building a world is a reversed process of how our world usually unfolds. I want my characters to be in a particular predicament; but the predicament depends on a situation that doesn’t happen in our world. So how can I get that situation to come about? Well, it could happen due to these causes. And where do those causes come from? They came from a larger situation like…this. And why is the larger situation like this?

Then: do all these causes agree with one another? If not, what would need to happen to make them agree?

And then: what invisible assumptions am I making? Are those assumptions valid in the world I’m building? What kind of parabolic light do they shed on our world? Is that the parable I wanted to sketch?

All this is by way of saying that when I invented a matrilineal society for my main characters to live in, it was a means to an end, starting from my characters and working outward. I didn’t start with the world and work inward to the characters.

A lot of times when we describe the premise of a SFF story (or urban fantasy, or anything that requires extensive worldbuilding), we describe it from the outside in. We say, what if there were Jesuits IN SPAAACE? Let’s hear a story about that. But did Mary Doria Russell say that when she started to write The Sparrow? Maybe she did. But maybe not.

I didn’t say: what if we had a matrilineal society in a half-broken post-nuclear world? Let’s hear a story about that. I said: these two characters interest me. I think I’ll call them Speir and Douglas. This half-tangled story I’m drawing about them — what’s happening to them? What’s happening around them? What are they doing about it? And why?

Only then did I say: hey, it sure would be interesting if this society was matrilineal. And if there were a long-past nuclear holocaust, that would explain why the technology is so piecemeal compared to our own. How do those two things fit together?….Well…

And so I got out my tweezers and turned on the anglepoise lamp and set about pulling free a straight chain. Because like all writers, I’m a glutton for self-punishment. It’s not enough to spend a luxurious week in free-form daydreaming, reeling out a one-show-only viewing in my mental theater. Oh no. I had to plan to tell the story to other people. I had to make it sturdy. I had to make it internally consistent. I had to develop a coherent moral imperative. Dammit.

So from a writer’s point of view — or this writer’s point of view, anyway — vicarious enjoyments are like a gumdrop trail of rewards: if you write this story, then guess what, you can read it. You want that, don’t you?

It was so simple, seven years ago, when I was inventing Ryswyck. I was just an ordinary space-cadet writer sitting at a table with a pair of tweezers and a necklace. I thought that inventing, sketching, and detailing a matrilineal society was a pretty pedestrian way to tell the story I wanted to tell.

It may have been, but it isn’t now.

In the country I invented, mothers are the undisputed custodians of their children; their surnames are the ones that children are known by; their fertility is a precious asset that they control; they live in bonds of sworn trust with the local communities they live in and participate in collective decisions as a matter of course; their relationships are governed by witnessed contracts of which they are equal and sovereign negotiators; their property and inheritance is at their own disposal and likewise can be negotiated by contract with the fathers and sponsors of their children.

What I am describing is not a matriarchy. But it is so very, sickeningly far from the world I wake up in day after day that the distinction is obscured by distance. By day I work up to my elbows in stories about how there are maternal health care deserts spreading in rural areas in what we tell ourselves is the pinnacle of civilized society. I get on my Facebook feed and between the dead dolphins and the ominous Bonhoeffer quotations are sandwiched horrific headlines about men shooting their wives point-blank in the face for not behaving abjectly enough to their inherent superiority. Laws being written denying that a female body houses a self and a soul of its own. Public citizens treated like public property. Godwin’s Law is dead and Margaret Atwood is a prophet.

The story hasn’t changed. But the parable has.

At church yesterday all the women were offered a pink carnation for Mother’s Day. I politely avoided taking one. I don’t want to be handed a fucking flower, I want to be handed a sword.

Fortunately, I’ve already got one.

So: would you like to read a story about characters in a matrilineal society set in a half-broken post-nuclear world? Would you like to read a story about two countries whose leaders recognize the choice between destroying one’s enemies and not destroying the world they live in — and who stand a chance of choosing rightly? Would you like to read a story in which a character’s slogan becomes Undefendedness is an offensive strategy — and who deploys that strategy to great effect? Would you like to read a story in which courtesy and humanity are more valuable than cynicism?

You may think that if you stretch out your hand for this story, you’ll be getting a flower.

You won’t be.

Best of Blog: The Mouths of Women

Today is International Women’s Day, and in consequence I would like to talk about a particular part of a woman’s body that gets a great deal of attention. No, not that part. Not that one either.

I’m talking about the mouth.

Seems to me that we’re always talking about the mouths of women, and particularly we talk about what’s going into a woman’s mouth, or else what’s coming out. Succinctly, then:

What’s going in.Susan Bordo pointed out some years ago the sedimented notions of gender and eating in visual advertisements. In advertisements for food, she argued (with many examples), men eat and women prepare. Women serve food to their children and their men: they don’t eat it. If they do eat, it is in controlled portions with low calories which they make for themselves at a time when nobody else can see them. A woman is caught in a closet with a pint of low-cal Haagen-Dasz; a man swans off a diving board into a three-scoop bowl of chocolate ice cream with not a calorie counter in sight. Almost twenty years later I pick up a Woman’s Day magazine, and with very few exceptions, the same narratives obtain.

We have not even got as far as the whole fat thing yet, except to talk about calories, and since we’ve now had food scientists assert that it’s indeed the calories that taste good, we don’t even have to go there to talk about those calories. The narrative is: woman putting something in her mouth that gives her pleasure = suspect. If she hasn’t fed the kids first, outright transgressive. I’d love to see a growing preponderance of visual advertisements that depict a woman consuming something with enjoyment that does not suggest guilt (even by mentioning guilt’s absence) or sin or temptation or any other hovering transgressiveness.

What a woman consumes by mouth is naturally a metaphor for other kinds of appetite: hence the deep suspicion of contraception as a means of license for women’s sexual appetites which will be uncontrolled as soon as they are freed from the “consequences” that keep them in check, and a sense that anysatisfaction of that appetite must benefit the race in order to be licit.

Indeed, even women’s intellectual appetites are a transgression, as the whole plot of Gaudy Night draws out: a woman either has bad taste in novels, films, and public discourse, or else she is wasting time that would be better spent doing something useful.

All of this is so ubiquitous that to point it out is either to belabor the obvious or to draw a defensive response from the sex not concerned, and that brings me to the other function of mouths.

What’s coming out. My father’s favorite epithet for me when I was growing up was “sharp-tongued,” and though it was effective in making me feel unlovely and inappropriate by nature, what I often thought most when I heard it was that my tongue clearly wasn’t sharp enough, or it would have cut me an escape hole by now.

What actually happens when I open my mouth as an adult is that people say: “What?” “I’m sorry, speak up, I can’t hear you.” “Say that again?” Never is this more problematic than when I am invited into the pulpit: I have to project far beyond what feels comfortable in order to be sure of being heard, to push the envelope of ineffectual yelling to make sure my words are understood. In fact, just the other day I was in a restaurant with my mother and sister and brother, and the waiter had to ask every single one of us to repeat our order over the background noise. “We’re quiet talkers,” my mother said laughingly. Well…yes. That, I think, is its own comment.

Yet it’s not untrue that I can be sharp-tongued, as any longtime reader of my rants on this blog may be able to attest. But how much is this an indictment of my very being, and how much is the equally-sedimented notion that women’s voices are heard too much, that to be a woman and to call for redress or repentance or recognition is to be a scold and a harpy, to snatch unlawful airwaves and display inherent ignorance, to rebel against the rightful judgment imposed from without? If women are saddled with an anxiety of eating, surely they are equally saddled with an anxiety of speaking.

In this context let me compare two well-known passages from the Middle Ages. First, the Clerk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales ends his tale of patient Griselda with an envoie clearly intended as a smack at the Wife of Bath, whose prologue was longer than her tale. He says in part:

O noble wyves, ful of heigh prudence,
Lat noon humylitee your tonge naille,
Ne lat no clerk have cause or diligence
To write of yow a storie of swich mervaille
As of Grisildis pacient and kynde….
Folweth Ekko, that holdeth no silence,
But evere answereth at the countretaille….
Ye archewyves, stondeth at defense,
Syn ye be strong as is a greet camaille;
Ne suffreth nat that men yow doon offense.
And sklendre wyves, fieble as in bataille,
Beth egre as is a tygre yond in Ynde….
Ne dreed hem nat, doth hem no reverence,
For though thyn housbonde armed be in maille,
The arwes of thy crabbed eloquence
Shal perce his brest….

The words of women are clearly seen here as weapons to make men cower, and indeed are the only weapons available to them, since they are physically weaker and at a social disadvantage. “Ne suffreth nat that men yow doon offense” — you can practically hear the sarcasm dripping from the page — “Don’t let men get away with offending you by any means,” as if a woman ever does, amirite? Yet though a woman can beat a man down with words, he may well go down believing he was in the right all along, and aggrieved that he cannot retaliate with physical violence.

Compare the long-awaited appearance of Beatrice at the end of the Purgatorio, where she meets Dante not with gentle words but with a stern scolding:

“With inspirations, prayer-wrung for his sake,
Vainly in dreams and other ways as well
I called him home; so little did he reck.

And in the end, to such a depth he fell
That every means to save his soul came short
Except to let him see the lost in hell.

For this the gateway of the dead I sought,
And weeping, made request of him by whom
He has been raised thus far and hither brought.

It would do violence to God’s high doom
If Lethe could be passed, and ill-doers
To taste this blessed fare could straightway come

Without some forfeit of repentant tears….

O thou, yon side the sacred stream,” said she,
Turning the sharp point of her speech my way —
Though even the edge seemed sharp enough to me —

And thus continuing without delay;
“Say, say if this is true; so grave a charge
Requires thine own confession; therefore say.”

Dante’s response to this is to indeed give up the “forfeit of repentant tears,” to weep and admit his wrong before the whole company of the Earthly Paradise, and in fact to swoon at the overwhelming consciousness of this terrible truth. It is after that that Beatrice leads him up into Paradise, making him more able, the more he comprehends of Heaven, to look upon her beautiful smile.

There are two things to be said about this. One is that however problematic the doctrine of Courtly Love may be in other respects, it at least introduced the concept of a woman as a man’s liege-holder, who by his love for her “bears rule” over him and therefore has the right to so chastise him when he is in the wrong. This is a rule he offers her freely, but it is also a rule that reflects the reality of her dazzling effect on him.

Which leads me to the second thing. The figure of Beatrice is unequivocally put forward as a “God-bearer” to Dante — someone who is the image of God, or an image of God, to him who loves her. The Divine Comedy is the story of a particular man who encounters God in this particular way, but were we each to write our own Divine Comedy we should (if we are lucky) have our own God-bearing person or image to lead us home with such patience no matter how little we reck. The point is that women are, as men are, the image of God. And whether one thinks that God made us in God’s image, or we made God in ours, this truth still holds — that we, humanity, this quintessence of dust, are nevertheless a brightness we can show to one another and to bear rule over one another, and we show our Godlikeness in our gift of language.

We humans have mouths, by which we eat and drink, and from which we speak, and I am taking this time out of my day to say that half of us should bear well in mind that we are fundamentally allowed to eat and drink and speak. We are anxious because the power to eat and drink and speak is presented to us as a power we have no right to. But it’s just not true.

Because women are the image of God.

[Originally published 3/8/2012]

Merry Christmas, and an Angry New Year

Apparently Sunday blogging didn’t happen yesterday. Instead, I had some needed downtime, in which the most strenuous thing I did was to draft a map of the island country featured in Ryswyck, to show to an artist I would commission to draw it properly for the book. I would show it here, but a) there’s a reason why I’m hiring someone else to draw the map and b) I digitized and edited it at its full size to retain the details, and this post wouldn’t support an image that size.

Meanwhile, the items on my production schedule for the book are slowly coming together, though we’re still in the stage where things happen discretely instead of in linked chains of tasks. I expect it to pick up as spring comes on. Currently on my writer’s easel is a novella-sized treatment of the aftermath of the book, which if it edits well will serve as a sampler of the ‘verse and an intro to the second book in the series, which has been storyboarded and a few scenes sketched in. I’m doing my best to take advantage of the post-winter-solstice surge that is part of my creative rhythm.

It’s only in recent years that I have noticed that pattern enough to take advantage of it; for a long time I was too relieved that the torturous contraction of autumn was over to realize that it had an effect on my writing too. Not just the amounts of production, but the qualities of it change: less maudlin, more driven.

Which brings me to today’s subject. For Christmas, I gave my closest friends a copy of Rebecca Traister’s new book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. It’s a short, trenchant treatment of the current situation we find ourselves in, and the attempts our society makes to obscure the power of anger in women by belittling or demonizing it. Just days ago I woke from a vivid dream about a fascist corporate takeover in which propaganda was spread printed on women’s shopping bags — seemingly friendly advice crowded in little text boxes and meme-sized photos: “Remember, if you start to feel angry, just remember that you’re a bad person, and the feelings will subside.” This morning I woke from a dream in which I went to a guru’s office in part to report that someone had rifled my briefcase bag and taken valuables from it, only to receive a bulletin later that I was banned from the building because being angry over the theft had made me dangerous and disruptive.

I used to have the luxury of thinking dreams like this were due to the idiosyncrasies of my brain and my life experiences. That’s a luxury that’s long gone for everyone.

The funny thing is, if you can get over the bone-deep suspicion that your anger is a sign of depravity, you can get a lot done. When I conceived Ryswyck six years ago, its dangers were all hypothetical, its moral imperative the stuff of parable. I worked on it slowly, stymied at times by mental and emotional obstacles. Then suddenly, there was nothing hypothetical at all about a post-post-apocalyptic tale in which the principle of courtesy becomes the last hope of people mired in a dehumanizing war. I was galvanized into action and wrote the last two-thirds of the story in a fever of fury. Then followed, of course, the long process of beta reading and editing and market research. Pressing to find the place of velocity.

We think that anger is no more than a feeling, an outrage inflicted upon us by the people or the situation that is making us angry. It’s that, to be sure. But finding something to do — not about it, but with it, in it — transforms it, transubstantiates it into something life-giving, even joyful. It becomes something we want to offer to the highest.

What we choose for our highest is the next perilous point.

So, for the New Year I wish you the anger to offer and the best place for offering it, and in those in-between times, a means of cheer and relief. I’ll be on the fencing strip, myself. Cheers!