Ask Nicola Archives
April 21, 1999
I spent a lot of time searching out lesbian science fiction, and was about to
give up when I was by chance forwarded something from an obscure mailing list
that recommended The Blue Place. Since we're still unable to
get The Blue Place in Australia unless we're willing to sell
body parts to afford import copies I went in search of all your back
catalogue, and was stunned with Ammonite and Slow
River. Since I know that you are unlikely to make it to Australia any
time soon for signings etc, I wanted to take this chance to tell you how amazed
and inspired I am by your work.
I often get disillusioned with writing Science Fiction and Fantasy by the
tendency the genre has of being open and progressive about so many things, and
yet inherently conservative about others. I tell someone I'm writing a novel
about say drug abuse on societies in general or about race issues, and they say
WOW! You tell them that your main characters are also lesbian and most people I
know shrink back from that, and automatically assume you're wasting your time,
that such writing will never get published, except maybe on the internet where
people starving for different kinds of writing seem to be the only ones who
Do you find that people who read your books react generally well to your
writing about homosexuality? Do they assume you're trying to make some kind of
stand about the issue, or do people generally accept that you just want to write
about love the way you see it, and not have to bend that into something more
palatable? I'm finding that as progressive as the genre claims to be, I can't
seem to slam past that initial hurdle of being labelled a "lesbian author" even
though sexuality in my writing is incidental.
Do you think the Science Fiction genre is conservative, or progressive?
Thanks, and I'm eagerly awaiting a copy of The Blue Place as
soon as I can get my hands on one.
My main characters have, so far, all been dykes, but I don't write about how
hard it is to be a dyke in the inner city, or what it's like to come out to
one's parents or peer group. I don't talk about discrimination against women or
dykes. To write well, I have to be really fired up about something in
particular, and these subjects just don't do it for me. For most of my
characters, being a dyke is as much taken for granted as having brown eyes or
two feet or a taste for tacky action films; they don't question it, don't spend
time thinking about it. In other words, I don't write about homosexuality. The
thing I write about is identity: how people grow and change.
Despite my opinions on the matter, those readers for whom homosexuality is
weird or distasteful or frightening will probably still believe that I'm writing
about lesbianism, because such readers can't see around the main character's
love life. They might be reading a scene where the character is fighting for her
life on a glacier, and all they'll see, all they'll think is: Huh, it's a dyke
fighting a man because she thinks she's butch. There are distressingly few
weapons against willful ignorance. When my first novel,
Ammonite, was published, one of the first reviews was in
Locus, and it was a very poor review. Oh, the reviewer liked the book
(quite a lot, actually) but he didn't get it. All he could see was that all the
women were lesbians. "How much more interesting" he said (I'm paraphrasing--it's
been six years), "if Marghe had had a brother with whom we could empathize."
What he meant, of course, was how much more interesting to him to the
book would have been if some of the characters had been more like him.
Tuh. He couldn't seem to understand that well-drawn characters are, first and
foremost, human; it doesn't matter about their race or sex or religion; if you
want to move along with them as they feel and bleed and learn, you have to use
your imagination, you have to put yourself in their shoes. When I read a great
novel with a Jewish narrator, I know--even if only for an instant and
imperfectly--how it is to be Jewish in a Gentile world. When I read a novel
about men in the navy, I understand something of being male.
Readers who are frightened of homosexuality will be frightened of books
containing homosexual characters because they'll have to put themselves in those
characters' shoes. They will have to go there, imaginatively. This is probably
very threatening for them. Threatened people occasionally react with hostility.
It used to be in this country that you could murder a gay man with impunity, as
long as you used the heterosexual panic defence: i.e. he was queer and came on
to me and, well, Judge, I'm straight so naturally I panicked! Fortunately, this
is becoming less of a useful defence...but if it can used to deny a real victim
his worth as a human being, think how easily it's used by publishers or
reviewers when it comes to denying the worth of a piece of fiction.
The unwillingness to go there imaginatively is as true of writers as readers.
To be a good writer, you need three things: persistence, talent, and bravery.
Persistence speaks for itself. Talent includes the ability to imagine, and to
then bring the imagined back and lay it down on the page. Bravery is a bit more
complicated. It is not always easy to really imagine being a certain way or
feeling a particular emotion. If I write about abuse, for example, I have to
really, really imagine what it's like, to ignore the cliches, ignore what I've
read before or the common wisdom on the subject, and think about it, step by
tiny step and see where it takes me. This kind of mental journey is not always
pleasant. The unpleasantness doesn't spring merely from discomfort but also from
the fact that in order to imagine something, you have, to some extent, to change
yourself to go there. While you are there, experiencing it, even imaginatively,
you are chancing still more. Writing is metamorphosis. I have grown to be who I
am partly through what I write.
As for whether or not the SF genre is progressive, I find it hard to say
because I don't think it's possible to speak of a single genre anymore (perhaps
it never was). There is feminist SF and hard SF and slipstream, adventure SF and
literary SF and bestseller SF. They all have different readers, different
writers, different publishers and critics. It seems to me that if you took a
poll of a random sample of readers and fans of SF, they would in general profess
themselves to progressive and liberal. SF has a reputation for being the
literature of the enlightened; those who read it have a fair amount invested in
at least trying to be so. Wanting to be and actually being, are, of course, two
different beasts, but at least there's a willingness to try with the lovers of
Dear Ms. Griffith:
I am working on a project that compiles the votes of professionals in various
fields regarding subjects pertinent to their areas of expertise. For this
particular category, "The Best Horror Films" of all time, I am consulting
writers familiar with the horror genre, and film critics.
I would greatly appreciate your help in this matter. If you would please cast
your vote for your choice of the three best horror films, I will then enter them
into the pool of submissions, and continue the tallying process. Your comments
are also very welcome and encouraged!
Thank you very much and good luck with all your projects!
I'm not entirely sure that "Horror Films" are really pertinent to my area of
expertise but I'm always happy to give an opinion on something I don't know much
about < g >. Actually, horror is something I've been pondering lately. I'm
in the middle of selecting stories for Bending the Landscape:
Horror and have been trying to work out what kind of story I want for
the volume. Although I haven't come up with a hard and fast definition of
"horror," I'm beginning to reach a few tentative conclusions.
Horror is a bit like feminism: it's all relative. Just as what might seem
feminist to one person seems reactionary to another (a woman who lives in the US
will think a novel set on a world where women are only allowed to drive vehicles
that weigh less than 1.5 tons will find it unfeminist, whereas a woman from
Saudi Arabia, where women aren't allowed to drive at all, might find it rather
liberating), what horrifies one reader might do nothing for another. A story in
which someone is brutally tortured and then murdered is, to me, a horror story
but it is also something that happens several times a day in this country alone.
I don't want to read about it if that is all the story is about. On the other
hand, if there's a story with someone getting tortured and killed but the
fiction is an exploration of how the killer really, really doesn't want to be
doing the killing, about how she has tried, over and over, to stop herself, but
she just can't help it, and if it is written so convincingly that I understand
the killer, that I empathise and sympathise with her struggle, then that is very
interesting to me indeed because I have learnt something. I have understood
someone alien to me. I have managed to believe, even if just for a few seconds,
that a killer is not only a monster but a human being.
Horror, for me, is the opposite of all the good things of life. Horror is all
to do with a lessening, a constriction, a narrowing of choice, happiness and
hope in the life ahead. Horror is something I feel when I read or watch a
character make a choice that I know will mean his life will become worse for a
long, long time. Horror has elements of inevitability, overtones of tragedy.
Horror almost always ends badly.
My favourite horror is also touched either with the supernatural or the
surreal, occasionally with the science fictional. Ghost stories aren't always
horror, though. For example, I've enjoyed The Ghost and Mrs.
Muir every time I've watched it but it is essentially a pleasant
romance; all ends rather satisfactorily. I don't think the first two
Alien films are really horror because, although they start out
badly, most of the people we care about--Ripley and the cat in the first one,
Ripley and Newt and the Nice Marine and (bits of) Bishop in the second--end up
surviving. They win. Their lives, it is implied, will continue and they will
grow, change etc. The third in the series, on the other hand, deconstructs all
that. It is horror, and I hated it. Apart from the fact that it was badly
written (though nicely acted), the film took everything from Ripley and
subjected her to all those things she dreaded most. Horrible, and a real
departure from the previous, winning formula. Not a good film because I learnt
nothing, took no questions away at all. All I felt was despair for Ripley, and
real irritation with the film-makers.
One really good horror film, in my opinion, is The Haunting,
adapted from Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House which
is a fine novel. We never see monsters, we never see ghosts, the characters
don't carve each other up, but we see the disintegration of some of those
involved, and it all makes perfect psychological sense. And we know Hill House
is haunted by something truly terrible. There is also the added fillip of
lesbian subtext (though it's so strong it's not really subtextual--bit like
Xena, really...). It's black and white, though not shot as well as it could have
been. The lighting is terrible. The acting and writing are both pretty good. And
it is very, very creepy.
Then there are all those adrenalin-pumping things like
Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street etc.
that scare me half to death but don't leave me with any questions, or lessons
learnt, or even any residual fear; the films that have done that are mostly
science fictional. The Thing and Invasion of the Body
Snatchers, for example, raise frightening issues of identity. We find
ourselves questioning what it means to be human, how we can ever know what
another is like beneath the surface. They point to the basic alienation of one
human being for another. This is scary stuff and it leaves lingering doubts
about our previously unquestioned reality.
The first time I watched Fargo I giggled when the poor
kidnapped wife hopped around in the snow, blindfolded. I was horrified at myself
for laughing at what was a terrible thing, but at the same time I really admired
the director's skill for leading me to that place. That film reminded me that
horrible things really can be comical--as long as they're happening to someone
In it's final analysis, that's what horror is all about: bad stuff that we
can afford to watch or read or listen to because it's fascinating in a sick sort
of way but it's not happening to us. I prefer watching and reading about bad
stuff that teaches me things, that's all.
Dear Nicola: As an old pro, I need help on a little project.
The question is: WHERE can I advertise this sci-fi project to sci-fi readers and
fan-club types avid to read collectors' items? Was formerly Nat'l Exec VP of
earlier Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Am soon rejoining SFWA,
including my literary estate.
Several things are unclear to me after reading your question. First of all,
what is your project? What do you mean, exactly, by "advertise?" How can your
"literary estate" rejoin SFWA?
I'm not just being irritable and picky. Where you discuss your project
depends upon what it is. It also depends upon whether or not we're talking about
a for-gain project or a for-love thing. If it's a money-making proposition, I
would suggest you take an advert out in one of the trade magazines, like LOCUS
or SCIENCE FICTION CHRONICLE (paper) or SCIENCE FICTION WEEKLY (web). If this
project is more along the lines of research, or genuine fan activity, or some
other, similiar not-for-profit motive, then perhaps you should mention it in one
of the newsgroups, like rec.arts.sf.written or r.a.sf.fandom.
Once you rejoin SFWA, you can send a letter about the project to FORUM, one
of the organization's regular publications. You might also consider sending
letters to genre magazines such as ASIMOV'S or F&SF. There are also all
kinds of chat groups on AOL and GENIE and sff.net. Explore, have fun, and good
I'm hoping you might have some thoughts about this. I would
like to write fiction in which science is the background, then lets say writing
standard science fiction. I have seen very little of this, ( Carl Djerassi is an
exception). Do you feel people are more taken with science which is to some
extent more heavily centered on the imaginative, or is it possible the same
audience would be interested in stories where chemistry or physics research
forms the background. Hopefuly this could be accomplished without some of the
many dreadful devices of sundry affairs, overly didactic writing, an so on. The
reason this idea fascinates me is that this is more or less an invisible society
within our society, full of many of it own words. ( In fact a freshman chemistry
course requires learning more words than a first year Spanish class). The other
point being that there is an entire lore and culture which to my knowledge no
one has ever tapped into. Thanks for your time and consideration.
There has been much science fiction with science--that is, the doing of
science, the research and/or the theorizing--as background. One recent example
is Greg Egan's Distress, which revolves around ToE's (Theories
of Everything), that place where physics and mathematics meet. Another notable
example is Gregory Benford's novella "Matter's End," set amidst an Indian
physics project. And much of Le Guin's recent work (for example "Solitude" and
"The Matter of Seggri") is all about anthropology in action.
In many of these stories, the prevailing culture *is* the scientific
community. However, I imagine that, written well, there is more than enough room
for a novel or piece of short fiction set in some kind of research facility.
The key, of course, is the phrase "written well." What you have diagnosed as
overly didactic writing is a surfeit of indigestible expository lumps. In their
most rudimentary form, these info dumps are undisguised wodges of technical and
cultural background: "Seventeen years ago he had discovered brillium, the new
element that made it possible for housewives to go ten years without mopping
their kitchen floors. This, of course, utterly changed society because...." A
marginally less crude method is the explanation to a non-technical character
which in the Golden Age fiction of the forties and fifties was usually the
hero's girlfriend: "Well now, honey, that big old thing over there the size of a
city block is my hyperdrive lawnmower. See those busbars and vacuum tubes? Well,
they let that baby zoom around the lawn at fifty parsecs! Here's how it
works...." Writers thought themselves terribly sophisticated when they started
using devices such as The Encyclopedia Galactica and excerpts
from news broadcasts: "It was discovered today by scientists working in the
Bristol pharmacuetical labs that repeated application of iced tea to petri
dishes reduced replication error to the statistically insignificant. We turn now
to our science correspondent in Washington. 'Well, Jim, scientists here believe
the whole structure of society will change. Here's why....'" (Some writers
*still* think that's pretty damn clever. Sigh.)
The best way to get information across to the reader is to filter it through
the consciousness of your viewpoint (or other) character. Give some value
judgements: "Man, I *hate* this fucking hyperdrive lawnmover. At fifty parsecs
you can't steer the damn thing straight and I keep chopping down Lucy's
primroses and stuff. Then Lucy comes out and screeches, 'Take that heap of
busbars and vacuum tubes and pound it up your ass!' Man, she loves those
flowers...." I've found that dialogue is the best way to tell the reader
something--keeps it interesting, keeps it relevent to the story and the people
in it. After all, what's the point of reading stuff about cool science if it's
not connected to anything or anyone?
A good writer could take a university physics department and make the reader
understand and, more to the point, care about the history, science and private
language of the people who work there. If you want an example of instant
immersion in alien (to present-day readers, at least) lore and culture, just
read Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey/Steven Maturin novels. We are plunged
immediately into the world of early nineteenth century naval affairs, with no
handy Naval Encyclopedia or dumb girlfriends for miles. And
it's a *very* specialized language. O'Brian pulls it off, though, because of his
narrative voice: wholly convincing, fully omniscient, utterly fascinating. We
care enough to work out what he's talking about, and he's skillful enough help
us get there. Wonderful work. I don't know any writer in or out of the genre who
can match him at that. Figure out how he does it, imitate him, and you won't go
too far wrong.
Here's a simple question: When will Penny in My
Mouth (did I get that right?) be published. I found
Ammonite quite by accident browsing through a "Borders" in Ft.
Lauderdale. I was captivated. That led to Slow River (congrats
on the Nebula) and I've been recommending both books ever since. I read my first
SciFi book in 6th grade (that means around 1961) and though I can't remember the
title I never forgot the author: Andre Norton. It wasn't for many years that I
leaarned Andre was a woman. By that time I was in my 20s and discovering Russ,
LeGuin & McCraffey. Were you an early SciFi reader?
Penny in My Mouth will be published by Avon in June 1998,
which means it will be on sale in May. The title, though, might change. If it
does, I'll post the change to this page so anyone thinking of ordering it won't
be horribly confused.
I read my first science fiction when I was twelve. (As David Hartwell has
said, "The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve.") It was Frank Herbert's
Dune. That book blew me away, particularly Jessica and the Bene
Gesserit. I wanted to be able to kill people, to control them, to control myself
utterly (the usual preadolescent fantasy). I lived on Arrakis for a long time...
It did not occur to me that Dune was part of a publishing
tradition, a genre. It took a few months to find Asimov's
Foundation series. Then I was hooked. I gobbled up all of EE
"Doc" Smith's Lensmen series...which I still pull out and read
every year or two, especially when I'm ill. It's comfort stuff for me:
superbeings who have exciting adventures with the best of intentions.
For the next two or three years I read everything SFnal I could get my hands
on, which meant every Gollancz book in the library. I cruised the shelves for
those distinctive yellow spines until one day, I'd read them all, books by
Asimov and Bester and Blish and Clarke and Dick...right through to Zelazny. I
started rereading them, and realized they were all about men. No women in sight.
That's when I got bored and stopped. For a few years after that, I read lesbian
and feminist fiction, mainstream stuff, the few (good) historical novelists I
hadn't devoured before I discovered SF. I noticed the difference in prose
styles. I think I was about 19 or 20 when I came across Vonda McIntyre's
Dreamsnake. Wow! Biology, adventure *and* women! Then I found
her other books, and Ursula Le Guin, and Elizabeth Lynn, and Suzy McKee Charnas
and Octavia Butler and--oh god--Joanna Russ. And some of them could really
write. And that's when I knew I had things to say, too, and that I wanted to say
them well. It took me another few years to get around to it, and then another
few to learn to do it reasonably well, but here I am, and it's all thanks to
those who have gone before.
Both Ammonite and Slow River
were intriguing reads. I enjoy thoughtful examination of gender roles in
fiction, and Ammonite offered a unique portrait of an
all-female society. Currently I'm reading a novel called Alph,
(published in 1971, I believe) about a future Earth ruled by parthogenetic
females. The author (a male), renders his society as emotionally sterile and
equates lesbianism with flawed post-industrial conceits. This is, of course, in
biting contrast with the very human society evoked in
Have you read Alph or are you aware of any other novels that
offer interesting takes on gender issues? (I haven't read _any_ Tepper, although
a professor at my university actually has The Gate to Women's
Country on his reading list).
I haven't read Alph. Who is the author? There are many, many
novels out there about gender. There are relatively few that are interesting,
that is, that don't simply reinforce gender stereotypes. Here are some of my
The Female Man, by Joanna Russ. This is a truly
thought-provoking read. Russ uses different narrators--different women from
different worlds: a women-only world, a world where women and men are literally
at war, and so on--to take a look at the truths behind present day gender
Walk to the End of the World, Motherlines,
and The Furies by Suzy McKee Charnas, a trilogy, though the
third novel was written many years after the second. Some of this is brutal
stuff (Charnas uses extremes to point up gender differences), but it's well
Venus Plus X, by Theodore Sturgeon. When I read this about
ten years ago, I couldn't believe it had been written in 1960, and by a man.
Extremely interesting, especially the twist at the end.
The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks. This was his first novel. I
read it in the early eighties when I was trying to rid myself of all that
seven-foot-tall-wise-kind-amazon nonsense that is the opposite side of the coin
to misogyny. This book cleaned out the toxins, all right; it bleached me to the
Novellas can sometimes be better than novels for exploring issues. Some of
the best with regard to gender are by Russ, and James Tiptree, Jr.--the
pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, who also used the name Racoona Sheldon. Here are
some of my favourites: "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman," by Joanna Russ. Set
in the late nineteenth century aboard a river boat, Russ's narrator fucks with
fellow passengers heads. Great stuff! "The Screwfly Solution," by Racoona
Sheldon (or maybe it was the Tiptree pseudonym--I forget). Every time I read
this, I shudder. How would aliens kill off the human race? By pitting men
against women, of course. Chilling. "The Women Men Don't See," by James Tiptree,
Jr. One man gets a lesson in how it really is in this culture for women who
survive in two's and three's in the chinks of the world machine. "Your Faces, O
My Sisters, Your Faces Filled of Light," by James Tiptree, Jr. (though, again,
it might be by Racoona Sheldon). This one is heart-breaking: is the narrator
really from another time and place, or just a woman driven insane by trauma?
There are many other novels and novellas, of course, plus numerous short
stories. One way to find out more is to check out the Tiptree Award (awarded
annually to the science fiction novel or story that explores and expands gender
roles) website and take a look at the works on the long-, short- and
winner's-lists. Russ's novella can be found in her collection,
(Extra)Ordinary People, and all of Tiptree's best short fiction
(except for one story, where humans are compared to beavers, whose title I
forget) is collected in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, which is not
cheap but is *very* well worth the price. Enjoy.