Writing Question: Best Method for Introducing People of Color?

I'm currently writing a relatively far future military SF novel (or revolutionary military SF, since it involves revolution).  One thing that I want to indicate about this future and its wide-reaching human empire is its relative inclusiveness.  Race is not as much an issue there as it is today, which means that the cast of characters I intend to show will embody a mixed world.

To make that clear in the story, I feel as though I need to identify several characters by their race (or everyone by their race, really).  But I don't want to in part because I really don't know how to go about doing so without essentializing or reducing characters to their race (or even identifying them by something that I personally feel has no say on one's character).  What exactly is the best method for introducing the race of a character (any race)?

I honestly don't know...and I'd much rather have an idea on how to go about it before shoving my foot in my mouth.

The comments are yours.

Source Help: Books on Race in the Spanish Empire (and Mexico)

The other day, I stuck my foot really far into my mouth.  While recording an episode of The Skiffy and Fanty Show, we managed to get into a discussion about race in the various colonial empires (a discussion that is not part of the actual episode -- beyond off topic, really).  I managed to say something that, moments later, I realized was phenomenally stupid.  Why was it stupid?  Because I simply did not have enough information to make any reasonable assertion whatsoever.  If it's not already obvious, the topic was race in the Spanish Empire (Mexico in particular -- pre- and post-independence).  I caught myself fairly quickly (which is nice, considering the last time I said some stupid stuff on the show), but I still feel pretty damn bad about it.

Julia Rios has already suggested one book related to the subject of race in the Spanish Empire or Mexico (pre-/post-independence), but I was hoping some of you folks might have some good suggestions.  Basically, I'm looking for books that explore the relationship between the Spanish and the native populations at any point from the start of colonization to at least its end (if not later).  I have a preference for academic books (stuff printed by actual academic presses, rather than one of the big six), but even a really good popular text will give me a lot of gateways into exploring the topic in depth.

Any help here would be greatly appreciated!  Education is wonderful, and since the Spanish Empire and Mexico are not my strong points, I'd like to do some educating...

Comic and Graphic Novel Suggestions: First Comic Book Shop Trip…in a While!

I'm going to run off to the comic book shop at some point this week.  And that means I'm going to buy me some comics...which is where you lot come in.  Since I haven't been in the comic/graphic novel world in a while (aside from some manga here or there), I really don't know what's interesting and what's not.  I'd like to know what kind of stuff you have enjoyed that you think I might enjoy too.

What I'm looking for:

  • SF/F-ish stuff (broadly speaking)
  • Things that won't require me to be overly familiar with preceding material (so don't drop me flat in the middle of a story arc if I need to have read the previous two to figure out what the hell is going on)
  • Graphic novels OR standard comics (or collections/omnibuses)
  • No "universe" restrictions (you can throw me into DC, Marvel, or whatever)
Pretty basic wants, no?  Superheroes, space stuff, dragons, whatever.  I'll take my list of suggestions and go play around.

So have at it!

Comics and Tablets: Your Thoughts?

I've recently become interested in reading comics again.  I used to read them as a youngin', but sort of gave up on them for one reason or another (I used to collect all the trading cards from Marvel, too, and probably still have some floating around -- there's a box of comics somewhere in my closet).  But rather than jump in to whatever is going on right now, I want to read a lot of the backlist to get a sense of how things have progressed.  Understandably, that means doing so digitally (through the Marvel database, etc.), as trying to buy all those older comics would probably bankrupt me.

What I'm wondering is whether any of you have experience reading comics on any tablet.  I know there are a lot of different types out there, from the ASUS Transformer to the iPad to the Galaxy, but reviews can only go so far for me.  I need a bit more before I make that investment.

If you have read comics on a tablet, or at least have experience with one, let me know your thoughts about that particular device:  pros, cons, recommendations, etc.  I am partial to tablets that are connected to a vibrant app community, as reading comics will probably requiring the use of apps (PDF and CBR/CBZ readers).


Hugo Award Recommendations Needed! Inquire Within…

I've never voted for the Hugos before, which means this year is a huge "first."  Regardless, I've always had a problem filling out some of the categories, sometimes because I'm not familiar with the field (comics, for example).  This is where you all come in.  Below is the list of all the categories in which my nominations are either entirely absent or not firm.  What would you recommend I check out to help me fill the gaps?

Best Novella
Best Novelette
Best Related Work (I've got four ideas, but maybe I missed something you all know about?)
Best Graphic Story
Best Dramatic Presentation (minus Game of Thrones, as I've already seen it)
Best Fan Artist
Best Fanzine (I have ideas, but only one standout thus far)
Best Fancast (ditto)

Have at it!

Writing Wonders: Are Flashbacks Evil?

I think with all writing concepts, there are no simple answers.  Flashbacks are no different.  Just as you can ruin a book with poorly constructed multiple POVs, so too can you ruin a book with flashbacks.  It all comes down to how and when you do it.

Case in point:  I am currently reading Tobias Buckell's The Apocalypse Ocean, the fourth book in his Xenowealth series.  One of the POVs in the book is of a woman born from genetically augmented stock by an alien race known as the Nesaru.  But the only way we can really understand what her past means to her in the present of the novel (after the events in Ragamuffin, in which a human revolution against alien control had its first and most important victory) is by flashback.  Buckell could tell us her history in an infodump, but the result would lack the emotional impact we need in order to sympathize with the character.  

Thus, Buckell uses the flashback.  Only rather than shove it in the middle of an important sequence, he uses it as a way to further the plot point (specifically, her plot) -- it occurs in a chapter devoted specifically to her reaction to a previous scene; we know something will happen in this chapter, but we don't know what, and so Buckell uses this flashback as a way to show her motivations as an individual.  It's a smart move, I think, since it avoids all the problems that can come with flashbacks -- pulling the audience out of the story, destroying pace, etc.  It also helps that readers of Buckell's work will recognize familiar themes in this flashback, which might not be something to be expected in other works with such devices.

That's really all it comes down to.  If you're going to use a flashback, you have to use it with the awareness of its impact on the rest of the narrative.  If inserting a flashback will hurt the pacing or if it appears in a pointless moment in the story, then you're probably going to run into problems.

What I'm curious about are those books which experiment with the flashback form.  One example that comes to mind is Brian Francis Slattery's Lost Everything, in which much of the story meanders through different points in the character's lives.  Think of it as a long series of interconnected flashbacks.  Much of his writing follows this format, including Spaceman Blues.  But what other kinds of experimentations are there?  Do they work?

Feel free to leave a comment!

(Question suggested by Paul Weimer on Google+.)

P.S.:  One might also consider The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers as a kind of flashback-infused text, though that's difficult to argue since most of the book takes place in the flashback, rather than in the "present."

Question: What happens when laser pistols are everywhere?

The question is actually more complicated than the title suggests.  It reads as follows:
In a science fiction world where guns can be made of deadly lasers, pew pew pew, that you'd have to move at the speed of light to avoid, would there be a need for guns? I mean, if you got mad at someone and whipped out your laser gun, they could be dead before they heard the gun go off, sonic boom style. So... why guns?
I take as the underlying assumption here that such guns use realistic laser technology and not the sort of thing we see in science fiction from practically everything written in the 30s, 40s, and 50s to Star Wars to even the absolutely gorgeous trailer for the film adaptation of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.  In other words, lasers that likely make less noise than contemporary guns, have
beams that shoot at the speed of light (or close to it), and so on.

Real laser weapons would actually present a lot of challenges for humankind.  Here I must express minor disagreement with Kathlyn Hawley about the impacts of such technology.  Laser technology would be limited by a number of factors, the most important of which are:  1) power supply, and 2) beam strength.  It is unlikely, for example, that we will have developed a power source capable of making beam weapons with the strength to blast through ship hulls and so on.  People certainly wouldn't be a problem, but I find it hard to believe that we will have solved the power gap in the next 100 years (though I could be wrong).

From that perspective alone, we likely won't use beam weapons.  They will cost too much money and take up too much space and power.  It's easier to detonate a bunch of modified explosives against the hull of an enemy ship or over enemy personal than it is to charge and maintain lasers with the same general effect.

The same will likely remain true for hand held weaponry, such as rifles and pistols.  In a far future setting, it's possible we could make the weapons light enough to warrant using as assault weapons, but even then, you're dealing with a weapon that will run out of charge mighty fast.  Even if you loaded up a mechanically augmented soldier (in a kind of exoskeleton), you'd have encumbered that soldier with a power supply that could be just as dangerous as the weapon itself.  There's a reason why we still don't load up soldiers with excessive amounts of protective gear:  they become slow and easy targets.  Tanks and other kinds of vehicles serve the function of massive fire power, yet here we run into the same problem as before:  where do you put the power supply and is it worth it when you can solve the problem with modified nuclear shells that leave no radiation behind (we'll probably figure out how to suck the radiation out or neutralize it, thus making nuclear warfare a standard model).

For me, lasers are just another of those science fiction concepts that you either accept or reject.  Like FTL.  Like millions of species of aliens that look vaguely human.  Like so many tropes of the genre that violate all manner of scientific "rules."  Because if we're going to be realistic about future weaponry, I doubt lasers are going to be useful for much more than stopping other weapons from doing their job.  We might see lasers used to take down planes, but since combat ships in space will have considerable amounts of shielding to combat radiation, I don't see these as being applicable except to take down missiles and other explosive devices.  We should be more concerned about the kinds of weapons we already have.  Future advances will make such things more deadly and easier to use.  And that will make for an interesting future.

Now it's your turn.  What do you think?  Do you disagree with me or Kathryn?  If so, why?  The comments are yours!

(Question suggested by Kathlyn Hawley on Google+.)

Question: Why does fantasy default to pseudo-medieval?

It's an obsession.  The contemporary fantasy genre has been making sweet, soft, dirty love to vaguely medieval Western cultures for almost a century now.  You can tell because the two have made so many degenerate babies that the bookshelves are full with them.  Some of them are more degenerate than others, taking those medieval Western cultures as mere background rather than as setting.  Others are clearly the product of a well-managed, passionate marriage (or other applicable union).

Joking aside, the reason for the clinging behavior of fantasy has more to do with the heritage of colonialism than it does with anything else.  The last 400 years of empires, scientific racism, hierarchical anthropology, and so on have created a deep link within our conscious and subconscious minds that privileges the West.  At some point in our cultural history, we started calling some "ancient cultures" by a new name:  "primitive."  Thus, Rome became the pinnacle of the West, despite also being an "ancient culture," and all those non-Western cultures, from Africa to Asia to the Americas, became "primitive."  "Primitive" ceased to mean "old, dead culture" and
came to mean "unsophisticated, lesser culture."

Note the problematic distinction made between these terms.  How can an equally ancient culture be "superior" to other ancient cultures?  What makes them superior?  A hard question to answer.  Some would suggest that the West appeared superior because it rapidly advanced while the rest of the world seemed stuck "in the past."  There's not enough space to deal with such a questionable argument here, except to say that there might be good reasons for why some cultures did not "progress" the same way as others.

In contemporary anthropology, however, "primitive" represents the earlier forms of Homo Sapiens sapiens.  The Cro Magnon.  The first cultures.  Rudimentary.  But the wider culture has yet to catch on to this usage.  Instead, anything "not West" is "primitive" and, therefore, "other."  That stems from centuries of imperial rhetoric and Western superiority (a complex, really).  Our culture is a product of being told we are special, and that everyone else strives to be like us, to take from us the modes of progress, and so on.  The "primitive cultures" were simply "on their way to being advanced, Western ones."

From that perspective, it shouldn't be hard to imagine why the pseudo-medieval setting is the one that dominates fantasy, a generic tradition that began in the West and unfortunately remains there (with some exceptions).  For all people in the West, the medieval period is the only medieval reference we can call "ours."  This despite the fact that many people in the West have links to other cultures (often intimate links).  While these exceptions certainly value non-Western cultures, they are up against a wall which tells them "our history [the West's] is most important, and so you should write analogues of it."

We are starting to see a serious push against this history.  The "other" is creeping its way into the dominant discourse of the West, supplanting its authority to remind us that culture is mostly relative.  It's a slow, drawn out process, just as imperialism and its cultural parasitism took decades to build and decades to tear down.  That's the way it goes, though.  When you build an immense hegemonic system of oppression, control, and assimilation, you can't expect tomorrow to be full of sun when we've only just started pulling its ropes on the horizon.  At least we have an explanation for the obsession, though.  And having that knowledge might be useful some day.

What do you all think?  Which recent fantasy novels have you read that don't include Western settings?  I immediately think of work by N. K. Jemisin, Nalo Hopkinson, and Karen Lord.  Things I haven't read included Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, the numerous Philippine SF/F anthologies that Charles A. Tan reminds us about, and a number of interesting works mentioned on the World SF blog (are Lavie Tidhar's fantasy novels set elsewhere?).  Let me know of some others.  We could make a wicked list of fantasy set somewhere other than the West!

(Question provied by Mike Reeves-McMillan on Google+)

Gritty Fantasy: Why Do I Love It So?

Today's post is based on a question from Dirk Reul:
What is it that people find fascinating about gritty fantasy compared to the classic story types like The Hero's Journey?
As I noted when the question was asked, I can only talk about this topic from my personal perspective.  Sadly, the radiation from Japan's nuclear power plan problems has yet to give me the ability to read the minds of everyone on the planet.  I'm as upset about it as you (admit it, you wanted to get super powers too).

First, to definitions, just so we're clear what we mean (or I mean) by "gritty fantasy."  George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is gritty fantasy.  J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and successor works are the classic "hero's journey" stories.  The difference between the two isn't so much the lack of a quest, but rather a rejection on the part of gritty fantasy of romantic notions
about medieval societies.  In classic fantasy, death is glory; in gritty fantasy, death is horrible, costly, and deeply personal for the characters.  There may be overlap, but I think the absolutism is essential.  For the purposes of this post, I will focus specifically on A Song of Ice and Fire (books one and two, which I will refer to as GRRM to save space and my fingers).  Expect a few spoilers.
As much as I enjoy glorious tales of heroic quests, the gritty realism of GRRM and related works does something else for me:  it gives me a sense of insecurity.  I know the hero will survive in classic fantasy tales.  But I don't know that is true in something like GRRM, because characters are routinely killed or abused by other characters.  Take, for example, Eddard Stark.  He is set up as our main hero in A Game of Thrones.  We come to love him, flaws and all, and to care deeply for his cause and for his family.  But he dies at the end of the book, betrayed by the very people he hoped would help him save the kingdom.  It doesn't get any better for the Starks after that.  Sansa is kept hostage by the sadistic King Joffrey; Winterfell and the Starks are betrayed by Theon Greyjoy, their ward, and the city burned to the ground; Arya is forced to skulk through an increasingly dangerous terrain, at first pretending to be a boy; and Catelyn, Eddard's wife, must watch as her son, Robb, makes war, worried that her two daughters will be killed by the Lannisters (Joffrey at the head), and that her son(s) will die.  There is nothing safe about this situation; for me, it produces a sense of compelling dread, because anyone could get hurt at any moment.
Likewise, gritty fantasy gives me the violence that is almost always absent from classic fantasy.  As much as I love The Lord of the Rings, it is a narrative that, in my mind, finds a kind of honor and glory in war.  When I read Tolkien-derivative works, I expect this dynamic, and even enjoy it.  Romanticizing war creates an emotional connection to the moment that is two parts hope, one part fear.  One of the scenes that makes me cry in the film adaptation of LOTR is the moment when the Riders of Rohan appear on the hilltop looking over the fields of Pelennor, ready to ride into certain death.  I love this scene because it is so human.  It's about sacrifice for honor, something I think we've lost in this world because we don't seem to understand what it is that soldiers do -- our honoring of soldiers is somewhat empty.

But gritty fantasy tends to avoid these glorifications.  War is terror.  It is blood and mud and guts and death.  It is a sea of despair.  People die, and they don't die well, because there is no good death in battle.  And death outside of war is equally without glory.  Disease.  Starvation.  Murder.  All of it working in conjunction to make a medieval world that feels lived in, rather than ideologically constructed (utopian).  GRRM does this remarkably well, taking the piss out of those moments when we expect honor and glory to drive men and women to victory.  Instead, they tend to fall, often to dishonorable men.  Wars are sacrifice, but whatever glory can be found there is bittersweet.  Take the first battles at the end of A Game of Thrones.  In one such battle, a small contingent of soldiers is sent to meet Tywin Lannister's host, but only to distract him while the greater force heads out to take the armies of Tywin's son, Jaime, and free Riverrun.  A lot of people die.  But there is no moment of glory for them. There are no beautiful horns chiming in harmony.  Whatever stories are told are glorifications, but the narrative itself never gives us that glory (in fact, the battle is show from Tyrion Lannister's perspective, a mangled dwarf who has never served in battle, let alone been trained for it).

Those are two reasons I enjoy gritty fantasy.  What do you think?  Do you agree?  Or are there other things that draw you to gritty fantasy?

What Are You Reading? Inquiring Minds Want to Know

In the interest of giving all of you the floor to talk about books, I'd like to know what you all are reading and what you think of it (anything counts, from articles to audiobooks).

I am currently smack dab in the middle of the following:

  • Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham (and Mark Buckingham)
    • Loving it!
  • The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein
    • Interesting, but I need to get deeper before I can make a valid judgment.
  • Gateways edited by Elizabeth Anne Hull
    • Some really smart stories in here!
  • Future Media edited by Rick Wilbur
    • Just started!
  • When the Great Days Come by Gardner Dozois
    • So far:  loving it!
  • Imperial Eyes:  Travel Writing and Transculturation by Louise Pratt
    • Just started!  But I've read it before, and it's an interesting text.
  • Maps of Englishness by Simon Gikandi
    • Just started!
  • The English in the West Indies by Froude (can't remember the the first name)
    • Just started!
  • The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader
    • Just started!
  • The New Negro:  Voices of the Harlem Renaissance
    • Just started!
I also finished a few short stories by Mary Robinette Kowal ("Clockwork Chickadee" and For Want of a Nail -- the latter won the Hugo and is quite good).  And yes, I realize that is a lot of reading.  I'm a grad student.  So sue me...

So what are you reading?