Gender & cultural analysis paralysis

Listening to podcasts such as Galactic Suburbia has elevated the profile of speculative fiction gender issues in my thinking recently. I never considered myself to be particularly biased in my reading or writing, but it has been very confronting listening to commentary making the point that if you’re not actively supporting gender and cultural diversity in the genre in your purchasing, reading and writing habits, you are effectively engaging in passive discrimination.

I’m not intending to deconstruct the wide range of diversity arguments in this posting. Many clever people have done so much more eloquently than I ever could. Suffice to say that I have probably been guilty of not paying enough attention to who I’m reading and I do agree that you should attempt to read more widely than the traditional white, middle class male science fiction writers of yore. As mentioned in a previous post, my foray into writing has helped me expand my reading range and that has included paying more attention to the authors that I am reading. At the end of the day you will like what you like, but at least you’ll be making an informed choice knowing better the full range of work that is out there.

Of course all this commitment to diverse reading habits is predicated on the assumption that no one is going to make me read the Twilight series. I think that’s fair.

(As an aside, if you are wanting to read some excellent Australian female speculative fiction authors then can I suggest the Twelve Planets series coming out of Twelfth Planet Press, a small Australian publisher. Three of the planned twelve books out so far, all excellent. I believe the fourth book, Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti, has just been released and is hopefully making its way to me in the mail now – can’t wait).

However, I have found one unexpected impact of all this enlightenment. Recently I’ve found myself a bit paralysed in my writing when it comes to representing female characters, or characters from different cultures. I’ve been told that so many things are wrong/insulting/biased that I can’t keep them all in my head. For example every time I put in even the smallest physical description of a female character I worry that I’m sexualising or stereotyping when I don’t mean to. When you get beyond the basics, some of the arguments about what is and isn’t offensive are sometimes a little esoteric (I keep having to look up the “stuffed into the fridge” (1) concept for instance) and don’t come to mind naturally – especially those that talk to unconscious biases that can be deeply ingrained in the culture you grow up in.

I got to the point where I became so concerned that I would end up offending someone that I haven’t wanted to write anything at all.  Then I started getting concerned that by not writing I was committing horrendous sins of omission.

So, I’ve been giving this some thought over the last few weeks and I’ve come to some conclusions.

  • Conclusion 1: I’ll start from a position that a broader perspective is not only good in and of itself, but will improve my ability to tell a story

Yes I know, the road to hell and all that. But I think it is important to acknowledge up front that your intention is to take all this stuff into account because…

  • Conclusion 2: It’s highly likely that I’m going to offend someone at some time

I have accepted that I’m unlikely to write the perfect culturally and gender aware novel/story. I’m likely to get things wrong and despite my best efforts, someone is going to get cranky with me. That leads me onto…

  • Conclusion 3: Don’t worry about it too much in the first draft

In the same way that I gave myself permission to write crap in order to get writing at all, I’ve decided that while I’ll always try to keep gender/cultural issues in mind when writing, I’m not going to worry about my unconscious biases too much in the first draft stage because…

  • Conclusion 4: The second and subsequent drafts are my friends

This, I’ve decided, is where the self editing/polishing phases need to come into their own. As well as other editing tasks, I’ll be looking at my own work with a specific gender/cultural awareness perspective and also asking my inner circle of readers to do the same and then trying to rework any problematic parts. But despite all that excellent effort…

  • Conclusion 5: Something will slip through the net

Whether because it wasn’t caught by me in the writing process, or it is a bias that no one in my reading circle had recognised and brought to the surface, or I’m misunderstood somewhere down the line or because I’m just plain stupid, something will get out there written by me that genuinely and legitimately offends a group. I’m not talking about people just disagreeing with an opinion of mine – fortunately the world is too diverse a place to have everyone agree on pretty much anything. No, I mean I’ll represent a culture in a way that wasn’t meant to be offensive but is or inadvertently say something stupid and stereotyped about a female character.

In that case, I’ll acknowledge I’ve made a mistake, try to learn from it and not do it again in future work.

Re-reading this post, most of my conclusions seem like simple common sense. But there are a lot of well meaning people out there making valid observations about the biases and injustices that exist in the writing world, and it is easy to let it all overwhelm you.

So that is all. No great insights or worthy additions to the conversations on diversity in writing. Just some fairly simple musings on how these issues have impacted my writing process.

Have you had any paralysing moments in your writing or reading? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.


(1) “Stuffed into a fridge” – just so you don’t have to look it up (it can be disturbing what you find in Google when you type in something like “stuffed into a fridge”), the term refers to a plot device where a female character is killed off solely to further the journey of the male hero.

This one is of particular concern to me, because at the start of one of my stories the male character does indeed lose his wife to the bad guys (I was trying to think of the worst possible thing that could happen to him to send him into a downward spiral with little to no support – that was it). And 60,000 words in it is kind of a key element of the plot. And I’m struggling to think of a different way of achieving the same effect…

Analog – November 2011 – review

With Unclean Hands by Adam-Troy Castro was an interesting novella about cultural misunderstanding between alien species. The main character, Andrea Cort, has apparently appeared in previous Analog published stories that I haven’t read, although this story comes first chronologically. I enjoyed the writing, but there was a lot of extra detail obviously designed to give some more back story for the Andrea Cort character for people that have read and enjoyed the previous stories.

I also enjoyed Chumbolone by Bill Johnson, a story about a West Wing style political operatives having to make some odd deals with some strange characters in order to get his candidate over the line. I liked the premise and the reference to Babbage’s Analytical Engine was a fun aside (a friend did his honours thesis on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, so I always enjoy a reference).

The Boneless One by Alex Nevala-Lee was well written and frankly a little disturbing. I won’t say too much, but it’s a good little mystery with some horror themes.

Other stories in this edition included:

  • Dig Site by Jack McDevitt
  • The Buddy System by Don D’Ammassa
  • Rocket Science by Jerry Oltion
  • Ian, Isaac and John by Paul Levinson

I come from a funny family

Or at least I think so – there is a high degree of probability that we may only be funny to other Webbs (I think I can hear at least one long time friend of the family yelling “Sing it to the mountain brother” at this point). But the funniest of all, king of the comedy hill, is my brother Phil.He has dabbled in a lot of different media and forums – from Triple J Raw Comedy finalist to a huge pile of funny stories, scripts and assorted bits and pieces.

His latest endeavour is two blogs. is a blog about fatherhood and parenting in general. Very funny, with enough of a core of truth to be slightly disturbing at times. contains a whole bunch of material – some from his stand up comedy days, other stuff that he has written particularly for the blog.

It’s good stuff. Go and read it – you know you want to.


Speculative Fiction Festival wrap up

I managed to make it back from a work trip to Melbourne in time to attend most of the NSW Writers’ Centre Speculative Fiction Festival on Saturday. Overall impressions were good. It’s the first writing festival that I’ve attended and I enjoyed listening to the various speakers. Many of the themes discussed are explored in some of the podcasts that I listen to (the rise of the eBook, challenges facing small publishers etc), but it was interesting putting faces to names and hearing a few different voices (Australian spec fic podcasts seem to be dominated by a lot of the same circle of commentators).

I didn’t schmooze the crowd or try to make solid contacts, but I did get a chance to talk with some people and hear about what they were working on. One young woman, Lynda R Young, told me a bit about a story she was working on that sounded very interesting – I hope she gets it along further. I also caught up with a couple of people who attended a workshop with me earlier in the year.

The known authors and publishers tended to travel in packs, but when I bumped into individuals (lining up to get a cup of tea etc) they were unfailingly pleasant and generous with their time and attention. It had the feeling of a real community – not one that I am fully a part of, but not closed off either.

The festival was curated by Kate Forsyth.

Opening Address – Pamela Freeman

I missed the first part of the opening address, but from where I joined proceedings Pamela was discussing the history of speculative fiction, tracing its origins through Biblical fiction through ancient times and into a more modern context (although is fiction speculative if the people of the time actually believed it was a true account of the world?).

She explored the division between superstition and custom, then made an interesting observation about the relatively recent trend towards non-human adversaries (think vampires and aliens). She maintained that there was a competing tension between our recent ascension to the top of the food chain (since the advent of “portable ballistics” i.e. the repeating rifle) and the consequent disquiet we feel as our evolutionary instincts tell us there should be something out there that can eat us, combined with our innate sense that we are are the smartest thing around.

She contended that this has lead us to create external foes to fight – things that are at least as smart as us but even meaner, rather than rely on foes extrapolated from the natural world.

It was an interesting discussion which I quite enjoyed thinking about and made a good opening to the day.

Session 2 – Publishers Talk

Chaired by: Russell B. Farr (Ticonderoga)

Panel: Stephanie Smith (Voyager), Zoe Walton (Random House – children’s publisher), Claire Craig (children’s publisher – Pan Macmillan) and Keith Stevenson (Coeur de Lion Publishing).

Panel discussion, focusing on innovation in the publishing world.

Lot of talk about trends and the “by the time you can recognise a trend it is too late to jump on the bandwagon” syndrome (with the apparent exception of paranormal romance). I tend to think this is right – the timeframes involved in writing something and then getting it published means that even if you immediately started writing something “trendy”, by the time it could possibly be published the market would have moved on. A theme of the conference from both authors and publishers was to write the novel you want to, and accept the fact that you might have to wait for its time to come.

Someone did ask if the publishers didn’t set trends, who did? The general answer seemed to be “no one knows”. There are such a variety of factors that impact on what readers will get enthusiastic about including other media such as television, and sometimes those factors can be fleeting. Stephanie Smith from Voyager talked about writing that pushes and blurs boundaries as a possible trigger for a new trend.

The publishers all spoke about the factors taken into account when deciding on whether to proceed with a manuscript – the portfolio of books the currently have, how the book compares to current offerings, age balance (for young adult), series vs stand alone. I’ve heard similar discussions before, but you can always learn something new listening to different people talk. The take away was the usual one – rejections can be for a number of reasons, and even a good quality manuscript may be rejected if it doesn’t meet other criteria.

Some things I took away from the session included:

  • There seemed to be some agreement that in a world that naturally seemed to produce trilogies, there was some appetite for good quality stand alone novels.
  • There was some general enthusiasm for good quality humorous novels, but a general acceptance that genuinely funny writing is very rare.
  • That a letter from most manuscript assessment services means nothing to the publishers. If authors need to use the service to get an independent perspective that is fine, but it won’t move you up the priority list for consideration.
  • Recent economic turmoil has really squeezed middle tier writers – harder than ever to get started.
  • Social media is seen as an important channel for authors to build brand loyalty with readers, but is not always an indicator of future success.
  • For the young adult market, the new national curriculum specifically mentions speculative fiction which might provide some opportunities.

Session 3 – Different Voices, Different Journeys

Chaired by: Jack Heath

Panel: Paul Garrety, Stuart Daly, Dawn Meredith, Claire Corbett

This panel was made up of authors that have recently had their first novels published. Some interesting insights into their journey to publication, although as always the insights are so specific to the individual author as to not be applicable directly to anyone else. There were the usual differences in opinion about things like detailed plotting vs more free form writing, whether or not to use an agent and whether an agent will even pick up a first novel author (three out of the four panelists didn’t have an agent even after their first publication).

Still it was good to see another (former) public servant (Claire Corbett) make good.

The panel chair Jack Heath was entertaining and kept his own comments minimal and the focus on the panel members (probably one of the better efforts on that front for the day).

Session 4 – Spearheading New Directions in Speculative Fiction

Chaired by: Alan Baxter (author and publisher at Blade Red Press – in hiatus)

Panel: Keith Stevenson (Coeur de Lion), Stuart Mayne, Russell B. Farr (Ticonderoga) and David Henley (Seizure magazine)

Panel consisting of small press publishers and editors. I was interested in this session to see what people are looking at in the small press end of the market.

Engaging discussion about the changes for small press publishers over the last 15 years. Was particularly interested in the discussion on the economics of small press publishing. The improvement in print on demand technologies has been quite dramatic, and it seems like it is making the money side of small press publishing more manageable. Keith Stevenson showed an example of a print on demand version of his latest anthology, which looked really good.

There was some talk about the way authors can generate income streams from stories – looking carefully at print rights, electronic printing, audible printing, magazines and anthologies – Alan Baxter spoke about selling one story four times as a personal record.

Also raised was one of the issues I’ve been giving some thought to. The spread of eBooks has been quite phenomenal, but the increase in self publishing has had me wondering about how a reader goes about finding good quality works (e.g. there are over 35,000 titles in the Kindle store on Amazon in the Science Fiction and Fantasy categories). There was some discussion across the festival about social networks as a form of “word of mouth” recommendations (e.g. but in this panel there was a lengthy discussion about publishers in general (and small press in particular) as a trusted brand – a way of sending a message about the quality of a particular piece of work.

Session 5 – Speculative Fiction: A Many Headed Monster

Chaired by: Karen Miller

Panel: Richard Harland, Leigh Blackmore, Kaaron Warren and Jack Heath

A panel discussion on the various sub-genres of speculative fiction.

This was an interesting discussion, but it mostly boiled down to:

  1. Classifications are arbitrary
  2. They help readers navigate the labyrinth of speculative fiction
  3. You shouldn’t pay too much attention to them when writing your stories – let the publisher worry about classifying the work after it is complete.

Seemed like sound advice to me.

Session 6 – Q&A – Best Sellers & Prize Winners

Chaired by: Belinda Murrell

Panel: Richard Harland, Margo Lanagan, Karen Miller, D. M. Cornish, Pamela Freeman, Kate Forsyth

Question and answer sessions with a group of experienced Australian speculative fiction authors.

My favourite quote from this session was “publishers don’t exist to make your dreams come true”. What really struck me here was the professionalism and pragmatism of the panel. By contrast, some of the questions from the audience were well meaning, but a little naive. There was some really sensible stuff in this session and an insight into how a “name brand” author approaches their work and relationship with publishers.

A lot of what they had to say made sense to me, in particular the stuff about developing a body of work and holding on to some stories until their time in the sun comes.

There was some questions about how you judge success as an author. Several answers ensued (e.g. sales, awards, the glistening tear on the cheek of a child etc), but I particularly liked Margo Lanagan’s answer where she spoke about the instinctively feeling something was right, then retrospectively applying an intellectual framework to say why it was right. That was sufficiently messy to sound like real life to me.

There was a long discussion about eBooks and the scope for further interactivity with story, especially for younger readers. Kate Forsyth seemed to be doing some very interesting work in that area, in particular covering the issue of providing an extra dimension of entertainment without jarring a reader out of the immersion required to make the main story work.


There were two launches through the day. One was at lunch time, and was the launch of a new anthology Anywhere But Earth edited by Keith Stevenson of Coeur de Lion Publishing. Three authors (Richard Harland, Alan Baxter and Margo Lanagan) read part of their stories out to the participants. It was very good. RIchard’s reading was very theatrical – I think he must do readings often. I enjoyed Alan’s story and he left it at a good spot to make you want to know more. The lyrical nature of Margo’s prose was quite mesmerising (and a little on the rude side!). All three readings were excellent and I bought a copy (and even got a few signatures in the process). I don’t buy many physical books these days, but I am looking forward to reading this one.

At the end of the day there was the launch on the sci-fi edition of Seizure magazine. Unfortunately I could only stay for 1/2 hour. At the time I left, the launch seemed to consist of a lot of people standing around and drinking bright blue bubbly alcohol. I’m sure it probably had a formal part – perhaps anyone who stuck around can leave a comment. I did buy a copy of the magazine, which I’m sure will make it onto my What is Mark Reading? page sometime soon.


All in all I had a very enjoyable time at the festival. I’d recommend future versions to anyone interested in speculative fiction and if anyone from the NSW Writers’ Centre is reading this, definitely put an extended version on in the future (perhaps with associated writing courses). I’m interested in hearing comments from anyone else who attended this (or other similar) festivals – I’m sure there are plenty of things I’ve missed.

Good head for radio

As mentioned in a previous news post, I recently had one of my flash fiction pieces picked up for publication in Antipodean SF. As a part of the process, the editor Ion Newcombe asked me to narrate my story for the corresponding series of weekly radio show/podcasts that he creates (as he does with all his writers). My story (Shipwrecked) will be published/broadcast in February 2012.

I produced the narration which came out better than I expected. Ion asked if I’d be willing to produce some audio for other stories, where the author isn’t willing or able to read their own piece.

When I said yes, he put me straight to work narrating a story for the November 2011 edition (issue 161) – Time Trip by Barbara J Holten. So, my voice is about to become part of the audio archives of the Internet. I’ll update the post once I know the exact podcast, but it will be some time in November 2011.

Many thanks to Barbara for allowing my voice to bring her story to audio life! As the title implies, the story involves a bit of time travel action, but I’ll let you read it (or listen to it!) rather than give away any details here.

Asimov’s Science Fiction – October/November 2011 – review

Stealth by Kristine Kathryn Rusch – an interesting novella exploring the rediscovery of dangerous stealth technology in the future. It is set in a universe created by Rusch in earlier works (which I’ve not read). Rusch is an award winning author, and it shows in the quality of the writing. I enjoyed the story, which jumped around in different time periods to show some of the backstory.

The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson – the second novella in this edition, more of a fantasy story but without heavy fantastical themes. I found myself really drawn in by the writing – this isn’t an action story by any stretch of the imagination, but I found it quite compelling.

Free Dog by Jack Skillingstead is an interesting short story that postulates an extension of the internet to include the ability to create 3D copies of things.

For a light hearted piece, I wouldn’t go past To Live and Die in Gibbontown by Derek Kunsken. Set in some alternative timeline where sentient apes/chimpanzees rule the world, it tells of an attempt by a macaque businessman who provides surprise euthanasia services to the elderly. Amusingly written – I liked the premise and the voice of Reggie the protagonist. Probably my favourite story in the magazine.

Other stories included in this edition were:

  • The Outside Event by Kit Read
  • My Husband Steinn by Eleanor Arnason
  • The Cult of Whale Worship by Dominica Phetteplace
  • This Petty Pace by Jason K. Chapman
  • The Pastry Chef, the Nanotechnologist, the Aerobics Instructor and the Plumber by Eugene Mirabelli
  • A Hundred Hundred Daisies by Nancy Kress

There are also several poems:

  • Being One With Your Broom by Ruth Berman
  • Extended Family by Bruce Boston
  • The Music of Werewolves by Bruce Boston
  • Galileo’s Ink Spots Fade Into Twilight by Geoffrey A. Landis
  • Vampire Politics by Ruth Berman

As always there was also various articles, including the editorial by Sheila Williams, the Reflections article by Robert Silverberg and a discussion of Steampunk by James Patrick Kelly.

Norman Spinrad reviews Anathem by Neal Stephenson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown and Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shtenygart – with a theme running through the reviews of “when are books that are not SF actually SF”. He sounds quite cranky about it.

Speculative Fiction Festival – 5 November 2011

This Saturday, the NSW Writers’ Centre is sponsoring a Speculative Fiction Festival at their premises in Garry Owen House, Callan Park, Balmain Rd, Rozelle in NSW, curated by Kate Forsyth (a successful Australian author).

I’ve got my ticket – this will be the first writing festival I’ve attended. There is a very interesting program of events and I’m looking forward to attending sessions (although I’m having trouble which “stream” of sessions to go to – there are several points along the way where I’d like to split myself into two).

I’m in Melbourne for work this week and I’ll be travelling home some time on either Friday night or Saturday, so I’m hoping that I don’t get stuck anywhere. I’ll post a review after my attendance (or my excuse as to why I couldn’t make it).

If anyone reading this is going along then make sure you introduce yourself and say hello. Tickets can be purchased from the NSW Writers’ Centre website ($55 for members, $80 for non members).

Analog – October 2011 – review

I enjoyed the last part of the serial Energized by Edward M. Lerner (part 4 of 4). As I mentioned in my post on last month’s edition, this was a story set in an oil-deprived future which had some interesting exploration of alternative technologies. The last part was a pretty much all action/resolution, but I was happy with how it was all concluded. It did bring together several strands from earlier parts (including some stuff that seemed a little superfluous at the time).

I also enjoyed reading Of Night by Janet Catherine Johnston, a science fiction ghost story. The writing was good and I find myself getting into stories of near future space exploration of late, so this one appealed to me. Besides it is nearly Halloween – we should all read a scary story or two.

The Lycanthropic Principle by Carl Frederick explored some interesting notions of where use of the internet and the blurring of your online identity with your personal identity might go in the future. It was an intriguing short story.

Also in this month’s edition was:

  • The Bullfrog Radio Astronomy Project by Brad R. Torgersen
  • The Last of Lust by Jerry Oltion
  • The Sock Problem by Alastair Mayer


Aurealis #45 – review

Aurealis has been in a long hiatus, as mentioned in my notes on issue #44. Well, they are back with a new format – Aurealis has gone completely digital.

I read through issue #45 on my Kindle. From now on Aurealis will be released monthly and will contain on average two stories as well as reviews, news and interviews. It combines the old print magazine and the monthly AurealisXpress newsletter. Only slight quibble with the format is that the video reviews don’t work on the Kindle, but apart from that the format was fine.

This month contained two enjoyable stories, The Bunyipslayer and the Bounty Hunter by Lachlan Huddy and One Hundred Years by Aimee Smith. I liked both of them, with probably a slight preference for The Bunyipslayer and the Bounty Hunter (I’m always a sucker for an outback dystopia story).

I believe you can download this version of Aurealis for free – go to their website to find out more.

Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts – review

Love and Romanpunk is one of the Twelve Planets series published by Twelfth Planet Press (made up of 12 boutique collections of stories by Australian writers). It is made up of four shorter stories, including:

  • Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary
  • Lamia Victoriana
  • The Patrician
  • Last of the Romanpunks

The four stories are connected (although thousands of years apart in timeframe and tracing some bizarre family history). I’ve said in other posts that I’m really enjoying the shorter forms of fiction and this book was no exception. It’s hard to tell from the title, so I’ll say immediately that there is a distinctly Roman sensibility to the stories.

The opening story Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary was cleverly written, with the alphabetical listing of the fantastical beasts woven well into the story. Lamia Victoriana moves us forward to the Victorian era. This was probably my least favourite of the four stories, which is praising by faint damnation as I loved all four stories.

The Patrician was my favourite from the book – I loved the concept of a neo-Roman city in the middle of Australian outback and there was enough monster fighting to keep me entertained. I know it has been commented on elsewhere, but thank goodness there is at least one 2,000 year old immortal that doesn’t fancy teenagers.

The faintly steampunk feeling of the last story Last of the Romanpunks was unexpected, but I enjoyed getting some sense of what happened after the events of The Patrician.

Throughout the book, the writing has a good balance of humour and clever dialogue which really appealed to me.

On the strength of this book, I’ve gone ahead and purchased the first in Ms Rayner Roberts’ Creature Court trilogy which I’m looking forward to reading to (when I get to it – my ‘to read’ list is currently very, very long).

If this was indicative of the general quality, I’m looking forward to the rest of the books in the Twelve Planets series.

As an aside I really liked the blurb for this book, which I’ve included below:

The world is in greater danger than you ever suspected. Women named Julia are stronger than they appear. Don’t let your little brother make out with silver-eyed blondes. Immortal heroes really don’t fancy teenage girls. When love dies, there’s still opera. Family is everything. Monsters are everywhere. Yes, you do have to wear the damned toga.

History is not what you think it is.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews