Paul Darrow

I lost a friend today.

Long ago, hormonal 14 year old me watched repeats of her beloved Blakes 7 on UK Gold and idly dreamed of Avon being in her bedroom.  Little did 14 year old me imagine that would one day happen.  But 14 year old me could also never have imagined that there would be seven of us, warm white wine, crisps and a lot of bad jokes about nuns told in an Irish accent.

Lots will be – and is – being written about Paul Darrow’s acting career and his contribution to the cultural life of the world.  But I want to talk about the man I was privileged enough to get to know and spend some time with.

Paul holding court over lunch, the first day I met him.

 

I first met Paul in October 2012, at a small lunch in aid of charity that I’d seen advertised somewhere online.  I was at a moment in my life where I wanted to meet some new people and mix up my social life.  I took a day off work and went to Hastings for the day, not sure what to expect.  I found an engaging, intelligent man full of enthusiasm for life who was brilliant company and the polar opposite of every cold-hearted, calculating bastard he ever played on screen.  Lunch extended into a slow wander through the autumn sunshine.  Conversation turned to an event he (and Jacqueline Pearce) were due to be at the following day at Kennington Cinema Museum.  As we parted he looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Paul and I outside a Hastings restaurant

So I duly presented myself at the Cinema Museum the following day.  And I found myself sucked into Paul’s entourage.  We spent a lot of time hanging out on the smoking terrace – with Jacqueline Pearce – and generally running round the Cinema Museum giggling (we were hiding from someone Paul was trying to avoid).  I laughed so much my ribs were aching.

Three months later I found myself in a small hotel, deep in the countryside.  There were about 10 of us, and after a fantastic dinner we played Trivial Pursuit in teams.  Paul’s team won.  He was always very competitive, and picked the pink questions at every opportunity.  (A category where he always had an unfair advantage, I feel.)

l-r Michael Keating (Vila), Tom Chadbon (Del Grant), me, Paul Darrow (Avon), Steven Pacey (Tarrant)

 

That set a pattern for the last six years.  It was like a long lost uncle had suddenly arrived in my life.  But an uncle determined to drag me to the pub and tell me stories about all the exciting things he’d been doing while long and lost. Fascinating insights into the acting profession from repertory to working for the BBC and ITV, and film, told with real pride about his craft.  Behind the scenes stories from on set.  History told with an instinct for drama.  And underneath it all, a childlike enthusiasm for life, often expressed through filthy jokes, impressions and a mischievous sense of humour – all with impeccable comic timing.

Giggling with l-r Stephen Greif (Travis), Michael Keating (Vila), me and Paul Darrow (Avon)

This long lost uncle introduced me to an entire extended family of cousins I’d never have known otherwise.  I met and made some amazing friends through Paul.  Fascinating people I would never have met otherwise.  And a circle of remarkably un-fannish people at that.  Paul drew around him those that were interesting, engaging and good company.  And we all cared for him deeply.

Behind the Liberator control console with l-r Michael Keating (Vila), me, Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Glynis Barber (Soolin), Stephen Greif (Travis) and Paul Darrow (Avon)

If there is one thing I learned from the time I spent with him, it was the joy that can come from time spent in good company with no particular plan in mind.  He turned hanging out into an artform of existing in the moment.

They say you should never meet your heroes.  Take the chance.  You may find your life is impossibly enriched by doing it.

Paul and I late one night. Or was it early one morning?
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On why Michelle West is the answer to most book recommendation questions

A while ago a friend suggested I should write a post about what I liked about particular books in order to help readers of this blog better understand my taste and therefore where my reviews come from.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the best example of pretty much every single thing I love about fantasy fiction is in Michelle West‘s Sun Sword series.

Yet, Michelle West (a Japanese-Canadian writer, who also writes as Michelle Sagara) is almost criminally unknown here in the UK because she’s never been published here.  I stumbled across her books almost 20 years ago, in one of the few shops in London that used to get imports of US-published fiction.  I was browsing and looking for long series by writers I hadn’t heard of, and found her work.  I was hooked straight away, and when I raved about her to friends in the States I found out she was relatively well-known across the Atlantic.

I was lucky enough to meet Michelle West during LonCon 4 in 2014.  When I saw she was coming over for WorldCon I was super-excited.  I skipped programme items to make sure I was at the front of the queue to sign up for her Kaffeeklatsch.  I can say without a doubt that she is one of the loveliest authors I have ever had the privilege to meet.  She gave me a hard copy of Battle as a gift because I confessed to loving these books so much.  It’s one of my most treasured signed copies.

The premise of the Sun Sword is that demons from the hells are seeking to take over the world.  They can only be defeated by a magic sword that can only be wielded by a son of one particular lineage (anyone else who tries to pick it up is likely to burst into flames).  So the demons engineer a coup to massacre the entire ruling family and then attempt to kill the other son who has been held as a hostage in a neighbouring country since he was a child.  Shenanigans ensure.

But rather than tell this very traditional fantasy narrative, West’s story follows the Serra Diora di Marano – an angry 16 year old girl who had been married into that ruling family and is now seeking revenge for the murder of her ‘sister wives’ in the coup.  What unfolds is a complex story of history, power, politics, gods, monsters and heroes that spans multiple countries.

This is a series that hits every single one of my buttons.  Every.  Single.  One.

Female protagonists who don’t fall into the “Strong Female Character” trope.  This is a set of books that are chock full of interesting and incredibly well-realised women of all ages that don’t fall into the usual fantasy fiction stereotypes.  Most importantly, all these women have agency and drive their stories forward themselves.  They are women of power in their own right – they are not reward or character motivation for a man.  There are no Sexy Lamps and the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests are passed very early on.  Some examples –

  • Serra Diora di Marano.  A 16-year old widow who turns herself into the pinnacle of femininity and a political symbol.  She is a masterclass in the use of soft power to achieve her goals.
  • Jewel ‘Jay’ Markess a’Terafin.  A mixed race woman who grew up as an orphan on the streets but is the only person born in her generation who can see the future.  Adopted into a powerful merchant house, she is being groomed for power.
  • Margret.  Matriarch of one of the travelling Voyani clans, and with absolute power over her clan, she is protecting an ancient secret.
  • Amarais Handernesse a’Terafin.  Ruler of the largest merchant house in the Essalieyan Empire, which gives it special rights and privileges.  And it is the rule of this wise, thoughtful Terafin in particular that has kept the House pre-eminent.

Deep worldbuilding.  Each of the societies covered is well-realised and different, with complex systems of governance and economies that are believable.  But there is a lot of layered history in these books too, with the boundaries between history and myth uncertain.  Hidden cities full of powerful relics are just under your feet, and ancient races and parallel worlds can be glimpsed out of the corner of your eye.  Gods, ghosts, magic and elder races abound, and the present reality is but a shadow of the power of the past..

A strong ensemble cast.  There are a lot of people in these books.  But every single one of them is a believable individual on their own life-journey.  Sometimes that crosses through these books as part of a larger story (Jay), but each person has their own motives, reasons and histories.  Some of those only become clear as the books progress (I’m looking at you, Meralonne a’Phaniel …) but every single character is rich and fully realised.

Realistic politics.  With that depth of world-building and characterisation – many of whom are people of power of all kinds – you get very realistic politics.  This is not a series where there is easy consensus about the need to take on the Dark Lord.  We share Jay’s frustration as the Empire debates and discusses the need for intervention.  And even the demons themselves are rife with rivalry as individuals seek to win favour, undermine rivals and advance their own private agendas.

Sexist settings without sexist writing.  The Dominion of Annagar, where the Serra Diora is from, is a hugely sexist (racist, and classist) society.  Aristocratic women live in seclusion, with beauty and skill at art, dance and music prized.  But Michelle West shows the significant soft power women wield in this society, within their households and as brokers of alliances between families.  And she doesn’t shy away from showing the negative impact of these patriarchal norms on men too.  Hyper-masculinity is the ideal for men, with skilled warriors given status and respect, and scholars and intellectuals looked down on.  Serra Diora’s father Sendari di Marano takes an alternate path as a wizard and scholar, but even then falls into a hyper-competitive organisation of wizards within the Dominion.  And there is no easy place for Serra Teresa, Diora’s aunt and Sendari’s sister.  A lesbian with a bard’s ability to compel with her voice, she is unmarriageable and has no role in Dominion society.

Redemption stories.  I love a bad boy.  It’s a secret shame of mine, as it‘s a very problematic trope – usually it’s a man who behaves abominably but is somehow redeemed by the love of a fairly ordinary girl next door type.  But I find myself making excuses for why Avandar Gallais is different.  Crucially, West places him with Jay, as her domicis (kind of a Private Secretary in UK civil service speak, but one who is clearly an experienced man of power in his own right, and a powerful battle mage to boot). Jay is no girl next door – she is a woman of power and consequence in her own right.  And West pulls no punches about just how messed up Avandar is.  Fiercely capable, very protective and frighteningly intelligent, yes, but also deeply flawed in a way that is shown with a level of unstinting brutalism that is unusual in fantasy fiction.

Have I convinced you yet?

Where should I start reading?

Michelle West’s Essalieyan Empire books span three series.

  • The Hunter’s Duology.  Two books (Hunter’s Oath and Hunter’s Death) that act as a taster and introduce Jay and the Essalieyan Empire.  But they focus on characters from Breodanir, a land to the West, and you can enjoy the other books without reading these – I jumped straight into Sun Sword without realising they were connected, and only read them afterwards.
  • The Sun Sword.  The six books I’ve focused on above (The Broken Crown, The Uncrowned King, The Shining Court, Sea of Sorrows, The Riven Shield, The Sun Sword).  They focus on the events of the coup, Serra Diora’s revenge and civil war in the Dominion of Annagar.
  • The House War.  Six books and counting.  This is Jay’s story, with the first three books (The Hidden City, City of Night and House Name) acting as a prequel to The Sun Sword, running partly in parallel to the events of the Hunter’s Duology.  The other books (Skirmish, Battle, Oracle and War (forthcoming)) pick up Jay’s story after Sun Sword finishes.

As always, publication order is best.

I would strongly recommend against reading the first three House War books before starting Sun Sword.  They contain significant spoilers for things that occur during Sun Sword, and definitely offer more reward to the reader if you’re familiar with the subsequent story.

And don’t even attempt to read House War without Sun Sword.  If you try, you’ll find a massive gap of story in the middle and wonder why Jay has acquired a talking stag called the Winter King, three winged cats, and an Elf, among others, as part of her den.  There is a summary of the events of Sun Sword on the author’s website, but you’d be missing a lot doing that.

You may struggle to find Sun Sword though.  The books are now – sadly – out of print, but ebooks are available.

UPDATE: A quick check of Michelle West’s website reveals that Sun Sword has been republished in trade paperback, so should now be available again.  Woohoo!

On Politics in Speculative Fiction

I recently DNF-d a fantasy novel, in large part because of how poorly it dealt with the issue of politics within the author’s world.  Doing that got me reflecting on how politics is treated generally in speculative fiction, and how writers get it wrong so often.

The commonest trap I see – which is the one this author fell into – is where writers associate politics with villains.  It’s not something their noble hero/ine would dirty their hands with, because they are Pure and Noble and Fighting For Right.  Politics and the political becomes a lazy shorthand for self-interest and manipulative behaviour, which are qualities we like to associate with the bad guys.

That’s certainly one way of dealing with politics in fiction.  Done well, you get House of Cards (and here I am a hipster who prefers the original 1990 BBC version to the Netflix reboot).  Francis Urquhart back-stabs his way to power, but what makes it is the breaking of the fourth wall.  We can’t help but warm to Urquhart – his scathing critiques of his fellow politicians are incredibly funny and spot on.  The peek behind the curtain as he manipulates his way to power is what makes it such a joyous experience for the viewer: we are in on the game Urquhart is playing and therefore on the side of his rapacious ambition.

If you want to play an innocent into a situation like that, then you get something like my personal favourite, Borgen.  After a freak election result, Birgitte Nyborg finds herself as the first female Prime Minister of Denmark, and has to learn very quickly how to navigate the halls of power and get business done.  The vision and idealism that got her elected are not the skills she needs to run the country.  Principles are no use when the choice you are faced with is a pragmatic one between least-worst options.  Nyborg learns fast (the gloriously cut-throat episode about the constitutional status of Greenland, that ends with Nyborg effectively telling a politician he is dead to her, is a particular favourite), but at great personal cost to her family and her principles.  Or else you get Secret State.  The drama here comes from a man of integrity suddenly thrust into a position and world he was not expecting.  Tom Dawkins is the Deputy Prime Minister no-one expected would wield real power until the sudden death of the Prime Minister leaves him running the country.  The interesting conflict is the internal one: how far is Dawkins willing to compromise his integrity in order to tackle the corruption he has stumbled across?

And if you want to go full ingenue, then the joy comes from the player being played.  Step forward Les Liaisons Dangereuses, where Madame de Tourvel is the one to bring down the notorious rake the Vicomte de Valmont.  His bet with the Marquise de Merteuil to seduce Madame de Tourvel backfires when he falls in love with her.

Politics at its most fundamental is about people.  It’s about understanding what makes them tick, what they care about, and how to get things done.  Yes, that can be done in a manipulative way, to box people into corners and dispose of rivals.  But it can also be done with integrity, in a way that builds alliances and energy towards tackling a common goal.  The kind of approach seen in something like The West Wing, if you will.

It’s probably no accident that all of the examples I’ve given of the political done well fall outside of speculative fiction. Within the genre, it’s much harder to think of good writing about the sphere of politics.  (Though I would gleefully suggest that Joe Abercrombie‘s Sand dan Glokta is the Francis Urquhart of SFF.)  Which is a shame, because the genre lends itself so well to the exploration of conflicting aims and ambitions and the consequences of those choices.

Guy Gavriel Kay writes about the political incredibly well.  As I said in my review of The Lions of Al-Rassan, one of the strengths of the novel is the way it depicts the choices and actions that ultimately lead to war, conflict and the collapse of Al-Rassan. Good people are forced into making decisions in difficult circumstances. Those choices are often pragmatic, political ones, where the hands of the powerful are tied or forced. In many cases those choices are underpinned by some toxic religious and nationalist ideologies that the powerful ironically find themselves unable to challenge.  As events take choices away from people, the powerful are forced down particular courses of action.  There are two particular moments in the book that underpin this for me – the first is when one of the Jaddite kings in the north realises that his indulgence of his wife’s strong religious faith has made it impossible for him not to declare a Crusade; the other is when ibn Khairan acknowledges that the events of the Day of the Moat forced his hand into the assassination of King Almalik.  In Kay’s novel, the powerful are all trying to act in their own best interests, but their interests are in conflict.

This is the approach taken in The Expanse, where the interests of Earth, Mars and the Belt collide.  War is never far away, and the discovery and development of the protomolecule is the disruptive element threatening a fragile balance.  Senior UN figure Chrisjen Avarsarala (who I want to be when I grow up) is forced to make hard choices to protect her own position and defuse conflict.  The path to her goal is never a straight one, but this is a woman who is undeniably using all her political skills in pursuit of the right aims, even if that is not something that she is always able to admit without compromising what she is trying to achieve.

Another writer who nails it is Michelle West.  The premise of her Sun Sword books is that demons are trying to take over the mortal world, and one of the only things that can defeat them is a magic sword that can only be wielded by someone from a particular lineage.  So, of course the demons conspire to have that entire ruling family wiped out in a coup.  Except for one remaining son, who is held hostage in a different country.  The discussions about whether or not, and on what terms, to go to war to restore this heir to his throne are beautifully written.  The cause at issue is not the demon world-domination plot, but the geo-politics of West’s world, and the risk-reward judgement about getting involved in a foreign coup.  The work done to carefully align big power blocks behind action needs painstaking work, and ultimately action only happens when they are directly affected themselves.  This is the right war, fought for the wrong reasons.

Of course, West’s Sun Sword books are at their heart about the Serra Diora di Marano, and her quest for revenge against the people who slaughtered her family.  The Serra Diora uses soft power and politics to her advantage.  She turns herself into a highly politicised weapon to bring down an entire country and its regime without shedding blood.  She uses cultural norms and symbolism in her favour to make herself the untouchable emblem of a nation.  And they are also books about Jewel Markess a’Terafin, who learns how to lead and make painful choices, transforming from a street child to a woman of power and influence.

Famously, Katherine Addison‘s The Goblin Emperor examines the question of whether it’s possible to rule with kindness and integrity.  Maia’s position is a fragile one, but like Birgitte Nyborg he seizes the opportunity unexpectedly thrust his way (though in his case the alternative is exile or assassination) and tries to rule in line with his principles.  He learns to pull the levers of power effectively, identifying the key influencers and opinion-formers within his Parliament, and structuring choices to lead to the outcome he is seeking to achieve.  The sequence where they debate and agree his choice of bride shows his growing skill and understanding of the shifting power dynamics of his kingdom.

But these books still feel like the exceptions.

Speculative fiction – and in particular epic fantasy – too often focuses on the cause.  It assumes that its inherent rightness is so obvious that all good and right-thinking people will throw their weight behind it.  Anyone who doesn’t must be a self-interested fool who deserves what’s coming to them.  But politics is how you get people on that right side.  It’s about creating shared visions and coalitions of the willing.  It’s about appealing to people’s better natures, their self-interest, their hopes and fears, and their images of themselves. To some that may feel like manipulation, but it’s just how you get things done.

An inspirational leader with a compelling cause can be a powerful thing, but it’s not enough by itself to effect change.  Assuming that it is – and ignoring the work that goes into persuading and influencing people towards a particular course of action, with all the messy deal-making that involves – may comfort our sense of idealism, but it is lazy writing.

On Blakes 7, 40 years on

40 years ago marked the first transmission of the first episode of a television show that has shaped my life in a whole host of ways.  

img_2389I was 9 months old when Blakes 7 started, and 4 when it finished.  It’s one of my earliest memories of television, and is something that has been a part of my life throughout.  Lots has ben written about the significance of this bit of 1970s BBC science fiction: its place in a world shaped by Thatcher and IRA terrorism, its gritty aesthetic compared to the other new kid on the block in Star Wars, its ground-breaking attempts to tell whole-series story arcs, its low budget character focused story lines, and its famously down-beat ending.  I won’t attempt to replicate any of that.  Go and read one of the excellent histories or essays about the show if you need to.  This one on Strange Horizons, which was nominated for a BSFA Award, is particularly good.  

As well as being one of my earliest television memories, Blakes 7 has cropped up at two other key moments in my life.  

img_2393Imagine if you will, impressionable, hormonal, teenage me, finding repeats of Blakes 7 on UK Gold.  Dimly remembered, but not seen since early childhood, watching it again felt like rediscovering something strange-yet-familiar.  Week after week, I’d sit there on a Saturday lunchtime, to the bemusement of my family, watching an old tv show play out.  Week after week it got more and more familiar.  People joke about Servalan being my first female role model, and shaping my career choices; about my fondness for bad boys dressed  head to toe in leather, preferably ones with razor-sharp cheekbones and a good line in cutting remarks.  (Little did hormonal teenage me realise that her dreams of one day having Avon in her bedroom would one day be fulfilled.  Albeit with seven of us, warm white wine, crisps and a lot of bad jokes about nuns told in an Irish accent.) More significantly though, Blakes 7 has shaped my tastes in fiction and drama towards the dark, complex, tragic and political, starring adult characters with histories that complicate their present lives.  I look at my book and DVD shelves and see those stories reflected back at me.  (Seriously – the gut-punch of ‘Rumours of Death’ and the tragedy of ‘Blake’ are positively Shakesperean, and I’m a sucker for UST wherever I can find it.)

img_2172Imagine if you also will, a time around six years ago.  I was coming out of a rough patch, and one of the signs that I was coming back to myself was an unprecedented appetite for story.  I was consuming it like it was going out of fashion, desperately craving box sets to binge on.  This was the moment when long-form story-telling was beginning to hit its stride of being the place where really interesting things were happening.  In a very short space of time I’d gone through Battlestar Galactica (having missed it when it first aired for some reason), Mad Men, Sherlock and Borgen.  I needed something to tide me over until the 6 Nations rugby started again that February.  A kind friend loaned me her Blakes 7 DVDs and once again I’d found what I needed to fill that story-shaped hole.  

img_2394One of the other things I was doing at that time was mixing up my social life a bit.  I’d got stuck in a rut, and frankly it was getting pretty boring.  Id used to have adventures and done exciting things, but for some reason that had all slipped away.  One of the things I did was adopt a rule of saying yes to everything unless I had a very good reason to say no to it.  That combined with some idle Googling found me taking a day off work to go to Hastings for a charity lunch.  One thing led to another and Blakes 7 fandom opened the door to an amazing group of wonderful people that I am proud to call friends, and some fantastic experiences.  

img_2390Tonight I will sit down and watch ‘The Way Back’.  I haven’t watched Blakes 7 all the way through since that last rewatch six years ago.  Who knows what it will bring for me this time?

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On the lived experience of being a woman

Every year in October my employer does a survey of all staff to do a healthcheck of the team’s experience.  Every year I pause over two questions: in the last year have you personally experienced discrimination/bullying or harrassment?  I pause not because I’m trying to decide whether to click yes, but because I ask myself how many instances of discrimination and harrassment I would report if I had the chance.  And each year my employer clutches its pearls in horror when it sees the survey resuls on these two questions, without ever doing anything to address the underlying causes.

My dilemma is particularly acute this year, as the survey rolls out against the backdrop of the allegations and revelations about Harvey Weinstein.  It’s sadly still all too common that so many of us are experiencing discrimination and harassment.  But what is truly shocking is that it has become so normalised for so many of us that we often just treat it as part of the background noise of life that we have to deal with, while the rest seem genuinely surprised that it’s still an issue.  After all, we have equality now, don’t we?

To give you just one example of something that happened to me within the last year –

I was attending a work event with some key stakeholders.  There was an evening dinner.  I found myself sat next to a senior person in that organisation that I’d not met before that day.  He tried to get me drunk, asked intrusively personal questions, ‘admired my necklace’ (code for staring at my breasts) and then propositioned me.  I made my excuses and left.

Some will no doubt suggest I should be flattered by the attention.  That I’ve ‘still got it’, whatever that means.  Others will laugh if off as just one of those things that happens.  Or, worse, deny it ever happened.  Surely I must be imagining it or making too much of a fuss about it?

But this is a failure of basic, respectful treatment of others.  I have to have a working relationship with this person, but they’ve added an uncomfortable sexual dimension to it.  I’m now left having to manage that dynamic, trying to keep things professional and make sure to avoid circumstances where I could find myself facing the same situation again.  I now have a whole plan to make sure I never have to sit next to him at dinner again.  And instead of focusing all my energy on work, when we are in the same place I will need to expend a good proportion of it managing the interpersonal dynamic, shutting down further overtures from him (yes, there have been some).

It also exposes the shocking sense of entitlement that some people feel.  They see nothing wrong in behaving this way.  In part that is because it is so rarely challenged.  We let it play out as if there’s nothing wrong with it.  Or else it takes place away from the public gaze, so that those in a position to act never see what is really happening.

[I’m not saying it’s never possible to make an intimate connection with someone you meet professionally.  But it’s tricky territory and I’d urge you to get to know the person first and be damn sure there’s mutual attraction before raising the prospect of anything else.  If you make a habit of propositioning people you’ve just met  or who are patently not interested, you’re a creeper, and it’s not my job to educate you about how not to be one.]

In many ways, this kind of obvious and overt harassment is easy to deal with because it’s so obviously beyond the pale.  What is much harder to deal with is the insidious kind of discrimination.  The differential treatment. The mansplaining.  The being talked over, marginalised and ignored.  The unconscious bias that creates a culture of Great Men doing Great Things, while the women do the office housework that will never make their careers.

In all those cases there’s plausible deniability.  You are left wondering whether you are imagining that you’re being treated differently or whether there’s some other cause, like that you’re just not good enough.  And while each incident may be a mix of complex cause and consequence, it’s highly likely that there’s something gendered going on under the surface, whether those responsible realise it or not.  But the net result is that you are left doubting yourself or fighting a system stacked against you.

Of course, I’m relatively lucky.  I’m a woman, but I’m also white, heterosexual and without disabilities.  So I don’t have the multiple, intersecting areas of difference that enable a much more multi-faceted experience of harassment and discrimination.

I hope that if some good is to come out of the current debate it is a greater awareness of the need for respectful and inclusive spaces that are free of this kind of harassment and discrimination, and the need to tackle the power structures and institutions that have enabled permissive environments to thrive.

On Gollancz Fest and the importance of panel diversity

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Celebrating their 10th anniversary of being published: Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and Tom Lloyd.
For much of my time at Gollancz Fest this weekend, this was my view: three white men.

When two of them are Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie you kind of have to acknowledge the awesome, but even so. Some stats about the event:

  • Day 1 morning – 13 speakers, 5 women (38%)
  • Day 1 afternoon – 12 speakers, 1 woman (8%)
  • Day 1 evening – 3 speakers, 0 women (0%)
  • Day 2 morning – 9 speakers, 2 women (22%)

I make that 37 speaker sessions in the programme, and 8 of them taken up by women. That’s just 21%. There were no speakers from ethnic minorities. But while the audience was also overwhelmingly white, the gender balance was much closer to 50/50.

This isn’t just about the numbers. For me, it was a pretty alienating experience sitting in that audience. The event was so tightly scheduled that there was little or no time for questions. So I sat there reflecting on how this was demonstrating in microcosm what society is like for many of us. If we are not represented in the conversation we can do little other than internalise the message that our place is to be the passive audience for the achievements and creative work of others. Seeing someone that looks like me on a panel does so many things. It can be inspirational, showing other women what can be achieved. But mostly it adds richness and freshness to a debate and conversation that otherwise risks becoming a tired rehashing of the same topics.

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Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter. Talking about the Great Men of SF: Arthur C Clarke and H G Wells. Inevitably.
And what happens when diverse voices aren’t there? You only had to look at the Saturday afternoon panels to see. Of all the books mentioned during the afternoon panels, only one was by a female author (an essay by Rebecca Solnit that the moderator referred to when framing a question about people’s response to crisis). It was probably unintentional, but that will perpetuate the idea that the only good quality books are written by white men, making it even harder for anyone who looks different to get recognition. And the bias was reflected in the books on sale in the room too. While many of the men on the programme had multiple books by them displayed for sale, including in splendid 10th anniversary hardback editions, none of the women had more than a single title on offer, even though many of them are prolific writers. If you were Elizabeth Bear, there were none of your books on sale in the room at all. So, your husband might have to write in the blinding reflected light of all your Hugo and Locus awards (as he revealed during one of the panels), but none of your work was available to buy.

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Can you find a book by a woman here? I count four on the whole table. That’s less than the number of books by Joe Abercrombie on sale.
I wasn’t the only one who noticed the problem. If you checked the GollanczFest hashtag on Twitter you could see in amongst the enthusiastic live tweeting of the wit, humour and insight of the panellists an increasingly vocal set of grumbles about the diversity issues of the event. By the third all-white, all-male panel of Saturday afternoon it was getting pretty vocal indeed, with links being shared to pieces about the importance of panel diversity and ways of improving it.

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Definitely no books by women here …
I’m a firm believer that providing feedback is the best way of getting issues like this addressed. During a lull this morning Marcus Gipps, one of the Gollancz editorial team, was filling time and asked for feedback, so I raised the issue. Fair play to him, he ruefully acknowledged that it hadn’t been the best, and they’d clocked all the comments made on Twitter. He pointed to some scheduling difficulties that had apparently made it difficult to achieve greater representation. It was a very graceful response, and I hope that the organisers will take the feedback on board if they run a similar event next year. But as a publisher-run event, GollanczFest can only draw on Gollancz writers. Looking down their list of authors I can’t help but wonder if it’s Gollancz that has the diversity problem rather than GollanczFest.

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Joanne Harris (with Ed Cox). One of the few women there.
Either way, as a community we deserve better. And unless we keep highlighting these issues they won’t get fixed.

UPDATE: I’ve had some fantastic conversations this evening with various Gollancz staff. I’ve been really touched by the way they’ve approached this issue with a genuine willingness to engage. I’ve been told that there had been plans for an additional three female panellists, but they’d had to pull out at the last minute for various reasons, including childcare reasons. The opening out of the programme to non-Gollancz writers like the awesome Catriona Ward and Antonia Honeywell (who write for other Orion imprints) was in part intended to address the gender balance issues. I’m also told that Gollancz only publishes Elizabeth Bear in ebook, hence the lack of physical copies of her books for sale. Refreshingly, Gollancz have acknowledged that these points aren’t the whole solution, and they will reflect further. I’m left feeling much more positive. This is why it’s important to speak up in a respectful and constructive manner, folks.

Gendered merchandising: A rant

Over the break between Christmas and New Year I went to several exhibitions.  One of them – Celts – I’ve already blogged about, but I had a fabulous day out taking in three more with a female friend of mine.  The first one of the day was the Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum, which I bought tickets for on the recommendation of another female friend.

  
I’d love it if in blogging about my visit to the exhibition, the key thing I’d want to write about would be the fascinating insights into the early days of space exploration.  How so much of the Russian space programme hinged on the collaboration between two visionary men: the thinker Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, whose thought experiments about what it would be like to be in space helped to shape so much of our current reality of space travel; and Sergei Korolev, the director of the Russian space programme who turned that vision into a reality.  About the ground-breaking design it engendered (I really want one of those Sputnik-inspired samovars).  About the terrifyingly brave men and women who took those first steps into space.  (And who knew that one of the main qualifying criteria for the programme was to be small enough to fit in the capsule?)  About the Cold War battle for space and the subsequent international co-operation that has led to the International Space Station and all the scientific developments it has engendered.

  
But, no.  The main impression I was left with after this exhibition is that the Science Museum doesn’t think science is for women.

  
I loved the exhibition so much that I wanted to take home some souvenirs.  Particularly one of the range of awesome tshirts that were for sale, given that I love wearing geeky tshirts.  I wear them round the house with jeans.  I wear them with skirts and funky tights when I’m out and about.  Perhaps I should buy one featuring the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova.  Or one inspired by those glorious Russian propaganda posters, with their instantly recognisable design aesthetic.  But it turns out that the Science Museum only offered one tshirt in a woman’s fit – a rather dull design based on a spacewalk motif.  When I asked the assistant on duty if there were any woman’s fit tshirts available he seemed surprised I’d even asked.

  
I checked the Science Museum’s website, and of the 23 tshirt designs they offer for sale, only one is available in a woman’s fit.  (Compare that to the Tate, who offer 10 out of their entire range of 38 tshirts, including children’s sizes, in a woman’s fit).  So I contacted the Science Museum to ask them if they had any plans to expand their range.  Disappointingly, I was told that not only do they have no plans to expand their offer, they’re actually intending to decrease it, phasing out the one design they currently offer in a woman’s fit.

A large proportion of the products in the Cosmonauts shop have been targeted at either unisex or female customers. These ranges include an exclusively commissioned range by the designer Keely Hunter and a number of items aimed at a contemporary adult audience. The Science Museum stocks unisex t-shirts (as opposed to men’s or women’s fit t-shirts) to ensure that our products are gender neutral where possible. We offer these in sizes XS to XL to cater to the needs of most visitors. The Spacewalk women’s fit t-shirt that you described is part of an old product range, and the move away from this style to a unisex fit was based on audience research, aiming to target the needs to our wide variety of visitors.

A quick straw poll of my female friends reveals that while some are happy to wear a unisex tshirt, most aren’t.  We should be careful not to generalise, but women’s bodies are, in general, a different shape to those of men.  We have breasts and hips.  We tend to wear skirts and jeans with a lower waist that sits just above the hips, and well below the natural waist.  Clothes are normally much more fitted, though fashions can vary.  A so-called unisex tshirt is designed for a typical male shape: straight up and down and with a loose fit.  Some women may choose to wear that style, but I’ve generally found them to be in the minority.  Personally, I don’t wear unisex tshirts because I don’t think they are flattering on me.  Buying a smaller size in the hope of getting something more fitted doesn’t work, because unisex tshirts lack the stretch that comes from the more fitted women’s styles.  So I’d love to know where and how the Science Museum did their audience research if it concluded that reducing people’s choice was a good idea.

I get that commercial imperatives may make it uneconomic to stock a range of tshirts in multiple sizes in both unisex and fitted styles (though that doesn’t seem to be a problem affecting the Tate).  But if that’s the case, please admit it’s that, rather than blaming it on audience research or pointing to the availability of overpriced fluffy hats as some kind of substitute.

The message I and others can’t help but take from this is that the Science Museum doesn’t think it’s important to cater for women in their merchandise.  It’s particularly disappointing given the important role the Science Museum plays in educating people about science and technology, and the huge range of evidence about the difficulties of attracting women to careers in STEM fields, much of which is down to the perception that science is for men.  You would expect the self-styled National Museum of Science and Industry to be at the forefront of breaking down those barriers, not reinforcing them.

This blogpost was written while wearing this cool Godzilla tshirt.  The original feedback email to the Science Museum was written while wearing this brilliant Blake’s 7 tshirt, designed by an awesome friend of mine.  I wear a woman’s fit, in size Large, thanks.