There is a trend that is making me and, I suspect, some others uncomfortable. It’s a trend that is supposedly so clearly and obviously just and right that to utter a word of even passing criticism it is to unmask yourself as evil personified. This is dangerous territory I’m walking into here, folks, ripe for misunderstanding. So, please hold back the attack dogs until you've read to the end. The source of my griping: science fiction’s gleeful, zealous, nay fanatical leaping aboard the bandwagon emblazoned with those all too familiar politically correct bumper stickers.
Now, before you all go out to buy my books in order to burn them, let me straight up say those movements - you know the ones I mean - aim to make the world a better place and I wish them every success. If you think that, just because I'm male, pale and stale I'm here to provide some unwoke Blimpish reactionary pushback, you're wrong. That, and my books are only available on Kindle, so best of luck there.
As a writer of predominantly short fiction washing around at the semi-professional end of the spectrum, I am a daily user of the Submissions Grinder, watching the ‘recently added markets’ tab like a hobo watches the sidewalk for cigarette butts. With increasing frequency, I'm finding those new calls for material are restricted to certain nationalities, creeds, multi-dimensional sexes, or even political leanings.
Now, on one level, there’s nothing wrong with that. Publishers have every right to do this if that's their wish. And I try to remind myself that many of these calls wouldn’t be happening at all unless the publisher decided that he/she/it/they only want to see stories from bipolar Trotskyite mermaids-of-colour or whatever. This represents more opportunities for others, as opposed to fewer opportunities for me.
And a more diverse set of writers should lead to a more diverse range of storylines, approaches, heroes and heroines, right? And that has to be better. So, what irks?
I’ve thought long and hard about exactly what it is that grates so much about these calls. I think part of my discomfort is that my ‘real’ day job is in human resources where we work damn hard to ensure that bias, conscious or otherwise, is designed out of systems so as to make positive discrimination - which is what this is - the last resort of the unscrupulous charlatan. So, apologies if such limited calls come across, to me, as unscrupulous charlatanry.
And let's not forget, that this is a different kind of positive discrimination than a bipolar Trotskyite mermaids-of-colour setting up a publication and saying bring it on, submit your stories and I'll tell you what works through the eyes of a bipolar Trotskyite mermaids-of-colour. That would work for me. I'd like that challenge. That's a world that's been made better.
Plus, I'm really not convinced that such calls lead to better stories. 'Write what you know' doesn't mean only write about yourself. My novel, after which this blog is named, has an African hero. A school and university friend recently asked me to recommend a couple of stories of mine; only later did I realise that both had teenage girls as protagonists. I’m struggling to think of any of my sci-fi stories that has a lantern-jawed astronaut as hero. Maybe one yet to be published, but he has an apple put in his mouth and is served to a talking bear within 1500 words. We're writers, we write about the universality of fear, love, anger, taking action, going after your goals - whether the protagonist is a man, woman or robotic floor polisher.
I am, however, seeing an increasing number of stories which are thinly disguised polemics. A recent example led to me leave a somewhat snide review on Goodreads for a quality publication which deserves support and I still harbour ambitions of appearing in. And it's not as if there are a range of opposing viewpoints, challenging each other. That would be interesting but, instead, we're presented with an echo chamber. Science fiction used to evoke wonder; nowadays I'm put in mind of the Cultural Revolution. Mrs Mao has a nice little place in the country prepared for you, somewhere you won’t get bored. Or, possibly, a rectangular hole in the ground.
Noble laureate Sir Kazuo Ishiguro recently highlighted the fear of censure young writers have if they try to stray from the groupthink. He felt safe to say what he did being of a certain age and having achieved a certain level of success. I feel relatively safe in saying what I'm saying as, not having bothered the judges of a cabinet’s worth of awards over my career, I have - quite literally - nothing to lose. Others have more, and more of a future, on the line.
No, what perplexes me most, I think, is that the world of literature shouldn’t need to be working so hard to pull on such evangelical clothes. In fact, we should be the exemplars already, a position established long before anything was prefixed by a hashtag. This is what makes me angry - that none of this should be remotely necessary.
Why? Well, for the simple reason that we should be absolutely blind to somebody's sex, age, race, religion, and body already. All you used to have when you read a story was a name. A by-line. A name on a spine. In almost every other artistic or sporting pursuit you have a face, a body, a material presence to invoke instant judgements. Not writing. Just a name. Sometimes, not even that.
Yes, you can make assumptions, but there are easy ways around that. Ask George Eliot. It’s not even regarded as cheating to cheat over your by-line; noms de plume have been used to hide, obscure, blur, give solo writers multiple brands or provide a single umbrella to changing teams. And, even when they are honest, they may not tell you as much as you think. Were you, like me, surprised at that scene in Django Unchained where Leonardo DiCaprio is told Dumas was black? Did you Google it afterwards as well? And Tolkein brilliantly responded to a Nazi publisher who wanted to check he was eligible for membership of the master-race.
Story-telling seems to be the primary, if not sole, example of where you can pursue your craft without reference to skin colour, beliefs or whether you have an odd of even number of limbs or heads.
So, what got in the way? My theory is the internet. Yes, the thing that has opened up publishing for many of us - without the internet, would I have a novel and 30+ stories published? or made around 1000 submissions over the last three years? to publications that wouldn't exist if they had to exist on paper? some of which may be run by bipolar Trotskyite mermaids-of-colour? - has also been our undoing. Or, at least, the internet mixed with human nature.
You see, there's a pressure for writers to have a presence, to be a brand, to tell their public about themselves. It sounds like a brilliant idea. It's what this blog is. Who wouldn't want to know all about the author of their favourite story? All well and good, but don't act surprised when it undermines diversity in the choices of readers. Seriously. You see, people like people similar to them. Similarity increases liking. And, if you know your author's character as well as your author's characters, don't be surprised if readers unconsciously select on that basis. It keeps predominantly white authors on top amongst a predominantly white readership. Fair? No. Caused by us? Absolutely.
If you want a brilliant example that shows how innate this effect is, read how the Planet of the Apes actors self-segregated at lunch. Nobody was being anti- or pro- anybody or anything. It's just a case of birds of a feather flocking together. We're hardwired to do so when given the data. And the internet is brilliant at giving that data. It's the internet that has made the author's name more than just letters picked out in gold on a burgundy leather spine.
So, what to do? Well, obviously, first thing I'd suggest is stop reading trivial celebrity gossip on the internet. Stop following celebrities on Twitter. Put Hello and OK! and their ilk back on the shelf. Turn FOMO into JOMO - the joy of missing out, on the tittle-tattle and titbits, at least. Stop reading this blog? Hold on a moment...
But that may be difficult for many and, I suspect, you, dear reader are not amongst the target audience of the National Enquirer. So, here's something a tad more serious, suggested a tad less satirically: that there's already a mechanism staring us in the face. Blind submissions. Make blind submissions - with the story stripped of names or any other identifying features - the industry norm, an industry expectation. Make all publishers judge the story on its merits alone without knowledge of the author. It's a no brainer elsewhere; why not in publishing?
To be fair, many publications are already there. Others encourage submissions from minority groups whilst saying that, ultimately, they have no idea. They just judge the story. But the industry norm is still to have names on manuscripts. I completely get why - I love this story! who's it by? fuckknows... - but perhaps that all needs to change. It strikes me as the best way, perhaps the only way for the best stories to rise to surface regardless of the author if they're not already doing so (discuss in no more than 2500 words - and I accept that not everybody will agree) rather than have a wider range of slightly worse stories being published.
Perhaps if there's room and an appetite for #blindsubmissions as another bumper-sticker on the bandwagon of righteousness, you may even find me trying to clamber onboard before I get completely left behind.
2084. The world remains at war.
In the Eurasian desert, twenty-year old Adnan emerges from a coma with memories of a strictly ordered city of steel and glass, and a woman he loved.
The city is the Dome, and the woman... is Adnan's secret to keep.
Adnan learns what the Dome is, and what his role really was within it. He learns why everybody fears the Sickness more than the troopers. And he learns why he is the only one who can stop the war.
Persuaded to re-enter the Dome to implant a virus that will bring the war machine to its knees, the resistance think that Adnan is returning to free the many - but really he wants to free the one.
24 0s & a 2
Twenty-four slipstream stories. Frequently absurd, often minimifidian, occasionally heroic.