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Descent by Ken MacLeod

DESCENT Ken MacLeod

Author of 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award-nominated Intrusion tells a science fiction story for the twenty-first century – what happens when conspiracy theorists meet Big Brother?
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THE LASCAR’S DAGGERGlenda Larke

The start of a brand new epic fantasy trilogy from the author of the Stormlord series – full of scheming, spying, action and adventure.
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Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

SFF Interview Swap: Elizabeth Moon Interviews Rachel Bach

What happens when two writers from different genres come together to talk about science fiction, fantasy, and story crafting? You’re about to find out!

Rachel Bach grew up wanting to be an author and a super villain. Unfortunately, super villainy proved surprisingly difficult to break into, so she stuck to writing and everything worked out great. Her current project, the Paradox series, is a high-octane SF adventure across many fascinating alien worlds.  Look for the third novel, HEAVEN’S QUEEN (US | UK | AUS), online and in stores on April 22nd or start at the beginning with FORTUNE’S PAWN.

Elizabeth Moon has degrees in history and biology, and served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. CROWN OF RENEWAL (UK | AUS) is the final installment of her Paladin’s Legacy series. This gripping epic should be on every fantasy reader’s To Read List. Expect it to be hitting bookshelves on May 27th.

HEAVEN'S QUEEN   CROWN OF RENEWAL

Elizabeth: You’re well known as someone who can write very fast without loss of quality, and your recommendations for increasing speed–both in your blog and in your book–make good sense. (In fact, I’d been using only two legs of your “triangle” for years and after adding the third had such good days with a new story that it slowed me down in getting these questions ready.) I’ve had 10K word days in the past, but I’ve also experienced increasing physical difficulty–arthritis in my hands, neck, and back that limited how much I could write in a day. Have you considered expanding your advice to include the ergonomic issues arising from very fast writing? How to generalize the skills to using alternate input methods, such as using a speech input? (I’m waiting for the direct brain-to-page technology. Visualize the scene: boom, it’s in the file or on the page, ready for editing. Hear the conversation between characters: there it is, with all the uh, um, er…but nothing vital missed.

Rachel: I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to hear my writing triangle helped you have a good writing day! Best thing ever.

I’m not at all surprised to hear you’d already figured parts of the triangle out. I’ve heard the same thing from several experienced authors, and I’m starting to think that all I did here was put words to what’s actually a universal writing concept. Can’t stop the signal, Mal!

You’re also not the first person to mention the physical difficulty of writing ten thousand words a day. The most extreme example of this was when I did my an annual open Q&A on the NaNoWriMo forums. One of the writers I talked to had stared out as a professional musician, but she had to stop when she injured her hands through repeated stress caused by playing. This injury effected her writing as well. She wasn’t even able to type two thousand words a day before her hands gave out, much less ten. It’s an admittedly extreme example, but it highlights the fact that writing is much more of a physical activity than most people give it credit for, especially if you have a pre-existing injury or ailment, like arthritis.

So, yes, I think this is a very valid point and I will be updating my book and blog to include it. Even with my healthy hands, it is physically exhausting to type that much, and it would be very easy to seriously injure yourself if you’re not careful. That said, though, I don’t actually know what to recommend as a solution. Right now my best advice is to listen to your body and stop if something hurts. Likewise, you should pay attention to your writing position and invest in a keyboard that’s comfortable for your hands over long periords. Speech to text programs have also come a long way in recent history (prolific author Lynn Viehl swears by Dragon Speaking Naturally), but I’ve never personally used them as anything other than a novelty.

Anyway, long story short, you make a very good point and I will be definitely be amending my process to include this issue. After all, my hands might be good now, but I intend to be in this writing business for as long as I can, and at ten thousand words a day, I’ve got a lot of typing in my future.

When can we expect that brain to page interface, science?

Elizabeth: You decided on a writing career early, but then found an English degree not particularly helpful. Writing our kind of fiction demands skills–for worldbuilding, for inventing new technology, for creating invented cultures that “work” in story terms–not taught in English classes. Have you ever wished you majored in something else, and what do you think would be the perfect degree plan for a spec fic writer? What research sources do you like to use when creating the surrounding cultural environment and technology for your invented worlds? What’s been your favorite thing to research in each of your genres? What was hardest to find or understand? Have you had life experiences that you feel were particularly important in expanding your writing scope? Do you schedule specific time for research and general reading, or is it “grab it when you need it?” (Yes, I know, I packed too many questions into one. Pick one or a few…)

Rachel: Actually, I think all of these questions interrelate beautifully! Like a lot of writers, I already knew what I wanted to be when I went to college, and English Major seemed like the most logical choice. How better to learn about writing books than by studying how the best are put together?

The reality of my experience was very different. This is not to disparage the University of Georgia’s English program, which is actually very good, it just wasn’t what I wanted it to be. College English programs are excellent at teaching you how to be a good non-fiction writer: how to properly use sources and make solid arguments and write thoughtful essays. But fiction writing is a different beast all together, and even though I took several creative writing classes, they were all focused on literary short story writing, which is about as far from genre novels as it’s possible to get and still be called fiction. Even worse, I was in an environment that actively looked down on the sort of commercial books I enjoyed and wanted to write. So yeah, not a good choice for me in hind sight.

If I had it to do over again, I would have majored in something much broader, like history or sociology, or even Comparative Lit, which focuses on international fiction instead of the Western Euro-centric literary cannon. I would also have taken a lot more electives, because the most useful thing I’ve found as a novelist is having as wide and diverse a base of knowledge and interests as possible. The more you learn about the boarder human experience, the deeper the well of ideas you can draw from becomes.

As to the more specific of your questions about what research or experiences I’ve found most important or difficult, I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you. I’m not dodging the question, I just can’t remember the individual acts, because for me writing has always been a process of running the entire sum of my knowledge and experience through the grinder. The Paradox novels, for example, pull ideas from everything: books I’ve read, jobs I’ve worked, that essay on binary gender I wrote for my one sociology class, a picture I saw on Deviant Art, video games, a role playing game my husband ran in middle school ten years before I even met him. All of these seemingly unrelated experiences and influences get mashed together as I write, and I couldn’t separate them out again if you paid me.

People have actually asked me what degree or life experience they should get in order to become a genre writer before, and my answer to them has always been that writing genre stories makes you a genre writer, nothing else required. But if I had to recommend something, I’d say you’re best off studying whatever you find most interesting. Go wherever your passion leads, whether it’s in formal schooling, a challenging job, or just something you do for fun. Whatever you do, though, make sure you’re paying attention, because it’s these memorable, seemingly random notes of experience that you’re going be drawing from later as a writer. They’re the fuel that will keep your idea furnace blazing bright. All the other stuff—story structure, pacing, characterization, and so forth—is just a matter of practice.

Or, at least, that’s how it’s been for me. Every writer works differently, so your mileage may vary.

Elizabeth: You also commented in an interview that you feel your fantasy is informed by an SF sensibility. After reading Dr. James Gunn on writing science fiction, and the difference he sees between how SF and fantasy are approached differently, I realized that although the two genres feel different to me, I use much the same process in writing both. I want the deep logic in both to be similar–everything links together into one coherent system. What do you mean by having that SF sensibility in your fantasy? That leads to the impossible question of “Where do you see the difference between SF and fantasy?” and the closely related “Is there a line between worldbuilding everything but the “people” part of the story and worldbuilding the cultures the characters come from?” And if there is such a line, is that where the divide between science fiction and fantasy lives?

Rachel: I don’t think anyone has ever drawn a line between Science Fiction and Fantasy that we can all agree on. Take Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books. Are they Fantasy or SF? On the one hand, you have dragons with mystical psychic bonds to their riders who can blink through space and time, on the other, humans are only on Pern because of space colonization and the Thread they ride dragons to burn is itself a space born spore.

The easy way out of this is to just say “what does it matter? Pern is awesome!” but it does matter to readers. The F and SF parts of SFF attract different audiences with different expectations and tastes. That said, I absolutely agree with you that, from the perspective of a writer looking at her own books, the creation process for each is pretty much the same.

In my own case, I’m a systems oriented, logical sort of person, so when I sat down to write a fantasy series, I took a logical approach to it. I built an internally consistent magic system and a world to contain it, and then I worked out from that framework to determine out how everything else in the story would function. When the time came to write Paradox, I built its universe the same way, only on a much grander scale. Both times, however, I figured out the why of reality first, and then used that to derive the how, who, and what.

This is what I meant when I said I approached my Fantasy with a Science Fiction sensibility, because, as Dr. Gunn says, one of the fundamental elements of Science Fiction is the scientific idea that everything is ultimately knowable and explainable, even if we don’t understand it at the moment. For me, though, this is as true in a fantasy world with an active goddess figure who makes things happen on her whims as with a galaxy that formed by the accidents of nature. Everything is knowable, everything is explainable, everything happens for interlocking reasons, and discovering those reasons is often the whole point of the story.

So at the worldbuilding, story crafting level, I don’t actually think there is a line between Science Fiction and Fantasy, at least not for me. Even when you start talking about characters, both Fantasy and Science Fiction favor larger than life heroes who change the world through significant personal action and sacrifice, be it exploring a new planet and ending up the unlikely champion of the indigenous population against your own corrupt galactic government or journeying to throw the One Ring into Mount Doom. Even the window dressings are somewhat interchangeable, because I’ve read Fantasy with complex machines and written Science Fiction with magic. There are short, lightning paced Fantasies and glacially slow SF epics with thousands of characters. Even the relative perception of time is no guarantee when the most famous Science Fiction story of all time took place long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Personally, I’m inclined to believe the only real, measurable line between Science Fiction and Fantasy is one of flavor and emphasis. Fantasy novels tend to emphasizes the fantastical elements—magic, monsters, fully developed secondary worlds, the sense of being in another place, etc.—while Science Fiction generally places its accent on the products of scientific achievement—gadgets, fast travel, galactic expansion, exploration in the vastness of space, and so forth. Otherwise, the two are so similar as to be almost interchangeable, as evidenced by how easily and often they get lumped together. Both genres tend to be deeply humanist, both reflect and comment on issues present in our own world, both provide a stage for the invention and exploration of alternate cultures, both are given to power fantasies, you get the idea. They’re both wonderful, delicious ice cream, and the only actual question here is which flavor do you prefer in your sundae.

Elizabeth: Thinking ahead, do you imagine yourself delving into each of the various subgenres of our big playground, or do you think you’ll settle into some favorite pair (or quartet) of niches? So far you’ve done witty, rollicking fantasy and hard-edged action-packed SF…what other areas intrigue you and set the writer-vibes going? SF mysteries? Epic fantasy?

Rachel: I freely admit that I’m an agent’s worst nightmare, because I write everything! In addition to my current roster of Fantasy and SF, I’ve finished the first in a near future Urban Fantasy series about dragons that I’ll be using as an experiment in self publishing this July. I also have an alt history mystery novel about magic in the Industrial Revolution set in Manchester complete with necromantic workhouses and a spell breaker detective that’s currently with my agent. And as if that weren’t enough, I’m also planning a darker military fantasy young adult book, another Paradox novel focusing on the secrets of the Sainted King, an epistolary series of shorts chronicling the tragically comedic and unavoidable fall of a Dark Lord called “Speeches to Orcs,” and about a thousand other things that I may or may not actually finish in 2014.

So yeah, you could say I’m running all over our genre playground like that one weird kid who always eats waaaaay too much sugar. But then, what’s the point of writing fast if you don’t also write far and wide?

Elizabeth: Thanks for being part of this–it’s been a lot of fun learning more about you and your work, and thinking about the questions you proposed.

Rachel: Thank you for taking the time and for talking with me! Again, I can’t stress enough what an honor and a delight it’s been to get the chance to talk with you. (When I told my mother I was doing this, her response was “You’re interviewing Elizabeth Moon? Can I touch you?!”) Thank you again, and I can’t wait to get my hands on The Crown of Renewal later this year!!

Rachel and Elizabeth will be back again soon, and next time the tables will be reversed! In the meantime, check out their novels and get ready for their upcoming releases!

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The extraordinary novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (UK | US | ANZ) launches today, published by Orbit in the UK and Redhook in the US.

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes . . . Until now.

Here the author Claire North tells us what advice she would give to her past self, in case she got the chance to live her life all over again . . .

***

Your teachers and elders are not always right.  Age does not necessarily bring wisdom, and if you feel uncertain about yourself, someone else’s certainty does not make them right.  If anything, the more certain the other person is, the more you should question it. Have faith in your own mind, judgment and intelligence, and use it to question everything, even people who seem to be ‘above’ you in whatever place or time you happen to be in now.

Your friends are the best of you.  When you are down, remember that if a person can be judged by the company you keep, then you are frankly, amazing.  Because your friends are amazing and then some.  By which extension – when you meet them for the first time, trust the geeks.  They have found a thing they love and they have the guts to stand up for it, and through it, themselves.  When you’re trying to work out who you are, they can help.

Physicality is in your power.  The questions you ask about how you look, and more importantly how other people perceive your looks, is based on a false premise.  Charisma and confidence is a thing created in the mind, in how you see yourself and how you feel about yourself.  The rest is fluff.

Regret is not the same as wisdom.

When the monkey in the hoodie says ‘yes’ to ‘fixed’ and ‘off’ he is, in fact, wrong.

Concision is a rarer grace than wit.

Above all: do not be afraid.  Running away from something stupid or dangerous isn’t fear, it’s just good sense.  The rest however, the fear that will hold you back, is self-inflicted and can be beaten.  Do not be afraid.

ANCILLARY JUSTICE makes the Clarke Awards Shortlist!

Our congratulations go today to Ann Leckie, who has been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award for her debut novel, the fantastic space opera ANCILLARY JUSTICE!

This means that ANCILLARY JUSTICE has so far had an unbroken chain of shortlistings for every science fiction award of the year: that’s the Kitschies (where it already won the Golden Tentacle), the Philip K. Dick Awards, the BSFA Awards, the Tiptree, the Goodread Reader’s Choice Awards and the Nebula Awards. What a record!

The shortlist this year has been characterised by several debut novels – Ann Leckie, Kameron Hurley and Ramez Naam are, impressively, all first time novelists. Alison Flood at the Guardian wrote about the debuts here: ‘SF newcomers invade Arthur C Clarke award shortlist’.

Big Orbit congratulations to Ann, and to all the shortlistees! The full shortlist is here:

ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie
GOD’S WAR by Kameron Hurley
THE MACHINE by James Smythe
THE DISESTABLISHMENT OF PARADISE by Phillip Mann
NEXUS by Ramez Naam
THE ADJACENT by Christopher Priest

Seeing is not Believing: Weirdest Alien Encounters

Ryan, the star of Ken MacLeod’s latest SF thriller, DESCENT, had a childhood encounter with an unidentified flying object in the hills above his home town. He’s done his research – he knows of all the hoaxes, justifications and explanations for UFO sightings, but can’t even begin to explain what happened to him. And in a future Scotland where nothing seems secret, where everything is recorded on CCTV or reported online, why can he find no evidence that the UFO ever existed?

DESCENT (UK|ANZ) is a science fiction story for the 21st Century – a story of what happens when conspiracy theorists take on Big Brother. To celebrate its release today, here’s our rundown of some of the weirdest reported alien encounters…

Space Brothers

Aliens aren’t just little green men – sometimes they look like ABBA.

‘Space Brothers’, ‘Nordic aliens’ or even ‘Pleiadians’ are the blond, beautiful human-looking aliens who many UFO believers have reported communicating with since the 1950s.

The first person to report contact with this type of alien was George Adamski, who reported seeing UFOs twice with friends before deciding on the third time that the craft must be looking for him! Separating from his friends, he saw the craft land and a blond man emerge, who claimed to be an alien named Orthon, who warned Adamski of the dangers of nuclear war and took him on a trip around the Solar System. That wasn’t the end of it, either – in the sixties Adamski claimed to have attended an interplanetary conference on the planet Saturn.

Once upon a time people would tell stories about how they were kidnapped by fair, beautiful elves in the woods – now it’s beautiful aliens. Why the obsession with blondes, though? It’s all a bit disturbing. (Some theorists have claimed ‘Orthon’ was a lost Nazi soldier testing a new aircraft.) Read the rest of this entry »

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Why Powered Armor?

In the interview section at the back of FORTUNE’S PAWN, I explained that the reason I originally decided to write the Paradox books was because I wanted to read an action packed SF romance and couldn’t find one, so I created my own. This is a true story, but it’s also true that my sudden reading urge wasn’t the only reason I decided to write about a female soldier turned mercenary who fights aliens, has a romantic subplot, and gets herself involved in a conspiracy that might doom all sentient life in the galaxy. You see, before all that, before Paradox and the xith’cal, even before Devi sauntered into my brain and informed me that I was writing her novel right that minute, I was already on the hunt for somewhere to put the Lady Grey.

I’ve been in love with powered armor since I watched my first mecha anime as a pre-teen renting anime tapes from Blockbuster in the dark days of the mid-90s. The idea of wrapping a person with all our fragile, soft flesh and emotional instability inside a machine that granted super human powers, but only under limits and often at huge costs, was like catnip for my young story-obsessed brain. I actually liked the price even better than the power it bought. Power alone is boring. It’s what power does to people—why they want it, how it changes them, and what they’re willing to do to keep it—that’s where the novel is.

If you’ve ever enjoyed a well told superhero story, you already know that the most compelling part of a any hero is their humanity. We don’t love Batman because of his toys, we love him for what he does with them, and why. We are, in short, far more interested in the man than the bat. Similarly, superheroes who have no weaknesses are boring. Even Superman, the most wish-fulfillment of all wish-fulfillment characters, needed kryptonite to be compelling in the long term.

Powered armor takes this idea a step further. Devi’s suit gives her what are essentially superpowers. She’s super fast, super tough, and super strong. She has eyes in the back of her head, the ability to look up almost any information with a thought, and a literal photographic memory. But none of this power is really hers. She’s just the driver, the breakable, fragile human at the heart of everything, and the knowledge that her power can be damaged, taken away, or even simply run out of energy, is what makes her plights that much more interesting and tense.

Powered armor certainly wasn’t the only way I could have done this. There are a million ways in Science Fiction to make someone super powered. I could have given Devi implants, or made her a genetically modified super soldier. But all of these things would have been hers, and I didn’t want that. I wanted Devi’s powers to be something she something she had to pay for and  could only use at great personal risk, because the person who has the guts to willingly put their neck on the line for the power to achieve their goals is also the person who can function without it. Take Superman’s powers away and he becomes a whiny embarrassment sulking in his Fortress of Solitude. Take Batman’s money and gadgets away and he’s still freaking Batman.

This vulnerability is why I think powered armor is such a staple in our collective imagination. It’s the ultimate unstable power—a supreme weapon that’s stealable, breakable, hackable, and only ever one technological glitch away from being a metal mausoleum—and the character who chooses to use it even in the face of all those flaws is practically guaranteed to be the sort of hardcore badass you want to read about. I put Devi in the Lady Gray precisely because I wanted her to be the sort of heroine  who, when I blasted her suit full of holes, would use the sharp edges to go for her enemy’s throat. The Lady Gray made Devi every bit as much as she made the Lady Gray, and I wouldn’t want either of them any other way.

Rachel Bach is the author of Paradox, a three part, heavy ordinance blast of Science Fiction that starts with FORTUNE’S PAWN (US | UK | AUS) and continues with HONOUR’S KNIGHT  (US | UK | AUS), out now! Want to find out more about the Paradox series? Read the interview, which appeared in the back of FORTUNE’S PAWN.

 

Praise for SHAMAN by Kim Stanley Robinson

We’ve had some magnificent new praise Kim Stanley Robinson and his novel SHAMAN (US | UK | AUS). Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder had this to say:

“KSR has turned his formidable knowledge and imagination from outer space and future science onto the deep human past. He unfolds the rich and complex lives of our upper Paleolithic forebears: a lad with no family, called Loon, makes it from boyhood to a role in his small society as a Shaman, under the difficult, nutty, mentorship of an elder named Thorn. His trials, hungers, dangers, and skills remind us that our minds and tools are sophisticated and very ancient. A moment struck by watching the great beauty of a wild horse, a vision of two young women braiding each others’ hair by a stream, put us all in the same place. Wild food, vast landscapes, insight, logic, handiness, lovely and sometimes difficult sex, and talks by the fire – all under the sky – or on a long long walk – make up a world we are still in. I don’t think anyone but Kim Stanley Robinson could have brought this off.”

World-renowned artist Marina Abramović said simply that it was the “best book of the year.”

And finally the New Yorker added that “Robinson is one of our best, bravest, most moral, and most hopeful storytellers.”

You can read the full admiring piece on the author and his work here or read a sample from the novel.

Ann Leckie’s ANCILLARY JUSTICE nominated for The Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award!

We’re thrilled to see Ann Leckie has been named a finalist for The Kitchies Golden Tentacle Award for her debut novel ANCILLARY JUSTICE (US | UK | AUS).

The Golden Tentacle is awarded annually to the debut novel that best fits the criteria of progressive, intelligent and entertaining.

Here are the rest of the nominees:

  • Stray by Monica Hesse (Hot Key)
  • A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock (47 North)
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
  • Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
  • Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloa

Congratulations to Ann and the rest of the nominees!

ANCILLARY JUSTICE was also recently nominated for the  Philip K. Dick Award.

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If you look at the early reviews of my new novel, FORTUNE’S PAWN (out now, by the way! [US | UK | AUS]), you’ll find one word repeated over and over again: fun. This word also appeared in reviews of my fantasy series, THE LEGEND OF ELI MONPRESS (written as Rachel Aaron [US | UK | ANZ]), so much so that I was actually joking to my husband that I should call myself “Rachel Aaron, the fun author!”

And you know, I’m okay with that.

Fun is a seriously underrated novel component. There are plenty of serious books that make you cry or think in a different way or show you something beautiful and deep. I strive for all that in my works as well, but never at the cost of a good time. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a cathartic cry as much as the next person, but the books I come back to over and over again are the ones that left me smiling and exhilarated and hungry to read more.

Too often, we say “escapist reading” like it’s something lesser. Like we should be ashamed that we’re enjoying something just because it’s fun. I think that’s absurd. It’s like saying ice cream is lesser because all it does is taste delicious. We need delicious, because life is hard. Bad things happen even to the luckiest of us, and the world can too often be a stressful, dark, unfriendly, unkind place. A good, fun book is like an escape hatch from all that grim reality. It’s a safe space where we can run away and have a good, dramatic, thrilling time, and sometimes, when you really need to a respite, that can feel like a miracle.

Hearing someone had a blast reading my books is the greatest complement I can receive as a writer. I’m proud to be a trusted provider of quality life escape hatches. And while I can’t guarantee my story will change your world forever, I can promise that it’ll be one hell of a ride. So come have fun in my imagination. Let me entertain you. At the very least, you’ll never be bored.

FORTUNE’S PAWN is available now! Check out the first chapter here, and get ready for even more fun this Thursday. Rachel Bach will be joining authors Daniel Abraham (1/2 of the James S. A. Corey writing duo) and Ann Leckie tomorrow for an evening of science fiction, technology, and space opera. RSVP to the Google event today

A Halloween Cover Launch: The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

The Rhesus Chart: a Laundry Files novel by Charles Stross

LONDON CAN DRAIN THE LIFE OUT OF YOU . . .

Bob Howard is an intelligence agent working his way through the ranks of the top secret government agency known as ‘the Laundry’. When occult powers threaten the realm, they’ll be there to clean up the mess – and deal with the witnesses.

There’s one kind of threat that the Laundry has never come across in its many decades, and that’s vampires. Mention them to a seasoned agent and you’ll be laughed out of the room.

But when a small team of investment bankers at one of Canary Wharf’s most distinguished financial institutions discovers an arcane algorithm that leaves them fearing daylight and craving O positive, someone doesn’t want the Laundry to know. And Bob gets caught right in the middle.

The newest Laundry Files novel, and a jumping-on point for readers new to the series, THE RHESUS CHART will be released in hardback and digital July 2014. Cover design by Crush Creative.

The Laundry Files by Charles Stross

Don’t forget you can now buy all four of the previous Laundry Files novels in these gorgeous paperback editions.

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He Said, She Said

I decided pretty early on, when I first was playing with the elements of what would become the universe of ANCILLARY JUSTICE (US | UK | AUS), that the Radchaai wouldn’t care much about gender, and wouldn’t mark people’s gender in their speech. Not because I wanted the Radch to be any kind of prejudice-free utopia–far from it.* But because I (somewhat naively) thought it would be interesting.

It actually took me a while to realize what a can of worms I was opening. To some extent, I’m still realizing it. But at first, I was faced with a purely mechanical problem–how to portray a society that just didn’t care about gender, while I myself was using a language that required me to specify gender at every turn. It’s pretty much built into English to specify a person’s gender, even when it’s is totally irrelevant to the topic at hand, and it’s difficult–not impossible, mind you, but difficult–to talk for very long about a person without mentioning their gender. **

At first I tried just asserting that Radchaai didn’t care about gender, and then using gendered pronouns throughout. I was unsatisfied with this. (And unsatisfied with those first couple of novels, which are in a drawer hidden from view until further notice. Only a few people have seen them.) I became more unsatisfied with it the longer I considered it, in fact. In the end I decided to pick one pronoun (at least for the sections where, presumably, my narrator is speaking Radchaai) and stick with it in all cases.

Often people assume (wrongly) that “they” as a singular pronoun isn’t “proper” English. It is in fact entirely grammatical and available to use. It’s most often used to refer to a nebulous “someone” whose ambiguous existence makes gender difficult to guess, but there are an increasing number of recent examples of singular they used in cases where gender is known and/or not a simple matter of either/or.*** I could have used it for Ancillary Justice, but it didn’t feel right. I’m not a hundred percent sure why.

I could have chosen any one of the ungendered pronouns that have been proposed over the years. This also would have been entirely workable. And inclusive–though we’re used to thinking of gender as an obvious either/or, male/female, really things aren’t always that clearcut. On the minus side, using any of those pronouns would have made getting into the story difficult for readers unfamiliar with them, at least at first. This is not a reason to never use those pronouns, of course, but I admit it was a consideration for me here.

I could have gone with the old standby, “the masculine embraces the feminine,” and just called everyone “he.” This is, in fact, the choice made by Ursula K LeGuin when she wrote The Left Hand of Darkness (Which is awesome, and if you haven’t read it, it is my considered opinion that you should.) Years later, she expressed some dissatisfaction with having made that choice. It made the Gethenians seem to be all male, which they were not, and failed to convey their non-binary nature. Read the rest of this entry »

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