There is a kerfluffle in the romance writer’s community over JR Ward’s use of (Hollywood-esque) “black” language whenever her vampires talk. These are, as one commentor put it, “lily-white guys play-acting at being thugs and talking all ghetto.”

When my job sends me down to the main office in San Francisco, which it does once or twice a year, there’s a bookstore near the hotel I use that specializes in books by African American authors, and it has a huge romance section. And I’m a huge romance reader, so out of curiosity I bought a few. The entire romance section was modern day; I could not find, and I did try, to find SF, fantasty, paranormal or historical romance novels in that particular section.

On the one hand, the stories were a slog; I’m not a big fan of modern day romance, and the language wasn’t entirely my own. (Indeed, it was a bit like reading Alan Garner, where so much is said by not being said, the writer assumes you share her understanding of culture, and various patois intermingle with casual difficulty.) On the other, it was clear that the characters in these books are constantly worrying about “their men” being in jail, or getting into trouble with the cops, or facing the extra complications their skin color entails when getting a job or applying for college, constantly managing their outward appearance to thread the maze of stares and surveillance, to avoid “causing trouble” just by being black.

I haven’t read Ward, but having read (a few) romance novels by black writers, and (many more) paranormal romances, I’ve come to a conclusion: Paranormal romance creates for white writers and readers fictional worlds of immanent, anarchic existential threat from vast and powerful forces mostly beyond the protagonists’ control. Black romance writers already live in such a world, and feel no need to add vampires and werewolves to their characters’ already overwhelmingly complicated lives.

Vampire and werewolf characters are always talking about how hard it is to navigate a world that doesn’t understand them, and how they feel marginalized by their minority status and lack of privilege. Normal characters often feel threatened by the inherent power and immanent threat of the supernaturally empowered Other.

Which, if you think about it, sounds an awful lot like the way black Americans talk about America, and how the innate racism in America often manifests itself when conservatives talk about race.

I think the reason there aren’t more paranormal romance writers of color is that they don’t see the point. They’d just be writing in a genre where, in the end, that immanent, anarchic threat is beaten back, often with finality. To someone who already lives that life, such a victory is more childish fantasy than it is a thrilling conclusion.

I have a few absolutely lovely superfans. I adore them because they remind me to keep writing even when I don’t feel like it. My fanfic has about 30 readers now, which is a really nice feeling, and I appreciate everything they say and do for me.

One complaint that I get from some of those fans is about a lack of detail-in-the-large. As an SF reader, I’m accustomed to pulling out the surrounding enviornment from hints and filling in details by noticing little things. The famous “The door irised open” line from Heinlein sets a stage; as does my latest opening line, “If you can see the space elevator from here, my Queen, your eyes are better than mine.” But I know what a “space elevator” is.

One of the core conceits of the story is that we have two human civilizations that have just met: one is purely slower-than-light; the other has achieved FTL transport. The STL people use technologies that are probable, including terraforming solettas and space elevators. Some of my readers have no idea what those are. They also don’t know what a wormhole is, or gravitic sheer, or a railgun, or an electromagnetic pulse. I’m really comfortable with these concepts, even if some of them are pure fantasy. Since I’m releasing the story serially, I’ve had to go back and help explain in more detail many of these concepts, often in an “well, we discovered phlebotinum in 2500 PD,” or “We don’t have your phlebotinum, so we had to do…” sorts of ways.

But fanfic readers want even more. The whole “show, don’t tell; keep it short, make it punchy” thing that our editors have been telling us for years is utterly ignored by fanfic writers, and I don’t think that’s entirely due to they’re all being mostly younger, mostly beginner, mostly immature. Fanfic readers want to be spoon-fed every detail; they want every emotion spelled out, illustrated in excrutiating detail, and then verbally reiterated. They want distance from and insight into the POV characters, and they want the writer to go over that ground again and again until they have perfect clarity as to where the characters are going. What fanfic fans they want, more than anything else, is to show each other how to process the world: how to process love, fear, betrayal, friendship, life, and death. The whole point of fanfic is to get inside the mind of beloved characters and answer the question, “Why is he/she like that?”

Chuck Pahalniuk once wrote that writers should avoid the characters “knowing” anything: never write that a character “knows” how another feels, or “believes,” or “feels.” To a fanfic writer, that advice feels like an abdication of what fanfic is all about.

2014 In Review

I was going to say that I’ve gotten absolutely nothing done in 2014, but that’s not entirely true, is it?  Looking back through the record, I actually wrote one novel and successfully powered through a second.  They’re not great novels; the first is a rough draft written in the heat of NaNoWriMo, and is about 51,334 words, so it’s technically a novel in the NaNoWriMo sense.  It’s okay, as rough drafts go; wordy and repetitive, in the grand NaNoWriMo “every word but not every idea must be new” tradition; characters say the same things over and over.

On the other hand, Captain and Queen, my first major attempt at fanfiction in years, was pretty satisfactory.  It’s currently about 68,000 words, and there are still a few chapters left.  Since I was writing for a distinctly new audience, I left a lot of kinks at the door; I wanted to just write an adventure, and I did.  

Grand total, I wrote about 124,600 words last year.  That’s not too bad.

Oh, and I have a confession to make.  Part of the reason I haven’t updated this site in a very long is that I’ve forgotten how to use my own posting software.  It’s freaking 11 years old at this point.  I need to update it.

Fewer things persistently irritate me quite so much as watching someone dabble in science fiction without really understanding the genre. Normally, my annoyance is reserved for the ones whose basic understanding of SF is from comic books and movies watched as a child, someone who doesn’t get any actual pleasure from reading SF, or whose reading of SF is defined by exceptionally narrow interests. My canonical example is Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods, which basically consisted of used furniture, the most important artifact of which was her grinding wheel.

So reading Joseph Norman’s “Digital Souls and Virtual Afterlives in Iain M. Banks’s Culture Series” (an essay found in the mostly delightful The Transgressive Iain M. Banks: Essays on a Writer Beyond Borders) irked me in special ways. In trying to link Banks to the Cyberpunk ethic of the 1980s with its darkly glittering cyberspace, Norman asserts that “In Surface Detail [we are told] … souls can be converted into, or captured as, digital information, similar to Case from Neuromancer.” [emphasis in the original] And, “The total separation of mind and body in his manner corresponds to the famous notion of substance (or Cartesian) dualism, in which the soul exists in an entirely immaterial, non-physical state, distinct from the material state of the body.” Later, “Soulkeeper techonology allows individuals to have their ‘essence’ encoded as pure information which crosses over into virtual, digital environments.”

The confusion in these passages is so rife as to ruin any point Norman was trying to make. Banks makes the point again and again, especially in Excession, The Hydrogen Sonata, and in Prin’s tale in Surface Detail, that bodies matter, that the array and way sensory information arrives within a mind, and the array of capabilities that body possesses, shapes the experiences a mind has; the revention of Zakalwe especially changes the way Zakalwe interacts with the world, he is quite vehemently a new man after he is killed the first time, although not one for the better. There is no “total separation” in Banks’ universe: experiences change minds, and bodies make up the sources of experience.

An argument can be made that there’s still separation, but it’s one that necessitates a connection of some kind, but that’s a philosophical argument that Banks frequently shied away from. He didn’t want to get into the Greg Egan-esque weeds over the morality of duplication and frequently had-waved it away. See, for example, The Use of Weapons and Diziet Sma’s discomfort with cloned mind-states. Also discussed, and much overridden with much handwavery, in The Hydrogen Sonata. The amount of handwavery in Matter in which Banks tries, unsucessfully, to wrestle with Egan, is rather stunning. Banks has a good point in Matter, but his grasp of the material is lacking.

What’s really irritating though is the provincialism of Norman’s approach. He insists on an analog/digital duality that is nowhere to be found in, you know, actually reading Culture novels. The Minds make the point again and again that they are agglomerate, evolved entities for which distinctions like “analog,” “digital,” “probabilistic,” “stochastic,” and so forth are fairly meaningless; they have access to physics and “computation” that make cyberpunk-esque digitalia look like bronze-age tools. To try and take 1980s-era understandings of “cyberpunk” and apply them to Banks’s writing is no more effective than taking E.E. Doc Smith’s understanding of space travel and applying it to Charlie Stross’s books.

Banks died before homotopy became a hot new subject in mathematics, but it looks to be one that will turn all of math– and hence all of physics– into a subset of computational theory. He also died before physicists started taking the simulation hypothesis seriously and rid themselves of the assumption that a simulation had to be discrete (i.e. “digital”) in order to be a simulation.

Banks was aware of his shortcomings, even as he wrestled with them. Norman does not seem to have learned even that much from them man he was studying.

Reading Elsanna

So, falling under the heading of no surprise whatsoever, I’ve been reading a metric ton of Frozen fanfic, more specifically Elsanna. While I do love fanfic, Sturgeon’s Law applies, plus I have my own pecadillos, starting with the simple fact that, given who and what the characters are, I’m not going to read anything IU (“In-Universe”).

A lot of the short stories (those of 2000 words or less) are simply pointless; the writers don’t know how to pack in the details the way a short story demands. That said, I readily deleted “Cacophony,” “Empty Halls,” “Something Crazy,” and “Closeted” as unreadable. “The Takeover,” like “Sorority Sisters,” is simply too fast and ridiculous to be believable; the characters fall into trust (much less love) simply because they have to for the sake of the plot, and never question their reaction to one another, so I never finished them.

That said, there are some worth mentioning, not because they’re good romances, but because they’re among the most compelling illustrations of mental illness I’ve seen yet. You Are and Elsa is Suffering both show the progression I’ve noted before; a few chapters of crud, followed by the author hitting his or her stride, followed by a tragically compelling mess of a story. Those two are like having a crazy lover you can’t stop seeing; for all the drama and emotional toil, the high points are just amazing.

If you want the best Elsanna story (and you probably don’t), Anna Summers, Personal Assistant is probably your best bet. In what has to be the most giggle-inducing scene ever written, Anna discusses safer sex and the author absolutely nails her voice. Hilarity ensues.

Fanfic is a supergenre, and the AU settings necessitated by my restrictive choices enforce all sorts of genre categories that drift far from the original material. (I have yet to see an SFnal Elsanna story. I may have to change that myself.) But if you like to read, fanfic is a way to keep those characters moving forward when no one else will give you more of what you want.

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