Five authors you should read who aren’t straight white men

There’s a big discrimination problem right now. The problem exists both in the general public and in fandom / literary circles. Need an example? Look at these stories from the last week.

  • In the news:

    • George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager who he followed, confronted and ultimately shot to death. He used stand your ground laws as the basis of a defence that focused on trying to vilify his victim.
    • Marissa Alexander, in the same state and supposedly subject to the same laws as George Zimmerman fired a warning shot at her abusive husband. Nobody was killed. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison. She was denied access to stand your ground laws.
    • Conservative politicians in Texas made it all but impossible to get an abortion in the state.
    • One-time darling of the Canadian environmentalist community, David Suzuki made the statement that “Canada is full.” In response I provide this map: Canada map population
  • In the publishing world:

    • Orson Scott Card asks for tolerance from the gay community after groups in fandom call for a boycott on the grounds that Card is a member of anti-gay organizations and spends a lot of his profit fighting to deny gay people their rights.
    • Twitter trolls create the @SFWAFascists account in order to make passive-aggressive swipes at a small group of progressive authors who took a stand against sexism in SFWA publications. (To be fair, the internet replied with a lot of awesome as most of the authors labled “Fascist” were promptly inundated with new followers interested in them.
    • Some critic attacked Scott Lynch’s work by suggesting his POC single mother pirate character Zamira Drakasha pushed the limits of believability because she was a woman, not white. Never mind that there were plenty of women in historical piracy, some of them decidedly not white.

It’s pretty obvious that something isn’t right here when this is one week. Things have to be done to fix these sorts of toxic problems.

But this is a book blog. So let’s talk about books. Today I’m providing a list of authors who aren’t white, straight men. One way that we can fight against discrimination is to listen to voices of people who have been othered. Frankly, and I say this as a frequent ally, one of the best things we can do is listen, really listen.

Books are an exceptional medium for coming to an understanding of other peoples experiences. We are able to inhabit the thoughts and feelings of the characters created by these authors and, in doing so, perhaps learn just a little bit about how it feels to be discriminated against, marginalized or silenced. With that understanding maybe it’ll be that much easier for us to help to change things, make them better.

With that in mind, read these authors:

1. Saladin Ahmed

Ahmed almost made my lists  twice this week already because Throne of the Crescent Moon is an amazing book. I was so lucky to get to read it – I’d wandered into a bookstore and went up to the sci-fi and fantasy area receptionist. I told him I wanted to read a secondary world fantasy not set in a European setting (was feeling a bit worn out by GoT to be honest) and he pointed me to this.

Seriously, read it! Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is one of the kindest and most truly good protagonists I have ever encountered. Throne of the Crescent Moon is a book about the triumph of compassion and love over cruelty. This is a book that will make you want to be a better person.

I hope that Ahmed has a long career after this. I will certainly buy his books. (Bonus points – Ahmed is one of the authors on the SFWA fascists list, and anybody on that list probably deserves a read.)

2. Samuel R. Delany

He wrote Dhalgren. Let me repeat this: this man is the genius who wrote that book that veteran SF nerds use to terrify newcomers to genre. He’s a literary mastermind to rival James Joyce.

He’s won four nebula awards and two hugo awards. He is the director of the graduate creative writing program at Temple university. If you’ve been reading Speculative Fiction for a long time the chances are that you have read Delany. If you haven’t read him yet fix that. Fix that now!

3. All the authors in the Dragon and the Stars anthology

Cheating a little bit again, but this short story anthology deserves mention. Edited by Eric Choi and Derwin Mak, The Dragon and the Stars is an anthology of authors who are members of the Chinese diaspora. This little book is one of the most interesting short story anthologies in my collection and I do love it very much.

The first story in the collection, Tony Pi‘s The Character of the Hound is my personal favourite but there isn’t a bad story in this entire book.

4. Madeline Ashby

It takes a particularly deft touch to take a story that is fundamentally derived from Asimov’s three laws of robotics and create from it a parable of gender inequality and slavery. It takes an even defter hand to do so in a way that makes an exciting and refreshing adventure novel. Madeline Ashby accomplishes this easily with vN.

There’s a reason that her second novel, iD is the very next book that I will be buying myself.

5. Michael Rowe

Rowe wrote the best vampire novel since Salem’s Lot at the very least, possibly the best vampire novel since Dracula when he wrote Enter Night. Like all really good horror what sets Enter Night apart from its peers is the quality of characterization of its protagonists.

One of the key protagonists is the openly gay son of the local matriarch. After a traumatic forced stint in a mental institution, part of a misguided attempt to “cure” him, he left his distant northern town for the bright lights of Toronto. But when his brother dies he’s forced to return home to help protect his sister in law and her daughter from the cruelty of his mother.

Also there are vampires.

If you like stories where the vampires don’t sparkle and where the fundamental humanity of the protagonists and their relationships creates enough compassion for us to care about their fates this is the horror story for you.

Help to make things better

Buying and reading these books, on its own, won’t make things better. Still its important to confront the fact that discrimination exists. Furthermore discrimination exists within our community.

By supporting authors who represent disparate voices from the dominant one of straight white men, by sharing them and encouraging other people to read them, we can start to break down that discrimination within our community.

Speculative Fiction is supposed to be a place of acceptance; there is a myth in fandom that we’re a bunch of outcasts and misfits. I think that myth isn’t really that true, certainly not anymore. Being a nerd is not exactly a stigmatizing thing in the age of the internet. But still, if we can create the community of acceptance, NOT tolerance but real, open and welcoming acceptance of diversity that is part of our origin story perhaps we can use the expanded influence that genre has on popular culture to help shape the greater culture.

Buying and reading these books won’t end discrimination, but at least it’s somewhere to start.

Five Fantasy novels you should have already read (but probably haven’t)

There’s a lot of good fantasy novels out there. It doesn’t help that fantasy authors are frequently among the most prolific writers in genre, churning out a book a year or more for decades.

When you find a fantasy author you like it’s all too easy just to stick with them. These books are ones you might not have heard of. But each of them is a brilliant work – what’s more, they represent some of the more unusual and challenging stories in fantasy.

1.  The Pattern Scars by Caitlin Sweet

Ever meet a book that can break your heart? This is one of them. My immediate response to the story is that it reminded me, in the telling, of Le Guin. There was a similar ephemeral quality to the prose.

However this story of prophecy, murder and betrayal is much darker than Le Guin’s books. In Nola, Sweet has created a beautifully realized protagonist, one whose vibrancy radiates throughout the story. And because Nola shines so brightly you feel the pain of her tragedies ever more sharply.

This book is not an easy book. It is however achingly beautiful and if you haven’t read it you should now.

2. Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Fair warning: this one is a little difficult to track down.

It’s not available as an e-book nor was it available in print in any bookstores I could find. Ultimately I had to order the book online and then waited two agonizing weeks while Canada Post promptly lost it.

But it was worth the wait. Barry Hughart deftly accomplishes something which all too few fantasy authors attempt. He creates a fantasy story set in a world that is not based on mediaeval Europe and succeeds.

Basing his world loosely on Tang dynasty China, Hughart manages to weave together Chinese folk stories and a strong historical understanding of the first Chinese imperial renaissance without allowing the details to overwhelm his work.

I loved Under Heaven and River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay and I don’t want this to sound like an indictment of either of these books, but Hughart employs a defter touch with his use of myth and history. He’s comfortable and confident enough with the historical material he uses to throw caution blithely to the wind.

This willingness to take risks allows him to create a romping adventure in which a dissolute and possibly immortal scholar (he claims not to be but he’s far older than any reasonable person ever could be) and an innocent peasant take on the roles of Holmes and Watson, solving an ancient mystery while engaging in daring do such as a steampunk helicopter escape from a giant invisible spider.

With inveterate scholasticism and bizarre flights of fantasy it’s unsurprising that Bridge of Birds won several awards when it was originally published. And yet, the publishers had trouble marketing the book and Hughart eventually withdrew from writing after only three novels.

3. Wild Girls by Mary Stewart Atwell

I’ve got a soft spot for a coming of age story and this one is a doozy.

A bitter-sweet story about class and privilege, fear of the other, sex and death, Wild Girls is not an ordinary YA novel. I was lucky enough to have a chance to hear Atwell reading from Wild Girls. I say lucky because I might not have ever picked the book up if I hadn’t.

But I’m glad I did. This is the way urban fantasy is best done – with a light touch to the spectacle and a heavy dollop of characterization. Wild Girls is a true pleasure to read. If you haven’t read it yet I strongly suggest you read it right now.

4. Three Kingdoms / The Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong

Ok, this one is stretching the definition of fantasy a bit in that it’s a historical novel written in Ming Dynasty China. It is, in fact, one of the earliest true novels ever written anywhere and more people should read it for that reason alone. Happily a very good translation was published by Beijing Foreign Language Press. It may be difficult to find but I would suggest perseverance.

Why do I call Three Kingdoms a fantasy novel? The truth is that it entirely pre-dates such a thing as genre distinctions. That being said, the fusion of myth and history, the inclusion of the deification of Guan Yu and the lasting influence that this book had on the fantasy stories of Asia all point towards a novel which is closer to fantasy than any other modern genre. The novel can ultimately be summed up by the author’s thesis:

“The Empire, long divided, must unite: long united, must divide.”

It chooses as its protagonists not the ultimately victorious Cao Cao (who makes for one of the most exceptional villains in the history of literature) but rather the oath garden brothers Liu Bei, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu. By choosing to frame history through the lens of the most legendary figures (and also the least successful figures), the Three Kingdoms became a bit of a subversive story.

That element of subversion has led to it becoming one of the most frequently cited stories within Asia, spawning countless movies, video games, television shows and literary works.

5. Above by Leah Bobet

Returning to the present day, Above is another Young Adult entry on this list. This unapologetically Torontonian story (you can even see the CN Tower front-and center on the cover) plays out similarly to some of the works of Neil Gaiman as it tracks the slightly magical outcasts who live in the catacombs beneath the city.

Above brings sensitivity, strength and a strong political consciousness / conscience to the genre. Bobet understands how to infuse a Young Adult novel with her passion and her ethics without ever becoming bombastic or heavy-handed.

Furthermore her protagonists, a boy with the features of a lion and an artist’s soul, a wounded girl who is also a bee, a man whose touch is electric and several more are well realized, beautiful, flawed, monstrous and heroic. If you don’t already own a copy of this book you should buy it right now.

Top Five Books That Should Have Been Adapted Instead of Ender’s Game

It’s sort of awesome that fantasy and sci-fi adaptations have become the hot properties in Hollywood. Even though I rarely read comic books I am a huge fan of superhero movies, space adventures and time travel flicks.

Considering that, and considering how significant Ender’s Game is within the canon of speculative fiction it’s not entirely surprising that there is an adaptation. However it’s still unfortunate. I am continuing to encourage people to donate to War Child rather than going to see Ender’s Game but I’d also like to propose five classic Sci-Fi and fantasy books that need an adaptation more than Ender’s Game.

5. Foundation (Foundation’s Edge / Foundation and Earth or Second Foundation)

Ok, so I’m already cheating a bit with this one since it’s actually three books. To be fair they’re all part of one overarching story. Foundation is a hard one to film. I suspect part of the reason that producers have shied away from Asimov’s epic vision of a far-future galactic empire has been the trouble structuring a suitable narrative through line.

Certainly the first two books of the Foundation series resist a cinematic treatment. Foundation itself is effectively a short story collection. The second half of Foundation and Empire could make for a compelling story but the rise of the Mule might be difficult to make into compelling and tense cinema.

Introducing him already in power and hunting for the dangerous and mysterious group that might make for a slightly stronger story.

Although arguably a weaker story than Second Foundation the Foundation’s Edge / Foundation and Earth duology might make for better film. It has a hollywood friendly protagonist and adventure elements that might let its extended warning regarding the danger of false utopias and exploration of the difficulty of deciding between individualism and collective good into an exciting film.

4. A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea classic coverYes, there is an “adaptation” of A Wizard of Earthsea. Well, kind of… Le Guin has effectively disowned the miniseries after she was cut out of the creative process for it. Furthermore much of the thematic complexity of the original work was lost by mashing a hodgepodge of elements from A Wizard of Earthsea and Tombs of Atuan together effectively at random.

And then there was the whitewashing…

There are two fantasy series that defined my love of the genre when I was barely old enough to read. Tolkien’s work and Le Guin’s. I recall the first time I ever read a book in a single sitting was the first time I picked up the Tombs of Atuan and could not put it down.

I would love very much to see a Wizard of Earthsea film that actually considers Le Guin’s vision of the world both chromatically and thematically.

3. Neuromancer


2. Snow Crash

This is another entry both in the “cyberpunky” category and in the just make it already category. Snowcrash has been in a state of partial production since before the dawn of time and there are rumours that it has entered a casting phase as recently as 2012.

Still it would be nice to see a sci-fi novel with an honest-to-goodness sense of humour become a film. A lot of our adventure movies have become grim affairs. The Zach Snyder / Christopher Nolan “gritty reboot” syndrome is the tip of this iceberg only but it’s certainly worth noting that about the only films coming out of Hollywood that managed to successfully balance spectacle, drama and action in the last two years were Avengers and the Hobbit. That’s a pretty slim success rate considering how many movies have come out in that time.

1. Just about anything by Guy Gavriel Kay

There’s no two ways about it. This man writes beautiful books. I’d personally love to see Under Heaven published. It’s my favourite of his novels. But that being said, just about any Kay novel would make for an exceptional and beautiful fantasy film.

His lyrical stories that seamlessly blend fantasy and history into secondary worlds that feel like our own are chock full of fascinating characters, beautiful settings and interesting plots.

Beyond that though there is a depth to Kay’s writing that could elevate an adaptation of one of his books, well executed, above just another fantasy adventure and into a work of cinematic art.

Of course there are so many other deserving stories just begging for adaptation. Share your favourites in the comments.