Present Writers: Rosemary Kirstein

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress,Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman,Robin McKinley,Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, and Delia Sherman.

The Steerswoman series. There are four out already, apparently Rosemary is at work on not one but two more (oh that is so hopeful), but the four that already exist make me so happy.

The thing about the Steerswoman books is that they are about people who are trying to figure out their world. They’re about people who value knowledge. And they’re about people who have actually followed through on what that means in practical terms and come to a lot of ideas about kindness and equality that serve advancing knowledge really well, that unfortunately a lot of people in our world don’t think ahead enough to get to. But one of the great things about books that are thoughtful about that kind of thing is that they encourage their readers to be more thoughtful too.

They are beautifully exploratory, these books. The protagonists are allowed to make extremely human mistakes in love and deduction and everything else that is important in life. And yet they keep on. In the face of sometimes staggering odds, they keep on. I only meant to reread the first two for this project, but now that I have, I just want to keep going–because they’re not just philosophically great, they’re also delightful page-turners, well-characterized and tightly plotted. I am over the moon to find that we have two more coming. I simply cannot wait for more of Kirstein’s work, and if you haven’t had the joy, run don’t walk to download the ebooks or order paper copies delivered from your nearest friendly struggling retailer.

Present Writers: Delia Sherman

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress,Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman,Robin McKinley, Laurie Marks, and Ellen Kushner.

It’s a little strange and yet also wonderful to write two of these in a row when my favorite book by the pair of authors is the one they wrote together. Because as I said last month–The Fall of the Kings is my favorite Ellen Kushner book, and it’s also my favorite Delia Sherman book. They’re a married couple who managed to do something together that was even more amazing than what they do separately–it’s magical and immersive, and I love it so much.

But Sherman does have an entire quirky and individual body of work away from Riverside, and writing these two posts in such quick succession made me think carefully about what I like about that body of work apart from The Fall of the Kings. Remove the favorite, and what have you got? And for me the answer is that Sherman is an absolute champ at historical fantasy. The texture and detail of how the characters’ motivation and plot arise from their context and setting, the way that magic can arise from a knowledge of place and time–that’s where she really shines.

You can take a quick tour through a chocolate box sampler of these skills with Sherman’s short story collection, Young Woman in a Garden, in which she demonstrates a variety of inspirations and settings, rather than just one or two. Even within the 19th century in the United States Sherman has an ear for place, context, dialect. If you have time you can pick up one after another of the longer works to see her range–but one collection will give you a taste of it incredibly quickly. It’s a treat, and it’s a gift.

Present Writers: Ellen Kushner

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress,Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman, Robin McKinley, and Laurie Marks.

The first several times I mentioned a book by Ellen Kushner, my mother would ask, is it that Ellen Kushner? It is, it is that Ellen Kushner–because my mother listened to NPR’s Sound and Spirit, and that was how she knew Ellen’s name.

But for me, Ellen Kushner meant Riverside, and still does. She’s written other things–Thomas the Rhymer, notably, although there have been others–but her masterwork in fantasy is the series of stories clustered around Riverside, starting with Swordspoint and blossoming into more, The Privilege of the Sword and The Fall of the Kings and eventually the Tremontaine serial.

Though these settings have been shared with other writers, starting with her wife, writer Delia Sherman and going on to a bevy of other talents through the serial, a reread of Swordspoint makes it clear how many of the ideas were layered in from the very beginning. Other talents have brought their own strengths and richness to the stories–but only because Kushner built the space for them into it in the first place. Some of the references are tiny, astonishing in retrospect. Some anticipate current trends by decades. It is a marvel of concise implication, and it isn’t even my favorite of her works. (That would be The Fall of the Kings.) I think this is actually a case where taking up any thread will give you an edge of the tapestry, and I definitely recommend that you do so.

Every time certain other Kushners are referred to by their last name alone, I think, “WHAT? She would neve–oh, that guy,” and remain staunch in my conviction that if they don’t mean Ellen Kushner, they really should specify. Because we all know which is the original.

Present Writers: Laurie Marks

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress,Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman, and Robin McKinley.

One of the great things about doing this series is that it encourages me to research the authors I’m writing about. I was fully prepared to write about how Laurie Marks’s Elemental Logic series, by itself, is worthy and awesome and I am so glad to be reading it, I am so excited to have more of it ahead. Because it is about how different people think logically and how we need each other, how different modes of thought fit together and how people with similar modes of thought often come to quite different conclusions, and all these lovely things fit into a fantasy model incredibly well–fantasy is an utterly great way to illuminate these things.

And then I went and looked, and she’s done other books I haven’t even heard of.

What an opportunity I have in front of me! In addition to enjoying this series–in addition to hoping that I can encourage you to be, as we say on the internet, one of today’s lucky 10,000–I am myself one of today’s lucky 10,000.

I love doing this project.

Anyway! So! Diversity of human brain types! In a fantasy matrix! In the context of colonialism and governance and cultures finding ways to live together! And with magic! This is a “yes she can sing, yes she can dance, but can she juggle” author, all in just one series, and apparently there’s more. I can’t wait for more.

Present Writers: Robin McKinley

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress,Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey , and Greer Gilman.

There’s a lot of pressure for sequels in this world. Robin McKinley basically doesn’t do sequels. Sometimes this makes those of us who have been her fans since we were staggering around the grade school thinking big dragon thoughts tear our hair and scream. Sometimes it leaves us with basically part of a story, waiting to see if the promised sequel ever comes. That way lies madness, friends. It might. But you can’t actually wait for it. That’s not what she’s doing.

What you can do–what you should do–is enjoy what’s here. Because what’s here is delightful. What’s here is its own thing in all sorts of explosively different directions. I don’t know of any other author who can write two retellings of the same fairy tale and have them feel as completely different as McKinley’s Beauty and the Beast retellings that they can feel so utterly non-repetitive. The same author did something as sweet as The Outlaws of Sherwood and as dark as Deerskin–and fairly close together, too. The two Damar books are listed as related to each other, but they are such different views of the same land as to be completely transformative of it. What is Damar, what are its customs and mores, what do its people mean and think and do? Utterly transformed things over time–and yet connected, related. I could have–would have–read a dozen books about Damar. If you’d asked me, when I was a tiny child who had just finished reading about Narnia, I would have expected to. And instead I got Sunshine and its bakery and the way that it tells a vampire story when I thought I never wanted another. What else will there be. I can’t begin to guess, but McKinley’s body of work has taught me to appreciate what there is, and that is itself such a gift.

Present Writers: Greer Gilman

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, Diane Duane, and Candas Jane Dorsey.

Some of the writers I’ve featured in this series have been extremely prolific. My friend Greer is not. She has to her name two novels (Moonwise and Clouds and Ashes) and a handful of shorter work, including two novellas about the extremely startling adventures of Ben Jonson (yes, the playwright). But this body of work is very densely written, with the closest of attention paid to the language in every instance.

Some of this work is very natural and seasonal. Some of it is filled with artifice in the best way–what is more created, more artificial, than the theater?–and one of my favorite things about reading Greer’s work is the moment when I fall into the cadence of one of her stories. This is lovely and easy when you have the pleasure and privilege of hearing her read aloud, but something can still click when you’re reading to yourself, and then the utterly singular and personal prose just flows, like being told a story in the way that only one person on earth could do it.

We are not here to tell stories like anyone else. No one exemplifies telling the stories that only we can tell better than Greer Gilman, and I am so glad that she is present and still coming up with charming, hilarious tales of Ben Jonson and beyond, with us today.

Present Writers: Candas Jane Dorsey

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, and Diane Duane.

My first exposure to Candas Jane Dorsey’s work was the singular Black Wine, which did more with themes of servitude and slavery than the vast majority of science fiction prior to its publication. From there I went on to A Paradigm of Earth, the kind of near-future SF that was present-SF by the time I read it, one where aliens were trying to figure out humans and gender, and friends, couldn’t we really use some confused aliens going “wait but what but wait” on this one because it’s not like we’ve got a good fix on it ourselves, and poking at it with an alien is not a bad plan at all, nor is it in the book in question.

Most lately, though, and the one that made me think of writing a Present Writers post about Dorsey, was Ice and Other Stories. Because it is such a far-ranging collection in tone and mood and time and genre. It is doing so many things, it is reaching for so many things and then actually achieving them, that it was a sudden reminder: oh! Oh yes, she’s been doing this a minute! She’s gotten quite good at this! (And that, if you recall, is what this series is for.)

But when I looked up her bio, it turns out that Dorsey, like so many of the writers in this series, had done so much more than what I’d already realized. Television and stage scripts, arts journalism and arts advocacy…it makes me want to send her a fruit basket and a comfy place to sit down for a moment. But that’s what these posts are for: to say, we see you, well done, keep doing it, here is your internet fruit basket for continuing to do the thing.

Present Writers: Diane Duane

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Nancy Kress.

I’ve been talking a lot about entropy in 2019, so I think it’s inevitable that I would turn to the works of Diane Duane. Duane has written a gigantic and varied body of work–for adults and young people, original and media tie-ins, short and long, fantasy and science fiction of countless sub-genres, for prose and film, traditionally published and fan-funded, ranging over forty years. Name it and Duane has probably done it. She’s worked alone and with others; she’s written with Star Trek properties and Tom Clancy and even secretly been a John M. Ford character. (What, you thought Princess Deedee was purely an invention of Mike’s?)

But in her longest and best-known series, the Young Wizards books, the antagonist is the Lone Power, which is Entropy. The Lone Power is the unraveler. And in a time when saving the whales was a cliche, Duane’s characters stood with the whales to help them save themselves. What does Diane Duane’s work mean to me. Friends, oh friends, this year, this horrible year, I am choking up trying to write this post about how lovely it is to have her here, still working side by side with us against the chaos of it all. Because we need this more than ever. We need the partnerships with other beings. We need to embrace other ways of thinking for what we all bring to the table. We need to keep turning over the assumption we made and letting it ramify. And that is what the Young Wizards books do and have always done, from the first time Nita and Kit went on errantry.

There are so many other things Duane’s work has done–not always what it seems from the cover, she has some of the most oddly composed covers I have ever dealt with as a reader–but here and now, in the entropic vortex that is 2019, I find myself more appreciative than ever of the quiet, firm fierceness of these books, and of their author.

Present Writers: Nancy Kress

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede, and Lois McMaster Bujold.

I’ve talked on the record about how Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain, the novel version, was one of the most formative books of my teen years, one of the books that my father found for me as a random no-occasion present that made me sit up and say, this, I’m going to do this. But when I went to write this post, I turned to the thing that turned out to be even more formative for me, which was Kress’s short story collections.

Now, I’ve been gradually rereading a lot of the short story collections I read in the Nineties, and frankly I’ve been disappointed in a lot of them. So I picked up Trinity and Other Stories with bated breath. It was the first one, she hadn’t even really hit her stride, how would it strike me now, in my 40s instead of my teens?

I needn’t have worried. I was not even all the way through the first story before I relaxed into the prose, into the characterization, into the ideas. I moved on to Beaker’s Dozen to find the Kress I remembered–the Kress of the Nineties, the Kress who shaped my idea of how short stories worked, still there, still writing about both biology and compassion, both spacetime and interdependence, social ecology. She’s won Nebulas, Hugos, a Campbell, a Sturgeon, written dozens of novels and even more shorter work, not to mention books on writing–taught and lectured and keynoted, hell, sang and danced and for all I know probably juggled.

And…when I read through these collections, I remembered the sigh of relief that I felt, that someone else in the field I was trying to work in knew and understood that heart vs. brain was not a reasonable theme because there was no “vs.” there, what you wanted was an ampersand. Because embracing that “vs.” made us all worse. I realized, on this reread, what I couldn’t see as a teenager: that Nancy Kress is the science fiction writer who is most like my mother. (Not “like a mother to me” but like my own specific mother.) Who sees the overlooked ideas of the lower-class women, the caregivers, the people whose life demands are not entirely polished, not entirely tidy…who can see into the shiny boardrooms and labs and also the world that is not entirely techno-black-matte-finish, and translate between the two. Why did this work feel so entirely right, oh, I see now, I am so happy to see now.

In some previous entries I’ve included a disclaimer that the author is a personal friend. I can’t say that here–I’ve never met Nancy Kress. But rereading these short stories, thinking happily about rereading some of the novels, I think that she is probably the head of the list of authors I’d gladly buy lunch if we were at the same convention. What these stories did for me was so huge, and–what a relief to find that they are still themselves, that they have not diminished as I have grown up. What a relief to find her work, as herself, so steadfastly present in this field.

Present Writers: Lois McMaster Bujold

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, and Patricia C. Wrede.

Honest to Pete I will do a post next month on a Present Writer who is not a personal friend, but frankly it has been a lot lately, and it’s not my fault that I know a lot of amazing older writers. (Reports coming in suggest that it may be partially my fault. We can deal with that later.)

One of the things I love about Lois’s work is that she is extremely speculative about relationship, family, and reproduction. You cannot separate out the “science fiction plot” and the “family plot” or the “fantasy plot” and the “romance plot,” because they are always, always inextricable. The speculative conceit is never window-dressing, but neither are the human relationships tacked on as an afterthought. The worlds the characters live in are integral to how they relate to each other in families, how they consider building their families in complicated ways–how they have children but also how they form other kin-bonds, which affines receive what kind of loyalty and why.

It’s sometimes hard to realize how ground-breaking some of her books were because they broke so much ground that two houses have been built and torn down for an entirely new gigantic business development in the short time since Lois broke that ground. Rereading Paladin of Souls made me realize with a shock that Ista as a middle-aged heroine felt astonishing in ways that she would not now–because people took that ball and ran with it. Other treatments of family, parenthood, middle-age, and gender were shocking at the time. Some of them are still cutting-edge while others are not how Lois herself would do them now–and she keeps thinking, keeps talking to others, keeps turning over new ideas from different arts and different parts of the world. Some of Lois’s influences are obvious and others surprising, but even as she’s broken ground for others, she’s always open to others’ work, which is part of what makes her such a gift for us now.