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.

Present Writers: Patricia C. Wrede

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 , and Caroline Stevermer.

I swear I’m not going to shift to making this series all about people I’m personally friends with…but neither am I going to neglect people whose work fits the series concept just because they happen to be good company for lunch.

The size and variety of Pat’s oeuvre gives lots of room for variety, and obviously some works will stand out as more favorite than others. My obscure faves are the stories in the shared Liavek worlds, handled deftly and now available in Points of Departure along with Pamela Dean’s stories in the same world. The handling of wry humor, family dynamics, and worldbuilding in these stories charmed me from the first one I encountered, but they’re even better as a set.

I recently reread a better-known favorite, Dealing With Dragons, which reminded me of some of the things I love about Pat’s work–the wry tone, as above, perhaps obviously. But also the way that women have a wide variety of relationships with each other. The first page made me think, oh, I don’t remember this very well, is it going to be one of those books where golden-haired girls who like embroidery are Bad and you have to be Not Like Them to protag? And I should have remembered that it was Pat, she was not going to do that, and sure enough there’s room for a wide range of skills and interests–and for a wide range of reactions to and interactions with each other. This was ground-breaking for so many “why don’t you ever see a heroine who” conversations, and it holds up so very well.

Just rereading one made me want to go back and reread the entire series. And also Sorcery and Cecelia. And also Snow White and Rose Red. It’s like quicksand. But in a good way. It’s like very complimentary quicksand that knows how to play the beats on a widely varied set of tropes…so percussionist quicksand…look, this is a good thing, I promise, let’s get back to the dragons.

Present Writers: Caroline Stevermer

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 and Gwyneth Jones.

This is also one of the times when I should put in a disclaimer that the person I’m writing about is a personal friend. She is! She is one of the nicest people in SFF. We even have a running commentary when we’re trying to be positive that instead of complaining about what some other person in the field has screwed up, we should just send Caroline a fruit basket for being Caroline. (Caroline would have gotten so many fruit baskets, but I digress.)

We would be totally willing to keep Caroline around because she’s a nice person, but it turns out that she also writes thoughtful, funny books that look carefully at characters who don’t show up enough in fantasy worldbuilding. She iterates on this tendency: first young women of means, in Sorcery and Cecelia (co-written with Patricia C. Wrede), then bluestockings in A College of Magics and A Scholar of Magics, and finally to their young servant in Magic Below Stairs. Caroline is not content with one angle on overlooked fantasy ideas but insists on scooching herself–and her eager readers–around to find another.

Her work shines in passages both introspective and funny. Her characters can be thoughtful but also impulsive, in ways that make even the quieter plots an adventure–and they are by no means all quiet plots. One of the things that I think of when I think of Caroline’s fiction is balance–emotional, tonal, plot, social focus–she has a beautiful ability to juggle it all without looking like she’s juggling.

Present Writers: Pamela Dean

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, and Nisi Shawl. This particular post should also bear the caveat that Pamela Dean is a dear personal friend of mine–although my love of her books predates that friendship by a decade or so. (And we’ve been friends for…gosh, I need to go lie down now, that is a long time.)

I do love her books. Unusually, I can say that I love every single one of her books. My favorite has shifted over the years, with each book taking a turn. Right now I think it’s The Dubious Hills: the contained domestic nature of it, the acutely observed human relationships–including small children as full humans but not the same full humans as teenagers and adults–the way that the worldbuilding is folded into every line of the language. The first time doubt enters into the casual conversation, every single time I reread it, I get shivers at how deftly this is done. Pamela’s work is not often praised for its structure, but The Dubious Hills is structured marvelously start to finish.

It is also quietly inventive. The things Pamela thinks of are not full of bells and whistles. They are in some ways the opposite of good elevator pitch material–because they are incredibly easy to make sound less ingenious and imaginative than they are. I don’t know of another book that is more deep and more thoughtful about the powers and limitations of the protections offered by someone’s love than Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary. The coming of age story I know that is truest to my own personal coming of age is Tam Lin. And I end up pressing them into people’s hands: just try it, I whisper. Just give it a try. Because “it’s a ballad retelling” and “it’s about the devil’s science experiment with a teenage girl” don’t really cover it, not in the slightest.

The long wait for a new Pamela book is almost over, and I am so very excited, because I know some things about Going North, and I know it’s going to be amazing. And we are so very lucky that she is present and doing these things, and I can’t wait to see what next.

Present Writers: Nisi Shawl

Just under the wire but before the year-end posts–because the year is not yet ended–here’s December’s Present Writers post. For context on this blog series, see the first post, Marta Randall, or subsequent posts about Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, or Sherwood Smith.

Nisi Shawl is a great example of a writer who has grown, changed, and expanded her horizons–and other people’s–long past her debut. If I’d been writing this post a few years ago I could have talked about her impressive short story career, or about her crucial work in teaching writers to think kindly and accurately beyond their own experiences with works like Writing the Other  (co-authored with Cynthia Ward) and workshops on the same topic. I could have talked about her work as an anthologist, particularly in anthologies that focus on various specific marginalized voices or on tributes to greats of the field like Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany. Shawl has been quite ground-breaking enough in those areas.

But two years ago she gave us her first novel to appreciate, Everfair. A steampunk alternate history focused on central Africa (specifically the Congo), Everfair uses multiple points of view to bring balance and nuance to the possibilities she shows us. Everfair helps point out the choices we make every day to improve the world for all people–or not–and the ways that our views of history shape those choices. It is profoundly hopeful and just plain fun to read. I’m excited to see where Shawl will go next, and how it will teach those who want to learn and illuminate more of the world for those who want to see.