Present Writers: Suzy McKee Charnas

I missed a month when September happened to me, but we’re only looking back to remember where we were and what we were doing, not for regrets. What we’re doing: the Present Writers series is explained more fully with its first installment, about Marta Randall, with posts about Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, and Jane Yolen following it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about women’s anger lately, as I think many of us have–productive and otherwise. And there has been no writer more formative for me in how to write about anger in a respectful way–no writer who leaves me feeling understood and invigorated with her spiky depictions of female fury–than Suzy McKee Charnas.

Charnas’s work spans genres and decades. Like most of the people in this series, she is not easily pigeonholed, writing vampire fiction and post-apocalyptic SF with equal fluency. But there’s the matter of that voice, that quintessentially New Yorker take-no-prisoners done-with-your-shit Charnas voice. Most of the late-night pretentious writer conversations I’ve had about confident narrative voice confused an authoritarian voice for an authoritative one, but this is a mistake Charnas never makes.

I first read The Bronze King when it was new, when I was seven. I last read it this morning. Valentine, its cranky teenage protagonist, used to be a Big Kid in my perception, with all the baggage Big Kids have to deal with. Now 14 looks pretty darn young, and Charnas simultaneously doesn’t have illusions about what teenagers are dealing with (sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll all get at least a mention in this book) and recognizes how new it all is. When Val gets berated by a male character who feels that he should have had the more heroic role that she performed because she was just a girl, it didn’t shock me that a boy might behave like that, because some already had. It shocked me that we didn’t have to pretend that there weren’t any boys like that. And that we didn’t have to take any lip from them when they showed up in our lives.

Later, when I was about Valentine’s age, I read the short story “Boobs.” I punched the air and yelled when I finished with it. Suzy McKee Charnas knew what was coming even back in 1989; she won a Hugo for it. There was a girl harassed for her body in this story. There was a girl triumphant. And the setting was not removed, not quasi-medieval, faux-historical; the contemporary setting meant that it spoke to me very, very directly. It gave me so much fierce magic. Almost a decade after I first read it, at my first WorldCon, I spotted a familiar name on a badge going the other direction on the escalator. “Oh my God Suzy McKee Charnas! I loved your ‘Boobs’!” I burst out and then wanted to sink through the escalator floor, but she just laughed happily. She knew what she had done, what it could mean to girls like me. To women like I grew up to become.

Since I started writing this post, I have felt more and more determined to go back and reread Charnas’s work. The Holdfast Chronicles are definitely worth another look, and there are short stories I’ve never gotten to. This is one of the best side effects of writing a series like this, and it’s one of the reasons I’m so immensely glad Charnas is present with us just when her work is most needed.

Present Writers: Jane Yolen

It’s still August for a few hours, so I can fit in my August Present Writers post. Whew! For the first one and an explanation of the series, see Marta Randall, with posts on Dorothy Heydt and Barbara Hambly following.

Jane Yolen is so incredibly prolific that this year she has passed the milestone where she can celebrate one book she’s written for every day of the year. While she was preparing for that celebration, more of her books came out, leaving the 365 mark in the dust. She has written science fiction, fantasy, mimetic fiction, nonfiction, poetry; she has written for adults and tiny children and every age in between. She has won the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award and SFWA’s Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. Jane is a pretty big deal, honestly. Once upon a time a reviewer called her “the Hans Christian Andersen of America,” and every time I read that quote, I hear her son Adam Stemple’s voice in my head amending cheerfully, “More like the Hans Jewish Andersen!” Jane’s work on Jewish themes is staggeringly great, even for a Gentile like me, but she also has written on British themes, Greek themes, future themes. She’s collaborated with her kids. She’s collaborated with someone else’s kids. She’s done work of staggering originality, collected other people’s folklore, returned to her own successes to help children through the processes of growing up into reasonably functional people with delight and whimsy.

Are you getting the picture yet? Jane can do it all.

Recently I was on a trans-Atlantic flight and finished the paper book I was reading. I was exhausted, coming west, where the advice is “stay up late” rather than “sleep on the plane.” I poked my Kindle for something that would keep me awake and engaged, and I turned up Jane’s Tales of Wonder. Half the stories in it were things I’d read before, the other half new to me, but every word kept me captivated. It spoke to death and family and loyalty and a dozen other things.

I’ve had the privilege of being on panels with Jane (including one with Adam too, and my best advice there is to sit back and let the mother-son comedy hour happen; enjoy it). She’s as insightful as her novels, as intrepid as Commander Toad, as thoughtfully lovely as Owl Moon. She is a treasure and a joy, and we are so lucky to have Jane for one of our present writers.

Present Writers: Barbara Hambly (Barbara Hamilton)

This is the third post in this series; see the first post, on Marta Randall, for series details, or the second one, on Dorothy Heydt (Katherine Blake) for more cool Present Authors.

Earlier this month I was on a Readercon panel about authors who challenge the pigeonhole, who cannot be categorized into one tidy box or another. And when I started to make my notes for panel prep, one of the very first names that popped into my head was Barbara Hambly’s. A quick glance at her bibliography shows a range not only all over the speculative sub-genres (historical fantasy! secondary world fantasy! vampires! Star Trek and Star Wars!), but also straight-up historical fiction, mysteries, things that are not speculative at all. She does it all. Short stories, novels, graphic novels, large press, small press, indie published…all of it. All. Backwards in high heels, I expect.

My personal favorites among Barbara Hambly’s work are the Benjamin January mysteries. They provide everything I want in historical mysteries: depth of worldbuilding, characterization that’s rooted in the place and time and yet deeply individual, thematic ties that make the setting the right place to explore these particular questions of life and death and human motivation. I am particularly fond of the women in these books, January’s sisters and his wife especially but also the variety of other characters in the periphery. As with many of the best mystery series, the ensemble cast provides strength and suspense, preventing the detective’s actions from becoming too formulaic. (Although I’m not sure that’s something we should worry about from an author who goes as readily from subgenre to subgenre and idea to idea as Hambly does.)

Characters are central to everything Hambly does. The genre tropes that she draws out in her books are presented with full context for what they would mean to a variety of real people–and that variety has included axes of underrepresentation not only along the lines of race, but age and ability and other factors as well. I never know what Hambly will decide to do next, and I love that in an author–it makes me so grateful that she is so prolifically present with us now.

Present Writers: Dorothy Heydt (Katherine Blake)

This is the second of a new series I’m doing here on the blog: Present Writers. See the first post, on Marta Randall, for series details. I admit that I’m fudging a tiny bit here on the series parameters, because a cursory internet search did not give me Heydt’s exact age–but it did say that she invented a conlang in 1967. If she was less than 11 when she did so, I apologize–and hats off for the small child achievement–but I think I’m safe in guessing that this is an author who fits.

And what an author. Heydt is not vastly prolific, but her work is highly varied. She’s made several things available in free ebook formats on her website, so you don’t have to spend any money to find out what I’m talking about. (Although you can kick in to support the author if you see fit!) There’s a book about a physician who dabbles with witchcraft in Ancient Greece, a virtual reality novel dealing with esports before the term esports was a thing, a parallel realities novel that is some of the most engaging and thoroughly domestic fantasy I’ve ever read, and lashings of short stories. Heydt has range.

There are fight scenes in Heydt’s books–A Point of Honor has a jousting knight for a main character, albeit a virtual one–and chase scenes and other pieces of excitement. But a lot of writers can do those well, too. Heydt really shines in making character interactions and pieces of speculative practicality come to life–the details that make a character or a world feel lived-in. Heydt’s use of violence is considered, nuanced, and full of consequence–it is never a default, and in fact is often absent because it was not the right element for the story. With that sure a touch, Heydt makes The Interior Life a master class in what can matter in genre–and a strong contrast to what traditionally has been considered to matter.

When I first looked at Heydt’s website, only a few things were there. She’s added more since, which gives me hope. But in the meantime, I strongly appreciate what there is, I urge you to go give it a look, and then a long hard think, and then come talk to me about what you thought. Because we’re so very lucky that she’s present and sharing so much.

Present Writers: Marta Randall

Marta Randall is the author of seven novels, one as Martha Conley, and numerous short stories all across the science fiction and fantasy spectrum. Her characters dove the ruins of sunken Hawaii before most writers were willing to give the global effects of climate change the time of day. She was willing to take on refugee crises and generational resentments when these issues were just starting to ramify. If breadth, depth, and sensitivity in handling complex social issues were the metric, Marta Randall novels would be discussed in half the convention panels in 2018.

Her Kennerin duology–Journey and Dangerous Games–particularly exemplify the themes that make Randall’s work feel so contemporary forty years after its first publication. Disabled people, old people, and children all have strong agency. They make hard choices and deal with the ramifications of their decisions–sometimes for decades afterwards. For Randall, killing another individual always matters. Even if the killer was thinking of their victim as somehow lesser or unreal because they were a different ethnicity or origin of human, a different literal alien race, or because they were in good old science fiction fashion a little blip on the screen of a spaceship, they still count. Their deaths still matter, and there will still have to be a moral, personal and social reckoning for them.

For all that much of science fiction has featured colonies here, there, and everywhere, Randall’s work has been willing to deal with the ongoing legacy of colonialism in complicated and human forms. Her characters come up with solutions that their children don’t always agree with or even approve of, and the colonialism is intersectional and multidimensional. Some characters need to rename and reinvent themselves; others, to reiterate choices in a setting where moral purity is not a starting point or an outcome and the world is filled with people who are simply doing the best they can to stagger toward kindness among other flawed sentients.

The climax of Dangerous Games features a stunning indictment of respectability politics, in which a character demands, “Where is the law that says the victim of injustice must always be appealing?” and rails against the practice of pitting minorities against each other. It is a staggeringly fresh take on a topic that we will be generations more in fixing. It made me feel astonished and glad that Marta Randall is present, that her books are around to appreciate and to influence the conversation for those generations to come.

This is the beginning of a new series I’m doing here on the blog: Present Writers. I thought about eligibility for this, and I finally decided that what I want it to be is the opposite of a retirement party. I want to take retirement age and say: yay! We’re glad you didn’t retire and are still around doing cool stuff–you are present, and your work is a gift. Let’s keep the part of a retirement party where your colleagues say cool stuff about your work and ditch the part where you, y’know, go away and stop actually doing it. I don’t like the part where you go away. Don’t do that! I just like the part where people say the cool stuff about your work. This is in lieu of a cake and a gold watch, which are harder to shove through the internet at this time.

I picked 62 because in the US that’s the very beginning of Social Security eligibility, so I did not have to figure out where my personal milestone line would be. What “seems reasonable” to me? Eh, humans vary a lot, “seems reasonable” is a weird thing. Rather than angsting about it, I will pick the arbitrary line that is used in the country I live in, and once a month I will write a post celebrating the work of a writer who has achieved that arbitrary milestone, focusing on at least one specific book that feels contemporary and interesting to me. If you want to recommend authors who are over 62, have at it! I have a pretty long list in my head already, but adding to it never hurts.