Undiscovered Countries

On Labor Day, I had the pleasure of watching SyFy’s Trekathon. In these times where it seems like all the news is bad news, the future, and worse, visions of the future, seem increasingly bleak, it was both nostalgic and exciting to revisit the inherent optimism that Gene Roddenberry infused in the original Star Trek franchise.

StarTrek6pic_origI grew up in Star Trek. My mother, being a mixed-race woman growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, found the vision of a world of Infinite Diversity and Infinite Combinations (IDIC) to be compelling and wonderful. I grew up going to Star Trek conventions with her wildly diverse group of friends whose main point of commonality was this optimistic vision of what could be, and there is still a fanzine out there somewhere in someone’s attic with my first poem titled, “I Love Spock.”

idic_keep_calm_by_sailmaster_seion-d6dv4rrI don’t remember what I wrote, and that’s probably for the best.

I do remember running through the halls of the Hunt Valley Marriot Hotel at Shoreleave (a Star Trek convention that I recently revisited after a decade had passed,) playing laser tag with kids and adults of all ages and backgrounds. I remember being horribly teased because my mother wrote me a note explaining that the reason I wasn’t in school for the Friday of that weekend was because I had a “family reunion” and my friend at the time (who I’d made the mistake of excitedly confiding in) told someone else, who told a teacher, so when I got back, even the teachers were making fun of me being “taken to my leader” and the like. (Some of this was good natured, and some of it was not…doesn’t matter, my mom is just awesome either way!) I still have most of my Tribbles (and Dribbles, the ones with the eyes) and I owned the two tape series, Power Klingon, though I never had the dedication to learn the language. I remember Pirate parties, and watching the first appearance of the Borg at my mom’s friend’s house in front of her giant screen TV, gasping in horror and shock when Picard declared, “I am Locutus of Borg.”

i_am_locutus_of_borg_by_trotsky17-d5fjy65In short, I was raised in a Geek’’s Paradise, and it’s made me who I am today. Thank whatever Gods are out there.

Yet now, when we look at visions of the future in popular media, it seems like the darker aspects of our nature dominate. Don’t get me wrong, I love these dark stories too. The remake of Judge Dredd had me on the edge of my seat, and I’m a huge fan of the ‘we’re all just trying to stay ahead of the gutter, but we don’t really win’ theme that permeates Firefly (the series). I love cyberpunk and Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. I think these stories are a reflection of the world we’re living in, where the line between good and evil seems increasingly blurred, and there are so many possibilities even in your Facebook feed that it’s difficult to latch onto anything and call it right.

It’s hard to imagine a United Federation of Planets when even having an effective United Nations seems difficult, and getting the U.S. Congress to do anything seems impossible.

As fiction writers, we’re supposed to be lying to tell the truth. But I wonder if, in the barrage of negativity we see in the world, the bombardment of Youtube videos of beheadings, school and police shootings, and the generalized glorification of violence that seems rampant in our media, we are reflecting the right stuff. Not that I’m advocating in any way the forced wholesomeness of censored media. I just wonder if by reflecting disproportionately the dark, depressing, and violent, are we in turn projecting a future of increasing darkness, depression and unnecessary violence?

such_different_tribbles_by_ayumi_lemura-d4fskiw

When Gene Roddenberry envisioned the bridge of the Star Ship Enterprise, that vision did not reflect the world he lived in. The world he lived in had rampant sexism and racism throughout. The world he lived in considered the Russians and the Japanese to be the enemy, and Black people having equal rights to be a threat to the fabric of ‘normal’ society. He projected a better world (okay, one that still had its fair share of sexism and whitewashing but he was trying.) His future was optimistic, and people like my mother in that optimism found a future worth believing in. It’s what drew me towards science, writing science fiction and fantasy, and towards a deeply held understanding that the differences between us can be breached through open conversation and mutual respect. I think it helped foster in me a basic belief in the goodness of people (which often contrasts with reality, but I’ve found that by having faith in people’s better natures, they will often live up to them in spite of themselves.) It’s not 100%, and Star Trek has been forced on many occasions to examine and recreate itself when it has not lived up to its vision, but that vision has shaped our world and many, many people (like me) in it.

trek cast classic

When I think about writing, I do find myself sometimes falling into the trap of being reactive. In writing, especially in writing speculative fiction, we have the ability literally to shape worlds and reality, and it’s easy to reflect haphazardly instead of truly creating. And reflecting is great, when there’s something behind it. That said, I also think we have a profound opportunity, right now, because things seem so dark, to create through our fiction a world we want to live in. Not a perfect world, but maybe a possible future where the darker parts of our nature haven’t won yet. Where it’s not a given that we’ll all be living in a dystopian hellhole just because it sure looks like that’s where we’re going. (and I LOVE dystopian hellhole books and movies, I’m just sayin’…) Maybe we can write about a world where everyone, at every moment, isn’t entirely operating from pure self-interest. (GotG managed to pull this one off I think) Because compassion is a part of us too, and sometimes it even wins. The truth is, we are a mix of dark and light, optimism and pessimism, action and reaction.

So let’s lay in our course to the futures that we create, and let some of them even rest among the stars.

Naima

 

 

 

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Finding the Right Market

The words submission and acceptance are emotionally charged in the context of gender relations. They are also emotionally charged in the context of professional writing. I have a story to tell about that.

Quite a while ago, I wrote a science fiction story called Message in a Bottle with a female main character. I liked the story a lot. I spent a loooong time tweaking it. When I finally committed to the notion of getting published, it was the first longer piece that I tried to sell to any market.

It got rejected. I aimed high, and was quickly rejected by several established markets. Most were form rejections. A couple were personalized. One offered inexplicable advice for rewrites (“Why not talk more about the computer system?” Um, because boring.). Overall, just standard responses.

But it was rejected enough that I started worrying. None of the rejections suggested that the reasons had anything to do with gender. But then, why would they say it outright? I am pretty obviously a woman: I write under my full first name, not initials or a pseudonym, and my little 3rd person bio uses “she” and “her”. My story featured a woman. What if either (or both) of those things influenced editors’ decisions? Before you ask, let me say that none of the markets I submitted to anonymized submissions.

Message in a Bottle was not specifically about my character being a woman. I deliberately gave my character a sort of gender-ambiguous name, Dorian. Her movement throughout the story was defined by her professional role rather than her gender. The big idea involved first contact, not any interpersonal dynamics, or (heaven forfend!) a romance. The story had a bit of math in it, but I would never characterize it as “hard SF”. So. I was left with a soft SF story featuring a woman.

I didn’t doubt my writing, but I did begin to doubt the fairness of the system. Was I making a mistake in trying to publish science fiction? Should I stick to fairy tales, which I also love writing? Should I shelve this story and go onto something else, until I got a few more publishing credits?

Or…should I gender-flip my protagonist and see if that changes the outcome? Hell, I wouldn’t even have to change the name! Search and replace a few pronouns, and I’d be golden.

I thought that might be an interesting experiment. Maybe, I thought, I could submit the story with Boy Dorian, and if it got accepted, I could request to have the Girl Dorian version published. (Because what’s more attractive than an unknown author with demands? Amirite?)

So I went ahead and made a gender-flipped version of the story. Simple pronoun swapage. It was easy. And I didn’t like the result AT ALL. Boy Dorian was acting all wrong. He seemed overly sensitive, emotional. Certain words that worked fine for Girl Dorian suddenly sounded jarring. Girl Dorian nestled in a shelter. Boy Dorian huddled. Girl Dorian had intuition. Boy Dorian had a hunch.

WTF had I written? I could have sworn that my original story was admirably gender-neutral. Girl Dorian was the job. She analyzed evidence and crunched numbers and then endured a bad situation like a pro. Yet when I gender-flipped the character, I realized that my Dorian simply wouldn’t behave the same way as a man would (at least not in my created world).

I was so uncomfortable with the Boy Dorian version that I resolved to try once more with my original story before committing to a gender-flip strategy. I found a market that looked promising. It was a magazine actively committed to promoting both authors and characters who are women, people of color, queer, disabled and/or otherwise underrepresented groups. They might not like my story, of course, but I was confident that if it got rejected, it wouldn’t be because of gender discrimination.

Then a weird thing happened. My story was accepted.

Huh.

There were some readers who liked my writing and didn’t have any concerns about girliness. You can read it here, in the April issue of Crossed Genres.

So in the end I never got to try out my gender-flipped version of the story. I’ll never know if the same markets that rejected Girl Dorian might have accepted her twin brother. I’m really happy not knowing that.

I’m also happy to be a published author. Crossed Genres offered me my first professional sale. It was a huge boost for me as a writer, but I might not have ever submitted my story there if I hadn’t seen their statement of welcome for new writers, and writers of non-quite-the-norm. Markets like CG are vitally important to the fiction world because of their two-pronged strategy of publishing good fiction and fiction by underrepresented peeps. Those two goals are not separate.

It’s sometimes not enough to state that all are equal. Today, that’s a low bar. CG and some other markets have taken that extra step to be open, to invite submissions by minorities, by women, by all kinds of Others. That’s a different message than just saying “The door’s not locked.” CG said “Hey, the door’s open. We were hoping you’d come by.”

To those people in the publishing/writing/reading world who are interested in fostering new writers, writers outside the conventional pool, writers who might not have lived life on “easy mode”… well, that doesn’t just happen on its own. People need to make it happen.

Which brings me to my final point. Crossed Genres pays professional rates and it is trying to become an SFWA-qualifying market. But running a magazine isn’t free, and without enough support, CG will close at the end of 2013. If you support the idea of a rich, diverse field of writers, you should support CG. Buy a subscription (I did.). Buy a gift subscription. Donate.

Talking about encouraging new writers is great. Paying writers (and the editors who work with them) real money is also great. You’re not saving anything. You’re supporting a producer who shares your values. Easy, right?

And in the end, you are what you defend.

Jocelyn Koehler is one-fourth of the Star-Dusted Sirens.