Authors are often asked this question, and I have yet to form a conclusive answer.
To put it simply: Compulsion.
There are universes constantly exploding inside of my brain, vibrant worlds pushing against my bones and demanding release. Scenes play out on loop in my head, characters live and breathe through my eyes. They must be heard, they must be sculpted into something tangible.
Conversations of people both named and unnamed echo within my imagination. They evoke feelings that I have difficulties expressing to others. I want to share them with my readers, help them see what I see. And maybe get a glimmer of insight as to who I am.
There may not be meaning in the words I form, not conscious meaning anyway. I write what comes out. And it builds and builds. Sticky webs of interaction and intrigue. Relationships form and tear apart. The universe shifts as generations pass, forming new order for those yet to come.
I like to imagine myself as a keeper of lore, akin to the story tellers of the past who entertained with the tales preserved through eons. Each time a legend is spoken, something changes, a small detail that shifts the perspective of the future.
Everyday I sift through my vast collection of scraps and half-plots, wondering when I will have the chance to give them all the attention they demand. Perhaps one day, the well of inspiration will dry up, and my racing fingers can stop the toil. But that day is far out of my reach.
As co-founder and female counterpart of the duo that started New England Speculative Writers (NESW), I have the pleasure of writing the final blog post for Women’s History Month. It’s only recently that I’ve really started to fully understand what being a woman in society means and how that impacts me as a human.
I’ve always tried to look at people as humans first, before applying the gender tag they identify with. I think that’s part of the storyteller in me – looking for commonalities first and building out from there. In many ways, I’ve applied that practice to how I view myself too. When I think of myself in a context, I don’t necessarily view myself as a female in the middle of a situation, I think of myself as a person in the situation, but unconsciously, I have come to realize, I have been applying certain gender rules that have affected the trajectory of my life. It’s not that I was unaware of the “traditional” roles women play in society, I just didn’t really think many applied to me. In some ways I thought of myself as a strong independent woman who blazed her own path in life and didn’t adhere to societal gender rules. I still think I am, but…
I’m an X-gener. I grew up in the era when traditional roles for women were in a great shift. My parents were the offspring of what Tom Brokaw coined “The Greatest Generation”. I grew up in the 70’s when society was seeing and feeling the effects of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the battle cry of “I am woman, hear me roar (“I Am Woman”, co-written and performed by Helen Reddy, 1971, along with Ray Burton). More and more women were leaving to work outside the home, and the term “latch-key kid” became more prevalent. In addition to more women in the traditional workforce, there was a boom of companies like Avon, Mary Kay, Tupperware, Stanley Home Products that allowed women to have a foot on each side of the fence so to speak. They could work and earn money, but still have the flexibility to fulfill their traditional roles as wife and mother; keeping a home and raising children.
Combine what was happening in society with watching movies like 9 to 5 where a group of women are fighting “the man” and reading books written by both male and female authors who portrayed girls and women as smart, strong, independent or fighting against their society rules, like A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle or some of the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists Of Avalon, I grew up seeing the shift toward equality in action. I saw great strides, and have continued to see progress, but I also realize we have a ways to go still. Many of the women of my childhood were straddling old and new cultural rules and trying to make them both work, and in a lot of ways we still are today.
Like a lot of people, I’m in the process of a sort of awakening. I think we as humans are becoming more enlightened about inequalities at a faster pace than previous generations. A big reason for this is technology, social media and the internet. The world is a much smaller place than it was twenty years ago. News travels faster, cell phones with cameras are everywhere and people are really starting to realize that there is a lot of bad out there, but more importantly we are also realizing that we can do something about it, as seen in the myriad of hashtag causes, including many to continue the fight for equality for women.
I spent over twenty years in the working world, ten of those years were in the corporate world. Five years ago all of that changed. A series of events occurred – a long and boring story not worth telling, but all the same life changing. I found myself unemployed, burnt out, extremely unhappy with my life, and ready for change. I made the decision to get off the hamster wheel of “working to live” and change my perspective to finding a job that would allow me to “live to work”. I took time to start doing things I enjoyed and really learning what makes me as a person happy.
During my time off from the working world I started writing again. The more I wrote, the more my world and perspective blossomed. One of the first things about my writing I realized was that all my protagonists were women. Women of all different strengths and backgrounds, but strong, independent, adventurous, amazing women. The more I wrote about these strong women the more I realized I was writing about all the women I knew or read about and admired, and I started to see the differences between the life I had been living and them. That’s when I saw how inequalities of women had affected my life. The workplace is one example. For instance allowing the term “work wife” to be applied to me, even though I was a national account manager of a multimillion dollar account, allowing myself to be talked over during meetings, not voicing my opinions as loudly as the men were, all the while never really thinking about how wrong that was. I didn’t see it. It had been happening all along, and for so long, that I didn’t recognize it as anything but normal, nor did I recognize how unhappy I was trying to conform. I can now say, never again. My eyes are open. The “box” I had been trying to fit my wild and unconventional self into for the sake of fitting in, has been tossed in the trash!
I think we as people will always have struggle – either collectively or in groups against one injustice or another, but we, right now are lucky and unlucky enough to live in an era of technology and social media which has made the world a much smaller and more transparent place. It’s a double-edge sword, that we have quickly learned to use negatively, and are finally starting to use to our advantage. We humans, we women, have more power now to change the world than we ever did. And we’re doing it. We as writers have the unique power to reflect the changes we want in our writing.
I want to take a moment to thank our NESW community for being a wonderful, diverse, inclusive group. That was one of the visions Jeremy and I had in starting this group. Please continue to help us build that. We need more of “us” in this world. Let us lead by example.
Cristina currently lives in Massachusetts. She earned a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, and spent many years on the West Coast living and working in Arizona and California. She moved back to New England in 2008, and began a journey that led to refocusing her life on the ‘want tos’ rather than the ‘have tos’, by making what she enjoys doing creatively a priority. In 2013 she participated in her first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and drafted a story called The Empire that a few years later would become her first completed novel. The Empire is currently available on Amazon.
Fantasy. Why does it get grouped in with science fiction all the time? It seems to be its own distinct subgenre of speculative fiction, but if you go to any of the local Barnes and Noble stores around your home or employment, you will see that this corporate entity has determined that the two are, if not one in the same, alike or at the very least enjoyed by the same reading audience. A whole row of books under the title “Science Fiction & Fantasy” include things as diverse as a Robert Heinlein outer space novel to a Robert E. Howard barbarian adventure.
Okay, so that may be true. If you do love science fiction, fantasy may be right up your alley. But that over simplifies things … just a bit. And it actually has to do with the very fact that both these genres of storytelling are themselves splintered. If fantasy and science fiction are both subgenres of speculative fiction, then they themselves are splintered into further subgenres. And in many cases, they overlap. They in everyway can and do have similarities, if not so obvious.
How so? Let’s take the fact that science fiction itself can be a very contradictory term. Science is technically not a fiction at all, its fact. But when an author goes to the word processor and begins to churn out sentences to the figurative page, the fictional world of what can be evolves. But it’s more than that. A science fiction story can take place a year in the future where the combustive engine has been banned and oil has been depleted, therefore we all become horse riders, and bicycles built for two are once again vogue. So with this tale, there isn’t much scientific advancement at all. Actually such a scenario could be considered backward progression. But a science fiction tale also can be technological advances where quantum physics and Kelvin absolute zero are the main thrust of the story, and everything written is just conjecture. Magnificent, and scary things in some cases, are possible and the author now makes it so. Thereby, this is why science fiction encompasses as large and vast umbrella.
But this isn’t a discussion on science fiction alone, it is why fantasy and science fiction are sometimes interchangeable. And there is good reason. Before such ideas are pointed out, let’s look at pornography. Say What you say? Well, during the obscenity case Jacobellis v. Ohio, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart spoke of pornography and he determined one thing, “I know it when I see it.” And so can be said of fantasy, right? Isn’t it cliché? Doesn’t fantasy include classic mythos that include elves and centaurs, trolls and dragons, wizards and witches? Isn’t there a hero dressed in bear skins or a large suit of armor who journeys to kill some mammoth evil? I mean, come on, “I know it when I see it.”
And there lies the flaw of the “I know it when I see it” approach. I mean, someone at Barnes and Noble felt otherwise. Sure, that person may be some corporate manager in Atlanta that knows nothing about speculative fiction. She could have been staring at a picture of the store layout and determined, just as was done with horror, space was needed. Why not remove sections and either merge them or condense them? But also, maybe she saw something that the typical defensive fantasy fan would never see. That it’s more than just floor space in a store. It’s bigger than that. Much bigger.
Again, science fiction is the place to start, not fantasy. See, with science fiction, it has its roots in fantasy. As folks began to disregard things like Baba Yaga, demon possession, or Athena pulling the sun across the sky, populations began to consign science on what was once unexplained. It wasn’t Venus who made you fall madly in love, but instead hormones and chemicals. And so speculative fiction began to turn to a mash up of the fantastic and the scientific. Laser beams, airborne discs, and green men from Mars, if not replacing, at least became the vogue substitutions for magic spells, flying dragons, and pixies.
With space opera, science fiction all but fully encompassed what a fantasy tale had once been. Rather than an alternate earth, we had a foreign planet or a spaceship. A dashing hero in an oxygen suit would save a beautiful and latex dressed woman from the four armed evil alien that had invaded our world. The weekly movie serials all the way to Star Wars and Dune brought with it telepathy (“Luke, use the Force”) and pseudo-religion such as the Kwisatz Haderach, the promised one. Besides a few things, interchange a knight, a wizard, and a princess with the latex suit and alien, and it’s so much alike.
And that’s why the Venn diagram is so central to speculative fiction, and specifically to that newly created category that Barnes and Noble gave us no matter how contradictory and generic as it seems: Science Fiction & Fantasy. When Paolo Bacigalupi released his acclaimed novel The Windup Girl, the book appeared on best sellers lists and best of lists back in 2009 on numerous genre categories … for a reason. Was it fantasy? Was it science fiction? Or was it something else? Not to go through the plot, but most folks would agree the book had elements of both. And that’s where subgenres come about. This one was classified as biopunk. Don’t know what it means? It’s got a wiki. But there are more. There’s steampunk, cyberpunk, space opera, hard science fiction, post-apocalyptic, techno-thriller, high fantasy, sword and sandle. And don’t get me into horror fiction and its subgenres, but to skirt around it, there’s dark fantasy and urban fantasy, and then the zombie apocalypse itself.
Steampunk is probably the very best example of where the line between fantasy and science fiction can get lost for many who are diehards. Oddly that wasn’t the case for that Barnes and Noble corporate manager who made such a strange decision while drinking her Starbucks latte (with stevia and soy milk, of course.) For us, the diehard, we know that DNA manipulation is different than a doppelgänger from Dungeons and Dragons. But for a science fiction fan, how can a world filled with gears and engines not be anything but science fiction. Yet a fantasy fan can see (with no issues) a walking tin man fitting nicely into a fantasy world. Didn’t Ray Harryhausen show us Talos as a giant steel man in Jason and the Argonauts?
Maybe this is a bit of oversimplification, but there is an argument to be made that determining what is fantasy, science fiction, and for that matter, horror can in many ways be a bit troubling. Sure, there are certain tropes that cannot be disputed. George R.R. Martin with his alternate world where dragons and zombies (or wights if you prefer) exist is in no way anything but a subgenre of fantasy. But when you start getting into blimps, mechanical men, the “Force”, promised saviors, demon possession, and zombie apocalypses, the activist debater will liberally throw up both facts and straw men that will erase ones thoughts of what is and what isn’t fantasy. And with variably degrees of success.
So the next time you think you know it when you see it, instead think out of the box. Besides retail space, that pretentious Barnes and Noble corporate manager, between bites of her portobella sandwich, may actually know something that a true genre fan that’s deep in the woods may not see. Eat your forty-eighth wonderfully salty French fry, but keep in mind that the zombie apocalypse is nothing more than a whole group of wights in a horror novel that started out as a psychological thriller.