Treasure Planet, a really well done story with admirable role models
When an idea is properly seated in my mind, I don’t so much hear a sound, but rather experience the sensation of those cogs snapping into alignment. This morning, while warming up for some writing, I was dabbling in casual Twitter word dalliance when just such a moment occurred. Pow! Bang, snap … TING! New, formerly unknown mechanisms, found deep within my lump of gray, started rolling and turning.
The problem? For some time I have been concerned, perhaps overly, that my female characters aren’t enough. The smarter and wholly more capable half of my marriage maintains that if I write people, instead of men and women, I will have successfully broached the gender problems most commonly found in contemporary fiction. And I believe she is correct, without reservation. I do, or I try to write people, but then there are those moments when I write something and even she says “that’s some sexist, crap-pile of words there.” Essayer n’est pas fait, non?
Case in point, as a writing exercise, I began writing character sketches of people that I have seen in and around Seattle. I’m making this place my home, and for the first time in my life I seriously do not want to move. Rather I want to reinvent the way I perceive my situation and surroundings. The character sketches are meant to say something about this place and the people who can be found here, while at the same time creating avatars for the spirits that reside only in this place. It is an attempt to write a modern mythos of the city and its surrounds.
I found my raven and wrote her. The narrative voice is that of a early 30-something male who is both critically observant and judgmental.
And so Raven, heart broken with the loss of her closest intimate, took on a cloak of sadness. Dyed with the pigments of pregnant rainclouds as they pass across shadowed tree tops in a winter night sky, for the first time since the eyes of the world opened, she wore her sentiments around her slender shoulders for all to see. Therein, anyone with eyes keen enough, should be able to view loathing and lamentation.
But if you had know Raven before Coyote left her bereft and miserably lonely you might then understand better how all this grief came to be. Had you the privilege of time, she might have spoken to you in the dawn of the world and you would have known, for even then her voice was the rasp of madness as it slid across the grains of a red wooded truth. Raven has always been too clever, and in her voice is the dementia that even the Mad Dog could not endure.
Black silk over lustrous, tan skin, she stands beneath the maple melding her savvy brain to the polished complexion of her smart phone by way of that perfect, petite ear. Her honeyed voice murmurs into the microphone hypnotically; audible, but not discernible over the sputtering chatter of bubbling water flowing from a distant fountain. The black stilettos scream something about appearances, but the red paint poking out the end of each shoe, brushed sometime before with meticulous care, is noise confusing that message.
“What gym do you go to?” A question she’s heard a hundred times in a thousand martini bars. “Slim” is a poor choice of words. To describe those compact curves any wordsmith worthy of his dram would need to invade the esteemed halls of automotive PR. “Aerodynamite,” “fasterpiece,” “JOOOY,” she is a four point two liter V-8 turbo, fuel stratified injected, brushed in glossy, metallic black with rich-tanned leather behind the wheel. An automotive masterpiece on two legs, you wouldn’t want to hear her redlined, but a deep, sonorous growl of satisfaction might just fill up your tank. Yeah, you will raid that treasure room of purpose built, designer adjectives needed for this Benz of a woman.
And then to confuse and befuddle just a little more, from out of a tiny, black handbag, until recently tucked under a well muscled arm, she withdraws a vaporizer. Gloss nightmare and chrome, fully charged, she lifts it to her sculpted lips and draws deeply from the reed. The seams of that tailor fit dress strain as she inhales deeply from the slender, ebon phallus, a pair laser carved breasts pushing directly and immediately against the interior of the garment. Then, after a too-long moment, anxious with anticipation, she exhales a gossamer cloud of acrimonious smoke into the courtyard. The dress seems to sigh with relief at the passage of that steely grey cloud. You check your tablet, the P/E on this stock looks great, but oh the maintenance. Upkeep would be a bitch.
Hidden somewhere beneath those matchless mammaries and well beyond that raven hair exists a dark mote. A stain that must be dealt with cruelly. Constantly. Consistently. The saccharine scent of sativa slithers edgewise across the square violating the aroma of your gourmet brew. It is merely breakfast time, the prime commute, and this avatar of Muninn just drew enough high potency, grade A+, medical, BC kush to make Andy Griffith forget Aunt Bee. Something lurks there, dark like a shadow on the far side of a building with rain clouds looming over the Sound. Something even she hasn’t the courage to deal with directly.
The day that I wrote this I could not wait for Tess to come home. I was pretty darn proud of the prose, and it was merely an exercise. A sort of word-workout. Her reaction was less than the “Wow! You’re such an awesome writer Matt,” I was anticipating. When we discussed it later I had to agree that, “Yes, this narrative is from the perspective of a misogynistic, dude-bro occupying a position of undeserved privilege.” The unnamed observer of Raven is a jerk. Not me, but I wrote a jerk.
The question then became, “What does this say about me, the writer?” So I wrote a pair of broken people, I will willingly acknowledge that. Broken people exist, they also happen to be a major component of many stories. And in some way, these characters provide — in their nose dives toward despair and destruction, or in their hard fought assents towards redemption — much of the texture we seek in our storytelling. Or that’s the way it works for me. But what does that say about me, the writer? It’s not the lasting impression I want to leave on the world with my storytelling. That’s for certain. I’m not a cynical guy and I try, often against great resistance, to find the silver linings in my life.
This morning, Kameron Hurley dropped this tweet into a conversation I was following.
Moments later, after scanning through her impressive panel schedule at Readercon I encountered this gem.
12:00 PM F New Models of Masculinity.Erik Amundsen, John Benson, Kameron Hurley (leader), Catt Kingsgrave, Bart Leib. In a comment on Chuck Wendig’s blog, Nobilis Reed wrote, “I think one of the ways that speculative fiction can really change the world in a way that it needs right now, is to provide models of masculinity that don’t involve oppressing people.” There’s no denying that today’s speculative heroes are frequently brooding, violent, incapable of healthy relationships, and otherwise not exactly role model material. This panel will brainstorm ways to create fictional men and masculine people who we’d actually want to spend time with.
And right there was the “ting.” I know that I will likely continue to write broken and flawed people. I can assure you that there will be many more bent Ravens and misogynistic jerk narrators skulking around the ever growing metropolis of my DropBox because they’re necessary. The gallant knight cannot save the fair maiden from the clutches of the evil necromancer if the evil necromancer is someone the maiden might just settle for in the event all the good knights are taken or gay. That practitioner of the dark arts has to suck, and this reality of storytelling cannot be helped.
But it occurs to me that I don’t have to write stories (not that I do) which conform to that plot trajectory. In fact, I don’t have to write about love, sex, gender equality or disparity, misogyny, reverse-misogyny or any of that. Rather, I can focus my will on writing what I know, or want to know better. I can write role models. People who, despite all the wrong decisions in their midst, never fail to feel empathy and good will. Are always there lending a hand when it is needed. Boys and girls and hermaphroditic, changeling, cyborgs we should look up to.
Things may be cracked and little rough around the edges, sure, but there’s no reason we have to focus our attention on those flaws. I feel that too much time is lavished on these negative aspects of our shared reality already. There is no reasonable justification for letting them become the standard flying above our shared imagination.