Thanks for joining me for a question and answer session, Marshall! 2015 has been an interesting year for the science fiction and fantasy community. A lot of issues among fans and writers has come to light. Among them is gender bias. I’d like to take some time to talk about the prevalent gender bias and what it means for fantasy books now and in the future.
Trillian: Before I dig into the main subject, please tell us a little about yourself and your books.
I’m a fantasy and science-fiction whose debut novel, The Thorn of Dentonhill, came out in February, and the follow-up, A Murder of Mages, came out in July. So 2015 has been a huge year for me, personally, as well as an very interesting one for all of the SFF Community as a whole.
Trillian: When you write a novel, do you actively consider current social issues and include them as themes? Why or why not?
I do, but not in a typical way. I mean, I write secondary-world fantasy in a city that bears some resemblance to Victorian London/19th Century North America, but it’s not a pure copy-and-paste. But I am also in the world here-and-now, so clearly that’s going to have an affect on what I write. Case in point: An Import of Intrigue— the sequel to A Murder of Mages— deals with a murder in the more-isolated foreign enclaves of Maradaine. When I started working on it was right around when the situation in Fergueson first hit the national media. If I’m writing a story about constables interacting with a community that is completely different culture and appearance than their own, of course the current issues are going to bleed into it.
Part of that comes around to what I’m trying to do with race and gender in the Maradaine books, which might not be immediately apparent in the first books. It’s a tough line to walk. Take, as an off-genre example, a show like Mad Men. On one level, it’s explicitly talking about a time when the presumptions of upper-class white male privilege were starting to get chipped away at. But at the same time, it benefits by reveling in those same presumptions. Is the show making a statement about how characters treat Joan like a sex object, or is the show itself treating Joan as one? It’s easy to have your goal be the former but end up doing the latter.
Trillian: How do you think gender bias (in novels) is currently affecting fantasy fiction? What tropes are symptomatic of gender bias among authors and fans?
Are you asking about in terms of characters, or authors? In terms of authors, well… first I should address the elephant in the room: I am a white, straight, non-religious male with a fairly affluent background. I’m pretty much a full card on Privilege Bingo. So everything I have to say about gender bias should be taken with an enormous grain of salt. But it’s something that I do notice all the time. How often do you see a “best of the year” list or an “anticipated for next year” list, and it’s got MAYBE one or two female authors on it, if that? That’s a list from someone who isn’t bothering to open up their skulls. And that affects the books themselves. More books than not in SFF feature a male central character front-and-center. I’m not immune to that.
But it goes deeper than that. I have female author friends who are asked if their books are “YA or Romance”, as if those were the only possibilities. Those presumptions need to be cut out like a cancer.
Trillian: Taking it a step further, how do you think gender bias is currently affecting readers and fans of science fiction and fantasy? What role do you think gender bias plays in the evolution of genre fiction?
Well, look at what I said about lists. As long as putting out lists like that with almost-to-all male authors keeps being common, there isn’t going to be any change. It’s not like there’s a shortage to choose from. Just a short list off the top of my head from this year’s releases: Elizabeth Bear, Stina Leicht, Julie Czernada, Amanda Downum, Viola Carr, Delilah S. Dawson, Carrie Vaughn, Marguerite Reed, Seanan Maguire, Amber Benson, E.C. Ambrose, Fran Wilde, Carrie Patel, Margaret Fortune, Kameron Hurley, Irene Redford, Martha Wells. Martha Wells! Why she isn’t regularly named amongst other giants in the industry is beyond me. But then you also get things like women authors getting fewer reviews and lesser notice in general. They even have more insidious difficulties. For example, it takes longer for women authors to get a wikipedia entry. I’ve heard stories where writers with three or four books out and major award nominations were told they “weren’t significant enough” to warrant an entry.
Trillian: You’re a man who writes fantasy fiction. How does your gender affect how you write women in your novels?
The main thing I do now, whenever I bring in a new character, I ask myself, “Am I making this character male because that’s what they ought to be, or am I doing it because it’s the ‘default’?” But also, I’m asking myself “Am I messing this up?” questions all the time with female characters. Still, I’d rather try and mess up than not try.
To tie it into what I was saying earlier: I wanted to make Maradaine a culture which is problematic when it comes to issues of gender, race, sexuality, etc. I want it to be a culture where change is bubbling underneath the surface. But the danger in doing that is your reader can see that as just an endorsement of the problematic part. To give an example: back when Gail Simone started writing Birds of Prey, she wanted to address the trope of Black Canary getting captured and tied up ALL THE TIME. But in writing that story, and using it to shatter that trope, she starts with that very thing happening, and people freaked out on her for doing the very thing she had previously complained about.
Trillian: The current trend in fantasy fiction is to create women who are tough—so tough she’s a man with breasts rather than addressing the issues real women face. She’s often a rape victim or victim of abuse, and she’s often callous and cold. Why do you think women are written in this fashion as the stereotypical ‘strong’ woman? Do you feel this is a problem for science fiction and fantasy as a genre?
Yeah, this was something I struggled with writing Satrine in A Murder of Mages. I wanted her tough with a rough past, but I didn’t want that to be all she was. I wanted her time growing up on the streets to inform her without defining her. So I also made sure to make her central challenge be specific to that: she wants to provide for her family at the level of privilege they are already accustomed to, in a society that isn’t in a place to let a woman do that. She’s got to forge the path she intends to walk.
Why are ”strong” women characters written so much like you say? I think it’s a matter of overcompensation. Like, you don’t want your female characters to be Rescue Tokens and Romance Rewards, so you swing the pendulum the other way entirely. But I think we’re seeing more an more that “strong” women characters involves more than just “can beat up her enemies”.
Trillian: Moving onto some fun & games… if you could change anything about your first novel, what would you change and why?
I would have done better by the female characters. There’s only one significant one (Kaiana) and two minor ones, one of whom literally is a drug-addicted prostitute. I’ve gotten pinged for that in Thorn, and rightly so. All I can say is by the time I realized that I should have done better, it was too far along to do the sort of surgery required to change it. I did make one change at that point, making one of the Aventil street captains female. Her character gets expanded on in The Alchemy of Chaos, as well as several more female characters.
Trillian: Creativity is a hallmark of authors. If you could travel to any time period and take one person with you, where would you go, when would you go, and who would you take with you?
OK, this is oddly personal, but in the 1940s my wife’s grandparents threw these elaborate banquets in Mexico City— her grandfather was a gastronomer, composer and historian, and her grandmother was a performer, pre-Columbian culture expert and linguist. So these banquets included well-researched pre-Columbian Mayan traditions and foods, and poems and music, and were attending by people of all walks of like. So, I would take my wife to experience one of these unique events for herself, since she only got to read about them.
Trillian: Once you are there, you can bring one person or thing back with you. What do you choose and why?
That’s a tough one. Who wants to disrupt the space-time continuum by taking something (or someone) away from where it belongs?
A Murder of Mages marks the debut of Marshall Ryan Maresca’s novels of The Maradaine Constabulary, his second series set amid the bustling streets and crime-ridden districts of the exotic city called Maradaine. A Murder of Mages introduces us to this spellbinding port city as seen through the eyes of the people who strive to maintain law and order, the hardworking men and women of the Maradaine Constabulary.
Satrine Rainey—former street rat, ex-spy, mother of two, and wife to a Constabulary Inspector who lies on the edge of death, injured in the line of duty—has been forced to fake her way into the post of Constabulary Inspector to support her family.
Minox Welling is a brilliant, unorthodox Inspector and an Uncircled mage—almost a crime in itself. Nicknamed “the jinx” because of the misfortunes that seem to befall anyone around him, Minox has been partnered with Satrine because no one else will work with either of them.
Their first case together—the ritual murder of a Circled mage— sends Satrine back to the streets she grew up on and brings Minox face-to-face with mage politics he’s desperate to avoid. As the body count rises, Satrine and Minox must race to catch the killer before their own secrets are exposed and they, too, become targets.
Marshall Ryan Maresca is a fantasy and science-fiction writer, as well as a playwright, living in South Austin with his wife and son. He is the author of The Thorn of Dentonhill and A Murder of Mages, His latest novel, The Alchemy of Chaos, will be released in early 2016. His work also appeared in Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction and Rick Klaw’s anthology Rayguns Over Texas. He also has had several short plays produced.
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