Elizabeth Bear is a Hugo-winning author whose books regularly deal with questions of gender, sexuality and identity. Her first novel was published in 2005 and she has since received awards ranging from the John W. Campbell for Best New Writer to the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best short fiction. She’s joining us for Queering SFF to discuss her work and the contemporary field of queer speculative fiction.
BM: Hello and welcome; thanks for agreeing to talk with me. To start off, how would you introduce your body of writing to a fresh new reader—what should they know about the work of Elizabeth Bear, and where might be the best place to start reading?
EB: Boy, that’s a tricky question. I’m one of those writers who has a hard time repeating herself, so all of my work is quite different. When asked that question, I usually quiz the asker as to what sort of fiction they like. Ink & Steel is historical fantasy; Blood & Iron is contemporary; All the Windwracked Stars is periapocalyptic noir steampunk…sort of. My science fiction ranges from planetary romance (Undertow, which I often describe as “Little Fuzzy meets The Italian Job”) to space opera (The Jacob’s Ladder books) with detours through feminist sociological SF (Carnival) and the Jenny Casey books, which are sort of an overview of developments in SF from 1984-2004.
Most of what I write is pretty deconstructive, though. I seem to be all about the meta.
BM: One characteristic that seems to bridge all of your books is that they feature a broad spectrum of sexualities and genders. I’d say that they’re sterling examples of queer speculative fiction, but was that something you set out to do from the beginning? Or does that spectrum of sexualities present in your novels owe more to a desire to write a world populated with all different sorts of people?
EB: None of the above, really. It’s pretty simple: I grew up in a queer household, and what I write reflects the world I know. My friends and family are not exclusively white and straight, so it would seem peculiar to me for the world I wrote in to be.
I still remember how delighted I was as a kid when I read Diane Duane’s The Door Into Fire, which starts with Prince Herewiss setting off to rescue his beloved from a tower. That his beloved is Prince Freelorn was treated as entirely unexceptional, and I was dazzled at the idea that one could do that.
It saddens me that, thirty years later, this is still remarkable.
BM: It came up in a panel at Readercon that there seems to be an active shift in contemporary spec-fic towards greater diversity, with more people writing protagonists who aren’t straight white males. Have you noticed any significant change in the genre in recent years?
EB: I grew up in the wrong household, I’m afraid, to have a very good idea of the prevalence of straight white males in years past, as the books around the house had a heavy bias towards female and queer authors, and authors of color. One thing I do notice, however, is that there seems to be a welcome flowering of diversity in the writers, which can only suggest to me that we should be seeing more diversity in the characters as well.
BM: I’ve read elsewhere that you discovered Joanna Russ as a kid. Her influence seems to be reflected in Carnival, but are there other authors you grew up with who inspired or otherwise amazed you?
EB: Oh, sure. Roger Zelazny, Octavia Butler, Larry Niven, Robert L. Forward, Richard Adams, Peter Beagle, Ursula Le Guin—I read voraciously, catholicly, and with absolute disregard for the theoretical age-appropriateness of any given material.
BM: I admit I’m jealous of your childhood reading list. *g* A jump back to your work: the Promethean Age books are one of my favorite series, and they certainly have a diverse cast throughout history. Are there plans for the publication of the fifth book at the moment?
EB: Thank you! And no, unfortunately, they do not have a publisher.
BM: Well, I have my fingers crossed.
Something that comes up often in the Promethean Age books and also some of your other novels, like New Amsterdam, is the “non-traditional” relationship-shape—I personally am always looking for more stories featuring alternate family/love structures, so I think it’s great. Is this also thanks to your formative years, and/or is it something you like to explore in fiction?
EB: I suspect it’s a combination of things: having been raised by wild lesbians in the hills of Northeastern Connecticut; overexposure to Heinlein and Russ as a child; hanging out with fandom and SCAdians, who tend not to conform too closely to the nuclear family ideal; and training as an anthropologist, which made me question a lot of basic Western ethnocentric assumptions about what a family looks like.
Also, love and relationships seem to be an overriding concern of my art. Possibly because I suck at them in real life. And I cannot abide traditional romances, because so many of them seem to me unutterably false, and concerned with the least interesting part of the whole process. Anybody can fall in love—but maintaining close relationships over years? THAT interests me in a way that limerence cannot.
BM: Absolutely—that’s one of the reasons I enjoy your stories as much as I do; the focus on real relationship development, management and often failure strikes me as so grounded and so real. The attitude still lingering in SF that women write books with too many of those scary “relationships” and “emotions” (and hence that those sorts of books aren’t good) drives me crazy—have you had to deal much with that in your career, from reviewers or readers?
EB: A very few squeamish male reviewers get fussed—almost exclusively about male same-sex relationships. I have, a couple of times, seen some of my work characterized as yaoi or slash, which indicates to me two things: one, that the reviewer is ignorant as to the meaning of those terms (I will accept “slashy,” although I think if you have a cannon gay relationship it’s not so much slashy as a book in which there are gay people); and two, that the reviewer does not actually understand that there are real gay people in the world who might like to read books about themselves, and the only and sacred purpose of writing about gay men is not to titillate an audience of heterosexual women. (I realize that this is not the only purpose of actual slash; I suspect the reviewers who tend to throw around this kind of commentary do not.)
But you know, it’s fair: I get teh gay on them, and they get teh dumb on me.
…Yeah, I realize I’m not supposed to talk back to reviewers, but I draw the line at what seems to me a very refined kind of bigotry implied by this insistence that queerness remain a marked (and remarked-upon) state. I write books about people. Some people are queer. Life is like that, unless you choose to ignore it.
Other than that, well, if they think my books are too girly, it’s their loss. I have heard rumors that I’m pretty good at explosions, too.
Curiously, they never seem to get upset about the female same-sex relationships….
BM: On the note of reviewers failing to understand that there really are queer folk out there who would like to read books about people like themselves, is there anything you’d like to say about the idea of “queering sff” as a recognition/reclamation of relevant works of speculative fiction?
EB: …I think you lost me in the jargon, there. Are you asking me what works of queer-friendly SF I’ve read and liked recently?
Malinda Lo’s Ash, which of course the whole world is talking about. Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series. I haven’t yet read The Steel Remains—I respect Morgan and his work a lot, but it tends to be an emotional miss for me. Jim C. Hines’ The Stepsister Scheme and associated books.
…see, I suck at this kind of question. If I even understood the question. I don’t have a separate category in my head labeled “queer-friendly books.” Possibly because, due to the vagaries of my upbringing, “queer” is an unmarked category for me.
I’d like to suggest looking at the Lambda and Gaylactic Spectrum Awards longlists, as they specialize in finding this sort of thing.
BM: That was pretty much what I was going for—sorry, convoluted question. Before we sign off, would you like to tell us a bit about what you have in the works at the moment?
EB: Oh, sure. Take me out on a lousy answer!
I just handed in the final book of my Jacob’s Ladder trilogy to Spectra—unless they decide they’d like to extend the series, that is. It’s called Grail, and it should be out next spring. I also just went over the page proofs for the final book in the Edda of Burdens, The Sea Thy Mistress, which will be out from Tor in December. I’ve been working on some short stories, which are forthcoming in Asimov’s and two Ellen Datlow edited anthologies, and I have a few more in mind. There’s another New Amsterdam novella (The White City) coming out from Subterranean sometime in the not-too-distant future, and the second Iskryne book (written with Sarah Monette), which has a tentative title of A Reckoning of Men, goes in to Tor at the end of the month.
In addition, I am starting a new high fantasy series for Tor—the series is called The Eternal Sky; the first book is Range of Ghosts. That’s due in November. And I’m part of an ongoing hyperfiction adventure narrative—a kind of web serial—at www.shadowunit.org. Which I honestly think is the coolest thing ever. It’s basically a long, multi-threaded multi-author novel with interactive aspects, and we’re doing it on a crowdfunded model, so it’s totally reader-supported.
I guess I’m kind of busy these days.
BM: *g* I don’t mind doing one more question. Are there any plans for collecting Shadow Unit into print, or is that going to be too difficult with all the interactive elements like the character’s journals, etc?
EB: There are plans. They are proceeding very slowly, however, and I don’t have current details as to what their status is. (That, thank cod, is not my department.)
BM: Interesting! And on that note—thanks so much for your time. It was great talking with you!
EB: Thank you for being interested in what I had to say!
Photo by S. Shipman