February this year is time Steampunk Hands Around the World a project that aims to celebrate global steampunk community. So many people have helped and supported me since I first got involved with steampunk back in 2009. Many of them have quite literally changed my life. This feels like the perfect opportunity to honour some of them.
If it wasn’t for Magpie, then steampunk and I would likely have been little more than ships that passed in the night.
I met Magpie a few days after finding out that steampunk was a thing. At the time, I was editing a tiny Doctor Who fanzine called YANA–mostly just as an excuse to draw stupid comics and write silly stories. I’d happened upon some pretty cool pictures of a Steampunk TARDIS, which in turn led me to SteamPunk Magazine and messaging Magpie to tell him how much I’d enjoyed his “Yena of Angeline” stories. At the time, I didn’t even realise that he was also the editor.
About a week later, he messaged me to say he was actually about to wrap the magazine up, and before I knew what I was doing I was messaging him back to say “I’ll take over!”. I knew almost nothing about steampunk, literally nothing about the politics that SPM was built on, and even less about how to edit, layout, and run a magazine. In Magpie’s place, I’m pretty sure I would have responded with: “Thanks, but I have no idea who you are”. Magpie, being the incredible human being that he is, came back with: “Sure, why not”.
The next couple of years editing SteamPunk Magazine honestly changed my life. Not only has the experience given me confidence in my abilities, it’s influenced my politics, the skills I possess, and the whole way that I see the world. And I owe so much of that to Magpie–who was always there to recommend the right books on anarchist politics, walk me through how the hell to deal with InDesign, advise me on how to find printers and get the magazine into physical form, and offer encouragement and support.
I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if it wasn’t for him, and I almost certainly wouldn’t be involved with steampunk. I don’t think I’ve ever really thanked him for everything he did for me, so I guess that this is my chance
I have a terrible admission to make. Despite living less than two dozen miles apart, John Reppion and I have never actually met. We have, however, exchanged a bunch of emails over the last few years.
I got in touch with John not long after taking over at SPM, because at the time he was writing an ongoing story for the magazine. At the time, the whole editing thing was damned new to me, so I was glad to meet another writer–since I at least had some idea of what was involved in that. John and I also shared a love for the occult, the esoteric, and the downright supernatural, so we got on famously almost right away.
To talk about the biggest way that John has helped me out, I have to talk about ‘Journeys‘. This started out as a vague idea to create a steampunk shared world anthology with some of the many awesome writers that I met while working at SteamPunk Magazine. Sadly, we could never quite get the collection to gel together as a whole. The energy eventually ran out, Magpie released a couple of the stories that came out of it as ‘White is the Color of Death‘ through his new project (with one of the other writers involved) over at Combustion Books, and I consigned my own contribution to the cutting room floor.
A lot of time passed after that. My life went through some tectonic changes. To some extent, it fell to pieces. And right then, out of nowhere, John dropped me a little email to say hey, why didn’t we pair our stories up with the one that Dylan Fox had written and publish them ourselves? To this day, I think that John feels like he kind of put me to a lot of effort with that, but he’s dead wrong. The truth is that when his email dropped onto my screen, I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I felt directionless, and increasingly depressed. That one little email from him gave me something to focus on. Not just stories to edit and layout to do, but a whole micropublisher to re-found. On top of that, he gave me the opportunity to put a collection of stories together that I am damned proud of.
Jaymee needs a special mention on this list for being more patient with me than I had any right to expect anyone to be. I’m not sure how we first got talking, but I do know that post-colonialism and anti-racism was still a complete bewilderment to me when it happened, and that Jaymee is pretty much responsible for me getting at least a tenuous handle on my own privilege.
There were several long (doubtless incredibly frustrating) conversations over IM about white privilege, post-colonialism, cultural imperialism and exotification. More than that, when I had the (in retrospect, utterly stupid) idea of organising a huge online debate for every steampunk on the internet to scream at each other about politics, Jaymee was the only person to stand up and tell me it was a really bad idea. She was right, and I ignored her, but when everything went to hell she didn’t slam the door in my face.
I owe her a hundred thousand thanks for that, and for continuing to pour her blood and sweat into her post-colonial steampunk blog at Silver Goggles, where I read and read slowly learned exactly where I’d gone so badly wrong. Jaymee, along with fellow post-colonial steampunk Ay-leen (who she introduced me to) have done wonders to diversify steampunk–to make it something other than an echo chamber of white, Imperial wet dreams. For that, I think that we can all be bloody grateful.
Carolyn was the first ‘real’ steampunk that I ever met in the flesh. I think I’d been editing the magazine for a couple of months at that point, and was still feeling out of my depth. All of a sudden I was stumbling across strange new ideas like feminism and anti-racism that shook me out of my quiet, self-obsessed little world. Then I went to Whitby Goth Weekend to see Abney Park play, and found myself face-to-face with this fierce, independent, vintage-motorcycle-riding, Californian civil engineer who’d written a couple of articles for the magazine that I didn’t really understand yet. Needless to say, I was kind of terrified of this lady, and of her finding out that I didn’t actually have a clue what I was doing.
Carolyn and I have kept in touch ever since, and she doesn’t scare me any more (at least, not quite so much ). She’s taught me how to waltz, to polka, and how to do at least two different Regency set dances. She helped me put on the first ‘Steampunk Magazine Spectacular’ weekend in Oxford, let me ride her 1940s Royal Enfield J2 (his name is Henry), fed me from her allotment, introduced me to Ursula LeGuin, and blew my mind wide open with everything she knows about the process of Progress and gender politics.
I still think of her as fierce, independent, and as one of the most terrifyingly intelligent people that I’ve ever met, but she’s also a damned good friend, a hero, and has left me a hell of a lot smarter than she found me.
There are dozens and dozens of other people who have helped me out, taught me things, or just been there to offer support over the past few years. That’s part of what makes steampunk so great. Sure, we have our fair share of trolls, bigots, and assholes. Every group and subculture does. What makes steampunk different is the incredible spirit of invention amongst its communities, and how eager so many of these people are to share their skills, knowledge, and inspiration with others.
I haven’t always had the most straightforward relationship with steampunk, but it’s immensely valuable to look back from time to time and realise the things that you have. And steampunk? Steampunk has introduced me to a whole panoply of wonderful, funny, intelligent, caring people. That is an awesome, awesome thing.
via Elephant Journal
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of harming another; you end up getting burned.”
Something has been wrong with my car for a long time now. In truth, I’ve not had much luck with them for years. Wheel bearings fail, batteries catch fire, cam belts snap and destroy every value on the engine block… When I went to trade in my last car (a little Renault Clio) for the current nightmare (a Skoda Fabia, which is meant to be reliable) the dealer asked me if I’d ever had an accident in the Clio, then turned his screen around to show me that it was written off by the previous owner. A certain amount of this is not asking the right questions when we invest in a new car, a certain amount is the fact that we’ve never been able to afford to ask the right questions.
The day before Christmas Eve, I finally got the news that I’d been dreading for a while: the head gasket on our latest nightmare had failed. Fortunately, we (just about) had the money to get it fixed. However, since then there have been an endless stream of additional problems slowly bleeding us dry at a time when we’re meant to be saving to move house.
But I don’t want to spend this post talking about my car problems. I want to talk about how we deal with worry.
Actually, I want to talk about how we deal with worry, and anger, and resentment, sadness, and a whole bunch of other emotions that are sometimes useful and necessary, but often just end up getting in the way of going about my life.
Three years ago, Dylan and I up sticks and moved fifty miles down the coast to live closer to my best friend. This friend was (at the time) the centre of my world and although he had previously pulled a vanishing act on me, I felt comfortable in his assurances that it would never happen again. A little less than two years ago: it happened again. He started refusing to speak to me, and told me that he never wanted to hear from us again. I haven’t seen him since, and all of a sudden, Dylan and I were fifty miles from everyone we knew and we couldn’t afford to go back.
The only reason that this is relevant is because I still, two years later, hold onto a lot of resentment (even rage) towards this ‘friend’–not to mention all of the pain that’s lurking somewhere underneath that anger. I’ve told myself that I have to be patient. That the pain and that resentment will pass when they’re ready. That so long as I sit with them, and they aren’t actively jeopardising my life, I’m ok to go on living with them as my (increasingly occasional) companions.
And I think that’s about the right of it, to be honest. Forcing myself to move on seems as though it would be counter-productive. And I have no desire to hide from my dark side, or push it back into the shadows. I think that we can spend far too much of our lives trying to insulate ourselves from darker feelings and emotions, trying to live perpetually happy lives with a forced, rictus grin on our faces. I’ve never much seen the point in that. Darkness has a place in our lives, and in ourselves. It should be worked with and embraced when it appears. But there are times when these feelings can be utterly unproductive, can sabotage us, or they can just outstay their welcome at a time when we need to let go. And it’s this refusal to let go that’s the real issue here.
In the same way, I worry about the little ‘Check Engine’ light flashing on the dashboard of my car and my rapidly diminishing (and horribly hard-won) savings, even though I know that worry is entirely pointless (as neatly illustrated in the diagram above). It serves no purpose but to hang over me like little black thunderhead.
So why clutch onto these things so tightly when they aren’t useful? In my case, the unfortunate answer is because I feel entitled to them. I feel entitled to the anger at my friend because he betrayed me. Because I’d come so far to be near him and felt as though I’d given him so much of myself, and the second things got tough I was discarded seemingly without a second thought. In the same way, I feel entitled to worry about the ‘Check Engine’ light in my car. Like I have bled my savings deep enough and been patient and laissez-faire about the whole thing for long enough now, goddamn it, and the damned thing should be fixed. But it’s not, and that makes me feel entitled to throw my toys out of the pram.
(and pull faces a bit like this one)
Feeling that kind of entitlement towards anger, worry, upset, and even outright depression is an odd thing, when you think about it. It brings with it the idea that I can somehow punish my friend with my resentment, even though I haven’t even seen a glimpse of him in two years now. Even more ridiculous: that I can somehow punish my damned car for continuing to break down and cost me money. (To be honest, I think that with that one I’m not trying to punish the car. I’m trying to punish the universe for giving me such endless, shitty luck.)
In both cases like our guy with the proverbial hot coal in the quote at the top of this article, the only person I’m punishing is myself. But that doesn’t stop me, and why should it? Our society is full of people who punish others through some form of self-harm–from a man who threatens to kill himself if his partner doesn’t stay with him, to another who descends into alcoholism when she leaves. We see this sort of shit all the time. Even worse than that, our media is full of examples where this kind of intentional self-sabotage works. Where, if you can just suffer long enough and hard enough… if you can only fall into a deep enough hole… then sooner or later the universe will come along and set things right again.
Needless to say, the universe doesn’t really feel one way or another about the whole thing. Fairness and what we ‘deserve’ are only concepts that we’ve brought into it, not absolute rules of reality.
A supernova doesn’t care whether it’s fair to the people living on nearby planets.
(Oh, I’m sorry. Were you sitting there?)
I don’t say that to be nihilistic. The universe is a beautiful, wonderful, incredible place. It just doesn’t give a shit whether I moved all the way out here to live nearer to a total asshole, or whether the ‘Check Engine’ light is still on in my car.
What makes it even stranger is that no one ever feels ‘entitled’ to happiness in the same way. Sure, there are people who keep their heads up and keep smiling when the whole world is going to shit around them, but it’s rarely out of stubbornness. Nor have I ever met anyone who tried to help another person by doggedly clinging onto their own love, sense of accomplishment, courage, and honesty. And yet we seem quite happy to accept that the reverse side of things is true.
I don’t have any answers on what to do about this whole state of affairs. At least, nothing beside continuing to remind myself of the innate stupidity of what I’m doing, and hope that sooner or later it begins to sink in. Because that’s the only way things are going to change. There is no universal balance of ‘fairness’ that’s going to put that light out on my dashboard, or give that former friend an incredibly uncomfortable case of piles. Believing that there is won’t change reality, and it certainly won’t help me feel any better. I’ll just end up trapped in this same cycle–making myself miserable in the hopes that sooner or later someone or something will notice. That sooner or later, someone or something will rescue me.
But the truth is that you are your own Prince Charming. And if you want to be rescued, then you’d better strap on your breastplate, pick up your sword, and get to work.
“The knowledge of the right words, appropriate phrases and the more highly developed forms of speech, gives man a power over and above his own limited field of personal action.”
- “The Magical Power of Words“, S.J. Tambiah
It’s always fascinated me is when art is liminal. Something that exists in the inbetween. Not quite one thing, or another. Performance that combines music and film, novels that are written to echo the shape of a symphony… And there’s something captivating in creating something that’s neither fully one thing or another, too. Making something that has a foot in two worlds.
I can’t remember when I first started thinking about the similarities between stories and spells, but I was reminded of it again last summer when I was lucky enough to see the awesome Tom Hirons and Rima Staines telling the Lithuanian folktale The Sun Princess and the Fortieth Door. Tom introduced the story by talking about how stories have always been a form of spell, and ever since then I’ve been considering…
It’s always seemed like the most tangible kind of magic is the kind we work within ourselves as we grow, develop and change to better adapt to our environments, or to the dreams we want to chase. Moments of incredible insight and profound understanding aren’t by-products of magical experience, but seem to constitute a form of magic in and of themselves. Considering that anything that we vividly imagine is indistinguishable from reality in the effect that it has on our brains and body chemistry, and that our minds are actually more receptive to reprogramming when immersed in something fictional, it seems pretty obvious that stories really are a kind of invocation. That they are spells woven from life itself in how the writer uses their own energy and craft to shape the narrative and the characters, but they’re also life-creating in the effects that they have on the minds of the people that read them.
Stories are words of power, then. Literally evoking something greater than themselves.
All of which has me thinking about ways in which you could write stories that consciously and directly mirror the form and structure of a spell. Or spells which took the shape of a story, for that matter. On the surface, the rituals of modern Wicca would seem to be the simplest place to start–with their set structure that involves calling the elements, casting a circle, and consecrating it with water and with fire. However these are essentially modern creations, and I can’t help but be tempted to explore the possibilities of something older.
The oldest surviving Western spells are Anglo Saxon, like this one to stop bees from swarming:
Sitte ge, sigewif,
sigað to eorðan,
næfre ge wilde
to wuda fleogan,
beo ge swa gemindige,
swa bið manna gehwilc,
metes and eðeles.
Settle down, victory-women,
never be wild and fly to the woods.
Be as mindful of my welfare,
as is each man of eating and of home.
(By far the most enticing thing about this spell is the way it calls the bees ‘sigewif’. Siege wives, or ‘victory women’.)
There are a few other scattered collections of these spells, charms, and talismans-of-words around, but they’re mostly structureless which makes them difficult to emulate, so I’m kind of out of ideas on that front for now.
Instead, I’ve been occupying myself by toying with other ways. Not just in how a story can literally echo a spell, but in how they can ultimately serve same purpose: encoding deep knowledge. To offer cryptic roadmaps for learning like alchemical manuscripts once did, or like the physiological readings of myths presented by modern druids and Jungian psychoanalysts. Stories have always taught us how to cope with life in all its pain, stress, difficulties, and glory. But what if this could be done more consciously, through metaphor and allegory?
I had a shot at this with ‘The Weed Wife‘ (it isn’t out yet, but will be by the spring). Superficially, it’s a story about environmental destruction, but it’s also about what The Lord of the Rings (or at least something broadly similar) might look like if the Ringbearer failed, and their companions limped back to their homes while the Dark Lord’s influence slowly swallowed everything.
With ‘The Weed Wife’, the companion in question is a knight named Ser Marchlyn, who has crawled back to her family’s seat–desperate, and essentially suffering from post-traumatic stress. In theory, the whole story is supposed to serve as a kind of subconscious map for navigating the aftermath of a traumatic event, and finding a path back towards healing. You’ll notice the operative words ‘in theory’: I’m by no means anything but a rank (but enthusiastic) amateur in Jungian psychology, and there are undoubtedly ways that it could be done better. But it was a hell of a lot of fun trying, and I’m looking forwards to the opportunity to try again.
I’m also deeply interested in whether anyone else has been trying this kind of thing. I’m pretty sure that I can’t be the first person to think about it. There must be other folks who have consciously played in the space between story and magic, but I’m damned if I know who they are. If anyone knows them, or has tinkered with this sort of thing themselves, I’d be really interested to hear about it.
In the meantime, I guess I’ll just keep fumbling around with my little invocations by trial and error–waiting to see what I summon, and how much interest it has in eating me alive, or dragging me down to the Deep Ones.
I’m horribly excited to let you know about my little story ‘The Labyrinth of Thorns’ which is out today in Interzone #250.
If you like experimental little cyberpunk meditations about descent (and the Shadow of a city as well as the self), then you should go and check it out! If you have any particularly awesome news agents near you, then they might stock it. Otherwise, you can order print or digital copies through the TTA Press website.
And, if you do happen to read it, be sure to let me know what you think!
So, I wanted to take a few moments out from a festive period full of writing, editing, and re-watching ‘The Wire’ to look back at some of the most awesome things that I’ve read this year. First, let’s take a look at some novels, shall we?
One of the most awesome novels that I’ve read in a very long time, Joe Abercrombie wins the award for the most convincing female character I’ve ever seen written by a man–in the shape of Monzarro ‘Monza’ Murcatto. Monza’s quest for revenge is the whole thrust of the novel, and shows her as a brutal, remorseless, and ultimately profoundly unsettling human being. Intense without being a grind, entertaining without being vapid, and an awesome study of a very complex character.
When Gravity Fails – George Alec Effinger
I happened upon 1986 Nebula nominee ‘When Gravity Fails’ while doing searches for Islamic cyberpunk, and it turned out to be probably the most technically proficient and elegantly-crafted example of the genre that I’ve read. It’s my favourite form of cyberpunk: hardboiled noir; plot inexorably tied up with the world’s technology; questions about power and identity; and murder. It also wins out by having great representation of trans characters, for a storyline focused personality ‘mods’ that people can slot right into their brains, and for the Budayeen itself. Cyberpunk needs more non-Western settings, and this one seemed very well done to me.
Game of Thrones/Clash of Kings/Storm of Swords – George R.R. Martin
I’m very aware that George R.R. Martin’s writing isn’t perfect. Despite some points for trying, his writing on race, gender, and sexuality often falls far short of the mark for me (Rainbow Guard? Honestly? You may as well have announced Renly’s Kingsguard with “Look out, lads, here come the queers!”). His turns of phrase are sometimes inelegant, and the man cannot write a fight scene to save his life. And yet…. I cannot stop reading these books. I think there may be some sort of addictive substance on the pages. The combination of excellent characterisation, sweeping world-building, fantastic balance between different characters and their agendas, and plain old fashioned-page turning writing has got me tearing through these suckers. Even if I do feel the boiling urge to punch Jaimie in the face every time he calls Brienne ‘wench’.
And now, the short stories. I’ve read shedloads of them over the last twelve months, and here are some of my favourites:
Now Ix, He Was a Lover – Hannah Strom-Martin – Beneath Ceaseless Skies #130
Not sure what I love most about this story. I’m a sucker for non-Western fantasy, for tragic love stories, and for the barest whisper of sensuality. The story of a woman’s ill-fated not-quite-affair with a distinctly un-Legolas-like elf, in a world that feels incredibly rich and textured.
Old Domes – J.Y. Yang – We See a Different Frontier
There were a few really great stories in Future Fire’s “We See a Different Frontier” (including the awesome ‘Vectors’ by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, who has another entry below) and ‘Old Domes’ is one of the ones that’s really stuck with me. An exploration not just of colonised people, but of the colonised land itself–told through the story of a young woman tasked with hunting down the spirits of old colonial buildings in Singapore that are destined for destruction. In incredibly clever premise, and beautifully executed.
A Quest For the Vulture Gods – Melissa Yuan-Innes – Crossed Genres #9
Two Chinese princesses set out to find the Tree of Life to save their baby brother, and are joined by a wondering monk. This little story is charming and evocative, and the sisters are fantastically-written characters with their own strength and agency. Another one of those that I’ve just not been able to get out of my head. Easy to read and emotionally engaging.
A Death for the Ageless – Margaret Ronald – Beneath Ceaseless Skies #134
There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned who dun it, and ‘A Death for the Ageless’ is the best short one that I’ve read in a good while. A mixture of crime, investigation, and a highly unique fantasy setting with goblins and exiled gods, it’s evocatively written, clever, and has the essential well-crafted twist in the tail.
Artificial Nocturne – E. Catherine Tobler – Beneath Ceaseless Skies #126
There seems to have been something of an explosion of women-with-wings stories. I’ve read a good three or four of them over the course of the year, but this one is undoubtedly my favourite. A little dark and a little macabre, with a travelling circus thrown in for good measure. What’s not to love?
The Crows Her Dragon’s Gate – Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Beneath Ceaseless Skies #118
I’ve read a lot of great stories by this author over the course of this year, but I think this one is probably my favourite. I’ve never quite been able to get the hang of writing relationships that aren’t just complex, but often bitter and unplesant, but I do sure love reading them. ‘The Crows Her Dragon’s Gate’ is a story of betrayal, and the ascent (or possibly descent) of a goddess. It’s always difficult to make short stories truly moving, but this one definitely manages it.
An interesting discussion about second person narration with Benjanun (who wrote the last one) led to her pointing me in the direction of this story. Second person is something of an acquired taste (I personally love it, but there you go), but this story mixes it in with some more conventional third person storytelling to really hammer home the feelings of dislocation, isolation, and identity loss. It’s one of those stories that has a lot of depth, and benefits from a couple of readings.
So, how about y’all? What are your favourite reads from 2013, and have you found anything I’ve missed?
I’ve spent the last week thinking about empire, as you do. It all started when I found myself watching BBC4′s “Shipwrecks” program which looked pretty interesting but ended up making me rage with it’s gung-ho nationalism. The moment when I knew that I had to stop watching it was when the presenter described the British Empire as “our global adventure”.
There are so many things so profoundly wrong with this that I don’t even know where to start. Not only have our imperial aspirations caused war, famine, and exploitation in the past, but it has a legacy of everything from continued bloodshed to skin-whitening creams. It’s taken me back to an interview I did with The Men That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing during my stint as editor of SteamPunk Magazine. At the time, I’d not long heard ‘Blood Red‘ their bile-filled poke at colonialism and imperialism in the steampunk movement. It’s the kind of song that lights a fire in you. When I asked guitarist/vocalist Andrew O’Neill about it, he said:
“It’s weird, because there’s a lot of post-colonial writing about the Empire, but it doesn’t seem to have seeped into the consciousness of British people. We kind of think that we went there and gave them trains and roads. Yeah, and then we left with all their stuff. We were in charge of Zimbabwe and we took everything of value and then people say: ‘Oh, look, but we left and they’re killing each other’. Yeah, they’re killing each other because we took all of the valuable things out of their country. The Empire was essentially us raping the world, and anyone who is supportive of the Empire and racist needs to fuck right off. At the very least we owe the Commonwealth the ability to come and live in a country that is only rich because we stole everything of value from the places we invaded.”
- “Less Brass Goggles, More Brass Knuckles”, Steampunk Magazine #7
At some point while I was ranting about this on Facebook, someone mentioned the Romans. This kind of got me thinking about whether our own legacy of being a colonised country has something to do with the highly-toxic attitude that Britain as a nation has towards its “great global adventure”.
For hundreds of years after the Roman Empire collapsed, the accepted belief was that Rome had lifted Britain out of savagery, and set us on the path to righteous enlightenment. In short, it was a little bit like this:
This view only really began to be challenged in the Romantic Age, when the folklore revival left European citizens increasingly aware that their ancestors weren’t quite as primitive and savage as they’d been led to believe. Even then, this idea that the Roman Empire dragged us out of an Age of Ignorance endures to this day.
It’s somewhat beyond my remit here, but needless to say that pre-Roman Britain was far from an ignorant hive of scum and savagery. If nothing else, the wealth of incredibly complex prehistoric monuments, intricately-made artefacts, and astronomical calendars is testament to that. Pre-Roman Britain was a long way away from pre-technological, so why do we still hold this perception of our ancestors?
I think a lot of it has to do with the type of knowledge and technology that the Romans brought to Great Britain: written records took over from oral traditions, centralised governments from tribal ones, and (maybe most importantly) Christianity replaced paganism. These forms of learning aren’t necessarily any more or less valid than the ones we had before, but they came together as a whole package which we (as a people) swallowed wholesale. John Michael Greer has written numerous times (and with great insight and clarity) on how Christianity is innately tied to our modern attitudes towards civilisation, science, technology, government, and learning. It is basically the subconscious foundation our whole society has been built on, with its centralised authority, omniscient patriarch, hierarchical structure, and focus on the written word.
There is a damned good argument that it is an ultimately Christian ideology that underpins the great strengths and terrible failings of the world we have built for ourselves in the English-speaking West. And I find myself wondering whether holding such a dim view of our own pre-Christian ancestors… With ultimately feeling as though we had to be lifted out of ignorance by Rome and by the Church… Doesn’t have something to do with this horrific “we brought them trains and roads” attitude towards the Empire.
After all, if we believe that’s what was true for us, that the Romans came here and uplifted us with better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order, then why shouldn’t we believe that’s what we’re doing, when we set out to conquer an empire of our own?
I’ve been thinking a lot about chivalry these past few weeks. The seed was planted by a friend of mine, who had the misfortune of getting involved in a protracted argument about chivalry and feminism, and whether the two can co-exist. I’ve been reading/watching a lot of Game of Thrones, generally drooling at great length over the spectacular can-of-whoop-ass that is Brienne of Tarth. At the same time, I’ve also stepped in to do some editing work on Combustion Book’s upcoming Dragonpunk anthology. All of which has got me thinking about knights, chivalric values, and whether these things can be re-imagined to be more inclusive of those of us who don’t happen to be straight, white, ripped examples of manhood like Jaime Lannister.
(…I’m sorry, what was I saying?)
Sadly, all of this thinking led to me inevitably typing ‘feminist chivalry’ into Google in the naive hope of finding others who had been thinking along the same lines. Instead, what I got was page after page talking about how feminism has killed chivalry—all basically re-hashing the same arguments thrown in my friend’s direction the week before.
There are many things that bother me about this argument, but I think what troubles me the most is that the people (both men and women) who are moaning about the death of tradition and chivalric values,have at no point sat down and decided what they actually mean when they talk about chivalry.
Chivalry does not mean what you think it means.
Two options would seem to present themselves:
Option one: the form of ‘chivalry’ that’s been heartlessly killed by feminism is a set of traditional values that go back to ye olde days of knights in armour. It is, in fact, the way that things have been since time immemorial.
The first problem with this is that, while medieval chivalric values did indeed include a lot of the stuff you’d probably expect (like protecting the weak and being polite to the ladies), there’s also a bunch of other stuff that you should probably consider carefully before signing up for, such as:
- 1) Showing no mercy to ‘the Infidels’ and going out of your way to make war with them; or
- 2) Submitting absolutely to God, and to your liege lord… so… probably these days it’s your boss.
It’s also probably worth noting at this point that the aspects of chivalry that deal most with the treatment of women are pretty much tied up with the ideal of courtly love, and there’s a damned strong argument to be made that, if these principals were ever practised at all, then they were mostly used as a way for lower-class men to get a leg up in society (sometimes, ahem, literally) by flattering and submitting to high-born women. In fact, rather than being a system which began from the assumption that women were weak and pathetic and needed to be protected, the chivalric knight viewed his lady as a symbol of both the unobtainable sexual ideal and spiritual ecstasy—someone who was both respected and obeyed.
Needless to say, this involved a fair amount of actually figuring out how your lady would like to be treated, rather than complaining every time she wanted to open doors for herself or carry her own bags.
Option two: chivalry has changed and evolved over the years, and no longer means what it meant back in the High Medieval.
This is fine. Values and belief systems change and adapt all the time, so it makes perfect sense that chivalry as it is now is not the same as it was back when people wore armour, slew dragons, wore pointy shoes and shot fireballs from their fingertips.
However, once you acknowledge that something has changed over the years, it becomes vital to address the issue of how it has been changed, by whom, and for what purpose. And a cursory glance over how our perceptions of chivalry have changed over the years should make it pretty obvious that it’s not developed with inclusivity and diversity in mind. That, if anything, our ideas of chivalric masculinity have grown more dominating, oppressive, and controlling, whilst the image of the chivalric woman has slid steadily from the powerful head of the household (or even the kingdom) to the weak, vulnerable princess in the tower in desperate need of rescue.
So, what can we do about it?
Some women are happy as princesses, and more power to them. I’m not here to tell any woman what she can and can’t do, or for that matter, to tell a guy whether he can or cannot hold a door open. What I’m talking about here is opening up these narrow perceptions of male and female gender roles, and not telling the same old, tired stories over and over again. It’s about killing the parts of chivalry that are sexist, racist and hierarchical: filling in the spaces with whatever we can scavenge from the world around us, or the one we want to see in the future.
With this in mind, I would like to present the following list of punked chivalric values for the modern knight-in-armour, regardless of her race, gender presentation, sexual orientation, or physical ability:
- 1) Submit only to whichever master or mistress you choose, and then only for as long as it pleases you. Otherwise, serve no one at all, and be proud;
- 2) Defend the right of all voices to be heard, especially those that speak more softly than you do;
- 3) Be gracious. Listen. Empathise. And treat others as they ask you to treat them;
- 4) Be loyal to your fellows and your friends, and dauntless in the face of your enemies;
- 5) Know yourself, and seek to become stronger in your mind, your body, and your spirit than you are;
- 6) Be wrong sometimes, and know how to apologise;
- 7) Be humble. If there is work to be done: pitch in! Remember that you are never too important to pick up a broom, or a shovel;
- 8) Be courageous, and protect that which is sacred to you. There is much broken in the world and many things that need protecting. Fight for them with your whole heart.
- 9) There is more in the world then the human mind can hold, or can be learned in a lifetime. Remain a student, always eager to learn.
I’m pretty stoked to have had a story accepted over at The Future Fire, a long-standing magazine publishing progressive science fiction and spec fic. I’ve admired their work from afar for a while now, and it’s great to be a part of the fantastic work they’re doing.
My story, ‘Shadow Boy and the Little Match Girl‘ is a little fairytale set in a strange Victorian cyberpunk world of smokestacks and skyscrapers. It was born quickly, and pretty much fully-formed, from a lot of things that I’ve been thinking about for months and maybe years now: multiple personalities, gender dysphoria, grief, identity loss, and the intoxicating dangers of escapism. Should you choose to read it, it is available free online in a positive smorgasbord of formats.
I’ve also re-worked the ‘Bio‘ section of this website (because it was woefully out of date), and put together a new page page of published works to keep track of what I’ve had accepted where. If nothing else, it’ll help me keep track of where the hell everything is, and is nicer than a spreadsheet!
“The path trodden by wayfarers and pilgrims followed the railway and then turned into the fields. Here Lara stopped, closed her eyes and took a good breath of the air which carried all the smells of the huge countryside. It was dearer to her than her kin, better than a lover, wiser than a book. For a moment she rediscovered the meaning of her life. She was here on earth to make sense of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name, or, if this were not within her power, then, out of love of life, to give birth to heirs who would do it in her place.”
The quote above, from Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel Doctor Zhivago, was also used in the 2007 film Into the Wild: a biopic about the life and, ultimately, the death of the twenty-four year old Christopher McCandless. McCandless, for those who haven’t heard of him, walked out into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 to live apart from the rest of civilisation. His body was discovered four months later, emaciated and huddled in a sleeping bag on an abandoned bus in the Denali National Park. To many, he is seen as a Romantic and a visionary. However, I’ve never been able to get past the nagging idea that McCandless was part of an almost hyper-masculine approach to Nature: an attitude that views the wild world as something to be conquered rather than understood. That judges Nature for its worth as a commodity, rather than for the value it has in its own right. Christopher McCandless walked out into the wilds without a compass, with almost no experience in living in harmony with the land, and with seemingly little respect for the power and the rhythms of the landscape that he was walking into.
No, there are doubtless many reasons why Christopher McCandless was worthy of admiration, but I cannot count his attitude towards the natural world among them.
The quote, however, has stayed with me and has only echoed louder and louder through the passing of this year: pulsing through the space between my thoughts like a mantra. The past few weeks have taught me that I am anything but alone in feeling this way. But, before I can talk about that, I need to tell you about a book…
I don’t know how this book ended up on the shelf in my bedroom when I was a young girl. The inscription just inside the front cover, “From Mick and Paula. Christmas 1972”, dates it from almost ten years before I was born, and doesn’t do anything to shed any light on the matter. It bears the names of my parents, but isn’t in what I recognise to be their handwriting. The hand looks far more like my paternal grandmother’s, but that doesn’t do much to explain how it ended up back in our house when I was a girl, or why the date on the inscription is the year before the publication date on the imprint. What I do know is that it has been with me more or less since I was able to read, and that it was both an enigma and a joy to me throughout my childhood.
It’s covers have always been tattered, faded, and printed with stalks of seeding summer grass and the big, bright heads of daisies that were probably once white, but have now faded to a gentle sepia. The spine, now peeling away from the binding, bears the words “Book of the British Countryside”. It was printed by the AA, probably in 1973, and as far as I can tell it has never been reprinted.
I grew up in the suburbs of a town on the commuter-belt between Brighton and London that was almost entirely devoid of any history of its own. What it did have, however, were green and open spaces. Looking back on it, so much of my childhood was spent out in the open: climbing trees, catching butterflies, digging through thick, musty compost in the allotments behind my parents’ house for the skull of a fox that was peeking its nose out of the rich, turned earth. We didn’t have a computer of any kind until I was around twelve, and I did not use the internet at all until I came to university at eighteen. So, when I was a child, this book became my roadmap to the entire world. I remember leafing carefully through the pages of drawn and printed birds and butterflies—sometimes trying to identify something I had seen or found, or else just looking for the sheer joy of it. I pressed dozens, if not hundreds of leaves and flowers between its hefty covers, the shadows of which still discolour the insides of the title page. Sometimes, I even read the words.
I’m not entirely certain what changed for me around the age of thirteen, when I stopped searching meticulously through the pages of this book or walking through the long grass in the fields near my house. Perhaps, in truth, it was a combination of things: the emotional and hormonal turmoil of puberty; my parents divorcing and my mother moving away; the slow arrival of electronics, computers, digital music. Although, I will admit that I have begun to consider whether the change in schools (and the way that I was taught science at that age) had anything to do with it. Before that point, much of my learning had been hands-on. I remember having school books filled with pressed and preserved flowers and leaves, sketches of butterflies and animals. After I started secondary school, the enduring memory that I have of my biology classes is of staring into text books, or being taught that anyone who disagreed with interfering with the genetic make-up of our food plants was ignorant, and needed to be looked down on.
I slowly moved away from the long afternoons that I spent scratching through the undergrowth with my nose pressed close down to the earth, or tearing through dirt tracks through the woodland on my bicycle with the wind blasting in my eyes; feeling just like I could fly. But those memories must still have nagged at me, somewhere in the wet dark of my mind, because when I left home to go to university, the Book of the British Countryside came with me. It sat, untouched, on shelves in student halls and in the damp, rented rooms or buildings that were little more than embodied fire hazards. It was shunted from place to place when I graduated, and came back to the south of England to try and make a go of having a ‘proper life’, and was packed up again a year later when we abandoned that idea and came back to Wales to live among the mountains, write stories, and struggle to pay the bills. In every move, a few more things were lost, mislaid, or given away. But this book came with me. It endured. Like that little whispered mantra at he back of my head, waiting for me to come back to it.
I cannot tell you what is different this year. Whether the change is within me, or without. What I do know is that this year, for the first time in half my lifetime, this book has come off the shelf, and my fingers have re-learned its pictures and its pages.
All year, the nagging urge has been germinating inside of me. To call each thing by its right name. It started with the birdsong. Another move a year and a half ago brought us down out of the mountains and into the Welsh foothills with their square fields, seeding grasses and syrup-coloured sunlight. Acting upon some instinct that I couldn’t name, as soon as it was warm enough this year I opened up the windows. They have been open ever since, and the first thing that I noticed was the great, sweet waves of birdsong that ebb and flow through dawn and dusk. It burst out of the trees and fields as soon as summer struggled out of its womb of late spring snow. I have never found sleep quickly, and through April and May this year I have lain for hours in the growing dark, and listened to the birds. After the first few weeks, I felt a yearning to know the names for all these voices that kept me company into the night—singing rich and deep into full dark. Blackbird. Robin. Tawny Owl. And other creatures, too. House cat. Hedgehog. Fox. I learned, and slowly got to know each of the night-dwellers and their voices.
Next, it was the clouds. I have walked out beneath the heavens early and often for years now, but this year is the first that I’ve found myself walking in the hills, driving into work, or staring out of my window, and wondering what words to use to name the shapes and colours of the sky. What atmospheric conditions cause clouds shaped like dapples over flanks of blue, or great, billowing towers of slate-grey. At some point in my wonderings, I took the Book of the British Countryside down off the shelf. I could have typed it into Google and been done with it, of course, but something in me yearned to have that musty, yellowing paper underneath my hands again.
Since then, it has been used to call moths, trees, butterflies and flowers each by their right name. When it hasn’t answered my questions, I have sought out other sources. I have entertained myself with its little anachronisms—with the way it talks about elm trees as though it expects me to have seen them.
Spending hours carefully plucking the weeds out from between the cabbages and onions I’m growing in my garden (because now I am no longer on a mountain, things can grow without being immediately shredded by the wind), I’ve felt the slow realisation that each of these little plants I am pinching out of the earth is different. That the things which we call weeds are phenomenally varied, industrious, and beautiful. Where I can, I have read their names, learned their uses and their properties. I have ordered myself a little book of herbalism that will sit beside the venerable old soul of the Book of the British Countryside on its shelf beside the window.
Slowly, surely, I have fallen into a fascinated orbiting of all things that live and grow. And, through accident or synchronisity, I have begun to seek out others who are doing the same: from Cryptoforestry’s attempts to document every flowering plant along their street to Rima Staines beautiful ‘Weed Wife’ painting and reflections on how loudly the plants are calling us back home to them.
Learning to call things by their right name has value far beyond the use of names to categorise, separate and dominate the world around us. These days, our lives are often muted to the wild, ferocious act of creation coming into being all around us. We numb ourselves to the visceral, uncomfortable and diverse beauty and brutality of nature with central heating and air conditioning. We scour away our natural ebbs and flows through day and night and light through dark with artificial light—forcing our bodies out of the gentle rhythm of sleeping, waking and then sleeping again in preference for one long block of eight hours where we twist and turn restlessly in the blinking electronic gloom. Our food is delivered onto supermarket shelves and then into our fridges and freezers as regularly and predictably as the roll of a production line, regardless of the weather, the seasons, or the things that grow best in our soil and our climate. We buy recipe books and ingredients from across the globe instead of using cooking to its original purpose: to make use of the things we have available, and to provide variety.
Learning the names for the birds, trees, weeds and cloud formations around us will not completely undo all of the damage that we have done to our souls in isolating ourselves from our landscape, but it is a start. It roots us in the here and now and provides us with a sense of place. It encourages us to pay attention to our surroundings and how they change throughout the year, and it gives us an appreciation for the place that we are standing in—so that we may fall into a rhythm with the patterns of its weather, and know the living and unliving things that share the space with us. For only then can we begin to know their value rather than their worth.
For those of us who give way to the natural, human urge to create, calling our landscape by its right names allows us to bring precision, detail, and an incredible, intricate sort of beauty to the things that we make and do: sweeping away anyone who shares in our act of creation, and placing their bare feet in the soil that has created (and continues to create) us.
More than that, this sort of curiosity encourages us to explore, to get our noses back into the rich loam of the soil and into the undergrowth. To find what else is out there, and be fully present in our lives, our bodies, and our world. Then, perhaps, we can walk out into the wilderness—safe in the knowledge that we know the earth beneath our feet and it will not lead us to our ruin. That the land, in turn, knows us.
Truth be told, I’ve needed to write this post for a long time now. But I’ve been putting it off. Mostly, I’ve been putting it off because it requires admitting something that I somehow think no one will notice if I don’t draw attention to it: that I am fat. Not only do I have to confront that, but in writing this post I have to risk a deluge of the kind of insults and attacks that have plagued me for my entire life. However, what I am about to say is important, and it bears saying despite all of that.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been overweight. I genuinely cannot remember a time in my life when that was not the case. And, all through my childhood and early adulthood, I was shamed for it. People on the street routinely treated me with disgust and derision. I have been shouted at, insulted and sworn at by entirely random strangers simply because of the size and shape, and it’s left me incredibly over-conscious of my own body. Basically, it’s become a way of life for me to avoid situations in which my weight is an issue, or I otherwise risk drawing attention to my body. Within the last week I have declined an invitation to go abseiling, not because I get vertigo and am afraid of heights as I told the person who invited me (I do, and I am, but I would very much like to face my fears despite that) but because I didn’t want to take the risk that none of the harnesses would fit me. I routinely take the stairs to work in the morning, and every time I do I try and judge it so that I won’t run into anyone else on my way up for fear they’ll see me out of breath and smirk and shake their heads at the lazy fat woman making another futile attempt to lose weight. The people I work with are all wonderful, by the way. They’ve given me no reason to think that they would even consider judging me like that, but they don’t have to. I’ve heard it enough times that I do it for them.
I’m not sharing all of this because I want any of you to feel sorry for me. Honestly, pity is almost as bad as venom and hatred. I’m sharing it because these are my experiences: this is the world that I live in, and I’m not sure how intuitive any of it is to people who are (and have always been) thin.
If Being Fat is Such a Big Deal, Just Go On a Diet
It’d be nice if things were that easy, wouldn’t it? It’s something that’s been said numerous times before, but it bears saying again: if there was any way to shame fat people into being thin, the you can bet your ass that everyone would be skinny as a rake. So, here’s the skinny (pun entirely intended): I have spent almost all of my life on one kind of diet or another. I have tried pretty much everything that’s going, especially when I was in my late teens and early twenties, when I felt the pressure to diet most intensely. Occasionally, through pretty much outright starvation, I’d succeed in getting few pounds off here and there. But starving yourself is miserable, demoralising work, and the second I stopped doing, it the weight would always pile straight back on again.
Also? Shaming and hating yourself for anything is the absolute best way to ensure that you give up. It’s genuinely not possible to force yourself into doing anything, long term, if you are miserable in doing it. Believe me, I’ve watched people try to write novels that way, or learn guitar, or keep up with various resolutions, and they will always, always end up failing because the desire to do what their doing doesn’t come from the love and enjoyment of life–it comes from shaming and self-hatred.
But Fat People Are, Like, Really Unhealthy
As I said above, I’ve always been big. However what I didn’t mention was that when I was younger I was also incredibly active. I played football pretty much every day with my friends. We’d cycle 40 miles in a day for the sheer joy of it. On the weekends, I would walk the mile across town and swim a couple of hundred lengths of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. I did things that would be beyond impossible for me to do now.
So, why did I stop? Well, mostly because at about the time I started to reach puberty, people (almost universally men) began throwing abuse at me for daring to be a fat girl visibly out there and exercising. For a while, I tried to find away around it: I shifted from swimming and cycling to taking a half an hour run first thing in the morning when the streets were mostly empty. However, after a few times of being yelled at from the windows of passing cars at 6am, I began to think that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea for me to be out on my own so early. It is one of the most perplexing double-standards of our society that we shame people for being fat because they’re ‘unhealthy’, and then shame them all the more when they dare to do anything to improve their physical health.
At the moment, I’m nowhere near as fit as I have been. But I’m working on that (not that it’s anyone’s business but my own), and my diet is probably better than at least 90% of the rest of the population. I’m vegan, and cook pretty much everything that I eat from scratch from fresh fruit, pulses and vegetables. The only fat that goes into my diet is a couple of teaspoons worth of vegetable oil to cook things in.
Also? Let’s throw it out there at this point that the myth of Fat=Unhealthy and Thin=Healthy is seriously fucking dangerous to all of the skinny people out there who have bad diets, live sedentary lifestyles, and are edging closer and closer to a heart attack–all in more or less blissful ignorance because everything they see around them tells them that if they’re not fat then there’s no problem. Fat-shaming doesn’t just damage the lives and sanity of fat people–it screws with us all.
But Fat People Cost the NHS (and the Tax-Payer) Money!
Yeah, and so does everyone who smokes, or drinks too much. So do people who do extreme sports, or young men who drive their cars too fast and too aggressively and end up in accidents. Go and shame them for a while, would you? I’ve had pretty much enough of that shit. As I’ve said, there’s pretty much nothing that I can do about the shape of my body, and even if I could, that’s no one’s business but my own.
Fat, Environmentalism, and Anti-Capitalism
So now I begin to get to the point of me writing this article in the first place. You see, I’ve mostly learned to live with the trials and tribulations of being a fat woman in mainstream society. I’m slowly re-learning to love myself and my body, to take care of myself, to strive for health instead of thinness, and to brush off a lot of the shit that gets thrown at me by the media, the newspapers, and random strangers who nevertheless feel entitled to police my body for me. It sucks that all of that shit gets inflicted on fat people (and particularly on fat women), but I’m old enough and ugly enough now that I can cope with it. However, something that I can’t deal with is the tendency amongst activists to buy into the myth of fat-shaming.
I genuinely cannot count the number of images I’ve seen blithely shared around in anti-capitalist circles where ‘capitalism’ or ‘progress’ is depicted as a person who’s horrifically gluttonous and overweight. Images that repeat over and over again the message that I am part of the problem. That my body represents everything that’s wrong with the world. That I literally embody everything that we are meant to be fighting against. And don’t give me that shit about it being a shorthand, and there being no other way of conveying the concept of greed–satirists have been drawing the greedy for centuries without the need to just draw endless fat people. It’s not just unnecessary–it’s lazy. It’s lazy, and it immediately tells me that I’m are not welcome in your discussions.
Equally, I see an awful lot of articles trashing the processed/junk food industry–and rightly so, our modern methods of food production are horrific and disgusting and should be challenged in the strongest possible terms. However, I don’t even get to the end of many of these articles. I stop reading about the second or third time that they encapsulate the problem by talking about the ‘obesity epidemic’. I am not an epidemic. I am a person. I have a voice, and what’s more I have a right not to be judged as lazy, or gluttonous, or part of the problem, just because of the shape of my body.
The reason why this makes me so angry is because I expect activists to know better. Most of the time, sadly, they just don’t. Instead, I end up just as shamed and ostracised amongst other environmentalists, anarchists and anti-capitalists as I do by switching on the TV or walking down a busy street on a Friday night. None of us, activists especially, should be seeking to police the bodies of others based solely and entirely on what they look like. If we must wade into the issue of judging other people’s lifestyles at all, then we should want them to be healthy, not want them to be thin.
There are plenty of places where things are beginning to change–from campaigns such as Health at Every Size to mainstream magazines like SliNK. However, as long as activists continue to be complicit in shaming, degrading and excluding people because of their physical appearance, we still have a long, long way left to go. So long as those of us who want to change society for the better are still propagating the idea that you can judge a person’s health and lifestyle simply by looking at them, we are still a long, long way away from building any kind of better world for anyone.
So, if you’re an activist reading this article, and you want to take one thing away from it then let it be this: the next time you’re talking about consumerism, or junk food, or capitalism, or the meat industry (or anything else you happen to be writing a blog post for, or chatting with your friends about), and you feel the need to make your point by stigmatising fat people–don’t. Do me a favour and talk about good diet and well-being if you must talk about public health at all, use other metaphors to represent greed, or just plain let your arguments stand on their own two feet without shaming fat people to back up your point.
Then, maybe people like me can read your awesome thoughts and comments and agree with you, instead of being given yet more reasons to hate our bodies and be reminded of the fact that we aren’t welcome.