Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Spring 2018: The Return of Talking Back to the Pros

Welcome to the official blog of Speculative Fiction Studies! 

Here's what that means for you, gentle reader:

The forty-nine students whose writing makes up the May 2018 block of postings are the proud and oft-befuddled members of my two Speculative Fiction Studies classes at The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. All of them gifted STEM students, all of them self-professed lovers of sf/f (or at least sufficiently curious about it to endure a semester of play in the  genres), they spent eighteen weeks reading from E.M. Forster to Nnedi Okorafor; from H.P. Lovecraft to Sam J. Miller; from Asimov to Zelazny and uncounted points between. They used their knowledge of STEM fields to identify ideas for their own hard or soft sf worlds and write stories set within them.  They learned sf history from the Gernsback Ghetto's earliest days. They read literary theory from Samuel R. Delany and Ursula Le Guin, Philip Martin and James Gunn. In short, they got a crash course in sff and the time has come to test their ability to land safely.

Their challenge, as a final assignment for the term and a final tribute to the sff reader culture, was to compose a blog post where they responded to a question posed by one of three genre writing pros: Caroline Yoachim, Vina Jie-Min Prasad, and Elsa Sjunneson-Henry. The prompt I gave the professionals to help them devise a question of their own was:

"Based on your specific involvement in speculative fiction, what's the thing you'd most like to ask gifted, high school-aged genre readers? What question could they answer that could help you do what you do 'better'?"

Here's what the various professionals playing along gave us. Below, you'll find some biographical information from each, and the question asked of the IMSA Speculative Fiction Studies students:

Caroline M. Yoachim is the author of over a hundred short stories. Her fiction has been translated into several languages, reprinted in best-of anthologies, and is available in her debut collection Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories. Her 2017 short story "Carnival Nine" is a Nebula and Hugo finalist. For more about Caroline, check out her website at

Caroline’s question:

“There is a psychological phenomenon called 'confirmation bias' that says people will generally interpret new information as supporting their existing beliefs. Speculative fiction can (to some degree) sidestep confirmation bias by framing familiar issues in ways that are new to the reader. Secondary worlds, humor, magic, aliens--all of these things can give people the distance they need to approach ideas without as much baggage as they might bring in a mundane setting.

What current topic/issue do you think might benefit from this kind of distance, helping create rational discourse? How could you transform that issue into speculative fiction to give readers enough distance to better engage with the topic/issue?”

Vina Jie-Min Prasad is a Singaporean writer working against the world-machine. Her short fiction has appeared in ClarkesworldUncanny Magazine, and Fireside Fiction. She is a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, Campbell, and Sturgeon Awards. You can find links to her work at

Vina’s question:

“What work of fiction do you think had an ending that was really well done, and why? What did you like about that ending--what made it work for you, specifically, and what do you think it did right overall? What makes an ending satisfying?” 


Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a deafblind speculative fiction writer and editor from Seattle, Washington. She’s the Guest Editor in Chief of Non-Fiction for Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, a blogger for B&N Scifi, and a game designer. She’s the author of A Place Out of Time and is also included in the Ghost in the Cogs anthology. Her nonfiction has been published at The Boston GlobeUncanny MagazineTerribleMinds and other sundry locales. She is also the managing editor of the Hugo Finalist magazine, Fireside. Currently, she lives in New Jersey with her husband, a hound dog, two cats, and a grandfather clock that chimes when it feels like it. You can find Elsa on Twitter @snarkbat.

   Elsa's question:
“I focus in my work on disability, specifically disabled women, both in my non-fiction and fiction work. I often get pushback - most frequently from male authors, about the idea that I am writing 'Mary Sue's'. In a time in publishing when we are trying to listen to more diverse voices, publish more diverse stories, and enable storytellers from communities previously unseen in the genre, is it time to get rid of calling things a Mary Sue in order to welcome writers writing from their own marginalizations?” 

You may notice me commenting on these students' posts in critical fashion -- that's just part of my job, I'm afraid. I encourage you to comment on their work as you see fit. . . but remember these are students, bright and well-intended, and they deserve our best treatment.

Best regards,
Tracy Townsend

AJ Federici: "Dear Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: Hello My Name is Remy Sua"

Dear Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: Hello My Name Is Rémy Sua
by AJ Federici

            I’ll be honest; I had to click on the hyperlink that was provided to learn what a Mary Sue is.  Aside from all of the Star Trek references that went over my head (sorry to all you die-hard fans), what I took away was that a Mary Sue can be one of two things if not both: a self-Insert or a character so ideal and interesting to the point that the story is vapid and unoriginal.  I’m under the impression that welcoming writers to reflect their own marginalization’s into their work is more of the first Mary Sue and we are less concerned at pushing back at the decrying remarks about "Lt. Mary Sue [who] ran the ship, and ran it so well she received the Nobel Peace Prize”.
            With those clarifications out of the way, I say that we, the speculative fiction community, should be accepting and not critical towards the author avatar style Mary Sue.  An example of a story that seemed to have a character blatantly similar to the author from what I understand is Nisi Shawl’s “The Mighty Phin”. I was very befuddled about what the heck was going on over the course of this short story, but what I can tell you is that Nisi’s story is about a person of color, suffering from a type of physical disability, that may or may not be married to a transgender partner.  Oh yeah, and the whole story takes place in a prison.  Frankly, I don’t relate to any of these characterizations yet I whole-heartedly enjoyed reading “The Mighty Phin” because it explored the theme of what makes a human in a similar way to Philip Dick’s DADES?.  The cyberpunk world drew me in, and if the specific abnormalities of the characters help certain groups feel represented then I say it’s a great thing for the sf community.
            That said, I think there is also value in avoiding this trope in character writing.  Very important things can be said for putting your own adversity into a story, especially if your story is one that hasn’t been told adequately, as seems to be the prompting for the Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction edition of Uncanny Magazine.  As well as, you know, who doesn’t want to literally be a character in a book.  But, why I say that maybe it isn’t always best to have a direct self-insert is that I think it takes even more skill to demonstrate the struggles, mentality, and over all essence of self in a sort of counter-character. That is, finding new ways to portray what you have in mind without directly inserting yourself and falling into the label of being a Mary Sue writer.  And yes, it may be boring to make your character relatable by creating an internal issue of perhaps a poor family life or a struggle with bullying. Anyone could have gone through this while for you, being a bold and outspoken deaf blind writer might feel more at home and you’re tired of only relating to people by feelings that have been written about time and time again
            Yet, I still want to somewhat push back on this because if a character can tell a witty joke that has me laughing, that’s enough for me to really feel a connection through a mutual sense of humor.  It’s not that I personally would be fed up with a book because it isn’t about me or because I can’t relate in that I haven’t dealt with many struggles other people have, but it’s that I think subtle character development is really masterful writing.  From Sucks (to be you)” by Katharine Duckett, right out of the new Uncanny Magazine Issue, the very first sentence I think captures what I’m trying to say:

 “Call me lamia, call me lilith, call me nightmare, slattern, slut. I don’t subscribe to labels.”

            Right off the bat it seems like this main character is going to have something to say.  Although no literary expert I got subtle hints of a pushback on slut-shaming culture that is somewhat prevalent amongst teens.  Yet, it’s the no-hesitation-spunk that I enjoy and allows me to feel a connection to the character in Katharine Duckkett’s piece.  My overall advice to any author would be to own your work and not hesitate to write about an oddly specific character; however, it may also be a fun and rewarding challenge to attempt to get the same messages across utilizing a more “boring” character.