Today the FlipSide has a special treat! Jason S. Walters has stopped by to support two of his soon to be released books – An Unforgiving Land, Reloaded and Nakba. Let’s take a moment and get everyone acquainted…
Jason S. Walters is an author, essayist, and publisher best known for running Indie Press Revolution (IPR), a distributor of micro-published roleplaying games. He is also one of a small group of investors that purchased Hero Games in 2001, and serves as its general manager. After owning a San Francisco bike messenger service for 15 years, he and his wife Tina moved to Midian Ranch: a homestead near the town of Gerlach, Nevada. It is also the location of IPR’s warehousing complex. They have a daughter with Down syndrome named Cassidy and animals too numerous to mention.
So now that we’ve introduced Jason, let’s take a moment to read a few words from the man himself.
“She knew that introspection was the enemy. It assaulted her with a kaleidoscope of “self” in the past tense. All her “was” kept bubbling up to the surfaced of her “is” in a mélange of memory. A dirty little girl with a black eye sitting in the dust near a singlewide in Bakersfield. A terrified teenager sitting in an LA abortion clinic where everyone else spoke Spanish. Arguing her way into a club in San Francisco’s SOMA district. Working as a bike messenger deep in the cement canyons of the city, alternately dodging and screaming at cars. Cooking meth in a warehouse in San Leandro. Doing meth until the normally hard lines between real and unreal, possible and impossible, and good and bad became blurry and hard to recognize. The arrest. Bending over a metal laundry table for a fat, sweating guard in Chowchilla. Waiting tables at a rundown restaurant in the no-man’s-land between Berkeley and Oakland, the days turning into months as she waited for… for what?”
~from the story Crucified Coyote, An Unforgiving Land, Reloaded
There’s a question that every thoughtful male author is forced to ask himself at some point in his career: namely, as a man how do I get women “right” in my work? How do I portray them fairly, as three-dimensional characters? And, of course, there’s no one single correct answer – though there are an awful lot of wrong ones, and those are sadly the ones that often get chosen. By it’s nature being an author is a profession (or, for most of us, pastime) which attracts people who either enjoy spending time alone by themselves, or who due to their lack of social graces seem to have little choice but to do so. Neither case produces a temperament perfectly suited to understanding the intricacies of the opposite sex.
Of course, many writers of either gender aren’t interested in presenting or creating overly complex characters of the opposite sex at all. There can professionally and within the context of genre literature be very good reasons for not doing so. An author of women’s erotic fantasy novels has very good reasons for portraying men as distant, restrained, vaguely menacing, and supremely muscular, while an author of military science fiction can legitimately choose to portray women as basically “male” space marines as expressionlessly dedicated to killing alien menaces as their male counterparts. In both cases these choices reflect not only the artistic goals being pursued by the book, but also the well-understood wants, needs, and desires of their readers.
More often, however, male authors have somewhat limited experiences with women. A classic example is the talented and highly influential science fiction author Robert H. Heinlein (though there are many others). A former US Navy lieutenant and WWII veteran, Heinlein tended to view his female characters a lot like a sailor on shore leave might view women: either untouchable and pure, or wanton and willing, but always in need of help or rescue. Later, he went in the opposite direction, creating characters like Friday Baldwin that were specifically tougher and more competent than most of the men they encounter. Neither approach is particularly realistic – though it’s possible that, as a science fiction author, Heinlein was never attempting to be all that realistic to start with.
If, however, a male author is interested in creating a realistic female characters for his work, there are a few basic things to remember. The first is that women are, like men, individuals – often complex ones – whose personalities and motivations are mostly shaped for good or ill by their upbringing and environment. A woman raised in a primitive, highly ritualized environment may have very different views from one raised in a modern, Western society on even such basic matters as gender identity, rape, and a parent’s individual responsibility to her child. It’s important to keep this in mind, especially when crafting genre fiction such as scifi or fantasy.
The second is that he should closely observe how the women he knows behave. (If he doesn’t know any, than that situation should be quickly rectified!) Base your characters on a fair and objective reading of the women you know and are important to you. If you’re having the character do or say something that doesn’t “feel” right based on the behavior of the women you know, then that’s something you may want to consider changing. Or if you know a particularly fascinating women, turn her into a character in one of your books. Some of the very best characters in literature have begun that way.
However, with all that said, there seem to me to be some aspects of female behavior that are unique to the woman’s experience and nature – and that are very different from those of men. I can’t provide these in the form of clearly defined and useful list (If I could I would probably have my own show on the Oprah Network.), but I can provide two examples that clearly illustrate what I mean: woman go crazy different from men, and women go bad different from men. Which isn’t to say that men don’t also go crazy and bad. They most certainly do. But that it’s different when it happens to women.
In my soon-to-be-reprinted short story collection An Unforgiving Land there are a variety of important female characters as well as numerous minor ones. For example, the aging and lonely character of Maud, the pregnant survivor known as the Scarred Girl, and the tough DEA Agent Esperanza Gomez are all important characters whose personalities are based on those of women I have known. But in the original edition of the book I also created a “throw away” character called Shuttup Amy who wasn’t given a lot of screen time compared her more important sisters. After the book’s publication I felt bad about this (I rather like Amy), and wrote another story called Crucified Coyote to correct that oversight. After all, of all the women characters Shuttup Amy felt the most real to me, based on my 20 years living in San Francisco, following by moving to the Black Rock Desert: home of the cult-like Burning Man festival and all of its attendant crazy people.
Shuttup Amy has become mad, bad, and dangerous to know due to a variety of life experiences, some of which she’s been responsible for, some of which she hasn’t been. These include an abusive childhood, drug use, prison time, and other unspecified but equally traumatic things. She’s not a victim or a passive actor in her own life, but she’s vulnerable and damaged all the same – like a lot of the punk rock, junky, bike messenger, and “burner” (or Burning Man) girls I’ve known. She’s recklessly brave, sexually aggressive, and often erratic. Introspection is difficult for her (though she tries), and other people are a total mystery. Her personality and problems are very hard for her younger Mexican boyfriend to understand, and this causes not only a great deal of friction but an actual life-threatening situation to occur. The other inhabitants of the fictional Nevada town of Haulapai accept her more-or-less for who she is, but at the same time keep their distance. She desperately needs rescuing (really), but responds to even the gentlest attempts at rescue with hostility and distrust.
So, in short, I tried to make Shuttup Amy a real woman – or, to be more specific, a real type of woman with which I’m very familiar – living a kind of life that I’ve witnessed some women living. I’ve tried to make her realistic, be objectively fair, and create a three-dimensional person: scars, green dreadlocks, fading beauty, and all. Maybe in the end my efforts have been unfair (though it’s mostly women that seem to have enjoyed and related to the characters in An Unforgiving Land), but not due to lack of trying. And definitely not due to staying alone in a room with a computer, avoiding the company of women.
Thanks Jason! As a quick break, let’s take a sneak peek into both An Unforgiving Land, Reloaded and Nakba -
In the desert life is hard. It can also be surreal. In the absence of congestion and convention, imagination takes you by the hand: or the balls. In this macabre collection of riveting tales, ENnie Award-nominated author Jason S. Walters grabs the reins of storytelling as if it were a wild stallion, leading the reader ever deeper into the physical and spiritual wasteland of the Black Rock Desert.
A thousand years ago humanity’s dissidents fled, leaving behind a peaceful, unified world content to exist in a state of perpetual hedonism. Then a daring escape plunged civilization into chaos, forcing its rulers to expand outward to maintain order. Now all that stands between a newly imperial Earth and the rest of the solar system is a loose coalition of Maasai tribesmen, cloned feminists, shape-shifting humannequins, and vengeful Berbers led by the least likely hero in human history: a young woman with Down syndrome and a bad attitude.
Now hang on to your hats for an excerpt from Nakba!
Mitchell Green: Mars, Arabia Terra
Big. It was big.
The sea of red spread out infinity in all directions, blurring the distinctions between land and sky. It made Mitchell feel incredibly small. In fact, the landscape of Arabia Terra – that vast, cratered plane of iron-colored soil and winding canyons in the north of Mars – was so immense that it dwarfed even the mighty hull of the Andrew Levitz, still steaming and glowing behind him from its violent entry into Mar’s atmosphere. Not for the first time he felt intimidated by this huge, open place. By the tall, russet-colored grasses that brushed gently against the outside of his safety garb. By the vast intimidating ceiling of firmament that pressed down upon him from every angle. By the ocean of genetically modified plant life that spread out before him in all directions, it monotony only broken by the distant black dots of massive Martian buffalo grazing in their thousands. It made Mitchell feel dizzy and sick just to look at it.
Mars was all so terribly large when compared to his normal world of cramped corridors, artificial light, and recorded birdsongs. So… real. Yet Mitchell knew that much of the world he gazed upon had been created by the hands of men, just as his own had been. But it was also different. The Martians had used highly modified nanotechnology – a science his own people shied away from – to craft their home, whereas his people had relied extensively on Antigravity to create theirs; a science the Martians seemed to have lost. It had taken centuries of patient, never ceasing toil to turn some of the landscapes of the Red Planet into environments that could support a limited number of extremely modified species. Yet in many ways it remained as inhospitable to men as the hard vacuum of space, its promise of a new Eden seemingly eternally, tantalizingly out of reach.
A figure detached itself from the countless black dots in the distance and headed toward him with long, confidant strides. Mitchell knew that would be his Maasai contact. He hoped it would be his friend Sironka. They had worked together on previous trade missions, and Mitchell enjoyed his company. But there no guarantees. Martian-Maasai society worked in ways unfathomable to Mitchell Green, though he had done his best to study and understand it. He knew that they were nomadic, wandering across the northern latitudes of Mars much as they had Tanzania and Kenya on old Earth. He knew that they worshiped a god called Engai, believed that having a lot of cattle made you rich, and that most of their food came from those cattle. He knew that their society was grouped into “age sets” of people who grew up around the same time, that they were divided into twelve tribes, and that they were very tall and very tough. He also knew they were masters of genetic modification: the art of changing living things so that they were different.
But these were mostly just words on a screen to him. He liked the Maasai. They were cool and alien; though Mitchell suspected that his own kind were as alien to the Maasai as they were to his. It was difficult to say. The skinny Martians were so easygoing and confidant that it was very difficult to say what they did and didn’t find strange. Really, he would probably never know. The two groups of human beings had become very other – and possibly they were that way before either had ever left Earth. But such things were never spoken of. There were only three rules universally held by all of the scattered and diverse children of Earth, those Interesting People who in desperation had fled its safe, comforting biosphere for the unforgiving wildernesses of the void. The Children of the Nakba. The Disaster. One, they didn’t make war upon one another. Two, they didn’t interfere with one other’s internal affairs. Though, really, they didn’t have to. The solar system was so unthinkably large that avoidance, rather than conflict, was the social norm. Trade, rather than conquest, its standard for interaction.
Three, they didn’t talk to the Earth. Ever.
Before very long the figure began waving. Mitchell waved back. He could make out its characteristic red robe slung over a skintight, reddish-brown environment suit. The Special and the Maasai were such a study in contrasts that they could have made an excellent comedy team, he reflected to himself with a quiet smile. (He liked comedy teams.) Mitchell was dressed in a bright yellow, inflatable outfit festooned with pulsing lights and topped with a spherical dome for his head. He was short, pale, clumsy, and as generally incongruous with his surroundings as a parrot on the bottom of an ocean.
The Maasai, on the other hand, was fantastically tall and angular, looking as though he had been hand crafted from the rocks, grass, and soil that lay around him: all reds and browns and rags and dust. His face was covered with antique looking goggles and a breathing apparatus that wouldn’t have been out of place in the trenches of one of the Earth’s ancient world wars. He carried a long spear with the air of a man who knew how to use it. His billowing dark red shuka contrasted against the brown and black skintight wrappings below it, giving him a fierce, exotic look.
The lanky figure stopped a meter from Mitchell. It cocked its head and peered down, regarding him with what the much smaller man guessed was curiosity or puzzlement.
Perhaps it was having trouble figuring out whether I am me or not, he reflected with slight amusement.
Then it reached down, clasping his forearm in greeting while simultaneously pressing its breathing apparatus into the flexible dome of his helmet. “Habari za safari?” boomed a deep voice through the plastic. How was your journey?
“Nzuri, asante.” Mitchell responded with a grin. Fine, thank you. It was his friend after all. He grasped Sironka’s arm in response, his smaller hand making it about half way to his elbow.
“Habari yako?” Sironka continued, still gripping his arm. How are you?
“Niko salama.” Very well, thank you. Swahili speakers typically enjoyed greetings, and could go on this way for a while until all possible formal and informal greetings were used up. This suited Mitchell fine. He liked greetings too, and they were pretty much all the Swahili words he knew in any case.
“What have you brought us this trip?” Sironka asked, releasing his arm and gesturing back toward the Andrew Levitz. Sentience was translating now, sending completed words into his mind through his earbud. Mitchell frowned slightly. Sironka was, by Maasai standards, being slightly rude. Normally they would have exchanged at least another two sets of greetings. Then he shrugged. Perhaps, uncharacteristically, his friend was in a hurry. At least by his own kind’s standards.
Mitchell pointed back at his ship using his right index finger. On cue – and quite dramatically, he thought again with a smile – the bottom two thirds of the craft began to disassemble itself; rectangular sections detaching and slowly drifting to the ground to hover obediently behind him. It was as if he owned his own herd of giant mechanical cattle. Which was rather the point.
“AntiG tech,” he began, counting theatrically on his fingers, “suitable for attaching to lifting platforms. Ceramic insulation to help harden your AIs, and near-sentience level semiconductor wafers to improve them. Blocks of pure aluminum, titanium, and surgical grade steel…”
Sironka nodded, looking impressed.
“…and that kind of stuff,” he concluded a bit lamely. Drama really wasn’t his strong point. But the Maasai bowed sagaciously, as if he had made some excellent point.
“For you little ones we have next generation non-self-replicating nanoviruses capable of repairing cell structures after radiation exposure, “ Sironka responded grandly with a sweeping gesture outward toward his unseen home, “new extracellular matrix cultures for regrowing organs. Something new to prevent early onset Alzheimer’s that doesn’t have the side effects of our old tech. And, of course, as much beef, grain, and frozen water as you can pack into your containers.”
Mitchell nodded thoughtfully. Those were good things. Alzheimer’s was the great curse of Specials, and even some Standards. You simply couldn’t have enough cures for it. The other two medical things sounded good too. Great tech to have when you lived out in the vacuum. And it went so without saying that biomass and water were such prized commodities on a space habitat that he didn’t even think about their value.
“Haya.” Okay. Mitchell knew that one without the help of his Sentience. Sironka nodded gravely, and then placed his index fingers on his chin, bringing them out and up slowly to indicate a smile. The smaller man beamed back appreciatively. Like everybody else in the solar system he knew a bit of Sign, and it was polite of his friend to pantomime his facial expressions. Otherwise it was like talking to a mask.
Sironka pointed out into the distance with his spear, in the direction that the tiny AI inside of Mitchell’s safety suit informed him was southwest.
“Let us now go to the Manyatta,” he said. “It is not a long walk. And you should stretch your legs after such a long journey.”
“Yes,” Mitchell responded simply, and the two of them strode out into the vast, russet emptiness, shipping containers following along behind them like a pack of huge mechanical dogs.
That sounds fantastic, doesn’t it??? Thank you Jason for taking the time to stop by today! If you’d like to connect with Jason and keep up to date on when both An Unforgiving Land, Reloaded and Nakba are releasing, you can subscribe to his blog or send him a friend request on Facebook.