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Of fire and will: a letter for Lyra

'letters to myself' old faded cover of a magazine

Letters to myself and other words I’ve never set free, image via British Library

Dear Mr Phillip Pullman

I’m a bit angry. You see, I only recently started to read Northern Lights. The world is full of books and somehow I missed this/you/the boat. I’m halfway through and I’ve had to stop and put it down. It’s not that I’m not enjoying it. I’m loving it.

Oh, yes. It’s exactly my cup of tea. No question there. And it’s not that I don’t like Lyra. I madly, deeply love her. I don’t want to be like her, I want to be her. Lyra is a thousand million types of wonderful. She’s wilful. She’s fierce. She’s a firebrand. She’s on fire. She is luminescent and wild. She runs across rooftops and breaks my heart with every bound. Because it’s all a little late.

She’s who I wanted to be when I was a young girl. Only I didn’t know her. You hadn’t written her yet. I can’t say she didn’t exist, because she did. In my mind and, no doubt, in the minds of countless others.

So, yep. I’m angry. But only with your timing. You’re only a few decades too late. What’s that between friends? Everything, I tell you. Everything. What wouldn’t I have given to have her as my companion. But it’s okay. I think I did. It feels like I did. Did you know? Where you inside my head? Could you hear me? But, no. You couldn’t have. It all came too late.

I’ve put her aside, because when next there’s a day that I want to steal boats and set fires, I can pick up the book and be there again. I’ve done this with books before; there’s one book on my shelf with 3 pages unread. Its story will never end. I know it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t need to. My younger self – my version of Lyra – she’d understand. If a treasure is good enough, you should bury it deep.

So, Mr Pullman, I’ll forgive you and your rotten sense of timing. If you’ll forgive mine.

Yours

 

A fellow firebrand, aka Pirate Rose

A matter of gravity: women in space

Last week, The Mary Sue had a small piece about the dull and quite insane question of ‘periods in space’.

In typical Mary Sue form, their approach was both tongue-in-cheek and appropriately dismissive. Their story refers to a longer NPR article about the same question. Neither of them are, in reality, about answering the question. They’re about women, NASA and feminism.

In fact, the NPR article is so focused on NASA’s culture, it seems to skip over the fact that a woman first went into space in 1963: Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. That’s not to say the Soviets were sending women up every other month. After they nabbed this important ‘first’, it was another 19 years before any more woman cosmonauts were launched into space – for the curious, that was Svetlana Savitskaya.

In the article, there’s a snippet from a NASA report in 1971:

“The question of direct sexual release on a long-duration space mission must be considered. Practical considerations (such as weight and expense) preclude men taking their wives on the first space flights. It is possible that a woman, qualified from a scientific viewpoint, might be persuaded to donate her time and energies for the sake of improving crew morale; however, such a situation might create interpersonal tensions far more dynamic than the sexual tensions it would release.”

– NASA technical memorandum, 1971

This snippet reminds me of a scene in an old Heinlein story; All You Zombies. Written more than 10 years before the NASA report, it too talks about sexual tensions:

“It was when they first admitted you can’t send men into space for months and years and not relieve the tension. You remember how the wowsers screamed?—that improved my chance, since volunteers were scarce. A gal had to be respectable, preferably virgin (they liked to train them from scratch), above average mentally, and stable emotionally.”

– All You Zombies, Heinlein, 1958

Both story and snippet in turn remind me of a fierce and angry piece by science fiction author Alice Sheldon – James Tiptree Jr. Her short story ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’ was republished in a collection, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’. It focuses on a young woman with a disfigured face. Her name is CP. Her nickname is far worse. It’s this scene about CP that came to mind as I read the NPR article:

“And to these tinderboxes you want to add an even reasonably attractive woman, sonny? We know the men do better with a female along. […] But on board a long flight, what we need sexually is a human waste can.”

– With Delicate Mad Hands, James Tiptree, Jr. 1981

I won’t quote any more. The words are ruthless. Tiptree at her best. Written 10 years after the NASA report, the sentiment is clear. When Tiptree wrote, she wasn’t extrapolating. She was responding. She always was. Her fiction is as harsh as the truth.

I read Tiptree as a young woman. I would sometimes find her in a pile of other stories about space and space adventures that were mostly written by men. I knew she was different. Her words filled me with fire. It wasn’t until much later that I realised she was a woman and a fierce and unrelenting feminist. I imagined that much of what she wrote was as a response to the other stories being told at the time. But snippets like this NASA report make it clear it wasn’t only in response to fiction. It was to the world.

The question, the extract, the stories. None of them are funny. They aren’t happy. And they don’t end well. They just are.

It’s good to take a moment and remember why all of this matters. Why people matter. People, refugees, women – any and all of us.

Better‘ isn’t good enough. It’s better, and that’s all.

I REMEMBER

a book signed by terry pratchettI remember the day I met Sir Terry Pratchett.

He wasn’t a sir then, but he was already popular. I live on the wrong side of the turtle, so I’d been reading him for many years before I had the chance to meet him in the flesh.

I can still see his face, the room, the books.

Terry had been signing those books all day. He was short-tempered because his hand hurt. He should have been furious. We ask so much of authors like him. Terry looked at me suspiciously when I told him my name. He wrote it down, but seemed certain I’d made it up in some way. I’d been in an accident the night before, so I can imagine how I looked. The staff of the bookshop had kindly given me a chair to sit on as I waited in the queue and I was sleepy from the painkillers. I remember the eyebrow he raised as I approached. I remember it and I treasure it.

It wasn’t a very long wait as book-signings go, but it didn’t matter. I would have waited an eternity.

When I heard of his death this morning, I found I couldn’t move. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was devastating all the same.

I thought all day about when to write this post. I thought it might be better if I left it until I’m less angry. Less lost. And then I re-read Neil Gaiman’s article on the angry man that was Terry Pratchett.

‘I rage at the imminent loss of my friend. And I think, “What would Terry do with this anger?” Then I pick up my pen, and I start to write.’
Neil Gaiman

I also read Scott Lynch’s furious There is no Past Tense of Terry Pratchett. So, anger and sadness be damned – here I am.

I’m not angry that Terry has left the world so soon. If there was anyone that could fight Death, it was him. I doubt he left quietly.

I’m not angry that the Discworld has stopped at Raising Steam. What a gift it was. The finest of books in the finest of series. How can I be angry in the face of such of riches.

I could never be angry for the words he left behind. There are so damned many. And they can never be erased. If they burnt every book and tried to erase him from the libraries, the orangutangs and I would still hold his memory. Perhaps not every word – not exactly as it spilled across the page – but the way of his words, his way of seeing things, and the way he could shine a light upon an otherwise upside-down world.

His works don’t stop here. They can’t stop. His words and his worlds live on. His fans, to who he was so giving and so generous, will carry them always.

We will be forever grateful.

So, why am I angry? I’m angry for the way that we lost him. That we had to lose him at all. What I want to say here, falls apart. I stare at this paragraph and the screen blurs. It is futile and it is anger. It is loss.

Since my teenage years, Terry has been a constant thread in my life, from the first word to the last. When the internet came along, he was there with it. When The L-Space web and afp were built, if you lurked and were patient, you would find traces of his presence.

His constancy has been his words. His words and his vivid, insightful, incredible imagination.

I was asked recently about authors that have influenced me. Without notice, it’s an unfair question and, while I came up with some good authors at the time, Isaac Asimov included, I left out so many. Including Sir Terry. Because he wasn’t an influence. He was bigger and wilder than that. His words were everywhere. He was a flood. A constant, bright and shining wonder.

I have more than once taken the time to try and tell him what he meant to me. By email, in person, in dedications. And, if only the once and only briefly, I think that he heard. I still have his reply. What I told him wasn’t enough. It couldn’t be. How could I ever find words big enough to pay back the incredible debt of gratitude I owe him?

I was a stranger to him, but he resided deep in my heart and mind. And, although he is gone, it is there I will forever find him. There and in the pages of his books.

Farewell, Sir Terry.

In your words you live on.

‘Up on the mountains, as the blizzards closed in, there was a red glow in the snow. It was there all winter, and when the spring gales blew, the rubies glittered in the sunshine.

No one remembers the singer. The song remains.’

— Terry Pratchett, The Last Hero

 

The gap in my bookshelf

a row of books on a bookshelfA tribute to Colleen McCullough

Last week saw the passing of a well-known Australian author, Colleen McCullough. Colleen was a neuroscientist, a researcher, and was responsible for one of the most popular Australian novels – The Thorn Birds.

The Thorn Birds was published in 1977. I can’t say for sure when I first read the book, but I know it was decades ago. It feels like the book has been in my life, one way or another, for a very long time.

The gap on my shelf is where that book should be.

I don’t know where it went. I have a lot of books and most of my books are double-stacked in the shelves. I’ve moved house a few times. I’m always willing to loan out my books, especially the old favourites.

I know how it looked. It was old, worn and tattered. As an author trying to earn a living from the sales of her books, I’m sure she would have preferred me to buy a new one. As a book-lover, that’s too bad. The old and tattered darlings always have a special place in your heart.

The book had been loved by my half of my family. It’s possible it’s with one of them now.

I can remember it and its story. I remember its shape and how it felt. I can also remember the moment I realised that authors could come from here.

I grew up reading all sorts of things and most of it was from the UK, the US and Europe.

I’d previously read Colin Thiele – you can see one of his books on my shelf. It isn’t Storm Boy. I long ago loaned that to someone who was passionate to read it. I think they still have it. That’s okay. So long as it’s loved.

But as much as I loved Storm Boy, I didn’t ever think about Colin Thiele the author. Not until much later.

Colleen McCullough – the author, the mind behind the fiction, the woman that wrote the words – was in my thoughts from the very last word in the book.

I doubt I can ever fully describe how I felt at that moment.

It took me years to realise I could write. I’ve always told stories. Always written them for myself. I know, without a doubt, that she was a solid step on my stony pathway to writing. It’s a pathway that never ends. Not while you’re still breathing.

And now that the world has lost such a fine mind, a novelist, a scientist, a local, and a woman with a way with words, I can only stare numbly at the gap in my bookshelf.

It wasn’t until she was gone, that I noticed what I was missing.

It is a void that can’t be filled.

Vale, Collen McCullough. And, thank you.

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