A Matter of Oaths: An interview with Helen S. Wright
Friday, December 01, 2017
When A Matter of Oaths was first published in 1987, featuring an older woman as a space captain and centring on two men of colour in an intense, romantic relationship, it was a hard sell: 'I have a rejection letter from a well-known editor saying that they wouldn’t buy the book because the gay relationship was so integral to the plot, even though they weren’t a homophobe, nor were many in the SF audience (!). Apparently, I wasn’t "breaking new ground" and risked "alienating some readers."'
The book follows Rafe, a young webber with a mysterious past, who joins the crew of Bhattya, a patrol ship under the command of Rallya, an aging, grumpy, and talented woman in denial about the end of her career. As an oath breaker, Rafe is shunned by many, but aboard Bhattya, not only is he given a second chance, he also finds support in his quest for his own identity.
When I read the first few chapters of A Matter of Oaths, I realised instantly that it was right up my street. Discovering that it was tragically out of print, I knew I had to track Helen down and see if there was anyway she’d want to work with us (reader, I signed her). To my complete delight, we are going to be republishing her book, bringing it to a new generation of readers, and I wanted to find out what Helen thinks about the changing landscape of science fiction from then to now, and also pick her brain about her writing.
It is also super exciting that Becky Chambers, author of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit will be writing the introduction to the new edition: 'I love Becky’s work, and look forward to seeing what she does next. Her stories seem to grow out of her characters and their lives, which is what I try for as well, but they also couldn’t happen exactly as they do without key technical elements, so that’s another similarity. And she writes about a huge diversity of people who care deeply about the people around them, in all the variety of ways that people care about each other – people who create family together, despite their differences.'
With a background in IT and a lifelong love of science fiction, it’s not surprising that Helen came to write it herself: 'My mother said once that I learned to ask "What if?" very soon after I learned "What?" and "Why?" In self-defence, she taught me to read before I went to school. Every Saturday morning, we’d go to the library, so I could work my way around the children’s section. Mum guided my choices but I was always allowed one book (out of six for the week) that was wholly my choice. One day, I chose a book by Andre Norton. And the rest, as they don’t say, is science fiction.'
Helen soon exhausted the SF section at the library: 'the bus home took me past the wonderful Hudsons bookshop (long gone, alas). They sold paperbacks (which were beneath the library’s notice). American paperbacks! By people with women’s names! And the booksellers got accustomed to me scouring the SF section for new books by women. Not that they were easily identified back then – I would have missed C. J. Cherryh completely if one of the booksellers hadn’t pointed her out. And so, I found more SF about people and societies; and fantasy that wasn’t about fairies and witches, but different societies with different history and different ways of looking at things.'
This mixed with being at the forefront of the technological age, created fertile ground: 'I had a passion for science fiction, but it was coupled with a passion for science and technology. I studied physics at university, with a particular interest in geophysics, astrophysics and meteorology (all very useful subjects when you’re trying to work out how a world or universe works, even if you have to handwave away pesky problems like the speed of light). And after university, I moved into the new technology field that was IT, in a heavy engineering context (power generation and transmission), at a time when IT was just beginning to really affect the way companies did business, and the way that people communicated and interacted with other technologies.'
'Take the changes in communications technologies that happened in the 70s and 80s, together with a broad and deep exposure to the SF classics (and not-so-classics); add in some speculation about how history is affected by personalities as well as technology and politics; and finish it off with a plot about people caring about the things real people care about. Result: A Matter of Oaths.'
A Matter of Oaths features diverse relationships and people – this was reflective of the world Helen lived in, and a natural part of her fiction. 'It was important to me – but not a conscious decision; more an inevitable one. I was living in London, and my friends were a very diverse group of people – different ages, different sexualities, Black British, Asian and white. How could I write a novel that airbrushed those people out?
'It was not all plain sailing, though – one of my trusted first readers was a Black British woman and she asked me one day: what does Rafe look like? So I said: brown skin, curly hair, short… I had a very clear concept of him in my mind. And she said: you need to tell the reader that, or they’ll assume he’s white. I’m not a visual person – I hadn’t described how any of the characters looked – and I had to go back through the book to build in descriptions that made it clear I was writing about a diverse group of people.'
It’s a disturbing fact that, while middle-aged and older white men are difficult to avoid in science fiction, the same can certainly not be said for aging women. Rallya is not only a commander, but her personality is unapologetically tough. I think one of the things I love most about Helen’s book is that, not only is homosexuality a completely accepted part of society (as well as Rafe and his lover – no spoilers about who that is – one of the immortal Emperors is also gay) but women being on equal terms to men is also natural among the crew-members. 'There’s a woman character in Charles Stross’s Laundry novels who acquires a super-power in her middle years: the power to be totally overlooked in social situations, a natural progression from the invisibility that many middle-aged women develop. Rallya seems to have taken this to extremes… Nobody in the book would ever accuse her of being invisible.'
As a contemporary of Joanna Russ and Lois McMaster Bujold, and bypassing SF 'fandom', male-dominated as it was back then, Helen didn’t see herself as being part of a 'feminist' science fiction movement: 'I wasn’t embedded in the science fiction community – I had good friends who, like me, were avid SF readers but we weren’t drawn to/didn’t feel welcomed by fandom. I remember getting very strange looks when we browsed the shelves in the Forbidden Planet book shop – we were almost always the only women in the place. There were British women writing SF – like Mary Gentle and Tanith Lee – but fan culture was predominantly male and I’d bounced hard off that at the end of the 70s when I encountered my University science fiction society. So, I wrote not as a woman member of the SF community but as a woman among a group of friends who had science fiction in common, and I didn’t really think about the wider context: I was enjoying myself doing something I couldn’t not do … it didn’t feel like being part of an active wave. I certainly wasn’t Sheri Tepper or Suzy McKee Charnas or Joanna Russ; I appreciated their work, but it’s not the sort of work I could have produced myself. I did think of myself as a small part of a continuum that included C. J. Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold – women writers of character-centred books where the science/technology could be "soft" as well as "hard".'
With The Power by Naomi Alderman winning the Baileys Prize and the resurgence of popularity in The Handmaid’s Tale, is ‘feminist’ SF becoming more mainstream? 'It’s complicated. I think it’s the case that first, all the boundaries between SF and mainstream fiction and other genres are becoming less clear. Is Last Letters from Hav by Jan Morris science fiction? Ursula LeGuin thinks so, but it will have been read by a whole group of people who might turn their nose up at SF (or they might not). What about Never Let Me Go by Kazuko Ishiguro? Definitely SF and definitely mainstream. Or The City & The City by China Miéville, or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon? They both straddle at least two genres.
'And second, given that (some) SF is more acceptable now as "proper literature", and SF by women is no longer a niche product, and feminism is no longer a weird movement populated by "man-haters who don’t shave their legs", and (gross generalisation alert) SF by women is less often focussed on technological nuts-and-bolts to the exclusion of realistic people, it may be the case that women’s SF is more available and accessible to a mainstream audience, particularly SF that extrapolates from or explores current political (small p) concerns.
'It may also be the case that mainstream authors no longer view the SF label as a badge of shame; and that the SF community are more willing to co-opt mainstream work into their ambit. For example, The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall was mainstream fiction that was shortlisted for the 2008 Clarke Award, and won the James Tiptree Jr. Award. And of course, The Handmaid’s Tale blazed that particular trail.'
But does science fiction have the power to change things? 'It can imagine new technologies, and some of those may come to pass. Although I’m still waiting for my jetpack, and a colony on Mars, for example we have mobile phones that were originally inspired by Star Trek communicators. And there are plenty of people in science and technology fields who were inspired to make those their career because they were touched by SF.
'It can also reflect changing ways of thinking, and perhaps influence them, although I’m not convinced this works on a grand scale – individuals might have ah-ha moments when they read Science Fiction and gain a new way of looking at things – or see themselves reflected in a book for the first time and start to understand their own possibilities and strength. And a growing number of individuals with that kind of awareness will alter society to some degree … but we don’t live in a universe these days where a single individual or small group of individuals can act as a fulcrum and move the world (not unless they have a nuclear arsenal and poor impulse control). It’s more likely that they’ll change their own ‘bubble’ but the other bubbles won’t go away.'
Helen has written about how disappointing the white-washing and portrayal of Rallya was on the covers of the original editions of her book. 'The whitewashing of covers isn’t a new phenomenon. The cover of the original UK edition of my book was a lovely work of art, but didn’t depict any of the characters I wrote about; the man on the cover was definitely white, and my lead male characters definitely weren’t. I didn’t challenge it at the time, and I’m ashamed of that, but a first-time novelist back then didn’t have much say on covers.
'I didn’t see the US cover until the book was published. Another white man, brooding in the foreground (perhaps wondering where his razor has gone), and a curvaceous young woman with an improbable waist adorning the background (but at least she was fully clothed, and not wearing a brass brassiere.) The main woman character in the book is a tough old woman – not late twenties or thirties, not middle-aged but an old woman, with a decades-long career at the top of her profession behind her, who finds it painful to get out of bed in the morning but can and does still change her world. Perhaps old age was a harder sell than homosexuality, back then? My new cover is lovely. Still no Rallya, which makes me a little sad, but the man shown doesn’t look white. And for the second time there’s a naked/semi-naked man on the cover, and it’s completely in line with the content of the book!
The exciting news is that Helen is writing again! 'I’m always writing, but since I finished work some years ago, I have more time for it. I’m currently working on a novel about politics and demons and the mathematics of multi-dimensional space in a world at a 1940s/1950s level of technology. We’ll see how it goes…'
An interview with Helen S. Wright, as conducted by Laurel Sills, who published the book for Bloomsbury. First published in 1988, A Matter of Oaths is back in print - and with a new introduction by Becky Chambers. You can buy it direct from the publisher, or pick up a copy on Amazon.