What does it mean to be a fearless woman? Authors Mary Robinette Kowal and Robyn Bennis have a few ideas. In their recent works, both authors have explored what it means to be a trailblazer in male-dominated arenas. Kowal’s Lady Astronaut duology (The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky) follows pilot and mathematician Elma York on her journey to becoming the first female astronaut, and Bennis’ Signal Airship series (The Guns Above and By Fire Above) is a military steampunk adventure about Josette Dupre, who becomes the first female airship captain in her nation. To celebrate their role in Tor Books’ #FearlessWomen campaign, the two authors sat down to talk about the fearless women in their novels, the role fear plays in being fearless, and the need for fiction that accurately represents the world we live in.
Mary Robinette Kowal: Robin, your second novel, By Fire Above, is chock-full of fearless women. I love the way it opens with this ginormous explosion. It felt like the kind of thing I would just be waiting to write. Did you know that this was the way you wanted to open this book?
Robyn Bennis: It was definitely something I was looking forward to. It was not a response to a problem that I had to solve, although it did solve a problem I was having: How do I start a second book and start it off with a bang? Well, how about literally? Spoilers for the first chapter of By Fire Above: We had just left our heroes and they seemed fine and alive, and then their ship explodes. I had been wanting to do that for a while, but this was a chance that might not come again, because at the end of the previous book the ship is filled with what the characters call “inflammable air,” which readers will recognize as hydrogen—usually the ship is filled with a safer lift gas which readers hopefully recognize as helium. Tthe misfortune of my characters provided an opportunity to hurt them, and of course I had to do that.
MRK: Absolutely. Does hydrogen have the same effect as helium in making your voice go higher?
RB: It does. It has something to do with the way the sound waves pile up when they hit a denser medium, I believe.
MRK: It was such a great warning that the hydrogen was leaking to hear people’s voices suddenly go higher. Oh how incredibly creepy and dangerous this thing that we do for comedy has just become.
RB: It’s a geeky horror movie.
MRK: Ensign Kember is injured and there’s a moment when she is talking to the doctor and he is telling her that they are going to have to slice her face open in order to air out the wound. Nice research into 18th century medicine.
RB: That’s very, very gross research.
MRK: I did that kind of research for the Glamourist Histories series; it is not pleasant. But I love how things change for her in that moment. He says “You’ll never be pretty” and she had never worried about being pretty before, and now suddenly this is something she is thinking about. She is absolutely fearless, she handles the explosion, she is fantastic—but she begins to obsess about appearance. I feel like this is something that happens to a lot of modern women too. We can be 100% confident and yet there is this aspect of our lives that is judged on appearance.
RB: I have to thank my editor Diana Pho at Tor for pointing out how this would go down in the psychology of a teenage girl in a war zone. Originally the scene ended right there. Basically she said, “Oh well, I never thought I was going to be pretty,” and she went on with her life. Diana said, “Do you remember being a teenager?” I was like, “Oh yeah.” Together we plotted out these travails in a way so that one little comment by the doctor eats at her. I looked inside of myself and asked how I would deal with that kind of situation, and I had to admit not very well. Kember handles it better than I would.
MRK: That was one of the things that I hit and I thought, “This feels so real.” I remember being in seventh grade, and I had glasses (I’d gotten used to them; I had gotten them in third grade), but someone said I was squinty-eyed. I know it was a refraction of the glasses—which were, in fact, coke bottles—and I know she was saying it because she needed to find someone to be mean to, but it is still there in the back of my head to a certain degree, and I’m forty-nine now. I find that I would rather wear contacts, even though I can actually see better with glasses. I know that it’s a lingering thing from that moment and all of the years of seeing scenes in the media where the woman loses her glasses and is suddenly popular.
RB: Ahh, she was beautiful the whole time!
MRK: I hate that trope! I think this is the thing that a lot of people don’t understand when they are thinking about writing fearless women. Being strong and being fearless means that you are actually proceeding despite the fears. It’s not that you don’t have them, it’s that you don’t have the luxury of dwelling on them, and that you keep going despite the fact that society is constantly telling you “You can’t. This is not for you.”
RB: Fearlessness is not the absence of fear; we have a different word for that and it’s obliviousness.
MRK: Absolutely. Well said.
RB: In The Calculating Stars, you have introduced representation that speaks to me, and that is how Elma can face a life-threatening crisis and be completely focused and completely on task without a thought towards anxiety or nervousness. But then she walks into a crowded room and she loses it because she has the classic signs of social anxiety, which I also happen to have. I would like to thank you, first of all, for showing that you can be fearless in some ways and not in others—it’s not a monolith.
MRK: It is a fascinating thing, the way we process the idea of danger. I don’t have social anxiety. I’m an ambivert: I’m both extroverted and introverted. Elma’s situation, the social anxiety and her relationship with Parker, is based on an actual situation that I encountered. Parker is based on a specific person from my own life. We had a different relationship than Elma and Parker do, because we started as friends and had known each other for 15 years working in the same field. He was charming and funny and really good at his job, but I knew that he always picked someone to hate on every project. Everybody knew he did this, but he always only did it to one person. Everybody would reassure and protect and be nice to that one person, but we would all put up with it. Then we finally worked together, and I was the one he picked.
MRK: It was constant undercutting, backstabbing, belittling, and sabotaging. I would need a thing to prep for something that was coming up and I would ask for it and he would be like “You don’t need that” and he wouldn’t give it to me, and I would get out there and in fact had needed it and make a mistake and he’s like “Someone didn’t do their homework.” I remember multiple days I would walk off the floor, go into the bathroom, sob, wash my face, check to make sure my eyes were not red, walk out, and keep working.
RB: What the hell else can you do, really? Parker is invulnerable because of his skill set and the fact that he is charming to everyone else.
MRK: And because of his social position. Parker is the first man in space, he has an unassailable social position, and the space program is always going to side with him because they cannot afford to have their hero tarnished.
Elma’s specific journey with anxiety is based on the time I was working at the second largest puppet theatre in the United States, which is a not a job you walk away from easily. I was in my twenties, and I was the lead designer, which is also not a job that you walk away from easily. The artistic director was later convicted for sexual assault, not against me, but someone else. When I started working there, the publicity director pulled me aside and said “Never be alone in a room with him.” I was there for three years putting up with being sexually harassed every day at work, every day that I was in the office. I kept having this bout of stomach problems. It took me a shockingly long time to realize that I was not in fact having a long-running flu, but that the reason I felt nauseous and needed to throw up was because of anxiety and panic attacks. The sudden need: I have to go outside, I can’t breathe, something in the shop must be leaking. It took me a really long time to realize what was happening.
RB: Your body is not built to deal with that kind of constant abuse.
MRK: No, and I stayed with the job because I was afraid to leave and being afraid of that was causing me constant damage and harm. The fearlessness, for me, was realizing that the self-care of leaving—dealing with the consequences that came from leaving the job—was better. So, there is the very long explanation for Elma’s anxiety. She has a different trigger, but I know those symptoms.
RB: There is a certain fearlessness just putting that in your novel. People who haven’t lived it don’t understand that someone can have these sorts of triggers and yet still be the kind of person that you would consider fearless and brave.
MRK: And also continue to function. I know a lot of people who have social anxiety and you would have no idea.
RB: I’m 100% out with my social anxiety right now, but I wasn’t always. I told one of my friends “I have really bad social anxiety”, and he looked me in the eyes and said, “No, you don’t.” He never knew, he never saw it, because I can be effervescent around friends and I will freeze up in a crowd.
MRK: I also know people who have learned to mask it, but it is astonishing the toll that it takes, the cost of continuing to function. That’s the thing, all of the masking techniques and all of those things that one applies to function, they come at a really high cost.
RB: Those stress hormones are meant to be released occasionally to save you from a tiger. They are not designed to be active throughout an entire four-day conference.
MRK: I was talking with someone who referred to a line in The Calculating Stars where the doctor says to Elma, “My dear lady, your body is not supposed to react to stress this way.”
RB: I love that line. And also I love that doctor. I wanted to leap through the page and hug him in that moment.
MRK: Do you know that I put a Doctor Who cameos in all my novels?
RB: I did not!
MRK: That is the Doctor; that’s Peter Capaldi. And the second doctor, Dr. Haddad, is my doctor and that is the conversation we had when I went in to talk about depression.
RB: You have a great doctor.
MRK: I have a great doctor. The other thing I was going to say is that I can tell from the reviews who has dealt with anxiety and who has not. Most of the reviews have been great, and one of the negative reviews I got—
RB: Who are they and how would you like me to hurt them?
MRK: Kirkus. It’s fine because it’s Kirkus and we know how they are.
RB: If anyone from Kirkus is reading this, by the way, I admire you greatly and I hope you review my next book.
MRK: I don’t have a problem with this. I think it’s valuable to represent multiple different opinions. There are two Kirkus reviews. One is from Ana Grilo from the Book Smugglers and it is glowing, and the other is the standard anonymous Kirkus review and this one is like, “so apparently this woman is super brilliant and competent and has anxiety that I guess is supposed to be crippling but apparently no one notices she has it?” and I’m like, yeah, that’s how that works. That is exactly how that works.
RB: That’s like 5 – 10% of the population. Ask your coworkers.
MRK: My general experience has been that the people who have crippling social anxiety are amazing in a crisis because they’re like “Stress hormones? Whatever.”
RB: This is why people think we don’t have anxiety issues. I’m going to go deep into self-confession here: People who see me at a conference, and think I’m doing well, don’t see me when I go up to my room and cry for 10 minutes to let it out. They only know I’ve been gone for 10 minutes.
MRK: That is the thing. For me, part of what makes a fearless woman is going into a situation where you know you are going to be harming yourself, but also recognizing all of the reasons why it’s necessary. And it’s like: I’m going to do this thing, and there will be consequences, I’ll deal with those consequences, I’ll take care of those in a very business-like manner, and then I’ll return. I have those reactions but not those triggers, and I’m super lucky about that. Did you gift any of your characters social anxiety?
RB: Certainly not to the degree that I have it. Josette has it a bit. There aren’t a lot of Own Voices social anxiety characters in my books so far. I should do that. I should add that to my list of things to include with my next novel, shouldn’t I?
[Editor’s Note: For any readers unfamiliar with the term, #OwnVoices was coined by author Corinne Duyvis as a way to highlight books with “diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.”]
MRK: You paid for that experience.
RB: Yeah that’s right. I paid for the ticket, I might as well take the ride.
MRK: What Own Voices stuff do you have in there?
RB: Astute readers may notice that Ensign Kember displays signs of asexuality. That was not to be revealed explicitly until later books. I think enough people figured it out. Enough people recognized themselves in her, let’s say. #spoilers
MRK: In my second book, The Fated Sky, I do have asexual (ace) representation. It’s not actually revealed, I just signal it.
RB: Woohoo! Nice! Thank you. Your series is set in the 50s, they don’t even have the word yet. Heterosexuality is a concept that is relatively recent. People might be shocked to learn how much heterosexuality did not equal normal before about 200 years ago. I didn’t even attach the word asexual to myself until like the mid-aughts because the word did not exist for me.
MRK: It is fascinating to me. I’ve become more aware of the fact that I was writing binaries because that was how I’ve been raised. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about when we talk about the gender spectrum is the visual spectrum. This is a total tangent. Do you ever listen to Radiolab?
RB: Not as often as I should.
MRK: There is this fantastic episode about color (“Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?”), and it began by looking at why the word “blue” does not appear anywhere in The Odyssey or The Iliad, and it’s because the word “blue” did not exist in ancient Greek. “Wine dark sea,” that’s the descriptor. Then they started to look why the does the word “blue” not exist. They realized that when you look at different languages and the evolution of languages, that the words for color come into language in a very predictable pattern, and that blue is one of the later ones that comes in. The theory is that they come into existence when we can artificially create the color. What they have discovered is that, if you have a word for a color that you’ll put that object into that box.
RB: Right, right. Words are categorical.
MRK: Right. But it also affects your ability to see the color.
RB: What? I totally believe that though. That does actually make sense because language is training your neural pathways in a different way. Oh my god, that’s fascinating. I’m a reformed biologist. I ran a neurobiology lab for a while, so yes, I can absolutely see this. It’s amazing.
MRK: What has been going through my brain with gender is: It’s like these color distinctions, these variations have always been there, it’s just now we have a word for it and can describe something we were incapable of describing before. And once we have the word, we can see it. I have been going on a journey with myself. I do a spreadsheet now and I put down genders and orientations.
RB: Oh, I love that. Great idea.
MRK: It helps me spot the places where I am like “Yup—defaulting again.”
RB: Or, “There is a hotspot over here in heteronormativity; there’s a cold spot down here.” I’ll add that Sergeant Jutes is gay. That’s made explicit two-thirds of the way through the second book. #spoilers
MRK: I did gather that.
RB: Excellent. I also love in your book the somewhat prurient moments between Elma and Nathaniel where they like to make love with a countdown. I think that’s awesome. Is that just something that occurred to you, or did it come naturally in the writing process?
MRK: A little of both. One of the thing that I feel like is really important to me is that I have healthy committed relationships, and most of the time when you see sex scenes in film or books they are these hot, heavy, sometimes violent things, but it’s often funny. I mean when you actually look at what’s going on in sex, it’s funny.
RB: As an asexual person I’m 100% in agreement with you. Sex is ridiculous.
MRK: It is completely ridiculous. You make ridiculous noises, you make ridiculous faces. It’s awkward, and so my relationship with my husband is that we will sometimes make jokes. I mean, there’s romantic stuff too, but sometimes there are jokes. Rocketry is loaded with double entendre. Rockets are basically giant phalluses, so all of these terrible, terrible rocketry double entendre puns were just there. There are fewer of them in the printed book than there are in the manuscript because my editor suggested that I could maybe tone it down.
RB: Aw, that is a shame but it’s so good to have editors.
MRK: So good to have editors.
RB: You can’t save you from yourself. I’m also glad that with the time frame of your novel, you pushed the space program back a little bit so there were no pulse-firing ramjets. That would have been too far.
MRK: I read very heavily about the Mercury and Apollo programs, and then because the book diverges from history, I have different rockets. One of them is based on a newspaper article from the late 50s or 60s about atomic oxygen in the atmosphere. I’ve no idea why it was never developed—because money was never thrown at it, or if people looked into it and went, “Oh, this is bullshit.”
RB: As I was reading, I was trying to work out how you might actually do that in my head because I’m that kind of weirdo.
MRK: Oh god, I hand-waved past it. I’m like: They solved that problem. I don’t know how they solved it. Elma flies ships. Thank god Nathaniel is not my POV character because then I would have to understand how they did that.
RB: My immediate thought was like: Can we do that today? You sell it beautifully and in a very plausible way. That is the beauty of being a talented writer. You can give nonsense to the audience and they’ll believe it because 99% of your stuff is plausible and based on reality. I would like to believe that I employ the same process.
MRK: Oh yours too, I completely believe it. I especially love the calling out about ballast. I was like: “Oh, that’s good.”
RB: It’s one of those little details that you don’t think about until you are actually on an airship. I went on board the Eureka, which used to fly out of Moffett Airfield in Mountain View, before the company went bankrupt because it turns out airships are terribly impractical. Weighing off was a huge issue for them. It was fascinating watching that process even on a commercial airship, which is modern and minutely designed, so that this will be as minimal an issue as can be, but ultimately, when you are on a lighter-than-air ship, small, minute differences in weight distribution can cause big effects.
MRK: That’s fascinating. I love the details that you find from actually going and doing research. Like, I got to go to NASA.
RB: I was so jealous when I read your acknowledgment section.
MRK: Those are designed to make people jealous, let me be clear.
RB: Well, it worked.
MRK: Thank you. Next week I’m going to go watch a launch of the Parker solar probe.
RB: Oh, that is so appropriate. I hate you, and I love you, and I hate you.
MRK: Of course Parker is a solar probe. I’m not sure how many of those jokes I’m going to be able to make while I’m out there, but oh my god. What I picture is myself writing tweets that are 100% factual with this undercurrent for everybody who has read the book, and anybody who hasn’t read the book saying “oh, this is all very interesting” while everybody else who’s read the book is laughing.
RB: I can imagine you hunched over your phone snickering, and everyone else looking at you like what’s this strange lady tweeting about.
MRK: Parker has a very large rocket. Parker likes to brag about how large his booster is.
RB: Oh, so many possibilities
MRK: It’s because they need that velocity for insertion.
RB: Oh lord.
MRK: You know, when you are approaching a ring of fire…
RB: You are much better at this that I am. I’ve been trying to think of one… Before we go, I want to call out one lovely moment in the book. This is not exactly a spoiler. I adore the fact that Elma, when her Mustang goes into a tailspin, her thought (apart from “How do I survive this?”) is “This is a borrowed airplane, I can’t crash it.” That is the moment I fell in love with her.
MRK: My father-in-law is a retired fighter pilot. He is a Vietnam vet, and then he was also a test pilot. A test pilot does has to deliberately make the plane fail in order to come up with safe procedures, so he critiqued all of my flight scenes. I’ve never been a nervous flyer; I always like it, and having done all this research into what it takes to make a plane crash, I am even less of a nervous flyer. I handed the original text to my father-in-law and he said, “Oh Mustangs are almost impossible to stall. It’s a really hard plane to crash.”
But Elma’s reaction is completely the reaction that I would be having. Never having been in a tailspin, but certainly having the feeling of “Oh no, no, no. This is not mine!” There’s a lot of me in her. She is the kind of Southerner that I am. I am from the liberal Southern strain and variety, which people think doesn’t exist but there are quite a lot of us. She’s also quite different because she’s a military brat and Jewish, which I am not. But she has a sense of heritage and family roots. Even if she’s a military brat moving around, there is home. There is an emotional home.
It has been a delight talking to you, everyone should go read your book.
RB: Thank you, it has been a delight talking to you and everyone should go read your books!
MRK: Yay, mutual admiration!
RB: I love it! And it’s very much deserved in this case.
Mary Robinette Kowal was the 2008 recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a Hugo winner for her story “For Want of a Nail.” Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, and several Year’s Best anthologies. She also writes the Glamourist History series, which began with Shades of Milk and Honey. A professional puppeteer and voice actor, she spent five years touring nationally with puppet theaters. She lives in Chicago with her husband Rob and many manual typewriters.
Robyn Bennis works in biotech but dreams of airships. She lives in Mountain View, CA, within sight of the historic Hangar One at Moffett Airfield. She is the author of the Signal Airship series, The Guns Above and By Fire Above.