For Books’ Sake talks to: Martha Wells

2nd Sep 2015

For Books' Sake talks to: Martha Wells
Image: Martha Wells
Acclaimed writer and journalist, Tansy Hoskins discusses the tradition of women in SF/F, empowerment, and matriarchal worlds with the prolific, Nebula nominated fantasy novelist, Martha Wells. 

“I’ve never been that interested in reading the norm, so I think I’ve always written to challenge it.” – Martha Wells 

It’s tempting to be sensationalist about the Martha Wells’ series Books of the Raksura. (Polyamorous! Bisexual! Shapeshifting winged creatures!) But that would be at odds with this subtle, visionary work of art that spreads over five meticulously constructed books. It would also be a betrayal of Wells’s characters, the kinds of individuals that you will miss painfully after the book closes; the ones whose continuing lives you will wonder about.

I am cautious of following authors on Twitter, too often they are boorish and disappointing. Martha Wells is different. She tweets about environmental issues, police violence, sexism and racism in Science Fiction & Fantasy (SFF), and is an unequivocal champion of women’s writing. (Even in this email interview Wells made two unprompted recommendations for new SFF authors: Karen Lord and Ovidia Yu).

“Women have always written SF and fantasy, especially in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and even if people can't find those books or don't want to read them, at least they could refrain from pretending they didn't exist and erasing them from the history of the genre.” This idealism and gracious confidence are present throughout her work. Wells has penned 17 books since her first, The Element of Fire, was published by Tor Books in 1993. Having read a fair number of these, I imagine Wells in her studio using a big colourful brush to repaint the world. Under her brush, the rules drop away – the damaging, constrictive, boring rules about gender, race and who can and cannot do what. It is an approach to writing that Wells sums up as: “I’ve never been that interested in reading the norm, so I think I’ve always written to challenge it.”

“Even when I was first reading SF/F back in junior high, I gravitated toward fantasy that was set in secondary worlds that weren’t based on Europe and medieval England,” she explains. “And that’s what I’ve always wanted to write. When I read, I want to be transported to different places, to see how different people live.”

Wells’ Raksura books lay out a fantastical scape of unrecognisable ecosystems, shape shifters, and flying islands. Readers follow the Raksura: creatures who shapeshift from ‘groundlings’ into winged forms. The protagonist is Moon, a lone Raksura who has spent his life with no idea what species he is from. Finally found by a Raksuran line-grandfather called Stone, the books chronicle Moon’s attempts to be part of a Raksuran colony that is fighting for survival.

If you dive into Martha Well’s world you are going to dive deep and you’d be best off leaving the baggage of preconceptions behind. Take for example the fluidity of Raksuran sexual practises. When I ask her about this, Wells is correctly reluctant to try and squeeze Raksura into human categories like bisexual or polyamorous: “It doesn’t quite work to fit them into human categories,” she says. “Bisexual is the closest term, but in some ways the warriors could be defined as a third gender.”

It is an aspect of the books that is effortless and uncontrived. It is a sexual liberation that Wells describes as having “naturally developed from the way Raksura biology worked, and the kind of society I wanted to depict.  The courts are basically large extended family groups that raise their children communally.”

“The Queens and female Arbora are able to completely control their fertility, and the warriors are infertile, so there are no unwanted or unplanned children, and there’s always someone to take care of them,” Wells explains. “For me this led to a society that never developed issues about sex, and that wasn’t monogamous.” Not that Raksura are without sexual competition: jealousy, passion, and fear of loss fuel many of the most powerful storylines.


Another rule breaking aspect of the Raksura trilogy is that female Raksura are culturally and physically stronger than their male counterparts. It is the Queens that you want to watch out for in a fight. Wells’ describes her desire to do something different: “I didn’t want to write another patriarchal society.  I’ve explored matriarchal societies before, but when I was first developing the Raksura and figuring out what their physical abilities would be, and how that would affect their culture, it just seemed to be a very good fit.  And if the Queens were going to be the most physically powerful Raksura, than it followed that the female warriors would tend to be stronger and faster than the male warriors.”

This approach has led to some spectacular characters – just wait till you reach book three, The Siren Depths and meet the ultimate, terrifying, Raksuran matriarch: Malachite. With three Raksura novels and two books of shorter stories, there is plenty to sink your teeth into. My advice is to read or listen to them in time for the publication of a brand new pair of Raksura novels that is being published by Night Shade Books in 2016. 

Writing different worlds, where power does not just lie in the hands of white male humans, is not without controversy. A few years ago, SFF writer Kate Elliott penned an article entitled The Status Quo Does Not Need World Building in response to critiques (by white men) of books containing richly described new worlds. Elliott argued that denigrating describing new worlds and ways of living might be fine for the status quo (white, male, straight, wealthy, etc) but that there are many other worlds and experiences that deserve exploration.

It is a stance that Wells unsurprisingly relates to tremendously: “I’ve always tried to write imaginary worlds where the setting and the culture is not only important to the plot but to what kind of people the characters are, and integral to the choices they make and the challenges they face. I find it hard to imagine writing something where the setting and the culture aren’t a vital part of the story.”

Another related issue for Wells is the lack of recognition of the rich history of women writing SFF: “I find it frustrating that so many people seem to believe now that women somehow only started writing SF/F within the past ten years,” she says. “Women have always written SF and fantasy, especially in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and even if people can’t find those books or don’t want to read them, at least they could refrain from pretending they didn’t exist and erasing them from the history of the genre.” With SFF so often limited by sexism and tired stereotypes, to erase women is often to erase the most ground-breaking books.

Since empowering women both on and off the page is so important to Wells, I lastly asked her how to best promote women SFF authors. Her advice is to recommend them at every opportunity: “Even if someone isn’t a professional reviewer for magazines or web sites, you can still post recommendations or ratings on retail sites and social media.” During the celebratory hashtag #femmeSFF, Wells’ own recommendations were: Tananarive Due, Phyllis Ann Karr, Lillian Steward Carl, and Diane Duane.

The long, proud tradition of women writing SFF, and of defending their right to do so, has opened up new worlds where new societies can be written and dreamed. Martha Wells’ own books are part of this fabulous tradition – inspiring more women not just to read voraciously but to also pick up their own pens and imagine new worlds and ways of living.

Fall of IleRien Trilogy

Interviewer’s note: I also highly recommend Wells’ Fall of Ile-Rien Trilogy. If you read those, say hello to Tremaine and Ilias from me. 

Interview by Tansy Hoskins 

Martha Wells  is the author of over a dozen science fiction and fantasy novels, including the Books of the Raksura series, Star Wars: Razor’s Edge, and the Nebula-nominated The Death of the Necromancer, as well as short stories, nonfiction, and YA fantasy.

Stories of the Raksura: Volume Two: The Dead City & the Dark Earth Below (£10.99; Night Shade Books; 232pp) is available to buy now

Tansy Hoskins is the author of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion. She writes for The Guardianand Business of Fashion. She tweets at @TansyHoskins