by , under writing

In May 2012 I read this blog post by Ana Mardoll and saved the list of questions because they were intriguing, but didn’t have anything to apply them to. Recently I found them again, and I’ll apply them to Terms of Service, just to see if it is “problematic” in those terms.

Well, it probably is: there’s no activism whatsoever. Any activism in this book is free-software-related. The back of the bookmark has the technical specifications:

Oh, you might call it a feminist book because it shows women and men in equal positions, but that’s a feature of the world, and not one I put in deliberately to make a point. In fact there’s nothing that I put in deliberately to make a point; not even the things that I did put in deliberately, as opposed to flowing naturally from the story-shape in my head.

But the questions are fun, and make me think about the world, the story and the people.

Does the work contain any people of color?

Yes; two appear front-stage (and there’s mention of one of those people’s father). This is set at a point in history just before Valdyas begins to have a large influx of people from other countries. In the words of someone in another story: “most people in the world are various shades of brown, not pale like us.”

When I started dealing with Valdyas, about twenty-five years ago now, there wasn’t much of an Internet for me to read feminist and other activist blogs on, and I didn’t have so much incentive to feel vaguely guilty that the population of Valdyas was pale-skinned and blonde/brown/red-haired. That was my “default human” image because most of the humans I saw on a day-to-day basis looked like that. (Also, I’ve always been fond of red hair.)

I do have that incentive now, and I do feel vaguely guilty about it on my bad days, but I console myself with the idea that this is only one country in a very large world full of different people and there’s nothing intrinsically bad about focusing on one thing. After all, when I’m writing a story about X that doesn’t oblige me to write about A to W, Y and Z as well.

If I’d known when I started developing Valdyas what I know now, I’d probably have been so stifled by all the unavoidable “you should do X” and “you must have Y” thoughts that it would never have gone anywhere at all. As it is, my window on the world has expanded all by itself and people of all humanly possible colours turned out to have been in it all along.

That said, I made a white woman brown in the edit, not to force diversity, but because it made sense in context. Various people, especially from Essle, live in my head as vaguely Mediterranean/Middle Eastern, but that never comes to the foreground as Senthi sees it as normal. (Well, when she first comes to Essle everything is strange; as she gets used to it everything that fits becomes normal.)

Does the work contain any QUILTBAG people?

Sure; but because it focuses on one incidentally cis/het woman (not a deliberate choice on my part; it was the way she turned out to be) it doesn’t appear much in the narrative.

I happen to know that Senthi’s husband’s teacher is gay. It doesn’t come into the story, but it gives me a better grip on his personality. For one thing, he and Senthi can flirt outrageously at a party without any personal sexual interest, which lays the groundwork for her liking and trusting him and recommending him to Rovan as a teacher.

Probably her apprentice’s nemesis is gay too, though he’s only fourteen and currently-unattached when he appears and he doesn’t appear later in the book when he’s older (but is quite important in history outside the book).

The queen and her best friend are lovers after (and possibly before) the queen is widowed– she actually dies in her lover’s arms.

Also, Senthi’s (female) friend makes a pass at her that’s so subtle that she barely notices. I admit that she’s stoned at the time, for the first and as far as I know only time in her life, so she’s probably not completely sure what it is that she’s noticing.

Most of the time gender and associated things are just there, not plot points. Note that in this setting there’s no taboo on homosexuality, or indeed on anything that happens between consenting adults. Teenagers are considered adult; Senthi loses her virginity at about 14, in a joyful romp with someone a couple of years older. That someone is gay as such isn’t interesting enough for a story to be about. Trans would be interesting, especially since there’s no technology to do something physical about it, and there’s some of that in other stories. There’s a whole culture that effectively has four genders because they regard physical and psychological gender as orthogonal.

Does the work pass the Bechdel test?

WITH BELLS ON. Already in the first chapter– it starts to all intents and purposes in a nunnery. Later on Senthi is taught semsin and finance by women, and women talk about money a lot, and about the gods (some of them present as male; does that count as “a man”?).

Does the work depict people of any social class other than Privilege McPrivilegeson?

Yes, and not only negatively. (I’m not very good at social classes; perhaps everybody who has a roof over their head and enough to eat is Privilege McPrivilegeson. Or -daughter for that matter.)

Does the work contain characters with a mix of religious and non-religious beliefs?

Religion is a bit complicated. In this world the gods are a fact, it’s pointless to believe in them (it would be like believing in trees or horses) but serving none or one or more of them is all normal, and it all happens in the book.

Does the work depict people who have children, people who are childless by choice, and people who are childless not by choice?

People who have children, check; people who are childless by choice –well, childless because of religious celibacy probably counts; people who are childless not by choice, not explicitly (I don’t know everything about every minor character) but then there’s nothing in the story that’s about that, and I don’t feel obliged to put it in.

Does the work contain

– people who have pair-bonded in a romantic relationship,


– people who choose not to pair-bond romantically,

yes (Senthi, for most of the novel’s timeline);

– and people who are romantically involved with more than one person?

yes, at least one. Senthi almost takes issue with that but says “well, if it’s true we’re two women who love the same man, and that can only be a good thing”.

Does the work contain people of varying cultural backgrounds?

Probably depends on how you define a cultural background. Hmm, that needs more swimming on.

  1. Felix

    Don’t worry about it, not every single artistic creation has to be militant, and those that are tend to come across as preachy. As for diversity, it does sound like your book has a little bit of everything. (Unsurprisingly, perhaps, since it’s so epic.) And by the way, I noticed the first brown-skinned character right away, and kind of assumed the entire population is mixed like that, the way it is in my stories.

    Speaking of that, I’ve only recently started tackling the issue of gender, gender roles and relationships myself. In fact, some of my best writing doesn’t pass the Bechdel test! But if I had forced the issue, it wouldn’t have been some of my best…

  2. Irina

    That mine passes the Bechdel test is mostly because of the Temple of Naigha: hard not to have conversations among women when everybody within earshot is a woman.

    Also, epic? Compared to what other people write I think it’s very small-scale, concentrating on one person and those parts of the world she can touch.

    As for preachiness, yes, absolutely. Listening to people who insist on relevance in fiction makes me so tired.


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