Does My Palace Cause Cancer? What Can I Do?

Is my palace (tent) spreading toxic chemicals?

I’m working on a draft of a blog post about Leave No Trace and my experiences with camping. Working on that draft, I started thinking about the chemical impact of tents on the environment, so I decided to do some research, and then decided that this topic was important enough to merit its own blog post.

Spoiler: My palace (i.e. tent) is probably carcinogenic.

Most backpacking tents contain toxic chemicals. There are different types of toxic chemicals they may maintain.

One types of toxic chemical is fluorocarbons. They help waterproof fabrics, including tent fabrics. They also wash off fabric when it rains or water is otherwise applied to the fabric, and they damage the ecosystem, and since they are persistent (i.e. it takes a long time for them to break down) they can spend a lot of time damaging the ecosystem. Lovely. Oh, and fluorocarbons are also bad for humans because they are hormone-disruptors.

I had already been aware that many rain jackets / shells / etc. contain fluorocarbons, that they are a toxic pollutant, that fluorocarbons have been found in even the most ‘pristine’ wilderness areas, and that was one reason I chose fluorocarbon free rain gear for my big hike in Washington (which I ended up not using much because it only rained twice, but if it had rained a lot, my rain gear would not have poisoned the trail ecosystem with fluorocarbons).

However, I had not thought about whether my tent contained fluorocarbons.

Does my tent have fluorocarbons? I do not know, and I have not asked the manufacturer (Big Agnes). Based on my research, my guess is that my tent probably does not contain fluorocarbons. However, that is an educated guess, not a certainty, and maybe I’ve guessed wrong.

Another common type of toxin found in tents are PVC and VOCs (volatile organic compounds). They cause cancer and mess up the ecosystem. The manufacturer of my tent says that my tent is PVC and VOC free, so I don’t have to worry about that, hurray! I will have to pay attention to that if I ever get another tent.

And then there are flame retardants. You can learn many of the gory details by reading this article. The TL;DR is: flame retardants cause cancer, do NOT improve fire safety, and for legal reasons, are found in the vast majority of the tents sold in the United States and Canada. Lovely.

I did contact Big Agnes (the manufacturer of my tent) to ask about flame retardants. Their answer was: ALL OF THEIR TENTS CONTAIN FLAME RETARDANTS. They have not told me which flame retardants they use, but the range for flame retardants (in terms of toxicity and effectiveness in fire safety) is not good thru bad, it’s bad thru horrible, so if I get a list of the specific fire retardants they use, all that would tell is is whether they are on the bad end of the spectrum, or the horrible end of the spectrum, and I do not think that information would affect my decisions.

I repeat, BIG AGNES HAS TOLD ME THAT ALL OF THEIR TENTS CONTAIN FLAME RETARDANTS.

I understand that they probably do it for legal reasons, and I thank them for telling me.

Though I did not get this information from Big Agnes, based on my research, it seems that the flame retardants are most likely in the PU coating. If this is so, that means that they are probably not leeching much into the environment (like fluorocarbons, flame retardants are bad news for the ecosystem). On the other hand, they are in the area where I sleep.

So now what? Here are my options:

OPTION 1: REPLACE MY PALACE WITH A NEW TENT

I love my tent! This would make me sad. But knowing that my tent might give me cancer will definitely affect my love for my tent, and will possibly make it harder for me to sleep in my tent.

This would also raise the question of how I would dispose of my tent. Landfill? Let it sit in my closet indefinitely? Sell it – “Hey, I’ve stopped using this tent because it causes cancer – want to buy it?”

Also, this means I would have to get a new shelter. High-quality shelters tend to be expensive, so that would hit my wallet hard. Or I could get a tarp shelter, but they require a lot more skill than tents.

Oh, and I would have to make sure my new tent was also fluorocarbon and flame retardant free, which would exclude most of the tents sold in the USA and Canada because of the legal requirements to poison campers. What tents are fluorocarbon & FR free? The Moonlight tents are fluorocarbon and FR free – and the lightest one weighs about 5 pounds. That weight is a dealbreaker for long-distance use (and I don’t use tents for short-distance purposes often enough to justify buying a tent just for short-distance trips). It looks like, based on the description, that the tent has a lot of cool features, but I would be happy to get rid of some of those features to reduce the weight.

Based on this, its seems that for legal reasons, any tent sold by a major retailer in the USA (such as REI) will have the flame retardants. A tent manufacturer based in the USA but not located in any of the states which require flame retardants in tents and which does not sell through retailers in those states is not legally required to use flame retardants, which limits me to tent manufacturers who do not distribute through retailers across the USA/Canada.

I do not know whether cuben fiber tents contain flame retardants or not. If I ever decided I wanted a cuben fiber tent, I would ask the manufacturers about this. Since I do not want to buy a cuben fiber tent, I am not going to research it at this time. However, one manufacturer of cuben fiber shelters, Mountain Laurel Designs, says that all of their bug netting fabric has flame retardants. That rules out any shelter with bug netting, cuben fiber or no cuben fiber.

It seems the best way to get a lightweight shelter without flame retardants is to import from the UK or the EU. Their laws do not require tents to contain flame retardants, so most tent manufacturers there do not use flame retardants. Which means I may have another option…

OPTION 2: USE MY TAIWANESE TENT

I have used my Taiwanese tent on my PCT section hikes before I received my palace, so I know it can work on the PCT. It is also a brand which is not sold in the USA or Canada at all, so the manufacturer did not care about US/Canadian law. Does Taiwanese law require putting flame retardants in tents? I have no idea. I would have to do more research. I also do not know if my Taiwanese tent contains fluorocarbons. It is unlikely to have PVC or VOCs, but I would have to do additional research to confirm that. And doing research would be challenging since the tent model I have has been discontinued (which does not surprise me, since it is a pretty weird tent).

However, while I CAN use my Taiwanese tent on the PCT, there are reasons why I was willing to buy a new tent for use on the PCT (I continue to use my Taiwanese tent for all non-PCT camping trips). The most important reason was weight, though it also has less interior space and I think the tent poles are annoying (I prefer the 12 stakeouts on my palace to putting up the tent poles on my Taiwanese tent, which tells you just how much those tent poles annoy me). If I put my Taiwanese tent to serious use again, I would also want to buy new stuff sacks, because the current stuff sack sucks.

Nonetheless, if I did the research, and found that my Taiwanese tent had no fluorocarbons / PVC / VOCs / flame retardants, then that would be an option which would not require me to spend any extra money (beyond a new stuff sack, which is a lot cheaper than buying a new tent).

OPTION 3: CONTINUE USING MY PALACE, AND BE CAREFUL

As I said, the most toxic chemicals are probably in the interior coating, not the exterior coating, so continuing to use this tent may still be consistent with the principles of Leave Not Trace (I wouldn’t be leaving a trace on the environment, I’d just leaving a trace on my own body by exposing myself to carcinogens).

Research shows that the flame retardants rub off on hands when pitching a tent (you can read more about that research in the article I linked above), and that if those hands are later used to, say, eat food, the flame retardants can enter the body. However, when I am pitching my palace, I am mostly touching the exterior of the tent, not the interior, so I may not be getting into direct contact with the flame retardants. Finally, I usually pitch my tent with my gloves on (even in summer, I do all long-distance hikes with gloves), and I usually eat with my gloves off. I could make it a rule that I ONLY pitch my tent with gloves on and ONLY eat with gloves off.

When I’m inside my tent, I do put my gear in contact with the fabric. Research shows that flame retardants can rub off on gear too, but I would expect touching gear which touched flame retardant to be less bad than directly touching flame retardant. I do not directly touch the interior tent fabric often, and I can try to limit my direct contact with the interior tent fabric even more.

Not enough research has been done to show if there are other ways the flame retardants in tents can enter the human body. It is possible that it may coat dust in the tent, but AFAIK, this has not been proven. Just because is hasn’t been proven does not mean it’s not happening.

I have read that old PU coatings will flake, and I guess that the flame retardants would be in the flakes.

SO, WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?

For now, based on what I know, I am going with option three. If I ever see signs that the PU coating is flaking, then I will retire the tent, but until then, I will continue to use it with caution.

Another thing I’m going to try to do is bring more attention to this issue in the trail community. Even if I am successful in taking care of myself, I do not want tent manufacturers to poison my fellow hikers, nor do I want my fellow hikers to spread toxins around the wilderness. And if the trail community does not pay attention to this, then the situation is not going to get better.

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Mortality on the Pacific Crest Trail

The trail register at the California / Oregon border on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I looked through the trail register at the California/Oregon border on the Pacific Crest Trail. I found a place where hikers listed all of the ways they have died on the Pacific Crest Trail. It was started by Mike [from Canada] and the first eight entries are in his handwriting. However, other hikers saw it and decided to add the ways they ‘died’ on the Pacific Crest Trail, which is why every additional entry is written with different handwriting. Here is my transcription:

7/27/16 Mike [From Canada], You guys, we’ve been through so much together, and I can’t thank you enough for supporting me through all the times I’ve died on the trail. Here’s to all the fearmongers who have pushed me this far!

1. Carried 20 L out of Campo. Died from water overdose
2. Froze Solid at Mt. Laguna
3. Lost in snow on San Jacinto
4. Run over by Ziggy & bear shuttle
5. Slipped off Baden Powell
6. Sunk in quicksand @ walker pass
7. Spent too much money @ kennedy
8. Slipped down ice chute @ forester pass
9. SMOKED POODLE-DOG BUSH, DIED
10. Drunk Piss, lived then tried to seduce a bear – Dead
11. Left Seiad w/ 0 liters of water – Heat Stroke
12. Spent 2 nights in Hikertown – died of exposure
13. Fed chipmunk; was eaten in the night by chipmunks
14. Went to drop a deuce in KM; drowned in PortaJohn
15. Stayed in Etna for two nights – died of boredom
16. Tried to walk under Mount Shasta
17. Kidnapped by “that guy” in Sierra City
18. Too much EVERYTHING @ Casa de Luna
19. Lost too much weight – dead.
20. Shot by a hunter
21. GOT LOST FOR 2dAYS in The SieRRA’s.
22. Narrowly escaped the Lemurians
23. spent too long @border, died of starvation
24. GOT ATTACKED by MARMOTS! Don’t trust them. R& H.
25. Fell down a switchback looking for copper ore
26. Got a blister or two… or a hundred
27. Ate 5 lbs of pancakes @ Seiad… exploded
28. Fall in love
29. Twisted ankle taking photo, hit a rock, fell off cliff
30. Went for water @ lost Creek – fell, died
31. Fell down ice chute @ Sonora Pass
32. ^ so did I!!
33. Breathed in too many of husband’s farts
34. Farted too much (or not enough)
35. Died in the fire before Kennedy Meadows
36. Spent too much time reading the Facebook page -> Heartattack
37. BEARS
38. Asschafe
39. Almost dyha dihadrated before Casa de Luna
40. Lightling storm at Mt. Whitney

I think most people, when they first contemplate hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, ponder on the potential of dying on the trail (rattlesnakes! dehydration! mountain lions! falling off cliffs! etc.). I know I did when I first contemplated it, and a lot people who I talk to about it are also concerned about the potential of death. I think the hikers who put together the list above were responding both to all of the ‘fearmongers’ who expressed their concern about dangers on the trail as well as responding to their own fears. I also appreciate this post by Mac at Halfway Anywhere.

***

Several hikers (they just look like specks in this photo) cross what is reportedly the most dangerous stream crossing on the PCT in Washington. It was not that bad when I was there – I even managed to cross with dry feet – but I can see how this crossing would be a lot more risky in early summer or after a few days of heavy rain.

I know that I am going to die. That knowledge motivates me to do things like hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The knowledge that the trail itself is impermanent (climate change, maintenance failures, erosion, fire closures, etc.) increases the urgency of hiking it while I am still alive to hike it and it is still there.

I can die at home too. Thus, staying at home is not a good strategy for avoiding death.

One of the top causes of death on the Pacific Crest Trail is … being hit by a motor vehicle while crossing a road. Most people do not expect that to be the top causes of death, especially because one rarely has to cross a road with much traffic on the Pacific Crest Trail. However, motor vehicles are so dangerous that even occasional crossings of roads with traffic greatly increase the danger of death on the PCT. However, I think that most people underestimate the risk of being hit by a motor vehicle on the PCT because it is a risk that most people in the United States live with every day. We have been trained to tune it out so that we are not in a constant state of panic as we cross streets.

***

The Dinsmores’ Hiker Haven, Baring, Washington.

I spent two nights at the Dinsmores. The Dinsmores are some of the most famous trail angels on the Pacific Crest Trail – you can learn more about them by reading this recent blog post.

This might be the last year that Andrea Dinsmore hosts hikers (and bikers – they host bikers too). I only saw her a couple times when I was at the Dinsmores, and only for short periods of time, but I felt privileged that I was able to meet such a legend of the PCT. This might be her last year – and she has spent less time with hikers than usual this year – because she has pancreatic cancer.

When I was on the train returning home, I met a couple of hikers who had stayed at the Dinsmores last year. They were shocked when I told them about Andrea’s condition. There was one point when I was sitting at the Dinsmores and I was shedding tears for Andrea.

I know some hikers say that they avoided the Dinsmores because they knew Andrea was sick and they did not want to be a burden. However, one of Andrea’s friends told me that they still wanted hikers to come. The hiking season is Andrea’s favorite time of year, and they do not want to be socially isolated at this time in their lives – they want to continue to participate in the Pacific Crest Trail community.

***

Blooming manzanita bush on Mount Laguna. This is where I met the Chinese hiker. She was probably Chaocui Wang.

This was an especially dangerous summer in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Many thru-hikers skipped the Sierra Nevada for that reason, or did a flip so they hiked in the Sierra Nevada at a safer time. At the Dinsmores’ Hiker Haven, a hiker who hiked through the Sierras told me that, though she did get through the Sierra Nevada unharmed, if she had understood how dangerous it was, she would have skipped it too.

I heard a few hikers went through the Sierra Nevada very early (by ‘very early’ I mean ‘May’). Even though they had to deal with lower temperatures and more snow/ice, I heard it was safer to go very early than to go in June/July, which in most years is when most northbound thru-hikers go through the Sierra Nevada. That is because, if a hiker entered the Sierra Nevada early enough, they could cross the streams on ice bridges. Stream crossings are the most dangerous part of hiking in the Sierra Nevada in early summer.

There is the story of Marcus Mazzaferri, who lost his pack during a dangerous stream crossing, lost all of his gear (including sleeping bag, shelter, and anything he could have used to start a fire), his food, and his glasses (he is near-sighted), and was all alone in the Sierra Nevada while it was still mostly covered with snow, with no way to contact another human being. He was lucky to survive. You can read his story here.

Two thru-hikers drowned in the Sierra Nevada this year – Rika Morita and Chaocui Wang. I first heard about their deaths while I was hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail from other hikers.

I talked to a hiker who had hiked with Chaocui Wang for a while in the Sierra Nevada, though he had split from her before her death. He said that she had told him that she had lied to her family in China – she told them that she had come to the USA for a job, not to hike the PCT. He hoped that she had told her family the truth before she died.

I never met Rika Morita. However, I did meet one Chinese hiker as I was approaching Mount Laguna during my section hike on the San Diego PCT this year. I recall that we were surrounded by manzanita bushes in full bloom, and I think we talked about how many bees were buzzing around us. The face I see in the photos of Chaocui Wang looks familiar, and the personality of the Chinese hiker I met matches the descriptions of Chaocui Wang. I am not completely sure, but I think it was her.

She died around the time I was crossing the California/Oregon border on the Pacific Crest Trail, where I saw the trail register with the list I transcribed in the opening of this post.

I have a weird feeling when I think back on my encounter with the Chinese hiker, now that I know it was probably about three months before her death and that she was not going to finish her thru-hike or return home, though I will never know for sure if it *was* her. I know that hikers who hiked with her and got to know her rather than just crossed paths with her as I (probably) did must have stronger feelings. The trail community misses and will remember her.

My Palace on the Pacific Crest Trail

A huckleberry bush brushes against my tent. Lake Janus, Henry M. Jackson Wilderness, Northern Washington.

Fond as I am of my tent from Taiwan, last year I decided to buy a new tent to use on Pacific Crest Trail hikes (I still use my Taiwanese tent for all non-PCT camping). Specifically, I bought a Big Agnes Scout 2. I used it for the first time in the Trinity Alps, and I invited the PCT thru-hiker who was at the campsite to check it out. His comment was “That tent is a palace.” Ever since then, I’ve thought of this tent as being my palace on the Pacific Crest Trail.

This was my final campsite in California. Since this tent was used first in California, maybe I could call it my ‘Californian’ tent (as opposed by my ‘Taiwanese’ tent).

Since UV rays damage my tent’s fabric, it’s not supposed to be in the sun. Since I usually pitched my tent in the evening and packed it in the morning, it was usually easy to keep it out of the sun, but sometimes it’s hard to avoid a little sun. Miners Creek Camp, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Northern Washington.

What makes this tent a palace? Space. To keep weight down, most hikers carry small tents, which means it can get cramped inside, especially if they are storing all of their gear in the tent. Some hikers just carry bivy shelters, which are basically tents which only have space for a single sleeping bag.

This is what my tent (in the front) looks like before it is pitched. The other tents in this picture each had 2+ occupants. Unfortunately, I could not get any tree cover, but the condensation was not too bad that night. About two miles from the border of Goat Rocks Wilderness, Southern Washington.

My tent, however, is a two person tent. A REAL two person tent. Officially, my Taiwanese tent is also a ‘two person’ tent, but in reality putting two people in my Taiwanese tent would be very uncomfortable. My palace on the PCT, however, could accommodate two people without having them lie on top of each other. Some hikers assumed that I had a partner simply because they saw how big my tent is. That means that, as a single person, my tent can accommodate me and all of my gear and still have leftover space. Compared to most of the tents used on the Pacific Crest Trail, my tent feels luxurious.

Look at all of that space!!! (I took this photo while I was lying down inside my blue sleeping bag). WELCOME TO MY PALACE!

One hiker told me “It’s great to be one person in a two person tent, but I wouldn’t want to carry the weight.” I then told her that my tent, including stakes, only weighs 1 lb. 9 oz. (710 grams). That’s less weight than nearly all one-person tents (including my Taiwanese tent). By contrast, the two most popular tents on the Pacific Crest Trail, the Big Agnes Copper Spur and the Big Agnes Fly Creek, weigh 2 lb 3 oz. and 1 lb. 11 oz. respectively in their 1-PERSON sizes (and many hikers choose the 2-person sizes even if they are alone because the 1-person versions of those tents are too small).

My tent, with Dewey Lake in the background. William O. Douglass Wilderness, Mount Rainier National Park, Southern Washington.

Even though this is a great tent, it gets very mixed reviews on the internet. In my opinion, the big disadvantage of this tent is that it has a steeper-than-typical learning curve for learning how to use it well, and that most of the complaints which people have about this tent could be fixed by changing the pitching. For example, some people complain about the placement of the trekking poles – it is true that in the beginning I sometimes knocked them down in my sleep, but eventually I trained myself not to do that. It does take practice to learn how to pitch it well so that it will be sufficiently taut, but after using this for over a month, I am very good at pitching this tent, even in non-ideal tent sites. Tip one: if the ground is too hard for staking, use rocks. Tip two: if the tent site is too small for full staking, tie the guylines to whatever is blocking the staking (usually a tree or shrub).

Since this campsite was basically an abandoned gravel road, I could only drive my takes half an inch into the ground, which is not enough. Thus, I used a combination of rocks and tying guylines to bushes. It was not a taut pitch, but since it was not a stormy night, the lack of tautness was okay. One mile away from Stirrup Creek, Central Washington.

One hiker commented that they would not want to use my tent because he did not think it was storm-proof. It’s true that it’s not ideal for going through a harsh storm, but I did use it in Mount Laguna in San Diego county (a very windy place) and it held up, so it’s got enough wind resistance for my purposes. Pitching the tent well goes a long way to making it hold up well in the wind.

This was a nice campsite – but the deer were a bad sign. Fortunately, these deer turned out not be a nuisance.

Another hiker said that he would not want to use my tent because it requires 12 stakes. I asked what was wrong with 12 stakes. He said it was too much labor to set up. I responded that I consider it to be a labor saving tent because of its relatively low weight (also, it does not use tent poles, and I consider setting up tent poles to be more tedious than staking).

The hiker who was impressed by how many stakes my tent required also took a photo of my tent at this very location. Trout Creek, near Wind River Experimental Forest, Southern Washington.

The last common complaint about this tent is the condensation. I, however, rarely had condensation in my tent during this hike, and the few times I did get condensation it’s because I put it in the wrong tent site. Basically, this tent will have condensation unless a) it’s pitched under tree cover or b) it’s very windy.

Unfortunately, there was no good place to pitch the tent at Callahan’s Lodge (i.e. I was doomed to have condensation). Fortunately, I was going into town the following day, and it was a sunny day when I had time to dry gear, so waking up with a wet tent was not so bad (heck, I even washed the tent with soap in town).

Wind is unreliable, so I almost always pitched the tent under trees, even if it meant that I had to put it under a steeper slope or have more awkward pitching. Having used this tent for over a month, I can attest that this tent does not get condensation under trees.

I squeezed my tent into this spot under the trees, even though it was a steep slope (other hikers joked about how I might slide out of my tent) because this was near a lake and I knew I needed the tree cover to keep dry. Guess what – my tent was totally dry the next morning. Pipe Lake, William O. Douglass Wilderness, Southern Washington.

Even though it’s such a spacious and low-weight tent, this is an uncommon tent on the Pacific Crest Trail. Most PCT hikers had never seen this tent model before, which meant they could learn to recognize me by my tent (i.e. if they saw my tent in a campsite they knew that I was around even if they did not see me). And even though I think this tent deserves to be more popular on the PCT, I like that I have an uncommon tent. It makes me feel special.

Here you can see how the trekking pole helps my tent stand up. Near the tributary of the Cispus River, Goat Rocks Wilderness, Southern Washington.

When I was using my Taiwanese tent in Hokkaido, I discovered that one of the cool things about travelling with a tent is that it’s like having your own portable room. Even if you are in a totally unfamiliar place, when you crawl in to go do sleep, it’s the same tent that you have slept in many times before. I felt that effect even more strongly this summer with this tent – though I was in a different place every day, at night, I was able to retreat into my own familiar palace.

AAWFC 2017: Musings on “Ace Representation in General”

This is for Asexual Awareness Week Fandom Challenge 2017 (even though I am not on Tumblr – if you are on Tumblr, feel free to share a link to this post under the #AAWFC tag).

Sat 28th, Day 7: Post about asexual representation in general. What does it mean to see asexual/spectrum characters in the media you consume? Why is it important to you to see asexual/spectrum characters in the media you consume? What sort of stories/plotlines would you like to see about asexual/spectrum characters? What genre do you really want to see asexual/spectrum characters in? How would you like to see asexual/spectrum people represented?

Such a simple set of easy-to-answer questions, isn’t it? I don’t think I could give a full answer to this prompt in a single blog post, so I’m only going to answer the parts I want to answer right now.

For some reason, the vast majority of human beings want to see themselves in others. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s simply a trait we have because we evolved to be a social species who tends not to survive individually if we do not belong to a group of humans. Anyway, that is how almost all of us are.

I am no exception. I like being able to recognize myself in the fiction I read (or watch, but I read more than I watch). For example, I generally think it’s cool to see characters in fiction who grew up in San Francisco (unless it’s obvious that the writer did not do their research on San Francisco). Do I crave more of this? Maybe a little. Narratives about San Francisco tend to be dominated by people who moved to San Francisco, which is a bit different from being from San Francisco (though YA set in San Francisco does tend to focus on characters raised in San Francisco). But finding stories about people from San Francisco is a very low priority for me.

However, even though many people react like I’m some rare species of bird they were lucky enough to encounter in the wild when they find out I am from San Francisco, there is a general awareness that some people do grow up in San Francisco. There is no need to have a ‘People Who Come from San Francisco Awareness Week.’

Perhaps I want to see aces represented in fiction because that is an aspect of who I am who which I do not see in stories as often as I would like.

Except … in the past year, I HAVE read a lot of stories with ace characters. I don’t think I would want to read more stories with ace characters per month than I have. The thing is a) I had to specifically seek ace stories to pull that off and b) many of those stories would have had little interest for me without the ace character and c) many of those stories do not have ace representation which satisfies me. Obviously, I want more.

It would take a lot of words for me to say what kinds of stories/plotlines I would like for ace characters, so instead I will point out this old post and list the ace tropes which I particularly like and wish to see more often in fiction: The Ace Group, Not Having Words, Ace/Ace Romance, and When Do I Tell Them I’m Ace. One could also look at the ace fanfic (even though there are problems with the ace fanfic I’ve written, they do represent a lot of the things I want to see in ace fiction).

What genre do I really want to see ace characters in? I want ace representation in all genres because readers of all tastes could benefit from being exposed … blah blah blah, that’s all true, but who am I kidding, I especially want to see ace (and aro!) characters in the wuxia genre, which I’m sure is no surprise to anyone who follows this blog. I do not think it is a coincidence that I headcanon some wuxia characters as being ace but I currently do not have ace headcanons in any other genre.

AAWFC 2017: Canon Ace Characters Who I’d Want to See Meet Each Other

This is for Asexual Awareness Week Fandom Challenge 2017 (even though I am not on Tumblr – if you are on Tumblr, feel free to share a link to this post under the #AAWFC tag).

Fri 27th, Day 6: AU day! Post about what canon/headcanoned asexual/spectrum characters from different fandoms that you would like to see meet. What would their meeting would be like, why would you like to see them meet, what sort of relationship do you think they’d have, etc.?

The cover of All the Wrong Places by Ann Gallagher

I would like Nate Albano from For a Good Tim, Call… to meet Brennan and Zafir from All the Wrong Places. Technically, they are already in the same fandom since they all appear in Bluewater Bay novel, but they were created by different writers, so they are at least from different corners of that particular fandom.

Why do I want them to meet? Because they live in the same (fictional) small town! Furthermore, Nate Albano meets characters from other Bluewater Bay novels (even novels by different writers), so why can’t he also meet Brennan and Zafir?

Where would they meet? Now, that is a bit tricky. Nate is a newcomer to Bluewater Bay, and he works on the TV series. He may not even stay in Bluewater Bay after the TV series stops filming. By contrast, Brennan and Zafir are locals who have little to do with the TV show. So it does make sense that they would not necessarily meet each other. But…

Nate gets together with a local guy. Maybe the local guy knows Brennan and Zafir? But that does not mean he would have a reason to introduce them to Nate (he knows Nate is ace, but he probably does not know that Brennan and Zafir are ace). On the other hand, since Nate is a guy who gets together with a dude, and Brennan and Zafir are another dude-with-dude couple, maybe the dude-with-dude couples in a small town would get to know each other? (Though there are a lot of dude-with-dude couples in Bluewater Bay, given that it’s a novel series published by an LGBTQ+ publisher).

AHA! I know how Nate would meet Brennan and Zafir. Zafir goes to the Seattle ace meetup regularly. Maybe it would occur to Nate that he could also go to the Seattle ace meetup, and he could meet Brennan and Zafir there.

NATE: Hey, so this is my first time here. I came here from Bluewater Bay.

ZAFIR: No way! We live in Bluewater Bay too!

NATE: You SERIOUS??!!

BRENNAN: This is too much of a coincidence! Of all the places in western Washington another ace could come from, what are the odds that another ace would come from Bluewater Bay? It’s a fictional town for crying out loud!

ALICIA: To be fair, this meetup is also fictional. The real Seattle ace meetup isn’t a casual get-together at a hipster coffee shop in the university district, it takes place at a LGBT center and they create an agenda of asexual topics they are going to discuss at each meeting.

Then again, the novel All the Wrong Places mentions that there is also an ace group in Port Angeles, yet it is never depicted. Maybe Nate meets Brennan and Zafir in Port Angeles?

AAWFC 2017: Musings on Headcanon Ace Characters in Wuxia Novels

This is for Asexual Awareness Week Fandom Challenge 2017 (even though I am not on Tumblr – if you are on Tumblr, feel free to share a link to this post under the #AAWFC tag).

Sun 22nd, Day 1: Post about canon and headcanoned asexual/spectrum characters in books and comics.

In the past year – since a I read a bunch of ace fiction for Asexual Awareness Week last year in fact – I’ve written plenty about canon ace characters in books. So I’m going to talk about headcanon ace characters instead.

Yes, you guessed it (if you read my blog in a regular basis). I’m going to write about Yang Guo and Guo Jing from the Condor Trilogy (or more accurately, the Eagle-Shooting Trilogy, but whatever).

There is Yang Guo with Xiaolongnü, the most beautiful woman in the world. He is naked, she is naked, they sit together like this for a long time, yet he never thinks about sex at all (according to the novel – I don’t know how they would convey this in the TV adaptation).

I’ve already written plenty about these headcanons – in fact, my very first submission to the Carnival of Aces was a series about how I headcanon Yang Guo as being ace, and years later I wrote about how I headcanon Guo Jing as demisexual.

Actually, while I am talking about headcanons and wuxia, I might as well mention that I headcanon Fei Ruoran in The Valley of Life and Death as being an *aromantic ace* (finding a female protagonist from wuxia who I can headcanon as aromantic is incredible). And yes, even though I have read a lot of novels in 2017, so far, The Valley of Life and Death is still my favorite.

So, what more do I have to say about these headcanons that I have not already said in previous posts? Let’s see…

If Yang Guo were explicitly a canon ace, then he would be the best example of the kind of ace character I want in fiction. Of course, he’s not a canon ace character, and I have to deduct a heck of a lot of points for that. However, while I have found much goodness during this past year as I’ve binged on fiction with canon ace characters, I still feel like I have not quite found what am I looking for. If I found a canon ace character who has all of the qualities which makes me like Yang Guo so much as a headcanon!ace character, would I then finally be satisfied? Probably not, because I would still want more aromantic representation, and Yang Guo very much is not aromantic.

Or is he? Okay, obviously, he’s not aromantic aromantic, but a case could be made that he is demiromantic. He only falls in love once in his life, and only after he had a close relationship with that person for years. That seems pretty demiromantic, and while Jin Yong rarely has characters fall in love with each other at first sight (unless they are supporting/minor characters, especially female characters), it generally takes something significantly less than living with a particular person for years to get a Jin Yong character to fall in love.

And there is Guo Jing who, at this point, feels to me that he is at the border between headcanon and canon demisexual. The way he is described in the novel fits the dictionary definition (or at least the wiktionary definition) perfectly. Is that enough to make him a canon demisexual, without writer confirmation or explicitly saying that he demisexual? How explicit is explicit enough? I feel that he is just one notch shy of being the kind of representation I could call ‘canon’ rather than ‘headcanon’.

And then there is Fei Ruoran, who is not from the Condor Trilogy at all, or even a Jin Yong novel. There is actually even less substantial evidence in the text that she is ace than for Yang Guo or Guo Jing. It’s mostly the total absence of any sign that she has sexual feelings. There is actually a tiny bit of evidence that she is aromantic – namely, the scene where she says that she does not even know what romance is. However, the mere fact that she is a female protagonist in a wuxia novel who doesn’t fall in love with anybody is enough to suggest aromanticism to me.

If you got this far, thank you for bearing with my meandering thoughts, and happy Ace Awareness Week!

My experiences with being ace in Vorkosiverse fandom

This is for the October 2017 Carnival of Aces: Asexuality in Fandom.

A few years back I wrote this, which is ironic, because about a year after that, I did actually develop an interest in fanfic, and two years later, I started writing fanfic.

There were a few stimuli, the most prominent being reading Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (GJatRQ). As a teenager, the Vorkosigan Saga was one of my most favorite series of books. GJatRQ was in some ways satisfying, and in some ways disappointing, and it was the latter which inspired me to write fanfic.

Another thing I wanted to play with was having an asexual character in the Vorkosiverse. As it so happens, I do not headcanon any of the canon Vorkosiverse characters as being ace (there are some potential ace headcanons there, it’s just that I don’t headcanon any of them that way), so that meant having original characters who were also ace.

For me, as a fan, the essence of the Vorkosigan Saga is that there is high levels of drama and chaos, and the characters have to grow and make a major change in themselves in order to earn their happy ending. The Vorkosigan Saga novels which best exemplify this, in my opinion, are Mirror Dance and A Civil Campaign, which are also my favorites in the series. Another trademark of the Vorkosgian Saga, IMNSHO, is mad cap adventure – mistaken identities, implausible plot twists which are too bold for the reader to reject, Miles spreading chaos, etc. GJatRQ went against all that, so I wanted to respond by writing fanfic in which there was tons of drama, chaos, plot twists, etc. On top of all that, I wanted the protagonist to be difficult to like (some readers ended up liking him anyway, but I did not make it easy for them to like him!) In fact, my favorite comment which I received was this was … I can’t find it write now, but this was the summary “this OC is so awful, he’s the opposite of a Gary Stu, I can’t keep reading this!”

(On that note: if you want to find these fanfics I wrote, you can, but I am warning you that a lot of readers find this particular series offputting. So if you find them, and come back to me and say “Sara, those fanfics are so horrible, I wish I had never read them” my response will be “I warned you.”)

So, I wanted to write fanfic which centered a particular type of antihero, and I wanted to throw in asexuality, so this antihero ended up being ace (and aromantic too).

It was interesting to see how the (mostly non-ace) readers reacted to this original character being an aro ace. Based on the comments, some of them seemed to find him more sympathetic after they found out he was aro ace since it helped explain some of his actions, especially since he helped another ace character. And yes, I put in a second original character who is ace because it’s a lot easier to bring asexual themes into a story if there is more than one ace character. And since the second ace character was much easier to like, readers generally had a favorable opinion of her (she was also more boring, which is why she was not the center of the series). However, while most readers thought that the antihero helping the other ace character was one of the most likeable things he did, there was one reader who felt that he was hurting her by telling her that it was okay for her to be ace.

A problem I had while writing was that I am a lot more interested in Asexuality 201 than Asexuality 101, so these fanfics had a lot of 201 and not much 101. This resulted in some readers being confused. When I read ace fiction, I’m sometimes frustrated by there being more Asexuality 101 than Asexuality 201, but having had this experience, I can understand why writers sometimes put in more Asexuality 101 and less Asexuality 201 than I would like.

There were a whole bunch of other problems with this series of fanfics, but they weren’t related to asexuality, so I’m not going to discuss them here.

Even after writing this set of original-character centric fanfics, I still had not worked GJatRQ out of my system, so I went on to write a point-of-departure AU of The Vor Game. I killed off one of the major characters in The Vor Game right at the beginning (that was the point of departure which separates the AU from canon), which, among other things, led to one of the key events of GJatRQ happening during the timeframe of The Vor Game (i.e. more than twenty years earlier). (By the way, if you insist on reading my fanfic, I would like you to read this one first because I feel better about how it turned out. I am proud of how many cliffhanger chapter endings I was able to think up. And the fact that I am more interesting in using fanfic for cliffhanging than for shipping may reflect my aro-aceness).

Though this AU fanfic did not have any explicit ace content whatsoever, I was aware of some subtle ways that ace discourse was affecting the way I wrote this fanfic. For example, there is a scene where a character is talking about how he has sexual agency and can consent to sex, which was definitely influenced by ace writing about how it is possible for aces to consent.

I also put in three original characters in this fanfic who *I* think are ace, and I was debating whether or not to make that asexuality explicit. Eventually, I decided not to do so, and there is no hint in the fanfic that they are ace. Why did I not make it explicit? The in-universe reason was that they were not POV characters, and it did not make sense for them to come out as ace to the POV character. However, if I had wanted to make their asexuality explicit, I could have made up a reason why they would want to come out as ace. The real reasons were that a) I had just written some fanfics with very explicit asexual themes, and I wanted a break from that and b) I didn’t just want it to be a ‘by the way I’m ace’ thing but I also did not want to address asexuality in more depth in that fanfic because I did not want it to distract from the other stuff which was going on in the story. Thus, they aren’t even word of ace ace characters since I’ve never put out the word that those specific characters are ace.

***

Finally, a few comments on being ace in the Vorkosiverse fandom.

The biggest disadvantage is that the Vorkosiverse fandom is a heck of a lot smaller than, say, the Harry Potter / Supernatural / Sherlock / Marvel Cinematic Universe / Homestuck / etc. fandoms. It’s not even as big as the Miraculous Ladybug fandom. That means there are a lot fewer fanworks out there, and consequently, a lot fewer people making ace fanworks. In fact, as far as I know, I’m the only person who has made any ace fanwork for the Vorkosiverse fandom.

The big advantage of the Vorkosiverse fandom is that it is a lot less focused on erotica and shipping than many other fandoms. There is still plenty of erotic fanfic and shipping in the fandom, but there are also a lot of plotty fanfics, as well as fanfics which explore the setting of the series without focusing on sex or romance. For example, one of the most common tropes in Vorkosiverse fandom is Somebody Finding Out the Truth about the Escobar Invasion (in the past month alone, there have been two fanfics with this trope – “The King’s Quarrel” and “A Man of the Right”). There is a fanfic in which Gregor figures out most of it but thinks that Aral, not Ezar, was the mastermind, there’s a fanfic in which Komarran terrorists capture Aral, use truth serum on him, and then broadcast the interrogation on the vid network, and various other variations on the trope. And this trope almost never has much to do with sex or romance. As an aro-ace, this greater abundance of fanfics focused on something other than shipping makes Vorkosiverse fandom more appealing to me than many other fandoms.