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Sometimes Extinction Arrives on Wheels — more of why I love sf/f

Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, July 1988. Cover art by Bob Eggleton.

Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July 1988. Cover art by Bob Eggleton.

Some months back I wrote about the first story written by Connie Willis that I remember reading. And while that story is awesome and I still find new insights every time I read it decades later, the first of her stories that made me go, “Dang! This author is GREAT!” Was from a few months later that same year: “The Last of the Winnebagos.”

The story is about a photojournalist who is supposed to be on his way to cover a political event, but he stops to take pictures of the so-called Last of the Winnebagos. The tale is set in a dystopia near-future where, among other changes, the entire species of dog was wiped out by a plague. During the death spiral of the dogs extinction, laws against animal cruelty and the like have ratcheted up, and the Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has become not just a major political force, but for all intents and purposes a national secret police force. Even accidentally killing an animal can result in serious prison time and other steep penalties.

There are other changes that have taken place unrelated to the dog plague. Energy sources are rationed, for instance. At the time of the story there are only three states left in the country that have not banned RVs and similar gas-guzzlers. Even in those states where they are still allowed, just vehicles are banned from federal freeways. So the elderly couple who drive around in one of the last RVs, regularly park somewhere public, put up a sign, and for a small fee give people a tour of this relic of a bygone era.

While taking pictures and interviewing the couple, the photojournalist takes particular interest in the photos they have of their last pet, who succumbed to the plague, like so many others. During this portion of the story, we learn of that the journalist has an ongoing side project to take photos of people talking about their beloved dogs, trying to catch the moment when, as he says, “their face reveals the beloved pet.”

I don’t want to give away any more of the plot. Suffice it to say that there are secrets revealed—such as why the photojournalist is more interested in the elderly couple and their photos of like on the road with their beloved, long-lost pet than the paid gig. And we learn a few more interesting twists about the dystopic America the characters inhabit.

That’s a big part of why this story hooked me. The dystopia that Willis imagines in this story is quite different than any I had seen before. Yet utterly believable. People will vote for very strange things and get behind politicians proposing quite ridiculous things if they get riled up enough. A truth that has been demonstrated very painfully the last few years.

Even though the story involves the journalist driving over great distances a few times, interacting with the “secret police” as well as ordinary citizens, the tale always feels intimate. We’re exploring something very personal and painful in this story. In addition to seeing some novel ideas (for the time) of how certain technologies would change.

It was a good story. A thought-provoking story. A story that explored both personal grief, and communal regret. As well as looking of multiple (and very plausible) types of extinction.


Fighting toward the light at the end of the tunnel—or why hope is important in sf/f

What’s wrong with hope? (click to embiggen)

One of the things I loved about tumblr (before the SESTA/FOSTA madness), was the wide variety of cool things that would come across my dashboard because someone had reblogged something reblogged by someone who had reblogged from someone else. At some point in the last year, this blog post by Alexandra Rowland crossed my timeline. I thought it was cool, and I liked it and reblogged it myself, and I didn’t think about it again until last week when everyone was posting links to an article on the same subject on Vox (and in many cases arguing against the premise). The original post was simple:

The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.

Rowland goes on to describe hopepunk in more detail. In later posts, when lots of people argued about the term she chose (often suggesting noblebright as the preferred term), she explained how a hopepunk world is different than a noblebright one. Noblebright is where every hero is noble and pure and they conquer evil because they are noble and pure and once evil is conquered everything goes back to being noble and pure. A hopepunk world isn’t a rose-colored fairytale place, instead:

The world is the world. It’s really good sometimes and it’s really bad sometimes, and it’s sort of humdrum a lot of the time. People are petty and mean and, y’know, PEOPLE. There are things that need to be fixed, and battles to be fought, and people to be protected, and we’ve gotta do all those things ourselves because we can’t sit around waiting for some knight in shining armor to ride past and deal with it for us. We’re just ordinary people trying to do our best because we give a shit about the world. Why? Because we’re some of the assholes that live there.

I’m not completely sure when the term grimdark was first coined, but I know the attitude was around (and works of fiction based on it were getting praised and winning awards) in the late 1980s. Grimdark is sometimes described as a reaction to idealistic heroic fiction, meant to portray how nasty, brutish, violent, and dark the real world is. It has also been defined somewhat more accurately as a type of fiction that prefers darkness for darkness sake, replacing aspiration with nihilism and the assertion that true ethical behavior is either futile or impossible.

I think a much more accurate description of the majority of grimdark is torture porn and rape porn pretending to be a deconstruction of unrealistic tropes. Damien Walter noted in an article for the Guardian a few years ago that it is driven by a “commercial imperative to win adolescent male readers.”

Usually in grimdark stories the driving narrative force is to do the most brutal, shocking, nasty thing the author can to characters that they have made likable—with a lot of misogynist skewing. Rape of women and children is particularly prevalent in these stories, usually justified by the claim that that is realistic for pre-industrial societies, ignoring the fact that in war zones throughout history men were almost as likely to be the victims of rape by the enemy as women. I also have trouble with the “realistic” defense particularly in the epic fantasy settings because those authors never show people dying of cholera or dysentery—which in the real historical settings were at least a thousand times more likely to be the cause of a person’s death than torture or rape.

Grimdark appeals most strongly to white (usually straight) young men from middle class backgrounds—the sort of people who are least likely to have experienced much in the way of grimness in the real world. They are the kinds of guys who will insist that they are oppressed now because women, people of color, and queer folks have some civil rights protections. In short, they are the kind of people that:

They’re nice white middle class boys and the closest they’ve ever come to the ghetto is when they accidentally got off at the tube in Brixton once, took one look around and ran crying back into the tube.

I’ll tell you where that quote came from in a minute. First, I want to finish explaining why I believe it is mostly white, straight, middle class young men who find this appealing. It’s precisely because their exposure to grim realities is almost always secondhand. The notion that the person held up as a hero isn’t really a paragon of virtue is something they didn’t experience firsthand as a child. They didn’t routinely have someone they admired and loved call them an abomination, for instance. Queer kids, on the other hand, experienced that again and again growing up. Women learn early in life that the best they can expect from society and family if they get sexually harassed or assaulted is that they will be blamed for not somehow avoiding the situation. People of color learn that their lives are considered disposable by much of society, and so on.

Brutality, nastiness, and cruelty aren’t surprising revelations, to us. They are things we learn to expect (and endure with a smile if we don’t want to get grief from those around us). So we don’t get the same puerile thrill from its portrayal as others do.

I started working on this post last weekend after reading some of the follow-ups to the Vox story that I included in the Friday Five. And then I discovered that Cora Buhlert had already said much of what I thought about the issue (and had a lot more references than I to quote) in a blog post that I failed to read last week while I was being sick and not reading much of anything: The Hopepunk Debate. The block quote above came from there, where she was quoting a much older posting she had done elsewhere. You should go read her post, because it’s full of all sorts of interesting citations and observations.

When grimdark first started popping up, it seemed to many like an interesting and novel way to look at our perceptions of culture. It was the scrappy newcomer to the pop culture landscape—in 1987. In the 30-some years since, it has become one of the dominant paradigms of storytelling. The most popular fantasy series on television anywhere right now, Game of Thrones, is grimdark. It’s no longer surprising when likable characters are maimed and tortured and murdered in brutal ways in popular shows and books. It’s become boringly predictable.

Except that’s not quite true. Brutality has always been banal.

This gets to why I think Rowland is right to use the suffix -punk in her description of this reaction to grimdark. Grimdark has become the norm in too much of speculative fiction. Believing that hope is a thing worth kindling is, in such an environment, an act of rebellion.

We can argue about what kind of works qualify as hopepunk. For instance, I think that The Empire Strikes Back could be considered hopepunk. Luke’s insecurities and imperfections drive his part of the plot. Lando isn’t a nice guy (charming, yes, but not nice). Han is imperfect in different ways than Lando or Luke. Lots of things don’t go right for the heroes, but they don’t give up.

I’ve said many times that science fiction is the literature of hope. Even in most dystopian fiction, I have said, there is a glimmer of hope. I fully understand that that is something I believe, and isn’t necessarily an empirical fact. I believe the best sf/f can be realistic, it can be dark, it can portray the imperfect and even nasty nature of the world, while still offering that glimmer of hope.

And the truth is that that world is more realistic. That is an empirical fact. If the worst possible outcome was always more likely than others, our planet would be a barren, lifeless rock. Yes, we all die eventually, as far as we know all living creatures do. But the world is full of life because more often than not, living things survive, they endure, and they pass the gift of life along. Not understanding that requires turning an awfully big blind eye on the world. It’s a boring and inaccurate assessment of the world around us.

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”

Embracing many realities, or why sf/f is about more than just ideas

Cover of the January 1959 edition of Astounding Science Fiction

I don’t know what these guys are supposed to be arguing about over this nativity scene, but clearly the alien is amused.

My seventh grade math teacher noticed that everyday during lunch break I would sit off to the side reading, and also that each day I had a different book. It just so happened that his class was my first class after lunch, and one day early in the term, as I walked into the room, he asked me what the book I was reading that day was about. I tried to sum up the plot as the other kids were coming in and taking their seats. He nodded, said it sounded interesting, and then we started class. The next day he asked the question again. It continued, each day he would either ask me what the book I was reading that day was about, or if I’d liked the way the previous day’s book had ended. This particular teacher had known me my whole life. He and his wife had been classmates of my parents. There was a picture in Mom’s photo album of him and Dad chatting while Mom and his wife were cooing over me as a baby. As I recall, his wife was the one holding me. So I didn’t think of him as just a teacher—he was an old family friend. So I just took the questions as sincere interest.

These conversations always happened as the other kids were filing into the classroom, taking their seats, getting out their books, and so on. And usually they all just ignored what I and the teacher were talking about. Until one day when one young woman walked up to us and declared in a rather loud voice. “My mom says that people who read all the time are freaks who don’t understand the real world because they spend all their time in those imaginary places!”

It seemed as if the entire room went silent and that everyone was looking at us.

I started to stammer out something, but the teacher said, “It’s not nice to call someone a freak.” And then he told us to both take our seats.

She was hardly the first person to criticize my reading habits. Adults had often felt the need to weigh in and tell my parents that they shouldn’t let me read science fiction and fantasy, especially. Many thought all the fantasy was satanic, and the science fiction was equally suspect because scientists believe in evolution. There were also many who just thought that how much time I spend reading was the problem, regardless of the subject matter. There are a variety of reasons why non-readers distrust books. It’s not just the evangelical fundamentalists, who tend to classify everything in the world into the two categories of pro-Jesus and pro-Satan who misunderstand what the realm of sf/f is about.

A few weeks back I wrote about the older professional sf author who dismissed the three recent award-winning novels (which he admits he has never read) of a black woman because “psychic powers to control the earth and earthquakes had already been done in the fifties.” Besides being a dick-ish comment, it’s a bog standard gatekeeping argument.

Gatekeeping is an insidious system of exclusion intent on denigrating, dismissing, and erasing anyone who doesn’t conform to the cishet white male (often English-speaking) yardstick. This particular argument has two prongs: the first is the implication that a person is ignorant of the past of the genre, the second is the notion that a great science fiction story must introduce a new idea in order to be great. Science fiction has been defined as the literature of ideas, after all.

I have several objections to this entire line of reasoning.

First, almost none of the works that are usually authoritatively held forth as “great” science fiction actually introduced a new idea. For example, The Stars My Destination was a novel by Alfred Bester published in 1956 and frequently named in various polls as the greatest science fiction novel of all time. Here’s the thing: The Stars My Destination is basically a re-telling of The Count of Monte Cristo (published more than 100 years earlier). Oh, yes, there are interplanetary space ships and human colonies on the asteroids and various planets of the solar system (standard sf ideas for at least two decades at that point), and the main character (who in this case is definitely not a hero) developed the spontaneous ability to teleport simply by thinking about it. Even then, the notion of teleportation had been used in science fiction and fantasy stories since the 1870s (that’s right, when Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States).

None of the ideas in The Stars My Destination were new, so why do so many science fiction fans and pros consider it a great sf novel? This gets us to my next objection: because a novel isn’t just about a single idea. A novel is a complete story with multiple characters and sub-plots. It’s about the synthesis of narrative, characterization, world-building, actions, reactions, and consequences. It’s the way Bester took many elements the reader was already familiar with, combined them, contrasted them, and wove a compelling tale out of them.

Science fiction is the literature of ideas in the sense that ideas are things we examine and re-examine. We toy with them, dissect them, expand them, redefine them, deconstruct (which is different than dissection) them, reassemble them, combine them with other ideas, and so forth. And it isn’t a competition (even though we have awards and sometimes argue about the relative merits of different works), it’s a conversation. Subsequent tales that use ideas others have used before should be understood in the context of the give-and-take of a conversation. One story looked at one aspect of the idea, other stories imagine different aspects, or ask us to reconsider the assumptions of the previous viewpoints.

It isn’t about settling on one and only one notion of reality. It is about possibilities. It should not be about narrowing the possibilities, but rather expanding the mind.

If wanting more possibilities makes me a freak, then I’ll proudly take the label.

Doubling-down isn’t how you make sf/f for everyone… and being southern isn’t a license to condescend

Emerald City gatekeeper from  1939 Wizard of Oz asked, "Just who do you think you are, honey?"Although I already covered some of this last Thursday (Stop digging, don’t you see how deep you already are?), another incident has come to light that makes it even more clear that there are sadly a lot of people committing one of the most classic blunders—no, not that one about going up against a Sicilian when death is on the line—no, this one is from the Nixon era: it isn’t the crime that brings you down, it’s the cover-up.

I’m speaking metaphorically, though. I am not trying to imply that anyone has committed a crime, nor that they are trying to hide it. In the case of the Silverberg incident, while there was plenty that is of the gatekeeper-y style of racism/sexism (not to mention the bigoted trope of calling any marginalized person who is being anything other than deferential “angry”) in the original offense, the real problem came when he wrote about how he isn’t racist or sexist—using racist and misogynist arguments to do so. So, the original comments could have been apologized for as thoughtless or ill-considered (and hypocritical), the denial just made the unexamined misogyny and racist presumptions undeniable.

Turns out two weekends ago at LosCon Greg Benford got himself in a similar problem. Mike Glyer at File770 has several posts with statements from several people and there’s a lot to unravel, but the upshot was that Benford made a number of dismissive comments about works written by one black woman in particular and younger-than-him women writing sf/f in general during a panel, and then during the question-and-answer portion of the panel a pro sitting in the audience tried to call him on it and there was much yelling and recrimination.

The convention staff’s inconsistent handling of the subsequent complaints from multiple people in the panel are generating a lot of pedantic argument and deflection. I don’t feel like re-litigating that, I want to focus on the dismissive words and the problems there. The topic of the panel was supposed to be to discuss who the future Grandmasters of SF/F might be. One of the statements Benford made as part of a general dismissal of a lot of stuff being written today was, “If you write sf honey, gotta get the science right.”

A lot of people are trying to defend Benford by saying that everyone else is being bigoted against southern people by taking offense. They are making the claim that “honey” is used as a polite term to address a stranger in many social circumstances in the south. And they are right to an extent, however, it is not always polite, nor is it an entirely ungendered term, as Benford’s defenders are trying to claim. Straight men in the south never use “honey” to address another man, it is always gendered. Queer men can use it either way, though straight men are quite likely to take offense if a man refers to them as honey. Women can use the term to people of any gender and often it is considered a polite form of address, but it depends on the context.

An older woman might indeed address a younger person as “honey” if they are either asking them to do something, or suggesting that the way the younger person is behaving might be inappropriate for the situation, and so forth. The younger southern person would not take offense, and neither would anyone listening. Southern culture does have a very strong strain of respecting one’s elders, for one thing; the term “honey” in this case signals a difference in social standing. But if the significantly younger person were to call the older woman “honey” in the answer, she would be affronted, and other people overhearing would all agree that the younger person was being rude. Because this is inverting the social standing: the younger person’s use of the term “honey” in such a case signals that the older person doesn’t deserve the respect ordinarily accorded to elders.

If a man uses the term to address a woman who is not a close family member or intimate partner, it also signals a difference in social standing. But depending on the context, the difference being asserted might be simply that the man believes that all women naturally must defer to him. While it might sound friendly, it’s definitely got a message of “respect your betters (and that would be me)” about it.

As another old white bearded guy from the south, I have also used the term “honey” when addressing someone who wasn’t my husband. And as a queer man, I have used it without regard to gender. But I also have had friends explain to me that it just amps up the condescension when I do that. I didn’t consciously intend it, but once it was pointed out, I realized I have to learn to stop saying it, because they are right. Not just that it sounds condescending (which it does). And also not just that it can hurt someone to be talked down to that way whether I intend it or not (which it does). But also because now I know both of those things.

So, since Benford identifies as straight man originally from the south, we can safely infer that his off-the-cuff remark was aimed solely at women writers, and that it was more of an admonishment than friendly advice. It also is a bit of classic gatekeeper BS that conveniently is never used to disqualify any science fiction written by straight white guys. Something that John Scalzi pointed out in a chuckle-worthy way:

Another of my favorite authors, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, started a thread (which others contributed to) that gives more examples of science fiction written by white guys where the science is very, very wrong, but no one of Benford’s camp would ever say wasn’t sf.

Read the whole thread here.

Another Benford comment that was directed at a specific author is even worse: asserting that a trilogy which recently won three Hugos in a row isn’t all that because “psychic powers to control the earth and earthquakes had already been done in the fifties.” Which is another favorite gatekeeper trick to exclude people. Never mind that every one of Benford’s own books could be boiled down to a single “idea” that someone had written many years before he started being published. But that’s the nature of gatekeeping: rules are stated in a way that sound like an objective criteria, but aren’t applied to works by white straight cisgendered men.

But others have also explained that a bit better. Annalee Flower Horne did a twitter thread explaining how “the notion that ideas and tropes can never be re-used in SF and that anyone trying must be new here would be funny if it weren’t such an insidious tool of exclusion.”

But at this point I’m still just describing Benford’s original offense, and not how he dug himself even deeper into the hole. I’m not going to link to it because it’s hosted on sites that I refuse to give any support of. But his response boiled down to accusing everyone else of being too sensitive and lamenting the so-called victim culture. Ah, yes, that tired old chestnut! Every classic blunder deserves a classic racist/misogynist/homophobic dog whistle, I guess. But just to be clear: if you claim that other people are being too sensitive, all that really means is that you’re offended because you think you should be able to disrespect whoever you want and never face any consequences for it.

I didn’t do as good a job last week about explaining one aspect of why this doubling-down is not just pointless, but also ethically wrong. Fortunately, Brianne Reeves did a much better job:

“Imagine this.

You are at a playground. A gaggle of four year olds is running about. One of them is not paying attention and accidentally sends another plummeting off the equipment and into the asphalt. Suddenly, there is screaming and crying. Mothers race to the scene.

What do you do next?

You fix the wound as best you can, and the child apologizes. Not necessarily for the shove, but for the inattention. They didn’t *mean* to cause pain, but their lack of awareness meant that another is in pain.”

I mentioned above the time when a friend called me out for using the term “honey” in a condescending way. I wasn’t intending to belittle the person I was talking to, but intention isn’t an exculpatory factor. My friend was hurt by my words, and that is on me. More importantly, once I have had this explained to me, the onus also is upon me to avoid such thoughtless words again. It is tough breaking old habits, I know. I have screwed up since that was pointed out to me, but the answer isn’t to blame my friend for being overly sensitive. The onus is on me to keep trying to do better, and apologize sincerely when I mess up.

It’s also galling when a professional writer, of all people, tries to claim that words don’t matter. They do. We should take pride in taking responsibility for what we say and write.

Stop digging, don’t you see how deep you already are?

“Friendship is not about people who act true to you face. It's about people who remain true behind your back.”

(click to embiggen)

Shortly after the last Hugo ceremony, a kerfluffle happened when a member of the Old Guard made some less than nice comments about one of the winners on a mailing list consisting of several hundred people. At the time I posted on twitter that, “An old white guy who used a Hugo awards speech to make an extended dick joke has no business calling anyone else’s comments vulgar.” So let’s do a summary:

N.K. Jemisin is the first author to win the Hugo for best novel three years in a row. These three best novel Hugos were not her first awards. Several years ago when she won another award, a person who has since became a notorious racist provacateur who happened to be an officer of the Science Fiction Writers of America at the time used the society’s official mailing list to send out racist and sexist comments (calling Jemisin, an African-American author, a “savage” was not the worst part of the comments). He was ousted from his position at the time, but subsequently from his own publishing house and blog he proceeded to rally people to harass Jemisin and every other non-white, non-male, non-straight science fiction/fantasy author he could identify who was getting positive attention.

So, when Jemisin won her third Best Novel Hugo in a row, she made some comments about the harassment campaign. Comments that the vast majority of people who saw the speech thought were funny and apt. They weren’t angry comments, they were triumphant. And she is hardly the first award winner to mention obstacles that had to be overcome in order to even be a nominee for the award.

But one member of the old guard of sf/f (Robert Silverberg) didn’t like the comments, and on a mailing list that he thought was private (but come on, hundreds of members!) he made comments that were racist, misogynist, dismissive, and hypocritical about Jemisin’s speech. He characterized her comments as vulgar, graceless, and angry. Which, as I commented above, is pretty rich from someone who used the speech at a previous Hugo award ceremony to make a long, elaborate (and worst of all, not funny) dick joke. Never mind the weird anti-semetic thing at another Hugo ceremony, nor sponsoring a weird conspiracy-theory petition about a sci fi organization a few years ago. Since these remarks came to light, various other professionals in the community came up with other examples of him being misogynist.

Further, while admitting that he had never read any of her stuff (despite being a Hugo voter who gets a free copy of each nominated work each year that most of the rest of us voters use to read before we cast our ballots), he indicated that he was skeptical that she deserved the awards.

Here’s the thing: if you are not a member of a marginalized community, and you tell a person in that community that they should tone down what they are saying about their own experience being discriminated against? You are guilty at the very least of mansplaining. Which, in case you don’t know means:

explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer.

Here’s the other thing: if you’re a long time Hugo awards participant but you can’t be bothered to check out the work of someone who has won several times recently, yet still feel entitled to opine on whether they deserve any of the awards, it’s time for you to hang up your hat and go out to pasture.

This has become part of the conversationn so many months later because Silverberg contacted the publisher of the fan news site, File 770, all upset because he thought some comments others had made about his comments were libelous. Let me state for the record that, as a person who has professionally been involved in libel cases and sat through long convoluted conversations with lawyers about libel, those comments aren’t anywhere close to libel. At all. But, because he felt that way, he demanded that the publisher post his 1500 word essay about racism and sexism to reply, and oh, my goodness, talk about being deep in a hole and deciding to dig yourself deeper!

A few words of advice: if you ever begin any paragraph with the phrase “I’m not racist” everything that comes after is a lie. It you say “I’m not sexist” again, that is a lie and everything that follows it is. But, even worse, if you try to defend yourself by saying, “Some of my best friends are…” You have just demonstrated that you are so deeply steeped in ignorance on the topic that you should be too ashamed to ever show your face in public again.

It is impossible to grow up in a society without absorbing that society’s racist, sexist, sectarian, and homophobic prejudices. The best any of us can hope for is to not be intentionally racist or sexist or homophobic; learn from our mistakes and keep trying to do better.

Silverberg hasn’t helped his cause with this essay. And besides the complete lack of awareness, another issue is the self-victimhood. He—and a lot of people defending him—make a big deal about how his original comments were made on a mailing list that he thought was private, and therefore he is the victim because his privacy was violated. First, let’s turn to Miss Manners on what one should do if something you said in private gets leaked to the public:

Admit your wrongdoing. Don’t try to blame it on being misheard, the vendetta of other people, or her paranoia. If you said the wrong thing and you were caught out, fess up – however painful it might be. Don’t put it off – do it right away, in private if you can.

It doesn’t matter if he thought it was a private conversation. It was bigoted commentary, period. And if his private comments become public, the only honorable thing to do is admit that what you said was wrong. Period.

I’ve blogged many times about bigots who don’t think they are bigots for all sorts of misguided reasons, including this one: the mistaken idea that if you don’t say it to someone’s face on purpose, somehow it isn’t racism/sexism/homophobia/whatever. You can’t claim to be an ally when you are trash talking the person behind their back. You can’t claim not to be a bigot when you are spouting bigoted things out of earshot of the people in question. How hard can it be to understand that?

Silverberg is an author whose work I have written positive things about. And I’m an old, white-bearded sf/f fan just like him. I understand that he sincerely thinks he’s the victim here. I also understand that he couldn’t be more wrong, and it just makes me feel a lot of pity for him and his ignorance.

But let’s try to close an a more upbeat note:

Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist – Avenue Q – Original Broadway Cast:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

No true Martian… or, the myth of the true fan

Art by Bruce Pennington

Art by Bruce Pennington

I find that if I dither over a blog post I feel strongly about, eventually someone else writes something on the topic that says some of what I want to say much better than I have been. I don’t find the phenomenon frustrating, in fact often the publication of these posts help me hone in on an aspect of the topic which I feel most strongly about in such a way that I can express the idea better. This week, there were multiple posts on the topic of what constitutes a “real fan” that are worth sharing. For instance, Camestros Felapton posted: You don’t control who gets to be fans in which he talks about people who, when faced with evidence that a majority of people like things that they don’t, look for ways to exclude those people from fandom:

“It’s the same con-game as used by Palin, Sad Puppies and most recently by Vox Day… declaring themselves the champions of the ‘real’ fans or the ‘real’ people. If you are leftwing or heck, just want to read comics with more realistic women in them, then magically you aren’t real anymore and your purchases don’t count.”

Many years ago this phenomenon was referred to, in fannish circles, as the True Fan Fallacy. Who gets to decide who is a true fan and who isn’t? But it isn’t just in fandom where it happens (which is one of the point Camestros makes in the above linked post).

From a fairly early age I was frequently teased, harassed, dismissed, and/or bullied for not being a “normal boy.” I was called sissy by other kids, and I was called a faggot and a sissy by various adults—including teachers and pastors—because I was interested in things or acted in ways they didn’t think a boy ought to. Then I was accused of not being a real Christian when I pointed out contradictions between things some religious leaders said and the actual words of Christ recorded in the Bible. Then I was accused of not being a real American for a wide variety of reasons (my favorite is still being told I wasn’t a real American because I believed in the separation of Church and state—you know, a concept championed among the Founding Father’s by both the author of the Declaration of Independence {Thomas Jefferson} and the author of the Constitution and Bill of Rights {James Madison}, and further actually enshrined in the Constitution itself!

Just as this last year I found myself being accused by some people of not being a real Star Wars fan because I actually enjoyed The Last Jedi? Me! Who saw the original Star Wars in theatres on Opening Night as a teen-ager in 1977, and then scraped together money from my part-time job to go see it in the theatre twelve more times that summer. And then stood in line over night to see Empire Strikes Back and two years later again for Return of the Jedi on their opening days. I’m not a real Star Wars fan, though, because I disagree with these man-babies who actually think the original trilogy, which was all about a Rebellion against an Empire, wasn’t political???

And yes, I understand that my invoking my history with the original trilogy sounds an awful lot like gatekeeping. But here’s the thing—I don’t believe that anyone who wasn’t alive back then and didn’t see the movies the same way I did are not fans. I admit that I’m giving those who are so clueless as to think the original trilogy wasn’t about politics some serious side-eye, but I’m not saying they aren’t fans of the original series.

I have a good friend who was barely one year old when the original movie came out—and he’s one of the most passionate Star Wars fans I know. It doesn’t matter that he came to the movies later than me. It doesn’t matter than he and I disagree about some things in the various movies. He’s a fan, and the myth of Luke and Leia and Han and Chewie and Obi Wan belong to him just as much as they belong to me.

This discussion of who is a real fan and who isn’t lately centers around stories where white straight men aren’t the only characters who get to be heroes. Guys are upset that a black man, or a woman, or a non-white woman may get to have major roles in the story. And heaven forfend if some of these characters in the spotlight are queer!

Back in 1983 I was sitting in a theatre on opening day for the Return of the Jedi and I was very confused early on in the movie. Why, oh why, was Jabba the Hutt, a slug-like alien, so lasciviously interested in two different mammalian female characters? I mean, I realize that in a universe with many sentient races, there will be some characters no matter what species who get off on putting any other sentients in leashes, but what possible reason would Jabba have to put Leia in that damn metal bra? It made absolutely no sense to me at all.

I understand that thousands (or maybe millions) of straight fanboys in the audience didn’t notice that discrepancy. I understand that it jumped out at me because I’m a queer guy and I wasn’t distracted by Carrie Fischer’s bared midriff. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a valid quibble for me to have with the movie.

Also, for each of the original movies that I saw in those theatres, at every single showing it wasn’t just guys in the audience. There were just as many girls and women in each crowd as there were boys and men. And even in the very whitebread part of the Pacific Northwest where I was living at the time, it wasn’t exclusively white people in those audiences, either. Furthermore, I wasn’t, by any means, the only person sitting in all of those theatres back in 1977 who went home to fantasize about Luke and Han hooking up romantically.

Queer folks, and women, and people of color have been fans of sf/f for as long as there has been science fiction and fantasy. We love those stories and those characters and those worlds just as much as any other fan. We’re buying books and going to movies and watching the series because we actually enjoy those books and movies and series. We’re not pretending. I don’t have the time to watch movies I don’t really like, and I certainly don’t want to spend money on books that I don’t enjoy reading.

You don’t have to like the same things I do, just as I don’t have to like the same things you do. But if the only fiction you object to winning awards is stuff that is written by people of color or women or queer people (and you insist that those authors’ sales are the results of “affirmative action” or “virtue signalling”) you aren’t fooling anybody. Everyone can see your bigotry, and we’re not impressed.

Subtracting homogeneity, fighting erasure—reflections on exclusion at sf/f conventions

James Whale who directed Universal's Frankenstein in 1931 and Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 was an openly gay director in the 20s and 30s.

James Whale who directed Universal’s Frankenstein in 1931 and Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 was an openly gay director in the 20s and 30s, just one example of a queer person who created classics in the genre. The movies were adapted from the book Frankenstein written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, a woman, who is credited with creating the science fiction genre with said book.

So a problem that had been brewing for a while with this year’s WorldCon came to a head this weekend. There had been hints and rumblings. I’d heard that many pros were mentioning having problems communicating with some members of staff. Then there was the request to all the Hugo nominees to wear semi-formal wear to the award ceremony, so it would be “elegant and professional looking.” That one rang alarm bells for me because almost everytime I’ve ever heard anyone use the term “professional looking” it was a dogwhistle for everything from “please don’t be obviously gender non-conforming” to “please don’t look like the kind of person who can’t afford a bespoke suit” to “please don’t dress ethnic” and so on—in other words, trying to enforce some homogeneity.

So how things came to a head: a professional writer who has been nominated for a Hugo this year was told they weren’t going to be on programming because “there is a kind of creator who appeals to Hugo nominators, but are totally unknown to convention attendees.” The email also managed to misgender the pro and… well things went downhill, after the pro and their spouse posted some of this information online. The programming people contacted the spouse, asked the spouse to convey their apology and expressed disappointment that they went public instead of handling this privately.

And that prompted many many other writers and creators to come out of the woodwork, posting their own many attempts to deal with similar issues (such as, “why did you discard the bio my publisher sent you, and pull information from my private Facebook account instead?” “What do you mean that people like me aren’t of interest to convention attendees?”)—indicating that a whole bunch of people had been trying to address this privately to no avail.

Only when it became public and dozens of authors who were on the programs wrote in to either withdraw, or at least suggest that other, newer, less well known writers could take their place on some panels, did the con chair issue a real apology (there had been a “we’re sorry if anyone’s offended” style non-apology the night before).

Because the thing is, the people who were being excluded weren’t just new writers to the field, it was overwhelmingly the queer creators, the non-white creators, and the women creators. And at one point, the programming person explicitly said, “Do you expect a WorldCon to be like WisCon?” WisCon being famously more feminist-friendly and queer-friendly than most other conventions.

Other people have written about this situation, and probably better than I, but there’s a part of this whole thing that just really presses my buttons, and it aligns with a theme I’ve written about many times on this blog: to wit, queer people, trans people, people of color, women, and people of many religions and cultures have been fans of sci-fi/fantasy (and created sci-fi/fantasy) for as long as it has existed. We aren’t new. We aren’t exotic. We aren’t fringe or band-wagoners. We’ve always been here, we just have seldom been allowed to be visible. As Mary Robinette Kowal observed at least four years ago:

“It’s not about adding diversity for the sake of diversity, it’s about subtracting homogeneity for the sake of realism.”
—Mary Robinette Kowal

Let’s go back to the explanation that was being given before the backlash forced them to scrap their programming plans and start over: “There is a kind of creator that appeals to the Hugo nominators who is not known by the convention attendees.”

I have at least three responses to that:

First, nominators are attendees. In order to nominate for the Hugo Awards and in order to vote for the winners, one must purchase a membership to the convention. And you know who else are attendees? The pros who are coming to the con that the con com doesn’t want to let on the program. Sure, not every attendee participated in the nomination process, and not every one of them nominated ever finalist, but some fraction of the attendees did. And the number of people who nominate is more than large enough to be a statistically significant sample of fans. So it is an entirely misleading and useless distinction to try to draw between attendees and nominators.

Second, this argument is a form of gaslighting. I’ve seen some people compare it to the old TrueFan arguments (and the more recent Real Fan claims from melancholy canines), and those are good comparisons, but I think a better model is the Moral Majority. I know I hark back to that particular group a lot, and I admit I know so much about them because they originated in the denomination in which I had been raised and they came to national prominence literally as I reached legal voting age, so my earliest election experiences included being told again and again that, because I disagreed with them, I was a member of the implied immoral minority.

This is the same kind of argument: “attendees” are implied as being the vast majority of fans, and these majority of fans don’t find “that certain kind of creator” interesting, unlike the “nominators.” The nominators are, by inference, supposed to be viewed as a fringe, extremist minority whose interests can’t possibly overlap with the implied majority. And just as the Moral Majority’s very name contained two lies (they were neither moral nor a majority), this notion that type of fans who are not interested in a “certain kind of creator” must consititute such an overwhelming majority that virtually no programming to appeals to anyone else is worth having.

Third, the majority/minority part isn’t the only form a gaslighting being attempted. Because here’s the thing: in most of the Hugo categories, it is not people who are nominated, but works of sci-fi/fantasy. The authors are referred to as nominees, but technically it is a specific novel, novella, novelette, short story, et cetera that is nominated. But that phrase, “a certain kind of creator who appeals to the nominators” puts the emphasis on the creator and the creator’s identity. In other words, they are arguing that the nominators really didn’t like the specific story, but have chosen the story to fulfill a quota or something.

In other words, the person who made this statement believes that the story nominated doesn’t really deserve to be nominated, and believes that the nominators don’t believe that either. It’s the same racist/homophobic/transphobic/misogynist arguments that the melancholy canines were making. A “certain kind of creator” is a dogwhistle. The nominators may want queer/trans/women/people of color, but “normal” people don’t. That’s what that statement says. And this is why I still fervently believe the person who said that should be fired from the con com.

Fourth, finally, they are arguing that attendees are only interested in seeing creators they already know and love. Completely ignoring the fact that most fans want to both see old favorites and to find new writers/stories/shows/what-have-you that might become favorites. One of my favorite parts of attending conventions are when I am exposed to new authors I’d never heard of before, and new works that I’d never seen. I’m always writing down names of authors and stories and ‘zines and so forth, and then going to look them up after the con.

Many of the authors who are currently in my personal list of favorites, are people who I learned about at a convention panel. Yes, once they become a favorite, I will look for their names in the programming grid and try to see some of their events, but I’m not just there to see the folks I already know.

The conventions where I ran programming were all smaller than WorldCon, but I have run programming at conventions. I know it is hard work. I know it can feel like thankless work. But one of my goals with that programming was to provide convention attendees opportunities to learn new things, to find new artists or writers and so forth that they didn’t previously know about; to introduce the work of many people to new audiences, while also giving fans a chance to see the people whose work they already liked.

If you don’t see that both of those goals should equally drive the programming of a sci fi or fantasy con, then you absolutely should not be working on programming. Go work for a commercial convention where the only point is to sell autographs. Do not volunteer for a World Science Fiction Con.

Millions of Voices Cried Out in Terror — or, That’s Not the Force You’re Feeling, Guys

“Imagine, if you will, millions of nerds arguing about Star Wars for 40 years.”

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I’ve started this blog post many times, but I either find myself wanting to pull my hair out at the mental gymnastics the haters (who claim to be TrueFans) keep putting themselves through to try to make their arguments that up is down and two billion plus one billion equals zero… and I keep giving up. When the craziness first came to my attention, back in those bygone days when the first trailer for The Force Awakens sent them into a tizzy of anger and outrage, I figure it was just an age thing. Right? I was 17 years old when the original Star Wars came out, and I had watched the Watergate scandal unfold and take down a corrupt president a few years before. I understood that the Empire was a corrupt government founded by people who had, at one point, been treated just as another other politician proposing what ideas that some people disagreed with, and that the Rebellion was being led by the remnants of what had been the opposition party before all of that. In other words, I understood that every single plot element in the original Star Wars was about politics.

These other folks, who whine and rage about the new movies, I just assumed they were closer to the median age of the typical internet user. Their first exposure to Star Wars had been to see it on a TV at home, possibly when they were too young to remember it, now. Whereas I saw it as a great movie that changed the way the genre was perceived as well as creating a seismic shift in all of pop culture, to them it had always been there. And they had been too young to understand that the word “empire” was inherently political, just as the phrase “rebel spy and a traitor” was also inherently political.

Oh, how naive I was just a few years ago. I hadn’t realized that the problem was much deeper than that.

Before I go on, a few other people have examined in depth a couple of the issues at hand, and rather than try to construct the same analysis, you should go check these out:

The Beautiful, Ugly, and Possessive Hearts of Star Wars.

Biased Opinion – The Wailing Ignorance of the Star Wars Fanboys.

The latter post, by the Aaron Pound, is extremely helpful in this discussion if for no other reason the two tables showing how box office of all the movies in the Star Wars franchise have done, and comparing them to other franchises (expressed in millions of dollars):

Please note: when adjusted for inflation, the original Star Wars made three-and-a-quarter billion dollars at the box office—that’s $3,252,000,000! Notice, also, the big drop-off that The Empire Strikes Back suffered, and then how the number went down a bit more for the third movie, The Return of the Jedi.

Now let’s look at the other chart (also in millions of dollars):

Aaron assembled this second chart to show how a single-character movie in a large franchise fares in comparison to the main courses, if you will. The Avengers and its sequels have made a whole lot more money than each single-character movie in the Marvel universe, and so we shouldn’t be surprised when Solo made a lot less money than The Force Awakens. Unfortunately, at least some execs at Disney didn’t understand this, otherwise they wouldn’t have authorized re-shooting almost the entirety of the film, bringing the cost of making Solo up to approximately $250 million (and then spent about $150 million promoting).

For the record, I liked Solo a lot. But I went into it knowing that because it’s a prequel, it will not cover any new ground. They had to show us how Han and Chewie meet, they had to show us how Han wins the Falcon from Lando in a card game, they had to show us the Kessel run. Those beats have to be hit. And because we’ve seen Han’s story play out in the original trilogy and The Force Awakens we already know who the love of his life will be, and he won’t meet her in this movie. Right? And when we meet Han in the original movie, he’s an established smuggler and scoundrel who owes money to at least one dangerous crime lord, so we can expect that this prequel will be some sort of criminal action-adventure movie. So it is nearly impossible to make this a movie that’s going to blow anyone’s mind.

They delivered a solid heist movie that did show us parts of the universe that the other films have mostly glossed over. It isn’t a bad movie, it’s just the sort of movie more likely to make $400 million than $1 billion, which can’t justify the amount they spent making it.

The angry guys who insist that this is more proof that some how the franchise whose main movies are earning more than a billion each is betraying true fans and so forth, don’t understand how the blockbuster movie industry works, compared to, say, the book publishing industry, or the gaming industry, and so forth. A cadre of true fans can make books profitable, but any group of “true fans” in any genre is simply too small a group to generate a billion dollars in revenue for a single movie.

Because the “true fans,” the kind of fans who argue about the economics of the cloud cities or who are dying to see the back story of characters in the original films are going to number in the thousands, at most. Whereas to make the sort of money that The Force Awakens made, you don’t just need millions of people buying tickets, you need at least 100 million.

And when you consider that the so-called “true fans” who are making this argument are the same guys who are angry that one of the leads of the new movies is a black man, and are furious that the primary protagonist is a woman, and are absolutely livid that another lead character is a chinese woman—well, that just means this is an even smaller fraction of the audience than simply people who are nostalgic for the original trilogy.

And with that belief system, well, it’s clear that they aren’t aligned with the light side of the force, either. That ain’t the force you’re feeling, guys.

Playing Piano on a Star’s Surface and Other Impossible Things — more of why I love sf/f

Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, April 1983. Cover art by Marc Yankus.

Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, April 1983. Cover art by Marc Yankus.

In 1983 I was still attending a community college part time while working several part-time jobs, stuck in a weird financial situation too complicated and frankly boring to go into right now. The important points are that I was still very closeted and in a situation where I was dependent on conservative religious relatives and equally conservative institutions for my livelihood. I clung to science fiction and fantasy as a half-drowned person might clasp the last floating piece of wreckage after a boat disaster in the middle of the ocean. And while I couldn’t always afford to buy new sf/f books and anthologies when they came out, the local public library subscribed to three science fiction magazines, one of which was Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, so a few times I month I would spend an afternoon at the library reading those magazines.

And it was in the pages of the April 1983 issue of Asimov’s that I first met Connie Willis.

The novelette included in that issue, “The Sidon in the Mirror” is told from the point of view of person just arrived on a new planet. Except it isn’t a planet. Paylay is a dead star, and somehow humans have figured out how to live on a solid crust of the outer layers of the dead star. It isn’t a terribly nice place to live, but large pockets of various pure elements can be mined, so people have an incentive to come there. A side effect of the mining process has created a thin layer of mostly breathable air that is much higher in helium and hydrogen that ours is.

We learn that our viewpoint character is not human, but rather a Mirror: an alien species that has the ability to absorb personality traits, skills, and other things from other beings. They don’t take on the shape of the copied person, and the process is totally involuntary. Mirrors don’t even know they are copying, their personality being re-written as they go, unless someone else notices and tells them. There have been some instances in the past of Mirrors absorbing the murderous thoughts of others and acting on them, so they have been banned from various world.

He’s been brought to this strange mining colony to play piano in the colony’s only brothel. He had previously absorbed the piano playing skills of a now dead man who was known to both the other of the brothel and at least one of her employees, which is at least part of the reason he was brought to Paylay.

The rest of the plot is difficult to summarize, in part because Connie does a really good job of putting you inside the head of the person who doesn’t know or trust his own thoughts and motives. He is afraid he is going to be compelled to do something horrible, and there are characters he is now living among who appear to be trying to manipulate who he copies for their own nefarious purposes.

But I should explain the title. The viewpoint character’s species are called Mirrors, as explained. There is another alien creature mentioned, it’s called a sidon. Sidon’s are vicious predators, but some people have tried to tame them (because people will do that), and it has always gone badly. The miners have taken to naming their mining taps as sidons—while all the compressors and pipes and such are holding, everything seems under control. But ever miner knows it is only a matter of time before a tapped sight explodes. They’re just all trying to make their money and leave before that happens.

By the end of the tale there are violent deaths, and it is left to the reader to decide which of the deaths were murder, which were self-defense, or whether they fall into another category all together.

On one level the story is about the meaning of free will. Willis herself has said, when introducing the story in collections of her work, that the story was inspired to seeing stories of twins who were adopted out separately, and then find each other as adults and learn how many things about their lives are spookily similar. Many things we think of as choices may not be at all.

If was a tough story to read, because there were points in the tale when I wanted the viewpoint character to do something different. I saw moments he could have escaped the trap. Except when I got to the end, I found myself questioning the definition of trap I had been using. Was the trap the manipulation coming from one of the two characters who were trying to turn the Mirror into a killer, or was the trap the Mirror’s own belief that he himself would inevitably turn into a violent killer, or was the trap the fear of the other characters?

I’ve re-read the story many times over the years. And even though I know how it ends, I’m always at the edge of the seat throughout. As mentioned above, Willis really puts you in the mind of this character so that by the middle of the story, I’m just as afraid and uncertain as to what will happen as the character is.

The story made me think a lot about how we make decisions. How much of what we feel is the result of what people expect us to feel? How many decisions that we think are our own are being forced upon us? What, exactly, is the nature of our own identity?

They were questions I was wrestling with personally. While I didn’t have an sudden epiphany at the end of the tale, it did nudge me further in the direction of coming to understand how the nature of the closet. The stifling social trap that many queers find themselves living in is constructed at least as much by our desire to win the approval of society, family, and even my closest friends. It isn’t just fear that drives one into the closet, but also (ironically) the need for love.

And it took an alien playing piano on the surface of a dead star to show me that.

NorWesCon 41 Report — Professor Plum in the hall with the selfie stick

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The very first NorWesCon I attended wasn’t actually a NorWesCon—it was called Alternacon in 1987 because some really weird things had happened at the now notorious NorWesCon 9 the year before. The convention hotel canceled the subsequent contract and the committee scrambled to put together a convention at a smaller hotel the next year and chose to temporarily rename the convention. In any case, from 1987 through 2012 I never missed a NorWesCon. For a few of those conventions (1993, 1994, and 1995) I only attended for a single day, but I managed to make at least an appearance at every one up until NorWesCon 35. For a variety of reasons (some of which will be mentioned below) my husband and I chose to skip NorWesCon 36 and 37 before resuming for 38 and 39. We had planned to attend last year, but that was before our old apartment building was sold—between needing to find a new place to live, dealing with my husband’s surgery, packing, and actually moving, we wound up cancelling our plans to attend NorWesCon 40 at the last minute.

This year my husband was on convention staff. I didn’t have any obligations—no fan table to run, no panels that I was on (it’s been years since I was an attending pro at NorWesCon), and I wasn’t on staff. Read More…

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