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Who is the actual monster? Or, more of why I love sf/f

The Modern Prometheus Preface Mary Shelley subtitled her novel "The Modern Prometheus." According to the Greeks, Prometheus, a Titan who preceded the Olympian Gods, created Man from clay. Zeus demanded food offerings from Man, but Prometheus taught them how to trick Zeus into accepting the less useful parts of a butchered animal so that Man could keep the best parts for themselves. Once Zeus learned of the deception he decreed that Man was not to be allowed fire. Prometheus crept into the underworld, stole fire from Hephaestus, and gave it to Man. Again, Zeus discovered the transgression and chained Prometheus to a rock, where an eagle would devour his liver every day (it would grow back every night). He remained there for 30,000 years.

[Swiped from an educational slideshow about Mary Shelley’s most famous novel: https://www.slideshare.net/mrsallen/frankenstein-the-modern-prometheus )

I’ve written about Frankenstein as a pair of classic movies, as an award-winning parody, as the basis of a whacky sixties comedy, and I’ve mentioned it many times while talking about the history of science fiction, but I’ve never written a post just about the original novel published in 1818. I’m obviously long overdue, and since something I saw on line earlier this week almost made me type a twitter storm of irritated commentary, I figure that now is as good a time as any to remedy the situation.

The full title of the novel is Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, and Mary Shelley famously wrote the short “ghost story” that would eventually become the novel in 1816 while she and the man who would later become her husband were at Lake Geneva, Switzerland, spending a lot of time with Lord Byron. The novel was published in 1818 in a limited run as a tthree-volumn set without the author’s name. After a successful run of a play based on the novel, a second edition, listing Mary as the author, was published in 1823. Finally, in 1831 a heavily revised edition was published, and for the first time made available at a “popular edition” price.

Most people think they know the story of Frankenstein, but few have actually read the book. And as a fairly typical novel of its time, the very slow burn of the story, not to mention the surfeit of complex sentences and frequently mini-monologues of all the characters can make it a difficult read for modern readers. Even the structure of the novel is different than typical modern books.

The novel is told in the first person, but from three different viewpoints. It begins from the viewpoint of the captain of a sea vessel that has been trapped in the Arctic ice, who finds a half-dead man similarly marooned. The man identifies himself as Victor Frankenstein, and then tells the captain how he came to transform a body assembled from corpses into a living being, then horrified at how hideous is looked (not anything it actually did), that he rejected it, drove it away, fervently hoping it was die in the forest since it had no skills, couldn’t talk, et cetera, and then tried to go back to his life. The middle of the book is from the creature’s point of view (though still filtered, because the creature eventually found Victor and told him the story, which Victor is now telling to the captain who is writing all of this down for us).

The creature did not die. He took shelter new the cottage of a family that lived in the woods, and by watching them learned to speak, eventually learned to read, and came to hope that he might not die alone in the world. The grandfather of the family was blind, and the creature struck up a friendship with him, carefully only coming around when the old man was alone (since every person who had laid eyes on the creature up to that point had been so horrified by his appearances as to scream and chase him away). Alas, the rest of the family catches him once, and they have the usual reaction, sending the creature fleeing deeper into the woods. The creature finds Victor, explains all of this, and then asks Victor to create a second person like himself, to be his companion and mate. Victor agrees.

The next part is back to Victor’s point of view, and Victor begins assembling body parts in secret again, but he suddenly becomes afraid of what will happen if the creature and his mate can actually reproduce. I emphasize at this point that here at more than two thirds of the way through the novel the creature hasn’t harmed anyone, hasn’t threatened anyone, has not behaved in any way other than as frightened child. But Victor suddenly decides that he can’t let the creature have a companion, he destroys the body parts, tells the creature he will not help him after all. The creature loses it, and eventually decides the best way to get his revenge on Victor is to start killing people Victor loves. Victor tries and fails to kill the creature, and they wind up chasing each other across northern Europe and into the Arctic.

Finally, we return to the viewpoint of the sea captain, as Victor gives a last monologue and dies. The creature find the ship, has a conversation with the captain in which he agrees that he has done terrible things, and explains that his intention had been to lure Victor to a spot where the creature could kill him, and then not just kill himself, but set himself on fire in a place where no one would be able to study his body and figure out how Victor did it.

And that’s where it ends.

Like any work of art, everyone interprets the story differently. A little over a year ago there was a bit of a kerfluffle when one newspaper ran a story about how modern readers feel sympathy for the creature with a headline that referred to such students as “snowflakes.” There seemed to be an assumption that having sympathy for the creature—seeing him as misunderstood and a victim—was some sort of modern politically correct reaction.

There’s a big problem with that: the original novel actually does portray the creature as a victim and as being misunderstood. And that’s not interpretation, it is literally what happens in the story. Not to say the story makes him a blameless victim, and certainly how the creature takes his revenge by killing innocent people beloved by Victor is an evil act.

But it is an act of revenge. And the book frames it that way.

Lots of people assume that the theme of the book is that there are some things which mortals are not meant to know, and that if mere humans try to play god horrible things will happen. But that isn’t really Victor’s sin. We get a hint of that in the title itself: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus was not a mortal who stole from the gods, Prometheus was one of the gods (yes technically a Titan, but that was just the name in Greek mythology for the first generation of gods). And what Prometheus was ultimately punished for was giving humans the gift of fire, then not making sure they would use it responsibly.

Victor’s sin, then, is that he gave life to a creature, and then abandoned it, rather than caring for it. As the creatures creator, he had a responsibility to teach it how to get along in the world, to know right from wrong, and so on. He didn’t do that. And he drove the creature away not because of anything the creature did, but simply because of the creature’s hideous appearance.

The middle narrative, when the creature tries to teach himself how to be a good person, is the next big clue as to the real them. The creature naturally craves love and the comfort of companionship, and he tries to learn how to be a member of society. He befriends the blind man and earns his trust. It is only when once again people see him and assume because of his looks that he must be a dangerous, evil thing, that he abandons his plan to try to become part of the human community.

Then there is this admission from Victor himself, in the final deathbed monologue:

“In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty”

Victor goes on, unfortunately, in that monologue to insist that he was right to abandon the creature, but his rationalization only works by assuming that somehow he knew how the creature would react to yet another betrayal.

Finally, we have the creature’s final plan: he had already destroyed the remaining records of Victor’s experiments (those that Victor hadn’t destroyed himself), then set out to kill both Victor and himself so that no one could have create another creature like himself. Before Victor died, he had admitted to the captain that the creature had been leaving clues to make sure that Victor was still pursuing him. The creature had thought it out: Victor was the only one who knew how he had reanimated dead flesh, but it was possible that another could study the creature’s corpse and figure it out, so the creature needed to kill Victor, and then he needed to destroy himself. He planned to set himself on fire somewhere on the arctic ice precisely because any remains would eventually wind up lost in the sea.

In other words, he was cleaning up Victor’s mess.

There are plenty of quotes one can pull from Victor’s and the creature’s monologues to support the usual interpretation that this was all about an arrogant scientist treading into areas best left alone. But those are all perspectives of characters within the narrative. Just because a character says something, that doesn’t mean it is what the author believes—it’s something the author thinks the character must believe in order for their actions to make sense.

I’ve said many times that an author’s values and beliefs manifest not necessarily in the words of the characters, but in the consequences of the actions of characters, and how the way the narrative portrays them shows you whether the author thinks those consequences are deserved. It’s very clear from that perspective that yes, both Victor and his creation have done deplorable, immoral things. But it is also clear which of them realizes it and takes personal responsibility for it.

Victor blames the creature for everything, including his own actions, up to his dying breath. The creature blames both Victor and himself for the various atrocities, and in taking the blame, pronounces (and then carries out) his own death sentence.

Which means that ultimately, it isn’t the creature who is the monster.

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Filling up the gaps, or, why An Archive Of Our Own deserves that Hugo nomination

The actual quote, according to Lewis' Letters to Children (in aanswer to a letter from a child named Denise) was: “I am delighted to hear that you liked the Narnian books, and it was nice of you to write and tell me. There is a map at the end of some of them in some editions. But why not do one yourself! And why not write stories for yourself to fill up the gaps in Narnian history? I've left you plenty of hints—especially where Lucy and the Unicorn are talking in The Last Battle. I feel I have done all I can!”

The actual quote, according to Lewis’ Letters to Children (in aanswer to a letter from a child named Denise) was: “I am delighted to hear that you liked the Narnian books, and it was nice of you to write and tell me. There is a map at the end of some of them in some editions. But why not do one yourself! And why not write stories for yourself to fill up the gaps in Narnian history? I’ve left you plenty of hints—especially where Lucy and the Unicorn are talking in The Last Battle. I feel I have done all I can!”

The Hugo Awards Ballot was released a bit ago (and I linked to at least one post about it at the time), and one of the more interesting items to make it to the ballot was the fanfiction web site, Archive Of Our Own (known to many of us as AO3) in the Best Related Work category. This nomination is, of course, not without some controversy. Best Related Work is usually awarded to works of non-fiction, such as biographies of authors and editors from the field, or collections of non-fiction essays and/or reviews, and so forth, but the definition of the category allows for other things, which bothers some people. This is hardly the first time that something which isn’t clearly a non-fiction book or collection or non-fiction essays has been nominated, and it won’t be the last.

The first objection many people have is that it doesn’t qualify. I think this blog post says it best: Archive of Our Own is a work and its related and I’m really happy that it’s a Hugo finalist.

Cam expanded the official definition of the category into a bullet list and then answered most of the issues. I’m just going to blatantly steal most of it here, then proceed:

  1. Related to the field or fandom. Lots of SF/F in there and by its nature what gets written is out of fanishness. Check.
  2. Either non-fiction or, if fictional, is noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text. The contents of the archive are fiction but what is being nominated is the thing as an entity. Consider the difference between lots of science fiction novels and a library of science fiction novels. It’s the library that’s being nominated, which includes its contents but which is not the same as its contents. Check.
  3. Not eligible in any other category. Obviously. Check.
  4. Which has been substantially modified during the previous calendar year. I think this is the only weak point in an eligibility argument…

On the last part of the category definition, the archive itself, as a platform, has some significant expansions to the search and filter options. There are a number of other feature improvement during the 2018 calendar year, including: support for several new character sets (which means the works originally written in languages the previously couldn’t be uploaded and read can—it isn’t just emojis!), importing several other fandom archives that were in danger of being lost due to various issues through the Open Doors Project (which isn’t just about importing the contents, but also the relational data and ownership controls), and a change log.

If the argument is that the platform itself and the way it enables fannish activity is what has been nominated, then I think those clearly qualify as significant changes in how the platform worked before.

A related controversy to the questions of whether it is really eligible under the current definition is whether the category definition itself is the problem. One form this argument has taken is that a win for AO3 will open up the floodgates of other weird things being nominated and soon non-fiction books and the like will never be honored again.

Bull!

That’s a slippery slope argument, and there are many reasons logicians consider the slippery slope assertion a logical fallacy. And I’m not wasting any more pixels on a logical fallacy.

An actually debatable aspect to this argument is whether or not non-fiction book-length works deserve specific category of their own, while a separate and more explicitly Miscellaneous category could exist beside it. I think the answer at this time is that we just don’t know if it would make sense to split this into two categories.

One reason I lean against splitting them is that, as it is now, the down ballot categories get the attention of fewer nominators and voters as it is, and I think that added another category isn’t going to help that situation. Whether there are enough items that aren’t non-fiction books at this time to give us more than 6 candidates a year is simply not clear.

Another reason I lean against it is that no matter how categories are defined, there going to be works that don’t clearly belong in them. Books, stories, dramatic works, et al, are works of art. And art is supposed to be creative. Humans are tool-making animals that constantly improve existing tools and invent new ones. There are going to be emerging forms of artistic expression that don’t clearly fit into an existing category. For that reason I’m very comfortable with having at least one of the categories have a flexible enough definition to allow for those unexpected things.

I mean, seriously, if sci fi fandom can’t accommodate novel means of expression, then what is the point of its existence?

And a third reason I lean against splitting the category is that well, some years there aren’t that many excellent non-fiction works of book length concerning sf/f or the fandom published. At least not IMHO. If, when the nominating data is released after the awards ceremony, it turns out that some book-length non-fiction just barely missed making the ballot, that might indicate that we need to rethink the categories. Which is why I said we can’t know, just yet.

Let’s move on to the next controversy: what exactly has been nominated here? Most everyone is going with the argument that it is the platform and the manner in which it promotes and facilitates the creation, collection, and discovery of fanfiction and related information. And I totally understand that interpretation and that is certainly what many of the people who were arguing in favor of nominating it said.

But I want to point you to item number two in Cam’s list above. I really like his analogy of thinking of this as a library that has been nominated. The library as a whole is more than just the sum of its parts, but it also includes those parts. And further, without those parts, it is meaningless. A library with no books at all is just a building with shelves, right?

Well, sort of.

A library is also a system for collection, collating, relating, and distributing books. And that is not an insignificant thing. Which is why a lot of people are pushing the nomination of the platform. But a library is also a system for stimulating imaginations. In that way, a good library is, itself, a work of art.

A library is also a system for education, and more than just as a repository of information. Sufficient exposure to books has the effect of inspiring some people to write books of their own, and so a library is also a system for creating writers, and ultimately, a system for creating more books. Again, the library can’t do that if it doesn’t contain the books that inspire.

AO3 fulfills that phenomenon, too. There are many professional writers working today who started out writing fan fic. And I don’t just mean younger writers reading fanfic online. The internet didn’t exist when I was six years old, and I hadn’t yet discovered the existence of mimeographed-then-sent-through-snail-mail fanzines, yet. But I was writing my own versions of stories I loved at that age. Sometimes my motivation was to tell more stories because I had reached the end. Other times I was unhappy with how a story had turned out, so I decided to write my own version.

All of that is how I got into writing. It’s why I started faithfully reading The Writer and Writer’s Digest in the local libraries. It’s why I started mailing my (at the time very derivative) stories to magazines when I was 12 or 13 years old. It’s why I kept working at it until I started actually getting published (even if it was almost always in very small circulation ‘zines).

The creation and consumption of fan fiction is, in itself, a fannish activity. The conversation, both implied and overt, that happen between the fans and creators of fanfic constitute commentary on the original works that inspired the fan fiction, as well as the phenomena of how people receive and react to narratives and other works of art. Creating fan fiction, for some, is a training ground for going on to create original fiction.

And sometimes, when either the original works have gone into public domain, or when a clever writer changes things just enough that they don’t infringe on trademarks, fan fiction wins Hugo Awards.

So, a platform that facilitates the creation and discovery of hundreds of thousands of works of fan fiction certainly deserves to be in the running for a Hugo itself. And everyone who contributes to it, not just the administrators and programmers, should be proud.

Narrow horizons and frozen minds — or sf/f shouldn’t be an old boys’ club

“Kids these days will never know the joys of oil lamps and chamber pots”The tired cliche that there are certain “classics” of sf/f that one must have read in order to be a real fan has reared its ugly head. The current iteration is an assertion that writers of sf/f (aspiring or otherwise) who have not read the classics are not able to write good sf/f. And specifically the “classics” one is supposedly required to read and love in order to be a good writer of science fiction and fantasy are the usual suspects: Heinlein, Asimov, Clark, and so on.

Poppycock!

Now, it is true that I read Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark. I have written on this blog about how some of their work helped me in my formative years. I have also written on this blog about problematic aspects of both their writing and some of their personal life choices. I’ve also written before about how some of their writing hasn’t aged very well. Heck, when I was in my teens in the 1970s reading some of their older work, I was finding myself rolling my eyes over things that seemed either embarrassingly wrong or more than a little sexist and/or racist.

Unfortunately a lot of books from the middle of the last century that were important to the development of the genre, and/or were beloved by many fans over a span many years, don’t hold up so well years later.

But that’s not my only problem with this notion. Because people have been bandying around those specific names as “must-reads” for decades. A lot of excellent science fiction was written back then by other people. And a whole lot of good science fiction has been written since the heyday of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark. A lot has changed in the genre. Sure, Asimov’s short story “The Last Question” was profound and mind-boggling when it was published in 1954 (63 years ago), but when I read it for the first time in 1973, even 13-year-old me saw the ending before it arrived. It was bit disappointing, to be honest. Because the story had been so influential that the once mind-boggling idea had been incorporated, expanded, deconstructed, and re-imagined several times in that 19-year span.

And it’s continued to be re-used in sci fi since. Heck, the entire story was boiled down to a two-sentence (and hilarious) joke in a 1992 episode of BBC’s Red Dwarf!

Which is not me saying that something which has been done before can never be repeated. Looking at old ideas in new ways is an essential part of sf/f. It’s just that the value of revisiting the same “classics” over and over is questionable, at best.

I would feel a little less like this was white guys insisting that everyone has to read their favorite old white guys if some of this “must read” lists included Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein published in 1816, as well as anything by Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ, Ursula LeGuin, or Andre Norton.

The usual argument is that Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark created the genre—and you can’t understand what it is now without reading them. Except, they didn’t create it. If you want to understand the origins you need to go back at least another hundred years to Shelley’s Frankenstein, for one, and stories from Nathaniel Hawthorne (“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” for instance) in the 1830s.

Sure, I think a writer needs to have read a lot and broadly to feed their craft. But when I say broadly, I mean really broadly. Read things outside your favorites, absolutely! Not everything you read needs to be a masterpiece, by anyone’s definition. You can learn from bad examples as well as good. Playfulness is an important part of the creative process, so reading light entertaining tales is just as important to feeding your artistic soul as reading deep, meaningful, serious stories.

Science fiction is supposed to be about not just looking at the horizon, but going past it. Not just using your mind, but expanding it.

And you know what doesn’t stretch anyone’s horizon or expand anyone’s mind? Everyone reading the exact same thing.

If the only input anyone has are the same list of books from the same authors, decade after decade, then every creator will just be regurgitating the same stuff that every other creator has.

There is value in studying what has been done before in your chosen field of writing, but it isn’t the only way to learn to create good stories in the genre. Just as one can learn to drive a modern car without first mastering the horse and buggy, you can learn to write without memorizing a specific set of books from a very narrow set of writers who were working 60+ years ago. If you want to study earlier generations of writers, remember that there is a vast volume of science fiction and fantasy works beyond anyone’s chosen list of classics or favorites. Find lists that don’t include the same few “must reads” and sample the less often recommended works, if you’re going to do that.

Similarly, there can be value for some readers in understanding the roots of some of the things being created today, but it isn’t necessary. You don’t have to go back in time to watch traveling vaudeville shows in order to understand and fully appreciate modern movies, right? You can understand and fully appreciate modern stories without reading the old stuff, first.

Look out at that horizon, and take aim for what’s beyond!

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:

https://twitter.com/scalzi/status/1068581430840737795

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.

https://twitter.com/silviamg/status/1068549863866953728

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.

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