Tag Archive | fandom

SF-adjacent: the inherent fuzziness of human enthusiasms

Astounding Science Fiction, March 1951 issue, cover art by Paul Orban.

Astounding Science Fiction, March 1951 issue, cover art by Paul Orban.

Camestros Felapton has been doing a fascinating series of posts reviewing sci-fi stories about dinosaurs—it started out specifically stories about dinosaurs that had been nominated for a Hugo, but he expanded as he realized that looking at stories that didn’t get nominated (and analyzing possible reasons why) is also a useful way to look at the science fiction/fantasy field.

In one of those posts he reviews a story that isn’t technically a sf/f story, though it is about the making of a sf/f film and is written by Ray Bradbury. And there was a fascinating conversation that occurred in the comments about edge cases, and the notion of sf-adjacent things. In the post he made a list of topics that sf-fans are sufficiently enthusiastic about that stories (even non-fiction ones) with that element might be considered part of the sf category:

  • Space travel
  • Rockets
  • Robots and Artificial Intelligence
  • Dinosaurs

I don’t, by the way, disagree with him at all in his definition of things that can be considered sf-adjacent. The list is great, as far as it goes. I would rephrase it a bit:

  • Manned space travel/astronomical phenomenon
  • Rockets and satellites and unmanned spacecraft
  • Robots and Artificial Intelligence (modern readers)
  • Dinosaurs and extinct mega-fauna

It could be argued that I’m just being pedantically specific with a couple of these. But, stay with me: I very seldom met a fellow dinosaur enthusiast who wasn’t also equally excited to talk about Mammoths, Smilodons, giant Sloths, Dire Wolves, giant Tortoises, and other extinct non-dinosaurs of the Pleistocene. A news blog I follow used to have a contributor who regularly posted stories about new fossil finds, paleontology, and such, with the tag “dinosaur news” and there would always be at least one comment from someone whenever the extinct animal in quest wasn’t actually a dinosaur. And they were usually of the “well actually” type of comment. So she started including a note to the effect that she knew this thing wasn’t a dinosaur, but that people who were interested in such paleontological news stories often found them with “dinosaur” as a search term.

And this gets to why I expanded the first two bullets to be more explicit: there is a significantly large fraction of science fiction fans who are almost pathologically pedantic. Such a person might insist that the term “space travel” should only refer to people moving through outer space, for instance. Of course, another person might object to rockets being a separate category. And anyone might ask why manned space travel is separate from rockets and satellites. To me, space travel is about the experience of traveling in space, while rockets is about the technological and engineering problems of the vehicles and such themselves. Similarly, things that we learn about distant objects in the universe through telescopes and other sensors are a different topic than the sensors themselves and how they are made.

I added the “modern reader” qualifier to the third bullet because I think for sf/f fans who were alive in the 50s and 60s and actively reading sf/f published at that time (so, maybe people born before 1948-ish) that the third category would have been “Robots and computers” which could be argued subsumed AI, but any computer topic seemed futuristic at the time, whereas just plain computers have been humdrum for a while. Further, I suspect that the Robots and AI section will morph again when the young children of today become active consumers of sf/f, because a lot of us have AIs on our pockets, now. And many of us have robots in our homes. Robots and AI are swiftly becoming mundane phenomena. I’m not sure what it will morph into, but it will morph.

In the essay in question, Cam clearly says that his list isn’t intended to be exhaustive. And since he wrote the list while in the middle of tracking down, reading, and reviewing stories published between 1952 and 1971, it makes sense that those are the topics that would first come to mind. I think a more exhaustive list could easily include topics from medical and biological sciences, for instance.

Not all science fiction fans are nerdily into engineering and hard science. Many of us are just as interested in the so-called soft sciences (dinosaurs!). For a lot of fans, the appeal is less about how technology works, and more about how technology changes us and society. Most people don’t know how smart phones work, for instance, but everyone has opinions about how our social habits and expectations have changed now that nearly everyone has a magic hunk of glass in their pockets that allows them to communicate with the world. And it’s not just luddites. During one of the panels at Locus Awards Weekend, a panelist commented that you have to keep telephones out of certain kinds of stories. Mary Robinette Kowal (current president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) agreed: “Right, they are just too dangerous to plots. Pfft! Letting people talk to each other?”

Speculating about what other inventions might change our behavior (collective and otherwise) is a component of sf which is just as importance as how those inventions work. And one of the ways we think about that is to look at how historical inventions and discoveries changed society. You don’t have to know who an automated loom works to be interested in how the cheap manufacture of textiles changed how we live and even how we think about clothes, for instance.

So there are probably fans who would ask why Mechanization isn’t on the list. I might point out that a mechanized loom is a type of robot, so maybe mechanization belonged on the list a few generations ago? Or am I just spinning out of control with all these fuzzy boudnaries?

Because now I’m wondering, if sf-fandom had existed in the early 19th century, before Sir Richard Owen first coined the word “dinosaur,” what might the list have looked like?

Maybe that’s a question for another day

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We have always been here, part 3

Look at this African-American girl gleefully reading comic books in the 1940s...

Look at this African-American girl gleefully reading comic books in the 1940s… (click to embiggen)

So, this third installment in a series about misperceptions of what diversity means and how it has occured in science fiction/fantasy has been sitting in the draft queue for a long time, in part because I needed to do some more research to shore it up. But now, thanks to Cora Buhlert, I can leverage this excellent review: The Golden Age Was More Diverse Than You Think of this year’s Retro Hugo ballot. The whole post (and her many links) are worth the read, but I’m going to steal quote an important bit:

Survivorship bias can be found doubly in the Retro Hugos, because not only do people (and the Retro Hugo nominator base is small compared to the current year Hugos) tend to nominate the famous stories, the ones that endured, they also tend to nominate and vote for writers (and editors and artists) whose names the recognise. This is why unremarkable debut stories by future stars tend to get nominated for the Retro Hugos, while better but lesser known works and authors tend to get overlooked…

But even taking the known problems with the Retro Hugos into consideration, the breadth and variety of stories on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot is astounding (pun fully intended), as is the fact that quite a few of them don’t really fit into the prevailing image image of what Golden Age science fiction was like. And this doesn’t just apply to left-field finalists such as Das Glasperlenspiel by Hermann Hesse in the novel category or Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and The Magic Bed-Knob by Mary Norton in the novella category, neither of whom I would have expected to make the Hugo ballot in 1944, if only because US science fiction fans wouldn’t have been familiar with them. No, there also is a lot of variety in the stories which originated in US science fiction magazines.

As I said, go read her entire post, it’s worth your time.

Among the claims that is constantly put forward from some quarters are that:

  • until very recently, virtually all sf/f was written by straight white men,
  • until very recently, the vast majority of readers of sf/f were straight white men and boys,
  • for most of fandom’s history, the vast majority of people organizing clubs and conventions were straight white men (young and old),
  • even now, the vast majority of “real fans” are straight white men and boys,

…therefore any sf/f that features protagonists other than straight white men, and talks about any issues not of interest to straight white men, isn’t real science fiction or fantasy, but it is so-called message fiction.

But the truth is that all four of those claims are false. And that isn’t a matter of opinion. Go look at the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot. More than a single token woman author. And even more intriguing, a rather large number of protagonists and major characters in the works are women and people of color.

In a previous blog post, I linked to some of 1930s, 40s, and 50s sf/f fan publications, showing that some of the most prominent founders of U.S. science fiction fan clubs during the Golden Age were queer men and women (who also became active in the gay/lesbian rights movement).

Go to the staff meeting of any medium-to-large sized fan-led sf/f convention today, and take a look at just how many of the people in that room are not male. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a disproportionate number who are queer. And that has been the case for at least three decades that I know of (I didn’t attend my first convention until the late 1970s, and didn’t start paying attention to how they were run until the late 80s, so I can’t offer personal testimony beyond that).

Look around any big convention at how many girls and women are doing cosplay, or staffing booths in the dealer’s dens, or are panelists. It’s harder to find how many are queer, but next time you’re at a convention, look for some panels whose titles mention queer topics, then go stick your head in the door of a couple and see how full the rooms are.

Listen, I’m an old literally white-bearded white guy. I grew up reading Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov in the 1960s. But I’m also gay. And I was also just as fervently a fan of Ursula Le Guin, Andre Norton, and Madeleine L’Engle back then. But more importantly, one reason I was a fan from such an early age was because my mother was one of the biggest fans of Robert Heinlein and similar sci fi of the 50s and 60s you will ever meet. I am a second generation fan, but it wasn’t my dad who was reading sci fi (he preferred spy novels and westerns), it was my mom.

I’ve written before in a different context how my mom’s old, worn copy of Dune (which she told me I had to wait until I was older before I could read it) often tantalized me on the book shelf when I was a kid. A couple of things I should add to that story: she bought the Ace paperback brand new when it first came out in 1965, and it was looking very worn around 1969 when she decided to move it to a less tempting location. It looked that way after only 4 years because she re-read it frequently.

I know that’s only one anecdotal sample, but I also remember that when we went on our regular visits to used book stores when I was a kid, my mom was never the only woman browsing the sci fi/fantasy shelves.

People of all genders read, create, watch, and love sci fi and fantasy (and comic books and horror and thrillers and weird fiction and all the other sub-genres). People of all sexual orientations read, create, watch, and love sf/f. People of all races read, create, watch, and love sf/f. People of color, queer people, women, and nonbinary people all exist, and together, they outnumber straight white men in world population (and also U.S. population, if you’re one of those people who think that the phrase “Third World Country” is objective terminology). If you’re trying to exclude people of color, queer people, women, and non-binary people, you are the one focusing on a niche market.

If you are a writer excluding any or all of those categories of people from your cast of characters, whether you mean to or not, you are serving a misogynist, racist, homophobic agenda. And that’s definitely not a non-political stance. Those stories are not non-political fun.

Science fiction was arguably created by a young woman/teen-age girl (Mary Shelley), for goodness’ sake!

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!

Rabbit Holes, Wardrobes, and Magical Doors—escaping into better worlds with sf/f

“A book, too, can be a star. A living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” —Madeleine L'Engle

(click to embiggen)

Among the albums my parents owned when I was a kid were a number by comedians who were popular back in the 50s and 60s—and there was one where the guy told a long, hilarious tale which ended with the words, “I told you that story so I could tell you this one.” Which led into another that was quite entertaining, but even moreso because you had heard the previous one. Which is a long way for me to say, I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time, but first I really needed to write about Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. Which I did last week.

When I heard McGuire say that as a child she loved stories where the child protagonists went to a magical world where they became heroes and warrior-princesses and the like, but was always so angry that they then had to go back home, I was nodding emphatically in agreement. I wanted to get lost in the misty woods and find myself caught in a war between goblins and elves. Or go around a bend on a lake shore and find myself face to face with a giant beetle who greeted me and told me we had to run because danger was coming and so forth.

Except I didn’t want to have to come home again after the first adventure was over. The other world was so much better than the real world. I recall one time when I asked a teacher I trusted why the stories always ended there, she wasn’t very understanding. “Wouldn’t you rather be home with your mom and dad and all your friends?”

She didn’t know what to say when I asked, “What friends?” I didn’t add that if I could run away and never see my father again I would be the happiest boy in the world. This isn’t to say that I never had friends as a child. But being the kind of kid who was always quickly labeled a sissy (or worse words) and a weirdo whenever new kids met me, combined with the number of times we moved because of my dad’s work in the petroleum industry (ten elementary schools across four states), I never had a lot of friends. This particular conversation happened less than two months after we had moved yet again, and I hadn’t yet really found a friend at the new place.

Another time that I told someone how much I wished I could live in one of those magical worlds, the person tried to convince me that the things which seemed like an adventure would not be fun. “Real monsters aren’t just scary, they actually hurt you.”

I had learned through multiple experiences that if I told such adults that I already lived with exactly the kind of monster who actually hurt you that I would be disbelieved at best. Because the kinds of adults who will see a ten-year-old with stitches and multiple contusions on his face and one arm in a sling, look that kid in the eyes, then lecture him that if he was just more well-behaved his father wouldn’t do these things to him not only don’t know what monsters are—they enable monsters.

That reality is precisely why portal fantasies appealed so strongly to me as a kid. And why the endings were always so frustrating.

Let’s pause a moment to go over some terminology. A portal fantasy is a story in which people from our mundane world enter into a different, fantastical world, through a portal of some kind. Classic examples are falling down a rabbit hole in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or through the enchanted wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or carried off by a tornado in The Wizard of Oz, or being injured and losing consciousness to wake up elsewhere as in the Thomas Covenant books.

A portal fantasy is different than an immersive fantasy, where all of the action occurs within the fantastical world and there are no characters who come from the mundane world. Think of Lord of the Rings or The Last Unicorn or any of the Conan the Barbarian stories. It is also different from an intrusive fantasy, where magical/fantastic creatures somehow come into what otherwise appears to be our mundane world—sometimes the narrative assumption is that the magic has been there all along, but for whatever reason most of us are unaware of it and thus don’t believe in it. Think of Dracula or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or A Wrinkle In Time.

The particular appeal of the portal fantasy for a kid like me is that in the fantastic world, I would have options that aren’t available to me in the real world. I didn’t see how any of the monsters and evil overlords in the fantasy books were worse than things my father (and the whole structure of society that enabled child abuse) did to me. As a kid, I may not have really understand the concept which is summed up by the old adage, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” but there was one thing that the protagonists of the portal fantasies had that I didn’t have in the real world: agency. The kids transported to the magical kingdom may have been put in perilous situations, but they weren’t powerless.

It wasn’t just when I was a young child that other people critiqued my enjoyment (and enthusiastic recommendations) of portal fantasies. In my teens and later, an additional critique was added: “You just want a happy ending.” This was usually served with a heaping helping of cynicism about how happy endings don’t exist in the real world, and people who don’t understand that are defective in some way. All of that judgmental cynicism is also the foundation of critiques (that often comes from certain people who call themselves fans of sf/f) which dismiss many works of speculative and fantastic fiction as merely fan service.

I have two responses to this line of argument.

First, go back up and re-read the bit about having to survive beatings from my dad that led to hospital trips. I suspect I know far better than the people who make the happy ending argument just how bad the real world can be. And I survived that. And you better believe that part of the reason I survived it is because fantasy books helped me to imagine a life where the monsters could be conquered. That alone should justify the existence of so-called escapist literature.

For the second and more important response, let’s go back to the Wayward Children books and the author thereof. There are two things I’ve come to expect from a Seanan McGuire book:

  1. At some point in the story she will break my heart,
  2. By the time I get to the end, I will be holding my hands out (metaphorically) toward the author like a Dickensian urchin and will plead, “Please, may I have some more?”

And to be clear, I mean there are things that happen in the stories (not just this series) to the main characters that make me physically shed tears as I’m reading. Sometimes McGuire has left me sobbing uncontrollably with some developments that happen. Characters in her stories do not always get a happy ending. Many very unhappy things happen to them. So if all I wanted was happy stories where nothing bad ever happens, why do I keep reading her stuff (excitedly pre-ordering things when I can; and recommending the stories to others)?

Because I never get the feeling that she is doing it just to shock me. She never allows harm to happen lightly—even to the bad guys. Death never happens senselessly. By which I mean both that the bad things always makes sense within the world, but also because the bad things are integral to the plot. It always feels genuinely that she knows this pain and she understands it. These stories don’t sensationalize or revel in pain and suffering, they show pain because real people suffer things that hurt this much. In the real world, far too often the pain of many types of people is ignored, rationalized, and even celebrated.

I don’t want to celebrate pain. Celebrate the moments of happiness and love that characters seize despite misfortune? Yes, please!

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.)

You don’t have to love what I love, but not all differences are merely opinions

"I respect people who get nerdy as fuck about something they love."

“I respect people who get nerdy as fuck about something they love.”

I’m a nerd, and an old one at that. So, for instance, I watched Star Trek: the Original Series when it was on prime time television back in 1966 (I was in kindergarten and first grade, but I watched them!). And I have a giant collection of classic Doctor Who episodes in our disk library. And every time my family moved to a new town during my childhood, I quickly found, checked out, and read every book by Heinlein, Bradbury, Le Guin, and Asimov I could find in the school and public library. And so on, and so on. But I also happen to love watching my favorite football team play. And I love finding science fiction and fantasy authors whose worlds don’t erase queer people, women, people of color, and don’t replicate the patriarchal white imperialism that much of the scf fi I grew up on assumed to be normal.

I don’t think that I should impose my faves on other people. I will enthuse about things I love so emphatically that it sometimes comes across that way, and I am sorry to anyone that has felt that I was pressuring them to like everything I like or dismissing their difference of opinion.

At least I’m not as bad as some people. One of my friends was recently scolded for using the phrase “sportsball.” The person doing the scolding said that sportsball was a derogatory term that implies that people who like sports are bad. To say I was flabbergasted would be an understatement.

I’m a football fan (specifically most often the Seahawks) and I use the phrase “sportsball” all the time. Sometimes I use it when the topic under discussion is a sport that I am less well informed about, such as professional Soccer or Basketball. Sometimes I use it because I know that I am talking to people who do not like sports, and I am attempting to signal that I understand they might not find the topic as interesting as I do. And sometimes I use it to communicate the fact that I know it is an entertainment and a luxury and not of real importance to the life and well-being of 99% of the planet.

For someone to leap to the conclusion that “sportsball” is a derogatory term is laughable, at best. I, certainly would never disparage someone simply for being a fan of one or more sports. Unless that person is a fan of the New England Patriots, or the Dallas Cowboys, or the Philadelphia Eagles—because those fans are just not right in the head. To be fair, plenty of them think the same thing about Seahawks fans, but that’s one of the weird things in sports culture, at least the portions of it I’ve been involved in—we trash talk each other’s teams all the time.

I have a very old friend who is a big fan of the Arizona Cardinals, and he teases me by calling my team the Sea Chickens all the time. And I have been known to make the comment that his team’s mascot should be a possum, because they play dead at home and get killed on the road. There’s also one of my sisters-in-law who is a big Kansas City fan, and before the last divisional re-org, our teams had to play each other twice a year, so we have been known to taunt one another whenever the other’s team loses.

But those are people I know, and we know that just because we’re super enthusiastic about our faves, that doesn’t mean we’re talking about something that really matters in the big scheme of things.

That isn’t true of all forms of criticism, though. It’s one thing, for instance, if I say that I really enjoyed reading the science fiction of Robert Heinlein when I was younger. Or how much I learned from reading the non-fiction of Isaac Asimov (and also loved his sci fi work). It’s quite another if I tell other people they must like those writers or else. Particularly if they are offended by Asimov’s personal sexual misconduct, or Heinlein’s sometimes rampant jingoism (and his weird attempts to not be racist or sexist that come across very differently today).

I don’t deal well with certain types of scary movies. I have nightmares, they crank up my anxieties, and sometimes I get physically ill. I have friends who can’t watch really violent shows for similar reasons. Certain shows sometimes hit some of my other buttons—characters who remind me of my abusive father, for instance. Worse, situations that remind me of specific beatings. So there are some shows and even some stories, that I get partway through and have to put aside. There are a couple of authors whose work I refuse to read any longer because they are overly fond of certain tropes/actions/plot devices that have a similar effect on me as those aforementioned scary movies. My approach to all of these things I dislike is to not buy them, not read them, or not watch them. I don’t tell other people they are bad people if they partake of those things.

“We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

(click to embiggen)

However, there are other books I don’t read or shows I don’t watch because the stories themselves promote and revel in various kinds of bigotry or oppression. There is at least one author who took that beyond the fiction to write op-ed pieces in various publications calling for laws to oppress certain categories of people (women and queers, mostly), who fundraised for organizations who actively sought that oppression, and who even in some of the op-ed pieces explicitly encouraged the bullying of children who appeared to be queer, and wrote justifications for gay bashing. For those kinds of things, I can’t just stand by quietly. I speak. I write critiques. I encourage people not to spend money on those things. And, yes, I do think less of the people who read those works.

That’s different than referring to something one doesn’t enjoy as much as other people by an intentional misnomer.

And don’t get me started about separating the art from the artist. Scroll back up a few paragraphs where I explain that I love work by certain people who were less than exemplary in all aspects of their lives.

The thing is, it’s okay if you don’t love the stuff I love. As long as what I love isn’t causing harm to you or others, or encouraging harm of any kind to you or other people, I think I should be able to enjoy it, and you can ignore it, and we can be friends. And if I happen to say I don’t like something you love, that isn’t an attack on you. Even when my critique is emphatic, I’m commenting on it, not you.

But I think the Weird Al said it best:

(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.

Hugo Winners 2018 — and how close my ballot was to the final winners

I like to think that the robot represents fans who love sci fi that includes non-white people, women, queers, the differently abled as more than tokens, and the skeleton the others...

I like to think that the robot represents fans who love sci fi that includes non-white people, women, queers, the differently abled as more than tokens, and the skeleton represents the other kinds of fans.

The Hugo Winners were announced on Sunday night at Worldcon 76 in San Jose. As I said when I posted about my own ballot, this year’s big difficulty was choosing which to put in number one in every category. I really enjoyed all of the stories nominated, and with the exception of only one nominee out of the whole ballot, felt that everything nominated this year had award-worthy merits. There were a few things in some of the categories that weren’t to my taste, but I understood why they appealed to other fans. As it was, my number one choice in six categories was the actual winner, and in five of the other categories my number two choice was the winner. So I’m pretty happy. Oh, and though we aren’t supposed to comment on things like this, I can’t help but feel a little bit of schadenfreude that the one and only piece that I “No Awarded” came in dead last in its category.

Before I comment further (and link to some other reactions to the ballot), I should list the actual winners, just in case you haven’t found this information elsewhere:

Best NovelThe Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin

Best NovellaAll Systems Red, by Martha Wells

Best Novelette — “The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer

Best Short Story — “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse

Best SeriesWorld of the Five Gods, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Best Related WorkNo Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Best Graphic StoryMonstress, Volume 2: The Blood, written by Marjorie M. Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long FormWonder Woman, screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, directed by Patty Jenkins

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short FormThe Good Place: “The Trolley Problem,” written by Josh Siegal and Dylan Morgan, directed by Dean Holland

Best Editor, Short Form — Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas

Best Editor, Long Form — Sheila E. Gilbert

Best Professional Artist — Sana Takeda

Best SemiprozineUncanny Magazine, edited by Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, Michi Trota, and Julia Rios; podcast produced by Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky

Best FanzineFile 770, edited by Mike Glyer

Best FancastDitch Diggers, presented by Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace

Best Fan Writer — Sarah Gailey

Best Fan Artist — Geneva Benton

Best Young Adult BookAkata Warrior, by Nnedi Okorafor

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer — Rebecca Roanhorse


First, Nicholas Whyte has a breakdown of the statistics and voting that I found fascinating. Cora Buhlert has some very insightful (as always) comments on the winners. Camestros Felapton has his Hugo reactions and the comments contains some great observations. And Alexandra Erin has some interesting thoughts about conventions, awards, fandom, and what it all means.

A lot of the other blog posts and stories you will find out there are focused on N.K. Jemisin’s historic win: she’s the first person ever to win the Best Novel Hugo three years in a row. Two years ago it was big news that she was the first African-American woman to win in that category. As one person observed on Twitter: that historic first was more about how exclusionary society and the Hugos had been during the 60-some years of Hugos before that. So that win was only historic because the community had previously been less than welcoming. This year’s historic moment is much better: she’s won three times in a row because her novels are awesome.

The fact that I even point this out is used by certain people to try to prove that these wins are undeserved, or that those of us who voted for these works are doing so for some kind of political messaging rather than because we actually like the stories in question. And all I can say to them is: we already know you are bigots and a-holes, so we don’t really care what you think.

But, in the interest of full disclosure, I will let you in on an important detail (which I didn’t quite realize myself until a few minutes ago when I dug out all my Hugo ballot emails from my email archive): at none of these last three years did I chose Jemisin’s novel as my number one choice on the ballot. Each year her novel was my second choice. This year, for instance, I really quite liked her book, and it was a difficult choice, but there was another novel (Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee) that I liked slightly better. Similarly last year and the year before there was another book that I liked better than Jemisin’s, so I put them just above hers. Do I wish that my choices each year had won? Well, yes, but I was also quite happy that Jemisin’s book won each time, because I liked each of them, too.

That’s because I’m able to understand that just because I likes one book slightly more than another that doesn’t mean that my favorite is somehow inherently a superior work to the others. Which isn’t to say that I don’t believe there aren’t ways to grade the quality of the writing or plotting or execution of a story, just that everything else being more-or-less equal, my tie-breaker is going to be different than yours.

It is true that I find stories written by women, people of color, or queer people are more likely to resonate with me in ways that stories by white cisgendered heterosexual guys do not. That isn’t because the white cis het guys are inferior to the other people, it’s because in our society white cis het guys get to operate on the lowest difficulty setting and thus are less likely to perceive some aspects of our society that the rest of us have to deal with. I’m a white guy, yes, but I’m also an out gay man who as a child was unable to hide my queerness; growing up I experienced society differently than my straight contemporaries. I saw unfairness in places where they found opportunities. I saw barriers where they found open doors and welcoming arms. The way I was marginalized isn’t the same way that people of color or women and so on are marginalized, but writers from those groups ran into similar barriers and injustices. Their perspective is going to be, in many cases, more like mine than not. So, yeah, I find the stories they tell and the viewpoints they employ more interesting.

So, yeah, I’m more likely to read books by these authors—not because I’m refusing to read white cis het guys, but because they are more likely to be recommended by the reviewers I have learned have similar tastes as mine, they are more likely to write about subjects I find interesting, and (most importantly) when I begin reading their stories, I’m more likely to be pulled in and keep turning the pages.

I read stuff written by men. I vote for stuff written by men. Checking my ballot, I see that works written by men made it into the top half of several categories on my ballot. But I had to go look—I didn’t remember because that is not how I choose which pieces to vote for. By the time I’m fiddling with my ballot, moving the entries around, all I’m thinking about is the story and how I felt while I was reading it.

I only nominate stories/magazines/shows/podcasts I have read/watched/listened to. Once the ballots are out, I do my darnedest to read all of the things that made it to the ballot that I haven’t already. And when I’m reading, I’m not thinking much about the author. Because if they have done their job, the story is going to consume my attention.

To sum up, I quite enjoyed this year’s ballot. I have a couple more authors on my list to look out for. It was quite fun. And as I said after I turned in the ballot, now I have a lot of other things in my to-read pile that i need to get back to.

But, before I close, I highly recommend you watch N.K. Jemisin’s 2018 Hugo Award Best Novel acceptance speech.:

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

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