But I’m tired of explaining why so many bigoted stereotypes, bad representations, tokenism, and the rest are both bad writing and immoral behavior. I’ve written about them before and I’ll surely write about them again, but I’d rather talk about a show that treated its gay character right.
So let’s talk about Julie and the Phantoms.
If you’re not familiar, Julie and the Phantoms was recently released on Netflix, and it’s about a high school girl whose mother has recently died. An aspiring musician in a music program at school, Julie has been unable to bring herself to perform. After getting dropped from the program, she decides to clean out her mother’s music studio as a step in trying to move one. Among her mother’s things, she finds a demo CD for a band she has never heard of. When she puts it in the player, three ghosts are summoned from limbo.
The ghosts are three members of what was a four-member boy band. The three boys died in 1995 after eating bad street food on the night before they were supposed to debut at the Orpheum Theatre.
At first it seems that only Julie can see and hear the boys, but they soon discover that if she is singing with them, everyone can see them and hear their music. With a cover story that the boys are holograms, Julie embarks on a journey to find her voice.
Yes, it’s cheesy, yes it’s a teen musical show. But it is well done and in these troubling times, a story with a big heart is exactly what some of us need.
Warning: There are some spoilers below…
One of the three boys in the band, Alex, is gay. We learn this very early on when one of his bandmates mentions how Alex’s parents weren’t exactly supportive when he came out. That one line is the only point in the show where anything approaching the usual cliched approaches to handling a queer character happens.
Early on the boys meet another ghost, a skateboarding cutie named Willie. It is clear in just a few lines of dialogue the Alex and Willie are attracted with each other and awkwardly flirting. Alex’s two straight bandmates take it in stride. “He is totally into you!” “And he’s cute!” They treat their bandmate’s queerness very matter-of-factly. The dialogue would not have sounded out of place in a more typical show if the object of Alex’s flirtation had been an opposite sex character.
Which is how it should be.
The subplot that Willie is involved in (he is under the thumb of a villainous ghost who is trying to enslave the three band members) doesn’t cross into any of the gay cliches, either. Their roles in the story are based on their personalities, not their sexual orientation. Their orientation is just another fact about them, not the defining characteristic of everything they do and say.
None of the bad things that happen to either of them have anything to do with their orientation. Not even the villain says anything even vaguely homophobic about either one. Neither is killed (I realize they are ghosts, but it is made clear that bad things can happen to ghosts in this fictional world) at the end. Neither of them realizes it would be better to be with an opposite sex person.
If you don’t happen to be queer, none of those statements may sound extraordinary—but trust me, having all of those things be true about a queer character in most works of fiction that aren’t explicitly aimed at a queer audience is an extremely rare event.
Furthermore, neither the show runners nor the network said anything in advance about how “and we have gay characters!” and then expecting to get congratulated on their open-mindedness. That is extremely rare, as well. In fact, that other show I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, not only did the network and people running the show keep crowing about their gay character–they even put such crowing into the mouth of one of the straight characters in the opening episode.
Now, all of this isn’t exactly an accident. The director of Julie and the Phantoms is Kenny Ortega (who is also one of the producers). Ortega is probably most well-known at this point as being the director the first High School Musical TV movie and several of the sequels. You might also recognize his name as the director of 1993’s Hocus Pocus. He in much less famous as being one of a couple of actors who—in 1972 when this was a very risky thing to do in any career, even theatre—came out in the pages of The Advocate, one of the nation’s oldest gay and lesbian publications.
During the press interviews after the release of Julie and the Phantoms, when asked about the characters of Alex and Willie, Ortega has said, “Alex is the character I wish was there for me when I was growing up, and who never appeared.”
Which makes sense. Speaking for myself, as a scared closeted kid growing up I was not interested in seeing stories about gay bashing or coming out and being rejected or the other usual queer story lines. I wanted—needed—to see queer characters living ordinary lives, facing the same challenges and triumphs as all the other characters in those stories.
Which is what Julie and the Phantoms gives us. And I’m so glad it does.
Instead, he pointed to my magazine and said, “I didn’t know you were into science fiction! Who are you reading right now?”
I had met another fan. Which was a very rare thing through most of my childhood.
Those years were weird in so many ways. I usually use the shorthand description of “ten elementary schools across four states.” That is an accurate description of what my father’s petroleum industry job did to our life. It elides over that fact that almost all of those elementary schools were in tiny, redneck towns where most people listened to country music, watched Gunsmoke and Hee Haw every week, and went to church every Sunday morning no matter what. In such communities, my mother and an occasional librarian were often the only other people I met who even knew what sf/f was.
It wasn’t just that science fiction and fantasy weren’t popular, there was also that fact that our time in many of those towns was very short. It was complicated! For instance, it was late in fourth grade that we moved to the tenth of those elementary schools, where we remained through the end of sixth grade. Similarly, all of kindergarten, all of first grade, and a couple months of second grade had been at the first elementary school I attended. So eight of those elementary schools were scattered over second, third, and fourth grades.
Anyway, there is another weirdness to that tenth elementary school: the last of fourth, all of fifth, and all of sixth grade were spent living in a small town in Utah that was very close to the Colorado border, and less than an hour drive away from the small Colorado town where I was born—the town where my parents met and married as teen-agers; the town where my paternal grandparents and one set of maternal great-grandparents lived. The same town that we would finally move back to in time for me to attend 7th, 8th, and 9th grades. But the flip side of that is that at many random intervals during my 4th, 5th, and 6th grades (and especially the summers between each) we were visiting said town—which included attending church services at the church my grandparents had been attending for longer than I had been alive.
That two plus years nearish to the town I’d been born contained a number of important turning points in my life. My paternal grandmother bought me a subscription to Galaxy Science Fiction — which she graciously renewed as part of my birthday presents for the next few years. My maternal grandmother a year later got me a subscription to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction which she also renewed for the next few years. The older brother of one of my classmates realized that I and said younger brother didn’t know what the word “boner” meant, and thus he decided to give us a very unauthorized (and not completely accurate) education in human sexuality. And then puberty hit and that last bit became more relevant (but also mostly useless) than I’d expected.
All of those things will become important to this story eventually, I promise.
My paternal grandmother had “accidentally” set up my subscription so my magazines arrived at her house, so I couldn’t actually read them until I came to visit. Mom had driven herself, my sister, and I over to my grandparents during midday on a particular Saturday, and I had only got a short period of time Saturday night to start reading my latest copy of Galaxy. Which is how I came to be sitting in my grandparents’ car in a church parking lot trying to read my science fiction magazine when Donny tapped on the car window.
Donny was the youngest son of Mr & Mr. G. Mr G had been my Grandpa’s best friend since WWII, and after the war they had both ended up moving their families to the same small town in Colorado. Mr & Mrs G were essentially my dad’s godparents. Southern Baptists absolutely do not believe in baptizing babies, so that don’t have christening ceremonies and they don’t have godparents. But many Southern Baptist churches do “Dedication Services” for newborn babies, and at those services non-family members who are also members of the church agree to be sponsors of the child—which is just godparents and christening with different names, but we won’t worry about that.
Mr & Mrs G were slightly older than my grandparents. Mrs G had been a school teacher in the local school district for many years, and in addition to being my father’s godmother, had also been his teacher for one grade. They had three children who were similar ages as my parents. Their eldest, a daughter, was the Secretary who ran the administrative office at the Middle School. Their middle child, also a daughter, taught at the elementary school. And their youngest, their only son, Donny, was a bus driver and maintenance person for the school district.
Donny was about ten years older than me, so he was 20 or 21 years old at the time of this meeting and therefore an adult. But he was also someone that I had more or less known my entire life. But he had been someone at the outskirts of church events and the few social occasions we’d both attended. I had a vague notion that he had completed some course of study at a nearby Junior College sort of recently, and when he’d come back, he had moved out of his parents’ home and gotten his own place.
I remember that the conversation was quite fun, with him being a fan of several writers I had never heard of, as well as some that I had barely heard of. I specifically remember that he wasn’t much of a Heinlein fan, but understanding why lots of people were. Our mutual nerding out went on until the after service coffee meet broke up and everyone drifted out of church and to their cars.
It was probably two months later that I saw Donny again, since most Sundays we stayed in the small town in Utah and attended church there. We had another conversation, that time on the steps of the church about sf/f books we were each currently reading.
My family was gearing up to move to that town. My folks had bought some property. We started coming over to spend almost every weekend with my grandparents, as Dad, Grandpa, and I would work on various aspects of the plot to get it ready. My tasks over those weeks ranged from things like digging the ditch that the natural gas pipe from the newly installed meter to the house would go, or pulling weeds, or painting pipe pieces with protective sealant. At some point a decision was made to bring my bicycle from home to my grandparents’ place, because Dad and Grandpa found it useful to be able to send me on errands while they continued to work to get the property ready for us to move in.
There came an afternoon during this time when I didn’t have any construction related tasks to do nor errands to run. I was free to goof-off if I wanted. So I got on my bicycle and rode to Donny’s house. Because we were in town almost every weekend at that point, I had been having enthusiastic conversations with Donny about whatever book or story had most recently caught my interest. At some point I had looked Donny up in the local phone book and found his address. I don’t know what I expected, it’s just that Donny was at that point the closest thing I had to a local friend, and we both loved the same kinds of books. He was clearly surprised to find me on his doorstep. He didn’t invite me in. We had a conversation on his front porch where I enthused about some story I had read recently, while he nodded and made the occasional comment.
It was awkward and I wasn’t sure why.
I think it was two Sundays later when Donny came up to me at church and told me that he thought I should try to make some friends my own age. “It’s fun to talk to you about books, but you I think you’d be better off spending more time doing normal things for a boy your age.” And he walked away.
He was certainly not the first adult I had known who had suggested that I should spend less time reading and more time playing with other kids. But I hadn’t thought of Donny as one of those kinds of adults. And it never feels good to have someone tell you that they do not want to be your friend.
As it happened, I had become friends with a couple of guys my age who attended the same church. And when school started that fall, I made a few more friends (but also acquired new bullies). One of the friends I met became a bit more than a friend, as we frequently found ways to fool around together.
When I saw Donny at church, he always seemed to be turning away to talk to someone else or simply walking out of the room. When I saw him at school it was different. Donny greeted and joked with all of the kids. If he saw me, he would call out my name, and make a comment like “Hope you’re reading good stuff!” It wasn’t any different than he acted with any other students, but it was infinitely more friendly than he acted at church.
One day, well more than a year after that “find friends your own age” conversation, as I was walking to school, I saw Mr G backing his truck out of his driveway, turning rapidly with a squeal of tire, and heading up the road. It so happened that Donny’s parents, Mr and Mrs G, lived in a house that was right next to the middle school. You could see their front yard and driveway from the windows in the Science classroom, for instance. Mr G didn’t normally drive that like that, so it stuck out as weird.
Minutes later, as I was talking to some of my classmates before going inside, I learned that there was a problem with one of the school bus routes. A driver hadn’t shown up for work, and the substitute hadn’t known the route. So one of the buses was somewhere out in sticks half loaded with kids while the other drivers on the CB radio attempted to talk him through the route.
Classes got underway, but there was more weirdness. While the guys in my grade were in gym class, the girls were all in social studies, and they had noticed from the social studies room’s windows a county sheriff’s deputy car driving into town much more rapidly than usual (the highway was visible from the school as well), and that he had flashed his lights before driving through a stop light and then turned uphill. Before that class was over, the girls also saw an ambulance, without its lights on, turn up the same road.
As us boys were coming out of gym class, we saw Miss G, Donny’s eldest sister who was the school secretary, hurrying out the main doors. She seemed upset. None of us had ever seen Miss G leave the school grounds while school was in session before that. And when we joined the girls in our next class we heard about the police car and ambulance.
Two class periods later the Principal announced over the PA system that Donny had died in his sleep the night before. Miss G would be taking a few days leave of absence, so some administrative things might not run as smoothly as usual for the next few days.
My memories of the funeral service (held at our church some days later): the family opted for a closed casket service; after the service Mrs G had draped herself over the casket sobbing uncontrollably, with Mr G, her daughters, and a number of others trying to offer condolences; at the reception in the church’s social hall a lot of the adults kept exchanging meaningful looks; there was whispering.
The whispering between the adults continued for some weeks. Any time adults were talking about Donny and noticed me, they would quickly change the subject. I remember several times hearing specific references to the fact that during the previous several summers, he had gone to a town known as a tourist hub elsewhere in state where he worked as a bartender. Lots of school district employees had a summer gig, usually in another town some distance away. At the time I figured that, given Southern Baptists’ feelings about alcohol, the bartending was considered something of a scandal.
The official cause of death eventually announced was a previously undiagnosed heart condition. I had concluded that the reason for all the whispering was some people in town thought Donny had committed suicide, and that the family was trying to cover it up. The whispering died down, eventually.Then one day I walked into the public library and at the spot where they usually displayed new arrivals, there was a poster thanking Mr and Mrs G for donating Donny’s entire collection of books to the library. The library staff was still processing the books, but some were available for check out at that point. His collection leaned heavily into fantasy. There were some books that I had read before, and many that I hadn’t. But the thing that really jumped out at me was the collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs books, all in hardback, including all 24 Tarzan novels that Burroughs wrote.
Most of Donny’s books had a book plate (one of those adhesive stickers that says something like, “From the Library of _______”) with Donny’s name written in his own handwriting. The Librarians chose to leave the plates visible, gluing the pocket that held the book’s checkout card to another page. They did stamp “Property of R—— Public Library” underneath each plate.
The Tarzan books stuck out for me because I had only ever managed to find one or two of the books from the middle of the series. I was far more familiar with the movie and television versions of the character. But because Donny had the complete set, I was able to start at the beginning and read them all the way through. Based on the handwriting on the bookplates and the publication dates of the set, Donny had been at most in his early teens when he’d first read those books.
And he occasionally made notes in the margins. The notes were always in pencil and always stayed clear of obscuring any text. It was usually comments and questions about the plot. It made me feel almost as if I was finally having a conversation with Donny about some books he loved with which I was only now becoming familiar.
The Tarzan books are not great literature, but they usually delivered a rousing adventure. They are a good example of early 20th Century pulp adventures. The plots get rather repetitive, especially when one is reading them one after another. For some of the latter books in the series, I think sometimes I was turning the pages more to see if there were more notes from Donny, rather than wondering what would happen in the plot, next.
There were two other things that happened in relationship to Donny’s death which at the time should have given me pause.
The first happened very shortly after Donny’s death. I had a secret boyfriend. A guy my age who I regularly fooled around with (all very furtive with the constant fear of being caught). There was an abandoned shed in the woods where we often met to do what we did (which was actually pretty tame, but you know, guys raised in Bible thumping churches in redneck towns doing any sort of sexual thing together was pretty out there). During one of the classes we had together, I quietly asked him if we were still on for later that day, after each of us finished our sports practice (he was on the basketball team, I was on the wrestling team). He shook his head emphatcally and said. “Nope. Not for a while. No.”
I didn’t get a chance to talk to him more privately for a couple of days. He told me that on the evening after Donny’s funeral, his father had taken him aside and asked him a lot of questions about Donny, and guys at school. Including something along the line of, “You know, boys can get up to a lot of trouble with each other. Sometimes their curiosity and hormones make them do things they oughtn’t with each other. Do you know if any boys at your school are doing that?”
Being asked that freaked him out. So for a couple months he avoided being seen with me at school and just didn’t want to meet up to fool around. Eventually we started doing things again. And his dad never said or asked either of us anything about such topics again.
The other incident happened several months after Mr and Mrs G donated all of Donny’s books to the library. I was at the church potluck, and one of the church ladies that I never got along with (I think she hated children in general, and teen-age boys in particular), so I was a little surprised she walked up to me and started a conversation.
She began with, “I understand you spend a lot of time at the library.” I agreed that I did, and started to explain how much I loved books. But she interrupted to observe what a tragedy Donny’s death had been. Which I could only agree with. Then she said, “I understand that they donated a lot of books he owned to the library. And I hear that you have been reading them. A lot.” I started to explain that his collecting included lots of books I’d heard about, but never been able to read before. But she interrupted to say, “You shouldn’t fill your head with unrealistic fables and superstitious nonsense. You’d be better off reading your Bible than reading all those questionable books!”
I don’t know what I would have said if we hadn’t been interrupted by the pastor’s wife (who also happened to be a librarian at the aforementioned public library). She sort of swooped in and talked about what a serious student I was and managed to mention that a year before when a bunch of church members pledged to read the Bible together in a year, I was one of the few people who came to all 52 weekly meetings and always had interesting things to say about the section we were reading that week.
I don’t know why it wasn’t until literally decades later, when I was telling a friend about how I had wound up reading all 24 Tarzan books over the period of about a month, that I finally put all the pieces together and realized that at least some people in our church thought that Donny was gay. I mean, I knew everyone was always calling me various slurs, but I had never heard anyone refer to him that way.
So it didn’t occur to me back then that maybe the reason Donny suddenly put an end to our conversations at church was because he realized people were speculating about whether he was planning to molest me (since they believed that all gays were also pedophiles). I didn’t realize that the reason my secret boyfriend’s father had talked to him (in veiled terms) about whether any boys at school were engaging in homosexual activity wasn’t because he had suspicions about his son, but because suddenly everyone was whispering about Donny after his death. And why I chalked up the weird church lady’s conversation about fantasy books as merely attack on my personal reading habits, rather than some suspicion that someone thought Donny’s Tarzan collection (or his Jules Verne books, or the Wells, or Bradburys) were recruitment tools for the Secret Homosexual Army™.
It’s probably an extremely good thing I never got a chance to tell the church lady about how I enjoyed finding Donny’s notes in the margins of the books. She probably would have stormed the library and tried to organize a book burning!
While I don’t know why 13-year-old me didn’t connect those dots, I’m glad I didn’t. Because if I had, I would have probably become so self-conscious about what I was reading and who I talked to about what I was reading that I would have missed out of a lot of the wonderful books I read over the next few years.
I’ll never know if Donny actually was gay, or if people just assumed he was. I just know that while he was alive, he loved books that took the reader on flights of fancy about daring adventures in impossible places. And I know that for a little while, he helped me feel a little less alone in the land of the mere, mundanely possible.
I’ve mentioned before that because of my father’s work in the petroleum industry my childhood included 10 elementary schools across four states. Toward the end of my elementary school years, my dad got promoted to what was essentially a regional manager type position, and we were able to move back to the tiny town where I was born (And at the time where my paternal grandparents and maternal great-grandparents lived).
In the first week of seventh grade I tried to explore the school library, and found that it was open during limited hours (the librarian worked at the elementary school and the high school as well as the middle school, so was in on only certain days). I also found out that the school library only let you check out one book at a time unless a teacher signed a request that you needed additional books for a class project. The first time I was able to go in and check out a book, I did what I always did when finding a new library: I went looking for my favorite authors. I found an anthology of Ray Bradbury stories.
Which I read all the way through before the next day, but I think I had to wait two days to check it back in and get another. It was while I was checking it in that the librarian asked me how I liked the stories in the book. And then she asked about some other authors I liked, and during the course of the conversation asked if I had ever read anything by Fritz Leiber. I said I thought I had read some of his stories, but wasn’t sure. She led me to a shelf and pulled out a collection of stories about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I think it was the volume Swords Against Death, but I’m not certain.
When I brought back the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser book, she recommended the anthology, Warlocks and Warriors edited by L. Sprague de Camp, which contained one of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories I’d already read, but also contained “The Black God’s Kiss” by C.L. Moore, which introduced me to another great sword & sorcery protagnist, Jirel of Joiry.
Over the course of the next few months, with that librarian’s help, I read every single science fiction and fantasy book in the school library. Which would have left me sad, except that the town had a much more well-stocked public library.
The first visit to that library had been with my mother and younger sister, and Mom had commented on how much bigger and modern looking it was than the same town’s library had been when I was a baby. The library that Mom had checked out all of those Heinlein, Bradbury, Norton, and Christie (mom was a mystery fan as well as a sci fi fan) that she read to me as an infant.
Anyway, the public library had a much larger collection and they acquired books much more often than the school library had. And they allowed you to check out more than one book at a time and were open a lot more hours (having multiple full-time librarians, unlike the school district). That library had a lot to do with the fact that I read at least one book every day throughout seventh and eighth grade.
It was from that library that I read a rather large number of books by Madeleine L’Engle. I’d been a L’Engle fan since I had gotten a copy of A Wrinkle in Time from the Scholastic Book Club in about third grade. But hadn’t found many other books by her until that public library.
One day I came into the library to drop off books I had read intending to browse for new ones, but the librarian at the desk said (with a twinkle in her eye), “You should go check out the new acquisitions display.” They periodically put up the dust covers of recently acquired books along with some extra information about the author or if it was part of a series typed up on an index card. There would also frequently be bright pink cards next to the index card saying, “Currently checked out — ask to be put on the reserve list!”
Anyway, I got to the display and started scanning the books when Madeleine L’Engle’s name jumped out at me. And the title was one I didn’t recognize, A Wind in the Door. The little index card said something like, “The long awaited sequel to -A Wrinkle in Time-!” Joy started to bubble up in me… and then I saw that dreaded pink card.
“Someone’s checked it out already?” I don’t think I actually wailed, but you know, I was only 12 or 13 (I don’t know which month of 1973 the book came out, and now if you didn’t know how much of an old man I am, now you do) and a book I didn’t even know I’d been waiting for had just come out but I couldn’t read it yet!
The librarian didn’t scold me for being too loud. Instead she said, “Oh, yes! One of our best customers has already checked it out!” She made a dramatic show of looking through some papers… and then she read out my name.
The Head Librarian had already checked it out in my name, and she and the other librarians had cooked up the idea of sending me to the display and so forth. I found out later there had been a bet as to which one of them would get to spring that act on me.
So there it was, behind the counter, and I got to be the first one to read it.
Many other librarians helped me discover fabulous science fiction and fantasy works, not just the ones mentioned above. And I owe all of them a ton of gratitude.
I was a teen-ager when I attended my very first sf/f convention. It was the late 1970s, and a couple of my slightly older friends let me tag along with them when they drove to a city about an hour form the town we lived in on a Saturday, where we bought day passes and I tried to figure out what there was to actually do once there.
Until just a couple years before, I had never lived anywhere that was within driving distance of a sci fi con. I’d read about them in the pages of a fanzine (memeographed pages stapled together that came in the mail irregulalarly) that I had received for awhile, and in the intra-story comments of a couple of different anthologies I’d read.
I don’t know what I expected, but after sitting through a couple of panels, I wound up spending the rest of my day in the dealer’s room. Most of that time in a couple of the bookseller booths.
I was browsing in one such booth with several paperbacks in my hand which I intended to buy. A guy (who seemed to be about 40 years old) commented on my selection thus far, saying I had good taste. He asked me about my favorite authors and books, and we talked for a couple of minutes.
Then he asked me if I had ever read Slan. I admitted that I wasn’t familiar with it. He then asked if I had read any of the other works of A. E. van Vogt. I said that the name was familiar, and added that I owned a lot of anthologies of short stories, and may have read something of his there, but wasn’t sure.
He proceeded to lecture me, in very a condescending tone, about what a great author van Vogt was and how Slan wasn’t just great, but was a pivotal work in defining fandom itself. He then sort of tch-ed at me, turned his back on me and walked away, clearly indicating that I was not worth talking to (and probably that the time he had spent on me was a waste of time).
It wasn’t traumatizing, but I definitely felt unwelcome. I continued with my browsing and bought my books.
This was not the last time I would encounter that sort of attitude from another fan. Or from pros. And full disclosure, I’m quite certain that when I have reacted with shock upon learning that someone hasn’t read or seen something I think is fantastic (or they dislike a book or series or author that I love) I have come across like this guy.
I was reminded of this incident while I was reading a post about the topic of canon in science fiction/fantasy and someone expressed skepticism that there were any people out there trying to enforce a canon on other fans. So I put a shorter version of this anecdote (and some other examples) in a comment there. But I have more thoughts, and the comment section of another person’s blog isn’t the place to pontificate.
Now, I should pause to define what we mean by canon. The dictionary definitions that come closest to how we’re using it are: “a list of literary works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality” or “an authoritative list of books accepted as holy or sacred.”
So, for instance, if an sf/f professional on a panel or other official event at a convention insists that particular books, authors, or other works are absolute must reads, that’s pushing the notion of canon. If an author dismissively admits he hasn’t read any recent books (even award-winning ones) because based on his understanding of the summary, it’s already been done by so-and-so, that’s another form of pushing the notion of canon. Every time someone publishes a list of “The 100 Most Significant SF/F Books of All Time” or “The 25 Most Influential Books That Every SF/F Fan Must Read” that’s also pushing the canon. Particularly since most of those lists focus on a very narrow time in the history of the genre (40-70 years ago) and a particular set of authors—and usually has no more than 1 or 2 token authors who aren’t white men.
And when the host of the premiere sf/f awards ceremony spends an hour and a half telling anecdotes from that same narrow part of history and only involving a subset of that particular set of dead white male authors, that’s pushing the notion of canon. Especially when he says afterwards the reason he inflated the ceremony with all of that is because he thought modern fans didn’t know but needed to know about that group of dead white guys. Similarly, when someone asks the supposedly rhetorical question regarding the Retro Hugos, “Who else other than Campbell could anyone vote for?” that’s also pushing that canon.
Camestros Felapton recently wrote a couple of excellent posts about different concepts and meaning of canon within the genre:
One of the many excellent points he makes in there is that while it’s appropriate to acknowledge that a particular work or creator had influence on the genre, conflating that influence with timeless quality and relevance isn’t wise. Influence can be good or it can be bad. And stories that were groundbreaking and thought-provoking 90 years ago will probably not have that some effect today—in part because thousands of stories have been written since, many of which were influenced by that work.
Some of the newer works have expanded on the old ideas. Some have interrogated and revised the old ideas. Some have been written in opposition to the old ideas. While it can be interesting to know some of the older works that have influenced the newer ones, we can comprehend, understand, and love the new works without having read the older works. Sometimes reading some of the older stuff might make us appreciate or understand parts of the newer work better, but not always.
I don’t have to learn how to press cuneiform marks into wet clay tablets in order to write stories in my native language today. Just as a person doesn’t have to learn how to steer and manage a team of horses on a horse-drawn carriage in order to drive a modern car or use a modern bus.
No one has to have read the golden oldies to be a fan of (or create your own) great stories today.
Edited to add: A bunch of people wrote on this topic, including:
Cora Buhlert writes much more informatively and nicely than I do on a fannish subject: Some Thoughts on the 1945 Retro Hugo Winners.
Camestros Felaptan also commented: Canon and Campbell.
Aidan Moher has a good perspective Personal Canons: There Is No Universal Canon.
Cora later wrote more eloquantly on the same topic and included a lot links to other people writing on the same topic: Why the Retro Hugos Have Value.
I linked previously to Cora Buhlert’s excellent account from the viewpoint of a finalist nervously waiting to find out if they had to give an acceptance speech while George R.R. Martin went on and on. There are many other excellent posts about what it was like to sit through it: GEORGE R.R. MARTIN CAN FUCK OFF INTO THE SUN, OR: THE 2020 HUGO AWARDS CEREMONY (RAGEBLOG EDITION) is pretty cathartic. When Dinosaurs Roamed The Earth goes with sarcasm rather than rage, but also includes an excellent list (with sources) of why the people George wanted to talk about instead of the actual nominees (and also the full text of the Rebecca F. Kuang’s acceptance speech for the Astounding Award). Then there’s Jason Sanford’s post on Patreon (but available to non-supporters) in which he explains why he’s tired of modern SF/F and its creators being endlessly compared unfavorably to what the genre was like 50 years ago. He also has links to several good twitter threads on the topic. Robert J. Sawyer raises another issue about Martin’s remarks in the ceremony. Meanwhile, Doris V. Sutherland puts the issue in context with the themes of the winning works. And let’s not forget the every pithy and point Ursula Vernon managing to chastise him while remaining as respectful as can be.
And, of course, there’s Martin’s non-apology apology. Which he posted in the comments of someone else’s sci fi blog (File 770 is a fanzine/news site and I rely on it for news about the genre, yes, but it is still technically Mike Glyer’s blog). He hasn’t posted it on his one platform or anything.
I collected many, many, many more links to other people writing about their experiences as a nominee waiting to find out whether they won or lost, or from some of the presents, or as a former nominee watching, et cetera. But I think the collection above covers the majority of the issues (and lots of the linked posts include more links to other posts, so…)
I wanted to write about this not to repeat what others have said, but to comment on a couple aspects of it that I found personally astonishing. I listened to the livestream as it happened. I unfortunately was stuck in an interminable work day, so had the livestream playing on my personal laptop and listening on my airpods while I was working and occasionally looking over at the feed. So it took me at least 45 minutes before I thought, “My god, George, shut up!” because he hadn’t announced any nominees or any winners, yet!
In his non-apology Martin first justifies the extremely long walks down a very specific part of memory lane because New Zealand had never hosted a WorldCon before, therefore most of the local fans probably knew nothing about WorldCons, their history, of the history of the Hugo Awards.
My eyes bugged out. WorldCon didn’t come to New Zealand on its own like an alien invasion! Fans who live in New Zealand and host their own local science fiction conventions organized a bid committee, doing the years of work necessary to make a bid to host a WorldCon. They made a compelling enough case to garner enough votes and got it. They would not have organized a bid committee to try to host WorldCon if they didn’t bloody already know what WorldCon is! And even if somehow they didn’t know, I’m pretty sure all the sci fi fans in New Zealand know how to do a Google search.
What a baffling, patronizing, and condescending thing to say! But if he really thinks that way, that says more about his own hubris and lack of awareness than anything.
Moving on. He also says that all those anecdotes he told are tried and true stories that have always previously managed to get a laugh. I have a few issues with that…
Before I can explain my first objection, I need to give a little background. The purpose of this background is not to pile on GRRM even more, but to provide context. There have been a few times over the course of my life where I have decided that I wanted to have nothing to do with George or his writing. The first was in the mid-80s when I washed my hands of the Wild Cards series. A bit over a decade later some friends tried to get me to read A Song of Ice and Fire, and enough time had passed that I had actually forgotten the name of the guy who organized Wild Cards… but very quickly the same issues that had bounced me out before came up, and I noped-out again. Then there was last year’s Hugo Losers Party and his very tone deaf, whiny, defensive non-apology. The point is, that for 35 years I have actively avoided him. If he’s at conventions I’m attending, I don’t go to his panels. I only ever read his blog if someone I trust links to a specific entry and says it’s worth looking at, and so forth. Not because I hate him, but because I don’t care for his writing or his use of particularly objectionable tropes (and what that says about his personal values).
For 35 years I have actively avoided him, and yet, I have heard nearly every one of the anecdotes he shared at this ceremony several times. I’ve heard the one that includes his head being covered with whipped cream so many times, that I think I could recite it from memory—including all of his pauses and the points where for whatever reason he puts the emphasis on a different syllable than normal.
If I (who tries to avoid him) have heard most of these before, then I can’t help but think a lot of other people in sf/f circles have heard them before, too.
These anecdotes do contain interesting nuggets of information, and they would be appropriate in a panel about the history of sci fi fandom (or at least the part of fandom that attended WorldCons) in the 1970s and 1980s. The anecdotes about the earlier years of the Hugos and the banquet and such would be fine as part of a panel about the history of the awards. But they shouldn’t all be shared during an awards ceremony!
For my third objection, I need to mention that in college I competed in debate and speech competitions, and several times I won trophies in the Toastmaster/After Dinner Speaking Category. One year I was the Western U.S. Regional Champion in that category.
So as someone with some experience in this area, I have to say that all of Martin’s anecdotes are too long and plodding. There is a lot of filler material, so that the punchline, when it arrives, feels more like a band-aid being painfully and torturously peeled off a partially healed wound instead of a sharp delightful surprise. I’m not saying they aren’t completely unfunny at all, it’s just that they could really do with a bit of workshopping and trimming, okay?
The period of WorldCon and sf/f and fandom history he focused on was a fraction—less than 30 years out of the 81 years since the very first WorldCon. And the people he focuses on in those years were a very specific subset of all the authors, artists, and editors contributing to the genre during those years. Yes, he name-checked a couple of women of that era, but there were no stories that any of them figured in. How many times did he refer to Heinlein as the Dean of Science Fiction? Did he even once mention the Queen of Space Opera, Leigh Brackett?
No. He did not. Based on who appears in his anecdotes—and which of the past greats of the genre he feels compelled to lionize—we can safely infer that he thinks they are the only ones who mattered. It’s a very small circle that (to paraphrase Jeanette Ng) was mostly sterile, white, male, and heterosexual.
I’m only 11 years younger that George. I grew up reading all of those same stories by those very writers. They are what made me a fan. They are an important part of why I went on to write sf/f myself, to publish a zine, and to continue writing now. But they weren’t the only ones making science fiction and fantasy at the time, nor were they the only ones reading it.
And we are long past the time when we should be pretending they are the only ones that matter.
The Reading Outlaw has done a super-cut of the ceremony, removing the long rambling stories and including all of the wonderful, heartfelt acceptance speeches. You should take a look: When The Toastmaster Talks Less:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
But my previous blog post leans heavily to one side of an issue which I think needs more discussion—evenhanded discussion. As Cora Buhlert pointed out, many of us who complained about that one aspect of the Retro Hugos failed “to mention that Leigh Brackett and Margaret Brundage, two awesome women who went unrecognised in their lifetimes, also won Retro Hugos this year.” Those two wins were well-deserved and marked incredibly overdue recognition of creators who had contributed much to the genre. And they weren’t the only thing that the Retro Hugos got right.
First, a complete list of the 1945 Retro Hugo Award winners is here. Now, my thoughts:
I was really pleased that Leigh Brackett won Best Novel for “Shadow Over Mars.” It was the story I placed in slot number one on my ballot, but I didn’t have much hope, because even though her career as a science fiction writer spanned form the mind 1920s until the early 1980s, and despite having been described as “the Queen of the Space Opera” she isn’t talked about one one-hundredth as much as certain so-called great men of science fiction whose careers often were much shorter than hers. Before this Retro Hugo, the only Hugo she had won was awarded some months after her death, as one of the screen writers for The Empire Strikes Back. Only one of her novels, The Long Tomorrow, was nominated during her lifetime and that was 1956. I had been afraid that either the Olaf Stapledon novel (which wasn’t bad) or the one by E. Mayne Hull & A.E. van Vogt (which is quite bad) would win because Stapledon and van Vogt are talked about and their works are included in retrospective anthologies more regularly.
I was equally stoked by Margaret Brundage’s win in Best Professional Artist. For 15 years Brundage was the cover artist for Weird Tales, and she also did a lot of interior illustration. The covers at first glance will remind you of other lurid covers that always seem to have scantily clad damsels in distress on them, but Brundage’s were subtly different. The women on her covers were far less likely to be hysterical or fainting. If the scene called for the woman to be tortured or threatened, Brundage would show that, but she usually showed them fighting back. While there were people who suggest Weird Tales should be banned because some found the covers lewd, Robert E. Howard once admitted in an interview that letters from his fans always mentioned how much they loved Brundage’s art, and he claimed he started adding scenes to his stories which he thought might make Brundage more likely to select his story for a cover. Back to the outcries about the cover: the editors of Weird Tales revealed that M. Brundage was a woman to deflect some of the objections to the covers, and there were a rather large number of people who didn’t believe it was possible for a woman to draw that competently. She definitely is overdue for some recognition!
Theodore Sturgeon’s win in Best Novella for “Killdozer!” is not surprising. “Killdozer!” happens to be a pretty good story and Sturgeon is not a total unknown to modern voters. It was in second place on my ballot (behind Brackett’s “The Jewel of Bas”), which I liked quite a bit more. “A God Named Kroo” by Henry Kuttner (another quite good story) was in third place on my ballot, followed by “Intruders from the Stars” by Ross Rocklynne. So I wasn’t unhappy with this category, but it’s hard to know how many votes for “Killdozer!” were due to name recognition.
A similar problem happens in Best Novelette with Clifford D. Simak’s “City,” because Simak is well-known, and entire City series is popular enough that it is still in print. However, I don’t think this particular story was outstanding compared to the rest of the ballot. I thought “The Children’s Hour”, by Lawrence O’Donnell (pseudonym for C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner), “No Woman Born”, by C.L. Moore, and “When the Bough Breaks”, by Lewis Padgett (C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner) were all better stories. The one thing that gives me some hope that Simak didn’t win just because of name recognition is that Asimov was also in this list (with a mediocre story, IMHO), so if name recognition were the only driving force, he probably would have won.
Ray Bradbury’s win in Best Short Story for “I, Rocket” isn’t surprising on its own. I personally thought of the stories on this ballot that it was the third best (behind Simak’s “Desertion” and van Vogt’s “Far Centaurus”). Mind you, “I, Rocket” is a good story. But Bradbury had a few much better short stories published in 1944. I mean, I’m not complaining that much, because even a mediocre Bradbury is more interesting that a lot of other writer’s merely good tales. I just happen to think that Bradbury’s “The Jar” and “The Lake” and much better Bradbury stories.
Leigh Brackett’s win in Best Related Work for “The Science-Fiction Field” is a bit of surprise if for no other reason than that it was one of the nominees that wasn’t available anywhere online. I had forgotten it exists until I saw it in one of the Retro nomination suggestion lists. After reading a summary I had a vague memory of having read it, and had to go by that recollection and some reviews to decide where to put it on my ballot.
Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster winning Best Graphic Story or Comic with Superman: “The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk” can only be explained as name recognition and the fondness for more recent Superman stories. I had this story at dead last on my ballot. Both Flash Gordons and the Donald Duck story were in the top three positions because, well, Alex Raymond and Carl Barks were among the best comic artists of that decade. Full disclosure: when I was a kid one of my Aunts bought me a collection of trade paperback sized collections of reprints of a whole bunch of old Donald Duck comics, and this story happened to be in there! I actually have a physical copy at that nominee in my house! I also thought (once I tracked it down) that the Spirit story was better than this particular Superman comic. It just is not a good example of the series.
Since The Canterville Ghost and The Curse of the Cat People were number 1 and 2 on my ballot, respectively, I’m quite happy that they tied for Best Dramatic Presentation. There isn’t more to say here, other than, even 13-year-old me (who was the biggest diehard fan of the Universal Frankenstein movies) was shocked that such a stinker as House of Frankenstein even made the ballot!
I think the most important thing I can say about the Best Fan Writer category is, that if it hadn’t been for such modern fan-created websites like The 1945 Retro Hugo Awards Spreadsheet, Retro Science Fiction Reviews, and the like, I would have had no idea who to nominate other than the same old white (sexual harasser) guy who tended to always when in this decade. Fritz Leiber won six Hugos in his lifetime for professional stories, but like many pros, he was also extremely active in unpaid fan work. So I’m not at all unhappy with this win.
In my previous post I talked about the Best Editor category, but I want to repeat here that from my reading of scans I could find of old issues of the various zines that were being edited by the nominees in this category, Amazing Stories and Weird Tales (Raymond A. Palmer and Dorothy McIlwraith) published more good stories than Astounding that year. Planet Stories (edited by W. Scott Peacock) seemed to be a tie with Astounding in the ratio of good stories to bad. And I should note that the winner of the Retro Hugo for Fan Writer, that essay by Leigh Brackett? According to that essay, at the time Planet Stories was considered hands-down the superior publisher of accurate science in its science fiction. So all those grouchy old white guys who keep insisting Astounding and Campbell were beloved and revered above all others at the time and were the undisputed champions of science—they can sit on something unpleasant and spin.
Now we come to another category that has a lot of people up in arms: the Cthulhu Mythos winning Best Series. Before I begin, I need to point out that for the last five years I have been running a homebrew Cthulhu-based rollplaying game with a bunch of my friends. I have written stories that were intentionally meant to evoke the Cthulhu Mythos. I own a lot of modern anthologies, novels, and novellas by various people set in that kind of universe.
Despite enjoying the concepts of the Mythos, I put it dead last on my ballot (and considered putting it below No Award) for a number of reasons. The first is that in 1944, when works must be published to be eligible for this award, most of what I consider well-written Cthulhu-mythos stories had not been written. Of the works published in 1944, Captain Future, the Shadow, and Doc Savage were infinitely better. Most of the Jules de Grandin stories were also superior (though the best, IMHO, were published between 1921 and 1930 and I was shocked when I saw it on the ballot because I didn’t realize an eligible entry had been printed in 1944) Burroughs’ Pellucidar series was more than a bit uneven, so kind of a tie, quality-wise in my opinion. And I should disclose that I was irritated that, so far as I could tell, the far superior Monsieur Zenith had no qualifying stories published that year. Another reason not related to Lovecraft’s blatant racism (that is the driving force of many of his stories in this cycle), is that the Mythos was listed as being created by Lovecraft, Derleth “and others.” And honestly, by far most of the good stuff in the series was created by those unnamed others. So even wording this nomination that way makes this an undesirable thing to vote for.
If you read nothing of this post except the previous paragraph, you should be able to infer that I am quite interested in and fond of a whole lot of sci fi, fantasy, weird tales, and mysterious fiction published many, many decades before I was born. I was born in the ’60s, but my mom was a sci fi fan before I was born. From my infancy, she read to me from the sci fi books she had most recently checked out from the library or bought from a used book store. Of course I am familiar with the works of all those problematic guys from the 40s and 50s (and beyond!)1. All those stories shaped my love and curiosity for more fiction of the fantastic. And I think that there is value, for those interested, in having some familiarity with some of those old stories.
But I also think that if those of us who have knowledge of those old stories are going to recommend things to modern fans, they need to be things we have double-checked to make sure they really are as good as we remember. During a previous Retro Hugos ballot, some old stories written by an author who for decades was my favorite were on the ballot. They were stories I had read many, many, many years ago and had very fond memories of. I decided the ballot was a great excuse to re-read these old beloved favorites.
The Suck Fairy had been extremely busy working on those stories. The Suck Fairy had been so busy on those stories, that when I saw more stories from the same series by the same author had been nominated for Retros this year, I decided to just put them in last place on my ballot without re-reading, because I would rather keep the happy, golden versions of those stories that exists in my imperfect memory than see that the tales were not as good as I thought.
Which brings us to some of the many discouraging issues that have embroiled the fandom on the fast few days. There are people who created great work 40, 50, or 60 years ago, who tend to be venerated now, and who are themselves living in the happy golden imperfectly remembered version of sci fi/fantasy stores that were written 70, 80, 90, or more years ago. They only remember the parts that resonated with them. They don’t remember the racism, the sexism, the colonialism, the homophobia, and other bigotries that were sometimes blatant, but almost always present to some degree in those works. So some of them genuinely do not understand why a lot of us are not as enamored with those days as they or in the same way that they are.
There are a lot of diamonds to be found among all that fool’s gold. And I think, if we can keep projects such as the Retro Hugo Awards Spreadsheet and the Retro Science Fiction Reviews up-to-date and available to modern fans, it is possible that through the mechanism of the Retro Hugos, we can bring recognition to many of those who deserve more credit for the foundations of the genre than the simple repeating of received wisdom has made available.
1, I want to note, for the record, that while when I was a small child one of Mom’s favorite authors was Heinlein, her current obsession is the Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal2. If my Mom, who is in her late-70s, can evolve with the genre, than 71-year-old GRRM has no excuse.
2. Her next most recent obsession was the work of Ellen Klages, so you can see that Mom has excellent taste!
In 1994 the World Science Fiction Society approved the awarding of Retrospective Hugos for those years when there had been a WorldCon, but no Hugos. WorldCons aren’t required to award them. Also, Retro Hugos awards are allowed only for specific years: 50, 75, or 100 years before the current Worldcon, and only if another WorldCon hasn’t already awarded Retro Hugos for that year.
The original idea was that the Retro Hugos can only be given out 11 times—for the years 1939, 1940, 1941, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, and 1954. Because there was no WorldCon from 1942-1945, due to World War II. A recent rule change now allows for awards for those war years, as well, which is how we got to the ceremony earlier this week at CoNZealand where Retro Hugos for 1945 were handed out.
When I first heard about the idea, I thought it was a good one. People were creating and reading (or viewing) science fiction in those years, and it made sense that the organizations handing out awards for excellence in sf/f should look at award-worthy stuff during that time. It gives fans a chance to read stories with which they are unfamiliar and learn about the history of this genre we love, right? And if gives us, as a community, and opportunity to recognize some works and creators who are less famous today.
In practice, I’m not sure things have exactly worked out that way.
A lot of the Retro Hugos have gone to people who are still famous today (and who often had received plenty of awards while they were still alive). And it isn’t even because those are the best stories that made it to the ballot from that year. Several of the Retro Hugos have gone to rather mediocre stories from early in the careers of people who went on later to write much better stuff.
In other words, it seems that a lot of voters aren’t actually reading the nominated works, but rather picking works that are written by people they have heard of.
It it difficult to track down some of these old stories, I get it. Even though there are wonderful fan blogs out there publishing lists of links to where you can find these tales (since they have often fallen into the public domain many are available for free). As a voter myself, I admit that each time it has been a struggle to read everything nominated from both the regular Hugo ballot and the Retro Hugo ballot during the time between when the ballots are announced and when voting closes.
An even more difficult category is Best Editor, Short Form. Which is, in practical terms, an award for best magazine editor. So in order to do one’s due diligence this year, for instance, you would have to peruse all of the issues published in the eligibility year of the at least the magazines Astounding Stories, Weird Tales, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Planet Stories.
That’s a lot of 75-year-old magazines to track down.
And if, like me, you track down scanned versions of the old zines at places like the Internet Archive, probably your first reaction will be a lot of “WTF?” because all the ‘zines from that era printed a lot of stuff which would never pass muster today. A month or so ago it shouldn’t have surprised me at how much WTF-material there was (because this is hardly my first time looking at stories and magazines from the time), yet it did a bit. It’s amazing how quickly we forget the weird stuff, the poorly written stories you couldn’t force yourself to finish, and so on. You remember the stories you thought weren’t bad (and sometimes even quite good) more than the other stuff.
If you aren’t willing to do that, you’re going to fall back (as the voters did this year), and the name you know: John f-ing Campbell, yet again.
I haven’t read every single issue of Astounding (later renamed Analog) Campbell ever edited, but I’ve read enough to draw an opinion of his skills as an editor overall. Looking at the stories he published in the year under questions, to the extent I could in the time frame, I found his selection of stories to be overall, mediocre. Yes, there was good stuff in there, but the was a lot more meh than wow.
I believe strong arguments can be made for at least two of the other nominees to be ranked above Campbell in this particular year. But if you point that out, people come back with basically three counter-arguments:
- Everyone knows that Astounding was hands-down the best sci fi ‘zine of the time so who else could anyone vote for,
- Campbell’s influence over the field dwarfs everyone else so who else could anyone vote for,
- I liked more of the stories in the Astounding issues I sampled than in the others so…
The third of those arguments is the only one with any legitimacy. But let’s deal with the first two before I tackle the third.“Everyone knows” is simply a really bad reason to make any decision. We’re talking about very subjective things here, for one. And for most people it’s all second-hand knowledge at best. Most contemporary fans weren’t alive 75 years ago, let alone comprehensibly reading everything that was published. And cultural artifacts don’t survive equally. Astounding appealed to a certain demographic who, for a variety of reasons, are much more likely to live and remain active in a particularly hobby for many years than some others. The demographic has also, historically, had its preferences elevated above other groups, whose preferences and activities are often erased from history.
Also, the Suck Fairy has had 75 years to visit those publications. You shouldn’t fall back on the received wisdom without verifying for yourself.
As to the second argument, well, Donald J. Trump’s influence over the United States right now dwarfs everyone else, but it hardly means historians should be handing him a “Best President” trophy. I know that metaphor is a stretch, but the point is that having a lot of influence isn’t the same thing as using that influence well. And again, how much of Campbell’s influence was due to him, and how much is it due to that ability of the demographic he most appealed to to have an outsized impact on how the time period is remembered?
That third argument is a reasonable reason to determine who you vote for, I agree. But at least some of the people I’ve seen making that argument don’t stop at “this is why I voted for him,” they went on and tacked on the “…so who else could anyone vote for?”
Judging the editor categories is always difficult. Most people approach it by voting for the nominee who published the stuff the individual voter liked most.
That’s not the only criteria one ought to consider, in my opinion. Full disclosure: for over twenty years I edited a very small ‘zine that printed science fiction. Our circulation was never over about 300, but we also knew we were aiming at a particular niche. Still, it means I judge editors by more than just whether I like every story they publish. I didn’t limit myself, as an editor, to publishing only stories I thought were award-worthy and would stand the test of time. I picked stories because I thought my readers would like them and were worth their time and attention. Another quality I judge editors on is how well they seem to know their audience. If I have information about how they treat the writers they work with and the staff of their publications, I let that influence me, too.
Because giving your audience things they will enjoy (which isn’t the same thing as fan service, but that’s another discussion), cultivating writers, and managing staff are all also part of the job of an editor.
If I only voted for the editors whose publications I loved (and only stories I loved, et cetera), there would have been a lot more No Awards on my Hugo ballots over the last five years. I can look at something that isn’t to my particular taste and say, “Well, I don’t like that, but I know a lot of people do, and this seems to be a competent execution/exploration of a topic I don’t care for” and go ahead and vote for it. It’ll just be lower on my ballot than other things.
None of this is to say that no one has a right to vote for Campbell in the Retros. The question I raise in the title of this blog post is about whether the Retro Hugos are actually recognizing things that are award-worthy, or merely handing out trophies to nominees based on received wisdom instead of merit.
Unfortunately, the jury is still out.
Edited to add: Not many minutes after this published, one reader pointed out a copy-and-paste blunder that ate one whole sentence and part of a word.
Then another pointed out that my question is sort rhetorical for at least the next year, since the 1946 Retros were given out at LA Con III back in 1996, so it won’t be until 2022 that the question will come up again. To which I say, an amendment to the WSF Constitution has to be passed at two WorldCons before taking effect, though we don’t need a rule change if the organizers of 2022 and later conventions can be convinced that maybe these aren’t a great idea…
ETA 2: As always, Cora Buhlert writes much more informatively and nicely than I do on a fannish subject: Some Thoughts on the 1945 Retro Hugo Winners.
ETA 3: I wrote a rebuttal to this a big later: It shouldn’t require a keymaster to have fun, or, canon and other forms of gatekeeping in sf/f.
And Cora Buhlert wrote more elequantly on the same topic and included a lot links to other people writing on the same topic: Why the Retro Hugos Have Value.
I did eventually look up the long list, and confirmed that I was correct that all of those men had, indeed, received nominations23. But then I noticed that all of the books nominated for Best Novel were written by a woman4. And when I followed up to find a blog post from someone commenting on the issue and confirmed that, yes, the anger was about the Best Novel category, and how this is a terrible travesty and more proof that a political conspiracy has taken control of the Hugos, which is more proof of the downfall of civilization, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
They try what Asimov5 used to call a Judo Argument: the art of trying to use the enemy’s own strength against him. Asimov was specifically talking about arguments by people of faith to try to use science to prove the existence of god. But it applies to many other endeavors. In fact, the argument that these people who are upset about the Best Novel category of this year’s Hugo awards are using is specifically what Asimov called The Second Judo Argument:
“Suppose something exists, but the chances of it coming into existence due to random processes are so small (as determined by the laws of statistics and probabilities) that it is virtually impossible to suppose that it exists except as the result of some directing influence.”
—Isaac Asimov, The Planet That Wasn’t, essay 17, “The Judo Argument”
So, the argument that is being advanced, here, is that the having all six nominees in the Best Novel category of the Hugo Awards being written by authors of only one gender is so statistically unlikely that the only logical explanation is some kind of shenanigans. The least irrational way I’ve seen this notion expressed is in the form of a rhetorical question, “Are you seriously telling me that no award-worthy book written by a man in the field of science fiction/fantasy was published in 2019?”
Let me dispense with that question, first. There is nothing in the mission statement of the Hugos, nor in the rules, nor in a reasonable description of the awards that says the ballot must feature every single sf/f book which is worthy of a Hugo. Lots of great books fail to make the short list every year.
Since I participate in the awards, earlier this year I nominated five7 books for this award. Only two of the books I nominated made it to the ballot. Now that the ballot has come out, do I suddenly believe that the other three I nominated aren’t Hugo-worthy? Absolutely not! It just so happens that the four books I didn’t nominate that also did make the ballot were all books I hadn’t read8.
The other thing I want to mention about my nominations: when I went back into my emails to check what I had nominated, one of the five books I nominated was by a man. Was I disappointed that book didn’t make the final ballot? Sure! But not because of the gender of the author, just because it was a book I read recently that I really liked.
Let’s move on to numbers10. The other part of the argument is that having a category on the Hugo ballot dominated by one gender is somehow so incredibly unlikely as to prove some sort of cheating is going on. So, let’s look at the numbers, shall we? First, this 2019 article9 gives a lot of numbers: Gender and the Hugo Awards, by the Numbers. Nicoll breaks out more categories than I will recount here. The two most import numbers for our argument are these: how many times in the history of the Hugos has the Best Novel category been only men? And how many times have all but one nominee been a man?
The answers are enlightening. Out of the 66 years that there has been a Best Novel category for the Hugo Awards, 22 times the shortlist has been all men. That’s 33⅓% of all the years. And out of those 66 years the number of times that all but one nominee was a man is 20, which is just a touch more than 30%. So the number of years in which a single gender indisputably dominated is 64%. Which means that having one gender predominate isn’t a statistical anomaly at all.
Let’s be perfectly clear: this year is the first time, in 66 years of Hugo history, that the Best Novel category has only had women as the authors. But by no means is it the first year that any gender has had a disproportionate place on the ballot. While there were 22 years out of that time when the category had only men, which is a subset of the 42 years out of 66 in which one or fewer of the nominated works’ authors was a woman.
So, at this point we have discredited the idea that the ballot invalidates all work by male authors, and we have invalidated the assertion that a single-gender ballot is statistically unlikely. Maybe that’s where I should stop, but there are more problems here. Those problems are implied above, but the people whose arguments I have dismantled have demonstrated a decided inability to understand implications, so I have a bit more to say.
So, despite my dismantling of the arguments above—specifically that statistically there isn’t a problem in this year’s ballot—that doesn’t mean that there is no change worth discussion. For some context, let’s look at this recent essay: The Decade That Women Won. There has been a change in which gender dominates. What can we infer from the data?
Mathematically from the nomination and winning data we can’t conclude much. Having one gender disproportionately represented is the statistical norm for the entire history of the awards. All that’s happened in recent years is which gender of author that is being nominated most often has changed. There are a lot of perfectly reasonable explanations for this that don’t involve any shenanigans:
- It could be that enough people are making an effort to read outside their comfort zone that they are encountering more books written by women than they used to.
- It could be that reviewers and compilers of recommended lists are making more of a conscious effort to review a more diverse selection of works.
- It could be that social media and other modern communication possibilities provide more ways to circumvent gatekeepers11.
- It could be a slow generational change that’s just hit a tipping point.
- It could be that a lot of the fans who are women and/or queer who bought their first WorldCon supporting membership in 201512 in order to protect the integrity of the awards from a slate-voting scheme stuck around13 and we tend to read a more diverse selection of sf/f books than the old guard
- It could be that more women are managing to sell in the sf/f market than in decades past, and their increased presence is starting to have an effect.
- It could all be statistical noise.
There is another form of the Judo Argument being used by the people unhappy with this year’s Best Novel nominees: “I thought all you people were opposed to discrimination, yet here you are cheering on the discrimination of men.” First, when I cheered when I saw the list I wasn’t thinking “Oh, look! No men!” No, I was cheering because two books I’d nominated had made the list, and two more that I’d heard enough good things about that I was already planning to read had made the list. Second, when we talked about discrimination against women and other marginalized communities in sf/f publishing and such, we had more statistics than just award ballots. We could show the statistical disproportions in who was published, which books were reviewed, which books were on recommendation lists, and many other statistics which all skewed very strongly toward cishet white men. We don’t have any such statistics showing a sudden skewing in the other direction. Even now, all those other numbers still favor cishet white men. And third, for decades the same people who are complaining now have insisted that an all-male or nearly-all-male ballot absolutely wasn’t discrimination, so they don’t now have the moral right to make that argument.
And that’s the crux of it: the people complaining now never cared during any of those years that no women were nominated. They don’t actually have any trouble with disproportionate nominees or wins. They only have a problem when it isn’t men who are being recognized.
In other words, they aren’t arguing in good faith, which is why their arguments fall flat.
1. James S.A. Corey is actually a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck… but both of them are men. I just always forget their names, but I know it’s a pen name for two guys, right?
2. Straczynski is nominated in the Best Related Work, and Nicoll in Fan Writer, so if the other people were up in arms about the fiction categories, then I guess we can’t count them, but…
3. Here’s where I pedantically remind myself and the reader that people are not nominated in the fiction categories, but rather specific works of fiction which happen to be written by people.
4. At least one is a trans woman. Which I only mention because at least one of the commentators out there who are angry about no men being nominated in the Best Novel category this year had a side rant about the trans person and how having a trans author on the ballot somehow proof that something untoward has happened in the voting process. The trans woman is a woman, so for the rest of this entry I’m just going to agree that all the authors nominated in the Novel category this year are women, because they are.
5. Asimov was a Grandmaster of Science Fiction and for most of my teens and twenties I thought he was the greatest science fiction author ever. He has considerably tarnished in my eyes since I learned how he treated (and groped and otherwise sexually harassed) women who he encountered at conventions and otherwise. But the notion of a Judo Argument: someone trying to use their opponents’ principals to disprove the opponents’ conclusions, is apt6.
6. For more reasons than one.
7. One of the rules which the World Science Fiction Society adopted recently in order to make Slate Voting Schemes less likely to succeed is that nominators are allowed to nominate no more than 5 titles, while the top 6 nominees will appear on the ballot.
8. Although one of them was a book I had already bought but hadn’t yet read, and one other was in my wishlist, for what it’s worth…
9. Coincidentally written by a man, and even more coincidentally, one of the men I mention earlier who is on this year’s Hugo ballot!
10. In an earlier draft of this post I started to go into statistical theory, because my major at university was mathematics, and if I had gone on to graduate school my plan was to go into statistics, probability, and game theory… but all the math makes some people dizzy. Besides, the people who have asserted the argument I’m refuting clearly don’t understand logic, so…
11. And yes, there have definitely been gatekeepers.
12. My gay self, my bi husband, and a number of others, for example
13. Just as I and my husband have.
As more than one study has shown, emotions are actually necessary to processing logical problems. Our brains have evolved as a system to process information from our senses to evaluate our environment and make decisions about how to survive and succeed, and that processing involves hormones and emotions on at least an equal footing with what most people would think of as pure data. And as a social species, we are hardwired to take in cues from other members of our species into account, as well. This is true whether one is neurotypical or not. How a non-neurotypical person processes some of that input is what’s different, not that they don’t process it at all.
That biological need to take into account the feelings of others isn’t an accident. It’s part of a fundamental aspect of what has made our species successful thus far. Survival of the fittest means the fittest species to fill ecological niches, not the fittest individuals. Social animals, including humans, are fit for the environment because they take care of each other. Not because of a transactional obligation, but because a particular social unit benefits from having many members, sharing the burdens of keeping an eye out for danger, finding food, raising offspring, and so forth. Taking care of each other shouldn’t be thought of as a matter of charity—it should be recognized as necessary to the survival of the species.
And that’s just one of the reasons why feelings are important. Keeping track of each other’s physical and emotional health—maintaining each others’ goodwill and trust—are vital parts of our survival strategy.
But I most often encounter myths about logic divorced from emotion in certain fannish arguments where some people want to assert that there are objective criteria by which one can determine the definitive quality of a particular work. This is usually used as a cudgel to bludgeon fans who like things that the self-proclaimed logician dislikes, as well as fans who do not care for the favored thing of the logician.
And that’s just incorrect.
We’re talking about being fans of something. Since the logician is making a claim of definitive determination, let us turn to the Oxford Dictionary definition of fan which applies: “an enthusiast for a particular person or thing.” This sense of the word is derived from the word fanatic, which Oxford further informs us means: “A fanatical person, a person filled with excessive enthusiasm.”
Enthusiasm is an emotion, specifically a “strong intensity of feeling in favour of something or someone” and a “passionate eagerness or interest.”
Emotions, by definition are not rational.
While it is possible to evaluate a particular work of art (whether a novel, movie, television episode, graphic novel, short story, et cetera) in terms of craftsmanship, it will never be an entirely objective analysis. Feelings, preferences, and expectations will always color these evaluations. That doesn’t mean the evaluations are meaningless, we just have to recognize that there will always be subjectivity involved.
Also, craftsmanship isn’t the be all and end all of art. I might well agree that a particular story employs clever use of language and high skill at plotting and dialogue and characterization, I may also still not like the story for reasons complete separate from craftsmanship. Which is a perfectly valid part of the evaluation, review, and critique process.
Fan are passionate. Many of us love talking about the things we passionately like, and sometimes the things we passionately dislike. Some fans love to debate. Others just discuss. And the level of enthusiasm some of us feel make it sound like we are debating when we think we’re discussing.
Art, story telling, and the appreciation of those things are inherently non-rational. Which means that there is no formula or algorithm to settle upon a definitive, objective, or categorical determination of the relative quality of different works. Because, again, we’re talking about passion, enthusiasm, enjoyment, and satisfaction. All non-rational things.
When who plug in a bunch of non-rational ingredients into a purely rational process, you’re not going to get a meaningful answer.
And that’s simply logical.
About two years later—after I had transferred to university in Seattle—I was involved in a conversation with a couple of different friends who were enthusing about a book and its sequel that they both quite enjoyed. One of them had a copy of the second books with him, and suggested I give it a try. “You don’t need to have read the first book to get this one,” he assured me. The cover looked suspiciously familiar, but I didn’t quite put two-and-two together.
Until later that week when I was trying to read it, and realized that the author of the book was the same as the other book from two years ago, and the protagonist that I had despised before was the main character of this book, too. So I gave it back, thanking my friend from loaning it, but admitting that I hadn’t liked it.
About three years later, on our regular gaming night, a group of friends which included the two guys who had tried to get me into the series before were going on and on and on about this latest book in the series. One of them, however said, “Oh, wait, you already tried these books before, didn’t you?” But one of the other guys chimed in to say that the first three books in the series had not been anywhere near as good as the latest, and the next thing I knew I was borrowing someone’s copy of the eighth book in the series.
Admittedly, the main character of book eight was a completely different character who wasn’t quite as irritating as the other guy had been, but I still found myself getting bogged down and rolling my eyes a lot at things in the book until finally I once again gave up.
A few times over the eight years, some subset of friends or acquaintances in various fannish or gaming situations would talk about the series, including explaining which were their favorites and which they could take or leave. And at least one more time during this interval I picked up another book in the series, but it just didn’t grab me.
I found myself after that in a conversation with another friend about the series. She was a little bit surprised that I didn’t like it, as she thought a lot of the themes the author explored were things I enjoyed. We ended up having a very long conversation about books other people had recommended that we didn’t like, and why we thought that was in various cases. This last conversation happened around the same time that my first husband, Ray, was undergoing chemotherapy. Or maybe it was during one of his surgeries? What I know is that the conversation happened in a waiting room at a medical facility where she was hanging out with me specifically to give me emotion support and distract me a bit.
A few months later, Ray died —just two weeks before Thanksgiving. Just before Christmas, she dropped by one day to drop off a Christmas present, but more importantly, to loan me a few books. Most of the books in the pile I recognized as series that I had been interested in trying one day. And then one of the books was in the series that people had been trying to get me to try for a long time.
She pulled it out of the pile and said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about that conversation we had about why you didn’t like other books in this series. The more I think about it, I think if any of the books will appeal to you, it’s this one. Give it a try. I won’t be offended if you don’t like it.”
It was one of the books I stuck in my suitcase when I went to spent about a week at Mom’s for the holiday. Mom tended to go to bed a lot earlier than I did, at least on the nights that weren’t filled with holiday things with the family. So the first night after Christmas, I was laying in her guest room, trying to occupy myself quietly until I was ready to sleep. And I opened up the loaned copy of Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters. I had intended to just force myself to read it for an hour or so until I go sleepy. Because I was not at all confident that I’d like it any more than any of the other Discworld books I had tried before.
The next thing I knew, I was on the last page of the book. The sun had risen outside. I had stayed up all night, eagerly turning pages to find out what happened next!
I re-read the book from beginning to end two more times before that vacation was over. Shortly after getting home, I was telling my friend how much I loved it and that I knew I needed to get my own copy. A couple days later she dropped by and loaned me the next book from the series with the same character, Witches Abroad. And while at the end of Wyrd Sisters I was a big fan of Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Magrat, and Greebo the world’s scruffiest cat, by the end of Wyrd Sisters, I was ready to say that Granny Weatherwax was the greatest fictional character ever created.
It was at this point that the friend advised me that there was an earlier book starring Granny Weatherwax, but it was “written while Pratchett was still figuring out the world, so it’s almost like she’s only a similar character who happens to have the same name.”
Over the course of the next few months I read all of the witches books in the Discworld series which existed at that time (Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, and Maskerade). By this time I was dating Michael, and he was as surprised as many other friends had been that it had taken me so long to start reading these books. It was his copy of the first Granny Weatherwax book, Equal Rites, that I finally read. And I could see that my other friend had been correct, if I’d read it before I had come to love the more fully realized Granny, I would definitely not have liked it.
Having reached the end of the witch books available at the time, I was eyeing some of the other books in the series, when the friend who had picked Wyrd Sisters for me said, “Skip the earlier guard books. Start with Feet of Clay, then if you like the characters try circling back to the beginning.”
And that’s how I eventually wound up reading (and buying my own copies of) almost the entire Discworld series mostly out of order. Because the earlier ones did make more sense once I had gotten into the mindset of the series overall.
The earliest books in the series feel like broad parodies of epic fantasy novels. They have their funny moments, but when the jokes clunk, they remind me (at least) of the non-parody fantasy books that I love and make me wish I was reading one of those.
Wyrd Sisters, in my humble opinion, was the first time that one of the discworld books became full-on satire. Parodies always contain satirical elements, but a full literary satire doesn’t lampoon or ridicule an individual person or work—it uses the elements of irony and humor to lampoon society as a whole.
Several of the books immediately following Wyrd Sisters strayed a bit back into more broad parody elements, but by Reaper Man and Witches Abroad, Pratchett had finally found the groove of holding up a mirror to the reader and the world we live in rather than poking fun at individual works.
This post was originally supposed to be about Witches Abroad, why I love it, and how it changed the way I looked at the world, so maybe I should get to those specifics.
The premise: the tiny mountain kingdom of Lancre is served by three witches: Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlik. There are many other witches who live in neighboring and not quite so neighboring communities, but these three form the core of most of the witches books. Nanny Ogg is the ultimate grandmother—she has outlived a rather large number of husbands, has sons working in various jobs in her hometown and the neighboring communities, a large number of daughters-in-law who fear her, and innumerable grandchildren. She loves to drink and is famous for singing a particularly naught song. Magrat is the youngest of the coven, and is prone to trying new and modern things like crystals and meditation. Granny is older, has never married, and would never, ever be described as nice. But she is also the undisputed leader of their coven, and the one that everyone turns to when the situation gets dire.
This particular book is kicked off when a witch who lives in a neighboring county dies, and leaves a powerful magic wand (and the fairy godmothering duties that go with it) to Magrat. And she writes her will in a way that she knows will provoke Granny and Nanny to insist on going with Magrat to help the girl she is now the godmother to.
The middle of the book involves adventures the three witches have traveling through unfamiliar lands (with a lot of funny events along the way). But there is also a growing sense of trouble, as it becomes clear that the goddaughter in the far-off land is under the influence of someone who is quite dangerous, indeed.
When they find the girl (living in a sort of parody of New Orleans), they quickly discover that the other godmother is someone known to Granny and Nanny: Lily Weatherwax, Granny’s older sister.
The image I included above is a bit of dialog from Witches Abroad.
“You’d have done the same,” said Lily.
“No,”“ said Granny. “I’d have thought the same, but I wouldn’t have done it.”
“What difference does that make, deep down?”
“You mean you don’t know?” said Nanny Ogg.
—from Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett
Lily does not fit the mold of villain when we first meet her. She is nice and charming. She claims her only goal is to ensure everyone is happy and get what they want. It becomes clear fairly quickly that what Lily really wants is for everyone to act happy and cheerful and more than content with whatever their lot in life is.
I mentioned above that Granny isn’t nice. She is sharp-tongued and blunt. She is ruthless when going up against someone who is causing harm to others. But she isn’t one of those characters who is rough and mean on the outside and turns out to have a soft squishy golden heart. Granny is granite all the way through, but it is a granite of morality.
In the above quote, Lily just given her explanation for why she uses her magic to force people into the roles she deems them suited for. She has explained how people make foolish mistakes, live inefficient lives, and waste a lot of time and effort of frivolities, often causing themselves misery and trouble along the way. Isn’t it better, she argues, for someone like her who can see how they could be happier, to make sure that they are?
When Granny objects, that’s what causes Lily to say, “You’d have done the same.”
It is this exchange that shows the core of Granny’s hard, granite soul. She knows that she is capable of doing immoral things. She has had those unkind, cruel, manipulative thoughts. And she refuses to give in to them. She can be harsh-spoken, but she is always harsher to herself, and she knows that kindness isn’t about how we talk to people, but what we actually do for them.
In more than one of the books, Granny defines evil not as maliciousness nor cruelty nor depravity. No. Evil, she tells us, begins when you start thinking and treating people like things.
The book hits on many other ideas along the way, but I think the heart of it was the revelation that how you treat and care for each other is what matters. And there isn’t a grey area between treating everyone as a person entitled to dignity and consideration, and treating them as expendable.