But there are a few things to talk about on this year’s finalist ballot and the new rules. Mike Glyer at File 770 does some number sifting in an attempt at Measuring the Rabid Puppies Effect on the 2017 Hugo Ballot. David Gerrold, science fiction author (including perhaps most famously the Star Trek Original Series script, “The Trouble with Tribbles”) and 2015 World Con Guest of Honor sums up a lot of my throughs in a post of Facebook, part of which I excerpt here:
“My seat-of-the-pants analysis (I could be wrong) is that the Hugos are in the process of recovering from the 2015 assault, precisely because the Worldcon attendees and supporters see themselves as a community.
“There’s a thought buried in that above paragraph — that communities unite to protect themselves when they perceive they are under attack. This works well when the attack is real, such as Pearl Harbor. But it can also have negative effects when hate-mongers such as Bryan Fischer and Pat Robertson (both of whom were in fine form this week) invent a scapegoat (LGBT people) for unwarranted attacks in an attempt to unite the community around their own agendas.
“So while those who have a long history of participation in Worldcons will see this unity as a good thing — those who identify themselves as the aggrieved outsiders will see it as more evidence that the establishment is shutting them out.
“Myself, I see it as a collision of two narratives — one that is based on 75 years of mostly healthy traditions, and one that is based on a fascist perception of how the world works.
“Most important, however, is that most of this year’s ballot suggests that we are seeing a return to the previous traditions of nominations based on excellence. Most of the nominations are well-deserved, and my congratulations to the finalists.”
I would characterize the two narratives as:
- one thinks that a better tomorrow includes the notion that Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations is a good thing, and
- the other that thinks the world was a better place when the heroes were always white men, while women only appeared in stories for the two purposes of being rescued by the hero and being his reward for a job well done.
But Gerrold’s wording works well, too.
Anyway, because of the drubbing they received the last two years and the rules change, one of the puppy groups essentially folded up shop. The other, realizing that the rules made it nearly impossible for them to take over entire categories, went with a more limited ticket this year. As mentioned in one of the links above, this resulted in them naming about 7% of the nominees, and a few of their picks are complete piles of steaming meadow muffins. Which means in every category we have four or more excellent choices to evaluate and choose from. Not everyone sees this year’s ballot as good news. One puppy apologist tries to claim that this year’s balloting numbers proves that the Hugos have driven off half the fandom (here’s a Do Not Link to his post if you want to read it). Now this is a person who claims that we’ve been telling Christian and conservative fans that they aren’t welcome. Whereas all that has happened is that more than a token number of people of color and an occassion LGBT person has made it onto the ballot.
Anyway, his reasoning is dubious on a mathematical level. First, he shows that the number of nominating ballots dropped by between 42-46% in some categories, and that sounds dire. Until you remember that the number of nominators surged last year way above the usual number precisely because after news got out about how the puppies had piddled on the ballot in 2015, a bit more than 2300 fans who had not previously been voters bought supporting memberships and voted in 2015. The overwhelming majority of those new voters resoundingly voted No Award in the categories the puppies had taken over. Fewer of those fans returned to nominate in 2016 for variety of reasons, but not all of them, by any means. Again, the majority handed the puppies a resounding rebuke and we passed two rules changes that made the bloc voting scheme less likely to succeed.
Statistical analysis of the nominating and voting in 2015 and 2016 showed that the number of puppy voters was probably no more than about 250 people those two years. That many people nominating in lockstep could take over the entirety of some down-ballot categories, but it couldn’t win. The larger of the two puppy groups gave up this year—not posting recommendations, not writing their angry blog posts, and generally not bringing a lot of attention to the cause. Their 250 people could not account for more than a fraction of the 1600 nominator drop that happened this year. Most of those 1600 who didn’t participate are from that group of fans who joined for the explicit purpose of opposing the puppies, and now believe that the rule changes and so forth have taken care of the problem.
Analysis of the partial numbers we have from this year’s nominations indicates that the remaining puppy voters number between 65 and 80 people. That’s a 68% drop-off in their group, a far more significant number, I think.
There have always been fewer nominators than voters. Nominating (filling in five blanks in each category) is harder work than voting (choosing from a small list of finalists in each category). And in order to vote or nominate you must purchased at least a supporting membership to WorldCon. A lot of fans don’t have the extra money laying around to buy a membership to a WorldCon that they aren’t attending. So you have to be pretty devoted to the ideas of sci fi/fantasy and/or feel a certain amount of sentiment toward the Hugo Awards themselves to participate year in and year out. Folks who normally don’t spend those funds on that felt something we loved was under assault, and we shifted our priorities a bit to make a stand.
The puppies whipped up some reactionary anger by referring to certain past winners as being motivated by nothing more than Political Correctness, and spinning a very distorted narrative that some of their favorite authors weren’t winning because of an anti-conservative or anti-christian agenda. An angry desire to give the middle finger to so-called PC elites might motivate people to spend some money and do some copy-and-pasting once or twice, but it’s hard to sustain that anger.
I love science fiction and fantasy. I think of it as a literature of hope and imagination. Even dystopian sf, in my opinion, touches on that hope for a better tomorrow even while it portrays a dire future. I am not the only fan, by any means, who was drawn to the literature because I felt like an outsider who didn’t belong in the mundane world of the present. Sf/f has always attracted outcasts of all sorts, which is why many more fans (not just the people of color, the women, and the queers) felt it was worth defending. I know that at least some of the puppies feel as if they are outcasts, though their argument is difficult to back up with facts. White male authors still make up a disproportionately overwhelming majority of the published works, and usually a majority of the nominees for these sorts of awards. They aren’t in any danger of being excluded. I’ve voted for books and stories in the past written by people I knew I disagreed with politically, because the story was good. It isn’t the political views of the author (and not usually of the story, though some of the examples in 2015 were so heavy-handed at hitting the reader over the head with politics and religion that I started to wonder if it wasn’t supposed to be a parody).
I want sf/f to be welcoming, yes. But not so welcoming that people who have literally called for the extermination of writers who include queer characters in stories to feel welcome. Or call an author who happens to be African a savage. I do have my limits.
See, I want the awards to recognize cool stuff written by people who really love telling stories. I like it when the ballot includes stories and authors I’ve not previously heard of. I like it even better when those stories make me want to read more by that person in the future. I don’t want “inclusive” stories or “diverse” stories for the sake of diversity, I want stories that look like the real world, where cisgender people and trans people and people of color and straight people and not-straight people and people of many different religions and people of no religion and people of different abilities are all included. Not to meet a quota, but because that’s how the real world is now! Yeah, as a queer man I’m happy when I see queer characters in a story, but it isn’t enough on its own to make me vote for it.
Now, the things I misremembered about the series had almost nothing to do with the episodes or the storylines. And I’m at least a little bit curious as to why my brain made the changes in recollection that it did. The gist is: my recollection was that the series premiered shortly before my mom, sister, and I moved out to the west coast following my parents’ divorce (when I was 15 years old), that I initially liked the series but became dissatisfied with it as the seasons went on, and was slightly curious years later when the follow-up series Galactica 1980 was released, but was even more disappointed in how poorly the show had aged.
Which is all very, very wrong. And some of it was wrong in ways that are kind of flabbergasting. The original series premiered the same month as my 18th birthday and a little over a year after the worldwide premiere of the original Star Wars. It was only on the air for one season (24 episodes). And the gap between the ending of the original series and the premiere of the follow up was only 8 months.
Glen A. Larson originally conceived the series in the mid-sixties as a group of about three television movies called Adam’s Ark. It was a synthesis of space opera themes with Mormon theology (Larson having been raised in the Church of the Latter Day Saints). Larson had been unable to sell the idea to anyone. Even when a couple years later Star Trek became briefly a minor hit series. (Star Trek, of course, wouldn’t become a sci fi behemoth until later, after reruns had been running in syndication for several years).
Then, in 1977, the movie Star Wars was a worldwide blockbuster hit, and suddenly every network, movie studio, and anyone else in the entertainment/media/publishing world was looking to cash in on its incredible success. Larson’s pilot script looked very attractive.
They filmed the pilot, ABC bought it, put the series on the air with an incredible budget that wouldn’t be exceeded by any other TV show for many years, and we were off. The show did incredibly well in the ratings for the first month or so, until CBS shifted its schedule to put the very popular All In the Family and Alice up against it, causing Galactica’s ratings to slip a lot. Of course, the series might have slipped anyway. The initial spectacle of billions of people killed in the opening battle (not to mention the show’s willingness to cast more famous actors in roles that died within the first several episodes) really seized the imagination. Whereas a lot of the filler episodes were, well, pretty bad. And some things, like the robotic dog pieced together from parts to replace the real dog (killed in the pilot) that had once , were very cheesy.
And while those special effects were lightyears beyond anything seen on television before, they were very expensive. So the network expected not just good ratings, but unbelievably good ratings.
Still, the show had a lot going for it. It didn’t hurt that I had a big crush on Starbuck, of course. But I also had a different kind of crush on Apollo. It wasn’t until some years later, when I got to rewatch some of the original series after I had actually admitted to myself that I was gay that I realize I had the hots for Starbuck, but Apollo was who I wanted to fall in love with and settle down.
Hatch’s character was different than the typical leading man at the time. Unlike the reboot series, Apollo had a warm relationship of mutual respect with his father, Commander Adama. In the pilot he met and practically adopted Boxy (the young boy whose dog had died) helped reunite the boy with his mother, prompted fell in love with said mother, married her, and even though she is killed shortly after the wedding in a Cylon attack, remains a good father. Heroes had been family men before, of course, but unlike some previous fictional fathers, Hatch made you believe that he loved his stepson.
There was a lot to like about the original Galactica. Cool space battle, for one. The Cylon Centurions were a bit cheesy–their chrome colored bodies were always so shiny and unscuffed, even after tramping through a sandstorm on yet another planet that looked like a Universal blacklot generic Western landscape with inexplicable lights added to make it look spacey(?), for instance. But both individual Cylons and the fleet were appropriately menacing. The show did a good job of making it feel like the stakes were real. And the notion that even after the mass murder of billions of people, a group of survivors would claw hope out of disaster and look for a new home was more than just heartwarming.
The show had some problems, as well. Some of them are typical problems of producing a weekly science fiction television series with 1970s technology and practices. Others were more thematic. The fundamental premise from the beginning was that contemplating disarmament as a step toward peaceful co-existence was the most foolish thing people could do. Given the nuclear stand-off between the U.S. and our NATO allies on one side, and the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies on the other, and the very active policy and treaty debates going on at the time, the show was staking a blatant political position. Related, throughout the original series, the military leaders were shown time and time again to always be right, while civilians (particularly any who advocated non-violent philosophies) were always wrong–and not merely wrong, but naively and disasterously wrong again and again.
Remember that the next time someone claims that sci fi has only become political recently.
While caught up in an individual episode it was easy to ignore those problematic elements. Besides, I loved Commander Adama, he was a hero and a great leader! And his son, Apollo, respected him, and we saw a lot more of Apollo in action on screen and he was clearly a good man, brave, loyal, and so forth. Even the sort-of-rebellious Starbuck respected Adama! Therefore our affection for Adama was not misplaced, right? Except, of course, that the examples of civilians who had a different opinion than the military command tended to be one-dimensional or transparently designed to either be unlikeable or pitiably naive.
So Galactica was hardly nuanced.
I liked it. The idea of fighting on against impossible odds is almost always appealing. People who snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with nothing more than hope, courage, and a bit of cleverness are fun to root for. And Galactica gave us that aplenty.
And you can hardly fault a story for that.
I don’t remember the first time I found a copy of an anthology that proclaimed itself to contain the best science fiction of a particular year. I am also not sure how many of them I had seen and read before I realized that there were multiple publishing houses putting out those annual collections. It was difficult to tell because they had such similar names: “[YEAR]: the World’s Best SF,” or “[YEAR]: the Annual World’s Best Science Fiction,” or “The World’s Best Science Fiction the Year: [YEAR]” or “The Annual [NUMBER] Edition Year’s Best S-F” and so on. And let’s not even get into the fact that 90-some percent of the stories included were written by authors in the U.S., with only a small number of authors from the UK, Canada, Australia, or another English-speaking country getting in.
I was 18 when I went on a buying binge picking up as many editions of the series edited by Donald Wolheim as I could, as I had read a few of his previous collections and found they more often contained several stories I liked than some of the others. Wolheim’s taste was close enough to mine that I could count on several good ones in each collection. And it was good to know an editor I could count on to find good ones. I’d been a little shocked at just how many stories I had disliked in some of the other similarly named collections. When I was younger, I assumed that if the name of the book included “The Best…” that it ought to be true, and thus had a few unpleasant surprises.
Of course now it seems obvious that any list of The Best of anything is going to be subjective. When you also understand that in order for a story to be included in one of these collections, the editors have to contact the author or representative and get permission to include their story. For a few decades, every publisher that had a science fiction/fantasy imprint seemed to be publishing one of these annual collections, so they were competing against each other. So if, say 12 stories wound up in one editor’s collection, that doesn’t necessarily mean they were the top (in the editor’s opinion) 12 stories published that year, but rather were the 12 out of a longer list which the editor was able to negotiate a deal.
One upside was that the various annual Best of anthologies usually didn’t have any overlap.
I love them, even though there were always at least a few stories that I didn’t like. There was always a story that I did like written by and author whose name I didn’t recognize, giving me someone knew to look for. Another nice thing was the variety of type of story. Even though they were all picked by the same editor, the stories seldom had anything in common. Themed anthologies can be cool, but sometimes they’re a bit hard to get through because when the stories all fall into a single theme and are all picked by the same editor, some can feel a bit repititious.
Another thing I love about all of those competing Best Of book series is that there are thousands and thousands of copies of the books in hardcover and paperback out there in used book stores. So if, like me, you love to browse all the bookseller booths or tables at sci fi cons, or can easily spend hours wondering in a used book store, you are likely to run across some of these little treasure troves at a reasonable price.
The last few years I’ve read lots of blog posts—and listened to some spirited discussions—about the idea of a science fiction/fantasy canon. Books that every fan or every aspiring right should have read. Unfortunately a lot of books from days gone by that were important to the development of the genre, and/or were beloved by many fans over a span many years, don’t hold up so well for younger readers. Heck, sometimes they don’t old up for us old fogies! I still remember the utter horror I felt when I found a copy of a fantasy book that I had absolutely loved when I was 10 or so, only to find some really blatant anti-semitism and problematic treatment of native peoples when I found a copy again as an adult. As a kid, that stuff had sailed right over my head, but I can’t in good conscience recommend that book now without at least a warning.
So I don’t think it’s right to insist that someone isn’t a true fan or doesn’t understand the genre if they haven’t read specific books. But I do think that we benefit from being familiar with the roots of our favorite genres. And I think that all writers benefit from reading broadly and occasionally reading things outside their comfort zones. Which brings us to another thing I like about these old Best Of collections. Select any one at random and you will get a number of short stories written by a bunch of different people. It’s a lot easier to get through a short story that challenges you in one way or another, than to get all the way through a novel. It’s one way to get samples of some of the roots of the genre without amassing a pile of old books many of which not only will you never be interested in reading again, but that you won’t force yourself to get all the way through.
And odds are, you will find at least one story you like a lot. Which may send you looking for more stories by an author you’d never heard of before. That’s always fun.
Not to mention the possibility that a bad story can serve a good purpose, even if it is only an example of the kind of writing you never want to do yourself.
And I was, as far as I could tell, one of the few kids in my class on the Monday morning after the movie had shown, who hadn’t seen it. If the film was shown on network television in the next couple of years, I didn’t manage to see it. After my folks divorced and my mom, one sister, and I moved 1200 miles away, one of my new friends mentioned that Young Frankenstein had been re-released to theaters and was playing downtown. Back in the days before ubiquitous cable, movies on tape or disc, or the internet, movies were often re-released into theaters.
When I mentioned that I’d never seen it, my friends were aghast. The next thing I knew, we were piling into someone’s car and driving to the theatre. I loved the movie. I loved it so much, that I couldn’t stop talking about it. I kept telling anyone who would listen to me about the grandson of Victor Frankenstein, Frederick, who insists that his last name is pronounced Frohnkensteen, and is ashamed of his crazy grandfather’s work; but upon finding said grandfather’s journal becomes obsessed with bringing a dead man back to life, and the zany misadventures that follow.
My mom thought it sounded fun. And so a night or two later, I found myself standing in line at the theatre once more, this time with my mom and little sister.
The movie has more than a few jokes based on sexual innuendoes, which it didn’t even occur to me might not be appropriate for my eleven-year-old sister, let alone what Mom might think of it. And both of them were laughing at all the same places I was, so everything was going fine. Until we reached the point where the Creature kidnaps Frederick’s fiancé, Elizabeth.
And then, panic started to set in. Because what happens next is that the Creature and Elizabeth have sex (in a scene that is a casebook example of pop culture’s long entanglement with rape culture). During which Elizabeth falls in love with the Creature because he has an enormous “schwanzstucker.”
Mom was a Bible-thumping Southern Baptist. Yes, she was also a science fiction fan, but her open-mindedness only went so far. And I had brought her and my little sister to a movie where a central turning point of one of the subplots is a woman falling in love with a stranger because of the size of his penis.
I was quite certain that I was going to wind up being grounded for life. Obviously Mom was going to be very upset. And I should have realized that she would be and mentioned the scene as soon as she suggested we go see the movie! I sunk down in my seat, bracing for an angry outburst.
The scene with the Creature began, and I just sank down lower in my seat. Then when the sex happens (the movie was rated PG, so you don’t even see either character get undressed, it’s only implied that the Creature unzipped his pants), and Madeline Kahn, who played Elizabeth starts singing in an exaggerated operatic style, “Oh! Sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found you!”
Mom started laughing. I looked over, and she wasn’t merely chuckling. She was guffawing loudly, covering her mouth to try not to disturb the rest of the audience (many of whom were laughing, but not that hard) and doubling over like she was going to fall out of her seat. A minute or two later her laughter subsided and she was wiping her eyes. She leaned over and whispered, “We probably shouldn’t have brought your little sister to see this!”
My sister asked mom what was so funny, and mom started laughing again.
A day or so later Mom had a slightly more serious talk with me about the importance of evaluating shows and books and such I might let my sister see as to whether they were appropriate, but she wasn’t angry. She said the only other thing she was disappointed in about the show was that we couldn’t immediately re-watch the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein right afterward.
Some time later a pair of the friends who took me to the film the first time re-enacted the “Need a hand?” “No, thanks! Have one,” scene when Mom was around, and she asked them to do it again. And they started to, but it morphed into a re-enactment of the scene in the blind man’s cottage instead. For the rest of the evening we were quoting funny lines from the film at each other. I think it was that evening that Mom explained her view of all the ways that the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein had alluded to love, romance, and even sex. Though we stayed away from any mention of the Creature’s schwanzstucker.
It should come as no surprise that two of the friends who were so aghast that I had never seen Young Frankenstein were the same pair who, a couple years later, dragged me to my first performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. All the sexual situations in Young Frankenstein are hetero and heteronormative, but there was still a strain of the transgressive running throughout. Young Frankenstein didn’t have the same effect on my own self awareness as Rocky Horror, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an important landmark in my understanding of the possibilities of science fiction and fantasy.
And I wasn’t the only nerd to think so. The year after it was released, Young Frankenstein won the Hugo Award for Dramatic Presentation. And the Science Fiction Writers of America awarded Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder a Nebula Award for the screenplay. The film also won four Saturn Awards. The film displays a great deal of fondness for the Universal Frankenstein films (there’s even a line of dialog about how the village elders have endured all of this five times before, though that’s a miscount since the Universal series actually have five: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and House of Frankenstein). Young Frankenstein was a humorous parody, yes, but it also served as both a deconstruction and homage at the same time.
And it’s a funny film! And that’s nothing to sneeze at.
I confess I was a bit freaked out once we got there. It was a neighborhood we hadn’t been to before, and they hadn’t warned me that almost everyone waiting in line for the show would be in costumes. Many of them oddly sexual costumes. They also hadn’t warned me that it was an R-rated show. It was only after we had sat down, and the lights dimmed that Jim handed me a newspaper and told me to hang onto it, “you’ll need it later.” So they also didn’t warn me about the audience participation that was about to go down.
The original Rocky Horror Picture Show was released on film in 1975. The show had started as a musical stage play written by London actor Richard O’Brien, who poured all of his love for schlocky 40s and 50s muscle-man movies, horror and sci fi films ranging from the 30s through 70s, and rock and roll into the show. It played first in a small 60-seat theatre, but well enough to quickly move to bigger venues, and then the play’s director, Jay Sharman, secured funding to make a movie.
O’Brien’s original script focused on the unintentional humor of the older sci fi and horror film, with only a sprinkling of references to the homoeroticism found in films such as Hercules Unchained and Duel of the Titans. But as they developed the play, and the actors (particularly a young Tim Curry) figured out how they wanted to play the characters, the pansexual and transsexual elements become much more important.
The film didn’t do very well, at all. Mainstream audiences just didn’t understand it. But a studio executive, noting that the movies Pink Flamingos and Reefer Madness were making money in midnight showings, had the idea to get some theaters to show it at midnight (the first showing on April Fool’s Day 1976). And then the show quickly gained a cult following, with people showing up in costume, and then fully costumed local casts re-enacting the show just in front of the screen as it was playing.
I was totally unprepared. People in the audience started chanting “Lips! Lips!” before the movie started. People were singing along and shouting things that I couldn’t quite understand. And then the cast started mimicking what was happening. The one time I asked my friends what was happening they just shushed me and said, “it’ll make sense eventually!”
I was very uncomfortable and confused and a little bit angry at my friends. I couldn’t always understand what was happening on screen because of the shouting from the audience.And then, with a big build up of rising music (and the audience clapping in time with the bass beat), suddenly Tim Curry was there, in the corset and fishnets belting out, “How’d’ya do I, see you’ve met my, faithful.. HANDY-man…”
It was like a punch right in my chest. And a rush of adrenaline (and other hormones) as he prowled and pranced while belting out “Sweet Transvestite.”
I was completely closeted. This was at least seven years before the first moment I would say aloud (very anxiously) the words “I think I might be gay.” I was still living in a small town attending a conservative evangelical church. I sang in an evangelical touring choir! At least 99% of the people I could categorize as friends were members of either the choir or very similar churches. I lived in a state of constant fear of someone not just calling me a fag (which happened all the time at school), but of deciding that it was actually true. I was constantly monitoring myself, trying to stop myself from saying things that didn’t conform to people’s expectations, trying to stop myself from doing things that didn’t conform, from admitting to liking things that people didn’t think a normal guy should like, and so forth.
And there, on the screen (not to mention sitting all around me) were people flaunting and reveling in nonconformity. Specifically sexual nonconformity!
It blew my mind.I was pulled into the movie. All the audience participation, the local cast, and everything that wasn’t happening on the screen just vanished for the rest of the movie. It didn’t matter. I just wanted to know what would happen next on screen.
I tried to talk about the plot of the movie with my friends during the drive home after. They were immensely amused that I actually followed the show for the plot. They insisted the movie was just an excuse for the audience to yell and leer. “It doesn’t really have a plot!”
I didn’t see it again for several years. But by then I could sing along to most of the songs, because I’d gotten hold of the soundtrack and listened to it about a million times. The audience participation bits had changed in those years. And when I saw it in a theatre one more time a few years later, they had changed further. I am a huge Rocky Horror fan who doesn’t know most of the audience participation stuff.
The movie is meant to be a parody of all those schlocky sci fi and horror films particularly of the 50s and 60s. The story isn’t meant to be literature. But the film isn’t, really about the story. It’s about taking what was subtext everywhere else—coded homosexual relationships, homoerotic tension (whether intentional or not), sexual relationships of all kinds—and making it manifest. Frank N Furter builds a man for the express purpose of being his sexual plaything, for goodness sake! Several of the characters are casually bisexual or pansexual, but the fact that traditional romances also involve sex (which films and stories before that virtually never acknowledged) is also shoved front and center.
The film doesn’t just poke fun at convention and conformity of all kinds, it dresses convention up in fishnet stockings and makes it sing and dance about why noncomfority is great.
Over the years I’ve watched the film many, many times at home, thanks to availability on VHS back in the day and later DVD. I’ve also attended a couple of live performances of the stage version, as well as really, really enjoying last year’s Rocky Horror Show LIVE by the BBC. I was thus really hopeful about the Fox remake of the film starring trans actress Laverne Cox… and I was sorely disappointed. They were both too timid and too slavishly committed to imitating the 1975 film. There were good moment. I’m happy to see that Tim Curry is able to work, despite the severe stroke he suffered a few years ago. And Adam Lambert rocked the Eddie role, but many of the other casting and design choices were… well, not good.
The BBC version of the live performance (with rotating actors playing the Criminologist–Anthony Stewart Head among them) is available in its entirely on YouTube. I quite enjoyed streaming it to my TV via the YouTube app on my Apple TV last week after watching the Fox version. And the original is available in many formats.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a parody of many sci fi and horror movies, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sci fi itself. Particularly if you define speculative fiction the way that my new favorite author, Nisi Shawl sometimes does: fiction that de-privileges the status quo. Rocky Horror does that, in spades, while celebrating the outsider, the misfits, and the freaks (and showing that there’s at least a little bit of a freak inside everyone). I wasn’t ready to come out after watching it the first time, but it was another step down the path of realizing that this queer sci fi geek was not alone in the world, and that it isn’t enough to just dream it, you have to let yourself be it.
Cora Buhlert argued very convincingly this week that there are Three Fractions of Speculative Fiction. She identifies them as the Traditionalists, the Anti-Nostalgics, and the Character Driven1.
Traditionalist fans want sci fi that is heavy on the engineering and explosions and light on the characterization. Rightwing politics in space is all right, but they’d prefer the stories not focus on issues that matter to women, people of colour, or LGBT people. Literary fiction is right out.
Anti-Nostalgic fans want speculative fiction that is sophisticated, literary, and eschews old paradigms. They vehemently reject anything nostalgic. They think the only worthwhile stories are the ones which break new ground and redefine the genre. Many of them give lip service to wanting diversity, but they heap condescension on all non-white, non-male, non-straight writers except one or two favored tokens.
Character Driven fans want sf/f that is heavy on characterization. They aren’t opposed to Big Ideas, but emotional arcs, moral dilemmas, and the effects of technology on human lives should drive the plot, to the point that sci fi tropes can exist as mere set dressing. They are especially fond of protagonists and settings which have previously been neglected in classic sf (women, characters of color, LGBT characters, disabled characters, non-western european settings, non-Anglo cultures).
I think these are fairly good definitions of three of the big categories of science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts. Though there will be some overlap, and of course no classification system is going to neatly encompass everyone. For instance, I have emphatically argued that Babylon Five (which I loved) is not science fiction at all, but rather techno-fantasy. It is an epic fantasy which wraps itself in all of the trappings of space opera, but gets some extremely basic science that is fundamental to its main plot laughably and embarrassingly wrong. When I was in the heat of such an argument, I’m sure that I looked to all outside observers like a pure Traditionalist there. Whereas anyone who has read my fiction would likely place me in the Character Driven group.
I also agree with Buhlert that the struggle between the Traditionalist and Anti-Nostalgics has been raging in various incarnations since at least the 1930s. Her examples are: the Campbellian SF versus Pulp Adventure SF, the exclusion of the Futurians from the ’39 WorldCon, the New Wave versus the Campbellians (which had become the old guard by then), the rise of and resistance to Cyberpunk. With each wave, elements that had been new and different and championed by the Anti-Nostalgics were co-opted by the Traditionalist (along with some of their fans), until some other upstarts came along.
There are at least two other fan wars that were primarily Traditionalist vs Anti-Nostalgics that I’d like to throw into the mix. In the early 70s fans who had subscribed to (and later contributed to) magazines for years looked with disdain on fans who never read the monthly ‘zines, and only read novels and anthologies (which were reprints of selected works from the ‘zines). In the later 70s, when comic book fans started coming to sci fi conventions, there was another backlash against these newbies and their “picture books.”2
But not all of the upstarts have been Anti-Nostalgics. When Star Trek fandom blossomed spontaneously, rather than from within existing sf/f fandom, there was a strong backlash, with elements of both the Traditionalist and Anti-Nostalgics looking down on these Trekkies, who weren’t just newbies unfamiliar with classic sf and traditional fandom, but were far more likely to be women! Trek was just the first of many waves of Media Fans (new fans brought into the fold primarily by movies and television)—Doctor Who, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica3, anime, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight—that have each faced resistance and rejection from established fandom.
A lot of these Media Fans fall into the Character Driven category. And just like the Anti-Nostalgic waves before them, most of them have, after being resisted by Traditionalists, been at least been partially assimilated. To the point that the stereotypical attacker of a Fake Geek Girl is a guy who speaks Klingon, has a collection of Star Wars figurines, and will attempt to exclude the girl by asking super obscure comic book questions.
But even more than that, each new wave of the Media Fans tends to have more women, particularly young women and girls, more people of color, more queers, and other marginalized groups than the existing fandom as a whole. I believe the reasons for that is that movies, television, and hit young adult books4 are readily available to all demographic segments of society, and find enthusiasts from all of those walks of life. Established fandom isn’t very welcoming of the newbies, especially non-male, non-white, non-straight newbies. The subsets of the previous waves that have assimilated into existing fandom winds up skewing male, straight, and white. Which perpetuates the problem.
The queers, women, and people of color continue to be fans of sf/f, but more and more they find welcoming communities on the web and outside the established fandom, some times creating their own conventions and meet-ups.
And it’s not just because the existing fandom is all actively racist, misogynist, and homophobic. It’s a combination of lots of subtle things. When the vast majority of the staff of a convention is white, and you’re not, you don’t feel welcome. When the vast majority of existing fans keep telling you that you must read certain classics, which are full of straight white male protagonists, with plots that are full of misogynist and colonial subtext, you don’t feel that this fandom is for you. Heck, when the existing fans won’t talk about anything published less than thirty years ago, and you’re younger than the books they keep talking about, you don’t feel invited7.
The most recent fannish dust-up, the Affair of the Melancholy Canines, is mostly a subset of the Traditionalist reacting to the kind of fiction the Character Driven fans like starting to get more than token representation in certain awards short lists, as well as the inclusion of non-white, non-male, non-straight writers and editors on those lists in more than small token numbers. The Melancholy Canines also claim that they’re pushing back against the sort of literary fiction the Anti-Nostalgics want, but the funny thing is that the Anti-Nostalgics hate all the same books and authors as the Canines. And if you read some of the posts that Buhlert links to, you’ll notice that they heap rather a lot of condescension on the writers who happen to be women or people of color.
I’m hopeful that this time, maybe, the section of fandom that welcomes (and is eager to both create and consume) sf/f that’s inclusive of all genders, gender identities, races, abilities, et cetera continues to grow and make inroads throughout fandom. It isn’t guaranteed. Previous waves haven’t been successful in changing the complexion of established fandom, after all.
But I’m not giving up. This queer fan is staying right here. I’m going to keep writing the kinds of characters and stories I like. I’m going to keep reading the good stuff I can find. I’m going to try to start doing a better job of promoting all of the interesting newer stuff I’m reading, as well.
“I want to write about people I love, and put them into a fictional world spun out of my own mind, not the world we actually have, because the world we actually have does not meet my standards. In my writing I even question the universe; I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real.”
― Philip K. Dick
1. I am attempting to paraphrase Buhlert here, but my own perceptions may be skewing her point. If you don’t like anything I say here, blame me.
2. The current incarnation of the Anti-Nostalgics is very snobbish and literary, whereas the primary argument against both the non-magazine subscribers and the comic book fans were that they weren’t perceived as reading as broadly nor as seriously as the Traditional fans. Both sides have been snobbish in various ways. The comic fans argued that graphic stories (even though comics had been around for decades) were a new and more experimental art form than the unillustrated word on paper, for instance.
3. Original series. By the time the reboot series had happened, enough fans of the old series had been incorporated into the fandom community that the new series was embraced by many, and their fans tolerated by the rest.
4. It seems to me that Young Adult series have become the new gateway books. Back in the 50s and even still ins the 60s5, the Heinlein juveniles were the introduction to sf for many. Though certain older fogies6 still insisted on panels at conventions that Heinlein’s works are great gateways, the truth is most of his work (the juveniles in particular) have not aged well.
5. Which is when was a child finding Heinlein books in school libraries.
6. By which I mean, older than me.
7. I’ve published on this blog a series of “why I love sf/f” posts that focus on books, short stories, shows, writers, and magazines I read as a kid and teen-ager and how they influenced me as a fan (and a writer). So I’m not saying that nothing printed more then a decade ago is worth anyone’s time. I haven’t written about everything I read back then, because not all of it was good. Even for the works I really loved, sometimes had problems I didn’t recognize back then, which I’ve commented on (the children’s book that had two antisemitic scenes which flew right over my head as a child, and shocked the heck out of me when I rediscovered the book in my thirties, for instance). The issue is that when established members of the community tell you (explicitly or not) that only people who can love those particular books can be part of the community, well, when the young fan finds themselves cringing at the blatant homophobia, the racism, the misogyny (or at least total lack of any portrayal of many types of people who live in the real world), the message seems clear that we aren’t welcome in the community.
I didn’t know that at the time. I just knew that whenever damaged books showed up at the used book store, they were sold for a lot cheaper than the others.
If my first copy of The Stainless Steel Rat was a stripped copy, it is highly appropriate, because the star of the book (and its many sequel), was Slippery Jim DiGriz, the slickest conman and thief of the 346th Century.
DiGriz lived in an interstellar society with very high technology that made it nearly impossible for petty criminals to escape prison and “psycho surgery” for long. It took a special kind of criminal to thrive in that society. As the blurb on most of the paperback versions said:
“We must be as stealthy as rats in the wainscoting of their society. It was easier in the old days, of course, and society had more rats when the rules were looser, just as old wooden buildings have more rats than concrete buildings. But there are rats in the building now as well. Now that society is all ferrocrete and stainless steel there are fewer gaps in the joints. It takes a very smart rat indeed to find these openings. Only a stainless steel rat can be at home in this environment.”
The book’s written from first person narrative, beginning while Jim is in the middle of yet another insanely daring robbery. Things start going wrong, of course, and it isn’t too many pages in before Jim realizes that the dreaded Special Corps is onto him. The Special Corps is a shadowy agency that was responsible for catching one of the greats, a thief DiGriz admired from affair, Inskipp the Uncatchable… so, of course, when Special Corps hauls DiGriz in to be interrogated by the head of operations, it turns out it’s Inskipp himself. And he has a deal for DiGriz, the same deal Inskipp was offered years ago when he was captured: join the Corps and help catch dangerous criminals, or have his brain altered…
DiGriz was chosen, just as Inskipp was, because DiGriz always planned his heists to very carefully avoid causing and physical harm to any people involved. A few of his previous operations he had even abandoned the heist when it became clear that complications had put people in danger. DiGiz’s first assignment (and the rest of the book) is to try to catch a serial killer.
But this isn’t like a gritty modern bloody serial killer story. The book is written as a light caper, with comedic bits. So the book was a romping adventure story, and far more concerned with the puzzle aspects. The character arcs and interaction are the focus, along with some humor.
It wasn’t just humor. The story explored issues of identity, free will, and what does it mean to be a member of a social species. Jim had always been careful not just to avoid hurting people, but he also always picked targets that were fully insured. He rationalized his existence as providing entertainment or spectacle. He kept security people and police on their toes and in practice. At least that’s what he told himself. Buried in that, along with his eventual confrontation with the killer, were also serious questions about privacy vs security, and control vs freedom.
So it made me think about many things. At different times in the narrative, I found myself agreeing with Jim more than I thought I would. And as I read the book again and again (because it was yet another one that I re-read many times), I found my sympathies seesawing back and forth as I considered the questions. The Special Corps protecting people from sometimes quite serious threats, but they operated in almost complete secrecy, and apparently answered only to themselves.
On the other hand, they had a number of agents like Slippery Jim, who broke ranks from time to time, and demonstrated a willingness to take down the agency if it went too far. Was that enough of to balance things out? In a real world, probably not. And it’s the kind of question still very relevant today.
In my later teens I found the sequels, and after I enthused about them to friends, someone bought me a shiny new copy of the first book for my birthday. The first few sequels cover the next several years in the life of Special Corps (occasionally rogue) Agent DiGriz… and his wife, and their eventual children. Then in 80s Harrison wrote some prequels, showing us events in the life of young Slippery Jim, how he learned his craft and became a legendary thief.
Harrison returned to the older DiGriz for the rest of the series, writing 12 Stainless Steel Rat books total before his death (the last one published posthumously). The Stainless Steel Rat wasn’t the only multibook series the Harrison wrote, but Slippery Jim was the first of his books that I remember reading, and the likable, extremely smart, and capably rogue is a character type that I became very fond of.
The book gave me another way to wrestle with the idea of my own identity. Harrison argued colorfully but persuasively for the idea that the law and customs aren’t always right. Morality and ethics have to come from a sense of empathy and a willingness to do right by people. And those were notions that gave me some more hope, as a closeted queer kid growing up among fundamentalists.
Not writing about it so much this year was intentional. One benefit of that was that I had fewer vitriolic comments come in on this blog that I had to delete rather than approve. I was a lot less anxious about what the results of the voting would be than I was last year. I’m not sure how much of that was because last year the Hugo voters overwhelmingly rejected the Puppy slate, rather than a result of actively avoiding writing and thinking about them as much.
I am quite certain that at least part of the reason I was less emotionally distraught going in was that I didn’t force myself to read all the way to the end of every entry in short story, novella, and novelette this year. I gave each entry three pages to hook me, and if they didn’t hook me by then, I stopped and put them beneath No Award on my ballot. Reading some of that awful stuff—stories that would have been rejected for poor composition, lack of plot, or gapping logic holes by most of the fanzines I’ve ever been associated with—and getting outraged at the knowledge that such poorly crafted material had displaced more deserving works was a big part of why I was so upset last year.
The works that won this year are great and quite deserving. A couple of them were even things that I nominated, so that was fun.
There was some drama at WorldCon, at least some of it related to the proponents of the Puppy cause. But I also hear that a lot more very cool stuff happened.
I don’t think I want to get into that. And a bunch of what I would like to say has already been said by other people: Abigail Nussbaum observes in Sunday, August 21, 2016 The 2016 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on the Winners,
“The one thing I keep learning, again and again, as I study this award is that, much as it frustrates me, much as it throws up shortlists that disappoint me, much as it often seems stuck in a middlebrow rut, the Hugo is always what it is. It doesn’t take thousands of new voters to keep the Hugo true to itself, because the people who vote for it every year will do that job themselves. With something like half the voters we had last year, we still managed to send the same message: that we have no patience for astroturf; that we have no time for writing that embarrasses the paper and ink used to print it; and that this is an award that can be gamed, but it can’t be stolen. This year’s Hugo voters had no trouble telling junk from serious nominees; they saw the difference between the nominees being used as shields by the puppies and the ones that truly represent their literary tastes and politics. And even more importantly, in the best novel and best novella categories in particular, Hugo voters recognized some of the finest and most exciting work published in this genre in years.”
One place where I disagree with Nussbaum is about the nature of the drop-off in voting numbers this year compared to last, after last year had such a dramatic surge of new voters. Last year’s number of voters was 5,950, which was a big leap from the 3,587 ballots cast in 2014. This year, the number dropped down to 3,130, which is in the ballpark of the 2014 number. However, as many people pointed out, 2014 had an usually high number of Hugo voters. In fact, from 1976 through 2010, the average number of ballots cast each year was about 1100.
So to argue that the voting numbers this year have dropped back to the level before is a bit shaky. Yes, last year after news broke of the Puppy assaults on the award, a couple thousand more fans than usual purchased WorldCon supporting memberships. Based on all the blogging and how they voted, those extra memberships were people coming to vote against slate voting, or at least the worst of the slates. But that the numbers didn’t leap that high this year doesn’t mean those extra fans all gave up. I know of six people who voted for the first time ever last year because of the Puppies, and who also voted this year. That isn’t a scientific sample by any means, but 3130 votes is a lot higher than the pre-Puppy typical number.
Also, last year wasn’t the first year that the Puppies ran their campaign, it was simply the first year that they managed to take over entire categories on the ballot with their bloc voting scheme.
She’s right that it is harder to get people to do something they’ve never done before consistently, but I don’t think that all of us who had never voted before last year are going away.
Then over at WeHuntedTheMammoth.com we have: Fake sci-fi boys cry salty tears over Puppies defeat at the Hugo Awards, which observes:
“[Theodore “Vox Day” Beale] is trying his best to spin the defeat as a victory (“we have the SF-SJWs exactly where we want them at this point in time”) but even the fake sci-fi boys on Reddit’s gamergate hangout KotakuInAction can see what happened. And they are indeed sad little puppies about it.”
The Reddit conversation in question links to this wonderful Guardian article: Hugo awards see off rightwing protests to celebrate diverse authors which observes:
“Another attempt by the Sad and Rabid Puppies groups to hijack the science fiction award goes to the dogs, as authors and titles not in their campaign take top prizes.”
And past Hugo-nominee Saladin Ahmed had a couple of good observations on Twitter:
The Hugos went to some very deserving works. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (which won Best Novel) was one of the best books I’ve read in the last couple of years; it’s hard to describe, but it is a book about a world where apocalypse events happen with great regularity, but it is also funny and hopeful even while commenting on the nature of inequality. And “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer (which won Best Short Story) was the a truly delightful take on Artificial Intelligence while being a comment on the human condition. I could keep going on, because oddly enough, my first choice in most of the categories of the ballot were also the winners. They were all really good. To read a good run-down of who won, you can check out this blog: The 2016 Hugo Awards or Fandom 2 : Puppies 0:
“To sum it up, in spite of canine interference, women won or co-won Hugos in nine of seventeen categories. All four fiction categories were won by women, three of them women of colour (plus a man of colour winning as translator). So inspite of the rabid puppies doing their worst, we still have one of the most diverse list of winners ever. And even though a couple of IMO puppy hostages finished under “No Award”, we also puppy hostages winning. Actual puppies, however, lost and lost badly.”
And I could repeat all the arguments I and others have made before of how the claims of the Sad and Rabid Puppies are highly illogical, but you’d have more fun reading the Guardian’s Book Blog where Damien Walter reads and reacts to some of the Puppies’ favorite authors, Hugo awards: reading the Sad Puppies’ pets:
“[T]he Sad Puppies don’t want any of their books to end up on bestseller lists or TV screens. It’s the same frustrating paradigm that British MP Michael Gove hit upon when he said that people were sick of experts, or what Donald Trump plays upon when he rails against “professional politicians”. We’re seeing the Dunning-Kruger effect played out on a mass scale, and the Sad Puppies are just a speck in that wider problem.”
Okay, the Puppies will be with us for years to come, just as we have never gotten rid of white supremacists nor men who want to take the right to vote away from women. But over time, the movements wither. As we’re seeing right now with the upsurgence of the Teabaggers and other Trump supporters, hate can rear its ugly head again. But in the long run, light dispels darkness and love beats hate. All this anger about people other than straight white dudes winning every single award is the dying gasp of a shrinking fraction of the population.
Vox Day and his ilk will keep trying to whip up trouble as long as he thinks it will help him sell books. But I think history is clear that he is going to be appealing to a smaller and smaller group of people. And as Mr. Spock once observed: “Without followers, evil cannot spread.”
Fortunately, there are people actively working to spread good. Alexandra Erin points out that the point of conventions or Hugos and any other awards is about connections and feelings of genuine admiration: WORLDCON: Comedy tomorrow, Hugos tonight. And once again George R.R. Martin hosted the Hugo Losers Party and handed out awards to people and publications that would have made the ballet without the slate voting: Alfie Awards.
Similarly, I’ve seen people argue that The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages isn’t really science fiction because it’s a historical novel set in 1943 telling a coming-of-age story of an 11-year-old girl growing up in Los Alamos where her father works on the secret project to build an atomic bomb. Whereas I think the nerdiness of a girl in the 1940s who is building her own radio from parts salvaged at the junk yard, combined with the way the novel explores how the government’s pursuit of this new technological advantage uproots children and disrupts their lives (exploring how new technologies impact society and people in nonmaterial ways has long been a significant part of sf), more than qualifies it.
But the granddaddy of all sf/f novels that people don’t realize is science fiction has got to be Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
I can hear you protesting, “But the Scarlet Letter is a Gothic morality tale about Puritan scandal and consequences and forgiveness set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that they made us read in school. It can’t possibly be science fiction!” That just means you aren’t looking at it from the perspective on 1850, when it was written. Your argument that it isn’t sci fi is similar to someone saying, “Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea isn’t sci fi because supermarines are real!” Submarines didn’t exist when Verne wrote his story of Captain Nemo and his fantastic undersea ship powered by a mysterious electric force.
Similarly, in the Scarlet Letter the character of Chillingsworth (who is secretly the long lost husband of poor Hester Prynne who is saddled with the shame of having had a baby born too long after the presumed death of her husband to be legitimate) is a great example of a science fictional mad scientist. His methods of subtle torture as he secretly experiments on Reverent Dimmesdale (while pretending to be trying to cure his illness) was very science fictional. There are no herbs known that will “corrupt the soul” as the text colorfully describes it. Certainly nothing that would force a man’s greatest fears and secrets to manifest as physical scars that spell out his greatest sins on his flesh!
When described that way, people think of Chillingsworth’s “dark medicine” as some kind of magic, like B-movie depictions of voodoo or the like (complete with colonial cultural misappropriation, but I’ll get to that). But when Hawthorne wrote it, he meant it as what we would today call science fiction. He and many other educated people at the time believed that the sorts of effects he described could be accomplished by the proper application of chemistry and biology, we just didn’t know how, yet!
Just as many scholars refer to Mary Shelley as the either the mother or grandmother of science fiction (never forget: the author of Frankenstein was a teen-age girl who wrote a story which invented sci fi on a dare in 1818), they also sometimes refer to Hawthorne as the grandfather of sci fi. Hawthorne’s more obviously sci fi type stories, such as “Rappacinni’s Daughter,” “The Artist of the Beautiful,” or “Dr Heidegger’s Experiment” usually featured a mad scientist type character, rushing in to the dark corners of the universe where angels and sensible people hesitate to tread. But his more famous bits of gothic tragedy also have these elements. The House of Seven Gables has a hypnotist and posits a notion of inherited sin—that committing particularly heinous acts will warp you in ways that will somehow be passed on to your children. If science had known of the mechanism of DNA at the time when Hawthorne wrote, he surely would have had some learnéd person in the narrative talk about the theory of corrupted chromosomes, for instance.
Which brings us back to The Scarlet Letter, and the medical experiments that Chillingsworth secretly subjects Dimmesdale to as part of a plan to exact revenge on the man.
The Scarlet Letter was unusual in Hawthorne’s time for feature a female protagonist. And even more, for portraying the fallen woman as a sympathetic character, more worthy of the reader’s love and respect than any of those who stand judgment over her (and her child). Especially more worthy that her long missing husband, who instead of proclaiming his identity upon returning, forgiving his wife Hester for doing what she had to do to survive while he was off studying herbs and potions with vaguely described Native Americans, and raising Pearl as his own child, embarked on a truly mad plan to exact revenge on the father of Hester’s child.
I saw movie adaptations of The Scarlet Letter before I read the book. A copy of the book was part of a set of classics that a relative had given me for a Christmas present, but I didn’t try to read it until after watching one of the movies on TV. When I did, I found a lot of the contents had been glossed over in the movie. The movie made Chillingsworth’s actions seem more like just some slow acting poison, whereas the book made it clear Chillingsworth was doing something far more subtle and medically revolutionary.
Meanwhile, Hester refused to give in to the public shaming, but to sew her own scarlet letter A on her clothing and support herself by sewing. She also tends to the sick and destitute in the community, so much so that many begin to say that the A she wears doesn’t stand for Adulterer, but Angel and Able. That was a revolutionary idea: that a woman could take her destiny in her own hands and assert her independence. It was radical in 1850 when Hawthorne wrote it, and it would have been even more revolutionary in the mid-seventeenth century when the action of the novel is set.
The Scarlet Letter painted a portrait of how someone shunned and ostracized by their community–even someone condemned by the religious leaders–could be a noble and good person, contributing to society and ultimately rising above the false morality of that community. That was an important lesson for this queer kid growing up among Baptists and rednecks.
None of which I knew when I read Bayley’s story. I was an American high school student whose exposure to sci fi had been dictated by what was available in libraries of various small towns and the pages of U.S. magazines such as Galaxy or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
“The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor” is a novella about a man living in a future where many technologies we would think of as impossible are commonplace. He is flying a personal craft at the velocity of c raised to the 186th power while fiddling with an invention of his own which he hopes will lead to the solution to a problem his society hasn’t yet tackled. He is accompanied by a sort of hitchhiker named Watson-Smythe who is trying to find an artist named Corngold.
Naylor’s invention is a thespitron: a device that constructs stories from all of the possible elements of fiction. Not just stories, it creates virtual worlds inhabited by beings that may be independently intelligent. The problem Naylor is hoping to solve with his experiments is navigation. In Naylor’s time it has been discovered that reality is far bigger than believed in the 20th century: the width of what we think of as the entire universe is simply a unit of measure for this reality. With those distances, the speeds at which advanced civilizations can move, and the fact that reality itself is expanding and changing while they’re zipping around at these impossible speeds means that no form of navigation is reliable. The very fabric of space changes between one’s origin and destination, so from time to time ships become lost.
Naylor has a theory that reality isn’t defined by matter, but by abstract concepts and relationships. He’s convinced if he can truly understand the nature of identity, how objects and beings relate to each other, such as in the structure of stories, that he can create a formula or algorithm to reliable rediscover any unique object one has observed before.
Which is all very cerebral and surreal compared to Watson-Smythe’s quest to find the artist. They do find the artist, his ship seemingly stranded on the edge of a vast stretch of unreality they call a matterless lake. At which point it’s revealed that Watson-Smythe is a government agent out to arrest Corngold, and that Corngold’s model is actually a victim of rape and kidnapping.
What happens next is in some ways far too predictable. When I first read it as a teen-ager I was rather angry that I saw what was going to go horribly wrong before it did, and couldn’t believe an interstellar spy would be stupid enough to fall for it. Even the dippy overly philosophical inventor, Naylor, should have seen it coming, I felt. I was also confused as to why the model/kidnap victim/rape victim seemed completely passive and apparently too afraid, even when essentially a cop arrives ready to rescue her, to do anything against her captor.
Re-reading it more recently, I was even more irritated when I realize that the author gives literally zero lines of dialog to the only woman in the story. Even while she is being abused in front of the officer who supposedly is there to arrest her assailant, the author tells us what she does, but doesn’t let her speak. It’s not that the author says she’s mute. No, the author says that she “responds noncommitally.”
Despite being frustrated with the story, I found a lot of it fascinating. The far future technology, which includes the ability to synthesize any matter one can name from a sort of quantum blob and back again when no longer needed, reminded me a lot of the Culture series by Iain Banks. So when I was reading up on Barrington J. Bayley, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Banks was one of the younger authors who listed Bayley as an influence on his work.
I was also not terribly surprised to find Bayley’s work described as gloomy and downbeat, which this story certainly was. While looking through the list of novels and short stories Bayley had published during his life, I was a bit surprised at how few titles I recognized. I think that this story is the only one of his that I’ve ever read.
While it isn’t a very satisfying read, I can’t say that it’s a bad story. It kept my attention and made me keep turning pages wondering how it would end. Admittedly, part of that was trying to figure out how the author would pull an interesting ending out of this mix of weird characterization and convoluted philosophy and mess of a plot. The story made me want answers, and it made me think about what clues I might have missed.
Is Bayley intentionally making the characters do stupid, and predictable things, to make a point about the reality of Naylor’s world and the unreality of his invention’s constructed worlds? I’m not sure. The intentions of the New Wave writers were to experiment by breaking the established rules of writing and try to find a new way to tell and experience stories. I do have to agree with Donald Wolheim’s comment in the introduction of this story in the anthology: this story crams more science fiction concepts and ideas into it’s novella length than many whole series of novels contain.
And maybe that piling up of ideas without a clear cut answer to any of the questions the central character raises is the point. Sci fi is supposed to be the genre of ideas, after all. And this tales serves up a whole lot!