His tests usually had at least one essay question. He warned us that the final would have several of the shorter essay questions similar to those we’d seen before, and one much longer one that would make up a large portion of the grade of the test. At some point before the final, he gave us a list of sample questions for that large final one, telling us the question on the test would be either one of those, or a variant. When the day of the final arrived, the test at the end was along the lines of, “Of the technological advancements made in the 20th Century, what is the one which poses the greatest threat to the future of humanity. Explain why you think this is so.”
Which was, indeed, one of the questions that had been on the sample list. And I knew, because of things he had said many times in class, that he believed there was one, and only one correct answer: strategic nuclear weapons and the threat of all-out nuclear war.
And I had disagreed in class.
I could have written the essay he wanted. I felt, however, that I needed to maintain my own integrity, so instead I wrote about communications and data technology, and how as those technologies converged, they would create tools which could take propaganda to a point that could indeed send humans to extinction. I don’t remember all of the specific arguments I made in the essay.
As I expected, he didn’t give me very many points for it, and even wrote a derisive comment about how newspapers and television could never wipe out the human race.
You don’t know how tempted I have been of late to email him (he is still alive, though no longer teaching at SPU where I took classes from him—he is semi-retired teaching part time at a small college in Oregon, now), point him to the current series of fascistic, racist movements boiling over in many countries around the world, all fueled by misinformation driven by algorithms and ask him if he wants to reconsider that grade.
I should mention that I was taking this class in 1986 or 1987, at a time before most people owned personal computers, the protocols that would make World Wide Web possible were just being invented, and if you had cable television at all, you probably only had access to about a dozen channels. It is understandable that someone wouldn’t see where telecommunications was going. I can’t take complete credit for being prescient in that essay. It’s true that my minor was Communications, and being a mathematics and data guy by nature, I had an understanding of how tiny incremental changes could propagate out to create vast systemic disruptions.
But I also had the help of having been an avid science fiction fan for as long as I could remember. What most people think of as cyberpunk had only been around for a few years at that point, but the precursors had been percolating through science fiction works for a couple of decades. So I had some help in imagining what ubiquitous telecommunications technology might turn into.
Which leads us to the here and now. There are large segments of the population in live in information bubbles that allow them to believe (and receive daily confirmation) the most outlandish and provably false ideas. Ideas that inspire them to arm themselves and invade capitol buildings and kill public servants, all while thinking that these aren’t crimes and that they will be lauded as heroes who saved humanity afterward.
Way back in 1975 U.S. Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger said, “Everybody is entitled to his own views. Everybody is not entitled to his own facts.” A slightly different version of this statement is often attributed to U.S Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In any case, between the various siloed news sources, social media algorithms, and ubiquitous stream of data to devices many of us carry with us constantly, we’ve entered a world where a lot of people are forming opinions and making decisions based on their own “facts.” It’s not just that they are immersed in misinformation and lies, they are immersed in complex constructs of alternate realities built on misinformation and lies, but so reinforced (with the help of technology), that they might as well be physically living in a parallel universe from other people.
It’s not a new phenomenon, but the layering of misinformation, misinterpretation, misrepresentation, and misdirection has been accelerating and compounding to a point that it is becoming nearly impossible for people to reach across bubbles and have meaningful conversations—let alone the level of mutual understanding and empathy necessary to have good faith discussions of how to solve our problems.
We’re at the point where a bunch of loosely aligned sub-cultures have been (and are still) plotting the violent overthrow of governments as well as the literal destruction of people who disagree with them. The murder mob which invaded the U.S. Capitol building just last week is only one example of this problem.
And while it appears that the coup has halted because the Liar-in-Chief is so devastated at all his social media accounts being taken off-line (leaving him, by reliable counts, sulking in the residence portion of the White House and not just ignoring his job and duties, but ignoring even his most sycophantic aides), the truth is that his angry supporters and the allied neo-Nazis/alt-right extremists are simply doing their planning in slightly more obscure portions of the network. There will most certainly be more violent “protests” and threats in the coming days.
Which is not to say that I think Twitter and Facebook and the other tech companies were wrong to take the (long overdue) actions that they have to shut down the various accounts. Nor am I saying that Congress shouldn’t be proceeding with at least the effort to re-Impeach and so forth. The truth is that these mostly white supremacist haters and malcontents have been angry and raging for years, and they are going to continue to riot and cause trouble no matter what we do.
It is precisely because they will rage and riot no matter what we do, that all of us should do the right thing. We should continue to speak out against the lies and hate. We should encourage those with the power to de-platform violence to do so. We should continue to seek out and arrest the lawbreakers and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.
I’ve seen people on the progressive end of the political spectrum bemoan that fact that private companies such as Twitter and Amazon Web Services and the like have so much power to silence people. Specifically I’ve seen the assertion made that this “just moves us closer to the cyberpunk dystopia where corporations have more power than governments.” I have some news for you: we are already in that dystopia, and have been for a bit longer than you probably imagine.
But that’s just another layer of the problem. A problem we can only solve if we stay engaged and find ways to hold each other accountable.
Edited to Add:
Camestros Feloptan has a somewhat related post that I missed yesterday: Further Annals of Libertarians Discovering Capitalism Sucks.
And if I’m going to talk about Cyberpunk, even in passing as I did, I should include this song, from Billy Idol’s most underrated album, Cyberpunk – NEUROMANCER:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
Elseweb I was asked which sci fi stories helped paint this picture. This is not a definitive list, just ones that come to mind:
Shockwave Rider by John Brunner
The Computer Connection by Alfred Bester
The Dueling Machine by Ben Bova
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Phillip K. Dick
On Wings of Song by Thomas M. Disch
Bladerunner the motion picture directed by Ridley Scott
“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by James Tiptree, Jr
The Müller-Fokker Effect by John Sladek
I love the movie. Spoiler warning: I can’t talk about why I think this movie is worthwhile without giving away a key part of the ending, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, go stream the movie now!
In case you aren’t familiar: the movie begins on October 31, 1693 in Salem, Massachusetts, where the notorious (and elderly) Sanderson sisters, widely believed to be witches, have lured a young girl into their cottage. They brew a magic potion which they force the child to drink, and proceed to leech her life away, making themselves young again.
The girl’s older brother, Thackery Binx, tries to interrupt the ritual and save his sister, but he fails. He is transformed into a black cat by the sisters and cursed to live forever with his guilt.
The townspeople of Salem storm the cottage and find the dead body of the girl. The witches refuse to say what has happened to her brother. The witch sisters are sentenced to be hanged, but before they are executed, the eldest with, Winifred, casts a spell which she claims will allow them to rise from the grave again—one an All Hallow’s Eve with a full moon, if a virgin lights the Black Flame Candle.
Jump forward 300 years, and Max (who will be our protagonist) is a teen-ager unhappy that his parents have moved the family to Salem. Max has an encounter with a pair of local bullies, which doesn’t make him like the new home any better. He is also not fond of the town’s local folklore about the Sanderson sisters and witches in general. He is really unhappy when his parents saddle him with the job of taking his younger sister, Dani, trick-or-treating. But early in the evening they meet a classmate Max has a crush on, Allison.
Because Allison thinks that Max’s skepticism is a bit too cynical, and because Max is anxious to impress Allison, they wind up in the old Sanderson Cottage (which has been preserved as a museum). When Max announces he is going to light the so-called Black Flame Candle and prove that witches are myths, a black cat attempts to stop him. Max manages to light the candle, anyway and the witches rise from the dead.
What follows is horror-comedy romp with some elements of musical theatre thrown in. The black cat is the cursed Thackery (who answers to Binx for the rest of the movie), who has lurked around the cottage for 300 years trying to prevent anyone lighting that candle. He can speak to the three kids, though know one else apparently can understand him. The kids flee, unsuccessfully try to warn the adults that the witches are back. The witches, meanwhile, have perform their life-stealing ritual on some children before sunrise or they go back to being dead, so there is a bit of a race.
At several points the witches capture one or more of the kids. At at least two points the kids appear to defeat the witches. Along the one a long dead lover of two of the sisters is raised as a kind of zombie/revenant who assists the witches in chasing the kids.
Eventually there is a dramatic stand-off in a cemetery, and with a bit of cleverness, bravery, and self-sacrifice, evil is thwarted.
The three witches are played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Midler steals the show, because all of the show’s comedy and menace are built around her character. The director, Kenny Ortega, said in later interviews that he told the three of them to play it as over the top and campy as if they were drag queens, and it certainly worked.
I’ve seen reviews that Max doesn’t really have a character arc, and I don’t understand how people can be that blind. In the early part of the film, the bullies are absolutely correct that Max looks down his nose at what he sees as the provinciality of the Salem natives. And when Allison scoffs at his scoffing, it’s clear that she sees his skepticism as performative. He doesn’t believe because it isn’t cool to be credulous. Just as he pretends not to care about his younger sister because, again, it would be uncool to feel warmth or affection for his kid sister. By the end of the film, that pretense is gone, and he doesn’t just take a risk to save his little sister, but he gulps down the potion and forces the witches to kill him in her stead.
It’s not bravado or a clever trick. He doesn’t reveal afterward that he only pretended to swallow it. He swallows it, the witches perform the next part of the ritual. We see his life force literally being taken from him.
Once the witches are defeated, we also get a nice pair of parallel scenes, one in which Max and Dani share a moment, and then because Binx fulfilled his mission, we see a similar scene between his ghost and the spirt of his little sister, who has been waiting for him to join her in the afterlife for 300 years.
Unlike the last campy & spooky two movies I’ve written about, this one came out after I was well and truly out of the closet. So I felt freer to revel in the camp vibe and all it implied. A few times when I’ve found myself in conversation with other queer fans of the show discussing it, I’ve found out that a lot of them like to ask the question: so which Sanderson sister are you? For the record, Ray was definitely and enthusiastically a Sarah. I had to admit that I want to be Winifred, but I’m really a Mary.
The film is funny. It has many nice spooky moments. If you haven’t seen it, give it a try. Maybe it will cast a spell on you, too.
When the original Fright Night came out in August of 1985, I was in my mid-twenties and preparing to move to Seattle to finish my college degree. It was a time when I had virtually no disposable income, so I very seldom saw movies in the theatre. Combine that with the fact that horror movies often give me nightmares (and I’m a sleepwalker, so I would get up in a panic during the dream and find whoever I can in the house, shake them awake and frantically try to convince them there is a killer in the house), I did not see Fright Night that summer. One of my friends did go see it, and his description just convinced me even more that I shouldn’t see it.
Over a year later, I and some friends in Seattle were going to have a movie night. Which at that time involved us pooling some money to go to a video store and rent a both a video player and one or more movies, which we would take back (usually to Club Chaos, which was an apartment share by two of those friends that had an enormous living room) and watch while eating a bunch of junk food. It was often the case that only a subset of the gang would go get the movie, so you were never quite certain what we might be watching.
One of those nights Fright Night was in the mix. At least one of my friends who had seen it before assured me that it was more of a comedy like Ghostbusters than a scary slasher film like Nightmare on Elm Street, so I figured it would be fun.
In the opening minutes, it does indeed seem to be more of a cheesy romp than a serious horror picture… but that’s because the movie begins with a movie within the movie. A cheesy vampire film which are main character is watching on television. The protagonist of the film is Charley Brewster, a teen-ager who loves horror movies, and faithfully watching a weekly show hosted by an actor named Peter Vincent who used to star in a series of vampire hunter movies himself.
Charley lives with his mom in what seems to be a typical 80s movie suburb. And someone has recently moved into the empty house next door. Charley hears strange noises and even a scream coming from the old house, and becomes convinced that the new neighbor, Jerry Dandridge, is a vampire who is luring women to his home before feasting on their blood.
Charley’s best friend is “Evil Ed” who loves those horror movies even more than Charley does. But he doesn’t believe the neighbor is a vampire. Charley’s girlfriend, Amy, breaks up with him because of his obsession with the neighbor. And, of course, Charley’s mom and the police also all fail to believe him.
So Charley tracks down the actor, Peter Vincent (who hosts the aforementioned weekly horror show at one of the local stations, so lives in the same city), and tries to get him to help prove that the neighbor is a vampire. The actor doesn’t believe him either, and points out that he’s just an actor—the vampire hunter he played was fictitious.
Amy, meanwhile, has become concerned about Charley’s mental health, and she hires Vincent to pretend to test the neighbor and then prove to Charley that the neighbor isn’t a vampire. And so the actor (who thinks this is some easy money) puts on his costume and grabs his character’s equipment bag and visits the neighbor. In the course of the discussion, just as he’s leaving, Vincent pulls out his pocket mirror while getting something else out of the pocket, and realizes that Dandridge, standing behind him, has no reflection.While there had been a lot of humor in the movie at this point, and not much in the way of gore, the tone was paranoid rather than a laughfest. And that tension ramps up from this point, as the vampire starts stalking Charley, Charley’s mom, and Amy threatening to do terrible things if Charley keeps telling people about him.
This is also where we start getting more of the transformations and start seeing more of the death scenes explicitly.
Dandridge kills and turns Evil Ed and sends Ed to kill Peter Vincent and then Charley. The scene where Dandridge stalks and corners Evil Ed in what has to be the most labyrinthine alleys to ever appear in a movie, is remarkably chilling, even though we never see a hint of blood.
Ed doesn’t succeed in killing Vincent, who burns him with a cross and forces him to flee by leaping out of the apartment’s window. Ed beats Vincent to Charley’s house (Vincent is on his way to warn Charley), and they have a fight during which Evil Ed transforms into a wolf, but he still winds up impaled through the chest with a broken table leg.
Dandridge has, meanwhile, lured Amy to his house and has started the process of turning her into a vampire, trapping Charley in a room with her slumbering body so that she can feed on Charley when she rises. Vincent manages to help Charley escape, and then the two of them have a protracted fight with Dandridge, before eventually killing him and, since Dandridge died before Amy ever drank the blood of another, she reverts to human and all is well (or as well as it can be, given that a number of people have died on screen by this point).
The special effects are all practical effects, this is before the era of CGI, and some of them haven’t aged quite as well as others. Some of the creature effects looked cheesy even in 1986. I don’t think the effects are the reason this movie never gave me serious nightmares.
No, I think that’s because I spent a lot of the movie trying to decide if all the gay subtext was going to come out in the open. And also not feeling free to comment on any of said subtext because, while it is true that two of the people in that friend group were part of a very tiny number of friends who I had come out to only a few months before (though come out is a strong word, since it began with, “I think I’m gay” and quickly morphed into, “Or I’m bi—yeah, that’s it. Not completely gay after all!” which was so not true).
It was clear to me that Charley wasn’t into Amy or even the idea of making out with her as Amy was interested in him. There’s even a moment before Amy breaks up with him where she is angrily trying to get him to stop looking through the binoculars at the neighbor and come have sex with her, for goodness sake.
It was also clear that Evil Ed had the hots for Charley. I’m sorry, totally straight teen-age boys don’t joke about giving their male best friend hickeys and so forth as often as Evil Ed did.
The scene where Dandridge corners Ed in the alley and talks him into giving in without a fight is very much written and acted as a seduction. They never make it completely clear what the difference is, but just being killed by a vampire isn’t enough to make the corpse rise later as undead. The vampire has to choose to do it, and given how he talks Ed into surrendering, it seemed to imply that the other person’s consent was part of the situation. Though the later seduction of Amy seems to involve some sort of vampiric mesmerism, so maybe consent isn’t exactly the right word.
The movie ended with Charley and Amy back together, in Charley’s bedroom, where he looks out the window at the once again deserted house next door. He turns to Amy just as we see a pair of glowing red eyes appear in one of the windows of the house. And as the movie fades to black, the last line of dialogue is spoken in Evil Ed’s voice: “You’re so cool, Brewster!”
Vampires often are metaphors for sex, so it isn’t surprising that scenes where a male vampire is stalking a male victim will be homoerotic. But some of the earlier stuff between Evil Ed and Charley are a bit different.
Most of Fright Night isn’t played for laughs. My friend’s assurance that it wouldn’t be nightmare inducing wasn’t completely wrong… though I personally think that on a scale of Ghostbusters to Nightmare on Elm Street that Fright Night lands smack dab in the middle. It is one of the spooky movies that fairly regularly figures in my Halloween movie marathons, and I have to admit in no small part because I keep thinking how much better things would have gone if Ed had simply declared his love for Charley early on.
Just as I’m sure that the sequel wouldn’t have been the awful mess it was if Evil Ed had been the villain, as been planned. Alas, Stephen Geoffreys, who played Evil Ed, turned down the chance to be in the second movie in order to play the lead in another horror movie that flopped even worse than Fright Night part 2 did. Geoffreys appeared in a couple more movies that didn’t do well, then he spent the next dozen years or so appearing in gay porn films under a couple stage names. Since 2007 he’s been getting work in various horror and action films.
Anyway, with its 80s hair styles, sometimes cheesy effects, and the unresolved gay sub-text, Fright Night makes for a good popcorn movie, and not just at Halloween.
A few years later, one of the few disputes that I had with (at the time my soon-to-be-ex-wife) Julie while we were splitting assets was who would get to keep the VHS of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. Of all the things to argue over it was one of the dumbest, I admit… I’m just happy that we got through all that and now, 29 years later, we’re good friends and can laugh together about such things.
As it happened, my first husband, Ray, loved the movie, and we owned it on VHS and upgraded to DVD before he died. And my husband Michael thinks the movie is funny and is more than willing to watch it with me about every other Halloween, so, yay!
But, let’s get to the actual movie. Outside of the movie, Elvira is a horror host (played by Peterson) who had a syndicated sci fi/fantasy/horror movie show on various cables for years. The movie proceeds on the conceit that Elvira is a real person, not just a character which Peterson plays, and when the local California station she appears on gets a new owner who sexually harasses her, she gets fired. But she isn’t upset because she’s about to open a show in Las Vegas… except her agent informs her that the show in Vegas will only go forward if she can put up $50,000 of the production cost.
Right after she says she doesn’t have that kind of money, a studio intern knocks on her dressing room door to tell her she has a telegram. According to the telegram, her Great-Aunt Morgana Talbot, has died and that Elvira is a named as a beneficiary in the will (“I didn’t know I had a good aunt, let alone a great one.”). So Elvira drives across country to the quaint town of Falwell, Massachusetts for the reading of the will.What follows is a parody of several old horror movies (and a few Lovecraft stories), but even more a parody of all those movies about small minded small town people being against outsiders, et cetera. While there is one scene that is a direct take-off on Flashdance, the majority of the movie is a retelling of Footloose with Elvira in the Kevin Bacon role.
And the movie is funny. I mean, Edie McClurg should have gotten an award for her hilarious turn as Chastity Pariah, hypocritical council member.
Elvira’s great-aunt doesn’t leave her any money, just her house, her book of “recipes”, and her pet poodle named Algonquin.
The kicker is that Morgana was a powerful witch, the book is actually a very old and potent grimoire, and the poodle is actually a familiar. Elvira spends much of the rest of the movie figuring this out, and slowly learning the Morgana’s brother, Vincent, is the evil warlock who killed Elvira’s mother, Divana, and that possession of the book is going to decide the balance of supernatural powers for the next century.
In between, Elvira tries to iniiate a romance with the very hunky but virginal owner of the local movie theatre, becomes a hero for the town’s teen-agers who wish the town was less backwards, and has various misadventures trying to use the mystical book. I know the movie is set in Massachusetts, but some of the more jokes in the sequence where she mistakes a potion to conjure a demon for a casserole recipe resonated extremely deeply with my southern Missouri/Oklahoma soul, okay?
Part of the meta of the movie is that Elvira, despite being played by a cisgendered woman, is essentially a drag queen. And while what little other queer subtext is very, very sub, that 80s drag queen/queer camp vibe is extremely strong in the movie. All of the villains are either defenders of the old Traditional Family Values notions or the even more ancient Toxic Masculinity tropes, while Elvira and her supporters are champions of Everyone Is Valid, and Being True To Your Self is More Important Than Pleasing Societal Expectations.
Which is very queer. So even though the vast majority of the sex and innuendo in the film is quite hetero, there is simultaneously an extremely strong non-hetero message being promulgated throughout.
At the time when the movie came out, I was still trying to pretend I was bisexual, which I very dysfunctionally saw as being half-heterosexual. I was trying to walk an extremely difficult tightrope. And this movie seemed to walk a similar tightrope… but when I re-watched it, I began seeing that the tightrope was as false as Chastity Pariah’s moral superiority.
Eventually, the camp sensibilities and the sex-positive subtext of this movie was one of the many examples that helped convince me to stop trying to compromise my true self.
And years later, it’s just an extremely funny movie to watch during Halloween season. And what more could you ask for?
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.
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!
I have a long rambling rant about all of the horrible things that happened during the ceremony (nothing at all to do with any of nominees or winners), which I will condense down with links to other more coherent rants for posting later. More important than that, the winners of the 2020 Hugo Awards, which are nominated by and voted upon by the members of the World Science Fiction Society (aka, people who have a supporting or attending membership to WorldCon, this year held virtually but hosted in New Zealand). As I’ve mentioned before, the Hugo Awards are something I’ve followed since I was a teenage, when I got hold of an anthology called The Hugo Winners.
Since it is an award that is voted on by fans, for a lot of us (particularly those of us who aren’t just fans, but also creators of science fiction and fantasy works), the award carries a lot of emotional weight. If you’ve read my earlier posts about them, you know that once the ballot comes out, I spend a lot of time reading, viewing, or listening to the things nominated, and usually agonize over my ballot until the last minute.
The last two years it wasn’t exactly the last minute — I submitted my final ballot a bit over 24 hours before the deadline.
Anyway, here’s the full list, winners and runners-up. I’ll have comments below.
WINNER: A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (Tor; Tor UK)
The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)
The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley (Saga; Angry Robot UK)
Middlegame, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing)
WINNER: This Is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga)
To Be Taught, If Fortunate, Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager; Hodder & Stoughton)
“Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
In an Absent Dream, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga)
WINNER: “Emergency Skin”, N.K. Jemisin (Forward)
“For He Can Creep”, Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com 7/10/19)
“Omphalos”, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)
“Away with the Wolves”, Sarah Gailey (Uncanny 9-10/19)
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 7-8/19)
“The Archronology of Love”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed 4/19)
Best Short Story
WINNER: “As the Last I May Know”, S.L. Huang (Tor.com 10/23/19)
“Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, Alix E. Harrow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/31/19)
“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing”, Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons 9/9/19)
“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”, Nibedita Sen (Nightmare 5/19)
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, Rivers Solomon (Tor.com 7/24/19)
“A Catalog of Storms”, Fran Wilde (Uncanny 1-2/19)
WINNER: The Expanse, James S.A. Corey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Winternight, Katherine Arden (Del Rey; Del Rey UK)
Luna, Ian McDonald (Tor; Gollancz)
InCryptid, Seanan McGuire (DAW)
Planetfall, Emma Newman (Ace; Gollancz)
The Wormwood Trilogy, Tade Thompson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Best Related Work
WINNER: “2019 John W. Campbell Award Acceptance Speech”, Jeannette Ng (Dublin 2019 — An Irish Worldcon)
Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (University of Illinois Press)
The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn (Unbound)
The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, Mallory O’Meara (Hanover Square)
Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood, J. Michael Straczynski (Harper Voyager US)
Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin
Best Graphic Story or Comic
WINNER: LaGuardia, Nnedi Okorafor, illustrated by Tana Ford, colours by James Devlin (Berger Books/Dark Horse)
Die, Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker, Kieron Gillen, illustrated by Stephanie Hans (Image)
The Wicked + The Divine, Volume 9: “Okay”, Kieron Gillen, illustrated by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson (Image Comics)
Monstress, Volume 4: The Chosen, Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda (Image)
Paper Girls, Volume 6, Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang & Matt Wilson (Image)
Mooncakes, Wendy Xu & Suzanne Walker (Oni Press; Lion Forge)
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
WINNER: Good Omens
Russian Doll, Season One
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
WINNER: The Good Place: “The Answer”
Doctor Who: “Resolution”
The Expanse: “Cibola Burn”
The Mandalorian: “Redemption”
Watchmen: “A God Walks into Abar”
Watchmen: “This Extraordinary Being”
Best Editor, Short Form
WINNER: Ellen Datlow
Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas
Best Editor, Long Form
WINNER: Navah Wolfe
Diana M. Pho
Best Professional Artist
WINNER: John Picacio
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
WINNER: The Book Smugglers
nerds of a feather, flock together
Quick Sip Reviews
The Rec Center
WINNER: Our Opinions Are Correct
Be the Serpent
The Coode Street Podcast
Claire Rousseau’s YouTube channel
The Skiffy and Fanty Show
Best Fan Writer
WINNER: Bogi Takács
James Davis Nicoll
Best Fan Artist
WINNER: Elise Matthesen
Grace P. Fong
Lodestar for Best Young Adult Book (Not a Hugo)
WINNER: Catfishing on CatNet, Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen)
The Wicked King, Holly Black (Little, Brown; Hot Key)
Deeplight, Frances Hardinge (Macmillan)
Minor Mage, T. Kingfisher (Argyll)
Dragon Pearl, Yoon Ha Lee (Disney/Hyperion)
Riverland, Fran Wilde (Amulet)
Astounding Award for Best New Writer (Not a Hugo)
WINNER: R.F. Kuang
Congratulations to all of the winners!
This year, seven of the winners were entries that I put in first place on my ballot, so obviously I’ve pretty pleased with the outcome. For the fourth year in a row, the Novel that won was in second place on my ballot, again, an outcome I like.
Like last year, Best Novel was a very difficult category for me. Two of the entries were books I nominated. One of the entries I hadn’t nominated was a book which I had purchased before the short list came out, but hadn’t read before the nomination phase. Another was a book that was already on my wishlist. All six were good, but it very different ways. So it was just agony trying to decide how to rank them.
Fan Writer was similar. When the short list was announced (in an online livestream that I watched as it was happening), I literally screamed in glee. Three of the nominees were people I had nominated, and the other three were fan writers whose work I followed and were in contention for my nomination while I was working on that ballot. They are all six wonderful people who write (and in some cases podcast) really helpful and interesting things. As more than one person observed, all six of them are people who spend a lot of time and effort recommending good things for fans to check out. (And the winner, Bogi Takács, used ems acceptance speech to recommend a bunch of other writers and project fans should check out!) And… well, two of those that I nominated are people with whom I regularly interact with on line. So I was sweating bullets ranking that category. I really wanted all six to win!
Neil Gaiman gave an incredibly touching acceptance speech for Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) winner Good Omens—informing us that the reason, some years ago, that Terry Pratchett (his co-author of the original book, and whose deathbed request led Neil to make the series) had declined a Discworld novel’s nomination wasn’t because he didn’t want a Hugo, but rather because he knew he couldn’t lose gracefully. He won a lot of other awards, and was sometimes nominated but didn’t win them, so it wasn’t that he was afraid of losing. As Neil said, the Hugos are the Sci Fi fans award, and it was the one award that mattered too much to him. Terry was certain that Hugo voters would never vote for a funny book as Best Novel, and Terry’s novels were always funny. Anyway, Neil closed by thanking everyone for giving Terry a Hugo. Good Omens the series was at number one on my ballot, and I have enthused about it to anyone that will sit still for it for a while.
R.F. Kuang’s speech was particularly good (and since the Astounding Award was early in the ceremony, set a get tone for the night). I thought Jeannette Ng’s speech accepting the Best Related Work Award for her other acceptance speech last year was incredible. And was such a sharp contrast of the shenanigans of the M.C. and one of his cronies. But again, that’s a post for later in the week.
Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone gave an incredible joint acceptance speech (in parallel zoom windows). Their story, This Is How You Lose a Time War has been at the top of my list since June, 2019. I first heard Amal read an excerpt from in at a reading at Locus Awards Weekend that year, I bought a copy the next day and started reading it. And re-read it a few times over the next months. The same story one a Nebula Award and a Locus Award earlier this year, so I’m not the only person who loved the story.
I could keep going forever. I really am extremely pleased with the winners in every category but Dramatic Presentation (Short Form), but I also know a number of people whose opinions I respect who do like it. So I highly recommend all the winners but that one (if you ask my favorite TV series that were nominated this time that didn’t win in order: Watchmen, Mandolorian, Expanse, and Doctor Who). And except for a couple of the Dramatic Presentation entries, I adored, or admired, or at least thought all of the runners-up merited being above No Award. So I would have been quite happy if they had won the award. You should look into them and see if you think they might appeal to you.
This was a great slate of nominees. The winners all deserve a round of a applause, as do the runners up!
I have a lot of links to stories and posts and threads about what went wrong at the ceremony that will be in that later post. If you don’t know but are curious, Cora Buhlert wrote a very nice explanation from the point of view of a nominee watching the ceremony with family members (and as a nominee, also being able to see the other nominees on the related zoom): Some Reflections on the 2020 Hugo Ceremony a.k.a. Reminiscing with George.