On Snowflakes and Labels

I’ve heard it a lot recently. Snowflakes. “Those snowflakes.”

It’s an insult.  It means, apparently, thin-skinned, easily offended, a lightweight, someone prone to knee-jerk reactions to certain things which the ones applying the label don’t see the problem with. “We mustn’t offend the snowflakes!”

What topics?  It has something to do with political correctness, which is another one of those labels which has lost valence through overuse and misapplication.

What is political correctness?

Well, others may have their definitions, but mine is to speak truly about a subject rather than resort to cliché.  To find out the reality before talking through one’s hat, using whatever popular cultural handles that may be lying around.

You can pretty much pick the topic and find disagreement over things ranging from stereotyping to cultural appropriation.  There’s the popular opinion, then there’s the fabrication, and then there’s the reality.  P.C. ought to mean we go for the reality, which requires a certain amount of work and a bit of sensitivity, which seems in short supply.  And if you have no sensitivity, why would you bother to do the work?

Of course, if you don’t do the work, where will you ever get any sensitivity.

So we have a new label, a category—actually a steel-reinforced closet—into which and by which we can dispense with the need to deal with the issues raised by the behavior being tagged as that of a Snowflake.  Once so labeled we can simply use that term to dismiss whatever might be upsetting them.

It’s hard then to know if what is upsetting them has any legitimacy because the conversation has now stopped.

Here’s a thought: those applying this new label seem to believe that these are delicate people who get flustered at the mere mention of opinions with which they disagree. What if that’s not it?  What if it’s more likely the final loss of tolerance for dealing with attitudes, opinions, and treatment with which they have been subjected to for years and they’ve finally reached the point of saying “You know what, if you can’t see through your own bullshit, I don’t have to either help you or put up with it anymore.”

What if a good number, maybe the majority, of people being labeled Snowflakes are actually of such a toughness that it took years and decades of being misheard, misunderstood, categorized, dismissed, and otherwise bullied before they finally just had enough and decided to slam the door in your face?

I’ve been bullied.  The one thing that becomes clear, finally, is that being bullied has no rational cause.  Nothing you can say or do will change the fact that the bully just wants to hurt you.  It’s not rational.  They will bully you because you don’t fit some cool profile or they sense that you’re vulnerable or—more relevant to this situation—that you, just by being, represent a threat to their self-image.  You can’t negotiate, you can’t “be reasonable,” and you sure as hell can’t educate them out of their desire, their urge really to put you in a box and keep you there.

You abuse someone long enough they will snap back.  Right now, voices are being heard that have needed to be heard and certain people, who thought as long as the room was quiet everything was fine, are trying to shut them down.  This is nothing new, this has been the reality for a long, long time.  Now we have some acting out.  Now we have some payback.  Now the “nice, quiet, well-behaved so-n-so who was never a problem before” is standing up saying enough, and so a new label is required?

What you are seeing as hypersensitivity is really just the final loss of patience.  If the conversation had been engaged honestly long ago you wouldn’t be facing a challenge to authority like this.  And claiming you’re the ones under siege is one more example of the myopia of too-long hegemony.

Every time now I see or hear that label being used I think “Have you looked in a mirror lately?  If anyone’s being hypersensitive…”  But no, that’s wrong.  It’s not hypersensitivity.  It’s insensitivity.

Now, go to your room.  Write a thousand times “I will not be an insensitive jerk and pretend it’s a defense of conservative principles.”

You just don’t like the message and you think creating and using a new label will fix the problem.  Like that ever worked before.

Stumpf and the Body On The Pavement

Watching Elizabeth Warren disassemble Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf is a gotcha moment, one wherein we assume the bad guy has been handed his still steaming intestines by the champion and justice will soon be served.  Much as I hate to admit this, I doubt it.

I doubt it because…look at him. He’s looking at her with an almost-blank expression, but there is enough there to tell.  To tell that he just doesn’t Get It.  He’s listening to her, he’s answering her questions with well-advised Policy Speak, doing his best to evade a direct answer until she pins him to the wall, and even then there seems to be a kind of “okay, sure, but so what?” attitude practically shining from him.

The problem which Warren, which the Justice Department, which the SEC, which we cannot address and which underlies all of this is that Not Getting It.

There is a hole in the psyché where some form of non-tribal empathy should be.  It’s not there. People like Stumpf follow guidelines and if the guidelines say what they do serves their tribe, it’s by definition ethical.  Whatever that is.

In his case, ethical is whatever benefits his selected tribe and keeps him from being ill-treated at their hands.

He’s looking at Warren as if she’s speaking some archaic form of English no one has spoken in a century or two.  He understands the words but the cultural content is foreign, alien.  Not there for him.  Why, he must be thinking, should I give a damn about a bunch of people who own no stock in Wells Fargo who got badly treated by the people I put in place to treat them badly?  And what’s that mean, anyway?  It’s not like it’s their money!  And besides (so he might tell himself, late at night, when everyone else is asleep) if everything works out they won’t know the difference and my tribe will be richer.  I will have Done Good.

But it didn’t work out, so, hell, now I have to sit here and listen to this tight-ass social justice warrior lecture me about something called ethics.

What is this nonsense about jail time?  How dare she compare what I do with a teller who might pilfer from the till!  Of course that person should go to jail, that’s theft!  I’m not a thief!

Why isn’t he a thief?

Because he’s following the guidelines.  And, just as an added bit of justification, if that teller steals twenties from the till, who else is that benefiting?  No one!  But what he has done has increased profits for the company and therefore put more money in the pockets of the shareholders.  What he has done has benefited people!  His people.  According to the guidelines they have given him.

What guidelines?

Make us more money.  We don’t care how.  How is your job, that’s why we hired you.  If we didn’t like the job you were doing, we would fire you.

He kept trying to talk about the Board, you note.  Warren wouldn’t let him.  If, in his view, what he had done was wrong, the Board would have fired him.  Therefore, he did nothing wrong.

So what’s this senator all up in a huff about?  Doesn’t she understand that the number one rule in this country is to make money?  And that when you make money for other people that’s the only justification you need?  It’s not like we’re robbing banks.  No, we’re putting money in the bank.  It’s the opposite of robbery.

Isn’t it?

I agree with Senator Warren, this will not stop until people at his level face serious jail time.  There are people outside his tribe that he took advantage of who cannot afford to lose ten dollars let alone the fiscal date rape they experienced.  He hurt people he not only doesn’t know but doesn’t regard as important.  Only their money, in aggregate, matters.

There are, no doubt, if by virtue of probability alone, CEOs who regularly say no to plans like this because it will do harm.  We almost never hear about them.  Scandal drives media ratings much more effectively than what we used to call “soft news” or, worse, “puff pieces.”  Feel good news is pleasant but doesn’t attract the same kind of attention.  We need to find these people, these moral CEOs, and have them teach classes on saying no for moral reasons.  It would maybe be worthwhile having them at such hearings to offer a counterexample on camera.

But the truth is, for Stumpf and others of his ilk, the problem goes much, much deeper.  This is for him the driving heuristic of his life.  Do for his tribe.  And his tribe is comprised of people just like him.  Moneyed, “educated,” connected.  They doubtless give to charities.  They do this as substitute for actually giving a damn about people they don’t know.

It is not a problem isolated to them.

Over this past weekend we had another police incident, this time in Tulsa.  A man is dead whose only “crime” was being where he was.  The dashcam videos, even the video from other sources, all confirms that this man was shot to death for no reason.

Oh.  Wait.  He was black.

Interestingly, of all the officers on the scene, all of them went for their tasers—except one, and she was the one who fired the fatal shot.

Why am I linking this to the CEO of Wells Fargo?  Because in my opinion, they share the same problem.  They don’t recognize anybody not part of their tribe.

Because what the officer later said about the situation is contradicted by the videos. And I believe she actually doesn’t know how what she did was wrong.

Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, explains how we “think” most of the time  by heuristics.  There is a folder in our brain containing files of behaviors based on experience, on received wisdom, on made-up shit that got us through something before.  It is easier to pull a file from that folder and paste it over a new situation than to think through something from first principles every time.

So what was the file the officer pulled out of that folder?  Maybe something like:  Large black male, threat, must put him down.

Yes, I’m guessing.  Just as I’m guessing about Mr., Stumpf’s thinking in regard to pillaging the personal funds through fraudulent deals of people he has already placed in a file labeled “Customers: cattle: no further regard required.”

It’s a problem of categorization on both ends.

News flash to both ends: we aren’t categories.  We’re people.  Start getting it.

Finished

I have completed the current version of my new novel. Nits have been picked, threads tucked, and spells checked (I hope!) and it is off my desk.

Every time I get to this place, I crash.  Yesterday I hit the couch for some of the deepest nap-time I’ve had in recent memory. When I come out of it, I look around at the ruined landscape of my environment, at all the things that have been on hold while in hot and sometimes panic-driven pursuit of the final draft, and I plan on how to put it all back into some kind of order. Cleaning. Getting reacquainted with the dog.  Maybe attempt to  catch up on some reading.

But that first day or so after is usually taken up by just drifting from room to room, contemplating what I am not about to do in the next hour, being lazy. Sighing a great deal. Maybe playing some music (not well) or doing some photo work.

Which I did this morning.  Archon is coming up and I’ve elected to be in the art show again.  I have some new images that need finishing up and prepping.  I did a couple of those but mainly I played.

So until I get serious about tomorrow, here’s an image as place holder.  I shot this in Kansas City recently, with my phone.  Now, the pixels in the phone and the resolution leave much to be desired, but it ain’t bad, and if I work some magic in photoshop I can get some interesting stuff.  For this, though, I went old school, just because I like the lines and the mood.

kansas-city-convention-center-night-bw-august-2016

Now, compare that to the one below, which I shot in Dallas with my SLR.

chairs-bw-dallas-july-2016

A bit of a theme going on here?  Yeah, well.

I have a ton of work to do in the coming year. Fingers crossed, you will be seeing some new short stories from me. I’ve been invited into a couple of anthologies and while in K.C. at the worldcon I got more than a few “Where’ve you been and when will you send something to me?” from some people.  I know, it surprised me, too.  Who knew I’ve been missed?

So, recovery for a couple of weeks–Archon in two weeks away–and the more grindstone time.  My nose is diminishing even know.

50

I was eleven when Star Trek premiered. I’d seen the previews all summer, I was salivating in anticipation. Just from those minute or so clips it looked just so cool!

We watched the first episode—Man Trap—and disaster struck.

See, I was a somewhat “sensitive” child. I hate horror. I was prone at an earlier age to nightmares.  I recall a couple of times waking up screaming. Of course, I’d been like four or five. It had been years. But my mother was adamant about keeping me away from anything that would curse my nights and ruin their sleep. She was skeptical that this—this—Star Trek Thing—wasn’t just another monster show.  I remember trying to persuade her that, no, it’s about spaceships and other planets. No monsters.

Well.  What was the thing in Man Trap other than a classic scary monster?

I missed half the first season because of that shaggy critter.

We lived downstairs from my grandparents and I took to sneaking up there to watch it.  They had an ancient ANCIENT television, in a pale maple cabinet and a very low-res gun painting the picture on an old tube, so the picture was anything but sharp.

Even so, there was something about it that just took hold.

It is difficult sometimes to explain what Star Trek meant to someone like me that year. It was amazing. It was miraculous.  It was where we wanted to go.

Somehow, Roddenberry and his writers had constructed a thing that had life beyond the edge of the television tube.  We knew the Federation had length, breadth, and depth.  It had substance.  It was a place.  Not like anything else on tv at the time that could even begin to call itself science fiction, this was a universe and we knew it would welcome us in if we could just–just—kind of—maybe—slip in there, past the electrons, and sort of step through.

Of course, it did what written SF had been doing for a long time.  The difference was the medium.  I never knew anyone else growing up who was remotely interested in reading the books and magazines I did. Everyone watched television and more than a few watched Star Trek.

It embedded and evoked an idea of the world and life that extended beyond the ordinary in a way that far exceeded its primitive SFX and pasteboard sets and often mediocre scripting.  It wasn’t the individual episodes that mattered, it was the proposed future portrayed.

We didn’t have any of that stuff. Today we have a lot of it.

I saw the entire first run eventually, all in brilliant black-n-white.  We didn’t have a color tv till the latter part of the Seventies.

It didn’t matter.  I could close my eyes and see all the colors.

My dad, who had a problem with obsession, didn’t like my growing dedication to the show.  “Split your head open with an axe and a bunch of starships would fly out of it,” he would say, as if that were a bad thing.

Well, it wasn’t school work.

But today I’m a published science fiction writer, and I didn’t learn how to do that in school.

More, though, in some way the optimism and vision of Star Trek became part of my general make-up.  I think I’m a better human being because of it.

It was just so fucking wonderful.

Happy Anniversary.

The Iconography of the Myopic

I debated whether or not to say anything about Phyllis Schlalfy’s passing. I have never held her in high regard and certainly anyone who has paid the slightest attention to my writings over the past three decades should know where I stand on the issues on which she and I disagreed. Violently disagreed at times.

But as her death follows upon the heels of the canonization of Mother Theresa, I find a certain symmetry which prompts comment.

These two women shared one attribute in common that has come to define them for the ages: an obdurate dedication to a special kind of ignorance. They have become icons for people who prefer their views of how the world should be and see them as in some ways martyrs to the cause of defending beliefs that require the most tortured of logics to maintain as viable.

Both apparently took as models their own examples as standards and arguments against those they opposed. Schlafly never (she claimed) understood the feminist argument about the oppression of the patriarchy and Bojaxhiu never understood the utility of situational beneficence.  Consequently both could proceed with programmatic movements that blocked progress and flew in the face of realities neither could accept as valid.

Schlafly was instrumental in blocking the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Her rhetoric before and after was stridently right wing, as if the very notion of women wanting opportunities as human beings was somehow a threat to civilization.  She herself apparently never suffered resistance to anything she wanted to do.  She essentially told women less privileged than herself to be satisfied with their stations in life and give up ambitions of being more than wives and mothers, even as she lived a life that was anything but an acceptance of such limitations.  Her inability—or refusal—to come to terms with the fact that human beings deserve to be treated by each other as individuals cost her, but she has never once publicly acknowledged that she might be wrong.

Bojaxhiu set up shop in one of the poorest areas in the world to, ostensibly, minister to those poor.  Normally we hear that and believe some form of relief of suffering is involved, but apparently not.  She elevated the suffering of the dying to some form of divine gift, gave them aspirin, and prayed while they died in misery. It wasn’t lack of money, either. Her order has received many millions—which she used to open convents and wage a campaign in opposition to the one thing that might make a difference in those poor districts she held in such high esteem: birth control.  Of all the things she might have chosen to name as the most significant enemy of our times, providing women, especially poor women, the means to control their fertility, reduce family size so what resources they had might go further and do more, is a perverse choice. Catholic, yes, but it’s not like other Catholics haven’t seen reality for what it is and did something—anything—that might constructively alleviate suffering.  From the evidence, all she did was put a noble gloss on it and exacerbate it.

It could be argued that both were “of their times” and therefore exception should be made before too harshly assessing their legacies, but I don’t accept that.  In Schlafly’s case, she was educated, moved among the best minds when she wanted to, had more than ample opportunity to understand what she was doing.  It didn’t matter.  She had picked a side and stuck with it, reality be damned.  In Bojaxhiu’s case, the daily exposure to those she supposedly ministered to should have served to snap her out of whatever quasi-Freudian obsession she had with sex and start acting like a human being.  (Unless you wish to argue that she was indeed “out of her time” and would have been right at home in the Middle Ages as a flagellant.) She was not stupid, she was the head of an international organization.  She put on the sackcloth of the humble village girl with simple values, but she was anything but.

That the Church has canonized her is no surprise.  In Dante’s Paradiso we meet many saints and upon reading about them and their character we begin to wonder why these people are where they are.  Dante makes the case—among others—that the price of admission to this paradise is a lifetime of obsessive devotion to a view of divine truth that is essentially selfless.  In other words, in the consequences of their lives, the Paradisiacs are not much different than the Infernals, other than they are selfless rather than selfish.  Both share a conviction that their view of the world is right, but for very different reasons.

Of course, Dante’s Paradise is not really a place anyone rational would care to spend eternity.

That Schlafly has devoted followers is also no surprise.  One of the curious similarities between her and the so-called “New Woman” of the post-liberation era is the image of someone who does it all.  Wife, mother, lawyer, political organizer, mover, shaker. Whatever roadblocks might have been thrown in her way, she went around, over, or through them.  If she could do it, by gum, so can anyone, and we don’t need no damn ERA to do it!

Except for the privilege. No, she wasn’t born to money. But she got the advantages of a college education at a time women weren’t going to college much.  She also married money.  Draw your own conclusions, but without that her later ability to do all the things she chose to do would have been absurdly more difficult.  However, she has the background to appeal to the self-made, the education to talk constitutional law with the best, and the security to assert herself in ways women traditionally do not. However you want to spin it, she was privileged.

Both women offered ideologies that overlooked or flatly denied certain inconvenient realities.  But they had their lives, their callings, their successes.  What is this reality that makes any kind of claim on the conscience of the visionary that either was obliged to respect?

Radical Futures and Conservative Sensitivities

At the world science fiction convention just past, MidAmeriCon II, an event occurred which may well displace much more deserving matters, but which was significant enough to spark dialogue over a subject that has been at the center of debate within the science fiction field for several years now.  A debate which regrettably led to the attempt to “game” the Hugo Awards by a disaffected element determined to deny the validity of current trends in new writings.

I refer, of course, to the Sad Puppies and their subsequent impressment by the Rabid Puppy movement, which was more or less the sole creation of one person who took advantage of the situation to push slates onto the Hugo ballots and otherwise poison the pool of discourse with a degree of venom that has adversely affected those among the Sad Puppies who argued these issues in good faith and on the merits of the fiction produced. Actions have been taken to see that slates are no longer likely and the entire consequence of this year’s Hugo Awards seems to have been nothing less than a massive repudiation by fandom in general of the whole argument that science fiction is being “ruined” by certain kinds of fiction at the expense of “truer”, somehow purer SF of a more traditional variety.

However that aspect of all this may eventually sort itself out remains to be seen. Debates over story content, style, approach, the æsthetics of the genre will continue and all to the good of what continues to be a vibrant, vital art form.

For now, though, I want to talk about the event mentioned above. There was a panel called, I believe, The State of Short Fiction.  By second-hand accounts it turned into a row due to the upfront introductory speech by its moderator, Dave Truesdale, who took the opportunity to make a statement consistent with Sad Puppy sentiments and to derogate what he called Snowflakes whose sensibilities seem so delicate that they had to attack or censor what I presume he considers more robust, “traditional” SF.  He proferred a string of pearls “to clutch” should “the vapors” threaten them when confronted with arguments that their preferred form of fiction might not be good for the field.

Not finished with this opening salvo, the other panelists, who included among the best editors in the field today, interrupted and tried to pull the panel back to the topic. You can listen to the whole thing online.  I will not link to because there is some question over whether Mr. Truesdale had permission to record and post it. If you wish to go look for it, feel free.

The panel never did get onto its topic, but it did become very interesting.

However, one result was that Mr. Truesdale was expelled from the convention.  On the surface, this appears to be an overreaction.  If part of the intent was to punish him for an inappropriate message, it has backfired.  Even if that was not the intent, it has resulted in this panel receiving substantially more attention than some might wish.

Whatever one’s feelings about that, what I wish to discuss here concerns the points Mr. Truesdale was trying to make regarding SF and this whole subject of “ruining” SF.

This is not the first time by a long shot that this has enveloped the SF community.  At the very first worldcon there was such dispute among the fans that one faction called the police to bar the other from even getting into the hotel, all over the direction science fiction would take.  SF readers are passionate.  Passions have overwhelmed intellect more than a few times.

There are several aspects of Mr. Truesdale’s assertions that require examination. I’ll deal first with his claims that SF is being “ruined.”

The question is, How? Right now, especially in short fiction, the outlets are so many and so varied, discerning any kind of “trend” is virtually impossible, a point made by Gordon Van Gelder (F & SF) during the panel. At one time, as he explained, you could discern a direction because the field was dominated by three or four major magazines and a handful of original anthologies. What saw print in these outlets contoured the public perception of what constituted science fiction (and fantasy). Now? While those magazines still exist, there are many more and online publishing has expanded the pool of story outlets so much that the field is in continual froth.  Any look at the table of contents of the several Best of the Year annuals shows very little overlap, and yet each one can legitimately claim to showcase the best in the field for a given year. Reading those annuals…

Here is where personal taste enters into it to a large degree. But only to a degree.  I have been reading science fiction since I was ten years old. That’s fifty one years. I no longer read as widely in short fiction as I once did, and in some years I have read nothing in less than novel length. But when I have come back to short fiction, I have generally been pleased to see improvement over what went before.  Improvement in craft, in concept, in execution. The stories have widened their scope, become more inclusive in terms of subject matter and sentiment, characterization has deepened, and overall there has been a marked maturation.

When I became well enough acquainted with the field to follow it as a literary movement, I became aware of the insecurities manifest in the relationship of SF with the wider reading public. What became known as the SF Ghetto was at one time a very real thing. What we call mainstream tended to regard the genres as a whole and SF specifically as the redheaded stepchild of “real” literature. That began to change after the New Wave ructions of the mid to late Sixties and the eventual absorption of those experiments in the body of SF writing throughout the Seventies, until by the end of the Eighties it was becoming evident that SF could not be so relegated to the sidelines by the mainstream. The result is that today, mainstream has taken SF into itself and writers who otherwise would never be considered SF writers are writing solid science fiction and selling it to mainstream audiences.  The “culture war” to gain validation and legitimacy for our field has been won.

That seems to underly the disaffection of the group within SF that goes by the Sad Puppy label. The stories now being written, published, and lauded as science fiction at its best seem no longer to express their preferred idioms or æsthetic concerns. Even as several of them appear to do quite well in terms of sales and fan support, the quest of winning awards for their preferred work is becoming less and less achievable. Even as some of their novels sell well enough that they might make their living on them, no one is nominating them in sufficient numbers to secure a spot on the final ballot of the premier awards.

Instead, according to them, the awards are going to works which seem to have little to do with science fiction or express viewpoints at odds with their politics, their cultural assumptions, and their personal values.

Exactly what are those politics, assumptions, and values?

Mr. Truesdale, during an exchange at the panel, asked what I consider the telliong question: “Where is all the conservative SF?”

In all seriousness, I don’t know what that means.

Science fiction, by its nature, is radical. It takes apart the given world and replaces it with something else. That is as basic as change can get.  That is anything but conservative. And that is what it has always been.  It may well be that writers have used conservative viewpoints for their characters, but even then there is a presumption that the world is no longer the same.

And if a writer uses a form to push a set of political principles, it usually turns out to be bad fiction.  Propaganda.

Science fiction has always been about how the world will be different. That is as not conservative as one can get.

Science fiction is progressive.  Now, sometimes the progress fails, the experiment collapses, things go wrong. Post-apocalyptic SF is all about that and one might see a lot of it in a certain way “conservative” insofar as the specific requirements of survival become essential to the plot.  But the goal is to rebuild and make it better, but almost never the same—since The Same would emulate the world that failed.

But back to that question.

If you write a story that is true to the characters in the story—and good fiction is about its characters and their situation—then how do you make it one thing or the other without auctorially interceding and making it something it may not organically be about?

I do not, however, believe that is what was meant by that question.  Context is vital and given the context not only of the SF community but of the world at large, I can only read that question as meaning “Where are the stories about how great our past visions of the future are?”

Past visions of the future.

A great deal of the fiction being published by those who are self-proclaimed Sad Puppies tends to be of the military SF variety.  Not all, but a lot. A few examples contain overt missionary elements.

Briefly, the so-called Golden Age, while in no way monolithic, is best remembered by its planetary romance, its space opera, its colonial æsthetics.  We were going to stars to settle new worlds, conquer aliens if need be, and, at least under the overt programmatic editorialism of John W. Campbell Jr., prove our superiority over any and all.

I doubt anyone would argue that colonialism was not a major aspect of that era. Imperialism informed a lot of it.  In many instances, it seems t have been an unexamined given.

Quite a bit of newer fiction is in fact about the consequences of such questions. Counter-colonialism, post-imperialist examinations of costs and calamities, and a study of the underlying psychologies and assumptions appertaining to much of what we recognize as Golden Age SF.  (To be fair, a lot of that SF also questioned these things, but somehow that was okay, perhaps because the “right” people were writing those stories. More on that later.)

I wrote about how my reading tastes have evolved here, so I won’t rehash.  What I will say here is that the complaints about a lack of “ol’ time rockets-n-rayguns” SF seems disingenuous at best.  I’ve been reading the new Expanse series by James S.A. Corey and given that these books are now the basis of a tv series and seem to sell quite well, the popularity of this kind of SF seems not at all diminished.  (Unless for some arcane reason these books don’t fill the bill, in which case further explication is needed from those complaining.)  Indeed, given the broad parameters of the complaints, the novel that prompted particular ire a couple of years back, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, seems also to fit within the stated parameters of the fiction claimed lacking in the field.  The only complaint about that book, which sparked considerable anger in certain quarters, that was in any way specific was that it was poorly-written.  I disagree.  It did its job very well.  But again, that’s personal taste.

(I will claim to have some experience both as a reader and a writer with good and bad prose and feel I have the requisite standards, at least for myself, to determine which is which and often why.  There’s nothing second-rate or poorly-written about Leckie’s work.  I suggested in a review what the real problem was and given the nature of further criticisms of the field, especially the tactic Mr. Truesdale used to launch his attack, I will stand by it.)

The clutched pearls and charges of “vapors”, whether he intended it this way or not, are symbols directly targeting women.  “Vapors” is an old-fashioned affliction suffered, presumably, by women and the effeminate.  Like it or not, there is no other way to read it.  Clutching pearls added another layer to that.  The problem, therefore, must, per this diatribe, be women or the feminization of the genre.  There was a general not long ago who complained about feminization of the military because medals were given to soldiers who saved lives rather than “broke things like they were supposed to.”  Given that the chief targets in the last few years of the Sad Puppies and their supporters seem to be largely if not entirely women—specific novels and stories held up as examples of “what’s wrong with the field” have all been written by women—it is fair to conclude that Mr. Truesdale rode that tide onto the beach.  It is fitting therefore that it was a woman who initially took him to task (Sheila Williams, editor of Asimovs SF).

Two things about this from a cultural standpoint.  Dominant members of a culture get frantic when the numbers of what had previously been minority or exception representations rise to levels where they can no longer be passed off as Special Cases. The visibility of women and minorities in SF has been going up for decades.  It may be that a critical threshold has been reached and passed and they must now be regarded as normative examples of work being done.  Hence the spleen vented by those claiming privileges for “traditional” writing.

The other thing is a bit trickier.  It may well be that the future is no longer safe for those same traditionalists. Not even 20 years ago one could assume that the futures being written about would not manifest in our lifetimes.  Certainly 40, 50, or 70 years ago one could very safely write about all manner of social change and economic and cultural novelties and still assume that the world outside one’s door would never get anywhere near any of it.  I recall an essay by Harlan Ellison wherein he had an encounter with John W. Campbell’s wife concerning Jimi Hendrix and a similar point was made.  The Future was not something she was ready to embrace, especially not one exemplified by the new music and the social changes it represented.

But that safe distance is gone.  Except for starships and actual nonhumans (and maybe time travel) we are living in the future imagined by those writers and it is evident that tomorrow will be another future sitting right on our doorstep.  In many ways, it isn’t fiction anymore.

And now the fiction calls into question safe assumptions about the hegemony of those past futures imagined but perhaps, by many, not desired.

Personally, I find all this angst over the direction of science fiction a dubious exercise in attempted grandstanding.  The works speak for themselves and the accolades garnered are symptomatic of public tastes, except in those instances of collegial recognition, like the Nebula.  Charges that cabals bar people or works from competition fall apart on the basis of who is doing the selecting.

But partly this is a consequence of the dissolution of boundaries currently going on by virtue of the fact that, to put it crudely, science fiction won. Emily St. John Mandel, Eric Cline, David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Helen Phillips, Ben Winters, and on and on are all writing recognizable science fiction and doing a masterful job of it.  They are not “in the club” as it were and therefore not “of the chosen.”  That old complaint about the ghetto is now not so much a complaint of being kept in but an attempt to keep Them out.  The ghetto walls have fallen and SF writers are not solely the bearers if cool futures.  Others are writing in what once was a small pool where the comradeship of the besieged provided the basis of a shared experience.

But back to that singular question, “where is all the conservative science fiction?”  Where has it ever been?

The problem is that today, in the current climate, the kinds of works that emerge as examples of conservative SF seem to be—I stress, seem to be—military SF.  Is that the only hallmark we go by anymore?  The insistence that war will not only happen but that our heroes must necessarily be those not only skilled at it but quickly willing to step forward to engage it is a questionable basis for dominating what has become a radically diverse field of literature.  It bears some similarity to arguments about what may or may not be “real” rock’n’roll, which as time went on becme an increasingly impossible argument to win.

Damon Knight once said “science fiction is what I point at when I say the words.”  Going back and looking at the best of the field, that has always been true.

So what are the issues?

In my opinion, nothing that has anything to do with the stories being written and published other than by extension.  Unfortunate as it may be, the criticisms being leveled seem to come back to who is writing them and what they are writing about that contradicts a preferred cultural narrative. (When I hear criticism of a novel that for all intents and purposes is exactly the kind of work being argued for that it is bad SF because it is supposedly a social justice novel, when it is not, and the only things that separate it from the preferred model is a pronoun shift and sexual ambiguities, I cannot but conclude that the criticism is entirely a reaction to a perceived threat to a present-day norm which is not even being called into question within the novel.  Transference, anyone?)  And not even that so much as what stories are winning awards, which is an especially small aspect of the larger project.

At the end of the day, the “snowflakes” would appear to be those who are reacting  to stories that criticize the Golden Age cultural assumptions, not the writers of those stories, nor, in my experience, those rewarding said stories.  These stories are talking about matters at hand in new ways and leveling criticisms at issues. Their detractors seem more concerned with who is writing them. I do recall a tradition in SF of writing stories in response.  I wonder what happened to that?

Of course, that presupposes a good story.

 

 

 

 

K.C. 2016

Worldcon is over, I am home, weary and pumped and amazed and frazzled. So much happened, it is difficult to sort it out and deal with it cogently.

This may have been the best worldcon experience I have ever had. Barring the first one, way back in 1984, in L.A., when Donna and I roamed around gawking at all the startling stuff and sitting in panels listening to the writers we were reading and finding books in the dealers’ room Walden and Dalton just didn’t stock, the worldcons in between have been mixed bags for us, often fraught with my anxieties of trying to become a pro writer and feeling alternately despairing and enthusiastic.  Whipsawed.

Not so this time. Almost from the minute I set foot in the convention center I found myself treated with a collegiality I’ve experienced before but never so thoroughly and consistently.

Over the course of five days, I interacted with peers and pros and fans at nothing but high levels of sometimes ego-boosting wonderfulness.

Hotel Room View, K.C. May 2014The best part was finding old friends I didn’t expect to be there. One in particular, a man I met way back at the very first convention I attended, Archon 6, and with whom I’ve had almost no contact for several years, was standing in the dealers’ area. Like a mirage or a ghost, I stared at him a few moments before realizing that, yes, Ed Bryant really was there.

IMG_20160818_144507440Ed is a short story master. He has several collections to his name and the stories are wonders.  He was kind and patient to a young wannabe who often did not know how to take advice.  He’s been suffering poor health for some time and I never expected him to show up at a worldcon, but we spent several hours together in conversation, a now cherished experience.

The other face I did not expect to see was that of Daryl Gregory. IMG_20160817_151258280 Daryl has over the last few years become something of a Big Deal, though he would probably dispute that. It wouldn’t matter to me in any case, as we are Clarion classmates and I know whence the droids are buried.

He was in company with his new companion, Liza Groen Trombi, who is top person at Locus Magazine these days.  It was a pleasure to make her acquaintance.  We all went out one evening for dinner, ending up in typically dramatic fashion almost caught in a thunderstorm.  One of those evenings when I glance about for the camera crews and wonder who is in charge of special effects.

IMG_20160819_195816097The principle motivation for my attending turned out to be one of the best parts. As I said in an earlier post, I had not intended going. But then my agent, Jen Udden, told me she would be there and wanted to meet, so plans changed again.

IMG_20160818_123756154I am especially glad about this. You can work with someone long distance a lot and work perfectly well, but a face-to-face makes a difference.  It adds a layer and validates opinions.  I have no idea what she came away with, but I am even more confident that I’m in excellent hands.

We met for lunch at a Kansas City great, Jack Stacks BBQ.  I’d never been before.  It’s in the freight yard area adjacent to Union Station. IMG_20160818_135511766 I had a bit of a scramble getting there, but made it almost exactly on time (I hate not being punctual). They seated us on the patio and we proceeded to overeat on some of the best barbeque around.

We cabbed back to the hotel and she introduced me to some of her other clients. I reconnected with Maurice Broaddus, whom I’d met several years ago in Ohio.

My panels were all well-attended and produced the kind of discussion I look forward to.  The Generation Starship one in particular, in company with Gregory Benford and Pat Cadigan, was a learning experience as well.

I am, as it has turned out, getting too old for the party scene.  For one thing, my hearing is not what it once was.  If the crowd is too large, I have difficulty sorting out individuals.  This was especially hard at the TOR party, which was thunderous.  (Someone had a decibel meter app and said it was about 110 db.) But I had to go to Roomcon and hear Bradley Denton in his role as Bland Lemon Denton, play along with Caroline Spector, with extra vocals by Sherri Dean.

IMG_20160818_211534561The Marriott bar was watering hole central. Meet-ups for dinner and other excursions most often took place there.  The SFWA suite was also in the Marriott and it was trhere that I saw the live feed to the Hugo Award ceremony.  Though not all, I came in late.  But I saw enough to feel very positive about our field.  The rockets went to deserving writers for exemplary work.  Despite the bellyaching of certain factions in the genre, this year’s winners show how much the work has grown and developed and, if I may say so, matured.

However, George R.R. Martin’s Hugo Losers Party was still the place to be afterward. George had rented a restored movie palace, The Midland, nearby. Attendance was invitation only.  I managed to get in (thank you, Paul Burns) and stayed through George’s handing-out of the “Alfies”—Hugo substitutes for those works which had, by some lights, been unfairly pushed off the final ballot this year by the manipulations of a disaffected element.

IMG_20160820_222726814The Midland is incredible.  George spared no expense.  The bar was open (courtesy of Random House) and the attendance was…well, let’s just say that no one was sorry to see that element mentioned above be offered a rising finger of salute.

All in all, it was a great party.

I stayed through the Alfie’s, but had to limp back to get sleep.  I got to meet some great people, thoughIMG_20160821_240057633 (4), including Marguerite Reed, L.E. Modesitt, Charles Coleman Finlay, and on and on and on.

The band provided for the night’s festivities was new to me but apparently a K.C. fixture, the Black Crack Review. I asked someone what kind of music they played and was told it would be a blend of George Clinton and Sun Ra.  They did not disappoint.

IMG_20160820_233423556Sunday, like every other last day of a worldcon, was both pleasant and melancholy.  I did a podcast interview for SciFi4Me, ran around saying bye to too many people to name, did my autographing session—which was another egoboost, as I had a queue waiting when I arrived—and my last panel, on interstellar colonies (which complemented the earlier one on starships, though the consensus this time was generation ships simply will never happen).  I did not stay for closing ceremonies, but instead return with my hosts for a wind-down dinner at their house.

Monday morning I hit the road for St. Louis and made good time.

There are several takeaways from MidAmeriCon II, which was not without its controversies.  I will discuss one of those later.  But one of the biggies for me was a renewed sense of welcome and excitement.  The possibilities of doing new work and being part of what I’ve always considered the best kind of fiction.  I’m pumped.  Just wait for this new novel.

 

A Couple Of Observations About The Culture

I’ve been working my way through Mario Vargas Llosa’s intriguing little book Notes On The Death Of Culture, which intends to be a general critique on the state of high culture and the impact its enervation has had on the world at large.  Reading that and watching the election campaigns is a strange thing.

One of Llosa’s main themes here is that we have demoted “high” culture through a process of democratization of self-brutalization via social media and a mistaken acceptance of the idea that everyone’s opinion carries equal weight.  That we no longer value wisdom, quality, or know how to appreciate it as distinct from middle or lowbrow culture, so-called “popular” culture.

There’s something to this, certainly, but I hesitate to call it a death.  A tumultuous sorting maybe. Because side by side, cheek by jowl, as it were, with undeniable banality, dross, and effluence that passes for æsthetic content—no, that’s not quite fair, is it? Garbage has an æsthetic quality, even if it can only be apprehended as a negative—that presents itself as of equal value and merit to works of genuine worth, we do see works of superior quality, intent, and impact. In fact, work being done now in all the arts offers examples equal to if not better than any masterpiece of the past.  Even television, that vast wasteland, offers amazing work. If one looks for it one may find music, painting, photography, sculpture, literature both fictive and nonfiction, drama both on stage and recorded, that compares with the finest humanity has ever offered.

And with it, audiences.  You might question their level of appreciation, but that has two aspects which negate the attempt.  Firstly, how do you gauge “appreciation?” How can anyone determine the extent of comprehension, of response, of, finally, “takeaway” experienced by another human being?  You can’t really, certainly not in any way that might be revealed in a poll or a survey.  Certainly not as some prognostic assessment about the Culture.  Secondly, those creating these works have not come from another planet.  They emerge from among us.  We, in some way, “produce” them.  They are us, they are not alien, so if in fact what they do cannot be understood or appreciated or even recognized, how then do they appear? The fact is, they have an audience.  And not, judging by the availability and public knowledge of the work, small, dying audiences.

Which means we are, irritatingly, forced to take on faith that the culture, whatever we might mean by that, is not dying.  Transforming, sure, as culture always does.  Isolation is harder to achieve, if in fact it is even desirable.  We live in each others’ living rooms.  At best, Llosa’s fears—which may be too strong a word—may have more to do with nostalgia than actual diagnosis.

But then there is this huge, gawping thing in our midst, this political circus, and it might be reasonable to wonder how much we may have lost in terms of “culture” that something like Trump can aspire as successfully as he has to the presidency.  It is perhaps a handicap for many that the answers may be culture-based and insulting to a large group of people.  But I think, for myself at least, that there is nothing wrong with affirming that some things are better than others and that all aspects of culture are not equal.  When you see placards with gross misspellings and bad diction in service to poor logic and spiteful ignorance, it offends and perhaps causes one to hold back rather than indulge in the obvious assessments.  But like the doofus who shows up at a formal-attire wedding in plaid shorts and tennis shoes with an emblazoned t-shirt and a product-placement ball cap, the initial conclusion may not be wrong.

Suggestions have been made that the GOP might intervene and force Trump to step down or even do something with the rules to make him ineligible.  Hiding the blemish won’t cure it.  Trump’s success, if not he himself, is an expression of a popular sentiment, an æsthetic, if you will, that has embraced the thing Llosa is, in part, talking about.  He has brought them together, the subliterates, the banal, the velvet-paintings-of-Elvis crowd, those whose most trenchant popular icon should be Archie Bunker.

And they voted for him.  Should the GOP try to remove Trump, understandable as the impulse may be, it will be a repudiation of the very people they have relied on and nurtured and groomed for over three decades.  They have been largely unseen all this time because they have been salted throughout the larger culture, an aberration perhaps.  But Trump has caused them to step forward as a group.  We, the rest of us, can see them now.  They’ve been there all along, but we have rarely encountered them in numbers so large we could not pretend they weren’t just fringe kooks, loonies, or family embarrassments.

Forgive my crudeness, but I’m  engaging this problem the way they do.  Name-calling, pigeon-holing,  because it makes the unknown manageable.  It is a practice we rightly abhor but is the obverse of recognizing a form of self-selection and commitment to a set of protocols.  If it makes us uncomfortable to be confronted with a reality that has grown up in our midst, then perhaps we share some of the responsibility.  We have as a culture been driven more by the shiny, the thalamic and hippocampic  reactiveness that draws us to the bright thing at the expense, sometimes, of the good thing.

But then, what do you do with someone who has decided that truth and beauty are the same as a red dot sale at WalMart?

It’s perhaps one reason WalMart has been so successful.

Trump, finally, has caused nothing.  He is playing to an audience.  What he says is less important than the fact that there are people who like it.  When he is long gone from the political stage, they will remain.

It’s a cultural problem.