distal muse

observations, opinions, ephemera, and views


April 05, 2017

I Have Returned

I am a marginal Luddite. My friends tease me about it, not without justification. “What do you mean you don’t know how work that? YOU’RE A SCIENCE FICTION WRITER!”

A rather uncharitable way to look at it, but not without some merit. It is, however, like telling a scientist he’s an idiot because he can’t program his VCR (!). Or maybe criticizing an engineer because he can’t solve a Rubic’s Cube.  Be that as it may, I have a rather antagonistic relationship to modern tech and I do not feel entirely unjustified. The last time I was upbraided for being unable to deftly wend my way through a computer problem and the science fiction writing came up, my retort was “Dammit, it wasn’t supposed to work this way!”

(Dammit, Jim, I’m a writer, not a software engineer!)

Constant upgrades, byzantine interfaces, labels on functions that do not make intuitive sense…it’s easy, perhaps, to decipher a language if you already speak it.

Anyway, I was recently blocked from the internet by virtue of aging equipment.  One morning I simply had no access.

I’ve been with Earthlink for years now. Partly, this is because I have little patience for shopping for this kind of thing. I had a bad experience with an ISP when I first connected and Earthlink has been reliable. As time passed and I did more things, they have been far more helpful than not, so I stuck. I am a loyal customer given a bit of useful attention, courtesy, and spoken to in English (this is to say, not talked to like I’m a 15-year-old digital nerd who lives and breathes this stuff).

So I called them. Turns out, my DSL modem was over nine years old. Well past the average life expectancy of such things. Back and forthing, finagling, and communing with the service techs, I opted to purchase an upgrade to a fiberoptic connection with a new modem and higher speed.

Then I discovered that my router was also ancient and decrepit and may have been the culprit all along. No matter, I had a spare, which worked fine.

Until last weekend, when I lost all connectivity and had to simply wait till the install guy showed up.

Which was supposed to happen today.  But instead, he knocked on my door yesterday, just as I was about to leave for work. After a moment of panic I chose to go with it, because who knew when the next available time would be?  After two hours, I am back online.  The connection is faster. No, really, I can tell.  It is.

Which then prompted going around the house re-entering passwords and upgrading the other machines, etc etc etc.

And going through the sixty-plus emails that had stacked up in my inability to access my online world.

But it also means my distractions are back.

Oh, well.  What is life without distractions?

Just in time, however, as the final notes from my agent on my new novel are about to pour down the pipeline into my lap for me to tend to and get back to her so she can start pushing it to all the people who don’t yet know they want it and want it badly.  Timing.

Which also means I have to get back to work on the other projects sitting here.

I am, unfortunately, easily distracted, but I’ve come to understand that the thing that distracts me most, more than anything else, is when things don’t work. It nags at me when something of mine is broken. Nero Wolf once described rancor as a “pimple on the brain” that muddled his thought processes. In my case, it’s knowing I can’t do something I ought to be able to do but a glitch is blocking me.  Pimple on the brain.  Annoying.

But for now, problem solved, and one hopes I can glide through all this unperturbed for another nine years.  At which time, some other something that shouldn’t be a problem (and wouldn’t be in one of my stories, where technology works as it should, unless its not working is a plot point) goes wrong. Meantime, a bright day ahead.

I would say something about other things, but I don’t want to spoil my mood.  I am back, my window (pun intended) to the world is open once more, and I have what is in this modern day and age the All Important—Access.

I will say that Coffey, my dog, was delighted to have the technician here. She followed him around, scrupulously checking his work, making sure he was doing everything according to standard—her standard, which may be higher than my standard in some things—and enjoying having me around an extra couple of hours.

The pimple has cleared up, for now. I’m back working on…things.  (I’m writing this instead of what I should be writing, grumble-mumble…)

To close, I will offer up a staple of the internet realm, something I seldom indulge mainly because I don’t have the subject on hand with which to indulge it.  I have to borrow one for such purposes, but…

I give you a cat picture.  Have a good day.

 

January 19, 2017

What A Year: A Personal Assessment

Here it is, middle of January, and I haven’t done a wrap-up of 2016.   Well, what can be said of such a year?

Politically, I think I have said enough.  You can revisit if you wish, especially via the links to my favorite posts back just a little way.  Personally and professionally…

I finished a new novel.  It is currently in the hands of my agent.  As time passes and I hear nothing the usual swarm of doubts begin to devil me.  It’s probably not as good as I hope, possibly not as bad as I fear, but if things run according to form it won’t much matter.  I continue to write in a manner that I’ve long characterized as half a bubble off.

Which has me contemplating where to go.  I’ve decided to devote 2017 mostly to short fiction.  I have one more novel to finish, the final in a trilogy I feel I’ve been living with forever, which my agent feels very positive about.  Since the first two books are done and have not yet found a home, I’m not in as huge hurry to complete the third one, although of late I’ve been having some stray thoughts on where to take it that are the beginnings of an itch to finish it.  Regardless, I am committed to short fiction for the time being.  I’ve already written two new stories and I am working to complete a novelette that’s been sitting stewing for a bit over a year now.

I declared a goal to myself.  Before I die I want to have published 100 short stories.  Which means I have about 40 to go.  It’s as arbitrary as any goal, I suppose.  I have roughly 20 stories in my files in various stages of completion, and maybe 10 more that are done but require revision.  A few have been the rounds and not found homes, so maybe I should take them apart and put them together again, only better.  I have one I know that I have written four versions of to completion and can’t decide which one works best (or at all).

All of which prompts contemplation of the worth of doing what I do.  Yeah, I tend to do that a lot.  But one reality (out of many) is the fact that I am now 62.  Figuring out what I want to do when I grow up has become somewhat problematic.

Along those lines, I had a small revelatory experience in 2016 that has been working on me since.  I have been privileged to work (day-job) with some extraordinary and talented people.  One of them is a new novelist, her first book came out last summer.  It’s a terrific novel, I recommend it (Kea Wilson’s We Eat Our Own), and she and I have had many conversations about writing and publishing.  One day when I was complaining about the dismal condition of my career, she brought me up short by telling me she thought I was very successful.  “You have twelve books out.”  It caused me to reassess my own metrics regarding “success.”  I’m still reassessing, but I have decided to stop sulking about it.  These things really are relative outside certain narrowly-defined parameters.

It helped.

When I attended WorldCon in Kansas City last August, I did so with a different attitude and enjoyed the whole thing much more.

My main concern now has to do with finishing the work I want to do.  I’ve got that one more novel I mentioned above, but I also have one great big epic I want to write—it’s all in the back of my head, waiting for me to get around to—and a few ideas for other books I’d like to do.  Setting the 100-story goal is part of that.  Finishing.  Leaving a legacy.

No, I’m not dying.  I in good health.  I had a whole round of tests last year.  I’m fine.  Still going to the gym, still doing my 100-push-ups-a-day, still being a taunt to the young guys at the gym.  (You’re how old? No!)  But I’d be a fool to look at life the way I did 30 years ago.  I don’t have time to waste.

Of course, I will waste time.  It’s built in.  Humans do that. We should learn to enjoy it.

Along those lines, though, things have gotten to be  a bit better in that we can waste time on things we like more than in previous years.  The situation that has bogged us down for the last four (which I won’t discuss here, but my close friends know about it) has reached the point of being naught but an occasional annoyance.  We’ve been cleaning house, relaxing, getting to the point where we are allowing ourselves to do things like go to the movies if we choose or just sit together reading.  The pressure has eased.  Life seems a bit broader.

As long as we don’t obsess over the news.

No politics here, I said.  Although just a comment, that the way things have come to pass, we seem to have witnessed a nationwide example of the efficacy of Dunning-Kruger.  (I’ll just leave that here, unexplained for the time being.)

Culturally, I feel beaten about the head and stomach with all the deaths.  The two that hit me hardest were Keith Emerson and Greg Lake.  They, among others, provided the soundtrack of my youth.  Their music still thrills me.  Much imitated, but nothing to compare.  I wasn’t happy when Umberto Eco died.  David Bowie didn’t go down too well for me, either.

2017 doesn’t seem to be starting off too well itself, but…

All in all, though, 2016 has turned out to be a year in which I began to be comfortable with what I’ve done, who I am, and where I might be going.  It helps to have a good partner, and I have that.  Donna and I celebrated 36 years together last spring.  Between us we have tackled the many-hued exigencies of timeless conundrums and come out the other side of various rabbit holes with our fluffy whites intact (if a bit rumpled and smudged).  I appreciate her, in the full meaning of the word.

I have no idea where this year is going.  I feel we have gotten onto a space mountain ride. We may come out on the other side of the galaxy.

One thing, though:  there will be more stories.  It only ends when the stories stop.

Onward.

October 06, 2016

Way Station

It’s getting down to the wire. That will make sense later.  For now, a contemplation and a photograph.

This weekend past was Archon.  Number Forty. 40. Donna and I have been attending this, our hometown con, since 1982, number six. I’ve missed a couple, I think we missed one, but by and large it has been a regular thing. In years past, some of the vitality seemed to go out of it. They had some hiccups, which are now quite obviously in the past. This one was pretty damn good. Writing and books were more evidently on the menu and the panels I attended were well attended and well received. Even the Sunday ones.

For my part, there was a pre-con event last Thursday evening at the Brentwood Recreation Center.  I hope to establish this as a regular thing, a Thursday evening event with the GoH, Toastmaster, and perhaps one other writer, sponsored by Left Bank Books with the convention. This year, Ellen Datlow and Bradley Denton were our guests, along with Ann Leckie.  It was a fun evening. My intention is to broaden the scope of science fiction/fantasy for a general audience, draw attention to Left Bank Books as the go-to bookstore in St. Louis for speculative fiction (as well as all the rest), and spotlight these writers and editors for people who don’t normally attend the conventions. I ferried Ellen and Brad across the river to the event and moderated the talk, which took on a life of its own.

It seems remarkable that, in hindsight, we’ve made friendships which depend on annual visits.  Great people show up at these conventions and I got to see them. Lynn and Selina of Yard Dog Press, who publish my work but, more importantly, are part of the rich community I am pleased to be part of.  Vic Milan, the apparently permanent M.C. for the Archon masquerade, which always produces some remarkable entrees. Mitch Bentley, artist, as well as Allison Stein, John Kaufman (who did the terrific cover for my short story collection Gravity Box), Michelle and Rich, who run the art show, which is now becoming another regular feature for me.

Connecting up with Brad was a treat. I guess I’ve known him since 1992 or so.  He is a fine, fine writer, a blues musician, and one of the best people I know.  He’s had a rough few years lately and I wish him all the best.  I’d like to read more of his fiction.  If you haven’t read Brad, do so.  Find his books.

I got to meet one of my favorite actors, if but briefly.  Claudia Christian, who played Susan Ivanova on Babylon 5, a show Donna and I have been binging on since the unfortunate death of Jerry Doyle, who co-starred as Security Chief Michael Garibaldi.

All in all it was a good con. If I am a bit melancholy it’s only because I get to see some of these people at such long interludes and the pressure of time weighs more each year.

But.  The art show.  I actually sold a piece this year.  This one, in fact.  But I had a couple of new pieces as well.  This is one, which I call Way Station.

Way StationOthers may interpret it differently, but I’m sticking with the title, a reference to Clifford Simak’s terrific novel.  (Another one which, if you haven’t read it, do so.  Too many good things are forgotten because they get buried under the avalanche of shiny new baubles.)

I’m particularly pleased with the fantasy images I’ve been producing the last few years.  I’m getting better, I think.

I don’t know when the next con I’ll attend will be.  No doubt Archon 41, but other than that?  It depends on much.  I’ve handed in the current novel to my agent, I’m working to finish another one (possibly a YA),  and I need to write some short stories, some by request.  I’ll be busy this winter.

Meantime, to all my friends who I see far too seldom—be well. I’d like to see you again, sooner than later.

October 03, 2016

Back In My Lair

Archon 40 has come and gone.  Much cool and neat stuff happened and I got to reconnect with friends.  I’ll do something at more length maybe later.  Meanwhile, I am back in my lair.  I have stories to write.  So, until later….

spider-2016

September 28, 2016

Crossing Eyes and Dotting Teas

In my previous post I talked about the use—misuse—of a term: Snowflake. It was brought to my attention that I myself may be misusing it or at least misunderstanding it.

It derives from Fight Club, as a negative.  “You are not special snowflakes…you are not unique…”  More or less.  Tyler Durden exhorting the new members of a club no one is supposed to speak about.  Which kind of automatically makes them special.  Exclusive club, deeply hidden, secret, and very radical.  How much more special can you get short of joining the Masons or being recruited by the NSA?

The term then entered the language by way of gaming, applied to people claiming unique privileges—usually unearned—in the course of some rule-heavy role-playing extravaganza.  It went from there to an appellation attached to Millennials of a certain mindset who had absorbed the pseudo-Montessori-esque lessons of specialness and uniqueness and then took it to the next level as sinecure that they, being unique and special, can do no wrong and are allowed to exercise a degree of privilege and intolerance based on that assumed status.

Like all such terms, obviously, it has been handed on, re-purposed, reapplied, contorted, enlarged, expanded, and now, today, it is being used to label anyone even glancingly allied to that other wonderful term that has come to be applied as a derogation, the Social Justice Warrior.

That’s the problem with labels.  They start out one way, they inevitably become something else, and then history gets retroactively rewritten to incorporate the new meanings.

Democrats belong to the party of Jim Crow.

Republicans freed the slaves.

As if those claims describe what they are intended to today.

What I have witnessed and heard is the appropriation of the label Snowflake by people who are unfriendly to messages and arguments about social justice, equality, political correctness, diversity, and related issues so they can apply it where needed to shut down debate.  Classifying someone as a Snowflake (or a Social Justice Warrior) is little more than an attempt to categorize what they have to say as a specific kind of rhetoric which we are not obliged to listen to or credit because it only describes the presumed delicate, unique, and supposedly privileged character of the speaker.  We don’t have to listen to them because, well, it’s just the way they are.

And somehow these delicate souls manage to harass the virtuous manly men (male or female) who have right on their side to the point of silence.

I haven’t, if you’ll forgive the mixed usage here, seen the silence.  On either side, frankly.  What I have seen is a big fat fence raised between the deponents made up of labels.

Now, labels can be useful.  I like to know which aisle contains the pet food as opposed to the household drygoods as opposed to the liquor.  I like to know which building houses what services and addresses are very handy.  I even like knowing what kind of music I’m likely to find on what station and it is helpful to know where in the bookstore I can find History as opposed to Humor.

But when it comes to people, labels are useless impediments to dialogue and intercourse.  And just because those people over there insist on using labels does NOT justify labeling by anyone else.  Because it is the nature of such things—language—that usage is hijacked, meanings change, and context shifts.

Back in the Sixties, there was an event in San Fransisco.  There was a funeral for Hippy.  The label, the tag, the identity.  Because the people at the core of the counter culture saw what was happening—that what they were, how they dressed, talked, acted, was about to be appropriated as fashion.  They knew that all they intended, all they meant for themselves, all they held important was about to be changed by the normal misuse of the American dialogue.  So they declared Hippy dead and they held a funeral.  There was, after that, no authentic hippy.

It didn’t stop the entire country from assuming it knew what a Hippy was and that they were all around.

In the Fifties the label Communist was horribly misapplied.  A wide net of philosophical and political opinions caught people up and labeled them and lives were ruined.  Because it’s easy to think in labels.  Action follows thought.

I don’t care for labels like that.  Especially when deployed in such a way as to shut down meaningful dialogue.

What I am seeing is the use of a term that once described something quite different being applied by people who think they have the right to determine what is meaningful by excluding what they think is without merit.

Does this go both ways?  Of course.  Labels have universal utility.  They are shorthand.  The problem with them is they make it easy to not think.

Just in case anyone thought I meant something else.

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.

September 19, 2016

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.

September 08, 2016

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.

August 31, 2016

Hey, I Did A Podcast!

At MidAmeriCon II, the good people at SciFi4Me did an interview.  With me.  Go fig.  But, hey, thank you very much!

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.

 

 

 

 

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