Peak Experiences

This past weekend was Archon 39. Our local science fiction convention.

Donna and I have, with a couple of exceptions over the years, gone to just about all of them since number 6, which was in 1982 at the Chase-Park Plaza hotel.  The guest of honor then was Stephen King, which meant that everything was exaggerated and gave us a seriously distorted set of expectations of what this convention was normally. The guest list that year was a who’s who of authors, who were then the rock stars of the convention scene. We met Joe Haldeman, Robert Bloch, Robin Bailey, George R.R. Martin, and several others. We were, you might say, agog. It was a bit overwhelming and in retrospect it was a peak experience, at least as far as conventions go.

The problem with such things is, you never know that’s what they are until some time afterward, and even then there might be some question as to how peak it was.  So you go into them a bit unprepared to really appreciate them.

Not so this Archon just past.  We knew months in advance that this was going to be a peak experience.  Because Harlan Ellison surprised everyone by agreeing to appear, despite ill health and considerable impairment from a stroke a year ago.  I knew about this immediately because I instigated the whole thing and ended up promising to be his gofer for the weekend.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to do that, Harlan has minions, and they came. But I didn’t know that until they actually arrived, so the month or so leading up to this I found myself getting more and more stressed by the responsibility I felt.

Note I say “felt” rather than “had.”  What my actual responsibilities were compared to what I felt them to be were somewhat mismatched. I found myself at one point asking myself “What the hell is it with you? Calm down!”  Did no good. But everything came off fairly well. Not everything that was intended to happen, did, or at least not in the way planned, but I’d say a good 70% of it worked, and the stress served one positive function other than making me obsessive about details.  I knew this would be a peak experience.

Harlan is in a wheelchair.  He’s partially paralyzed on his right side.  There was some question as to whether or not he ought to have done this, but he would not be denied.  If sheer willpower counts for anything, Harlan has enough to do pretty much what he sets his mind to doing, even in his present condition. Donna and I picked him and Susan up at the airport Thursday night around nine o’clock and took them to the hotel in Collinsville. We sat in the lobby together for a while.  Two of his best friends showed up, Tim and Andrea Richmond, who we now count as friends.

By Friday evening’s opening ceremonies, Harlan’s presence at the con was unmistakable. harlan at opening ceremoniesI wheeled him up on stage after he had spent over an hour signing books.  He’s slower, sure, but the mind is as alert and sharp as ever.  He was pleased to be at the convention and he disarmed everyone.

We who have been involved in SF for any length of time know The Stories.  Harlan can pop off at the drop of a moronic comment and hides have been flayed (metaphorically) and sensibilities challenged.  If I heard it once I heard it fifty time, “He’s so gracious!”  Yes, he is.  He has  a heart of enormous proportions.

He was physically unable to do as much as he clearly wanted to, but under the circumstances what he did do was generous and impressive.

Peak Experience time.  I got to be on a panel with Harlan Ellison.

Let me explain. I grew up reading stories by the giants of the field when most of them were still alive and many still publishing.  For me, the pantheon includes Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Robert Heinlein, C.L.Moore, Alice Sheldon, Joanna Russ, C.J. Cherryh…well, you get the idea.  And Harlan, who wrote like a fey combination of Bradbury and Bester with a touch of Borges stirred in and made everyone react viscerally in ways they did not react to their other favorites.  I recall getting very turned off by Harlan when I was, say 15, and then later coming back and trying his work again only to find that I had missed almost everything important about the stories the first go-round. He was like a tornado whirling through the more deliberative winds of his peers. I’m still not sure I “get” everything that is going on in an Ellison story, but that’s the sign of a work worthy of ongoing consideration.

Of the aforementioned bunch, I shook Asimov’s hand, chatted with Bradbury and Cherryh, never met Bester, Heinlein, Moore, Russ, or Sheldon.  There are a couple of dozen other Greats I’ve had opportunity exchanged words with.  I’ve been on panels with Gene Wolfe, Frederik Pohl, Elizabeth Ann Hull, a number of others. So many are just gone.

I got to be on a panel with Harlan.  The 12-year-old in me was having a field day. This, I thought, is as good as it gets. At least in my list of cool things to do.

After 2010, I never thought I’d see Harlan again.  Certainly not at a convention.  He’d said he was done with them.  Harlan at ArchonWho could blame him? He’s tired. We talk on the phone occasionally.  I like him, but most of the time I don’t quite know what to say to him, other than some variation of Thank You For Being a Powerful Aesthetic Presence In My Life.  Of all the acquaintances I thought I might make in this curious life and profession, his was unexpected.

So when this opportunity came up, by a series of unexpected steps, I was torn.  Certainly his health is problematic and he’s 81.  This probably was not, for a number of reasons, a good idea.  On the other hand, when I reach that point in my life and there’s something I want to do and believe I can do it, I hope there are people who will help me do it. I do rather doubt I’ll see him again.  I don’t know when we’ll be able to get to L.A. anytime remotely soon.  But I did get to spend a good chunk of this weekend with him and it was surprising and rich and bittersweet.

He charmed practically the whole convention, signed a boatload of books, gave of himself until he just couldn’t.  I’m sure he got as good as he gave.  I will confess that I was waiting for someone, anyone, to start anything negative with him. It would not, had I been there, lasted long.  But no one did, everyone seemed so gobsmacked pleased to see him.

We did not take him back to the airport on Sunday. Other, closer friends did that.  He recorded a thankyou and goodbye for closing ceremonies, which was classic Ellison.

I confess, it’s strange.  Coming from a place in life never expecting to ever say a single sentence to him, he has become one of the major influences and associations in my life. All told, I doubt we’ve spent a week’s time together.  But it’s always been memorable. I’m about to wander into mawkishness now, so I’ll wrap it up with two final images and maybe one more line.   harlan 2-1harlan's shoes










So there we have it.

Peak Experience.

I hope he hangs around for many more years, as long as his mind is clear and his imagination active and he feels welcome.  There are a lot of people—a LOT—who are very glad of his presence.

I know I’m glad to know him.


This coming weekend is Archon 39, our local SF convention.  For the last two months I’ve been rushing about, often only in my own head, to prepare.  This year is special in a number of ways.  Harlan Ellison is attending.  Now, unless one keeps abreast of such things, that alone is no explanation for the level of anxiety I’ve been feeling about this.  For one, I instigated this event, largely without intending to.  For another, I’ve been involved in arranging things for him and his wife, Susan.  I’ve consequently been more involved in Archon than in previous years.  But today, Monday, I can honestly say I have covered as many bases as it is possible.  The unforeseen is…e=unforeseeable.

That’s not the only thing going.  Those of you who have been following me on Twitter will know that I have been updating my computers.  That has been both less bothersome and more annoying than it ought to be, but is now largely done.  (I have one more thing to get, but it will keep till later.)  I’m now well into the 21st Century on that front and not a moment too soon.  This morning I took care of the last  bit of bother for Archon that is in my power to take care of, so I spent the last twenty minutes playing with the theme on my blog.  I think I’m sticking with this one for a time.  How do you like it?  I feel it is a theme of great nift.

Recently, Left Bank Books hosted an event with Sammy Hagar.  He has a new cookbook out (yes, that Sammy Hagar, and, yes, I said a cookbook) and we ushered through a myriad of his ecstatic fans and sold a ton of them.  So for no other reason than I have it on hand, here’s a photo of Mr. Hagar.Sammy 4

We have all more or less recovered from the chaos and excitement of that day, which was one day in a week filled with notable events.  Jonathan Franzen was also in town and we (not I) worked that event.  And earlier we hosted Mr. Jeff Smith, former Missouri state senator who went to prison and has, since release, dedicated himself to prison reform.  He has a new book out about it.  I did work that event and must report that some of what he said, while not surprising, was nevertheless disturbing.  The whole fiction of “rehabilitation” in regards to incarceration…

Well, I may have more to say on that later.

I’m unwinding as I write this, so forgive me if I wander about from topic to topic.  Last night we had friends over to dinner and it was terrific.  Good food, great conversation, laughing…we don’t do nearly enough of that.  Partly it’s the time thing, but you know, you can lose the habit of being social, and over the last several years we’ve seen our skills erode.  We may be coming out of a long hibernation, but then there is still the time thing, and I have a book to write over the next several months.  (Hence the new computers.)

On that front, this Saturday past I was one of eight local authors invited to attend the Carondolet Authors’ Brunch.  Strange thing that it was, it was nevertheless fun.  They arranged tables and set it up like speed dating.  The authors would visit each table for 15 minutes, then move to the next, and so on.  I was delighted that no two tables produced the same conversation, although some variation of “where do you get your ideas” came up each time, but that was only one of two questions that I found repeated.  The other was “Do you teach?”

There were a couple of household repairs I tended to this morning and now I’m procrastinating here.  I should be writing something serious, profound, or at least with the potential to earn income, but I’m fooling around with my blog theme and gossiping.

…And I just realized I have one more thing to take care of for Archon.

That said, this Thursday we’re trying something at Left Bank Books that I hope will establish a tradition.  We’re having three of the major guests in the store for a kind of pre-con event.  Jacqueline Carey, of Kushiel’s Dart fame; Esther Friesner, of multiple fames; and Vic Milan, who has been the toastmaster at Archon’s masquerade since forever, and if you like costuming and haven’t been to an Archon masquerade, you’re missing a real treat, of which Vic is a major part.  So, seven o’clock Thursday night, October 1st, be there or be a tessaract.

After Archon I intend to find a corner and melt down into it.

Until then, thanks for stopping by.


My collection, Gravity Box and Other Spaces, has received some attention since it came out last year.  (Last year?  Really? Yeesh!)

Two critics in particular have been kind to it.  The first, from the estimable Rich Horton, who does one of the Best of the Year anthologies (and I urge you all to check it out), wrote the following in LOCUS last December:

“Mark W. Tiedemann is the author of a fine space opera trilogy, The Secantis Sequence, that deserves a wider audience, as well as of strong stories in places like SF Age and F&SF. He hasn’t been entirely silent the past several years, but he hasn’t been as much in evidence as I’d like, so it’s nice to see a new collection, Gravity Box and Other Spaces, appear featuring a few reprints (including his outstanding early story “The Playground Door”) and a number of original stories. My favorites include one fantasy and one SF story. “Preservation” is about a gamekeeper in service to a King who commands him to poach the horn of an einhyrn, reputed to determine if a woman is a virgin. The King wants to make sure his son’s intended bride is pure, but it’s soon clear that dirtier politics than that are involved – not to mention that the einhyrn are a protected species. Solid adventure, and involving characters. I liked “Forever and a Day” even more, a time dilation story about a woman in a polyamorous marriage, who turns out to be unable to tolerate new treatments conferring immortality. Her husband and wife become immortal, while she joins the crew of a starship, gaining a sort of immortality due to time dilation. A cute idea in itself, though hardly new, but the story asks effectively how any relationship can survive centuries – indeed, how one’s relationship with one’s own self can survive centuries, and whether immortality is better than the sort of continual revivification star travel might bring.”

And now this from Paul di Filippo, in the July Asimov’s:

“The title and cover image of Mark Tiedemann’s Gravity Box and Other Spaces…might lead you to believe that its table of contents hold nothing but hard SF.  But instead we find a panoply of genres.  The book opens strongly with a Stephen King-style contemporary bit of weirdness titled “Miller’s Wife.”  A futuristic story involving robot nursemaids/surrogates of a sort, “Redaction” evokes feelings similar to viewing Spielberg’s A.I.  “The Disinterred” is a strong blend of steampunk, specters, and religion, as a man goes searching for his lost wife and runs into a scientific expedition instead.  And the title piece tracks the fortunes of a teenage girl who must rebel against the ignorance of her family and the laws of society to attain a future in space.  Tiedemann’s range is large, his heart big, and his skills and insights deserving of your attentions.”  Paul Di Filippo, July 2015 Asimov’s SF.

I’m blushing.  No I’m not. Well, maybe a little.  I am very grateful.  For the record, these are the first reviews of one of my books I ever received from either of these publications.  Just goes to show, it’s never too late to have a good start to one’s career.

“That Guy”

Confession time.  I have never assumed that I am a good writer.  I have never taken the position that I know what I’m doing, that I deserve respect, or that I am in any way special as a writer.  My default sense of self is that I’m still trying, still learning, still reaching, and I haven’t “got there” yet. If, therefore, I write something that touches a reader, that evokes a positive response, that, given the opportunity, causes them to tell me how much they liked that story or novel of mine they read, I am always surprised and quietly pleased and a bit more hopeful that one of these days I might fully allow myself to acknowledge my own talent.

But I never let myself believe I deserve anything like that. Ever.

Initially, this came out of an inborn reticence characteristic of the fatally shy and an aversion to being the center of anyone’s attention. But you grow out of that eventually, or at least I did, because you come to realize you have nothing special about which to be shy.  Also, that shyness is detrimental to your happiness when it causes you to pass up opportunities you might desperately want to embrace. It’s replaced, then, by a gradual sense of politesse, of what you might consider good manners, and a deep desire to be liked.  Braggards are generally not liked, so you hide your light so you don’t become That Guy.

Too early success can derail your journey to becoming someone you might wish to be by replacing a perfectly natural humility with the idea that, hey, you really are something special!  Nastiness can ensue.

I am very aware of my potential for being That Guy, the boor, the boaster, the “all about me” asshole.  Part of me wants to be all of that, or at least have all the attention that leads to that.  Why else would I have always been involved in work that has such a public aspect?  Art, music, theater (very briefly), and writing.  All of it has a Dig Me facet, especially if you have any ambition to make a living at any of it.  You have to put the work out there, you have to take credit, you’re the one people have to identify with something they like in order for you to get paid.  It’s all a recipe for assholedom, because you can so easily believe the hype that comes with success, and start acting like you deserve it all.

You don’t.  You’ve earned it, perhaps, but you don’t deserve it.

If you don’t see the difference, then try harder.  Deserving something in this instance implies believing it’s your due, regardless.  Just by existing in the world, certain accommodations ought to accrue, whether you have done the work or not.  We do have a category of things which fit that description—they’re called rights and everyone deserves them, they are not commodities to be dolled out according to some kind of intrinsic worth meter that suggests some people are better or more important than others.  For the special stuff, we work and earn regard.  It’s not “due” us by virtue of who we are.

But even in that, it’s not necessarily we who merit the regard but the work.  If it has our name on it, then we get to accept the award when it’s handed out, but it’s the work that’s being honored.

We are in no way in charge of that process.

This is hard, I admit. How is the work to be separated from the one who does it? You can’t do it, really, but that’s not the point.  The point is how what you put into the world impacts others and creates a space wherein honor and respect are given and received.  It’s a condition of regard, one that acknowledges distinctions, sometimes fine ones, in which the work may well deserve an honor but, if given, the creator can only be said to have earned it.

That’s a negotiation and depends entirely on the relationship between creator and audience.

That Guy forgets or never understands that the relationship is what matters here.  That in fact when respect and honor are given, it must be returned. Without that relationship, that process, there is no honor and awards are empty gestures.

So, all by accident, because I arrived here without a clear intent, I confess that I have never felt myself to be deserving of special consideration.  I don’t think of myself as a good writer, even though I would very much like to be and hope that maybe I am.  When one of my stories (or photographs or a musical performance) is praised, I am always surprised—and pleased—because it’s always unexpected.

It’s possible that, in terms of career, I have this all bassackwards, that I really ought to be pushing myself on people and, in the absence of praise, making scenes and telling people how ignorant or biased they are because they don’t like my work.  Maybe I should be actively campaigning for honors, prodding, coaxing, cajoling, hard-selling myself and insisting on my worth, letting people know that I deserve something which they seem to be denying me.  My sales might go up.

But I’d be That Guy and I don’t want to live with him.

One of the givens I practice in my dealings with readers is to never ask what they thought of the story.  Never.  That invites the potential for embarrassment.  You put them on the spot and you open yourself for criticism.  The common solution to that awkward exchange is dissimulation.  Certainly honesty is unlikely and perhaps unwelcome.  Never ask.  If the praise is not forthcoming without prompt, leave it alone.  Asking is fraught with pitfalls, the first of which is that comparisons are inevitably made.  Praise, like all courtesies, cannot be demanded, even politely, because the expectation subverts it.

And you then become That Guy.

Especially if you ask in public.

I’m being circumspect in this. I trust some folks will understand what this is, in part, about.  For everyone else, let it be the confession offered above, an explanation and description of one of the peculiarities of trying to be an artist in a public practice, a peak inside, as it were.

I never think of myself as a good writer.  And I hope I’m not That Guy.

Thank you for your time and attention.


I did an interview yesterday. Here’s the You Tube of it. It’s not as smooth as I’d like but it’s the result the fact that I’m in the Bronze Age, technologically. I had a difficult time hearing Sally Ember here, though that may not be readily apparent from this. I really need to upgrade all my systems. It would be nice if life would stop throwing me curve balls that keep costing me money I’d prefer to spend on new computers. However, I offer it here as one my few video bits. I recommend checking about Sally’s site, she has a lot of interviews there. CHANGES.

Spoiling the Punch

This is almost too painful.  The volume of wordage created over this Sad Puppies* thing is heading toward the Tolstoyan.  Reasonableness will not avail.  It’s past that simply because reasonableness is not suited to what has amounted to a schoolyard snit, instigated by a group feeling it’s “their turn” at dodge ball and annoyed that no one will pass them the ball.

Questions of “who owns the Hugo?” are largely beside the point, because until this it was never part of the gestalt of the Hugo.  It was a silly, technical question that had little to do with the aura around the award. (As a question of legalism, the Hugo is “owned” by the World Science Fiction Society, which runs the world SF conventions.  But that’s not what the question intends to mean.)

Previously, I’ve noted that any such contest that purports to select The Best of anything is automatically suspect because so much of it involves personal taste.  Even more, in this instance, involves print run and sales. One more layer has to do with those willing to put down coin to support or attend a given worldcon.  So many factors having nothing to do with a specific work are at play that we end up with a Brownian flux of often competing factors which pretty much make the charge that any given group has the power to predetermine winners absurd.

That is, until now.

Proving that anything not already overly organized can be gamed, one group has managed to create the very thing they have been claiming already existed. The outrage now being expressed at the results might seem to echo back their own anger at their claimed exclusion, but in this case the evidence is strong that some kind of fix has been made.  Six slots taken by one author published by one house, with a few other slots from that same house, a house owned by someone who has been very vocal about his intentions to do just this? Ample proof that such a thing can be done, but evidence that it had been done before? No, not really.

Here’s where we all find ourselves in unpleasant waters. If the past charges are to be believed, then the evidence offered was in the stories and novels nominated.  That has been the repeated claim, that “certain” kinds of work are blocked while certain “other” kinds of work get preferential treatment, on ideological grounds. What grounds? Why, the liberal/left/socialist agenda opposed to conservatism, with works of a conservative bent by outspoken or clearly conservative authors banished from consideration in favor of work with a social justice flavor. Obviously this is an exclusion based solely on ideology and has nothing to do with the quality of the work in question. In order to refute this, now, one finds oneself in the uncomfortable position of having to pass judgment on quality and name names.

Yes, this more or less is the result of any awards competition anyway.  The winners are presumed to possess more quality than the others. But in the context of a contest, no one has to come out and state the reason “X” by so-and-so didn’t win (because it, perhaps, lacked the quality being rewarded). We can—rightly—presume others to be more or less as good, the actual winners rising above as a consequence of individual taste, and we can presume many more occupy positions on a spectrum. We don’t have to single anyone out for denigration because the contest isn’t about The Worst but The Best.

But claiming The Best has been so named based on other criteria than quality (and popularity) demands comparisons and then it gets personal in a different, unfortunate, way.

This is what critics are supposed to do—not fans.

In order to back their claims of exclusion, exactly this was offered—certain stories were held up as examples of “what’s wrong with SF” and ridiculed. Names were named, work was denigrated. “If this is the kind of work that’s winning Hugos, then obviously the awards are fixed.”  As if such works could not possibly be held in esteem for any other reason than that they meet some ideological litmus test.

Which means, one could infer, that works meeting a different ideological litmus test are being ignored because of ideology. It couldn’t possibly be due to any other factor.

And here’s where the ugly comes in, because in order to demonstrate that other factors have kept certain works from consideration you have to start examining those works by criteria which, done thoroughly, can only be hurtful.  Unnecessarily if such works have an audience and meet a demand.

For the past few years organized efforts to make this argument have churned the punchbowl, just below the surface. This year it erupted into clear action. The defense has been that all that was intended was for the pool of voters to be widened, be “more inclusive.” There is no doubt this is a good thing, but if you already know what kind of inclusiveness you want—and by extension what kind of inclusiveness you don’t want, either because you believe there is already excess representation of certain factions or because you believe that certain factions may be toxic to your goal—then your efforts will end up narrowing the channel by which new voices are brought in and possibly creating a singleminded advocacy group that will vote an ideological line. In any case, their reason for being there will be in order to prevent Them from keeping You from some self-perceived due. This is kind of an inevitability initially because the impetus for such action is to change the paradigm.  Over time, this increased pool will diversify just because of the dynamics within the pool, but in these early days the goal is not to increase diversity but to effect a change in taste.  What success will look like is predetermined, implicitly at least, and the nature of the campaign is aimed at that.

It’s not that quality isn’t a consideration but it is no longer explicitly the chief consideration. It can’t be, because the nature of the change is based on type not expression.

Now there is another problem, because someone has pissed in the punchbowl. It’s one of the dangers of starting down such a path to change paradigms through organized activism, that at some point someone will come along and use the channels you’ve set up for purposes other than you intended.  It’s unfortunate and once it happens you have a mess nearly impossible to fix, because now no one wants to drink out of that bowl, on either side.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  There will be those who belly up to the stand and dip readily into it and drink.  These are people who thrive on toxicity and think as long as they get to drink from the bowl it doesn’t matter who else does or wants to. In fact, the fewer who do the better, because that means the punch is ideally suited to just them. It’s not about what’s in the bowl but the act of drinking. Perhaps they assume it’s supposed to taste that way but more likely they believe the punch has already been contaminated by a different flavor of piss, so it was never going to be “just” punch. They will fail to understand that those not drinking are refraining not because they don’t like punch but because someone pissed in the bowl.

As to the nature of the works held up as examples of what has been “wrong” with SF…

Science fiction is by its nature a progressive form. It cannot be otherwise unless its fundamental telos is denied. Which means it has always been in dialogue with the world as it is. The idea that social messaging is somehow an unnatural or unwanted element in SF is absurd on its face.  This is why for decades the works extolled as the best, as the most representative of science fiction as an art form have been aggressively antagonistic toward status quo defenses and defiantly optimistic that we can do better, both scientifically and culturally.  The best stories have been by definition social message stories. Not preachments, certainly, but that’s where the art comes in.  Because a writer—any writer—has an artisitic obligation, a commitment to truth, and you don’t achieve that through strident or overt didacticism. That said, not liking the specific message in any story is irrelevant because SF has also been one of the most discursive and self-critical genres, constantly in dialogue with itself and with the world. We have improved the stories by writing antiphonally.  You don’t like the message in a given story, write one that argues with it. Don’t try to win points by complaining that the message is somehow wrong and readers don’t realize it because they keep giving such stories awards.

Above all, though, if you don’t win any awards, be gracious about it, at least in public. Even if people agree with you that you maybe deserved one, that sympathy erodes in the bitter wind of performance whining.



*I will not go into the quite lengthy minutiae of this group, but let me post a link here to a piece by Eric Flint that covers much of this and goes into a first class analysis of the current situation.  I pick Eric because he is a Baen author—a paradoxical one, to hear some people talk—and because of his involvement in the field as an editor as well as a writer.

Getting Out Of Your Own Head

I didn’t know Samuel R. Delany was black until I’d read damn near all his books, a project that took some time.  I’m talking about a revelation that came sometime in the early 80s.  Now, you might think I was a bit of an idiot for taking that long, but I had zero involvement in fandom prior to 1982 and if there were no jacket photos of authors I had not clue one concerning the first thing about them.  (Mainly because I actually didn’t much care; it was the work that concerned me, not the celebrity.)

Still, you’d think that the original cover illustration for Heavenly Breakfast, with a portrait of Chip, would have clued me in.  But it didn’t.  Not because I assumed he was white (or, later, straight), but that I didn’t care.  One of my favorite writers from the big trunk of books my mother had kept from her days in the Doubleday Book Club was Frank Yerby.  One of them had an author photo on the back so I knew he was African American, but it didn’t register as noteworthy because I honestly didn’t think it was important.

Mind you, I’m not saying I had no racist attributes.  Like any white boy growing up in St. Louis, I had my share of prejudices (and I’ve written about some of them here ) but I was always something of an outlier and a good deal of my prejudice had little to do with skin color and mostly to do with what I perceived as life choices.  It never occurred to me blacks (or any other ethnic category) couldn’t do anything I could do if they wanted to.  (I was young and stupid and the lessons of 20th Century institutional discrimination had yet to really sink in.  Bear with me.)  But I will confess that unless it was put before me directly I sort of defaulted to the assumption that most writers were white.

It didn’t bother me when I found out otherwise.

That was the world I lived in and while I question many assumptions I didn’t question all of them—that can get exhausting and perhaps even a little counter-productive if that exhaustion leads to a desire to stop worrying about everything.

But as I grew older, anytime I discovered a new writer I liked was other than my base assumption, I had a little frisson of delight.  I never once felt threatened, it never occurred to me to feel besieged or that I was in any danger of losing something.  You can do that when you belong to the dominant culture.  You know, in the very fiber of your being, that these other folks pose no such threat to you and the hegemony in which you live.  You can be…gracious.

Which is kind of an ugly thing when you think about it.  Why should I have to be gracious just because somebody who doesn’t fit a particular profile does something other members of my culture don’t think they (a) can or (b) should?  Gracious implies permission.  Gracious implies special circumstances.  Gracious implies accommodation, as if you have the authority to grant it.  Gracious, in this context, means power.  (Everyone interested in this should read Joanna Russ’s excellent How To Suppress Women’s Writing to see how the process of marginalization and delegitimizing works.)

As it turned out, I have both been reading diversely and reading based on false assumptions about merit for a long time, but it was a problem, once I realized it, caused me no pain other than momentary embarrassment.  It was an opportunity to expand my reading.

Sure, it opened me to works which called certain attitudes with which I’d lived my whole life into question.  But, hell, that’s one of the primary reasons I read. What’s the point of reading nothing but work that does little more than give you a pleasant massage?  Those kinds of books and stories are fine (and frankly, I can get plenty of that from movies and television, I don’t have to spend valuable hours reading things that feed my biases and act as soporific), but they should only be breathers taken between books that actively engage the intellect and moral conscience.  Which books tend to piss you off on some level.

Depending on how pissed off you get, this may be a good way of finding out where perhaps you need to do a little personal assessment.  However, that’s up to the individual.  You can just as easily choose to revel in being pissed off and take that as the lesson.

“But reading stories is supposed to be entertainment.  If I want edification I’ll read philosophy.”

Two things about that.  Yes, fiction is supposed to be entertaining.  If it isn’t, it’s not very good fiction.  But there are two meanings to the word “entertain” and while one of them is about sitting back and enjoying a ride the other is more nuanced and has to do with entertaining ideas, which is less passive and, yes, edifying.  Because the second thing is, just what do you consider reading fiction if not reading philosophy?  Guess what, if you read a lot of fiction, you’ve been reading philosophy, at least on a certain level.  Because philosophy is, at base, an examination of how we live and what that means and all stories are about how people live and what it means to them.  (This is one of the ways in which fiction and essay often rest cheek-to-cheek in terms of reading experience.)  The deeper, the meatier the story, the more philosophical.

Which is why some books become cause celebrés of controversy, because everyone gets it that they’re talking about life choices.  Catcher In The Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn… how are these novels not fundamentally philosophical?

Which is why the idea of telling the truth in fiction has real meaning.  “How can a bunch of made up stuff—lies—tell the truth?”  A simpleminded question that assumes fact and truth are somehow the same.  Yes, they’re related, but truth is not an artifact, it is a process and has to do with recognition.  (Do you sympathize with the characters? Yes?  Then you have found a truth.  You just have to be open to the idea.  It’s not rocket science, but it is  philosophy.)

The most important factor in hearing a truth is in listening.  You can’t listen if you shut your ears.  And you can’t learn about a previously unrecognized truth if you keep listening to the same mouths, all the time.  You have to try out a different tongue in order to even expose yourself to a new truth.  Furthermore, you can never find the point of commonality in those alien truths if you don’t pay attention to what they’re saying.

Commonality seems to disturb some people.  Well, that’s as it should be.  Commonality is disturbing.  It’s mingling and mixing, it’s crossing lines, violating taboos, and reassessing what you thought you knew in order to find out how you are like them.  Commonality is not one thing, it’s an alloy.  More than that, it’s a process.  Because as you find commonality with the foreign, the alien, the other, they’re finding commonality with you.

Which brings me to the main subject of this piece, namely the challenge put forth by K. Tempest Bradford  to read something other than straight white male authors for a year.  Go to the link and read the piece, then come back here.

Okay.  Contrary to what the nattering blind mouths of righteous indignation have been saying, Tempest is NOT saying give up reading what you’ve always liked.  She’s suggesting it would be worthwhile to try this for a year.  How is this any different than someone saying “Maybe it would be a good thing to read nothing but history books for a year” or “I’m taking this year to read nothing but 19th Century novels”?  Like any book club or reading group, she’s set the parameters of a challenge.  Take it on or go away.  Why the need to vent OWS* all over her?

I have my theories about that and others have mentioned some of them, but what I want to know here is why certain people take this as an attack on their “culture” and condemn the idea as bigoted when, at worst, it’s just push back against an unexamined set of assumptions that have prevailed all along?

What troubles me in all these reactions as well is a certain hypocrisy coming from my own group, namely science fiction writers.  We have felt under siege for decades by the so-called mainstream—judged, dissed, ill-regarded, consigned to the purgatory of “genre” and not invited to all the good parties—and we have, collectively, been justifiably irked by attitudes which, we believed, would evaporate if you people would just loosen up and read some of the work you’re putting down!  Look in a mirror, folks.

(A more reasonable objection to Tempest is expressed here by Laura Resnick, and she addresses part of the problem I began this essay with, namely that normally one has to go out of one’s way to find out personal information about the authors in question in order to do what she’s suggesting, and that does have the danger of displacing the merit of the work with an over-reliance on others factors.  However, it’s not as if this is (a) not a problem being talked about or (b) in any way easily addressed.)

There’s also an element of rage politics in this which is stunning in its idiocy.  It’s the way our current culture works, that everything can be made into a cause to be outraged.  “I prefer XYZ nailclippers to any other.”  “XYZ nailclippers are made in China!  Preferring them shows you to be an anti-American libtard self-loathing traitor!  True Americans use ABC nailclippers!”**

Really?  Are we so sensitive anymore that we can’t allow for a little more room on the very wide sofa we inhabit for a difference of opinion and maybe a little challenge?

The fury over last year’s SF awards generated by a certain group over what they perceived as an assault on their definition of science fiction by the evident expansion of what is considered good SF is indicative of a kind of entrenchment I would have thought anathema to science fiction.  It’s too easy to read the diatribes and think the whole SF community is in uproar over something it has been striving to overcome for lo these many decades.  This is the problem of the megaphone effect.

But what Tempest and others are talking about goes well beyond the SF world.  There is a problem with recognition of non-approved viewpoints and faces.  The ocean of publishing is constantly a-roil, so depending on where you look it may be hard to see, and if you’re committed to seeing only what you expect then you can very easily miss it in the chop.  But the question is, how does it harm anyone to consider the voices of others as relevant and entertaining as what you’re used to hearing? Why does the prospect of change so frighten people who have the intellect to know better?  Why is it necessary to tag someone a bigot when they suggest that maybe the homogenization of our culture is a bad thing?

I’d like to argue that you have nothing to fear, that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with White Culture, but just writing that line brings me up to the chief problem—what White Culture?  I mean, we have to assume, don’t we, that there is one thing that’s being described by that?  It’s really as erroneous and useless a descriptor as Black Culture.  Which one?  The reality is, in both cases, they only exist as a consequence of definitional tactics that seek to reduce experience into an easily codifiable box that leaves out more diversity than it could possibly include.  I am white, and in terms of writing, I can say pretty confidently that, say, Jonathan Franzen does not represent my “culture.”  It’s kind of an absurd statement on the face of it.  Attitudinally, I have almost nothing in common with him, or the kind of writing he represents, or the particular viewpoint he deploys.

White Culture is only relevant in terms of social power and its exercise and in that sense I can claim affiliation with it by default.  I can’t not be part of it because that’s how the boundaries are set.

But I don’t have to exemplify it in my own person.

This is what reading has given me—the ability to access experiences not my own.  And, by extension, understand that all experiences are not the same even as they share certain common traits.  And the entire purpose and value of deep reading is to be More.  More than what my context prescribes.  More than what my social situation allows.

So why would I feel threatened by Tempest’s challenge?  I might not stick with it, but I do not see her as claiming the work she would have me read is somehow superior to what I normally would, nor is she claiming that the white male work to which she refers is all intrinsically bad.  What she is not saying is as important as what she is.  She’s basically challenging us to do what we would normally do anyway, with one more filter in place to select for experiences outside our comfort zone.

On the one hand, it’s kind of “well, why not?” proposition.  What could it hurt?

On the other, it’s a serious attempt at overcoming the bunker mentality that seems to be the norm these last couple decades.  Retrenchment is the order of the day for some folks.  Any suggestion that the walls of the bubble in which people live are perhaps insufficient for the problems of the world gets treated to bitter denouncements.  It’s tiring.  It’s destructive.

No, Tempest is not being a bigot.  She prescribing a way—modest though it may be—of overcoming bigotry.

It’s an invitation.  She’s not being gracious about it.  She’s being welcoming.


*OWS—Oppressed White Spleen.  If “they” can lob acronyms around to make their point, so can I.

**Yes, much of it is exactly that idiotic.  We find ourselves in otherwise casual interactions often forced to take do-or-die political positions over the most inane matters all in service to sorting out who’s in our group and who’s out.  I am talking about extremes here, but it pervades everything.  I recall a conversation once where the efficacy of ethanol was being discussed and when I brought up the actual inefficiency of it, both chemically and economically, the response I got had to do with energy independence and patriotism.  There was no room for the vast world of money or lobbies or special interests or alternatives.  I was either in or out.  We’ve reduced much of our normal discourse to the parameters of a football game.


Current Crises In The Fish Pond

I have been trying to decide where to put this—here, in the Muse, or on my critical blog, the Proximal Eye—and have finally decided it should go here, at least for the time being.  I may cross-post later or I may do something more to which this will link.  I’ve decided to put it here, though, because it pertains to culture.

The last time I was able to vote for the Hugo Award, the science fiction field’s oldest and most popular award, was 2004.  Now, to be clear, I always wanted one once I learned about them.  It’s a cool trophy and I like the idea behind it, basically that it is a fan award, voted on by those who pony up the money to attend the world science fiction convention, wherever it may be in a given year.  Or, if not attend, then support.  After becoming involved in the field way back in 1982, I found that we’re not talking about a particularly large pool of voters.  Even in years with record attendance, actual ballots cast have been modest.  People go to these things for many reasons, not all of them having to do with books and stories.  Even those who do go because of the books may have many reasons for not voting—they haven’t read any of the relevant texts for that year, nothing struck them as particularly award-worthy, or they aren’t going for the literature.  Or they may think the whole idea the award for best whatever is silly or pointless.

On this last I find myself, after 30-plus years of paying attention to science fiction as a field, having some sympathy.  Like the Oscars, I think such awards are useful for drawing attention to a field, for promoting the idea that work is being done that merits serious attention, but the notion that any given book or short story in any given year is somehow The Best is naïve.  Secondarily, that anyone could read enough of what is produced and published in that year to be able to have a good idea of what is worthwhile in comparison to everything else is kind of unlikely.  There was a time, long ago, when such a thing was possible, but we’re talking about hundreds of new books a year, never mind all the short fiction.  The best novel might easily be a book published by a press only 50 people know about and will sink beneath the turmoil of a crowded field where prominence is as often determined by print run and ad campaigns as by the quality of what one finds between the covers.  I’m not being defeatist here, just realistic.

So it might be reasonable to say that those books chosen are representative of what’s trending that year.  If the mix is lively, then we see a preliminary ballot with a variety, from high fantasy to nuts-n-bolts science fiction to what used to be called “soft” SF (meaning the science is not dominant and might be just a bit on the anthropological side rather than the physics side*), so several “trends” are represented and among them the top trend wins the award.

This in no way detracts from the works that actually win, because it’s a given that they must be in the top tier in order to garner the attention in the first place.  So out a dozen possible “best” examples of, say, space opera, the one that wins is in the vanguard of the work produced that year. Any one of those dozen might have ended up on the ballot and even winning, but for the vagaries of the process and the particular atmosphere of the field. Quibbles may ensue among supporters of one over the other, but we’re still talking about by and large excellent work.  Excellent, that is, in terms of what fans think.  Obviously professional critics, academics, and colleagues may have quite different opinions, and often do.

As with anything to which the public subscribes and has a say, the Hugo Award is more about what people like than the finer points of the book.  This is not to say that those who actually vote are incapable of assessing those points and in the past some very fine work, work judged in other venues as fine, has won.  But the Hugo remains, at the end of the day and after the smoke clears, a popularity contest.  Inevitably, sales are relevant, which means marketing is a factor, and so lobbying comes into it, as in all more or less democratic processes.  And with lobbying comes the inevitable screeching of those who suspect nefarious machinations behind the scenes to exclude.

We’re hearing it again.  No, I shan’t name them.  Suffice to say there is a vocal group currently organizing to shove itself into the upcoming awards race on the basis that their particular brand of writing has been and is being snubbed by the field at large or, implicitly and otherwise, by the secret manipulators working to keep them out for political reasons.  I’ve read some of their positions and find some merit in the claim that their “brand” is getting short shrift when it comes to the big time awards-driven red carpet arenas of the field. But that there is a cohesive effort to keep them out?

I can’t help but hear the echoes.  We’ve heard this before.  Many times.

The first time I understood it, the cries came from the science fiction field as a whole, complaining that the so-called “mainstream” ignored us, derided us, denied us our rightful place at the table of popular culture.  Talk of being in a ghetto rippled around the perimeter, and there was considerable truth in the complaint. Of course, there were lesser convulsions within the field, namely the one between fantasy and science fiction and which came first and which was a subset of the other.  Earlier, fantasy writers complained at being overlooked when science fiction was dominant, then science fiction writers felt imposed upon when fantasy topped SF in popularity (and sales).  Reading in older chronicles of the times, the schism between traditional SF and the New Wave was loud and heated.  (When Delany’s Einstein Intersection won the Nebula Award, James Blish wrote that upon hearing the news he went into the next room and bit his cat.)  Time and again, factions form and hiss at others.

And all through this, suggestions of SMOF** cabals arranging the furniture to block certain books and writers and formats and…

…I find myself finally in a place where I can just chuckle and wonder at the complaints.

Times change, tastes evolve, there is growth in the field.  One of the ironies with which we now contend is that the ghetto doesn’t actually exist anymore.  Science fiction—and Fantasy—“won” the debate with the mainstream.  I see articles talking about the “shrinking marketshare of literary SF” and wondering how this could be the case when more and more literary writers are writing science fiction (and fantasy), which is simply not being published with the old SF or F on the spine, but as literary mainstream.  (A recent example is Michel Faber’s new novel, The Book of Strange New Things, which is about interstellar travel and colonization.  It is simply not being marketed as science fiction but that’s what it is.)  I recall talk in the late 80s when certain people, under their breath, grumbled about Ursula K. Le Guin’s “defection” because her books were being marketed as mainstream.  Even then I found it an odd reaction—wasn’t this the point of the struggle, to find acceptance in the mainstream?

Evidently not, and possibly for perfectly sound reasons, namely that there is pleasure within the confines of any genre as genre.  Which is why we still have a vital mystery genre.

But on another level, this success is a call to all writers to do their work better.  The literary science fiction market is not shrinking, it is simply losing its genre markers.  Partly that means the writing appeals to those not conversant with the deep-core conventions and conceits of the field—at least, not the language.  Likewise, it means that such writers have learned how to tell a certain kind of story, a more character-centered story, set within SFnal worlds.

Why would we deny awards to people who do good science fiction just because…?

But that’s not the complaint.  The complaint, in certain more pointed protests, is that all these books and stories are talking about things and in ways that the complainers find distasteful.

I’m seeing the term SJW popping up in a lot of these posts.  SJW.  Social Justice Warrior.  And I can’t help but see the squeal of those who simply don’t want their Worlds of Warcraft sullied by genuine human issues.  That may be an extreme way to put it, but then why attach that derogation to one’s complaint if it’s not the case?

Because that label—SJW, used that way—is leveled as code for categorizing someone whose arguments you have already decided are not worth listening to.  (If it’s just the approach one or another person takes in pursuit of their ideals that’s offensive—and I get that, yes I do—then why not just call them assholes and be done with it?  Why bring their cause into it to smear along with their unpleasant approach?  Well, because it’s not just the person making the argument, it’s the argument you don’t want to hear, and having a handy label like that allows you to pre-dismiss them.***)  So last year’s big winner becomes second-rate fiction because of the SJW nature of either the work or its supporters.

And what is being defended by the folks intent on letting everyone know what they think of SJWs?  A lot of it seems to be military SF.  Not all, but much of it.

Now, however one feels about this subgenre, two things about it in relation to awards are bothersome.  One, it’s not as if military SF has never won any awards—Lois McMaster Bujold and Orson Scott Card come to mind, not to mention Joe Haldeman and C.J.Cherryh—but it seems to me that if one of the purposes of an award is to celebrate cutting edges and innovation, then it is reasonable that certain tropes will fade in and out of popularity and some may fall away from consideration completely, because if that is the defining characteristic of the work then it stands to reason that it will, over time, have less utility in finding that cutting edge.  Other things will emerge as new and interesting.

But two, I have to ask, in all honesty, how many times can we rewrite Starship Troopers and expect it to look like something new?

Unless you use it to do other things previously not done with the form.

Which, of course, means such work won’t look like what you might expect.

Find the untrod path, follow it honestly and truthfully, and it might surprise you what comes out at the end.

Or write what you really like and have fun writing.  But then don’t be surprised if a lot of people find what you do derivative.  Which doesn’t mean it will be bad or even unpopular.  But it might not be obvious awards material.

But complaining that those who are getting tapped for awards are doing so because they follow a political line with which you disagree is stretching things a bit.  If there is one thing I’ve learned about the science fiction field and fandom over the years, one should not expect cohesion.  There isn’t any.

Besides, bitching that something is “message” fiction, “social justice” fiction, that this somehow renders a work less—what exactly does that mean?  Because really, show me a first rate SF novel that isn’t in part a social justice novel.  Ender’s Game certainly is.  The DispossessedThe Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.  We can go on and on.

I suspect the complaints are based on apprehensions which have to do with aspects of story having nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of the genre.  Ancillary Justice, being the novel that took almost all the awards last year, is a space opera.  It’s a military SF novel.  It’s about AIs and distributed intelligences.  Its main character is the condensed remnant of a vast AI that was once a ship now confined to the brainspace of an individual.  What more could you want?  This is as skiffy as things get.

Oh, but it does that little thing with gender pronouns that seems to bother a lot of people.  I guess that’s what makes it the work of a Social Justice Warrior.

Except that the writer didn’t actually make any kind of statement about how this might be a preferred model for social construction.  It’s simply a thing that defines her empire as culturally distinct from others.  So it doesn’t actually do any “gender bending.”

But it does make the reader deal with the idea of gender markers in a different way.

I thought that’s what SF was supposed to do, make us see things in a different way.

Which would put Ancillary Justice out there near where the form is evolving…

Before I get too caught up in defending a given work against charges that may or may not be relevant, let me get back to the main point, which is the time-honored bleating of those who seem to misunderstand the reason they don’t get nominated for awards.  They have always been there.  In retrospect, one can often see why they didn’t make the cut, but it’s not quite so obvious at the time.  But conspiracy has always been an appealing way to explain self-perceived failure.  The world is against me.  “They” won’t let me in.

Well, I’ve indulged my share of feeling exactly that way.

I was wrong.

This will pass and some new group will coalesce around feeling slighted.  But it would be nice if in future it stayed centered on the matter at hand instead of dragging in cultural movements that have nothing to do with the stories in question…but everything to do with the prejudices of the complainants.


* But in practice meaning that the author has paid what some may consider too much, perhaps unhealthy, attention to character and culture rather than problem-solving and world building.

**Secret Masters Of Fandom.

***This has been going on seemingly forever, and in some respects this reminds me of John Steinbeck, whose novel The Grapes of Wrath, which talked about then-current social realities with an unblinkered honesty brought derision upon Steinbeck and accusations that he was a communist.  He was seen, by talking about the plight of people being made homeless because of banking fiascoes over which they had no control and took no part in, as somehow suspect in his motives.  In his own hometown the book was burned.  A century earlier, Herman Melville was castigated by both sides of the slavery debate for his short novel Benito Cereno, each side—slaveholder and abolitionist—feeling he was taking a shot at them when really he simply told what happened.  People start leveling their version of the SJW charge usually when something jabs them in a soft spot, where they know something is wrong but they just don’t want to be made either to feel responsible for it or to do something about it.