Literature

Trivial Lit?

In a recent article in the Guardian, we learn that science fiction seems to have a deleterious effect on intelligent reading among certain test subjects. In a study conducted by researchers, the appearance of certain words—like “airlock” or “alien” or related descriptors having to do with setting—acted as signals that the story concerned lacked merit and thus could be dismissed as “not serious.”  Consequently, less connection with character occurred. Worse, even the basic recognition that the story being read was in all other respects identical to the “literary” version they had just read to which they had paid due attention.

I was reminded of an essay by Samuel R. Delany in which he noted the disconnect in decoding SF texts among certain adults whose children navigated those waters with ease. In this case, Delany was describing an interpretive failure, that when encountering a phrase like “the asteroid minding operation” there was a loss on the part of certain readers. They simply could not visualize that which was being described. Delany was noting that reading protocols are constructs and we have to learn them, the earlier the better. In other essays he went further and showed how a literary reading of a sentence could differ strikingly from a science fictional reading of the exact same sentence ( “she turned on her left side”, for instance ) and that, for the SF reader, that tension between the mundane and the speculative was a significant part of the pleasure of the SF experience.

But this study is different. It does not demonstrate a failure on the part of readers to decode the science fiction story—it shows a dismissal of the story as trivial because it is science fiction. Hence, no attempt is then made to find its other merits or even to recognize that such merits are even present. That the “trigger” words allowed the reader to simply recategorize the story as shallow and insignificant, because, I assume, its all that “space nonsense” and “kid stuff.”

Which is sadly unsurprising, even today, long past the time when this was the reaction on the part of the vast majority of readers.

However, it is new—or newish— in one respect, which is the a priori assumption not that the SF text makes no sense but that it is necessarily trivial. An assumption that, well, it’s not incomprehensible, it’s just not worth comprehending as anything other than…

So all the usual qualities of literary fiction which may be present are missed because the effort to find and respond to them is not made due to the shift in setting and æsthetic.

We might call this provincialism.

It occurred to me that the reverse happens for possibly the same reasons. That the seasoned SF reader may well dismiss a literary work because all those trigger words are not present, and therefore the expectations encoded in the story are weighted toward those literary values which the provincialist assumes cannot be present in a science fiction story.

Or, at least, those words are not present in sufficient degree to counter the presence of those other qualities and thus make it obvious that the story in hand requires attention to all those other things. Which may well be the very reasons a given reader has abandoned straight up literary fiction in the first place.

We might call this parochialism.

(I recall as a stridently biased youth having arguments about such things and declaring, quite seriously, “I don’t give a damn about character, I want event!” In other words, all the things that make a work of literature valuable having to do with empathy and pathos and the possibility of learning something about life just got in the way of what I considered the genuinely worthwhile aspect of a story, namely the gadgets, the setting, the plot, the novelty. This is a response to exoticism.  Partly this is an indication of immaturity, the inability to step outside yourself and into someone else’s head, and partly this is inexperience as  reader.  But largely I think this is a consequence of the insularity of an inferiority complex.  Who gives a damn about people who don’t give a damn about you? Which, when you think about it, in terms of fiction is kind of absurd.)

The recent raging against change within the SF community strikes me as a species of this syndrome.

For the most part, this problem erodes with exposure and experience. But one has to know what the problem is to begin with.

SF has become more accepted among the so-called mainstream, but it would be a shame if it had become accepted not as an equal to mundane literature but only as comfortable novelty with no real merit.  I doubt that’s the case and I have reservations about certain aspects of the study, but it would make for a worthwhile colloquium—or maybe just a good panel at a science fiction convention.

The Persistence of Civilization

I wanted to get this down before the thoughts and feelings of yesterday fade and I start to over-intellectualize everything.

Civilization did not end yesterday. Just in case anyone failed to notice. Nibiru did not slam into the Earth as some predicted. We did not throw down to North Korea (yet). And there remains football.

And though here in my hometown, the local politics have of late been strained, to say the least, we are not descending into mindless brutality.

Let me offer the picture of two throngs of people gathered to make cultural statements.

Yesterday the first of what we all hope will be an annual event occurred in the Central West End of St. Louis.  Bookfest.  A section of one street was closed off, there were vendors on the street, a stage where live music was performed all day, and author events held in a number of local establishments. The whole thing got started Friday night with a presentation by Sherman Alexie at the Sheldon Theater in our theater district. It continued then with events for kids, teens, and adults of all ages, featuring over forty of the best writers currently working. Poets, novelists, essayists, we had them all.

And people came.

Hundreds. Venues were filled to listen, to partake, to soak in the rarefied and uplifting gestalt of written arts, performance, and conversation.

We unveiled a new commemorative statue in front of Left Bank Books to William S. Burroughs, completing the four-star authors corner which already included Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, and T.S. Eliot.

People came to hear writers talk about craft and content, tell stories, read from their work, engage in the carpentry of culture.

In other words, Making Civilization.

It was amazing.

In other parts of the metropolitan area, others gathered, as they have been gathering since last week, to protest injustice. The response has been considerably different, and some people see this as evidence of the end of our civilization. Maybe not totally, but protest to them is viewed as cracks in the dam, as if civilization is a pool that must be contained by thick walls and held in place, immobile. Immaculate.

I humbly suggest that the protests and our gathering to celebrate the literary arts are manifestations of the same work—making civilization.

Gathering decorously to listen to speakers and then sagely nod, basking in the gloaming of nuanced cultural expression is fundamentally part of angry protest condemning abuse of power and a demand for justice. You cannot, ultimately, have one without the other—that is, Civilization without Justice—and you can have neither of those if people will not show up to build them.

I participated in yesterday’s festivities, I was on the agenda as a writer, but I also work for Left Bank Books and spent a good part of the day doing the business of facilitating the events.  I am now adding what I can to the holism that must be felt and recognized in order for our civilization to grow and become better and richer.

It is easy to watch the news and perhaps think maybe fleeing to the country, stockpiling for the coming Dark Age, fearing the people two blocks over who we’ve never met are all rational responses to a process of inevitable decay.  It’s a very myopic response.  Because while the one goes on, the other things continue and grow and make us better. We are not one thing, even if  we are all in this together, and when someone says we have a right to assemble to buy books, listen to music, and enjoy the arts but not to condemn injustice, then a major truth is being overlooked.

Or never recognized in the first place.

I was part of the discussion on science fiction.  My copanelists—Charlies Jane Anders, Ann Leckie, Annalee Newitz—all spoke to the life-affirming, onward-building, ever-optimistic nature of science fiction, which says tomorrow Will Be and more often than not Will Be Better.  But it’s not just SF—it’s the fact that people came to drink from the font of art all day long. That people showed up who not only knew who Sherman Alexie is but also who William S. Burroughs was and who responded to the resonance we all create by the work we do.

The world is not going to end.  We’re in an awkward, in many ways ugly and incomprehensible period right now, but in the mix we have light and joy and deep connection.

Celebrate.

How Doctor Who’s Sex Change Explains Everything

Heavy sigh.

Seriously? People are getting exercised over this? I suppose these will be some of the same people who will come out in angry revilement if the next James Bond really is a black man.

There’s a certain space wherein this kind of angst is perfectly acceptable.  Private conversations with people who share the same interests and have Opinions about the condition of a favorite bit of entertainment and how it would be if certain changes were made.  Three or four of you get together over beers (or floats, depending) and pizza and spend an hour or two reconstructing the whole æsthetic as you would have it.  This is good, healthy use of imagination and the application of ratiocination over something that is fun and has no real impact on anything else. The relative merits of various incarnations of the Doctor (or Bond) is a legitimate question within the confines of a small subject relating to art and storytelling and critical appreciation.  Same kinds of questions apply when a reboot of an old film or tv show is in the works or when a dead author’s work is licensed out for new books.  We flex our gray cells and participate in a way in the creative process.  We can draw lessons from such interactions.

But when someone, like a John C. Wright, weighs in to tell us how this is all part of the feminization of civilization at the expense of masculine role models and that civilization itself is at risk because after 12 incarnations of a fictional character who is also an alien being several centuries old the people in charge decided to give a female version a try, and a cadre of spoiled, semi-privileged misanthropes go on a tantrum in agreement, condemning the change and anyone who might like it to the nether regions of Hell…

Get a life.

If you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it.  You can go back and rewatch the umpteen seasons already available (you will anyway, probably). You have several options here.  You can even discuss—discuss, as in have conversation, engage discourse, exchange opinions—the merits of it among yourselves or others. What you don’t get to do is tell other people how they’re about to bring on the end of the universe because they like something you don’t.

Really, that’s going just a bit far, don’t you think?

This is the flip side of insisting that everyone must have an opinion about something, even if it’s something of zero interest to them.

We’re talking about art now.

The fact is, there’s room for all opinions, as long as we remember they are just that—opinions.

This is one of the places wherein we learn to play nice with people who disagree with us.

But a lot of people don’t know how to do that anymore.  Maybe they never did.  But they also never had access to such incredible amplification systems before.

At it’s base, though, this is what a certain kind of privilege looks like.  It’s taking a position that what I believe is the absolute Norm and anything that deviates from it is unacceptable.  We can’t have a female Doctor Who because it runs counter to the way I want the universe to work, and what is it with these girls anyway, trying to shove their way into something they don’t fit? They have perfectly good heroes of their own that are just as good as mine, so they should leave mine alone!

Sound familiar?  If it doesn’t, that may be symptomatic of the problem.

We see this time and again when a group previously thrown a bone by society asks for more respect and society, or the arbiters thereof, look at them like they’re being selfish and demanding something undeserved.  In reality, the most vocal opponents have been skirting by on the earned privilege of others for ages, and when according something like equality to a group that has never had it before is presented to them they realize, in their bones, that they just might not be able to compete on a level playing field and everything must be done to convince the world that everything as it has been is meant to be.  Because, damn, what if that group turns out to be better than us?

Well, tough. The fact is, fanboy, sitting there on your couch feeling one with the Superbowl Star because you bought the jersey and cheer the team and you are, somehow, the same as that quarterback because you both have testicles, you can’t compete with the standard model you already feel you own.  You don’t get to claim superiority because someone else can do all that shit that presumably only males can do.

Or white people.

This is instructive, really.  The response to the change came before the first episode aired.  Among those screeling anthrophobes so unhinged at the idea that the Doctor no longer has a penis (if “he” ever did, which is an interesting question in itself from a purely science-fictional standpoint, since the Doctor is Gallifreyan and may well have a completely different sexual arrangement) and now has, gasp, a vagina (again a presumption), it is not so much that they ever identified with the Doctor but that, on some level, they possessed identity because of the Doctor.

Here’s where I start to have problems with this whole process. Are you drawing inspiration from the idea of the role model—brains, ability, character traits—or are you hitching a ride on all that by hitching your ego to the one thing you don’t have to do anything to achieve to be “like” the role model?  To say “I want to be like that character” is to make a commitment, however small or temporary, to doing some work toward.  To say “I am like that character” because you happen to share certain physical similarities is to borrow a sense of self-worth that you haven’t earned.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you keep it in perspective.  As long as you know that, really, you aren’t anything like that character but might occasionally pretend to be, in your own head, your dreams, or in a bit of cosplay, and you only pay homage because you think that character is cool.  Some of the cool might rub off.  But that fact is these things change.

How important is it that what may be the least important aspect of a character remain constant and unchangeable just so your shortcomings stay neatly hidden away behind an act of mental pretense?

None of this would rise to a level requiring a response had it not become evident that as role model, The Doctor has failed for these poor, disheartened misogynists.  Failed in that the essential message of the Doctor didn’t get through, didn’t translate, didn’t manifest.  The whole point of the regeneration, aside from need to explain all the new actors, is that what you are on the inside matters infinitely more than the plumbing. And no gender has exclusive rights to the interior. The Doctor moves from one incarnation to the next, changing, becoming different, yet always bringing along the most important things, which have nothing to do with anatomy.  In that way, inadvertently or not, the Doctor has been a role model for people, not boys.

Discussing narrative consistency, the needs of logical drama, the pros and cons of story and character arc choices, all that is one thing, and legitimate.  But that’s to do with the interior, because you already have a character who transforms from one person into another as an essential element of the interior.  Having already established that and had it accepted as part of the way this thing works, to go off on a tear when the transformation doesn’t conform to your limits is small-minded and disingenuous, especially when you couch your complaints in some variation of requiring a role model for gender identity when that was never an essential aspect of the character in the first place, mainly because it’s an alien.

In other words, the shock is all about you, not the character.  Quite possibly there’s always been an attendant fantasy about the Doctor getting it on with the Companions, which now becomes incommensurable with certain neuroses when it might be a female Doctor taking her pick of male companions—or, for the sake of consistency, still doing so with the females.  That opens a whole other door of unmanageable unfathomables, I suppose.  What, the Doctor not only a woman but a lesbian?  Or just bi?

But according to canon, the Doctor never did do that, and we have the fey thread with River Song to even suggest a sexual attachment, and she wasn’t a Companion, and—

Rabbit holes can be fun, certainly, but be careful that they don’t start in your own fundament.

Civilization will not end.  The Doctor will survive.  As for role models, the Doctor has been serving as one for People since the beginning.  This will be just more of the same.

And that is about all I have to say about that.

I’ve got some timey-whimey shit to think about now.

(Oh, the title?  How does all this explain everything?  Well, think about it.  Taking issue with things just to have a snit because you’re uncomfortable…well, look around.)

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.

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.

Radical Futures and Conservative Sensitivities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly what are those politics, assumptions, and values?

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

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

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

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

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

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

But back to that question.

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

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

Past visions of the future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are the issues?

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

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

Of course, that presupposes a good story.

 

 

 

 

K.C. 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All in all, it was a great party.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hartwell

He was a presence in my growing understanding of the professional side of science fiction for almost 40 years. He was the first book editor whose name I knew. I collected a slew of his Timescape imprints from Pocket Books, regarding the label as a mark of excellence in a volatile field that was often untrackable in terms of what was good and what was not.  Because of David G. Hartwell, a number of authors came to my attention whose work I have continued to follow to this day.

I was fortunate to know him. A little. Somehow. We crossed paths enough times to be acquaintances and he was always—always—-gracious and, more importantly, interested.

The first time I saw him was in L.A. in 1984, at L.A.Con II, in a party shortly after the news had broken that Pocket Books had pulled the plug on Timescape.  Among the other problems, apparently, was the fact that David kept buying books that wouldn’t sell.  By sell, I mean they would not make bestseller lists.  Her had this arcane idea, apparently, that a good book ought to be published, regardless of the numbers it might (or might not) generate.  Odd notion, that, in an era dominated by the quest for the next blockbuster.  But David kept acquiring and championing books that did not have that kind of potential.  Anyway, I saw him in a hotel corridor, his hair sprayed with red and pink highlights.  (In contrast, I recall his tie was relatively tame.)  We spoke briefly.  I was just a fan and a wannabe writer at that time.  We talked a bit about the books and publishing.  A few minutes.  He said, finally, “Yes, well, the books are out there now.”  He had won one over the corporates.  The books had been published, despite the disapproval of the suits.

We said hi to each other in Atlanta in ’86 and by then I was, with some temerity, trying to write novels. We connected again in 2000, in Chicago, where we spent a couple of hours talking at the Japanese party at worldcon.  I remember that especially because it was the quietest party I’d ever attended at a worldcon—-or any con, for that matter—and David spoke knowledgeably about Japan and fandom there.  In the midst of our conversation, a number of our hosts,in kimonos, stopped at the same time, producing a variety of small cameras, and snapped pictures of us, as if by pre-arrangement.  By then Allen Steele had joined us, so they were getting pictures of two famous SF personalities and one semi-obscure one.

A few years later I was involved with the Missouri Center for the Book.  I’d just become its president and we were trying some new events, and one idea I came up with was what I called the Genre Forums.  We would do a public panel with a number of writers in a given genre, with a Q & A afterward.  The first one we did was science fiction, of course, and I had Robin Bailey come in from Kansas City, Carolyn Gilman, who lived in St. Louis then, Nisi Shawl from Seattle, and myself.  At the last minute, David called Robin.  He had seen a notice for the event.  He was coincidentally going to be in St.Louis for a family wedding that weekend and wondered if this was something he should attend.  Robin called me to see if I wanted David on the panel.  Rhetorical question.  We had a small audience, unfortunately, because it was a first-rate panel.  My partner, Donna, said it was the best panel she had ever seen, and by then we had both seen enough to judge.  His presence, his knowledge, his erudition graced our discourse with a sensibility difficult to describe, but it was wonderful.

After that he began soliciting work from me.  We never connected on a project, but we had several fine conversations afterward.  He was, I learned, a wine lover and I was able to introduce him to one.

Of course, he’s famous for the outré ties.  He possessed an antic quality that leavened his profound seriousness.  He had been instrumental in many careers.

He bridged the tail end of the Golden Age and the present. Elder statesman of the field seems a bit pompous, but in many ways it was true.  For a long time he ran the New York Review of Science Fiction—where I finally sold him a few things—and through that facilitated a high-minded, ongoing discussion of the workings, the objectives, the ongoing assessment of science fiction and, indeed, literature.

Here is the Locus obituary for more detail.

David took me seriously.  I am glad I knew him, sorry I didn’t know him better, and feel the world has lost a gentle, intelligent, wise light.

 

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.