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.
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.
He was, ultimately, the heart and soul of the whole thing. The core and moral conscience of the congeries that was Star Trek. Mr. Spock was what the entire thing was about. That’s why they could never leave him alone, set him aside, get beyond him. Even when he wasn’t on screen and really could be nowhere near the given story, there was something of him. They kept trying to duplicate him—Data, Seven-of-Nine, Dax, others—but the best they could do was borrow from the character.
I Am Not Spock came out in 1975. It was an attempt to explain the differences between the character and the actor portraying him. It engendered another memoir later entitled I Am Spock which addressed some of the misconceptions created by the first. The point, really, was that the character Spock was a creation of many, but the fact is that character would not exist without the one ingredient more important than the rest—Leonard Nimoy.
I was 12 when Star Trek appeared on the air. It is very difficult now to convey to people who have subsequently only seen the show in syndication what it meant to someone like me. I was a proto-SF geek. I loved the stuff, read what I could, but not in any rigorous way, and my material was opportunistic at best. I was pretty much alone in my fascination. My parents worried over my “obsessions” with it and doubtless expected the worst. I really had no one with whom to share it. I got teased at school about it, no one else read it, even my comics of choice ran counter to the main. All there was on television were movie re-runs and sophomoric kids’ shows. Yes, I watched Lost In Space, but probably like so many others I did so out of desperation, because there wasn’t anything else on! Oh, we had The Twilight Zone and then The Outer Limits, but, in spite of the excellence of individual episodes, they just weren’t quite sufficient. Too much of it was set in the mundane world, the world you could step out your front door and see for yourself. Rarely did it Go Boldly Where No One Had Gone Before in the way that Star Trek did.
Presentation can be everything. It had little to do with the internal logic of the show or the plots or the science, even. It had to do with the serious treatment given to the idea of it. The adult treatment. Attitude. Star Trek possessed and exuded attitude consistent with the wishes of the people who watched it and became devoted to it. We rarely saw “The Federation” it was just a label for something which that attitude convinced us was real, for the duration of the show. The expanding hegemony of human colonies, the expanse of alien cultures—the rather threadbare appearance of some of the artifacts of these things on their own would have been insufficient to carry the conviction that these things were really there. It was the approach, the aesthetic tone, the underlying investment of the actors in what they were portraying that did that. No, it didn’t hurt that they boasted some of the best special effects on television at that time, but even those couldn’t have done what the life-force of the people making it managed.
And Spock was the one consistent on-going absolutely essential aspect that weekly brought the reality of all that unseen background to the fore and made it real. There’s a reason Leonard Nimoy started getting more fan mail than Shatner. Spock was the one element that carried the fictional truth of everything Star Trek was trying to do.
And Spock would have been nothing without the talent, the humanity, the skill, the insight, and the sympathy Leonard Nimoy brought to the character. It was, in the end, and more by accident than design, a perfect bit of casting and an excellent deployment of the possibilities of the symbol Spock came to represent.
Of all the characters from the original series, Spock has reappeared more than any other. There’s a good reason for that.
Spock was the character that got to represent the ideals being touted by the show. Spock was finally able to be the moral center of the entire thing simply by being simultaneously on the outside—he was not human—and deeply in the middle of it all—science officer, Starfleet officer, with his own often troublesome human aspect. But before all that, he was alien and he was treated respectfully and given the opportunity to be Other and show that this was something vital to our own humanity.
Take one thing, the IDIC. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination. It came up only a couple of times in the series, yet what a concept. Spock embodied the implications even in his trademark comment “Fascinating.” He was almost always at first fascinated. He wanted before anything else to understand. He never reacted out of blind terror. Sometimes he was on the other side of everyone else in defense of something no one seemed interested in understanding, only killing.
I’m going on about Spock because I know him. I didn’t know Mr. Nimoy, despite how much he gave of himself. I knew his work, which was always exemplary, and I can assume certain things about him by his continued affiliation with a character which, had he no sympathy for, would have left him behind to be portrayed by others long since. Instead, he kept reprising the role, and it was remarkably consistent. Spock was, throughout, a positive conscience.
On the side of science. I can think of no other character who so thoroughly exemplified rational morality. Spock had no gods, only ideals. He lived by no commandments, only morality. His ongoing championing of logic as the highest goal is telling. Logic was the common agon between Spock and McCoy, and sometimes between Spock and Kirk. I suspect most people made the same mistake, that logic needs must be shorn of emotion. Logic, however, is about “sound reasoning and the rules which govern it.” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy) This is one reason it is so tied to mathematics. But consider the character and then consider the philosophy. Spock is the one who seeks to understand first. Logic dictates this. Emotion is reactive and can muddy the ability to reason. Logic does not preclude emotion—obviously, since Spock has deep and committed friendships—it only sets it aside for reason to have a chance at comprehension before action. How often did Spock’s insistence on understanding prove essential to solving some problem in the show?
I suspect Leonard Nimoy himself would have been the first to argue that Spock’s devotion to logic was simply a very human ideal in the struggle to understand.
Leonard Nimoy informed the last 4 decades of the 20th Century through a science fictional representation that transcended the form. It is, I believe, a testament to his talent and intellect that the character grew, became a centerpiece for identifying the aesthetic aspects of what SF means for the culture, and by so doing became a signal element of the culture of the 21st Century.
Others can talk about his career. He worked consistently and brought the same credibility to many other roles. (I always found it interesting that one his next roles after Star Trek was on Mission: Impossible, taking the place of Martin Landau as the IM team’s master of disguise. As if to suggest that no one would pin him down into a single thing.) I watched him in many different shows, tv movies, and have caught up on some of his work prior to Star Trek (he did a Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode in which he played opposite William Shatner) and in my opinion he was a fine actor. He seems to have chosen his parts carefully, especially after he gained success and the control over his own career that came with it. But, as I say, others can talk about that. For me, it is Spock.
I feel a light has gone out of the world. Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but…still, some people bring something into the world while they’re here that has the power to change us and make us better. Leonard Nimoy had an opportunity to do that and he did not squander it. He made a difference. We have prospered by his gifts.
I will miss him.
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.
The Nebula Awards nominees for the best SFF of 2014 have been announced.
- The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison (Tor)
- Trial by Fire, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
- Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
- The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (), translated by Ken Liu (Tor)
- Coming Home, Jack McDevitt (Ace)
- Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals; Fourth Estate; HarperCollins Canada)
- We Are All Completely Fine, Daryl Gregory (Tachyon)
- Yesterday’s Kin, Nancy Kress (Tachyon)
- “The Regular,” Ken Liu (Upgraded)
- “The Mothers of Voorhisville,” Mary Rickert (Tor.com 4/30/14)
- Calendrical Regression, Lawrence Schoen (NobleFusion)
- “Grand Jeté (The Great Leap),” Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Summer ’14)
- “Sleep Walking Now and Then,” Richard Bowes (Tor.com 7/9/14)
- “The Magician and Laplace’s Demon,” Tom Crosshill (Clarkesworld 12/14)
- “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i,” Alaya Dawn Johnson (F&SF 7-8/14)
- “The Husband Stitch,” Carmen Maria Machado (Granta #129)
- “We Are the Cloud,” Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed 9/14)
- “The Devil in America,” Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com 4/2/14)
- “The Breath of War,” Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 3/6/14)
- “When It Ends, He Catches Her,” Eugie Foster (Daily Science Fiction 9/26/14)
- “The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye,” Matthew Kressel (Clarkesworld 5/14)
- “The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family,” Usman T. Malik (Qualia Nous)
- “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide,” Sarah Pinsker (F&SF 3-4/14)
- “Jackalope Wives,” Ursula Vernon (Apex 1/7/14)
- “The Fisher Queen,” Alyssa Wong (F&SF 5/14)
Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation
- Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
- Edge of Tomorrow, Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (Warner Bros. Pictures)
- Guardians of the Galaxy, Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
- Interstellar, Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan (Paramount Pictures)
- The Lego Movie, Screenplay by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy
- Unmade, Sarah Rees Brennan (Random House)
- Salvage, Alexandra Duncan (Greenwillow)
- Love Is the Drug, Alaya Dawn Johnson (Levine)
- Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, A.S. King (Little, Brown)
- Dirty Wings, Sarah McCarry (St. Martin’s Griffin)
- Greenglass House, Kate Milford (Clarion)
- The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Walton (Candlewick)
I have friends whose work is included here. Charles Gannon, Ann Leckie, and Jack McDevitt (novels) and Daryl Gregory and Lawrence Schoen (novella category). Congratulations to them and good luck.
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 Dispossessed. The 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.
I found out several years back, when my career started wobbling, that my dad, concerned, wondered aloud to my mom, “Why’s he writing science fiction? Wouldn’t it be better to do something people will buy?”
Of course, he didn’t understand that the odds of making money at writing are pretty much the same in any genre, that it’s as much luck as talent, more than a little being in the right place at the right time sort of cosmic alignment, and personalities are always involved. There’s a bit of playing the lottery in trying to launch a writing career. Once you start publishing, it’s natural to think things will get easier or at least more predictable. But stability is a distant shore you keep rowing toward. You bump into a lot of other boats on the way.
His concern was over financial matters and it might not appear evident to anyone not involved in the writing business how these things play out. In my own case, I will say that it might not have mattered what I chose to write about, the trajectory might have been much the same. The business aside, though, the question has validity in terms of the artistic choices we make. Why this and not that? What is it that inspires you to do what you do and not something else?
I’m currently working on a new novel. As I’m writing, I find myself venturing more and more into what is recognizably literary mainstream. The choices I’ve been making about the way I approach the characters and the themes feel less genre-soaked. I sense I’m pitching my prose toward a wider audience. That said, it is definitely science fiction, insofar as I’ve set it in the future and I’m talking about the changes in human conditions brought about by technological and cultural shifts. I’m very interested in how then will be different from now.
Isn’t that what “mainstream” does as well? Detail the difference in a character that emerges after a series of transformational events? Trace the path of those changes and show how people evolve over time, under pressure?
As far as I can tell, the chief difference between mainstream and science fiction lies in the nature of the change. In mainstream, characters evolve in perfectly recognizable ways to become something perfectly recognizable to our current apprehension and experience. In science fiction, those changes connote differences we may not recognize and cannot yet achieve because they require the world around us to be different. That “What If” in science fiction is qualitatively different and sometimes quantitatively distinct.
Yet it’s still change. It’s about character.
One of the clearest distinctions between SF and Literary Fiction I ever read put it this way: science fiction always privileges premise over character. In other words, the normal SF story is about its conceit more than it is about its people. I can understand that, but then I have to ask: Well, isn’t the standard historical novel more about the history than it is about the people in it? I pick on historical fiction because it shares the most with science fiction in terms of approach and purpose. Both are about people in conditions and contexts separated from the here and now by distinct differences in culture and technology.
(I could point out here that, even were this to be generally accepted, received wisdom would make the fact that Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies, winning the Man Booker Prize raised almost no eyebrows, but had something like Ann Leckie’s currently much-praised novel Ancillary Justice even shown up on the long list for that esteemed Literary award there would have been dismay and more than a smidgen of ridicule.)
To be fair, a great deal of science fiction has treated the changes in technology and culture like suggestive exoticisms rather than as serious considerations. A lot of this may have to do with maturity more than any inherent problem with the conceits themselves. Speaking for myself, when I began writing (as a teenager especially) I included as much strange stuff as I could imagine simply because it was strange. It rarely served the story, not because I didn’t want it to, but because firstly I thought the strangeness was the point and secondly because I had a long way to go before I understood how one makes such things relevant to the story.
Insofar as science fiction emerged from an adolescent-driven pool of interest, this makes perfect sense. In my own case, it was many years before I found myself consciously caring about character. I was most interested in event, in novelty, in that exoticism I mentioned. I was interested in the “coolness” of the thing, not the emotional inner lives of the people living in that coolness. No more than I cared about the personal insecurities and childhood regrets of any of the gunslingers in the westerns which I also indulged because of their innate coolness. In that case we wouldn’t necessarily call it exoticism, but it was. It wasn’t here or now, which seemed dull and annoying.
With growing experience and maturity we eventually discover that, on a fundamental level, it really always has been a question of character that brought us back again and again to the particular stories we loved. We just didn’t think of it in those terms or have the intellectual or emotional stuff to recognize and expect more from that part of the story. We could grasp the emotional significance of swords and guns, or spaceships and rayguns, but not be equipped to handle an existential crisis in the midst of the changed milieu in which the story was set. That milieu seemed easier to grasp, like next year’s new car models or a new fashion just on the scene. Experience teaches, gradually, that such things have little value with the viewpoint of the people living with them.
So the question becomes, since character eventually emerged to dominate my concerns, why then do I still write science fiction?
Because that appreciation of the exotic and the cool factor did not erode simply because my appreciation for what others hold to be all-important grew. Because I am in many ways still 12 years old. And lastly (though not, perhaps, finally) the world seems to have caught up with science fiction and to do it honestly and rigorously and with due attention to all æsthetic concerns demanded of good art is to write perfectly good Literary Fiction. If we can regard stories about England under Henry VIII as “literary” then we can so regard stories about the interstellar diaspora. Both eras may be equidistant in terms of relevance to the present and both may serve as substrates for telling us things about ourselves.
Finally, though, I write it because I love it and to do any art really well love has to be involved. I may be able to write an essay about something I find only somewhat amusing or interesting but my ficti0n requires viscera and I’m only able or willing to supply that if I am in love.
Although my reading is no longer largely science fiction and I have grown pickier about it than I was in times past, a good science fiction story still pumps my imagination and drives my senses more than any other form. It takes a lot of work to write fiction and if I’m going to devote that much to it I’m only going to do so if I love it. I find that while I feel just as strongly for individual works in other genres, I do not feel that way about other genres in toto. If they were neighborhoods, I’d only want to live in the SF district. I can visit the others as much as I want, but I’ve built my house on the Foundation of science fiction.
And I can’t tell you how pleased it makes me to see other neighborhoods adapting the style and coming here to visit more often.
All that said, it does sometimes pain me to see so much in the field still written as if the neighborhood was still under siege, a ghetto where a certain want of technique is regarded as a kind of gang color and a regard for more refined observations as a sign of defection, where the obstinate insistence that fine writing—which can only really derive from closer scrutiny, greater empathy, and more honest assessments of character—is somehow the mark of someone who doesn’t “get” SF, and where the simple recognition that the world and therefore the universe is a multiplying heterogeneous metaplex and should be written about as such is a form of betrayal. Genuine experience must be conveyed through the lens of genuine observers, i.e. characters who are real and complex as we can make them. This is the only way to deal out truth, which at the end of the day is our stock in trade.
At least, that’s my opinion.
And that, not to put too fine a point on it, is why I still write science fiction.
This is going to be a bit of a ramble, so bear with me.
We keep seeing more incidents of sexual harassment emerging into the light of day within the science fiction community. There are people who have been behaving poorly for a long time and finally they’re being called on it. Why this is such a difficult concept for some people to grasp eludes me. The excuse-making is both ancient and pathetic. This is science fiction, these are supposed to be people who are ahead of the curve when it comes to social grasp, we like to pretend we live in the future.
Well, that may explain a couple of things. No one adopts behavior out of the blue. Some people have serious organic problems others have a wispy grasp of the reality and still others just don’t consider what is not wholly inside their heads worth due consideration.
Ann Leckie has penned a first-rate explanation of one of the problems with a dandy analogy. Yes, this. It describes so much on so many levels. (Not only about sexual harassment, but with similar dynamics, this is one of the reasons I stopped going to live shows—the security protocols that became common after about 1980 just became too invasive and I realized I didn’t really like being in a crowd wherein every 10th or 20th person was so drunk that they had no sense of boundaries anymore. Some people—a lot of people—will find excuses for themselves that make putting up with it worthwhile, and it is a shame this has to happen, but on the other hand, no, it doesn’t have to happen if we’d all just grow up a little. People by the millions attended movies for decades without feeling the need to bring beer into the venue or carrying on a private drama, loudly and in public, or indulging behaviors better suited to…well, some I never did find a place where they would be better suited. Movies are different than concerts, you say? In what way, I ask? Are you there for the show or to be seen? Anyway, back to my main point.)
Of course, now, we hear the bleat of pain of the attendee who doesn’t understand that a convention is not there to be a smorgasbord of sexual opportunity and wonders why, if all these women aren’t there to have sex, how come they dress in those costumes? I mean, really, if they aren’t looking for it, why are they showing it off?
As if there could be no other reason to cosplay than for the sexual edification and enticement of strange boys with illusions of their own desirability and prowess.
Also as if the costumers are the only ones or even the majority who are having problems with this.
It seems to me, though, that this is partially a legitimate question.
Let me take a brief detour through a short history of the treatment of sex in science fiction. Really short. Originally, SF was a genre marketed to adolescent males of a certain disposition (we call them nerdy today, a label I dislike for a variety of reasons, but it serves). At the time—1930s through 1950s—these were also young men who were inclined toward the technical arts. A lot of engineers and more than a few scientists claimed to have been inspired by reading Golden Age science fiction. Now, a survey of the covers of the major magazines of the period would suggest a lot of semi-clad females were being creatively ravaged in the pages within, but this was not the case. These were as sanitary in that regard as Good Housekeeping and Readers Digest. Which, of course, irritated many of the writers, who saw themselves as writers first and foremost and chafed under the assumption (by the publishers) that all this neat stuff they were writing about was exclusively for kids. They wanted to write adult stories that appealed to adults and part of that had to do with sex.
There is a law of some kind that states that the more and longer something is suppressed the greater the excess of it will be when the chains come off, sort of an inverse reaction, and when after the 1950s sex was no longer taboo, there was a lot of it in the stories. Often for no reason other than suddenly it could be there. The 1960s…well, the Sixties, what more can I say? Not just in science fiction, but everywhere, in everything. The Sixties was drenched in sex partly because the previous decades had been so buttoned-down about it. (One of the things about Playboy that seems difficult for us to “get” today is that this was liberating. Prior to what Hugh Hefner did, the prevailing attitude was that women did not have a right to their own sexuality, that any woman who took control of it and unabashedly enjoyed it was somehow trash. Hefner blew the doors off that canard and helped usher in the sexual revolution, one facet of which said that women owned their sexuality and no one had a right to judge them for it. This is why, contrary to the stereotype, men were more troubled by Playboy than women and in some circles waged a war to shut it down. This will be important later.*)
In any event, all of a sudden, people in SF stories were having a lot of sex and it was not in traditional (read: 1950s) forms. Much of it was absurd. For a time, the idea of the domestic contract ran through a lot of stories, the idea that marriage could be reduced entirely to a short term contract that, when done, could either be renewed or both parties could go be with someone else—with no emotional downside. More importantly, sex was treated as a purely physical function by many writers, something one did the same as exercise or swimming or attending the theater.
A lot of this went away. With the increased number of prominent women writers, some rationality was introduced, and by the end of the 1970s a lot of the bizarreness that attended stories from the Sixties went away—or at least was treated with the kind of understanding of how people really are.
This left us, however, with an æsthetic that has never quite gone away and has, in an embarrassing way, manifested most visibly in comics, with the absurdly sexualized appearances of female superheroes. It’s an æsthetic that is unfortunately difficult to deconstruct in such a way as to leave the cool aspects intact while getting rid of the toxic elements that tie sex to entitlement.
I said “partially” a legitimate question. It has to do with role-playing and if what we’re looking for is some version of a future to live in where we can be “that way” then we have to understand what impulses are being acted out in so-called real life.
Nah! It’s a legitimate question primarily so we can dismiss it. People are expected to know the difference between stories and real life and mostly do. This is another elaborate excuse because nothing in that suggests a disconnect from common human decency and mutual respect.
I suppose I could riff on how the surfaces of things deflect comprehension and distract from even the attempt at deeper empathy—or empathy at all—but that would perhaps elevate the problem to a level where it cannot be effectively managed.
My default behavior, from the time I became aware that girls—well, girls—has been that the female is in charge of the sex. It’s her call. I don’t know where I learned that, it just seemed natural to me. They have the power, as far as I’m concerned, and that seems to me entirely natural and, for the most part, has been entirely congenial. If she says No, that’s it. Discussion finished. Move on, there’s nothing more to see here. I may not know why she said no, it may have hurt a little, disappointed me, but oh well. (Conversely, as one ages, one realizes that one also has exactly that same right—to say yes or no.)
I have never assumed that I have a “right” to someone’s body.
Which is where a lot of this seems to be breaking down.
We are not, I hope, talking about anywhere close to a majority in this, but as Ann’s essay makes clear it only takes a few—and then the tacit cooperation of the rest—to poison an environment.
Here’s a stereotype: “Oh, she doesn’t really mean no, women don’t know what they want, you have to take no as maybe and then keep at her.”
In certain venues—locker rooms, for want of a better description—men who fail to recognize this can find themselves derided as less than.
Less than what, I eventually realized, I never knew. But less.
I think this is part and parcel of that other stereotype, men who never ask directions. As if asking is somehow unmanly. Getting lost on a back road, though, is one thing—forcing yourself on an unwilling woman is quite another.
But asking right out is dangerous for a certain kind of mentality because if the answer is No, then all future opportunity is cut off. Being ambiguous, refusing to acknowledge that they way you are doing something is offensive and, in some cases, frightening, all because you don’t want to risk that definitive No, that’s not very manly, either, if the adjective has any meaning outside of a bad joke. I’ve come to the conclusion that men who don’t ask—clearly and unambiguously and politely—are a specie of coward. Most cowards, when given the opportunity, can become bullies. And bullies have no regard for anyone else in their quest to fill a void which they blame on others but really is of their own making.
Now, while it might seem kind to try to make space for someone like this under the assumption that really they mean no harm—maybe they don’t, not consciously—and that rehabilitation can only occur within a community, a couple of things make this simply weak-kneed avoidance. Going back to the theater analogy, you don’t tolerate the asshole who won’t shut up during the movie or the play because it’s not about him, it’s about everyone else. You’re not going to “solve” his problem by tolerating him in the audience, you’re only going to make the experience miserable for everyone else. No one has a right to be an asshole.
But we add a layer now to the problem and assume that the person in question has some power. He (or she) important and throwing them out may have other consequences we won’t like.
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
That. If that’s the excuse, then you ruin it for everyone and the asshole never learns.
But I’m not even concerned with the asshole learning anything. I just want him/her to cease the behavior that’s making everyone else uncomfortable.
“But if so-and-so hadn’t said anything, no one else would’ve known and no one would have been uncomfortable.”
Does Omelas ring any bells?
This is not only entitled thinking—the kind that says your party is more important than someone’s well-being—it is cowardly thinking.
Why is this so difficult to get? You establish a clear policy and those who violate it get tossed. I have a hard time imagining a convention establishing a weapons policy—no real guns—and then choosing to look away just because a big time writer or editor decided to show up with an AR-15 across their shoulder. Cons have had policies about even fake weapons for decades now and have enforced them without getting all uber sensitive. But once more, when it comes to sex, reason abandons us?
People have been banned from conventions for decades because of inappropriate (and often criminal) behavior, so it baffles me that a sensible policy over harassment cannot be devised and enforced. Instead, we get a lot of hand-wringing and mumbling and excuse-making.
Look, this isn’t about the predator’s problem. That’s not in anyone’s job description to try to fix at a convention. This is entirely about what is allowable conduct in the theater. To argue that it spoils the æsthetic is evasive—if so, then it’s time to change the æsthetic. Victims of harassment already know they don’t feel safe around the predator, but to then double down and make them feel unsafe among the people they look to for protection as well—because the predator is not dealt with once the problem is known—can call everything into question. Especially when “everyone” knows what the problem is and no one seems willing to do anything about it.
*The Playboy thing is difficult for some of us who remember a time when what they did was relevant to a larger issue, which was exactly the “who owns female sexuality” question. It has become problematic because the culture moved on and at some point Playboy became the opposite of what it initially tried to be, which was in some sense countercultural. Today it’s pretty much just another “girlie” magazine (what we called them back when I was a newly-emerged adolescent on the prowl for cheap thrills) but there was a time it meant something else. The whole point of the erotic content was that (a) sex is not “dirty” and (b) sexuality was and is the sole property of the individual. Secondarily, it also called the whole standard American model of what “good girls” were allowed to do and be and for that matter the standard issue American lifestyle into question. But it’s a relic now and context has changed.
A friend of mine called while I was out. He left a message (which I thought had to be a mistake) to the effect that apparently my new book, Gravity Box and Other Spaces, made the local (St. Louis) independent bookstore bestseller list of the week ending June 29. Post-Dispatch page here.
Well, not one to be fooled, I looked it up. And there it is. (See link above)
I mean, the last thing I expected was for something like this to occur with this book.
Not that I had a list of expectations, mind you. I was just very pleased with the finished product and that it arrived on the shelves. I was gratified right down to my socks that people showed up at the release party. (No, that’s an understatement, I was beyond gratified. I never expect people to pay any attention. I’m always surprised and pleased and blown away.) If I got a couple of positive reviews and the book sold well enough to justify my publisher’s commitment, well, that would be great. Beyond that, no expectations.
Hopes, on the other, I got plenty.
But to be real, it’s a short story collection. Best seller? Granted, it is a local list, but even so, I’m in the top three with Gone Girl and Orange Is The New Black. What?
So right now I am about as happy as a writer as I have been since…
Well, since I sold my first story. Then sold my first professional story. Then sold my first novel. I was elated when I was informed that I’d made the short list for the Philip K. Dick Award. And again when I made the short list for the Tiptree a few years later. Yeah, I’ve had some moments in this insane business.
But this! Wow.
So, what would be very cool would be to see this happen elsewhere. I doubt this will be anything other than a word-of-mouth success. That being the case, please—say something. Push your local independent bookstore into getting it. Talk to people. With a little help from my friends (well, maybe a lot of help) I may yet have a decent career. It would be really strange if this were the book that made the comeback for me. But I wouldn’t be the least bit unhappy about that.
For those of you who have already bought the book, thank you very, very much. Picking up a book and laying out cash for it is an act of faith. One that, I hope, will be justified in this case.