Science Fiction

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.

Past As Door To Future

Recently I learned that the church I attended as a child is holding its last service in September. Emmaus Lutheran Church, on Jefferson Avenue. I say the “church I attended” with a certain degree of disingenuousness. I attended because I had to.  I went to the grade school affiliated with it and every Wednesday morning all the students were ushered into the church to hear services. There were three pastors I recall.  The first was a Reverend Wilson.  I didn’t know much about him because he wasn’t there very long after I started at the school. I recall a slim man with salt-and-pepper hair and a ready smile.  He could have been 40 or 50, but I seem to remember a wife that looked on the young side, so he might have been prematurely gray.  He left and duties were shared between the considerably older (and semi-retired) Pastor Summers and the school principle, Mr. Oberman. They didn’t get a permanent replacement for Wilson till after I had left.

I rarely went on Sundays. The only time I did so regularly was during a short time when I had a girlfriend, a classmate, and I went with her.  In hindsight, obviously I wasn’t going to be edified.

I remember being fervent in my faith at the time.  (For a brief period, I even testified to strangers, on the street.)  I know, that may sound like a contradiction, but even then I did not equate faith with regular attendance.

Well after leaving Emmaus I did a personal assessment of the things I took from there. It should be born in mind that my feelings about the place are mixed thoroughly with my memories of going to school there and the times I went through, so it is difficult to tease apart the church bits from the rest.  It may be pointless to do so in any case. Halfway through high school I understood that the only thing I wanted from that time and that place was distance.  Judge me if you wish, but all I got from Emmaus Lutheran School and Church was a deep sense of self-loathing and confusion and a bitter resentment over how much time and energy was and would be required to get all that protestant hellfire and guilt out of my brain.

My sense of personal shame was as much a result of my peers showing me time and again how little they thought of me as it was the thunderous Old Testament retributive doctrines, but since we were all being handed the same things it may be that the whole experience is the point.  What I learned there was a pervasive intolerance.

I had one brief interaction with them years after leaving, which resulted in my threatening a lawsuit for harassment. That did the trick and I never heard anything from them again. That was desired and appreciated.

The school closed first, of course.  I believe the building was sold.  Something is going on in it anyway and it is not parochial school classes. (I think.)  I was surprised to learn last week that the church had still been in business.  Like old actors you haven’t seen anything about in years and think are dead, I was surprised to hear that services were still being held.  Despite the tenacity of the congregation, I am not surprised they are shutting it down.  Demographics.  People move, die, neighborhoods change.  The demographics mutate and unless an institution is willing to change with them, they do not survive.  My memory suggests that this was not a parish interested in modernizing.  Maybe they tried.

But it is also a fact that traditional churches of almost any denomination are struggling.  This is neither new or uncommon. That Emmaus had lasted this long is a testament to persistence.

Some may feel they failed in their mission. No, probably not. They simply failed to adapt their mission to new conditions and needs. That particular manifestation of the Lutheran Church just faded out.

Plus, no doubt, they ran out of money.

I would never have known anything about this had I not been added (without permission, as often happens) to a Facebook group of fellow classmates.  I hadn’t heard a peep out of them for however long I’d been a member until this shattering news came across Messenger.  Good heavens, now that it’s too late, they’re all shocked.  Maybe. I could have happily gone on knowing nothing about it. But I lurked on the thread for a few days, watching the comments, and then quietly left the group without saying a word.  Why say anything?  I don’t care but there’s no reason to rain on their party on that account.  I didn’t want to be the curmudgeon who tells the truth about Uncle Phil at the funeral, so to speak.

But I do have one friend from those days who made a point of contacting me about it.  Even though we had talked about my experiences and feelings about the place for literally decades, he was offended by my indifference.  Not, I think, over the religious aspect, but over the nostalgia.  Be that as it may, I was once again made to feel a smidgeon of guilt over my lack of interest, and here it is going on half a century since I left that place and the caul of it still clings.  Amazing.

I know other Christians who  came up through their churches in wholly different conditions and look at me oddly about this, but I came away from Emmaus with a burden of guilt based on the whole “you are a worthless smear of shite on the heel of god and steeped in sin for which there is no cure and unless you beg, beg beg forgiveness the fiery pit of perdition awaits” school of religious behavioral conditioning. I was furious with them for years.  Life is hard enough without being made to feel that way by people supposedly preaching love.

I also came out of it with a more subtle but in some ways worse set of cultural biases that reinforced a White Christian West is the Best attitude that relegated anyone who didn’t accept that view to a lesser status, the status of the benighted who require “saving.”  This is, bluntly, imperialist, racist in many cases, certainly a view soaked in the kind of privilege that, to take one example of many, saw the decimation of native American cultures.

And for a short while it acted as a set of filters through which alternate views had a hellish time getting through.

All these things clogged my brain like taffy and it took a long time to flense the pathways.  They may not be entirely cleaned out to this day. The only part of that period of education for which I am grateful, at least as it concerns my intellectual development, was the opportunity it afforded my father and I to engage in intense quasi-Socratic dinner table dialogues that eventually spanned far more than just what I was taught in Bible studies that day.  (I did take some measure of delight in asking uncomfortable and mostly unanswered questions in class.)

My subsequent studies in religion and theology left me even less enamored of Lutheranism, but this is nothing special.  I have little use for any organized, institutionalized religion.  They are all of them built by men for the purposes of men and to pursue those purposes they need money and money displaces the mission in time.  (I choose my adjectives purposefully.)

Emmaus served one purpose for me—it catapulted me out of the narrow chute of parochial thinking.  It was not the result they would have approved.

I was already reading science fiction then.  My 5th grade teacher, a rangy man with flame red hair, told me it was a waste of time.  When I asked why, he informed me that all those space stories were worse than fabrications, because there was nothing else Out There.  No aliens, no other civilizations, nothing.  All that Up There had been made by his god for our edification.  It was just there for us to look at and admire.

Emmaus showed me the door out.  On the other side was a future.  Several futures.  One of them was mine.  I look back as seldom as I can.

Just in case anyone is interested.

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.)

At the Nebs

Recently (last weekend) we attended the Nebula Awards in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Actually, we went to visit our good friends, Tim and Bernadette.  Tim—Timons Esaias—is an accomplished poet and a solid SF writer.  You should go find his work, it will improve your mind.  Bernadette, his wife and partner, is a physician and one of the finest people I’ve ever met.  The gentleman with the magnificent mustache is Douglas Gwilym, whose acquaintance we had just made. And, of course, that’s Donna beside me, my sweetie.

This is the night of the reception and award ceremony, so we’re all appropriately attired. It was a fine night and the tributes to the writers and the craft and those we have lost this past year left me seriously moved. In any case, proof that we were there and that  I at least can clean up well. More later.

 

Photograph by:     Larry Ivkovich

I Have Returned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it also means my distractions are back.

Oh, well.  What is life without distractions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Finished

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

chairs-bw-dallas-july-2016

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

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

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

50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, it wasn’t school work.

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

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

It was just so fucking wonderful.

Happy Anniversary.

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.