We Prospered: Leonard Nimoy, 1931 to 2015

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.

Spock IDIC

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.

 

Getting Out Of Your Own Head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________________________________________

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

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

 

Nebula Awards

The Nebula Awards nominees for the best SFF of 2014 have been announced.

Novel

  • 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)

Novella

  • 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)

Novelette

  • “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)

Short Story

  • “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.

Old New Work

Recently I acquired a couple of new(er) photography books. One is a history of Group f.64 by Mary Street Alinder, which proved to be a joy to read.  It chronicled, apparently for the first time comprehensively, the movement known by that label, Group f.64, which changed the way photography as art was done in this country.  Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange…names to conjure with in photographic history, and still today the names to look for when wanting to know what photographs can do.  I’ll do a longer review of it later in the Proximal Eye.

The other two are more straight picture books.  One is a used volume, the 75th Anniversary celebration of Leica cameras.  It includes some truly amazing work.  Then a new volume by Tom Ang, Photography: The Definitive Visual History.  Again, amazing work, beginning from the 1830s on into the digital age.  Ang knows his history and this is a beautiful book.

It sent me into a fit of nostalgia. So I’ve been revisiting old images and doing some new work on them.  For instance, this is one of my personal favorites:

Branch Over Rock and Water, b&w, September 1984This was taken in 1984, on a trip to Colorado with Donna.  The technical data is obsolete—Minolta cameras, Technical Pan film for finest grain and detail—but the image, reworked a bit in Photoshop, pops, and stands as one of my best pieces.

I spent over 35 years doing work in a darkroom, wet process.  For most of that time I loved it.  I have no guilt whatsoever in saying today that I’m glad I don’t have to do it that way anymore.

But the fact is, I must have close to fifty thousand negatives.  I’ve been taking pictures since I was 14.  I have always been visually-centered.  It has even been remarked that my writing is highly visual.

Recently, I’ve been toying with mounting an exhibition.  I have done remarkably few shows over the years.  Mostly out of reluctance to expose my work to criticism, which is silly, but there’s been more than a little laziness about it.  But I think I’ve got some good things and maybe I should put them out there.  Yes, I have the Zenfolio galleries, linked to this site, but I haven’t overseen them as carefully as I perhaps should.  I think I’m going to change that up this year.

But I’ve been, as I said, going over some of my old work.  Like this one, another favorite:

Ice On Window, b&w, 1985

Opportunistic art.  A wintry morning, too early.  We lived in an apartment as an intersection with a traffic light.  I went out to get the car started, to warm it up, and brought my camera, because I have no idea why, and the traffic light through the ice on the windshield did this.  I’ve improved it somewhat here, but it’s one of the few images I’ve made that required little more than some cropping.

Another one from the Colorado trip that I’ve always liked, sort of similar to the one above, but totally different at the same time:

Burnt Cedra 2, b&w, September 1984

One of my “Ansel Adams” imitations.  I love texture and this poor old barely-hanging-on trunk offered plenty.

Raising my lens from the ground to the sky then gave me this one:  Dead Cedars and Pine, b&w, September 1984

More f.64 Group pretension, but there is something primal and fascinating about looking at the world that way.

Occasionally, I get asked what kind of photography I do.  What kind?  As in portrait, landscape, abstract, and so forth, and the fact is I’ve done pretty much all of it.  My world isn’t limited to one way of seeing, one set of subjects, or one story to tell.  Maybe if I’d picked one and stuck with it to the exclusion of all else, I might have made more of a success out of it as a career, but that’s not how my brain works, so I just photograph what crosses my path, and I see differently day to day.  For instance, going through some old proof sheets this week, I stumbled on some images I never printed before, and found this one:

Old Tires, b&w, 1985

Now, sure, you could say that it shares something with landscape. Composition if nothing else.  Old tires as mountain range?  But it’s a different kind of story.  As is this one:

Takin' Out The Recycle, b&w, 1985

No, I haven’t titled it.  I generally don’t, at least not for public consumption.  I have them titled now for filing as digital files.  But I think it’s more fun to let people look and decide on the story implied for themselves.

Working on these old negatives in Photoshop has given yet another way of seeing them, and maybe in the next several months I’ll mine my archives for more, while I try to decide about that exhibit.  I don’t really know how to go about that, but at the moment I’m interested.  The question is, would anybody else be.

Current Crises In The Fish Pond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was wrong.

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

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* 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.