Current Crises In The Fish Pond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was wrong.

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

_______________________________________________________________________________________

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

**Secret Masters Of Fandom.

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

2 thoughts on “Current Crises In The Fish Pond

  1. Mark, I’d like to conduct an experiment. Let’s lock the military SF folks and the Cthulhu Mythos folks in single padded cell together , feed them through a slot in the door, and let them duke it out. Who(or what)ever comes out after a couple months can have their pens back. Of course what comes out might be an amorphous monstrosity that combines the worst aspects of both entities in which case we bring in the Sword & Sorcery battalion to hack it to pieces.

    The sad part is given the opportunity to range far and wide many folks are simply content to hunker down. They LOVE the ghetto. We live in such conservative times. The idea is that we can’t ever surpass the work of the past. All we can do is hope to create successful imitations. If something genuinely new came along they wouldn’t celebrate it; they’d hate it. Oh well.

    Hey, fifty bonus points for using “shan’t” in a sentence!

  2. This is a good, thoughtful essay, Mark. It seems like the Hugo nominations always bring a set of complaints. In 2007, critics–who obviously had no comprehension how they operated–complained they were sexist. (There were only 409 nominators that year.) Those same critics had obviously overlooked that between 2002 and 2006 women had won the Best Novel Award 3 out of 5 years.

    Dare I mention the Sad Puppies? They’re convinced that Hugo nominators are determined to shut them out from the Hugos because of their conservative politics.

    No matter what the complaint, it always seems people are embittered by the process when those they nominate don’t become finalists. I do agree with you on the point of visibility in the community, especially in the days before the Hugo packet. The Hugo voters tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to pick the candidates they’re familiar with and the other material that was nominated was buggered without proper consideration if it could not be found.

Comments are closed.