The problem with Hugo – Assessing the work on their merits, a moderate approach

So this was a thing that happened. Short form, after three years of concerted, non-stop campaigning, the sad puppies managed to game the system of the Hugo Awards sufficiently to stack the ballot to the point where there are some categories where, quite literally, there is no choice but Sad Puppy options.

Furthermore, in some of these cases (though not all) the options presented by the Sad Puppies are so obviously included just to stick one to the “pink shirts” that, even disregarding the inside baseball of the various cliques involved, “no award” is the best available option.

I don’t say that lightly. Now I’m going to break down the categories one-by-one and discuss what I know of the entries on them. And in the process, I’m going to act like I don’t know the Sad Puppies exist as a thing because I want it to become apparent how blatant ridiculous this ballot is. But before I do that, I want to talk about options.

The Way Forward

We have a few options going forward:

  1. Fully politicize the Hugo awards by forming an organized slate of candidates to counter the Sad Puppy clique.
  2. Abandon the Hugo awards to the Sad Puppies.
  3. Push for a complete redesign of the Hugo Awards

Now, of these options, I think 2 is by far the worst. I’m tired of ceding ground in public space to conservative interests, of seeing Overton windows constantly sliding right.

So let’s examine the other two options.

A fully politized ballot

Despite my previous (very public) comments regarding the inseparability of art and politics, I actually think this is not a good option. I’m no more interested in turning the Hugo Awards into a permanent battleground of the Culture Wars than I am in abandoning them to become the paleoconservative awards for genre fiction.

Unfortunately, I think that this is what probably will happen short term. Certainly, for the 2015 Hugos it’s going to happen, because, as I’ll show later, it’s effectively impossible to vote in the majority of categories in the Hugo awards without it being politicized.

Since I refuse to throw my hands up and abandon the awards to the Sad Puppies, any voting that happens kind of will end up being political.

And any changes to the structure of the Hugo Awards will require successful votes at two successive Worldcons, so we’re probably looking at the same sad fight next year. However, notwithstanding this stop-gap measure to prevent the Hugo Awards from honoring grossly inappropriate throwbacks, I think that the real fight should be to change the Hugo Awards structure so that it’s harder to game the system.

Changing the Hugo Awards

Ideally, the Hugo Awards should be honoring the best SFF has to offer, rather than the thing any one camp was able to push forward as the best avatar of their political vision. But with the current structure that’s hard to do. So what are some options?

Raise the price to nominate and vote

No. Unlikely to work, kind of jerky to boot. I only mention it because it’ll invariably come up as a suggestion.

Eliminate multiple nominations

When a single author has been spammed across every nomination in a category it’s clear that some rigging is going on. So I’d suggest this as a first measure: a single individual or organization will not be allowed to be nominated more than once for any given award, and not more than three times for all award categories. In the event that a nominee receives more than one qualifying nomination in a category, whichever work receives the most nominations is the one that goes on the ballot. The others are discarded. The same applies if a person is nominated into more than three categories. The strongest nominations stay. The weaker nominations are tossed.

I think this might be one of the easiest fixes for the problem we’re facing right now. It’d, at the very least, mean that a greater diversity of nominees would be on every ballot, and would slightly weaken the power of voting blocs aligning behind specific high-profile incendiary candidates.

Of course, nothing stops voting blocs from just finding five different names for each slate and pushing that slate forward just as strongly. But at least they’d have to work harder, and as my later analysis will show, when the voting bloc can’t lean on a single author to push their agenda, the situation becomes more difficult.

Make the Hugo Awards a juried award

Of course this’ll make the selection of the jury a matter of political contention. But if we switched the selection of the nominations list from an open pay-for-vote situation to a juried one, it would at least introduce some accountability. That’s something we don’t really have right now.

Something else?

Honestly, I’m looking for suggestions here, comments welcome.

A breakdown of the award categories

Of course, everything I’ve been saying is predicated on the brokenness of the current list. So let’s look at that in greater detail.

Best novel

  • Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • The Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson (Tor Books)
  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) (Tor Books)
  • Lines of Departure by Marco Kloos (47North)
  • Skin Game by Jim Butcher (Roc Books)

This is one of the two best categories on this year’s ballot. Frankly Ancillary Sword has been my pick for the 2015 Hugo award ever since I read it. Leckie is a genius and her book is a tour-de-force. And I say that as somebody who’s often bored by space opera.

I’ve heard good things about The Goblin Emperor though I haven’t read it. It’s on my TBR list, but, being honest, it’d have to be AMAZING to dislodge Leckie’s book from my top pick.

Jim Butcher has long been one of my guilty pleasure reads. I enjoyed Skin Game, with a big caveat that I thought Butcher leaned FAR too hard on the femme fatale tropes of noir in this outing, and there were small parts of the book that veered into straight-up sexism which I found jarring and which I SERIOUSLY hope he dials back in his next outing. Still I’ll be buying his next Dresden book because it’s an enjoyable read. Would I call Skin Game the best SFF book of 2014? No. Nope. Nooooooope. I would not. But, I wouldn’t really blame somebody who did – Butcher is a very competent and entertaining author.

I haven’t read, or heard anything about The Dark Between the Stars so this one’s a bit of a shoulder-shrug on my part. I have no problem with Kevin J. Anderson, and some of his Dune novels were entertaining reads. But I’m still going to stump for Leckie over him. Because Leckie is a freaking genius.

Lines of Departure puts the military in military SF. I don’t read much straight up military SF (Scalzi notwithstanding) so I can’t really comment. Scalsi seems to like Kloos. But it’s kind of the same situation as with Anderson, I’m more saying “not enough information to comment” than “don’t vote for this guy”

Conclusion: If I knew absolutely nothing about Sad Puppies I’d probably have absolutely no problem with the ballot for best novel. Vote for who you like. I’ll be voting for Leckie first because I REALLY like Leckie and I think she really did write the best science fiction novel of the year.

Best Novella

  • Big Boys Don’t Cry by Tom Kratman (Castalia House)
  • “Flow” by Arlan Andrews, Sr. (Analog, Nov 2014)
  • One Bright Star to Guide Them by John C. Wright (Castalia House)
  • “Pale Realms of Shade” by John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House)
  • “The Plural of Helen of Troy by John C. Wright (City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, Castalia House)

Ok so here’s where I do this:  (ノಠ益ಠ)ノ彡┻━┻

I’m going to start with John C. Wright. The man who, according to the Hugo ballot wrote three of the five best novellas of 2014. Wright called the creators of Legend of Korra termites for confirming that Korra was bisexual. He said they should be, and this is a quote, exterminated.

I’m sorry, but this falls back to my, “you can’t ever entirely separate the artist from the art,” statement and I could no more vote for anything this man wrote than I could one of Orson Scott Card’s paeans to the wonders of child soldiers. By using his author platform to spread hate, he has excluded himself from consideration.

Tom Kratman is also on the list of people who have excluded themselves from serious contention on the basis of the things they’ve said online. Look here and here to see what I mean.

And then there’s Arlan Andrews Sr. He’s on the advisory board for the Lifeboat Foundation. And they’re a rather… frightening… group of people.

So in the novella category we have three nominees: one who wants to exterminate the creators of a YA cartoon for daring to admit bisexuals exist, one who seems to believe affirmative action is more racist than the promotion of Rushton-style memes regarding “race” and genetic inheritance, and one who is involved with a trojan horse NGO whose advisory board also includes one of the most infamous anti-islamic radicals in the USA.

This grouping doesn’t include the best SFF has to offer. It doesn’t include the best any random grouping of people have to offer. There’s no way I could endorse any of these people.

So “No Award” carries in novella.

And the rest

This is going to take all day so I’m going to hustle things along. Novelette includes more John C Wright, somebody published in an Orson Scott Card branded publication, and a bunch of things I haven’t read. I’ll probably try to get around to those and report back on a future post.

Short story has more John C. Wright, more Castalia House (on why that’s a no-go zone read Stross here) and more I-haven’t-read-report-back-laters. (Of note, Lou Antonelli, on his blog, claims that “typical literary s-f is dystopian slipsteam pornography,” and not in the tee-hee, I love dystopian slipstream pornography sort of way, so I don’t have high hopes for him. But at least he isn’t as publicly awful as the novella contenders.

Related work: Oh hey, look, Castalia House again. What’s that? Patriarchy Press? That’s just straight up trolling now. In fact, considering Patriarchy Press seems to have no visible web presence, at all, I’m inclined to think it is a troll. Perhaps a self-pubber’s imprint name which he thought was droll or something. Regardless, not filing me with confidence here related work.

Graphic novel: An unremittingly awesome field. Possibly even better  than novel. Ms. Marvel? I love Ms. Marvel – anything related to the Inhumans really, but it’s a wonderful book regardless. Rat Queens, yes, yes, yes. Saga is the comic I haven’t read that is most frequently recommended to me by comic fans and non-comic fans alike. It probably deserves to be on this list. The other two? No clue. But with a minimum of three STRONG contenders out of five this is fine.

Dramatic Presentation – Long and Short: An uncontroversial list in both cases. When I first read the Sad Puppy slate when Torgersen released it, I shrugged and said, “they’re not doing any damage there.”  Haven’t seen Edge of Tomorrow yet, I don’t watch Grimm and I haven’t seen Orphan Black… YET… but everything on those two lists looks highly appropriate and all will be above “no award” on my ballots.

Best Editor: Hey look – Vox Day is on both lists. Well he’s going BELOW “no award.” Beyond that, I don’t know, need to do some research into what the others edited.

The only weirdness in Semiprozine is the presence of Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and Beneath Ceasless Skies on it. I’d have counted them as prozines. Loved Women Destroy Horror though. And I know someone over at Apex & Abyss who I wish nice things for. So, yeah, lots of reasonable choices here once you get past the oddness of how they seem to be defining semipro.

Fanzine: I don’t care, as long as it doesn’t go to Revenge of the Hump Day. As far as I’m concerned this “equal opportunity offender” repository for racist, sexist, anti-islamic, anti-atheist and anti-liberal jokes and editorials has no place being lauded by the Hugo Awards.

Other fan categories. I don’t know any of them. Research will be needed before voting. Or I might just leave those sections blank since time is at a premium and I already have a fair bit of research to do in the pro categories.

John W. Campbell Award: Oh, I LOVE Wesley Chu (which reminds me, I have to get around to getting to reading The Rebirths of Tao – it’s been sitting in TBR basically since I finished The Deaths of Tao, despite not being out yet at that time.) So I know who my #1 will probably be. I don’t know the rest of the authors on this list, so if anybody wants to shout out a favourite book of any of them in the comments I’ll happily give it a peek.

Wrapping up this mess

Between Novel and Graphic Novel on one end – which look like proper and appropriate spreads for the Hugo awards, and the unrelenting shit-show that is the Novella category, most of the professional categories of the Hugo awards show tampering from the Sad Puppies, and Vox Day’s more militant Rabid Puppies. (I’m not making that name up.) And this tampering is to the detriment of SFF.

Specifically, the frequent insertion of one small press with an overtly Christian Dominionist mission over and over and over again is a problem. It’s not just “problematic” in the culture wars sense of the term, no, it’s a fucking major problem, one that needs to be solved.

Ultimately, literary awards should be about good literature. But what we have here isn’t a list of good literature. It’s a manifesto of a world where SFF answers to Christianity, fears other religions, hates gays, sidelines women. (Oh yeah, out of 80 nominees, only 21 were created, in whole or in part, by women.)

So we can’t treat this year’s Hugos like a normal year. Because they’re not. And so some collective action might be necessary. I think, ultimately, some people who were stuck on Sad Puppy lists don’t deserve to be excluded just because the Sad Puppies liked them (looking at you Lego Movie) but what I’d say is this: make sure anybody you put above the “no award” line is somebody you know to be worthy of winning an award. Best case: read them first. At least make sure they’re not a bigot before you give them your vote. And don’t put anything from Castalia House above that line.

Because seriously, Vox Day needs to go away.

Puppies in Stasis

Brad Torgersen writes most honest article about the Sad Puppies movement to come out of their camp

Sad puppyWhen I delivered my presentation at the Toronto SpecFic colloquium at the beginning of march, I put forward the hypothesis that when you got beyond the arguments about politics, the disputes over SFWA membership, and the arguments about literary merit at the awards, what the Sad Puppies really wanted was for SF/F/H to never change from what they believed it to once be.

And now Brad Torgersen, one of the key organizing influences behind the Sad Puppies has written this.

I have to say, as much as I might violently disagree with pretty much everything he said, and his entire premise, it’s at least more honest than I have come to expect from the Puppies. Gone are the claims of trying to de-politicize SF/F/H. Gone are the rallying cries of: “censorship!” “pink shirts!” “reds under the bed!” Gone is the defense of Vox Day’s purulent behaviour or complaints that SFWA is being unfair to the Real Men of SF/F/H.

And that’s good because what Torgersen has provided is a basis for discourse, a reason to actually engage with him and his fellow Puppies, rather than just to dismiss them out of hand as sour grapes.

And that is, in turn, good because I do think he’s misguided – and through that process of engagement perhaps some of those Puppies can be peeled away from what is largely a toxic movement.

The cereal metaphor

Torgersen describes SF/F/H as being a box of “Nutty Nuggets.” He describes himself as a fan of the taste of these hypothetical nuggets, who has, seemingly overnight, found the flavour to have transformed entirely. It’s the same package, the same brand, but it’s not the same nuggets.

He describes trying box after box: some are more like his beloved memory of cereal and some are less. But none of them are his dearly departed nuggets of nuttiness.

Now this is a flawed premise.

First off, SF/F/H was never a homogeneous brand. Even if you go aaaaallllllllll the way baaaaack to the pulps, the gulf between say, Lovecraft and Howard was vast.

But, ok, perhaps Torgersen was raised on a steady diet of Robert Howard, Doc Smith and Robert Heinlein. Does that mean that SF/F/H should never grow beyond a barbarian swinging an axe and a space ship flying past a mysterious planet?

Think for a moment on Moorcock, his Elric stories built upon the traditions of Howard (and of Tolkien) but challenged them. He interrogated the work of the people who came before him and made something new and different in the process. And Elric was a product of the 1970s!

I was born in 1979. To me, there has never been a world where SF/F/H didn’t include both Conan the Cimmerian and Elirc of Melniboné. These two diametrically opposed ideas of what sword and sorcery stories could look like were available to me, from birth and I’d be shocked if literature hadn’t evolved in the meantime.

To me, SF/F/H literature isn’t a box of cereal. It’s the Grand Magic House Buffet. Yes, there are some fried foods there that you KNOW aren’t any good for you but taste SO good. And there’s the old standards: the roast beef and bean salad of the book world. But this buffet is huge, and the chef who runs it can become easily bored. So in addition to the standards there’s an ever-changing, ever-growing abundance of dishes to try.

And so, when we get past the identity politics, when we get past the inside baseball bickering over use of SFWA accounts and how people self-select to vote for awards, when we push that all aside, what do we find?

People at the buffet of genre, who really only want to eat roast beef and bean salad, upset because they put a bit of a new confection on their plate once, didn’t like the taste, and erroneously believe that because they’ve been coming to the restaurant for umpteen billion years, that dish should be expunged and replaced with more roast beef, more bean salad. In fact, anything but roast beef and bean salad must go! The buffet must serve nothing but roast beef, bean salad.

And that’s just kind of sad.

The post in which I count fucks

Bleep Gentle reader, as you likely know as a subscriber to my blog I am an author. I write things, make, to a certain definition of it, art with my words.

And now these fuckers over at Clean Reader want to go in and change my words with ones they find less objectionable.

So let’s talk a bit about my book, the Black Trillium. It’s a new adult novel. That means I’m gearing it toward an audience basically from 16 to 25, with the possibility of people older than 25 might also like it.

The Black Trillium is 117,100 words long. Here’s how I swear:

  • Shit: 15
  • Bitch: 11
  • Fuck: 10
  • Asshole: 2
  • Ass: 1
  • Dick: 1

Total instances of foul words: 40, or roughly 0.034% of my words, probably somewhat less than the foulness of the average late-teenager.

And most of the alternate words I could think of don’t occur, although the word “witch” appears twice.

So you might say, it’s unlikely that anybody would get confused by the word replacements, your story will remained intact.

Except…

I write in multiple first person. The language I choose throughout the entire book is designed to reveal something about the character of the narrator for that chapter. These revelations of character include things like the circumstances under which the characters swear and the sort of swear words they use.

The character who castigates two other protagonists for “waving their dicks around” wouldn’t be the same if she instead criticized them for “waving their thoughts around,” or whatever else Clean Reader decided was less objectionable.

Likewise it’d be a substantial change to character if somebody always cursed by saying “poop.”

Characters are central to story. The story can’t exist without them. And when you mess with the characters you are fundamentally altering the story.

Now recently I delivered a discussion regarding Gamergate and Sad Puppies where I pointed out that all art enters into the realm of political discourse by way of being public speech.

When Clean Reader interferes with the characterization of my characters, and thus muddies my themes, they are making a change, no matter how subtle, to the nature of that public speech.

It’s not censorship, not from the definition I use of what constitutes censorship, but it is academically dishonest, blatant and deliberate misquotation; and that’s a dangerous garden path to dance down all of its own.

Writing a book is a deliberate process.

So is reading one.

And I’ve always been of the opinion that one should think carefully about what they read and why. Certainly the language the author uses is a fair consideration.

When you let people bleep the fucks out of stories you are facilitating a lack of deliberateness in reading, a laziness regarding content.

So what do we have?

Laziness, dishonesty, political interference, interference with the artistic vision of the artist.

Clean reader: go fuck yourself.

Maybe start painting bras on all those old paintings by Titian. Oh wait, I mean “Mammary”ian. I wouldn’t want to swear.

No, Amazon isn’t doing the world any favours

stupidburnsA rebuttal to Matthew Yglesias

I haven’t written here in a while. That’s largely for three reasons. 1) My wife was pregnant and I was spending a lot of time just figuring out how to Dad. That process is ongoing now that my daughter is out in the world, but it was kind of a big deal around here. 2) There was also the most fraught municipal election in the history of the amalgamated city of Toronto going on basically for the last six months. Being a municipal politics nerd (yes, that’s a thing) I was a bit preoccupied by that. 3) The ongoing culture wars in genre were becoming exhausting to write about. Seriously, this particular SJW just needed a break from fighting in that battle because it’s a neverending cavalcade of misogyny, homophobia and racism that we seem to be dealing with. The Gamergaters and their ilk need to go away, and never come back. But, hey, The Amazon / Hachette thing is making the rounds of authorly social media once again and this article on Vox is just about the dumbest defense of Amazon I’ve ever read! That has almost nothing to do with the culture wars, but I can still get a chance to dust off the old snark. I’ll rebut it point by point.

Yes, publishing is big business, so what?

I’m not going to waste too many words on the first point because it’s a straw man argument plain and simple. There’s nobody sane criticizing Amazon because major publishers are mom and pops. Everybody even tangentially connected to publishing knows otherwise. This is simply not a significant part of the argument .

Amazon having competitors doesn’t mean it doesn’t have monopsony powers

Paul Krugman’s argument that Amazon, as the main buyer of goods, has the ability to manipulate the market as a monopsony is actually a very strong one, and more correct than those who have argued that Amazon is effectively a monopoly.

After all, Amazon HAS driven down prices. In fact, the opening volley of open conflict between the big four and Amazon happened when the big four (then five but there was a merger afterward) colluded with Apple in an effort to slow Amazon’s race to the bottom on book prices.

So, yeah, the big four tried to threaten to withdraw their products from Amazon if it didn’t stop pricing them into the ground. Amazon’s response was to cry to the courts that Apple was being unfair. Amazon derives its power in the market from being the dominant buyer and reselling the product, often at a loss, in order to grow at the expense of other companies. It’s a little bit insane, and it’s bad for the market in the long run.

And now for the obligatory self-publishing-or-bust section

I’ll lay this out simply: Every author needs an editor, cover art and marketing. Some authors are very good editors. They still need an editor. You just can’t edit your own work as well as another person can. You can’t. You’re too close. You miss things. Hell your brain infers details that aren’t on the page. And I’m talking both macro-level stuff (the setting looked fine in my head) and grammar level stuff (typed teh, never noticed even during proofing). Not every author can afford to hire an editor. Few authors are also cover artists. Many authors have day-jobs and don’t have time for the day job plus writing their books plus marketing their books, even if they know how. Some writers are not marketers by nature.

If you get rid of publishers you’ll turn writing into an art reserved for the wealthy and the deluded. I’d rather not see that.

Some publishers not being good marketers doesn’t make what Amazon does right

That much stands on its own. But furthermore books are more like commodities than you care to suggest. With the exception of a small cadre of “name” authors and the very different academic press market (which has its own set of pricing problems completely separate from Amazon’s) authors are sadly interchangeable. For the most part, for the mid list authors, their books get sold or some other similar authors books get sold instead and no consumer is likely to get too concerned. They want to read horror. If they can’t find horror book A they’ll find horror book B.

Frankly 99% of the working authors out there aren’t George R.R. Martin. If they don’t sell their books everywhere books can be sold they don’t get to influence the market. Instead they just lose money.

And, as I mentioned, some authors have no time to market their books. Even shabby marketing is better than absent marketing.

And what about authors who have no inclination to marketing? Should they just be excluded from their art? Honestly, there’s a deeply problematic misunderstanding of the lifestyle of the author in this section.

Advances are business, so what?

Yes, an advance isn’t a charitable contribution. Again arguing this is a strawman. Advances are more akin to futures stocks than to charity. A publisher is gambling that the future earnings of a book will be greater than the outset of cost for the advance on the book.

In exchange authors who dependably move copy get a slightly more stable income. It’s actually kind of win-win. And frankly it is NOT a loan. So to suggest that authors should take on debt (whether or not they can) to live while they wait for their royalties to roll on in is perverse.

Cheap books aren’t necessarily good for anybody

Amazon’s manipulation of the market does drive down costs for consumers. But books weren’t that expensive to begin with. I mean seriously, I read more than most consumers, and I buy print frequently. I buy hardcover and trade paperbacks when I buy print almost exclusively – IE: the expensive options – and you know what? \

It’s not an expensive hobby.

I don’t need to pay pennies for my four books a month, and most consumers can afford their one or two even at $10 for an e-book.

Yes, publishers profit from book prices. So what? They’re a business. We covered that at the top.

Authors ALSO profit from book prices. How do you think publishers can afford to gamble $50,000 or more on an unknown product that might or might not pay off? They do it through scale. It’s a sad truth big publishers can afford big advances. Small presses, as much as I love them (and I DO love small presses) can’t afford big advances.

Amazon’s reckless growth without profit model is harmful to everybody. It hurts publishers, it hurts authors, it hurts competing distributors and ultimately it hurts consumers.

Because when the choices remaining are un-edited and un-curated chaff and the vanity projects of the wealthy consumers will find their options for alternatives extinct.

Did Disney Listen?

Starwars.com reported today that Lupita Nyong’o and Gwendoline Christie have been added to the cast of Episode VII.

If they wanted to quell concerns regarding the dearth of people of colour and women in their initial casting announcements there are very few people who would be better choices.

Between Nyong’o’s academy award for Twelve Years a Slave, and Christie’s performance as Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones, these two women could signal an actual commitment to presenting a universe much broader in scope than we feared on May Fifth.

Now the question remains whether they will be given roles of substance. For one, I am hopeful that this casting choice reflects Disney genuinely listening to criticism from the fanbase and endeavoring to improve. Because it would be nearly as bad to have Nyong’o and Christie in this movie, relegated to background as to not have them at all.

What he said

I’ve been banging my head against a bit of a wall in some fandom related discussions for the last few days. Was planning on writing yet another longish piece about prejudicial behaviour and why it needs to stop.

But then I saw this piece from Jim Hines that quite effectively encapsulates everything I really needed to add and hadn’t added in my last post on this topic. So I’m just going to leave it here and say, yeah, what he said.

Oh, with one addition, “But Bob always tries to be colour-blind” doesn’t mean Bob isn’t behaving prejudicially. Colour-blindness would oppose affirmative action programs; and yet affirmative action is a good tool for fighting racism.

Edit: Check out Angry Astronomer’s blog for more details if you’re interested.

Yes, Racism is Still a Problem in SFF

I’m feeling pretty ill today – a weekend long bout of insomnia culminated in me not getting a wink of sleep pretty much at all last night and I’m in a foul mood. As such, fair warning, but there’s going to be some snark in this post and, unlike yesterday, probably very few extended tongue-in-cheek Shakespeare allusions.

I made the mistake of blundering down the rabbit hole of comments sections on SFF Fandom blogs last night and this morning. What I found sickened me. There’s big problems with discussions of race, ethnicity and, yes, racism in SFF. And what’s more, it’s not just restricted to certain well known agitators with pseudonyms that rhyme with Smocks Smay.

 Down the Rabbit Hole

My first mistake was reading into the comments of an article talking about the recent departure from SFWA of John C. Wright. I know, I know, don’t read the comments. Never read the comments! But I couldn’t help myself. Things took a turn for the surreal when Wright himself appeared in the comments thread and accused another person in the comments of being one of the Pod People from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and speaking in “Newspeak” because of that person’s membership in ” a faction known as Political Correctness.”

Now, a note, this particular conversation had nothing to do with race. It largely centered around Wright’s characterization of SFWA when he said: “Instead of men who treat each other with professionalism and respect, I find a mob of perpetually outraged gray-haired juveniles.”

So, yeah, it was a gender thing. And the gender thing is also a huge thing. But if this particular privileged white male is going to take jabs at the community when it gets sexist, I have an equal obligation to point out the racism I am becoming increasingly aware of, and uncomfortable with, within fandom.

Swarthy Cult-Fiends and Sallow Easterlings

In some ways one of the most difficult realizations of my early adulthood was recognizing the racism inherent in some of my favorite authors – notably H.P. Lovecraft (who was REALLY concerned with ideas of racial purity as demonstrable by “The Shadow over Innsmouth”) and J.R.R. Tolkien, who created a war in which tall, heroic, white (in the case of the Elves, super-white) people fought a war against sallow Easterners and dark orcs.

As time goes by it becomes more difficult for me to ignore the tones of yellow peril implicit in that construction.

But, even though these two authors probably did more to shape fantasy and horror than any others in the twentieth century, it’s easy for us to put them firmly in the past. Sure, there are race issues in those old books. But that was the time and it’s not like we’re racist. Right? Right?

The Yellow Peril Never Went Away

And yet, there exists, in print, a long series of novels set in a future wherein China has overrun the world. Africans have been exterminated by the heavily othered Chinese conquerors and Europeans are forced to integrate or face expulsion into a stygian hellscape of cannibalism and darkness.

Though lip-service is paid to putting antagonists and protagonists on both sides of this sprawling series of novels, it is made abundantly clear that the European characters stand in for change and dynamism. The Chinese characters for stasis and tradition.

In the first volume of this series, the author wrote an afterword in which he stated that his decision to use the laughably outmoded and inaccurate Wade-Giles transcription for the Mandarin speakers in the novel over the much more accurate Pinyin transliteration was because he found the former “far more elegant” to the latter which he refers to as having “harder forms”.

It’s worth noting that Pinyin was developed by Chinese people for the transcription of Mandarin in the second half of the 20th century, while Wade-Giles was the product of a British diplomat who served as part of the diplomatic corps to China during the Second Opium War.

This series is an especially egregious example, but let’s face it. Despite the high-minded rhetoric of exploring the bounds of the future many SFF narratives boil down to the same sad story.

The others are coming.

They have no cause to love us.

They will destroy what we hold dear.

Because they think differently from us.

And no two ideologies can ever exist side by side in peace.

(Note: I’m not calling all of these racist. However each of these examples depends upon an enemy who is entirely other and effectively uniformly antagonistic. There are many, many more.)

 Back to the Rabbit Hole

But this all serves mainly to contextualize my thoughts when I continued down the rabbit hole. Because I did a bunch more clicking, and a bunch more comment reading, and then I found this gem:

These two vast, {India and China} ancient societies withstood the centuries by keeping down innovation, so life was much the same from one millennium to the next. Centuries slid by with little to mark them beyond the feuding of maharajahs.

The evidence given for this sweeping generalization was a highly simplistic interpretation of the dismantling of the treasure fleet of Zheng He.

One could just as easily say of Europe that this vast, continent spanning and ancient society withstood the centuries by keeping down innovation through the application of religious persecution. After all, look at the Spanish Inquisition.

This view disregards that there were progressive and conservative governments in China and in India over the five thousand years of their recorded history. It disregards the Chinese invention of the compass (~1040 AD), gunpowder (9th century AD), the printing press (~220 AD) and paper (8 BC). It disregards the advanced state of classical Indian mathematics (the use of Zero, the development of Brahmagupta’s theorem, and a host of others). It is based on a Eurocentric view of the decadent east that has more to do with the effective deployment of European military power in Asia during the colonial period than anything legitimately from the history of either place.

One of the two authors of this work has also been criticized for writing a novel in which the protagonist, a woman of colour, “has inherited a mistrust of Afrocentrism, a profound and much-rehearsed disbelief in the significance of racism in shaping her career, and a deleterious approach to the various tokenistic women’s and minorities’ committees and functions that bedevil her academic life. ”

This, to me, reads altogether too much as, “there’s no racism here, and anybody who says otherwise is just one of those free-speech suppressing PC Pod People.”

I’ve written before here about the need to treat art as operating within the context of both the creator and of current culture. If our art is created by a person who, on one hand, advances a narrative that places an Eastern other as inferior to a progressive West; if that person then creates a protagonist who appears to exist to challenge the validity of affirmative action and to push forward the hackneyed belief that we live in a post-racial world, we should look at the latter through the lens of the former.

The only reason that we live in a world where racism isn’t as powerful as it was fifty years ago is because of fifty years of hard-fought battles and hard-won victories. Leaving the battle half-way to won and declaring racism is over doesn’t make it so.

There’s a huge debate about the place of politics in SFF right now.  A lot of it is predicated on a disagreement about the difference between free speech and consequence free speech.

More than a few people in Fandom would be happy for the debate to go away. After all, we want license to love the things we love. There is nothing harder than to look at something as dearly loved as the Lord of the Rings and to admit it has a race problem. This doesn’t mean that these individuals in Fandom are racist; it does mean that they would rather not feel forced to examine the racism that exists within the field. Doing so would invariably interfere with them loving the things they love. I still like reading Lovecraft (well, some Lovecraft) even though I know how truly disgusting his views are. I have to live with that – and it does interfere with my own comfort with those parts of my own fannishness.

I still like Star Wars.

But I like to think that the aspiration of the SFF community is to BE the future; to uphold an example of a better possible world. We do live in a more pluralistic world than fifty years ago. And Roddenberry was a part of that – SFF was a part of that. But we shouldn’t stop. We shouldn’t allow the conservatism of progressing age to distract us from the angels of our better nature. We have to improve ourselves. And self-improvement can be painful.

May the Fourth be With You – But also some hard truths

May the 4th be with you

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s been a lot of discussion regarding the Star Wars casting announcement recently. Adam Shaftoe has an excellent take on the issue over at Page of Reviews, and for something a little more light-hearted check out Max Gladstone’s blog.

I grew up with Star Wars. When I was four I used to un-ironically introduce myself to strangers as “Luke.” (I left the Skywalker part with the baffling innocence of children, leading to much consternation for my parents who had to explain that I was actually named Simon.)

When the new trilogy came out I was even more forgiving than most. After camping out for hours to buy tickets for Phantom Menace I was disappointed. I was uncomfortable with the broad racial stereotypes of the Trade Federation and the Gungans, but, even at the age of 20 I was willing to give George Lucas a pass “just this once,” because Star Wars.

As such, I feel a bit like Marc Anthony when I say that I’m very disheartened about what the recent news coming out of the new trilogy reveals.

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

The recent casting announcement included a grand total of two women (one new and one returning) and one person of color. On the other hand we see a lot of old white guys.

There are all kinds of reasons, from the perspective of culture and politics why this is disheartening. And Adam addressed those perfectly so I’ll leave that for now. But there’s another reason that I’m concerned with this casting choice.

It’s just bad storytelling.

The excuse I heard first to excuse the cultural and political concerns (and it took all of a picosecond for this excuse to rear its head on my Facebook wall) was that Star Wars is not set in this world. There are different rules for the Galaxy Far Far Away than there are for Earth. Perhaps the birth rate of women is just much lower. Perhaps the human-analogue species of Star Wars displays substantially reduced melanistic diversity and consequently people of colour are rarer too.

That’s grade A bullshit right there.

The fact of the matter is that Star Wars is a story created on earth by humans on earth and for humans on earth. Building characters is a deliberate process, and the choices we make about the characters we build always reflects some element of OUR world and our place in it.

Kameron Hurley knocked the ball out of the park with her article ‘We Have Always Fought‘ – which is currently nominated for the Hugo for Best Reated Work. I would like to strongly encourage anybody eligible to vote in the Hugo Awards to cast their vote for this article. It’s simply the best work of critical analysis I’ve seen specific to genre to the last decade.

Hurley’s argument, and it’s an exceptionally good one, is that our expectations regarding history are shaped by the narratives we create surrounding it.

Applying this to Star Wars, J.J. Abrams’ decision to return to 1980s style tokenism in Star Wars casting is structuring a narrative which isn’t reflective of the reality of modern western culture (which has become substantially more pluralistic and diverse over the intervening twenty years) and which frames a narrative strongly in line with the “history is made by white men” model.

This isn’t just bad politics. It’s bad storytelling.

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones

Of course, there’s another problem. And that problem is J.J.’s marketing strategy. It’s possible that Star Wars will pass both the Bechdel and Mako standards with flying colours.

Really JJ?

Possible, but not very likely.

However we’ll probably never know until the film comes out, because of the god-damn mystery box. The same insufferable, click-baitey, pretentious marketing strategy that refused to admit that the antagonist in a Wrath of Khan remake was going to bee freaking Khan!

While Godzilla provides trailers and clips that let us know the broad strokes of the plot structure (that Godzilla will be called upon to fight other Kaiiju, that the movie will be a reflection upon the arrogance of humanity to believe we are the masters of nature), while Marvel lets us in on enough juicy tidbits of their films to build excitement for gambles like Guardians of the Galaxy, J.J. hides everything behind a wall of secrecy. He insists on details as simple as the names of characters counts as “spoilers.”

And so we only have his past work to fall back on for details. ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ white-washed the primary antagonist, turning him into a white British man. It did THAT (above and to the right) to Carol Marcus. It turned Kirk, Spock and Uhura into broad caricatures of their original series roles and it wrapped up this in a story that made no logical sense.

J.J. Abrams failed to understand Star Trek. He was tone deaf to what the Star Trek story meant. He was unable to understand what the story of ‘Wrath of Khan’ meant, for that matter.

We have his word that he is a fan of Star Wars. And, who knows, perhaps he’ll at least understand Star Wars. But with his childish insistence on secrecy we won’t know until it’s far too late.

You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?

In some ways George Lucas got very lucky with Star Wars. It was the right film at the right time to inspire a lot of people. It became a touchstone for imaginative adventure for a generation and without it cinema would be a very different place.

Because of this, it’s very easy to give Star Wars a pass. We want license to love the things we love. And a lot of people love Star Wars; and not without reason.

But the truth is that we should also have the courage to say when the ambition of the things we love out-steps their value. We should have the conviction to call out the things we love when the falter and fail. And ultimately, though I hope it isn’t necessary, it may be necessary to put a knife into some of the things we loved in recognition that, regardless of what they once did they now cause more harm than good.

And if it comes to that, I know how I’ll eulogize Star Wars.

My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

We can do better

One of my favourite authors and “PC Monster” Saladin Ahmed shared this chart recently and I was a little bit disgusted.

The chart shows a breakdown of people reviewed by the New York Times by skin colour and ethnicity. The big blue part are the white people. Everybody else are represented by all those little wedges there.

Yeah, that really stinks. Out of 742 books reviewed only nine were written by Hispanic authors – that’s 1.2% of the books reviewed. According to 2010 statistics, 16.4% of the population of the US is Hispanic.

Similar disparities exist with other groups – 4.2% of reviewed authors were African Americans – the same statistics listed the African American population at 12.6%.  When there is under-representation at a rate of three to one (or worse, 10 to one) this strikes me as problematic bias.

We, in the literary community, can do better than this. We should be seeking out diverse voices, not ignoring them. It can be hard to find work written by diverse voices sometimes and this is part of it. If the books aren’t reviewed they don’t get distributed. If they don’t get wide distribution people don’t read them.

And that’s not even considering straight-up censorship of minority writers, which still totally happens.

The Myth of the Genre Outsider – a method of Exclusion

I was looking for an update on the Jim Frenkel situation I’d mentioned recently. And, as far as I can see, there are no updates. However while I was browsing to see if there was new information on this story I stumbled upon one of the internet’s many pockets of awful.

I am not linking to it because I don’t want to give this guy the traffic. He’s an horrible piece of work.

This pocket of awful was the blog of an author, occasional video game designer and terrible internet troll who is best left nameless.

In his blog he leapt to the defense of Frenkel, claiming that the complaints levelled against him had surely been falsified. First he doxed the woman in question. I am not certain the extent to which she has made her personal information public with regard to this so I will not mention her by name. After that bit of nasty he provided his reasoning for why he believed her complaint to be spurious. His argument as for why was entirely lacking:

she was a completely useless and not terribly ornamental member of an otherwise excellent writing group in [redacted], she never actually did any writing, and all she wanted to do was talk about herself and babble about feminism

It’s typical misogynistic trolling. However it’s got a bit of a genre spin on it which I’d like to point out and that is the complaint – thrown between the sexist stab at her appearance and the misogynistic fear of the f-word – he attacked her for being attached to a writing group despite not publishing much.

This is the worst sort of drek. In a single sentence this vulgar little troll not only conjured up two sexist favourites but also a variant of the tired chestnut “she’s not really one of us, after all.”

This attitude REALLY bothers me on multiple levels. Fundamentally, it’s sexism, which I’m opposed to. However it also speaks to a major problem in fandom. That problem is the myth of the Fan as Outsider.

For as long as I’ve been involved with any sort of fandom there’s been this idea that the fan community is somehow different. This is tied up heavily in the self-identity of the nerd or the geek.

“We’ve been rejected because we’re a little bit weird,” fans say. “The normals don’t like us.”

But the truth is that most people really couldn’t care less.

A more honest truth is that there are quite a few people within Fandom who don’t particularly like people outside of Fandom. For them this sense of being an outsider is armour they can wear to mask the truth, they don’t want new people to join their club.

For a lot of people this isn’t tied into mysogeny or into any other particular prejudice other than a prejudice against people who think Star Trek is silly. However when a person is also a sexist, or a racist, we get the bile of people like our nameless blogger.

Fandom is not made of outsiders, it hasn’t been for a long time. Frankly it really never has been – most of the people I know from fan communities hold jobs, have families who love them and function perfectly well as members of general society when not having fun at conventions.

There’s nothing wrong with having a bit of an off-beat sense of fun, and our culture hasn’t had any problem with that since the sixties at least. It’s time we dismantled the myth of the Fan as Outsider. It’s only real use now is keeping people out – and I for one want the fan community to grow, diversify and become the welcoming and inclusive place we all like to tell ourselves it is.