Wednesday, October 19, 2016

PERSPECTIVES V: Voices in Science Fiction & Fantasy

Welcome to Perspectives V!

Here’s how it works: an editoral, opinion piece, or critical essay written by an external blogger, critic, journalist, or creative person is presented by a regular contributor to nerds of a feather, flock together; it is then answered by other regular 'nerds of a feather, flock together' contributors. Crucially, each respondent will also respond to each preceding respondent. This time around, for a change of pace we use a new collection, not another article, as our jumping-off point. This episode's cast o' characters:

Vance K (Respondent #1)

Vance is the co-editor and usually cult-film reviewer for ‘nerds of a feather, flock together.’ He records loud folk songs under the name Sci-Fi Romance, and writes and directs things for a living.

Charles Payseur (Respondent #2)

Charles is an avid reader, reviewer, and writer of speculative fiction and poetry. Most of his time and energy goes into maintaining Quick Sip Reviews and being a general nuisance on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo. He's contributed to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

The G (Respondent #3)

The G is founder and co-editor of 'nerds of a feather, flock together.' In his spare time, he makes synthwave music. Find him on twitter @nerds_feather.

EPISODE 5: In which three nerds tackle the battle over the direction of today's sci-fi and fantasy with the help of some historical perspective

This month, The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund published a new collection called She Changed Comics (link here), which profiles 60 female comics creators from the dawn of the medium until the present day. Coming out as the book does in the current social atmosphere, telling the long story of the impact a marginalized group of creators had on a medium and the ways in which their voices helped shape and re-define the kinds of stories that are told and the ways in which they are told has tremendous resonance for the present day. With the Hugo Awards embroiled in a years-long struggle between individuals with different views of what science fiction and fantasy should look like now and in the future, and the raging inferno of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and one candidate's appeal to reject out-of-control political correctness, this is a conversation that has huge ramifications both inside and outside of genre circles.

Vance K

I reject the notion of "the good old days."

I think that pretty much any period of history people can point at and say "those were the good old days," either socially or in media like comic books or elsewhere, can be pointed to by another group of people who could say "those were the darkest days of my life." Like Louis C.K. said, time travel only works if you're white. If you're a black time traveler, you can't really go back to any time before 1980.

The gifted short story author James Tiptree Jr. counted Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, and other fixtures in the sci-fi pantheon as contemporaries. But James Tiptree Jr. was in actuality Alice Bradley Sheldon, and she had to use a male pseudonym because publishers wouldn't even consider science fiction written by women. Sheldon was a fantastic writer, and another of her contemporaries, Shirley Jackson, remains one of my favorite authors. But there were undoubtedly female writers who were just as gifted and yet were never published. Or budding writers who were told that girls didn't write that kind of thing...or write at all. And selfishly, as a fan, I'm really sad about the stories that stayed in those pens and that I'll never get to read.

But I get it — I understand the pull of that kind of "good old days" thinking. Somewhere, usually in childhood, something struck sparks in that place in our hearts lined with kindling, and we chase after that feeling for the rest of our lives. That's normal. Back in May, NPR did an interview with former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan where he said that he wanted "an America like the country I grew up in, which was a pretty good country." It was a pretty good country for him, I'm sure, and one in which he felt safe and protected. But take a look at the pictures by Swiss photographer Robert Frank, who crisscrossed the United States in the 1950s and documented what he saw. Collected in his book The Americans, which was brutally panned at the time, shows a much less rosy picture of the "idyllic" 1950s, where "everybody" lived in nice suburban homes and respected their elders and lived like Leave it to Beaver.

For me, what it comes down to is "Who gets to tell their story?" The 1950s zeitgeist prized homogeneity; that's why the houses all looked the same, and there were rigid social roles that people were expected to keep up or else. I was talking to an old police lieutenant a few weeks ago, and he told me that when he started with his force about thirty years ago, the guys with as many years on then as he has now all started working in the 50s, and they went to so, so, so many suicide calls. And I think that's because it takes an unreal toll on someone to pretend to be something they're not. It's only now that we're beginning to crack the lid on that box and get a glimmer of all the ways people and their experiences can be different, and all the ways that they've had to contort over the years to pretend they were just like everybody else. The people that looked the same, acted the same, thought the same, they were the ones that got to tell their stories. But that left a lot of voices out.

People like Nalo Hopkinson and N.K. Jemisin, who are writing some of the most compelling SF/F today, they didn't get to tell their stories then. But now they can. And it's still an uphill climb for too, too many people, but as a reader, my experience of the world has always been broadened and enriched by what I've read. I feel like getting to hear stories from more and different voices helps scrub away some of my ignorance of the world and its many, many facets, and I feel like that's a gift. So I for one am excited that we can read Raina Telgemeier's and Marjane Satrapi's comics, despite people who want to silence them. I think a broader understanding of the world and the people in it is only to our benefit, and I'm personally excited about the broader direction that genre fiction seems to be heading.

Charles Payseur

I come to the discussion about the "State of SFF" from a strange place. Well, not really. I come to the discussion from a place that a great, great many people do. From the outside. Not because I haven't been a fan of SFF my entire life. I have. Not because I don't participate in SFF fandom. I do. Not because I don't create SFF. I am a SFF fiction writer, a SFF poet, and a SFF reviewer and nonfiction writer. That said, I do not come to this discussion from within SFF. Despite my participation in SFF and my engagement with it, I hold very little power in SFF. And when I talk about SFF, when I write it and when I read it, I'm doing so from the outside looking in. Because I do not get to define what SFF is. Because I do not get to choose what SFF gets published. Because at times I cannot even pay to have access to the stories that I want to read, much less get paid for the stories I want to tell.

I am queer. I write SFF romance and erotica and poetry as well as more "mainstream" stories. I argue that the SFF canon needs to be thrown out the window. I hate institutional genre distinction and segregation. I somewhat recently read Melissa Scott's Trouble and Her Friends for the first time. I love how that novel shows what difference can do within groups of people. In the novel, Trouble is part of a group of queer hackers who find themselves hated by the larger hacker community because they are "political." Political meaning because they are queer and because they cannot separate their queerness from their hacking. Likewise, the most pervasive complaints I hear when people talk about the "State of SFF" (and the state of the country, the world, and probably beyond) is the terror of political correctness. But what does it mean to be political? Are you political if you vote? Well, not for the swaths of the country that talk about political correctness like it's some new form of terrorism. They can just vote. Is it being passionate about something, about SFF? Again, not for those who bemoan the SJWs in their SFF. They can just be passionate. So then, being "political" has nothing to do with what you do. It has to do with who you are.

And let me say this. Political correctness, as some call it, hurts no one. It does the opposite of hurt people. The only claim I have seen as to the harm done by political correctness is that it stops certain stories from being written. That people are, essentially, censored. People tell me I get worked up about things, which I suppose is a big step up from being told I'm hysterical. Because calling someone hysterical is a threat. It pulls from a history where a man could have a woman institutionalized for being too political. Too passionate. It's a reminder of that, a sort of wistful "back in the good old days" sort of thing. Ah, back in the good old days when slavery was legal, when women could not own property, when being queer was a crime. Evoking the good old days before we got all uppity and politically correct is a threat. Maybe you don't hear it when the words leave your mouth. But you can be damn sure that other people do.

But sorry, back to censorship. Back to the evils of political correctness. Back to the "State of SFF." Those stories, those victims of the PC police…they should not be written. Stopping them, far from being the greatest crime of humanity, is actually a good being done. Just like someone deciding not to tell a racist joke because it "might not go over well" is a good thing. Not engaging in "locker room talk" is a good thing. Not writing stories that will hurt people, that perpetuate the continued oppression, exploitation, and violence against marginalized groups…is a good fucking thing. The "real victims" are not those who suddenly have to consider their words. The real victims, as always, are the people being murdered for who they are. Are the people being reminded at every turn that they should be grateful for being alive and so should be quiet. Should stop being so political.

What is the state of SFF? It needs work. It needs to sit down and examine its past, present, and future. To see the good there, yes, definitely. To recognize the harm, though, as well. And to do something about it. People are already engaged in so much amazing work toward just that. Un-erasing those who have been pushed out of the SFF narrative, just as this work seems to be seeking to un-erase the women instrumental to comic book history. Crafting new and affirming and incredibly imaginative stories. Holding people responsible for their words and actions. Creating a field, a fandom, and a profession that I aspire to be a part of. And if that bothers you—if you weep for the stories that might not be told because we're "too politically correct" but don't weep for the stories that were not told because we were and are too racist, misogynist, ableist, queerphobic, and otherwisely terrible…then you are part of the problem.

The G
Around the time I took driver’s ed, Wendy’s introduced a new burger called the Cheddar Melt, which featured grilled onions, cheese sauce and mayo. Since there was a Wendy’s right by the driver’s ed school, I basically ate that thing every day for a week. And to sixteen-year-old me, the cheddar melt was pretty much the best thing ever invented, even if it was actually just an industrially produced meat patty smothered in an unnaturally liquefied substance with a passing resemblance to cheese. Oh, and it wasn’t even original; McDonald’s had made the same exact burger famous a decade prior. And people ten years older than me remember it in pretty much the same terms.

You may be wondering what this has to do with anything, but check it: the way we remember the science fiction and fantasy of our youth is not unlike the way we remember those discontinued fast-food items, like the Wendy’s Cheddar Melt. They excited us then because they were new, and because we were new to making our own choices, and because our tastes and understandings of the world were not sophisticated or jaded by experience and disenchantment.

And then when it’s gone and you are also gone from that place and time, you remember it in terms of how it felt, always wonder if you can get that feeling back. Like with Heinlein, who took you places—important places, even—when you were still young and unformed. Even though he’s the proverbial McRib of genre fiction.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to be a snob here, or pooh-pooh that youthful sense of wonder. I was really into Isaac Asimov and David Eddings as a 12-15 year-old, and while neither is much of a writer, both authors played important roles in shaping me as a reader. And because of that, I’ll always remember those reading experiences fondly.

But you know what? The last time I was in Indonesia, I saw that Wendy’s had the Cheddar Melt back on the local menu, so I bought one. And it tasted like what it was: an industrially produced meat patty smothered in an unnaturally liquefied substance with a passing resemblance to cheese.

...which is a roundabout way of saying that you can’t go back, and even if you could, you probably wouldn’t feel the same way about things as you did then. Even nostalgic movements—and I am an active participant in one such movement—are at their best when they use the toolkit of the past to create something new. That has meaning and value, but it has meaning and value in large part because it is something new, and responsive to new conditions. By contrast, it’s just not possible to turn back the clock and return to the lost golden age, which never existed as such anyway.

That being said, I don’t idealize the present state of genre either. In fact I share the grievance that genre and popular genre awards have become insular and overly predicable affairs; it’s just that pups n' co. completely misdiagnose the problem.

As I see it, long- and short-form SF/F suffer from quite different problems. The novel field strikes me as overly risk-averse (with notable exceptions). Predictable series—many of which are just rehashes of or sequels to earlier series—rule over self-contained novels, a problem that afflicts other media as well. And while literary genre does exist, there isn’t very much of it—a consequence of publishing’s economic structure, which does not reward risk-taking, but rather risk-avoidance.

Notably, incentives for risk-avoidance benefit the exact kind of novel the puppies claim are being pushed off-stage. Light, action-oriented summer blockbuster-type fare dominates bookstore shelves, Amazon rankings and popular award lists alike. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—it’s what people want, after all. And some of it is quite good (Old Man’s War, for example).

But what about the Hugo Awards? Don’t they reward literary over popular works?
No, disembodied rhetorical voice. They do not.

As Chaos Horizon notes, during the period 2001-2014, literary SF/F accounted for a mere 5.56% of nominations in the novel category. Big selling, in-genre novels that innovate along the margins are the order of the day, far more often than not. If you don’t write that kind of novel, you are unlikely to make a Hugo shortlist, and that goes for literary SF/F as much or more as blockbuster-style space opera.

Short fiction suffers from a very different kind of problem. The market for short SF/F is much smaller, and a far greater proportion of readers are also writers. At the same time, the prestige magazines and websites that publish the bulk of shortlisted stories increasingly resemble one another in terms of what they publish, and increasingly publish the same group of writers. And this, in turn, creates incentives for new writers to produce the same kinds of stories, resulting in an abiding sameness across the field.

Here pups n' co. approach a legitimate point, which is to say that there is form of “literary” gatekeeping potentially crowding out other modes of storytelling. Yet once again, they misdiagnose the problem, this time as political conspiracy when the problem is institutional. And the gatekeeping mechanism is form and approach not the identity or politics of the writer. (See: Jonathan McCalmont's writing on this issue). Meanwhile, the alternative they present, of bang-bang futureman action stories, is as uninspiring as it is regressive.

As I wrote last year:

Genre needs more outlets that eschew formulas, or at least try new ones. More to the point, it needs more outlets that don’t give a shit about conventions or consensus.

But that’s a way forward, not backwards. The same cannot be said for entitled whining about women and minorities gaining visibility as authors, critics and consumers. The broadening of perspectives on SF/F to include previously marginalized or underrepresented voices, is, in my opinion, the one unequivocal marker of progress in the field. If that's "PC," then, well, let's hear it for PC.