Racefail: not just for science fiction anymore

Roxane Gay reads this years Best American Short Stories, finds almost every story in the anthology was about rich or nearly rich white people:

What I felt most while reading BASS was a profound sense of absence. Sure there was a story about black people (written by Danielle Evans, coincidentally) and there was a story about a mechanic, to bring in that working class perspective and there was a story set in Africa, but most of the stories were uniformly about rich white people (often rich, white old men) doing rich white people things like going on safari or playing poker and learning a painful lesson or lamenting old age in Naples. Each of these stories was wonderful and I don’t regret reading them, but the demographic narrowness is troubling. It’s not right that anyone who isn’t white, straight, or a man, reading a book like this, which is fairly representative of the work being published by the “major” journals, is going to have a hard time finding experiences that might, in some way, mirror their own. It’s not right that the best writing in the country, each year, is writing about white people by white people with a few splashes of color or globalism (Africa! Japan! the hood!) for good effect. Things have certainly improved over the years but that’s not saying much.

At the same time, she also find her own succes being questioned for the usual reasons:

Anytime you achieve even a little bit of success there’s going to be someone who suggests you earned that success because you’re a person of color (or a woman, or both). Even though you might know you achieved your success because you’re awesome, because you worked hard for years, because you beat down doors until one fell down, you are stuck with the niggling doubt that they’re right. You worry that everyone thinks that way so you can never really enjoy your success, you always push yourself to do better, to do more, to be the best, to be so good they have to stop saying it’s just because you’re a person of color. It is exhausting.

All of which confirms the superiority of science fiction and fantasy fandom, as

Most of 2009, the science fiction/fantasy community was embroiled in a contentious debate about race that was so extensive and ongoing that it even got its own name and wiki: RaceFail, but hey, at least the SF/F community is talking about these issues which cannot be said for other writing communities.

Which is surely the most important point to take away from these two posts. More seriously, it’s strangely heartening to see that the problems sf and fantasy struggle with (the representation of non-white/male/straight voices and viewpoints, the problems with appopriation, systemic racism and underrepresentation of people of colour and so on) are not unique to it. It means that it’s not impossible for science fiction/fantasy to change for the better.

A new kind of comics criticism

David Brothers has just published a post on Comics&Cola, which talks about his frustrations with addressing racism and the like in comics and how there should be a place for a new sort of criticism in comics:

But the new criticism, the criticism that is largely coming from black and brown and Asian and Muslim and gay and trans and feminist circles and even more besides, doesn’t have an established place in comics yet. The culture is not used to it. The culture doesn’t know how to react to it, because it often comes from a deeply personal place and is accompanied by emotion instead of rote facts about first appearances and career milestones. The result is a constant diminishing of the concerns of the essayist and mocking of their context.

We talk about outrage culture and never stop to ask ourselves why someone saying “This hurt me, here’s why” is offensive, but a white man creating a comic where women are raped and non-whites are racially stereotyped is not. We scream “Free speech!” in the face of people who say “This is messed up.” We never examine why someone is angry before dismissing them for their anger. We demand perfection and eloquence from someone who has just been confronted with the unbridled contempt someone else has for them and everything they represent.

Much of what Brothers is talking about is of course the well known Tone argument: “I’m not going to listen to you as long as you’re shouting at me”. Another part comes from what Laurie Penney calls a href=”http://www.newstatesman.com/laurie-penny/on-nerd-entitlement-rebel-alliance-empire”>nerd entitlement, a toxic mix of historic victimhood and elitism that makes comics, perhaps more so than any other nerdy pursuit, hostile to everybody “not like us”, women and people of colour especially; the stereotypical nerd being portrayed as white and male even though women and people of colour have always been present.

That’s where comics particular history reinforces those already existing tendency. Because it’s been used so often as a scapegoat for all sorts of social problems like juvenile delinquency, has been the victim of official opprobium, has had retailers prosecuted for selling material “not suitable for kids” or artists put in jail for what they put on paper, any criticism based on larger societal concerns is immediately met with hostility. And it isn’t so much the fanboys that are the problem, attached though they are to certain questionable superheroine outfits.

No, rather it’s the critical press and the socalled art comix community that’s the problem. Unlike what’s been happening in related nerd fields like science fiction fandom, there’s very little attention within serious comics circles for issues of representation, diversity and the systemic effects of racism, transphobia, sexism or homophobia. Most of the serious commentary still seems to believe in art in a vacuum, without much attention for how it reflects or even encourages racism or sexism. There’s this very baby boomerish idea of the freedom of the artist to do what he wants, without much curiosity about why it is always he doing it. It’s why you get glitzy thrash like Fukitor published by Fantagraphics, something that’s supposed to be transgressive but only deals in the same tired stereotypes you could’ve found in an eighties Chuck Norris action movie.

What critical tradition (American) comics has had, has largely come around through the efforts of The Comics Journal: no other critical magazine has had its longevity and influence. Yet that influence isn’t always benign; molded after the personalities of its founders, Kim Thompson and especially Gary Groth, it’s always been macho, aggressive and sometime disdainful of concerns outside of pure art. So you get this sort of sneering too often, a defensive response without any attempt to understand what it is sneering at.

What comics needs is the equivalent of Racefail in science fiction fandom, when long simmering issues of representation and diversity came to a head and all the underlying racism & sexism boiled over. Science fiction finally had to come to terms with the idea that fans of colour weren’t rare, weren’t hidden and owned science fiction as much as anybody else. Comics still hasn’t woken up to this.

Not impressed

Teresa Nielsen Hayden is impressed by the article Michael Bérubé wrote about why he gave up his Paterno Family Professorship in Literature at Pennsylvania State University. Joe Paterno is of course the football coach at Penn State who allegedly helped cover up the paedophile activities of another coach, Jerry Sandusky; obviously holding a professorship in the Paterno name, even if it’s the family’s endowment rather than the man, should lead to some soulsearching, as Bérubé has done.

But while I think he did the right thing in giving up this endowment, his explenation is muddled and comes over as apologetic, excuse making, perhaps more than he intended, by how he writes about his doubts and second thoughts about taking this step. I think the greatest “mistake” he makes in it is in comparing how nice the Paternos were to him and his family personally with the reality of Joe Paterno, for whatever reason, covering up Sandusky’s sexual crimes. I’ve known people with criminal records myself, career criminals even, who’ve spent more time in jail than outside it, who were perfectly nice and decent folk to me, because we were friends or family; but that doesn’t mean I should close my eyes for their crimes. The Paterno family’s actions after the Sandusky crimes and coverup became know have been reprehensible, as they have tried their best to keep the truth covered up, more concerned with keeping their own good names than the victims of Sandusky’s crimes, not wanting to take responsibility for what their father and husband did. It is hard and understandable that they would respond that way, but not a laudable thing to do. They should be called on it and their behaviour should’ve been reason enough alone to resign.

Had Bérubé stuck to explaining his personal struggle to reconcile the Paterno family as he knew them personally with their behaviour once the coverup became known I would have no real problems with this article, but unfortunately he moves on to more generalised apologetics for the rest of it. It’s the usual mix of arguing that the facts might not be quite as against Paterno as the news reporting and investigations have made out to be, that there is a hypocrisy at the heart of the scandal as other colleges have also behaved badly in the name of football (but to the extent of covering up child molestation?), that Paterno has done good things as well, that this has been an excuse for the Paterno haters to stoke the fires, that Penn State in general has been unfairly treated and that it’s all media hyped hysteria. (It’s also revealed at the end of the article that Bérubé traded in one chair for another, but that’s beside the point, though it makes the moral gesture that much easier, obviously.)

It all leaves you with a bad feeling if you’re not inclined to agree with Bérubé, as these are the sort of arguments that would be rejected out of hand in other situations. As any parent knows, “but all the other kids did it” is not an excuse and should never be used to minimise crimes like these, especially when the comparison is between covering up for a child molester or making things a bit too easy for athlete students to get a good grade. I therefore don’t quite understand why Teresa thinks this article was a good argument against (internet) pileons. Will people with their own agendas use a tragedy like this to attack those who are already their enemy? Perhaps, but that doesn’t excuse the perpetrators and should not be used as an argument to lessen their crimes.

I do know that Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden both had bad experiences with internet pileons during the whole Racefail debacle, when they were insufficiently critical of certain people being caught in racist acts, caught in the same dilemma Bérubé found himself in. At the time I felt they were judged much too harshly, but I can also see the other side, as in the end for most people it is immaterial if the latest racist douche is your friend or not…

Oh fandom, please stop disappointing me.

When I first discovered it fandom seemed so exotic, yet welcoming. That was old skool fandom, written sf only, which as far as I was concerned was the only fandom. These were my people and I felt safe there. But as has become clear, should have been clear for years if not decades if I had paid attention, that safety is relative. A white bloke like me? Little problems fitting in, but as racefail has shown, as various groping incidents have shown, it may be different for women or people of colour. Fandom is slowly, haltingly grasping for improvements, getting to grips with the idea that yes, it does have to care about racism, sexism, homo and transphobia and so on.

There is a lot of resistance to this idea however, best symbolised in the following quote from the somewhat shit stirring Overheard from the Smof Mailing List Tumblr, taking anonymous quotes from a convention runners mailing list:

“What really disturbs me even more is a rather marked generational divide, again, particularly around the sexual harassment. The most horrific abuse I’ve seen, and experienced, has come from thirty-somethings, roughly. Their eagerness to see and punish harassment worries and befuddles me. I wonder if we’re beginning to see the bitter fruit of helicopter parents and/or the notion that safe spaces are possible. (This latter is a hot button topic for me. No space can be made safe. Safer perhaps, but … I just want to say that I have never felt unsafe at an sf con and am completely boggled by the whole notion.)”

Sometimes it does look like an entire generation of older, entitled, largely white middeclass male fans have to die off before we can get any real progress going, but then I remember Frederik Pohl.

Heartbreak & Heroines

Character from Heartbreak & Heroines. Art by Joanne Renaud

I should’ve done this before, as her project is more than fully founded, but Caoimhe Ora Snow/Kynn Bartlett has a Kickstarter proposal up to fund her new feminist role playing game, Heartbreak & Heroines:

Heartbreak & Heroines is a fantasy roleplaying game about adventurous women who go and have awesome adventures — saving the world, falling in love, building community, defeating evil. It’s a game about relationships and romance, about fairy tales and feminism.

You play a fantasy heroine (or hero, if you prefer) whose heart has been broken. She’s experienced some loss so great that she’s taken up her sword, her tome, her staff, or her wand and walked away from her place in society — by becoming one of its defenders, fighting back the darkness that endangers everyone.


My friend Dwayne McDuffie passed away earlier this year. He was a comic book and animation writer who loved comics — but also saw they didn’t reflect his life as an African American man. Instead of writing a lot of essays and making blog posts (although he did both at times), he and went founded Milestone Media to create the kind of comics he wanted to enjoy. By doing so, Dwayne changed the comics industry and left a legacy that won’t be forgotten by fans of Static, Icon, Justice League, Ben 10, and other comics and animation properties.

I’m no Dwayne McDuffie, but I do want to change gaming by making it more inclusive — of women, people of color, LGBT people, and basically everyone. Using Dwayne as my model, I don’t want to just talk about inclusive gaming, I want to make and play games that push the window on inclusion.

Caoimhe/Kynn is an old internet friend of mine, dating back to Usenet somewhere in the mid nineties, so I’m biased to want this project to succeed anyway, as seems to have done by having raised over $5,000 from a $3,000 target, but even on its own merits this looks worthwhile. As we’ve seen in the past few years, what with Racefail and the Russ Pledge and all that, fandom in general is in need of having our consciousness raised; what better way to do this than through projects like this, with inclusiveness awareness build in from the start, without being preachy? If you are an RPG player, why not check it out to see if you like it? Only fifteen bucks buys you a copy of the game once it’s done…

The women sf writers men don’t see

In the ongoing struggle to get greater recognition for female writers of science fiction, one of the fronts surely has to be that of history. One of the points Joanna Russ made in How to Suppress Women’s Writing is that each female author is seen as something singular, a freak, standing outside a history almost entirely defined by male writers. This goes for science fiction as much as for literary fiction: in both cases it’s much easier to imagine a history written without references to women than it is to imagine the opposite. I saw this happen two years ago with the Racefail debate in online sf fandom circles as well. When pushed upon it, well meaning liberal (white) sf & fantasy readers could mention two-three writers of colour, but these were always the same two-three (Delany, Butler, perhaps Barnes or Hopkinson) everybody knows, rather than any of the hundreds of other candidates, of whom most sf readers were ignorant to a degree they were not of their white counterparts. Most of Racefail was a struggle to teach this insight to people (willfully) blind to this and to find ways to make sure this insight was not lost, through e.g. the Carl Brandon society I linked to above.

Consciously or not, like writers of colour, female also sf writers get written out of science fiction’s collective awareness and sense of history, the vast mass of female writers ignored in favour of always the same outliers, their history lost in a way that means that every new high profile female science fiction writer is a novum, rather than standing in the same sort of tradition granted to male sf writers. instead she’s either evaluated in terms of that explicitely male tradition or seen as somebody who breaks with it. It’s not just that feminist or female themes and concerns get ignored and sidelined, but that the whole history of the genre can be and is defined in terms of the accomplishments of male writers, with only the occasional token female writer.

It’s this background that makes an effort like Pre-1923 Utopias and Science Fiction by Women: A Reading List of Online Editions, hosted by the Online Books Page, so important. Inspired by L.Timmel Duchamp’s list of Science Fiction and Utopias by Women, 1818-1949, it does exactly what it says on the tin, providing a list of science fiction and utopian writing by women written before 1923 and available online. Lists like these provide context to the male dominated mainstream history of the genre, by showing how many more writers other than Mary Shelly were active before Gernsback “invented” science fiction, that the genre is build as much on a now largely submerged field of female writers as it is on their much better known male colleagues.

Anthology bashing is sometimes necessary

The debate about science fiction and fantasy’s inherent gender imbalance (particularly acute in the UK) is rumbling on and one of the latest flashpoints has been the editing of the Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, yet another anthology series heavily skewed towards male contributors. Rose Fox has probably the best summing up of the whole conflagration, the ebb and flow of which is intensely familiar to everybody familiar with Racefail two years ago. The editor of the series is called out, defends himself, more people chose sides, rhetoric gets overblown on both sides and it all gets a bit heated with the original point obscured. Which in turn prompts Cheryl Morgan to go meta and explain why these sorts of contratempts are counterproductive:

Before going into the specific issue at hand, let me say that I think anthology bashing is not terribly helpful. Looking at a single anthology, you have no idea where the real problem lies. It could be the editor, it could be the publisher, it could be the submissions, you can’t tell. Also, just as an individual’s reading and voting habits are more likely to be a product of cultural conditioning than of conscious sexism, so an individual editor is more likely to choose stories based on cultural conditioning than a deliberate intention to exclude a particular group of writers. The objective of pointing out gender imbalances (or any other sort of imbalance) should be to encourage people to examine their cultural conditioning, not to decide who we are going to burn at the stake.

I disagree.

Yes, these confrontations are unpleasant for everybody involved, but if you are worried about the gender imbalance in science fiction and would like to see more women being published, than you do need to rake editors over the coals when they produce female free anthologies. That the whole sf&f publishing field is guilty doesn’t excuse individual failure; blame is a renewable resource. It doesn’t matter why a given anthology has few or no female contributors, only the end result matters. Just like readers like me need to address their biases in chosing who they read, so editors need to work towards getting more female writers published if they care about the gender imbalance of fantasy and science fiction. It’s hard is not an excuse to not do this.

And especially because the majority of editors and publishers isn’t consciously deciding to be sexist and to ignore women, it’s important to call them out on their subconscious but systemic biases. Each controversy like this carries the message that it’s wrong to publish anthologies skewed towards male writers, that you will need to pay attention to which writers you approach and accept submissions from, or you might find yourself in the centre of a shitstorm. Confrontation and “anthology bashing” are necessary tools, if not always the right tools…

All of which also means that, if you’re a reader concerned about the huge gender imbalance in science fiction, you should not buy any anthologies that makes this worse. I therefore won’t buy any anthology that isn’t at least forty-sixty percent women-men. No matter how good it is.


Dave Lartigue is sick to death of “nerd culture”:

I am tired of zombies. I am tired of Joss Whedon. I am tired of steampunk. I am tired of Monty Python. I am tired of zombies. I am tired of ninjas. I am tired of Batman. I am tired of bacon. I am tired of Star Wars. I am tired of Nintendo. I am tired of zombies. I am tired of Halo. I am tired of elves. I am tired of Cthulhu. I am tired of Boba Fett. I am tired of zombies. I am tired of pirates. I am tired of Battlestar Galactica. I am tired of mecha. I am tired of superheroes. I am tired of Star Trek. I am tired of “funny” bands. Have I mentioned that I am tired of zombies?

Dave himself is of course as guilty as any other nerd of the excesses of nerd culture — Write More Good e.g. — and his post is part of a larger wave of nerd anxiety that regularly courses through various fan communities that is as old as the concept of geekdom as a coherent community itself. As such I think it would be enlightening to look at three concepts from science fiction fandom, one of the oldest clusters within this community: fiawol, fijagh and gafia.

Science fiction fandom quite early on realised that there is an inherent tension between people for whom fandom is a way of life and behaved accordingly, the be and end all of their lives and for whom fandom is just a goddamn hobby, no more or less so than e.g. going out bowling with your workmates, with most fen hovering between these two extremes. This tension is unresolvable, is different for everybody, but will lead a lot of people to gafiate: get away from it all. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Indulge yourself too much in almost anything and you get sick of it; spend some time doing something else, recharge your batteries and you can come back refreshed or you realise that you don’t actually need it anymore. Either way you win.

Trying to change the wider nerd culture because you don’t like certain aspects of it (mashups, bacon, obsessive quoting, bacon, undsoweiter) is a mug’s game. It’s only worthwhile when you’re trying to change genuinely toxic aspects of it, as with the whole racefail “debate” of a few years ago. The rest is only a matter of personal taste where you always have to remember that no matter how played out, tired and boring something is to you, it’s always somebody’s first exposure to a particular idea/meme…

BSFA novel shortlist: worthy but dull

Torque Control has the 2009 BSFA Awards shortlists up. BSFA, stands for British Science Fiction Association and its awards are, together witht he Arthur C. Clarke award, the most important British awards in the science fiction and fantasy field (though open to non-British entries as well). The members of the BSFA will vote on these shortlists together with the members of the British national sf convention, Easterncon and the winners will be known at –you guessed– Easter.

This year there was a spark of interest in the non-fiction award, as Hal Duncan withdrew his nomination, as he felt it both wasn’t engaging sf/fantasy enough and because he felt that Deepa D’s nomination, I Didn’t Dream of Dragons deserves to win. Deepa D’s essay came out of that whole RaceFail fiasco early last year, one of the best if not the best responses to it. I agree with Duncan that it deserves to win.

Apart from that, what I found interesting about the nominations is how dull the awards short list is. Just four novels, The City and the City – China Miéville, Ark – Stephen Baxter, Yellow Blue Tibia – Adam Roberts and Lavinia -Ursula LeGuin. Apart from China’s novel I haven’t read any of them, so this is no slur on their quality, but these are all such safe choices, like a Booker shortlist with Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Zadie Smith. These are all four well known, succesful, well respected writers few could argue with don’t deserve this recognition, but therefore are an obvious choice for it. That makes it dull. I’d rather seen some writer I don’t know yet and don’t know what to expect from make it on the shortlist.

Yesterday fandom turned eighty

As noted on Tor.com. And did you know that

“I’ve always been fascinated that the first president of that first US fan group—indeed, the world’s first fan group—was a black guy, Warren Fitzgerald, and that they held their early meetings at his home in Harlem. I’m amazed this doesn’t seem to be widely known.”

One of the subthemes running through the RaceFail debacle in the early months of this year was the “invisiblity” of people of colour within fandom. White fans were noting the lack of fans of colour, while they in turn were annoyed by the often well intended, widespread idea among white fans that science fiction just wasn’t attractive enough to people of colour. Quite a few heated threats revolved around this dichotomy, with fans of colour trying to convince their white counterparts that the appeal of science fiction wasn’t the issue, that there were actually quite a few of them around, but they just weren’t noticed… That the first president of the world’s first fan group was Black and nobody knew this fits perfectly.