The women fandom doesn’t see

Foz Meadows aks, if we’re so annoyed at how mainstream media portrays nerds and fandom, why do we do the same when it comes to determining who is the real geek:

Whenever mainstream culture stereotypes geekdom as a bunch of greasy, cheeto-stained white guys in sweat pants mouthbreathing in the basement of their parents’ house, we bristle collectively, because we know it’s unfair and inaccurate – a caricature some forty years out of date. But when we ourselves make assumptions about what the “average geek” looks like, we still tend to picture some variant of this same guy, with his Boba Fett statues and Kirk v Picard t-shirt, and treat him, if not as a yardstick, then as genesis: the archetypal Patient Zero who first spread the disease of dorkness to his likeminded fellows. We think of women and POC as interlopers, latecomers, erasing the history of their participation in fandom in a bid to reassure a particular resentful, insecure cluster of white men that, even if they’re not the only fans around, they’re still the most important, because they were here first: that men like them were solely responsible, not just for fandom as a concept, but for all those geeky fields – like computing, video games, movies, science fiction and fantasy – with which it’s now associated.

To be honest, I should be the last to complain about this, as being a fat, bearded and ponytailed speccy bastard I’ve certainly profited from this image, being taken far more seriously at work or in fandom than I’ve sometimes deserved, just for looking the part. And I’ve certainly been guilty of assuming that fandom is mostly white and male, even when I should and did know better.

It’s a trap that Joanna Russ warned us about already, in How To Suppress Women’s Writing. If women, if people of colour, keep on being seen as new to fandom, even by those who welcome them to it, they never quite become part of fandom, regardless of how long they’ve objectively been a part of it. It’s that constant surprise that women are reading science fiction, playing games, writing fanfic, the privileging of supposedly masculine hobbies (videogames, roleplaying) over female ones (cosplay, fanfic) and the rewriting of history that excludes or minimises those who aren’t white men. Half the time it’s not even done consciously, just a reflection of the culture fandom moves in.

The struggle to make fandom as a whole more inclusive, more welcoming, might therefore (temporarily?) make those women and/or people of colour already in fandom feel less included as well as empower them, if the focus in such struggles remains on the novelty of having such exotic creatures in fandom. Or alternatively, if the onus remains on women, on people of colour or LGBT people to prove that they belong in fandom, have history in fandom. What we (white men) need to do is not just welcome, but embed everybody else’s history in our own, to take the Russ pledge: The single most important thing we (readers, writers, journalists, critics, publishers, editors, etc.) can do is talk about women writers whenever we talk about men.

Because we have been here before as fandom, in the sixties and seventies and we did try and be inclusive, be more welcoming. But what happened was that we got the “women in comics” panels, but then those became all any woman was invited to appear on. We need to move beyond feminism 101 and inclusion 101. How to do that? I’m not sure, but I still believe voluntary quotas are part of the answer.

What Makes this Book So Great — Jo Walton

Cover of What Makes this Book So Great

What Makes this Book So Great
Jo Walton
446 pages
published in 2014

What Makes this Book So Great is that it’s written by Jo Walton, who has a real talent for making you both reconsider books you know well or long for books you’ve never heard of before. I’ve known Jo for almost twenty years now, from when we both independently discovered internet, usenet and rec.arts.sf.written, where it didn’t take long for her to become one of the most interesting posters there. It was no great surprise that she became a professional writer, or that Tor would ask her to do the same thing she did on usenet on their website, the end result of which is this book. You could call it the non-fiction counterpart of Jo’s Hugo and Nebula award winning Among Others

What this is than is a collection of some 130 columns written for in 2008-2010, mostly discussing a single book, sometimes going into more general topics about reading books. As Jo makes clear from the start, she isn’t a critic and she’s not reviewing these books, she’s just writing about the books she’s reading and why she likes them. Because she’s been reading for a long time, because she’s a writer herself, because she’s been thinking and talking about books, about science fiction in the ways only an intelligent lifelong reader can, these columns are interesting whether or not you’ve read the books in question.

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Dark Eden — Chris Beckett

Cover of Dark Eden

Dark Eden
Chris Beckett
404 pages
published in 2012

Dark Eden won the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award and was also a finalist for the BSFA Award, which is why I got it from the library when I saw it there. It won against fairly stiff competition like Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion as well, so I was curious to see if it was worthy of the win. To be honest, I was slightly disappointed. This isn’t a bad novel, but it’s a bit on the slight side for my liking.

To start with the positives, the world Beckett depicts in Dark Eden, a planet far out in interstellar space, a rogue wanderer without a sun, with life only possible through the presence of geothermal energy, which the local lifeforms have evolved to make use off one way or another. Trees grow out of the heat channels running from the planet’s core, the basis for a complex ecology that luckily for the people that crashed into Eden, turns out to be compatible with human life. Five people landed on Eden, three people decided to try and leave again, two remained behind and started a family. Twohundred years later their descendants number roughly fivehundred, still living in the same valley their ancestors landed in, having degenerated into hunter gatherers, losing most skills and knowledge of their ancestors in the process.

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who chooses our required reading? We do

Ever since I read S. L. Huang’ post on who chooses sf classics I’ve been thinking about this:

I don’t understand how we can have a genre where “You haven’t read HEINLEIN (/Asimov/Clarke/Bradbury/Dick/etc.)??” are common and accepted refrains, and “You haven’t read BUTLER??” is almost unheard. Why aren’t we saying it? Why isn’t Octavia Butler considered “required reading” of the classics in order to consider oneself a True SF Fan? Why don’t people feel left out and incomplete if they haven’t read her?

I don’t really know what defines a classic, or who should get to say what one is. But I do know I find myself feeling deeply uncomfortable with any popular mentality that shames people for not reading influential white men while giving a pass to those who skip the influential black women.

Now ideally, as Damon Knight put it, “science fiction is that what we say it is when we point at it”, meaning that it’s an ongoing debate between writers, editors, publishers, critics, readers and fans that determines what the core of the genre is. Put simply, books that are written as science fiction, accepted by publishers as part of a science fiction line, reviewed as such and talked about as science fiction, are science fiction. And vice versa; The Handmaid’s Tale clearly is science fiction, but because Margaret Atwood has taken pains to deny this, it was published by a mainstream publisher and treated by critics as literature rather than sci-fi, it’s not part of science fiction in the same way “If This Goes On…” is.

Clearly if there is such a thing as a science fiction canon, a core group of novels, stories and writers that you should’ve read to be knowledgeable about science fiction, it should be determined in the same way, ever changing and evolving as science fiction changes and evolves, and yet it hasn’t much evolved beyond the holy “Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov” trinity and their fellow mostly male, mostly white, mostly dead Golden Age collegues. Why?

I blame it on the seventies.

The seventies was a watershed moment for (English language) science fiction. The genre as a genre was roughly half a century old and those who had grown up with it in the thirties, forties and fifties were now old enough to be nostalgic about it. Science fiction had grown up from paraliterature only found in cheap pulps into something halfway into respectability, for the first time getting sustained critical attention from outside of fandom. It was popular, but would only truly become mainstream in the wake of Star Wars and it was still barely possible in the early to mid seventies to read every science fiction book published in a given year. The seventies were also the decade where the centre of the genre switched from the magazines to the novel, with novels getting longer as they no longer needed to take into account serialisation.

Finally, there was also the backlash against the upheavals science fiction went through in the sixties and seventies. First there was the British New Wave, where writers like Aldiss, Ballard and Moorcock imported literary techniques into science fiction, which was exported by Judith Merril to the US leading to the American version, more explicitly taboo breaking and political, through Delany, Dick, Russ and LeGuin, to name but a few, which resulted in a new revelance in science fiction, a willingness to engage with the political, sociological and ecological issues of the day. For a lot of science fiction professionals and fans alike, these were not welcome developments and there was a strong, nostalgic backlash against it.

It’s in this climate that the science fiction “canon” got established, through a flood of popular histories and coffee table books, like Brian Ash’ The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction or David Kyle’s A Pictoral History of Science Fiction, as well as through publishing programmes like Ballantines/Del Rey’s The Best of… series, reprinting short stories by the best science fiction writers of the Golden Age. The rough consensus therefore that emerged was conservative and nostalgic in nature, created by people who’d themselves been around science fiction for decades, well read and knowledgeable about it, but perhaps somewhat blinkered to everything that falls outside it.

We’re still living with that consensus, that canon, forty years later; it’s high time we re-evaluate it.

The Old Iron Dream

It’s sad that something like this is still necessary and that the more sordid history of science fiction fandom isn’t better known, but David Forbes’ proposal for a long indepth article on this history is very timely, considering recent events:

Sci-fi’s popular history doesn’t mention John Campbell’s belief that race riots were caused by “genetic barbarians” or Robert Heinlein’s fondness for robber barons and military rule. It remembers Larry Niven’s creative alien worlds, not his advocacy of lying to immigrants to deny them healthcare. Jerry Pournelle is widely hailed as the dean of military sci-fi, his sympathies for fascists like Franco and Pinochet forgotten.

Rather than harmless eccentrics, the doyennes of the sci-fi far right advise the federal government, occupy important posts, head think-tanks and shape policy to this day. They’ve played a major role in creating an environment that, as shown in the case of Beale, can still make sci-fi hostile territory for women and people of color. Despite decades of courageous critical backlash within the genre, much of this impact and history remains unexposed.

The Old Iron Dream will drag this history out of the shadows, showing how sci-fi’s far-right has shaped not just its genre, but the larger culture and politics of America. It’s a turbulent, often horrifying story, ranging from coup plots and smear campaigns to shilling for Reagan’s weapons boondoggles and denying climate change.

The title is of course a reference to Norman Spinrad’s satirical novel The Iron Dream, aka “what if Adolf Hitler had become a pulp science fiction writer, then this would’ve been the novel he’d write”, written in the 1970ties as a rebuke to a particular toxic part of sf fandom.

Women writers Wednesday — blogging edition

Part something in an irregular series.

So yeah, today I would like to spotlight some of the female bloggers I started reading in the past of couple of weeks, partially thanks to the whole ongoing SFWA kerfuffle. Everytime we’ve had an outbreak of sexism in science fiction fandom it also has brought new female voices to the foreground and this time hasn’t been any different.

Natalie Luhrs has been one of the most sensible voices during the SFWA controversy, as well as with the more recent Loncon Jonathan Ross fiasco. Beyond that, she also has a great ability to find interesting and thoughtful links.

S. L. Huang like Luhrs has been a voice of reason during the recent sexism scandals, is a new writer whose first book will be published this year and who keeps writing great posts on the same subjects I would’ve written about, but she does it better.

Susan Abernethy writes about history and her blog is a treasure trove of posts about well known and not so well known parts of history, especially British history.

Loretta Chase & Isabella Bradford also write about history, both in their dayjobs as bestselling writers of historical romances and on their blog. They seem to have a real affinity for the Georgian era, but roam wide and far and have a knack of finding links to other interesting blogs — like Susan Abernethy’s above.

That’s my reading sorted for this year

This is an awesome list of science fiction/fantasy novels coming out this year and I like Mahvesh Murad’s reasoning here:

There is a great deal of potentially excellent writing and brilliant storytelling to look forward to this year, especially from women writers of speculative fiction. A number of titles that I am looking forward to are from writers of colour, many with stories set outside of the usual Eurocentric/American diaspora.

Sure, you can make up any culture you like as a writer – as long as your worldbuilding is authentic and strong, we’ll buy it. But when you’re not from the mainstream, when you’re not a white, heteronormative writer from the UK or US, you’ll probably be bringing your own cultural background, your own myths, beliefs and baggage to your work and it will probably be a whole lot richer and more interesting for it.

By way of contrast, James Nicoll linked to what NASA thinks makes for good science fiction, fighting the cutting edge battles of the seventies.

N. K. Jemisin on the SFWA petition

N. K. Jemisin on that SFWA petition:

Oh, and — people who signed that petition: you want to know the real reason why you’re getting so much disrespect from the rest of the genre right now? It’s because you and your friends keep pulling shit like this while the rest of us are just trying to keep the lights on and put food on the table. It’s like Republicans passing bill after bill to fuck up reproductive health rights while the economy’s in the toilet; what the hell does this have to do with anything that matters? You got yours. You’re still getting it. You had every advantage in your favor, and you used the hell out of it. Good on you. But stop pitching shitfits just because the rest of us want a piece of the pie — the pie all of us helped to create — too.