Privilege and Worldcon

I missed most of the kefuffle over the proposed Best Saga Hugo this weekend as I was busy being an apprentice SMOF having volunteered to help revitalise Holland’s oldest sff fan organisation. What happened was basically that a group of fans, inspired by Eric Flint’s thoughts on expanding the Hugos, proposed adding a Best Saga category for multiple volume books/series as well as eliminate the novelette category. People objected strongly to the second part and were somewhat skeptical of the first and the proposers reacted by amending their proposal to omit the axing of novelettes. All in all a great example of how fandom is supposed to work: debated out in the open, with people listening to justified, constructive criticism and acting on it.

The best criticism I read of the original proposal, though unfortunately published after it had already changed and slightly misaimed, was in N. K. Jemisin’s open letter to the WSFS about unintended consequences:

the novelette category has until lately been a good entry point for new and underrepresented writers to gain recognition. Why? For all the reasons “sagas” privileges established successful white guys, basically: short fiction must rely (usually) on quality rather than preexisting financial success to prove itself; it requires a much lower investment of free time to write; and short fiction in general is less about comfort food than challenging the reader with new ideas and perspectives. The competition is actually more fierce for short fiction than it would be for sagas; there are more markets willing to publish novelettes than there are publishers willing to grind out multiparters, and the short fiction markets pump out multiple stories, multiple times per year. It’s just that fewer of the barriers that make it hard for non-white non-men to compete exist here. Women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups usually do pretty well when they’re working with a level playing field.

Which got me thinking about privilege in fandom generally and the WSFS in particular, in the way its decision making processes are set up. As you know Bob, there’s always been this tension about Worldcon and the Hugos especially of having this ideal of being representative of all of fandom and the reality that only those that have and spent the money, time and effort to get involved in Worldcon, either supporting or attending get to vote. For the Hugos itself this is relatively straightforward and with a fairly low barrier to entry: forty bucks gets you voting rights plus the Voting Packet.

Where it gets awkward is with the site selection process for future Worldcons. You have pay a site selection fee (which also doubles as a supporting membership for whichever con wins) and you have to sent in a paper ballot, rather than being able to vote online. That’s somewhat of a disadvantage for lazy slobs like me.

Far worse is the business meeting. Any member can make proposals, but to defend and vote on them you have to attend Worldcon. And since any proposal needs to be affirmed by the next con as well, you have to do this at least twice. Which is rather a huge barrier to entry, overcome only by those with the time and money to spent two years or longer on it, or of course those who are so deeply involved with Worldcon that this isn’t a huge sacrifice for them.

And I don’t want to knock those people, nor Worldcon. There are good reasons why the current Worldcon structure was set up and these barriers just an unfortunate side effect, not as far as I know a deliberate attempt to exclude people. But the effect is the same and it does make it harder for those without the means to chase Worldcon each year to get involved.

Having a successful boycott is not the point

Irene Gallo calls the Puppies what they are: nazis

As I predicted, Tom Doherty’s public dressing down of Irene Gallo for her (correct) comments on the Puppies failed. Having scored one success Day and co have doubled down and unleashed the dreaded boycott threat on Tor. All the usual idiots are of course crowing about Tor tasting Puppy power while everybody else has at turns been slightly depressed about it and somewhat upbeat about the slim chances it has of succeeding. And they’re right that the chance of Tor giving in to ridiculous demands like this are small:

Tor must publicly apologize for writings by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Moshe Feder, Irene Gallo, and John Scalzi that “demonize, denigrate, slander and lie about the ‘Puppies’ campaigns”

That’s not going to happen, nor is Tor going to fire anybody about this: there aren’t enough Pups to provide a proper boycott. At best they can hope for a similar “success” as the Southern Baptist boycott of Disney for being too gay friendly. At worst, they shoot themselves in the foot because Tor also publishes John C. Wright. But focusing on whether or not the boycott can succeed is missing the point. The point of the boycott is the boycott.

As I said before, Day is following the Tea Party/Breitbart Culture Wars playbook. Gin up outrage, energise your base, focus their attention on the designated enemy, then fleece the suckers. Vox knows how the game is played because he’d been working for Worldnet Daily one of the low rent rightwing clearing houses his daddy had set up until he became too loony even for them. What are the odds on the next instructions of Day, as “leader of the Rabid Puppies”, will next issue instructions that the only proper way to boycott Tor is to instead buy books by goodthink publishers like Baen or his own vanity press?

The key is not to win, the key is to keep the fight going and make some money doing so. That’s been the career path for whole generations of roghtwing bloviators: fart out articles and blogposts and books about the evil of libruls and blag your way onto wingnut welfare. But to do so you need that red meat to keep the suckers in line. Without the month late fauxrage at Gallo’s comments the Puppies wouldn’t have anything to talk about. But this? This they can spin out until long after this year’s Hugo results are revealed.

It’s hard to deal with this. Just ignoring it is one option, not giving the oxygen of publicity to these people, but can obviously backfire. You can’t deal with this thinking these are normal fans, and that just ignoring it will starve this “controversy” of the fuel it needs. People like Day (and Larry and Brad) are perfectly capable of keeping the fire stoked indefinitely. Not responding just cedes ground and helps them keep up the pretence that they’re speaking for some imagined silent majority.

Rather, their more noxious opinions and writings should be exposed to sunlight, because the natural response of normal people not obsessed with partisan politics like the Puppies is to run the hell away from the circus. That’s also why somebody like Hoyt is so angry at Mike Glyer for accurately quoting her on File 770. Somewhere she’s aware of how she sounds outside her little echochamber. And that’s why Natalie Luhr’s showcasing of Michael Z. Williamson greatest hits is important. It removes the pretence that these are just fans rather than collossal assholes.

Mistaken Hugo voters or just unlucky writers?

Eric Flint, in the middle of another what’s likely to be an illfated attempt to talk sense into the Puppies, also talks about the way in which the Hugo Awards have overlooked or slighted some of the best authors working in science fiction & fantasy over the decades:

The Hugo voters, in their wisdom or lack thereof, decided that Christopher Anvil, Hal Clement, L. Sprague de Camp, Richard Matheson, Andre Norton, Fred Saberhagen, James H. Schmitz, A.E. Van Vogt and Jack Williamson were not very noteworthy. Of those nine authors, five of them are now in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and two out of the other four—Anvil and Schmitz—have had their complete works reissued in modern editions. (Full disclosure: Okay, fine, I’m the one who edited those reissues—but they sold pretty damn well for reissue volumes.)

Quite clearly, the Hugo voters were… ah, mistaken. (That sounds more dignified than “full of crap.”) Those are not the only times that Hugo voters have been…. ah, mistaken. They certainly won’t be the last, either. In this, the Hugos are like all awards. You win some, you lose some, so to speak.

It would be nitpicking to complain that Jack Williamson and Richard Matheson at least did get some Hugo recognition, that Van Vogt wrote his best work before the Hugos got established, or that some of the examples aren’t actually all that good, there still remains the question of how so many writers with such long careers were overlooked (and Flint’s examples could of course be extended with dozens more). Is that really the fault of the Hugo voters, just bad luck, or perhaps the simple fact that not all deserving kids can win prizes every time?

Surprisingly, I think it’s the latter. The long and short of it is that in any given year, there are twenty places on the Hugo ballot for a fiction writer: five each for Best Novel, Novella, Novelette and Short Story, give or take the occasional tie. That’s a high bar to clear for any writer, to get one of those slots, never mind win. Especially since the seventies, when fantasy and science fiction have exploded in popularity and size, the chances are high some deserving novel or story is going to be overlooked. (I know that even without the Puppy shenanigans, I easily had six or seven candidates for five slots in the Best Novel category.)

I think Flint has made a category error in other words, in complaining that deserving writers have been overlooked when the awards are actually for stories. It’s no good saying that a given writer is good enough to get a Hugo Award, you need to prove that in a given year, any given year, their best work would stack up to or beat that of their competition. And of course you also have to back that up with more than just your own taste. Jo Walton attempted to do this, in a series for Tor.com a few years ago, comparing what was won and nominated to what wasn’t, but as I recall for the most part she’d been satisfied that each year at least had credible candidates for each category, with some notable exceptions.

Now my personal opinion, which I think I share with Flint up to a point, is that the Hugos did start to falter from somewhere in the late seventies or early eighties as the SFF field exploded but Worldcon stagnated and aged. So many of the novels winning the Hugos in the last thirty years to me are no more than decent rather than brilliant, occasionally awarded for who wrote rather than their own merits. This again changed for the better in more recent years, thanks in no small measure to the Hugo Voter Packet and the better promotion of supporting memberships, but then the Puppies happened.

Intersectionality is just another word for solidarity

I’m always leery of arguments like this, that want to dismiss the different axises of oppression various groups of people struggle with in favour of some vulgar marxist idea of the working class and not asking too many questions. Too often this has been used by alter kakkers to just dismiss any struggle that doesn’t fit in their century and a half old ossified world view:

Where people on the left should be focussed on what unites us, us here referring to the working class rather than the left in general (lol, as if that’s going to happen), as workers -the foundations from which we can build the new society- we now see attempts to stratify through definition the working class under the guise of intersectional analysis. An intersectional analysis is a useful tool to have in one’s box if one is studying Sociology or writing academic papers but in the real world it doesn’t translate well, not well at all. In fact one of the reasons that I began my abstention from generalised political activity was the emergence of this approach -along with the increasing popularity of privilege politics- as I saw early on that the praxis that would develop from this approach would inevitably see a return to the embarrassing ‘hierarchy of oppressions’ which permeated the radical politics of the 1970s/80s (before my time -I’m not that old!).

He may not be that old, but his criticisms are. There’s always been a tension within socialism about how to define the struggle. Rightwing socialists tend to define it narrowly, purely as the struggle of the working classes against the bourgeois and anything that isn’t directly related to that struggle as a distraction. Depending on the decade — or century — you’re talking about this could mean feminism, civil rights, gay rights, or today, intersectionality and online activism.

The leftwing has always defined the struggle much more broadly. There’s a long and proud tradition within socialism and communism of not just fighting for the rights of (white) working men, but also recognised from the start that you can’t build a classless society when half the population is still powerless because of their gender, that it’s immoral to let the welfare of the British worker depend on the continuing exploitation of the Indian worker. So there’s always been a strain in socialism that defined the struggle much broader than just defending workers’ rights, that strived for an utopia for all people.

That is intersectionality pur sang and the thing about it is that it works both ways. There’s always a tendency to assume that these causes always distract from your own, much more worthy and important one, but intersectionality also gets you allies. That’s what happened in 1984 when at the height of AIDS paranoia stoked homophobia a group of London gay men and lesbians reached out and supported the South Wales Miners Strike:



Both groups were canny enough to understand that they struggled against the same oppression. The gay and lesbian activists recognised the police violence and oppression the miners were subjected to from their own experiences with them and believed in solidarity enough to not just recognise it, but take action. And the miners reprociated, send delegations to Gay Pride, supported them in their struggle. It was of course mocked by the establishment — now the perverts support the pits, as The Sun put it.

But you might say, gay liberation, strikes, those are real political actions, real causes, not frivolity like what I’m talking about, but that was far from the mainstream view back in 1984. So many socialists for so long saw homosexuality as a capitalist perversion, not as part of their struggle, not something that could be easily portrayed in terms of class struggle. And that’s why this bloody cartoon included in the post annoys me so much:

cartoon by RednBlackSalamander

Not just because it’s a lazy cheap shot and doesn’t understand that in 2015 it’s really hasn’t been possible for at least a decade to pretend that that online space is less important than offline spaces. No, it’s because I’m old enough to know that all the examples of worthy causes given here –take back the night, ending rape culture, lgbt rights — would have been ridiculed and dismissed as fauxtivism and middle class vanities not too long ago. It’s breathtakingly ignorant.

Now AW Hendry started his post by mocking the Sad Puppies, which is how I stumbled upon it, thanks to Mike Glyer’s sterling work rounding up Puppy related material. He used it as his example of how people waste time with online activism and throughout his piece the unspoken assumption is made that online doesn’t matter and economic considerations should be much more important than cultural fights like this. What this misses is that, even apart from the simple fact that quite a few of us now live our lives as much online as in the real world, online follows you home — ask Zoe Quinn or any other SWATting victim. What he also misses is that the struggle over the Hugos is more than just the misplaced vanity of a few rightwing culture warriors: as Kameron Hurley explained, the Hugos meant she got $13,000 more in her post-Hugo book advance.

Not the highest of stakes perhaps, but for your average struggling writer that is a large chunk of money. I also have the suspicion for at least some of the ringleaders, this kerfuffle is a way to help themselves to some of that sweet, sweet wingnut welfare. People like Tom Krautman or Dave Freer may seem dangerously unhinged to normal people, but they’d fit in well with Vox Day’s old haunt, Worldnet Daily. Voxy himself of course is trying to establish his vanity press as a serious rightwing proposition and arguably does all this for the publicity. Which means for him at least it’s not the winning that’s important, it’s keeping the fight going, the better to keep fleecing suckers.

Books read May

Late again as I keep forgetting to write these posts. Another disappointing month reading wise, only six books. I got nobody to blame but myself, having focused too much on other things than reading. This way I’ll not reach my goal of a hundred books read this year.

Bone Gap — Laura Ruby
I only read this to review it for my local science fiction bookstore, but I was glad I did so. A young adult fantasy novel that takes some very old fairy tales and shows what it looks like if the princess isn’t quite willingly taken away by the beautiful prince on the white horse…

The Riddle of the Labyrinth — Margalit Fox
The story of the decyphering of Linear B, the language found on clay tablets in the famous Mycean palace of Knossos and the three people who played key roles in it.

Great Powers and the Quest for Hegemony — Jeremy Black
Written twenty years after the first publication of Paul Kennedy’s 1988 The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers this is an appraisal of and correction to it, treating the same period

Sterrensplinters — Eddy C. Bertin
A career long retrospective collection of one of the best science fiction short fiction writers in the Dutch language.

Solar Flares — Andrew M. Butler
A reappreciation of the seventies in the context of science fiction, long shunted awkwardly inbetween the twin peaks of the New Wave and Cyberpunk. Slightly disappointing as it degraded into long recitations of book titles, movie plots undsoweiter. This needed a better structure.

Night’s Master — Tanith Lee
A reread sadly inspired by Tanith Lee’s death. Lush, decadent, erotically charged fantasy.

(not) Showcase Sunday: Jack Staff

cover of Jack Staff: Everything Used to Be Black and White


Jack Staff: Everything Used to Be Black and White
Paul Grist
Reprints Jack Staff V1 1-12
Get this for: somebody else’s nostalgia

A bit of a cheat this time, as I was getting a bit bored with Silver Age DC but didn’t want to skip another week. Hence this compromise. I’d gotten the first three volumes of Paul Grist’s retro nostalgic English superhero series at some con and had read bits and pieces of them, but not yet the first volume all the way through. This was a nice excuse to do so.

As I understand it, Jack Staff grew out of a proposal Paul Grist made to Marvel for an Union Jack miniseries, this being one of Marvel’s patriotic British superheroes created by Americans and therefore somewhat on the naff side. What works well for Captain America doesn’t quite work for British superheroes. So it’s a good thing it was rejected, which meant he didn’t have to adhere to American ideas about superheroes and could indulge in nostalgia for much more English sort of heroes.

Panel from Jack Staff #3

Because there is a sort of British superhero tradition, even apart from reworkings of American imports like Marvelman, a tradition coming out of the old IPC and Fleetway weekly comics anthologies of the sixties & seventies, full of weird not quite super, not quite heroes. This isn’t a nostalgia I share too much about, knowning about most of these comics only secondhand through well, projects like this. There have been a lot of British writers who have been indulging in this nostalgia, like Alan Moore in Captain Britain and Grant Morrison in Zenith, basically whenever they needed an army of superheroes to get slaughtered, and you pick up a lot of this by osmosis.

Half page introduction of Tom Tom from Jack Staff #1

So while the series is called Jack Staff and he is the nominal hero of it, quite a lot of it is actually devoted to all these lovingly done introductions of characters like Tom Tom the Robot Man (who is of course an expy of Robot Archie). Grist introduces a hell of a lot of characters, both expies like this, but also more original ones and every single one of them gets their own half or quarter page introductionary panel. This works well to give an old-fashioned feel to the strip, in effect dividing each issue as if was one of those old anthologies.

Becky Burdock, Vampire Reporter from Jack Staff #7

When it works well, it’s great, but it depends a lot on creating atmosphere and the average comics nerd’s ability to fill in the missing pieces themselves through decades of experience with this sort of retro continuity. Reading it all at once, instead of issue by issue makes for a disjoined experience. These aren’t so much stories, as sketches of stories. that’s always the risk with this sort of comic of course, when you’re trying to hint at an entire universe worth of back story, again relying on the average reader’s understanding of superhero cliches.
Becky Burdock, Vampire Reporter from Jack Staff #7

The funny thing about the series is also how incompetent and useless Jack Staff is. His secret identity is unmasked in the first issue, he gets knocked out more often than Green Lantern used to be and most of his cases are resolved by others. It’s a very English view of superheroes, of not very useful, not very dependable weirdos, even in an universe filled with strange beings and alien menaces.

Bramble & Son, Vampire Hunters in action from Jack Staff #7

What makes the series is Grist’s artwork, which is gloriously expressive, making full use of the possibilities of black and white. At times it’s Toth like in its use of shadows, but Grist also uses white backgrounds a lot to isolate his characters, especially in those half page introductions. Many artists would be afraid to leave so much empty, but Grist has the courage to do so when necessary. All in all this was a very enjoyable trip through somebody else’s nostalgia.

Puppy baiting for fun, not profit

Spacefaring, Extradimensional Happy Kittens gets it right when they say we’re wasting time, energy and attention by engaging the Puppies:

But the fact is, Happy Kitten energies were wasted on fighting a culture war on a battleground selected by the opposing side when they could instead have been reading, writing, buying, enjoying and celebrating some first rate SFF. The Puppies are opposed to SFF that is diverse or deals with gender or political issues or is technically ambitious. I think there’s a lot that Happy Kittens can do for that sort of SFF, apart from engaging in a debate where nobody is really going to change their views.

They miss one thing though: for all the outrage and anger it generates, it can also be fun to blogivate about how awful those people are. At least for those of us not the victim of harassement campaigns. It’s whack-a-mole, but it doesn’t have to cost too much energy as long as you manage to restrict yourself.

Apart from that, they’re right. We should focus as much on promoting diversity as fighting hatred. We can’t ignore the Puppies completely because they will continue to keep ginning up trouble, but the sort of low level aggrievation as showcased in Mike Glyer’s invaluable roundups isn’t really worth the trouble, even if it can be fun. Better to do something constructive by donating to Con or Bust frex.

Two faced Tor

Irene Gallo calls the Puppies what they are: nazis

As you know Bob, I’ve been saying for a long time that the whole Sad/Rabid Puppies operation is just another extention of the American rightwing’s Culture Wars, the blueprint established in the cockpit of partisan politics imported into the arts and now science fiction fandom. This was again confirmed for me over the weekend, as Vox Day and his fellow fascists ginned up controversy over a month old Facebook comment by Irene Gallo, a Tor Books employee, in which she called them rightwingers and neonazis. That’s a move straight out of the Breitbart playbook, where being accused of racism is always a much greater offence than actually being racist and you lie and manipulate your enemies into doing your dirty work for you.

It was clear to anybody who paid attention that the outrage over this comment was wholly artificial, purely done to score political points and energise the Puppies, who had started flagging in enthusiasm after months of not much happening. It was also clear that Vox Day and co were hoping to get Tor to do what Andrew Breitbart made his career with: get them to overreact to this controversy and use that as a way to exact consessions.

The Breitbart method is to identify a weak leftwing target, preferably somebody relatively powerless but able to be spun as “the left”, preferably somebody or some organisation the mainstream left had little feeling for anyway. Then you either got them to do something stupid or you just make shit up, getting the network of rightwing blogs, newspapers and other media to amplify your outrage and trust in the mainstream media and establishment left to overreact. That’s what Breitbart and his organisation did to the voter registration organisation ACORN, and then again to Shirley Sherrod, with the Obama government as patsy doing the actual dirty work of defunding the one and firing the other.

And while Vox Day wants to be sci-fi’s bargain basement’s Breitbart, Tor Books sure seems willing to be his patsy publically scolding Irene Gallo for her comments through an open letter from Tom Doherty:

Last month, Irene Gallo, a member of Tor’s staff, posted comments about two groups of science fiction writers, Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies, and about the quality of some of the 2015 Hugo Award nominees, on her personal Facebook page. Ms. Gallo is identified on her page as working for Tor. She did not make it clear that her comments were hers alone. They do not reflect Tor’s views or mine. She has since clarified that her personal views are just that and apologized to anyone her comments may have hurt or offended…..

Tor employees, including Ms. Gallo, have been reminded that they are required to clarify when they are speaking for Tor and when they are speaking for themselves. We apologize for any confusion Ms. Gallo’s comments may have caused. Let me reiterate: the views expressed by Ms. Gallo are not those of Tor as an organization and are not my own views. Rest assured, Tor remains committed to bringing readers the finest in science fiction – on a broad range of topics, from a broad range of authors.

It’s incredibly gutless for any organisation to throw their employee under the bus like this, especially so when it is for justifiably calling the Puppies on their politics — if it hurts being called a neo-nazi, don’t be one nor hang out with them. But even worse is that this is the same publisher who has kept Jim Frenkel employed for decades, despite that it should’ve know he was a serial harasser. No apology for that has as far as I can see, only a curt Patrick Nielsen Hayden tweet when he was let go:

So why did Tor cave under Puppy pressure? Because they’re a commercial organisation and those hate controversy. It’s cheaper to throw out some half assed apology and scolding than to defend Gallo. And Vox Day knows this. Some Puppies may believe the propaganda about Tor being the home of social justice in science fiction and being their sworn enemy, but he knows full well that’s nonsense, that like any other company Tor only cares about the bottom line and will respond to anything that might threaten it.

Of course the sad truth is that rightwing threats are almost always more powerful than leftwing ones, because the rightwing in America does have that well honed propaganda machine behind it. No matter how much people hate that Tor publishes homophobes like John C. Wright or Orson Scott Card — somebody who actually activily campaigned for lgbt people to have their rights taken away — that doesn’t stop us from buying their other authors; there were no organised boycotts or other political actions brought against Tor for it. Annoying the left doesn’t cost anything; tell the truth about the right and you can get into trouble.

And what’s even sadder is that this only encourages groups like the Puppies. They don’t appreciate Tom Doherty’s apology, as is crystal clear from the File 770 roundup but instead see that as a weakness, a lever to extract further concessions with. It has now become established fact that Gallo was wrong in posting what she did, that she libeled and slandered the Puppies and damn the truth. This is now yet another cudgel to beat up their enemies with, Gallo’s “crime” being applied to everybody, with the rest of us having to waste time either defending her or throwing her under the bus ourselves.

We shouldn’t play that game. Gallo wasn’t wrong to say what she did, the Puppies are reactionary, sexist, racist and have in Vox Day somebody who is a fascist and neo-nazi. We shouldn’t let them steamroll us into letting go of that truth, but we should learn that organisations like Tor are not on our side. Don’t put your trust into them.