Science Fiction Blog

Thoughts on the science-fiction and fantasy genres, which emphasis more on books than on films or TV.

Am I correct in assuming that I’m not missing anything vital in my life from having not read any late-period Robert Heinlein?

Posted on by Tim Hall | 6 Comments

Jonathan Ross, The Hugos and the Twitterstorm

Jonathan Ross - Photo from Wikimedia CommonsSo Jonathan Ross was invited to host the Hugo Awards at WorldCon in London, but was forced to withdraw following a storm of outrage on Twitter. Since a tweet of mine got quoted by Bleeding Cool and makes it look as though I was part of the Twitter mob with torches and pitchforks, I thought I needed to make it clear where I stand.

The way so many people had a problem with a household name TV presenter from hosting a major science fiction awards ceremony must be seen in the context of the SF world’s ongoing civil war. On one side there are those believe the genre needs to be made more inclusive towards people who are not white and male, and it’s time to end the racism and sexism that has bedevilled the genre for years. One the other side are those who are concerned about threats to freedom of expression, and witch-hunts against individuals. It doesn’t help that there are a few unpleasant and poisonous individuals on both sides, whose behaviour reinforces the other sides’ conviction that they’re right.

I am not a fan of Jonathan Ross. Given some of his past behaviour, including his reputation for cruelty-based humour and his apparent attitude towards women, inviting such a divisive figure to host a flagship event was always going to be problematic. When one of the organising committee resigned in protest to his invitation, that ought to have been a warning sign that he might not have been quite the right person.

But the way events panned out, nobody comes out of this with any credit. The decision to invite him as host was spectacularly tone-deaf given the ongoing divisions in the SF world. But that doesn’t excuse the people who went on Twitter and attacked him personally with quite unnecessary levels of vitriol. And Ross himself didn’t respond to those attacks with good grace. The whole affair from beginning to end is a spectacular fail by the SFF community as a whole.

The public face of the SFF community is diminished by this. Anyone gleefully celebrating “victory” rather than seeing the whole affair as a tragedy needs to take a long hard look at themselves.

Addendum: There’s a lot of (mostly) level-headed discussion on the subject on Charlie Stross‘s blog.

Further Addendum: And a very insightful post from Foz Meadows laying a lot of the blame on the LonCon committee for the ham-fisted way they handled the initial announcement,

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Inclusiveness in Geek Culture, part two.

This is a follow-on my previous post in response to Damien Walter’s piece in The Guardian, and assumes you’ve already read that. If you haven’t, go and read that first.

One thing that makes his piece confused is that among the sweeping generalisations he doesn’t make clear idea of what he actually meeds by ‘geek culture’, and seems to conflate a lot of completely unrelated things.

For a start, is there really a single “Geek culture”? I see a lot of overlapping subcultures centred on different things. Some of those a quite progressive, others can be a bit reactionary, and some are guilty of propagating bad ideas that ought to be challenged.

His reference to young white males being told that they’re going to be millionaires or rock stars sounds far more like shallow reality TV and celebrity culture than anything else. Not only are X-Factor and Big Brother not any part of any geek subculture, but they’re a part of mainstream culture that most of those who identify as a geeks explicitly reject.

There is no point trying to deny many geek subculture do contain a disproportionate number of socially awkward people used to being mocked and ostracised, who cling to their subculture as a “safe space” from a hostile and uncaring world. A lot of this may be down to the toxic nature of many US high schools with their endemic bullying and zero-sum popularity-based caste systems. Yes I know full well that those experiences are by no means universal, but they’re still common enough to have an impact on why some aspects of geek culture are the way they are.

Which is why having confident and successful people patronisingly lecturing to them about “White male privilege” and calling them losers provokes such a defensive backlash; it comes over as yet another round of the same sort of bullying they suffered at school. As one game designer I know of has stated, it’s akin to poking a wounded animal with a stick.

Yes, some people do need to grow up, and need to stop defining themselves by how they were treated at high school. But self-righteous lecturing laced with jargon that comes from critical race theory or academic gender studies isn’t the best way to do it. There needs to be a lot more empathy and understanding if the scenes are to be made truly inclusive.

This isn’t to excuse the racism and misogyny that geek cultures tolerates far too much; value systems created out of self-defined victimhood are never going to be pretty. The much-vaulted “all are welcome” inclusiveness of geekdom includes a failure to recognise that the crude bigotry of a minority is completely out of order. That is a major problem, and it does need to be addressed.

I have noticed that James Desborough has blogged about the same subject and makes a number of the same points. But I do think he’s badly wrong about sexism and racism not being a problem.

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There’s something Wrong On The Internet again, and that something seems to be an awful incoherent reactionary petition aimed at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I won’t link to the thing; you can always Google if you enjoy being outraged at entitled prejudiced drivel. While the author of the petition, someone I’d not previously heard of, appears to be a sexist dick, I’m rather disappointed that one of my all time favourite SF authors appears to have signed the thing.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 13 Comments

Genre as Walled Gardens?

Good post on Genji Press on the problems that happen when SF authors and their readers don’t read nearly enough outside their own genre.

Most SF&F’s understanding of human nature seems to be derived not from life, or even from area outside SF&F, but from other works of SF&F, and that’s far too self-limiting.

I think that one of the big reasons Iain Banks was one of the greatest SF writers of his generation was that he didn’t just read outside the genre, he wrote outside it as well.

It’s not just confined to fiction, of course, it’s a problem in music. How many indie or metal bands are there out there who don’t listen to anything outside their own genre? And is it any surprise that their music ends up sounding like a derivative pasiche of other, better bands?

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Inclusiveness in Geek Culture

Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark in Iron Man.A few days ago, The Guardian’s Damien Walter wrote about the preponderance of white male heroes in mass market superhero films and computer games, and attempted to turn it into a polemic about white male privilege in geek culture as a whole. Unfortunately, while his heart may be in the right place, his argument was so clumsily made and so poorly focussed that his many valid points got lost in the noise. Certainly the manner in which he pushed people’s buttons in a way that was always going to provoke an angry emotional response didn’t come over as a good way to start a constructive conversation.

He ends up leaving you with the impression he’s hating on fandom for Hollywood’s failure to greenlight the sort of projects he wants to see. If you’re actually interested in doing something constructive about geek cultures’ problems with inclusiveness, are lines like this remotely helpful?

Young white men often number among the most useless and deficient individuals in society, precisely because they have such a delusional sense of their own importance and entitlements. They’ve been raised to believe that one day they’ll be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars (and superheroes), but they won’t, and they’re having a tantrum because of it.

Writing a piece that reads as though it’s designed to provoke a backlash, then using that backlash as evidence of the essential rightness of the original piece is still the tactic of the troll. A handful of troglodytes bloviating about Mencius Moldbug and The Red Pill (don’t ask!) in the comments doesn’t validate the tone of the piece.

And no, he doesn’t get to use the “Tone argument” as a get-out clause. He’s privileged white male himself, so it doesn’t apply to people like him. And he describes himself as a professional writer, so he’s supposed to be good at communicating ideas. He should be capable of doing better than this.

There are indeed a lot of valid points about the sorts of stories that aren’t being told but should. I’d love to see Hollywood move beyond American comic book franchises that pre-date the Civil Rights era in favour of the more contemporary SF by the likes of Charlie Stross, Iain Banks or Alastair Reynolds. Or even more challenging works that aren’t written by white men.

So what, if anything, can we do to encourage media companies to tell more diverse and inclusive stories?

As a start, as fans, critics or maybe even as creators, I would suggest that we spent our energies into supporting and encouraging works that tell the sorts of stories we want to see, the ones that don’t rely on tired stereotypes and clichéd plot tropes. And we should champion such things on their merits for the stories they tell.

On a broader inclusiveness front, how about supporting events like ConTessa?

Is it not better to do this than waste our energies raging at the things we dislike and the people who like them?

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Superheroes: A Cultural Catastrophe?

Alan Moore thinks Superheroes are ‘a cultural catastrophe’

“To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence,” he wrote to Ó Méalóid. “It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”

Somebody had to say it.

Despite being an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy, I have always found the tropes of superhero genre inherently silly. It’s probably a consequence of not reading superhero comics as a child. So with the excaption of the camp 60s version of Batman (Wallop! Blatt! Kapow!), I only encountered the rest of the genre as an adult. And having not grown up steeped in the genre from a formative age it’s a lot easier to recognise the whole thing as selling adolescent male power fantasies.

If people did have superhuman powers, why would they don Spandex and capes and spend their time having fist fights with equally ridiculous supervillans? Why do they always have to have mundane secret indentities? And why would the presence of hundreds of costumed heroes have absolutely no impact on the world’s history or politics?

I’m not alone in thinking this, given the way this post of mine on Twitter (the cartoon isn’t mine) went viral with something like 400 retweets.


That cartoon neatly sums up my problem with the genre….

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Is Lovecraft’s racism central to the horror?

I had an interesting if brief discussion on Twitter with feminist writer and activist Laurie Penny about H. P. Lovecraft. Despite his reactionary and misanthropic world-view, she’s a big fan and stated that his massive racism and sexism are an intrinsic part of the horror.

You don’t have to read much Lovecraft to recognise that his work is shot through with racism. It’s not just having a cat called “Nigger Boy”; stories like the iconic “Call of Cthulhu” are filled with awful racial stereotypes, and a primal fear of miscegenation lies at the heart of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth“.

Yet almost all Lovecraft fans I know are left-leaning in their politics and strongly anti-racist. This may just be a reflection of the sorts of people I hang out with online, but I can’t think of many HPL fans with robustly right-wing views. Certainly I’ve seen no evidence of hordes of Lovecraft fans who embrace his racism and sexism in the manner of a noisy faction of Robert Heinlein fanboys.

What are your feelings about Lovecraft? Do you or people you know find his racism too much to stomach? Are there hordes of ultra-reactionary Deep Ones that embrace his values who I’m blissfully unaware of?

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Remakes and Big Budget Fanfic

In a blog post entited Selling Last Year’s Model, Serdar Yegulalp laments the way the mass media constantly recycles the same characters and franchises rather than take risks in creating something completely new.

A big part of why we have a heap of broken images is because’ve managed to make it unsustainable to sell anything else but last year’s models. Curiosity has become an acquired taste, and an increasingly rarefied one. It’s easier to give people a variation on something they — and everyone else — already know, instead of trying to tickle their imaginations in a different way.

It’s certainly down to the fact that the bean-counters call the shots in the big media companies, and they’re getting more and more risk-averse when it comes to big budgets. So the end result is that since nobody will be fired for greenlighting yet another pointless remake or sequel, that’s what we get.

But Laurie Penny, writing in The New Statesman thinks the opposite. In a lengthy article about the Dr Who and Sherlock, she argues that what we’re seeing is fanfic on a grand scale, and that taps into a very long-established tradition.

Fan fiction is nothing new, and nor is the statement “fan fiction is nothing new”. Most discussions of the practice speak of Star Trek fanstories dating back to the sixties, and point to the influence of fan speculation on Joss Whedon when he was running Buffy. But actually, fan fiction is far older than that It wasn’t until the Romantic period that originality was considered an essential skill for a storyteller to have. Before then, a truly great writer would be distinguished by his ability – and it usually was his ability – to provide a new reading of a classic tale or legend, to bring a familiar character or archetype viscerally to life.

Fanfic gets a bad rep. We all remember the The Geek Hierarchy with its “People who write erotic versions of Star Trek where all the characters are furries, like Kirk is an ocelot or something, and they put a furry version of themselves as the star of the story”. But Penny highlights the positive aspects.

What is significant about fan fiction is that it often spins the kind of stories that showrunners wouldn’t think to tell, because fanficcers often come from a different demographic. The discomfort seems to be not that the shows are being reinterpreted by fans, but that they are being reinterpreted by the wrong sorts of fans – women, people of colour, queer kids, horny teenagers, people who are not professional writers, people who actually care about continuity (sorry).

Hands up who laughed at that last line…

And to finish, I can’t mention fanfic and canon without mentioning this post on Making Light. Remember where the word “Canon” comes from.

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Rany Jazayerli on Orson Scott Card

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

At a time where pretty much the whole of the SF community is debating whether or not to boycott the film Enders Game due to the virulant homophobia of author Orson Scott Card, this very personal history by Rany Jazayerli is well worth reading.

He paints a picture of a man of humanity and empathy who wrote “Enders Game” and it’s sequel “Speaker for the Dead”, who subsequently lost his mind in the aftermath of America’s national trauma of 9/11.

Since then Card has spend the last decade wandering deeper and deeper into the toxic swamp of far-right conspiracy theories, of which the aggressive homophobia is but the tip of the iceberg. In many ways, he’s not the same man who wrote those novels all those years ago.

If you’re debating whether to see or to boycott the film, then read Rany Jazayerli’s piece before making up your mind.

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