Beware the Sexist Genre Police

Today’s eye-rolling dispatch from the trenches of the ongoing SF culture wars comes from an opinion piece by someone called Paul Cook writing for Amazing Stories entitled When Science Fiction is Not Science Fiction.

With his ridiculously narrow definition of what is and isn’t science fiction he reminds me a lot of the self-appointed “Prog Police” who troll progressive rock forums declaring that everything that doesn’t sound exactly like Emerson Lake and Palmer did in 1973 is not “proper prog”.

It doesn’t help that he starts out by dissing one of my all time favourite SF novels, Gene Wolfe’s complex many-layered “Book of the New Sun”.

Severian’s travels and adventures and storytelling (Book Two has a long fairy tale inserted in the middle of the novel that goes absolutely nowhere and adds nothing to the novel) are straight out of a YA rite-of-passage fantasy.

Gene Wolfe’s erudite style can be quite hard work sometimes, and SF critic Dave Langford once said that Wolfe excelled at “making him feel thick”. In which case Cook has a bad case of Dunning-Krugers here. Not only has he failed to understand anything of the book’s depths, but he doesn’t even realise the fact.

Once he gets to Lois McMaster Bujold, we get a side-order of added misogyny.

… the attention to detail that only women would find attractive: balls, courts, military dress, palace intrigues, gossiping, and whispering in the corridors. All of this is right out of Alexander Dumas.

With all this ridiculously passive-aggressive whining about SF novels being thinly-disguised romances, he manages to ignore the fact that much of his beloved “Military SF” is essentially Commando Comics in Spaaaaace, generic action-adventure stories that happen to set somewhere in the future.

He signs off with the usual disclaimer beloved of all trolls.

Of course, I’ve offended everyone who’s read this far–simply by having an opinion. But this essay has been about truth-in-advertising. I’m too old to put up with indulgences by books claiming to be one thing, but are really something else. I like my science fiction advertised as such, nothing more.

And then the comments section became a rotten tomato gallery, as often tends to happen when someone posts something egregiously stupid on the internet. Amazing Stories’ mods didn’t really cover themselves in glory when they shut down comments within 24 hours due to the number of negative comments. If you can’t handle the comments (which were not YouTube-style personal abuse, but mostly well-reasoned rebuttals to the article), then don’t write nonsense on the internet.

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8 Responses to Beware the Sexist Genre Police

  1. Serdar says:

    You know that I have my own definitions of what is or isn’t SF&F (ha! see how I cast the net that much wider by default right there?), but they’re more about intentions and outlook than they are about ingredients. Pounding on Wolfe is modestly silly, but pounding on Bujold — one of the better SF writers working right now — is just plain ludicrous.

    Plus which, if all that stuff is “straight out of Alexandre Dumas”, what precisely is wrong with that? Dumas was and still is a terrific writer and entertainer; I routinely recommend “The Count of Monte Cristo” to prospective SF&F authors, and it’s startling how many of them have never actually read it. A lot of so-called SF is indeed shoot-’em-ups in space, and anything that imbues it with that much more of a human touch is welcome.

  2. Serdar says:

    Also, merely having an opinion doesn’t guarantee offense. Having a misinformed and prejudicial opinion, on the other hand …

  3. Tim Hall says:

    The trouble with defining genres is that no two people have precisely the same definition of that genre.

    I remember discussion the “Horror” many years ago with someone whose definition was “It’s got things like vampires or zombies in it”. My definition was that to qualify as horror it had to be scary, and if you used vampires purely for comic effect it wasn’t really horror.

    I think it was Ken Hite who pointed out that neither definition of horror was necessarily wrong, but a consensus definition ought to include both.

  4. Graham Meigh says:

    I’ve just scanned Cook’s article. I was going to write a response… but, well if you met this guy at a party you would be back paddling at high speed.

  5. Michael says:

    For something to count as horror it only has to have the intent to scare its audience. The presence of a vampire in a story most certainly does not define that story as being in the horror genre.

    I remember being in a D&D campaign in which we ended up trying to work out how quickly vampires could be killed and from there we advanced to how many vampires could be killed in unit time, eventually concluding that the limiting factor is actually how many vampires can be taunt into attacking the party through a Druidic Wall of Fire running at 4d4+12 followed by a magic user’s Wall of Fire (sorry, I don’t remember what damage that was doing) but very few 8d8 monsters survive that and those that get past the Fighter Lord attacking on pre-initiative and a high Dex archer then blow up on the Negative Plane Protection the moment they touch someone, which always takes at least two attempts because the party are wearing Displacer Cloaks. So that is not a horror story, it’s action tending to comedy.

  6. please read today’s editorial for a bit of background and information on the situation on the site

  7. Tim Hall says:

    Nothing wrong with defending hard-SF, but “things only a woman could find attractive” crossed a line into overt misogyny, and a good editor should have caught that.

    But then I looked your site and saw this recent post.

    Do you really think using scatalogical profantity is morally equivalent to being a white supremacist? If you think “diversity of opinion” means giving a soapbox to racists and misogynists, then I’m not interested in supporting your site.

  8. Neville Morley says:

    A couple of classic syllogistic fallacies, regularly found in this sort of polemic:

    I like SF; I don’t like these books; therefore these books are not SF.

    Brilliant critiques of literary and cultural conventions often offend people; my piece has offended people; therefore my piece is a brilliant critique of literary and cultural conventions (and if you’re offended, you’re just confirming my brilliance).