Revenge of the Neckbeards

The world of sci-fi fandom is precious little understood in mainstream culture, whether that be literary or otherwise. Nevertheless, its traditional awards have increased in importance over the past decades, not merely due to the genre’s constant fan base and multiplicity of authors, but to the explosive rise of authors within the genre to prominence in the realm of what is dubiously referred to as "literary fiction."

So it has been for the Hugo Awards and the Nebula Awards, two sci-fi brands which have won increasing recognition from readers of all persuasions. Four decades after Gravity’s Rainbow lost the Nebula for best novel to Arthur C. Clarke’s decidedly middling Rendezvous with Rama on the grounds that the former was insufficiently science-fiction-y, both Hugos and Nebulas have been scooped up by a number of authors who blur the boundaries between the genre and the mainstream. Just out of the Hugo "best novel" category, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman and China Miéville’s awards attest to the growing popularity of speculative fiction and its emergence out of the realm of sketchy subcultures.

Out of respect to the traditionally niche and populist history of the genre, Hugos are nominated by readers, who may be entitled to vote by paying a $50 membership fee to the body that awards them, the World Science Fiction Society. This mechanism, which is far more democratic and admirable than other literary awards, backfired however when a few right-wing lunatics were able to overwhelmingly nominate their own favorites from the pulpit of their WordPress accounts, mobilizing a fan base eager for a return to the supposed traditional values of the form.

Supposedly, the Hugos in recent years have been constrained to operate on the basis of affirmative action and politics. The founder of the campaign three years ago, fantasy novelist Larry Correia, wrote: "authors with 'unapproved' politics were to get nominations, the quality of the work would be irrelevant, and the insider cliques would do everything in their power to sabotage that person."

In other words, a concern for diversity of sci-fi authors in gender, race and sexual orientation, and for topics that embraced these concerns, was drowning out the need for quality. According to Correia, social justice interventions in sci-fi "is the number one cause of sad puppies," hence the insipid name.

Correia is more politic about his concerns than other promoters of the Sad Puppies campaign. His colleague Brad Torgersen laid things out more clearly, in words that are worth quoting in full to see the true nature of the campaign:

… A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.
These days, you can’t be sure.
The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?
There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?
A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.
Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.
Or it could be about the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy.
Do you see what I am trying to say here?

The implications are staggering. Not only are the "broad-chested hero who slays monsters," the "pioneer," the "sword-swinger," the ‘heroes and princesses,’ with all the negative things about classic scifi they represented including rampant racism and misogyny, not to mention a downright admiring attitude towards the colonization of the lesser races, to be admired, in this day, decades after we thought we dismissed them from the realm of the acceptable, they should be brought back!

If you’re not sure after reading Torgersen’s missive, by the way, you can always count on Vox Day, who founded the "Rabid Puppies" campaign as a more radical complement. He has written on his blog about how women should be denied the vote, and was expelled from the Science Fiction Writers of America for using its official Twitter account to call a black author an "ignorant half-savage."

What is behind this sudden popular craving for the days of reactionary sci-fi of yore? It can’t entirely be the fans. With Correia welcoming participation in his crusade from the fine men of Gamergate, who last year drove feminist gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian underground with threats of rape and murder, it seems likely that the sudden right-wing mood has no small component of astro-turf in it.

One lingering effect of the mass movements of the 1960s was that open racism, sexism, homophobia and similar reactionary attitudes ceased to be welcome or accepted in much of the public sphere. Gamergate, Sad Puppies, and others to come are movements of the privileged to take back their spaces. Cultural bastions of prejudice and elitism, when they begin to crack open, always provoke a response from the right.

One can detect a similar logic at work wherever this happens. In the 1980s, conservative commentators took a sudden interest in literary quality when they discovered Toni Morrison was allegedly "campaigning" to be given awards merely because of the color of her skin. Shocked and outraged culture warriors, who had never taken much of an interest in literary matters before, declared that Morrison’s literary output was subpar and that the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, etc. should really be given to works depending on their quality rather than the color of an author’s skin. This was in fact an early salvo in the creeping ideology of colorblindness.

Within the world of sci-fi, however, the form it takes is a strange "anti-elitist" populism characteristic of mass right-wing politics in the US today. Fort this group, the growing acceptance of sci-fi, as with the discovery of authors like Ursula Le Guin and Philip K. Dick by the academy and their books being added to course syllabi, is in fact a Very Bad Thing that waters down the genre. The increasing sophistication of sci-fi and speculative fiction from Samuel Delany onwards, rather than being a sign of progress, is a signal of the cooptation of sci-fi by pernicious left-wing media and academic elites.

It goes without saying that the claim of anti-elitism, together with the pleas of Torgersen and others to return to the simplistic values the genre once supposedly had, essentially conceals the worst elitism and prejudice that sci-fi, due to its popularization and increased accessibility to the marginalized of society, was finally able to overcome.

We should have no nostalgia for the pulp world of space operas and dragon quests. That era produced some talented writers, but the most enduring ones, such as Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Kurt Vonnegut, are remembered today precisely because their writing broke out of the strictures of sci-fi as it was defined during the 1950s. Let’s also not forget it produced its share of terrible writers, madmen and outright sociopaths—L. Ron Hubbard, for example, drew most of the mythos of Scientology from this well.

Sci-fi today is hardly unproblematic in its attitudes to minorities, women, and those of diverse sexual and gender identities. Samuel Delany, for instance, his noted that as a black sci-fi writer, he was always put on panels with Octavia Butler, despite the fact that the two are writers of very different materials and sensibilities. By this he meant not that racial difference should be elided in discussions of his and Butler’s work, but that "black science fiction" remained in a ghetto well outside the supposed mainstream.

Nevertheless, the changes to sci-fi and speculative fiction in general have not only proved more inclusionary over the last few decades, but have produced works far more sophisticated and with much more appeal that the vision of Sad Puppies appeals to. Their picks will sweep the Hugos this year. But if they continue to dominate the awards, the Hugos will lose credibility as the writers and readers of sci-fi with democratic aspirations march onwards.

"Pink Palimpsest" is the occasional blog/column on literature and film from Bill Crane, a somewhat odd American socialist living in London.

Emily Mandel, "Station Eleven"

We’ve probably all had the thought at some point: what if the world ended, and amid the wreckage many years later, what’s left of humanity or some alien explorer recovered not what’s most significant about our civilization, i.e. the Bible, Shakespeare, the theory of relativity, etc. they discovered an insipid birthday card, a Facebook comment made by you or some equally stupid thing and tried to use it to reconstruct the trend of human progress over the past several millennia?

Station Eleven is a novel sort of like this thought experiment. With the spread of a mutation of the flu from the Caucasus, 99.9% or so of humanity says good-bye. The internet, electricity and so on in no particular order wink out with little fuss after the initial impact. Human beings survive in a string of isolated settlements across the Great Lakes area. There might be others in the rest of the world, though we can’t be sure. In the age of the Ebola virus, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or AMC’s The Walking Dead, this is all readily recognisable, since it has long been easier to imagine the end of civilization than the particular social system we live under. 

What’s different in Station Eleven is that there are no zombies, and unlike in most of the narratives, the end of the world produces no special barbarity or inhumanity (well, none that wasn’t already there.) After the initial catastrophe, people can establish settlements, although these are small, spread out, and have none of the accoutrements that we remember from towns. Our protagonist, Kirsten, travels between them as part of “The Traveling Symphony,” a group that goes between the towns of Ohio and Michigan performing music (classical and arrangements of the pop tunes that were around at the collapse) and theatre, mostly Shakespeare, as “people want to remember what was the best about before.”

The thing about this novel is that it’s not always so clear that high art such as the Bard’s works are what was best. At least, the members of the Symphony, Kirsten foremost among them, seem to find as much significance in more trivial things. One of the symphony’s wagons carries the painted motto “Survival is insufficient,” which Kirsten also has a tattoo of, and which is not a line from King Lear or Richard III but Star Trek: Voyager

Similarly, her efforts at collection of artifacts from the old world center, not around the world’s great literary past, or even some kind of technology or science that might be remotely useful, but any celebrity gossip she can get from magazines or TV guides about Arthur Leander, an actor who died the night of the catastrophe and who she shares a dim personal connection with. In the “Museum of Civilization” set up in the airport of Severn City, Michigan, we find just as many stilleto heels as iPhones, as many baseball cards as laptops. All these have become equal as the remanants of a civilization that humans remember more and more dimly.

Detailing the lives of Kirsten and the rest of our ensemble would involve revealing too much about the connections they share before the collapse and develop afterwards, which drives the story. But in the end, the fact that they all find these connections significant, and that artists such as Kirsten struggle to produce from them the culture, the music and theatre that said the best things about humanity despite its dire straits, is a moving testament to that humanity, and our drive to live rather than merely survive. In the latter days of capitalism when ecological catastrophe threatens the fundamentals of all we have achieved, reading Mandel is a touching and marvelous experience.

"Pink Palimpsest" is the occasional blog/column on literature and film from Bill Crane, a somewhat odd American socialist living in London.