So…I’ve been thinking.
This post started (as many things these days do) as a Twitter rant, which was then followed by a very thoughtful conversation between many parties (storify here).
Actually, let me backtrack a little bit. This all started when I read an article called The Problem of Engagement written by Baen Books publisher Toni Weisskopf and later posted on According to Hoyt. As a bit of context, this article has surfaced following the controversy surrounding Jonathan Ross and his brief stint as official Hugo Award MC for this year’s Loncon. If you don’t know what I am talking about, here is a brief recap.
There have been many troubling aspects surrounding the Hugo-Ross controversy. One of them is the way that the surrounding narrative has been reframed in a way that calls those who voiced their concerns about Jonathan Ross hosting the Hugos “bullies”/“the PC crowd running wild”/“oversensitive zealots” who are always offended by things without any thought to the context in which their concerns are voiced. (Kameron Hurley has written an incredible post about this phenomenon: Rage Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum.)
The fact is, I’ve been following this conversation from the very beginning (being up early here in the UK), I watched it all go down. I also watched as Big Media relayed events in such a way that was completely out of context, so unwilling to listen to the actual facts of the conversation, that it soon became clear to me:
This is history being rewritten in front of our very eyes.
Reading Toni Weisskopf’s article was a bit like wandering through fog (or wading through mud, if we take into consideration some of the more abhorrent comments left after the post). I was not exactly sure as to what was the point of the article. It appears to be an earnest call to unite the different “sides” of fandom involved in Ross-Hugogate. Of course, this call for unification would have been much more effective had the article refrained from referring to one of the “sides” as “fuggheads” who are “politically correct, self-appointed guardians of […] everything” and participate in “fooforaws.”
The post also calls for calmer minds and sings the praises of classic authors like Heinlein:
Of course we all read Heinlein and have an opinion about his work. How can you be a fan and not?
My favourite part of this argument is the way it reminisces an idyllic time when folks thought that fandom ought to have “nothing to do with greater world politics, but should concentrate on the thing we all loved, that being science fiction.”
Here is the problem with Wisskopf’s presentation: when you use words like “PC” or “fuggheads” to describe groups of people (e.g. women, people of colour, LGBTQIA folks) – people who have been trying to become fully accepted members of what you call Science Fiction Fandom – you are not only delegitimizing their fight but also reframing the narrative of the fight itself.
This is history being rewritten in front of our very eyes.
In addition: when you decide to use those charged words to describe those people? That’s a choice. It’s a choice to engage in the conversation in a certain way that has everything to do with “greater world politics” and very little to do with “loving Science Fiction”.
I’ve been thinking about all of these things, and about history. And I have many questions, but not many answers.
It seems to me that there’s this idea that Science Fiction – as genre and as fandom – has a “history.” And that (real) fans should know this particular history.
My main question when hearing this argument is: “history” as perceived by whom? As defined by whom?
Why is it that this early history of Science Fiction fandom is presented as “idyllic” when we know for a fact that large groups of people stood outside looking in? Isn’t that history being rewritten in front of our very eyes? Try this: when you Google “best Science Fiction of all time” or “essential Science Fiction novels,” you almost invariably get lists featuring works by the same group of people. Very few contain writers who are not white and male. The narrative that chooses this subset of people as the only worthy “masters” of the genre? Isn’t that, too, rewriting history in front of our very eyes?
It is obvious to me that this idyllic period of Science Fiction “history” is told largely from an American, white, male perspective. It might be an important part of a historical narrative, but it is not the whole narrative. Surely, it can’t be. If we choose to brand only those works “masterful” and “classic” and “essential”, what are we saying?
What about a bit more of personal context: I am Brazilian. MY history is that I’ve had little to no access to those “masterworks” of science fiction. Am I a lesser Science Fiction fan if I have not read Heinlein or many other “classic” authors?
But what about my other hats? Am I a lesser reviewer or editor? I am torn about this. As a reviewer, I completely appreciate the point that it might be useful to be well versed in at least some of the tenets of the field in which you are reviewing. Even if some of those classics are racist, misogynistic, dated, and terrible, like I said before, context is always important.
But then I go back to the point: What is this “context”? Does “classic” SF really represent the entire extent of the genre? If I, as a reviewer, read only what has been branded “classic” to become aware of our “history” am I not choosing to be limited to a certain demographics? Where do the paradigms and criteria used to define “masters,” “history” and “fandom” come from anyway? Are those ideas so easy, so simple to grasp and define?
(It seems to me that this is easy only if you believe you are approaching science fiction from a mythical objective place that is apart from “greater world politics” – but we know that that is history being rewritten in front of our very eyes).
When someone says to a piece of criticism “but have you read X [work of classic SF]?” isn’t that a way of silencing criticism? This reminds me of something that happened when I was at university, when a History of Art teacher had an argument with another student over criticism theory. The student made very good points, but teacher shut him down by saying, “You haven’t read Foucault, do not talk to me until you have.” I was horrified.
Can’t we criticise “new” without knowing the “old”? Is our reading “narrow” if we don’t allow for the weight of “history”? This is coming from someone who tries to play catch any chance she gets. But here is another question: can anyone have read everything there is to read? To me it seems that there will be always blind spots you don’t see.
At the end of the day, I am worried about the idea that one must do or read X in order to be a “real” critic/fan/aficionado. I understand wanting to read the “classics” for any number of reasons: for research, for context, for fun, for whatever. I also equally understand NOT wanting to read them for any reason at all. Because you want to frame your reading in a different way, because the “classics” do not represent you or worse: misrepresent you. I fully understand not wanting to spend time reading something that equals being punched in the face. I myself dislike that immensely.
I don’t want the latter to define a “worse” type of reader or fan or critic than the former.
Am I a lesser reviewer because of that? I am filled with angst at the thought that what I write here means nothing at all because I have not been a part of fandom for long and I have not read a lot of “classics”. Does that make my opinions and thoughts on new books or my involvement in fandom any lesser? I am also Brazilian (am I outside fandom?). A woman (am I outside fandom?). English is not my mother tongue (am I outside fandom?). I am not very young either (am I outside fandom?). I am a blogger (am I outside fandom?). I read YA and Middle Grade and Fantasy (am I outside fandom?).
I know very little and I have few answers. I do know one more thing: that what I am saying here is not new or original and that many, many others have been talking about this since forever. I know this and I say this because I am not rewriting history in front of your eyes.