Ever since the Great Schism in Science Fiction, as important and divisive in that community as the separation of the Catholic and Orthodox churches in 1054, I’ve watched with incredulity as the Leftist Puppy Kickers have bandied about the most gross of accusations against the Sad Puppies. Tad Williams compares Right-wingers to Nazis. GRRM spews his special brand of stupidity. Chuck Wendig decides that people didn’t like his book because they are homophobes, not because his writing stunk to high heaven. Steve Davidson makes sure to declare his superior intelligence to those dumb Conservatives with their “stupid ideas.”
And then you find comments on File770 automatically dismissing anything said by a Sad Puppy, because anyone who supports the Puppies is probably a GamerGater. As if that has anything to do with whether or not the charges laid by the Sad Puppies are true. Puppy Kickers love the concept of guilt by association. Whatever.
But today’s delicious dose of irony and inspiration for a good fisking comes to us from an article written at The Establishment, telling us that authors who come from “marginalized” backgrounds are often better Science Fiction writers. I’m presuming they mean in relation to those evil oppressors, straight white Christian males.
Already the title tells us a great deal of the conclusion the author wants us to make. Marginalized writers, that is to say Progressive-sanctioned “victim” groups (i.e. anyone who is not a straight white man), are superior to those stodgy old white guys who oppress and marginalize the others, probably because they are secretly envious of the superior talents of “people of color” and women.
Science fiction is about the gadgets. To be on the cutting edge of science fiction, therefore, you need to know your doohickeys from your gizmos, and be able to determine which will catapult you out past Uranus. Space flight, nanotechnology, virtual reality, and all the things you can do with AI—the serious science-fiction writer has all of those terms on Google alert, so as to know exactly what the future will look like five minutes from right . . . now.
One paragraph in, and we have already made acquaintance with a steaming pile of horseshit. Francis Porretto over at Liberty’s Torch, once explained to me, when helping me with some of my early fiction work, that stories are about people, and how the essence of the story is change. Insofar as gadgetry and doodads set the stage and the setting of good Science Fiction, they are still incidental to the characters. It is the journey of the characters that interests the reader and captivates an audience.
A simple analogy is possible. Imagine Star Wars without its focus on Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, and with a long-winded exposition about the technical details of Death Star design and construction. Would anybody want to watch that garbage?
“Great science fiction explores the philosophical possibilities of science’s impact on reality,” sci-fi writer James Wallace Harris declares at SF Signal. You take real science, you add brilliant philosophy, and you’ve got sci-fi. Right?
Actually, no. Harris’ article has been widely pilloried on social media because, in his tour of “cutting-edge science fiction,” he managed to make a list without citing a single piece of work by a woman or person of color. But what’s been less discussed is that his omissions are tied closely to the fact that his definition of cutting-edge science fiction is ludicrously limited.
At first, I thought there was some hope here for Noah Berlatsky, but instead of focusing on the story and the characters, he focuses on whether or not Harris inserted a sufficient number of citations from favored Leftist victim groups. It’s almost like there is a checklist someplace that you benchmark an article against. If there is, for instance, an insufficient number of obese genderqueer black lesbian lionkins, then demerits are handed out for perceived racism-sexism-homophobia-otherkinphobia. Only nobody seems to know what the required percentages are.
Compare to Chuck Wendig, who was angry at the original Star Wars trilogy for having an insufficient number of black characters, even though the black cast percentage was a near-perfect match for the demographics of America at the time of filming. Of course, the NBA receives a diversity award for being mostly black. So as long as you check the required percentages for “marginalized” people, you don’t have to worry about those pesky white folks.
For Harris, good science fiction focuses on real, possible science, extrapolated. “The trouble is the fans often prefer the beliefs they were raised with, and not those belonging to the cutting edge,” he huffs plaintively, bemoaning the fact that sci-fi fans still like time travel and space opera. If only fans, not to mention literary critics, were out there on the cutting edge, they’d know that H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is no longer relevant. It’s just science fantasy; pfft. Progress has overtaken it; consign it (via time machine) to the dustbin of history.
Here’s another moment where I had some hope for our intrepid Progressive. But don’t worry, he’s about to sink his own ship shortly. Nonetheless, this is a good time to point out that one of Science Fiction’s appeals, as opposed to other types of fiction, is that it challenges the reader to consider concepts and ideas they might not otherwise imagine. One of the great appeals of Time Machine is that, at the time, it was an eye-opener for readers. Here was a world-breaking technology, and a character who had to deal with the implications of using it. You connected with the protagonist and wondered how you might use such a machine, if you had it. And then you watched how someone else dealt with it, the mistakes and victories he had.
But remember, this is also relative to the world it was set in. Cutting edge technology is not necessary, because for today’s readers, you can wonder how a Victorian-age character would deal with the implications of time travel, how he would see it. So long as your characters are interesting, and your story engaging, it can essentially live forever, even if technology has long moved ahead of it.
Similarly, old science fiction isn’t superseded just because we now know about relativity. Cutting edge in science fiction shouldn’t mean: “I’ve included the latest, hippest equation.” It should include science fiction that is beautiful, startling, or challenging in form or content. Sci-fi writers are creating literature, not blueprints. Cutting-edge sci-fi isn’t sci-fi that uses the latest gadget. It’s sci-fi that dares you to think differently.
So far so good. But I have a bad feeling surrounding what this man means when he says “think differently.” Is it like Apple, with their slogan “think different” when you are all buying products that are exactly the same, so that you can look exactly the same as everyone else?
And since cutting-edge sci-fi demands you look at the world from a new perspective, it’s no wonder that much of it has been written by folks whose relationship to the mainstream is difficult and marginal. That is, by women and people of color. Science fiction as we know it, in fact, arguably begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Victor’s experiments aren’t based on the best technological knowledge of our time, or even of Shelley’s, but that doesn’t mean the book is backwards or irrelevant. On the contrary, it remains what it’s always been: a parable about a man who is obsessed with, and even enraged by, his inability to control reproduction. Victor wants to create life, like women do, and in his attempts to control the process of birth, he destroys both his wife and his outsized, monstrous child. Power, reproduction, love, hate, control, gendered panic; Shelley’s skeptical nightmare about male ambition still resonates with the latest headlines some 200 years later.
Oh boy. Well, there are two separate and distinct fallacies here, so let’s address them in order. First, Noah tells us that Science Fiction is often written by folks whose relationship to the mainstream is difficult. There is some truth to this. I converse regularly with a number of Sad Puppy and Rabid Puppy authors, some of whom I regard as personal friends. If there is anything they all have in common (for they are not a monolithic group of people — Progressive accusations non-withstanding), it is that they are not what you would think of as mainstream people. Mainly, this is a function of high intelligence and strong personalities. Creativity is a paramount value for them. So they are not the sort of folks who live what you would call “normal” lives. Some are geeks or nerds not far off from the stereotype of such. Others are artists, military men, dreamers, and in the case of Sarah Hoyt, just plain weird sometimes (it’s a big part of her appeal, mind you). I mean, anyone who thinks I’m mainstream is a lunatic.
But they aren’t “normies.”
However, Noah describes the non-mainstream as women and people of color. He tells us that authors are not their personalities, not their life-experiences, their knowledge and their unique creative ideas. No. They are merely a set of genitals and a skin color. To him that is what makes a person non-mainstream. If you took the most boring white guy in the world, the parody of idiotic, balding, middle aged white men on TV, and gave them a magic potion that turned their skin black, they would suddenly become special oppressed snowflakes by virtue of their skin color alone. Noah would celebrate them instead of denigrating them, because it’s not about substance, it’s not about the product, it’s not even about the person. Rather, it is about where that person falls on the Progressive Stack, a very specific political ideology.
Forget the uniqueness they bring (or don’t bring) to the world.
Then this guy decides to spin Frankenstein as some sort of parable on women’s reproductive rights, and how jealous the protagonist is that he doesn’t have a set of female genitals, so that he might create life (never mind that men are a required component in creating life anyway). He’s “attempting to control the process of birth” according to Noah. You get the idea from him that Mary Shelley was writing about Republicans who are opposed to Planned Parenthood, not a man obsessed with conquering death, with pushing technology beyond his capacity to handle it, and the moral implications thereof.
Maybe the time traveler sent his machine to Mary Shelley so that she could come forward to 2016 and denounce Republicans in her book.
In the Frankenstein tradition, the two most ambitious and acclaimed living sci-fi writers are probably Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel Delany. Both Le Guin and Delany are explicitly feminist writers, who have used science fiction not to play with the latest gadgets, but to critique, and undermine, preconceptions about gender, self, sex, and governance.
Huxley touched upon a lot of these topics a long time ago. But Progressives don’t like to talk about that, because it paints them in a somewhat unfavorable light. I have not read anything written by Samuel Delany, and so I will pass on him. But I find Le Guin to be patronizing, boring, and a very poor storyteller overall. If I needed a lecture on proper feminist belief systems, I would attend the Orwellian events put together by Anita Sarkeesian. Listen and Belieeeeeve!
Anyway, if you want to talk about gender and sexuality in Science Fiction, allow me to recommend both Sarah Hoyt’s Darkship books, and David Weber’s Safehold series. Or, if you want to go back a ways, read pretty much anything by Heinlein. All three deal believably with these matters without the preachy, lecturing aspect (well, Weber still sometimes infodumps, but he’s gotten better over the years). Again, I don’t want to read a technical manual on genital politics, I want to read about characters.
Delany’s 1975 novel Triton, for example, can be read as a prescient and devastating critique of Harris’ all-men, all-tech science fiction. Bron, the protagonist of the tale, is a typical strapping sci-fi male hero—he is big, blonde, swaggering, and works in an (ahem) cutting-edge complex technical field.
But Triton is a libertarian, egalitarian society with little formal hierarchy, and as a result, all those cutting-edge qualities that would make Bron a hero in another novel do him no good. He’s nothing special, and his self-centered certainty that he should be special ends up alienating him from workmates, friends, romantic partners, and certainly from the reader. In an effort to reconcile himself to Triton, Bron undergoes a sex change operation: a wry commentary by Delany on exactly how “cutting edge” white male sci-fi is. The future belongs to different folks, Delany insists. Find other protagonists, or end up as an anachronism.
Again, I didn’t read this particular book, so I will pass on commenting on it. But something that already strikes me as odd is how Noah tells us to find other protagonists. No more white male heroes, please (can they be villains, I wonder?).
Over the last few years, there’s been a vocal campaign by some science-fiction fans to push against the nomination of progressive works at sci-fi’s prestigious Hugo Awards. An awards voting block dubbed the Sad Puppies called for honors to go to “unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy handed message fic,” in the words of sci-fi writer and Sad Puppy Larry Correia. For the Sad Puppies, “message fic” is an illegitimate innovation. They live in an odd, alternate universe in which Mary Shelley, Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin, and Octavia Butler never lived or wrote. Having ignored the past, they have no access to the future, or even to the present. Like Bron, they wander around being helplessly unpleasant, trapped in a community that long ago passed them by.
Noah’s mistake here is to project his own failings upon us. He claims that we see message fiction as illegitimate and campaign against it, but that’s not accurate. We see it as superfluous and boring, like reading the Chilton’s manual for a sex change operation. Vagina goes here, you may dispense with the penis in the properly-marked RadFem biohazard rape-bucket. Give the ratchet a quarter turn, tighten up the pink dress, until it clicks into place and the voice changes to the feminine. Be sure to paint your character something other than white before test-driving.
It isn’t that is illegitimate or that we care if you write this or not. It’s that you, Noah, are telling us not to write the stories we want to read. If you want to read Progressive message fiction, that is your prerogative. If you want to vote for it in Sci-Fi’s not-very-prestigious and ultimately farcical Hugo Awards (can we just call them the Torlock Awards for political GoodThink?), that is your business, also. What irritates us is that you are sitting here telling us that our stories are illegitimate. They are “unpleasant” and the community “long ago passed them by.” Larry Correia writes pulpy action. That’s fine. Some people like that, a lot, in fact, if his sales numbers are indicative of anything. Others, like John C. Wright, write very cerebral, philosophical books that really challenge the mind. I loved City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis.
And seriously, Noah, stop trying to appropriate Mary Shelley into this. Your attempt to play historical revisionism with her work is despicable. I don’t know of even one Sad Puppy who has ever had anything unkind to say about Frankenstein, and many of us reference it in our work.
Harris isn’t a fan of pulp—but he’s similarly disconnected from the tradition of feminist and progressive science fiction. As a result, his canon (heavy on the Heinlein) doesn’t look so different from the Sad Puppies’, and his cutting-edge proscriptions for sci-fi look unconsciously retrograde.
See, this is where I have to throw my hands up in the air and wonder what planet Noah lives on, because it’s clearly not the same ball of dirt I grew up on. Heinlein explored the ragged edge of cultural acceptability with regards to sex and gender, and did so in an entertaining sort of way. Your beef with him cannot be that he was some kind of closet sexist or homophobe. He did exactly as you demanded. Your beef is entirely political. He wasn’t explicitly feminist. He wasn’t progressive.
This is the chief complaint the Sad Puppies have against you and your kind. You require all fiction to conform to your political worldview explicitly.
“[S]cience fiction writers wanting to be on the far horizon of the known science-fictional universe must read widely,” Harris says. That’s advice he’d do well to take himself. He might start with Nnedi Okorofor’s recent novella Binti, in which the titular protagonist explains to her alien captors, “There are different kinds of humans.” You need different perspectives and different voices if you want to imagine differently. In a world where everyone is the same, the future is going to be bland and monochrome, no matter how up-to-the-minute you are on your science.
Noah has just finished explaining to us that Harris isn’t feminist or progressive enough, and then tells us that we need “different perspectives.” What a wonderful contradiction. He wants our perspective to go away, consigned to the dustbin of history. He wants to replace our work with Progressive message fiction, with feminist work. We should omit white male characters from our books, unless as he described earlier, we are cutting them down to size. And then he sanctimoniously tells us that he doesn’t want a world where everyone is the same.
Diversity is your central, defining principle, and yet your answer to us is to get rid of our “bland and monochrome” world view. Is Science Fiction more or less diverse if it presents multiple worldviews, instead of solely presenting an explicitly Progressive-Feminist one?
Noah edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.
Bondage and Feminism in 1940s Wonder Woman Comics… that’s worth a laugh. Who buys this shit, anyway?