(NB, this is written on not enough sleep, so my apologies if it’s gibberish…)
OK, so to recap, what we’ve established so far:
- Science fiction grew up from two traditions, the Menippean satire and pulp fiction, which both have a different set of criteria on which they should be judged than does conventional ‘literary’ fiction.
- In part because of this, Libertarianism became far more prevalent in SF fandom than in the general population.
- A large proportion (though by no means all) of self-described Libertarians in fandom are actually right-wing authoritarians.
- Right-wing authoritarians are, in general, likely to tend toward writing and reading the pulpier side of SF, in particular military SF.
But two things in the late 60s and early 70s had a huge effect, one that’s still being felt in SF fandom to this day.
First, a large number of authors rose to prominence, some of whom had a background writing for pulps, but also including many who didn’t, who all got grouped under the name “the New Wave”, although most of them were doing different things from each other. The one thing that these authors all had in common was that they were trying to write SF that worked as SF but which also worked, or tried to, by the criteria of conventional lit-fic. They incorporated at least some modernist advances in prose style, and they tried to write characters that were more like real people than the ciphers of Asimov or the omnicapable manly men of Heinlein. The two Harlan Ellison-edited collections, Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, are probably the best guide to this wave of writers.
For a while, these writers were extremely controversial within SF fandom, as young turks always are, and some of them built reputations in part by picking fights with the respected elder statesmen of the community. This group tended to be more left-wing , more feminist, and more open in general to the cultural changes in the world at large than the bulk of the SF “community”.
But these people were, for the most part, absorbed into the SF community without a problem. This generation of writers, while they may have laughed at the older writers’ hackneyed prose styles, still respected them (Asimov, for example, wrote the preface for Dangerous Visions).
But there was another, parallel, SF fandom growing — what became known as “media fandom”.
In particular, at the same time as the New Wave writers were gaining in popularity, a huge community, with its own conventions and fanzines, was starting up around Star Trek. This community, which at first had almost nothing to do with the group that thought of itself as SF fandom, was dominated by women, rather than by men, was more interested in radically reworking the text than in paying homage to it, and (crucially) was far more interested in character interaction than in the other aspects of the show.
As SF media became massively popular in the late 70s, these two fandoms collided, producing the SF fandom that we have today. And those media fans (and the people like them in two successive generations) preferred the work of the New Wave writers and their successors to the pulpy works preferred by Libertarian types.
For a long time this situation was fine for everyone, in large part because of a longstanding fandom rule that you don’t talk about politics within fandom (which actually had the effect of meaning “you don’t challenge whatever bigoted nonsense the old white man in front of you is spouting”). But the Internet has brought those tensions to the fore.
A lot of SF fandom now takes place on blogs, on Tumblrs, and (yes, still) on LiveJournals, and the Tumblr Social Justice Warrior mindset is, in large part, the mindset of a few generations of women and LGBT+ people who have felt marginalised in the SF fandom community. Those people have realised that actually, the opinions held by the loudest voices are not the opinions of the whole group, and may not even be the opinions of a majority of it. They are also writing stories of the kind they like — ones that are more about the interaction between the characters than anything else, and that feature characters like themselves, who aren’t necessarily cis white straight able-bodied men who like guns.
And this has caused a huge problem in fandom, because these two groups share neither politics nor tastes, and the vicious arguments around politics that have taken place have led a lot of people to believe that “the other side” are promoting books (by, for example, voting for them in the Hugos), because the authors share their politics.
The authoritarian military-SF people say “no-one could really like all that whiny messagey shit that doesn’t even have a good story and is full of token minorities to be PC, they’re just saying they do because they share the author’s politics and are her LiveJournal friends”. The Tumblr social justice crowd, in turn, say “no-one with a brain could really like this macho bullshit just rehashing a sixty-year-old Heinlein story that wasn’t even any good the first time. How about writing something with some, you know, characters?”
And the right wing, at the moment, are arguing that Heinlein couldn’t win a Hugo today. And they think this is horribly unfair, because obviously Heinlein was one of the all-time greats.
I think they’re right that Heinlein wouldn’t win a Hugo today, but completely wrong about the reasons. I think people are voting for the kind of book that they like, and that the kind of books that Heinlein liked are not the kind of book the majority of SF fans (who vote in the Hugos) like any more.
The right wing are seeing a lot of books that they consider truly great books, books with all the virtues they appreciate most, being unsuccessful, and so it must be because of the author’s politics, right? Those are good books.
Now, people on both sides say that they are not biased, that they would read books by the other side’s writers “if they’d just write a good story”, but both sides see the other side as liars.
I don’t think they are. I think that, genuinely, when people on one side write a story in the style that the other side like, the other side accept it. John Scalzi, a very-soft-left liberalish writer, started his career as a military-SF Heinlein pasticheur, and was loved despite his politics by most of the right. It’s only since he published Redshirts, a satire that plays with various modernist and postmodernist tricks to do some mildly interesting metafictional stuff, that he has become a whipping boy for them (uncoincidentally, that’s the book of his that is by far my personal favourite of those I’ve read).
Likewise, most of the Social Justice Warrior types I know (in my own age cohort, mid thirties), really liked the first few years of the comic Fables, written by the most right-wing person in mainstream comics, but which had a relatively diverse cast and was driven by character interaction.
I think we have two groups here who just disagree fundamentally about what “a good book” really is.
But the right-wingers, in particular, feel under attack (one of the characteristics of a right-wing authoritarian is that they always feel under attack) and feel like their sacred traditions of Heinleinian stuff are also under attack. And they are convinced it’s entirely politically motivated.
And so this year, the writer Larry Correia (who has been nominated for awards in the past, but never won, for his brand of pulpy gun-fetishist monster-hunter story, but who is very commercially successful) wanted to prove that there is an evil leftist conspiracy to stop right-wingers’ books winning, that people would really like these “good stories” if they just gave them a try, and that they were good enough to win Hugos.
So Correia put together a slate of right-wing stories, posted it on his blog, and suggested that his fans all buy supporting memberships of Loncon so they could nominate them, and vote for them, for Hugo awards.
Now, this would have been absolutely fine — many authors, Scalzi for example, post telling people which books of theirs are eligible for Hugos. Some also say “hey, check out these books by my friends, too, I think they’re pretty great and you might want to nominate them”. This is all perfectly OK.
But what Correia did was to troll the awards. He added a story by Theodore “Vox Day” Beale, a vicious, racist, sexist, homophobic bigot who has defended throwing acid into feminists’ faces. The story in question also has no merit by any standards, neither the pulp storytelling ones nor the litfic ones, and its sales numbers before the award shortlists were announced strongly suggest that more people nominated it than had read it.
He did this, one presumes, so that he then has an out. If his book, or those of his friends, do by some miracle win, it means that he’s right — people do like “good stories” when they see them. But if they don’t… well, it’s because they nominated “Vox Day”, so people were just voting politically, and he’s right, people do vote on authors’ politics rather than on whether books are any good or not.
And this is why, throughout the SF fandom blogosphere, there has been a huge amount of anger as to how to deal with this. The Hugo Awards have been politicised — precisely because Correia thought they were already politicised — and trolled to “prove” two contradictory points.
There has been a lot of upset about this being a sign that “our community” is splitting, but personally I think a split in the “community” would be a good thing, because it isn’t one community, but two, with a small amount of overlap. Someone like Correia, a hardline right-winger who writes about manly men with guns, has nothing in common with, say, Seanan McGuire, who writes stories with female protagonists with lots of interiority and runs the SF Squeecast. The fact that both their books are shelved under “science fiction & fantasy” is far more a historical curiosity than any sign of them being anything alike.
But unless and until such a split happens, the resentment, anger, and politicisation will continue.
So now (well, once I get back from seeing the Beach Boys in London tonight and tomorrow), I can get back to writing about the actual books…