I was in the car with a friend on the way to a foresight gig with the advisory council for a major philanthropy broker, and as we waited at a red light he said: “I’ve been meaning to ask you a challenge question for a while.”
“Shoot,” I said.
“Are you concerned with where science fiction is going?”
I thought for a moment. “Sure. I mean, I guess everyone’s concerned. It’s a bigger genre than ever media-wise, but nobody’s making any money off the prose unless it’s by consultation. Plus there’s a lot of anti-science sentiment out in the culture, and that can’t be good for the genre.” (This conversation happened before I had seen Prometheus, so I can say for sure now: a lack of scientific understanding makes for more than just bad policy. It makes for bad science fiction.)
These are pretty basic concerns, having to do with my involvement in something. It’s natural to be concerned about something you’re involved in. I’m concerned about fruit flies in my apartment because I live there. I’m concerned about reproductive rights because I have a uterus. I’m concerned about SF because I write SF. Like I said: pretty basic.
But it’s important to emphasize that my concerns are not motivated by any nostalgia for a previous time. While it’s accurate to say that I grew up with SF, it was media SF. I grew up reading Ray Bradbury, but I also grew up reading Sebastien Japrisot and Robert Girardi and Steven Millhauser and Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens. And I read my share of YA genre lit: Margaret Mahy and Brian Jacques and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Zilpha Keatley Snyder and William Sleator. But I have more nostalgia for the time my mom ripped Stephen King’s The Stand out of my hands at age eight than for the alienating discovery of Heinlein’s To Sail Beyond the Sunset under my dad’s side of the bed at age seven. (Who was that naked lady? Why was she just standing there? Didn’t she have things to do? That cat looked hungry; shouldn’t she be feeding it?)
Fast forward to this Monday, when I duck in late to my workshop from an interview with AE Sci Fi, and everyone there is talking about rape in genre fiction and how we’re so goddamned tired of it.
“It just keeps popping up,” someone said. “You just turn the page and bam, there it is. No indication that it was going to happen in the previous pages. No indication that the guy was a rapist. Just surprise rape. Now I’ve learned to just put the book down when that happens. It’s crap writing and I’d rather not waste my time.”
“I had to do that with Stephen R. Donaldson,” I said. “Someone gave me all the Thomas Covenant books when I was a kid, and I got a little ways into it, but then he raped that girl who helped him out and I ditched the books.”
“See, I don’t even remember that happening,” said the person sitting across from me. “I must have blanked it out. Or maybe I didn’t even understand what was going on. But those books were awful, anyway. I think I made it through the first one out of sheer cussedness.”
We have conversations like this all the time in my workshop, and I have these conversations with other writers in my daily life, as well. It’s one of the best parts of living in a major city with a major literary culture. Case in point: last night I was at the ChiSeries listening to Dave read from Rasputin’s Bastards, (buy it; feed our cat) when someone who was asking me about vN and how I handled issues of consent between robots and humans told me: “I’m guessing your books isn’t one of those rapey books.”
“Nope,” I said. “Sure isn’t. But it’s funny you should ask: one of the commenters at io9* wanted to know the same thing.”
“I think people are becoming a lot more sensitive to that kind of thing.”
And that’s the thing. They are. Because that very same evening, I listened to a frustrated steampunk cosplayer say she was tired of people asking her “how to be steampunk”: “I’m never sure if they’re asking me how to lace up a corset, or if they’re asking me how to play a part. But when I ask, they just want to know about the clothes. They don’t care about the history.”
Enter Lavie Tidhar, who has pointed out that steampunk is fascism for nice people. Tidhar (himself the author of a trilogy of steampunk novels) makes the point that glorifying or revelling in a time that was so unkind to so many women, minorities, and individuals in poverty is at best insensitive. After all, he argues in a roundabout way, nobody but the Aryan Brotherhood yearns for the good old days of the Third Reich.
The other person who’s making this point, in a far more direct way, is Cord Jefferson. In a piece about Mad Men, Aaron Sorkin, and the alleged “greatest” generation, he says:
When asked why he killed Till, J.W. Milam, a decorated World War II vet, a member of the “Greatest Generation,” said, “I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place.”
This is the ugly side of the Greatest Generation. The time of Emmet Till’s slaughter, and even before it, is the time in America for which Sorkin and Romney unthinkingly pine as being the best we can do, America at her pinnacle. They fetishize the old days as being some idyllic wonderland when everyone was strong, honest, and hardworking. They complain that they are too good and smart for the modern world, all while neglecting to notice that blacks or women or gay people never join them in their cheerleading for the 1940s and ‘50s. Rarely do you see black men stepping out to Halloween parties in their Mad Men costume, because that would be a janitor’s coveralls.
The Mad Men era is a lot less sexy for today’s people of color and other minorities than it is for white men. And what at least some people who say they miss post-war America seem to be forgetting is that a lot of America’s early prosperity was created using racism, sexism, and oppression of all kinds as building blocks.
Replace “Mad Men” or “Greatest Generation” with “steampunk,” or “British Empire,” and you’ll see Tidhar’s point. It’s that simple. Really. The eras that certain thoughtless steampunks or mid-century modernists (Draperpunks?) so delight in were built on the systematic oppression of those who didn’t fit a narrow model of humanity.
Now, I love Mad Men. I do. It’s a great piece of television writing, precisely because it interrogates the time period in which it’s set. It’s one of the finest deconstructions of misogyny I’ve seen on television, because its depiction of how women were treated at the time, and the attitudes that informed that treatment, is unflinchingly and brutally honest. It has its limits — the series has yet to create a compelling character of colour. Any colour. It’s in its fifth season, and there’s finally a recurring Jewish character. That’s it. (There was a gay character. He’s gone, now.) And yes, I know that the marginalization of Others is accurate to the series. What I humbly suggest is that this exactly why some viewers enjoy it. They don’t know that what they’re watching is a tragedy. They’re not watching with a critical eye. Instead, they’re watching with a fethisizing eye. And I would further suggest that some consumers of steampunk are doing the same. At least, my steampunk friend seems to think so. And so does Charlie Stross, who unlike me was reading books when this whole thing started.
So getting back to that earlier question, about where science fiction is going. It’s easy to wonder about whether space opera is losing ground to steampunk, or when mummies will trump zombies, or whatever. But the real question is where the culture as a whole is going. And more and more, the culture is going in the direction of asking difficult questions about gender and race, and trying to reclaim geek space and representation for the folks who didn’t get much of it in Dickens’ or Draper’s day. And that’s not something to be concerned about, that something to be interested in. That’s something to celebrate, as far as I’m concerned.
Granted, I’m sure there are some people out there who don’t want to view their texts with a critical eye, who just want to have fun, who don’t want to be reminded of the roots of their media of choice. To which I say: If you don’t like it, blame the Republicans. I’ve seen more straight white men comment on these issues now than ever before, probably because the GOP’s war on women is but one prong of their seeming “race to the bottom” strategy. This is an election year in the United States, and the GOP has apparently decided to use the culture war as a smokescreen for their inability to offer a solid economic strategy. (And in Greece, it’s much worse: real fascists, not just wannabe fascists, currently hold enough votes to maintain legislative seats.) This stuff is in mainstream culture. It’s on the news. It’s impossible not to see it, unless you’re trying not to. It’s not surprising that mainstream culture should inform geek culture, and vice versa. (Whether there is indeed a division between the two is another blog post entirely.) But events on the world’s stage inform everybody’s fiction, and it’s appropriate that we discuss them — especially if we’re trying to discuss present anxieties in a future context.
Am I concerned with where science fiction is going? Sure. Of course. But I’m more concerned with where the world is going. And I wish more people felt the same.
*(I’ve looked for the comment, but it’s vanished. Someone more savvy than myself might be able to find it. Basically, someone wanted to know if vN would be like The Wind-Up Girl or Altered Carbon, in terms of “rapeyness.” It’s not.)