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Double Vision: Our Conflicting Nerdish Legacies

“At its best, activism is not merely opposition to what is, it is also constructive of what will be.”

—Katherine Cross, Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism, 2014.

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Stained glass bird designI’ve heard from a couple of people regarding my “Yes, But” post, which addressed criticisms of my report on Requires Hate/ Benjanun Sriduangkaew/ Winterfox last fall.

They’ve told me I missed the point of the objections people have raised to my Hugo nomination, due to the support of people from the wrong side of RaceFail. I’m grateful to them for opening their hearts to speak to me. Talking about all this can be very stressful.

I wasn’t around for RaceFail, and I have consistently underestimated the trauma caused by that rift. People have told me that they were “RaceFail babies” who entered the field around that time, and that the blowup shaped their entire perception of the field. To paraphrase something Rochita Loenen-Ruiz[1] has said to me, RaceFail has cast a long and deep shadow over SFF. Little trust or hope has been able to grow in its shadow, between many people of color and many in the white community.

RaceFail and other –Fails have become embedded in our history. They’re a deeply rooted, painful part of our SFF legacy. And perhaps we can’t heal those rifts right now. Perhaps some of those scars will never fully heal. What I am hoping for is that we can grow new connective tissue beginning in the here and now. New bridges to healing the rifts between us… recognizing that all of this will take time.

In the meantime, to be honest, what I’m looking for is not an award—as cool as Hugos are! If people feel in good conscience that they can’t vote for me, I respect that. What I am seeking is discussion—and I hope some eventual rough consensus—around a few key concepts.

Here is what I believe.

On discourse:

  • Threats of harm, stalking, blackmail, and other acts of bullying—online or off—are out of bounds, no matter who does it, nor to whom. This I consider a moral imperative. What Requires Hate did was wrong.
  • It’s equally important that we not use her actions, or activist critiques of toxic online activism, as an excuse to ignore the problems of inequity that remain in our communities, nor allow ourselves to be manipulated as social-justice clickbait. Activists put their hearts and bodies on the line, every day, to fight for equality and justice for marginalized peoples and ecosystems. We wouldn’t have open and democratic societies, worker and environmental and indigenous population protections, nor civil rights, nor the seeds of marriage equality, without their sacrifices.
  • No one view or voice can reflect the huge variety of opinions and feelings on any important topic. And no one person or group can be the sole or final arbiter of opinion. Discussion by many viewpoints is needed, from across the spectrum: center, margins, all around.
  • Criticism—while it can make us uncomfortable—is not harassment. It’s one of the few means of redress for people whose voices have been silenced.
  • People need to be able to express themselves without fear of retribution or harm. That’s why it’s so important that—while not denying our own truths—we take care with each other, and show each other kindness, as we process this. Otherwise, we end up in a downward spiral of pain and tit-for-tat abuse that creates the frozen, blasted wasteland of a hostile status quo.

On our SFF heritage:

  • Nerd culture, at its best, is all about belonging and welcoming—about excluded others finding a community of fellow travelers with a shared passion. For us in SFF, we celebrate stories centering the strange, the wondrous, the weird, the fantastic.
  • Our SFF history is rich and complex, with many works and traditions we treasure, contributed by writers and fans we hold dear. It’s not a perfect legacy; it’s not without its flaws. But it’s still precious. That heritage belongs to us all.
  • Whether intentionally or not, some works and words by writers who have shaped our legacy, and some of our community’s fannish spaces and practices, have harmed people of marginalized status, such as women, non-white people, non-straight/non-binary/transgendered people, people with mental or physical differences or disabilities, and/or those from non-Anglophone and/or non-Western countries. That harm can be invisible to people not belonging to those groups, and it can be devastating. The pain of finding ourselves further marginalized—misrepresented, maligned, or erased—within a nerdish community that belongs to us, too, is almost indescribable.
  • For those near the center of the field, it can cut deep when people criticize elements of the field’s core: the writers, voices, and fannish traditions that form our SFF legacy. This is not just venality or selfishness. Many near the center are at there precisely because they have spent their life toiling on that legacy, building it from scratch, and have often devoted years of their lives and buckets of sweat and heart’s blood to make it what it is. It’s understandable that they cherish what they’ve built, and want to protect it.
  • It can be hard for us to hear our friends and idols criticized. They are and have been mentors; their words and actions have comforted and succored us in our own time of need. This is true on all sides of the debate.
  • For all of us, sharp words can take us back to those times we were isolated in our pasts—shamed and excluded by non-nerds for our weird passions and ideas.
  • These complex and contradictory truths force a kind of double vision on us all. A cognitive dissonance. They form the heart of the conflict we need to bring into focus to resolve.
  • If we can find ways to hear each other and see each other’s visions of what might be, we can harmonize that fractured vision into a mosaic.

Summing it up:

  • Times change. Awareness grows. Challenging with a clear eye the attitudes and structures in our SFF legacy that have harmed people or outgrown their usefulness will renew our community. Resolving these conflicts will help keep SFF vital, relevant, and flourishing well into the 21st century.
  • I believe in us, as a nerdish community of storytellers and story-lovers. We are smart and resilient. I believe we can find a path, and come to a new understanding and sustained appreciation of our SFF history. We can find enough rooms in our house for all people of good will to belong as equal beneficiaries of our SFF legacy.

Building the foundations of trust, stone by stone, can be an important part of resolving some of these conflicts. We can pitch in to grow new, more inclusive communities and paths to publication. There have already been many terrific efforts along these lines, by many people. Check out the numerous diverse/ diversity-in-SFF hashtags on Twitter, as well as the Women/ Queers/ Et al.-Destroy-SFF anthologies, and The Other Half of the Sky.

Looking ahead, I know Rochita is working with some folks on ideas that will expand access and inclusion for and by people from marginalized communities, and I plan to wholeheartedly support those efforts. I hope you will, too. I’m noodling around with one or two possibilities, myself, that I think might intrigue people, once they’re ready to go public. More on that soon.

Si, se puede.

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[1] Who has been a fucking hero in all this and deserves her own Hugo nomination for her passion, patience, courage, and voice.

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Standing in the Borderlands of Discourse

First of all, I want to thank Rochita Loenen-Ruiz for standing up in favor of my Hugo nomination. Rochita, I know that wasn’t easy. I am proud to know you, and humbled by your friendship and support.

The rest of this is a post I started when I heard about the nomination, after writing my acceptance post. A lot of other things have happened since then, and I had a set of links I’d been noodling around with, which isn’t complete yet, but let me get this up and I’ll deal with the rest later.

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I want to draw people people’s attention to a post Rochita wrote recently at her own blog. It’s a must-read, heartbreaking essay about her fear of attending Dysprosium, the 2015 national British SF convention. Her encounters with Requires Hate & Co. have wounded her spirit in a profound way. How can anyone read her account and say it doesn’t matter, that we shouldn’t say anything that might hurt RH’s feelings—that we should take RH at her word that her abuses are all in the past and anyway, I was just picking on her and being racist and mean?

And it’s not just Rochita. SFF writer Colum Paget’s pain, when RH went after him for winning the James White award in lieu of her friend Tori Truslow (which, WTF? His story hadn’t even been published yet, and RH was trashing it and calling for him to be decapitated, based on a short excerpt of his story on the awards website) was as real and profound as Rochita’s. The harm done to him lasts to this day. I fear we have lost his writer’s voice, and I’m deeply sad about that. I have a serious disagreement with his political views, but he obviously has real talent and I don’t believe that the way to win an argument with him is to crush his spirit and silence his voice. He has the right to contribute his own stories to our community bookshelves, to find his readership.

While researching RH’s abuses, I heard stories like theirs over and over, day after day. If you weren’t the right demographics—the right ideology—if you didn’t toe the line—if you even looked at RH crosswise—then you were in for it.

The truth is, I have also been afraid. I’ve feared an attack, online or yes, even a potential real-life attack. Most of all, I’ve feared that speaking publicly about all this again could ignite a conflagration that makes RaceFail09 look like BakeSale09.

Some people have told me that for them, RH calling for people to be murdered or assaulted or mobbed was just hyperbole—performance art, in essence, and not meant to be taken seriously.

[Trigger warning: racial violence; homophobia]

I had a friend in college, a fellow engineering student. She was from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and her brother had been murdered in broad daylight in front of her eyes by a classmate of his, for dating the classmate’s sister. Because he was black and she was white. And the classmate was never even arrested, let alone prosecuted. I can’t even imagine what she and her family must have been through. How must they feel, to this day, wondering what her brother’s life might have been, had he lived?

And I have some close friends, a lesbian couple, who have been together for decades. When the marriage equality laws were passed in California they were finally able to marry, but I see them brace themselves, whenever I introduce them as a couple to others. They still feel that lingering fear, that need to be wary, because there are those who might attack them for openly wearing their sexual orientation in public.

In light of the severity and pervasiveness of these kinds of prejudice, it can be easy, I think, for activists to view social-media shaming campaigns, or political-purity checks at cons and publishers, as trivial in comparison, or as somehow worth the price. But the harm of online assaults is real and lasting. And unjust. Using your influence to have people barred from convention events or constrained from publishing their own works, as punishment for disagreeing with you, is both unethical and in some circumstances illegal.

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I have had numerous people say to me that as a result of what RH has done, concepts of social justice and intersectionality have been tainted for them. They have been used as a cudgel and thus devalued. This saddens me.

A lot of people already know what I’m about to say—many advocates have been writing about this since forever, and scientific studies back them up, time and again. But for those who doubt it, the science is in, and prejudice, stereotyping, bigotry, and unconscious bias are all very real. People are dying daily because of the color of their skin, their class/caste, their sexual orientation, or their gender identity. Women of equal capability have a harder time finding employment, and are paid less, than men for the same work—and for people of color here in the US, it’s harder still. People get erased from awareness due to their disability or differences in neurology. In other words, if you are straight, white, male, of middle or upper class, and able, then (on average) you’re playing life on an easier setting than others. (Mind you, it doesn’t necessarily mean things are easy for you; it just means it’s easi-er than it is for your peers whose demographics differ from yours.)

It’s a kind of cosmic cruelty that those who can most clearly see the damage done by prejudice and discrimination are the people who receive that damage, and that thus the primary burden falls on people experiencing oppression to speak out about it, if they want things to change. (And we have to do it over, and over, and over… which is deeply wearing.)

Because this fundamental unfairness is baked into our social structures, it’s much easier for people in a position of greater privilege to speak “reasonably” while denying the impacts of discrimination, to tune out or discredit the words of people who are speaking from a position of social disadvantage. I have always felt that because of this, it’s the responsibility of the person with the greater structural advantage to make room for the person who has been harmed or marginalized to speak.

It’s a kindness, in other words, to give people the benefit of the doubt when they speak about a form of discrimination or bias you have never experienced—to assume good intent, despite any exasperation or frustration they might express.

It’s as if you are inside the building and one of your colleagues has been locked out. Maybe you even accidentally locked them out. Maybe not, and it’s just a big misunderstanding. Either way, it’s the courteous thing to do, to open the door. To make room for them. Apologize for inconveniencing them, if you find you inadvertently made their life more stressful. (And avoid embarrassing or patronizing them, of course, or acting like you’re doing them a big favor. It’s their building, too.)

It’s this very sense of courtesy, of social obligation, that RH has exploited.

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Since social-justice concepts are true, they are a form of power. As with any sort of power, they need to be wielded ethically, or they can do a great deal of harm. People don’t control how much privilege, how many unearned advantages or disadvantages we are born with. What we can control is how we use the power we do have. For every one of us in this community, I would be willing to bet you that I could find someone who has greater systemic privilege than you, and I could find someone with less. (And you know? A person can be as oppressed as hell, and still be an asshole.)

It becomes much harder to talk about bias or prejudice, after what RH has done. We’re all too easily accused of hypocrisy, or assumed to be tainted by political association. Yet the injustices persist, regardless of whether we speak of them. Distrust and disbelief put locks on our mouths, our minds, and our hearts. We can’t build a community together unless we can speak honestly to each other.

And how do we distinguish RH’s actions from words spoken by people who are simply angry and hurt, in the heat of the moment? Or who use humor—snark and exaggeration—to make their point? Sometimes, sarcasm and gallows humor are all people have to keep them from falling into despair. Sometimes people need to put their foot down and say irritated or angry things. Because they have their own lived experience, that others can’t know, unless they speak, and anger is an appropriate response to abuse.

What are good rules of the road for how negative or sharp criticism can be, without going over the cliff edge? How can we preserve the good in our SFF legacy, without clinging to the aspects that have caused harm?

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In short, this is an awful situation we’re in. It sucks, that our community has been hacked in this way. It sucks, that someone who could have been an important voice for positive change has turned out to be someone very different.

And it’s not just RH. The Sad and Rabid Puppies’ attempt to sweep the ballots comes across to me as a blatant backlash against efforts to expand our field and increase diverse voices. Their poison-pill attack on this year’s Hugo ballot reveals contempt for the very spirit of our community. However flawed and clumsy its implementation might be at times, the Hugo awards process seeks to receive and amplify the relationship that each reader has for their favorite writer, their favorite artist, their favorite editor or work, in order to sum things up: to encapsulate the field’s zeitgeist for that moment in time. SFF as a form seeks room for different voices, for the Other. For tolerance and diversity. It’s part of our tradition. It’s in our DNA.

As I mentioned in a recent follow-up post to my report, internet trolls are by-and-large sadistic, manipulative, narcissistic sociopaths, who torment people because they like it. They enjoy the feeling of power it gives them to make others suffer. That fear and isolation many of us feel, that associated anger, even rage, at those we disagree with? The trolls among us stoke it. They feed on it. It’s what gives them their power over us. Are we going to allow that pattern to continue? Are we going to keep dancing to their tune?

What RH and the Sad/ Rabid Puppies have in common, in other words, is not their politics, but their hate.

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We in SFF have an obligation as a community not to collude in bullying through our silence. Cyber-bullying, like its real-life equivalent, knows no gender; no class; no race nor ethnicity nor culture; no political nor religious affiliation; no sexual orientation nor dis/ability status. A community can’t thrive if it allows abuses of its members to continue unimpeded.

I haven’t missed the painful fact that RH is not the only one who abuses others, some of whom are of greater status in our field. Even if we discount those who have miscast people’s efforts to expand SFF readers’ access to new, diverse voices as attempts to chase them, the self-styled successors of the old guard, out—oppression itself is a form of abuse that bears down on people of marginalized status. We live in a poisoned pool of unfair bias. The fact that RH wields as her weapon the prejudice people from marginalized groups face, when they are accused of being abusive for speaking uncomfortable truths, simply makes her own abuses that much more cruel.

I’ve spoken to an expert in the matter who has studied our case, who tells me that RH’s abuses (like Vox Day’s) are highly unlikely to stop by themselves, if she follows the trajectory of other people who act as she has. Over and over, for more than a decade, she has blown up communities by positioning herself as a victim and finding people to cover for her, who either feel they don’t have a right to criticize her, or are willing to overlook her behavior for the sake of other concerns.

That’s why I accepted the nomination, and why I continue to speak. The community is still at risk. I believe we need to find a way to send a clear signal* that the community stands firm on this basic principle: that our politics can’t outweigh our humanity. That everyone has a fundamental right to be here, to engage in online and in-person discourse without being threatened with annihilation. We have to find a way—not to deny our own beliefs and experiences—but to talk across the divides.

I don’t have good answers for how we can help the center hold, but I do believe we need to rally as a community around a set of norms. A covenant of sorts. An agreement that, whatever the fractures in our community—whatever our disagreements—whatever personal circumstances brought us to this genre in the first place—at its heart, SFF has room for all of us.

Every era has its defining challenge. Ours is to do the messy, difficult work of giving birth to that reality, by not giving in to the voices of hate, from without or within.

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*22 May 2015 Update: The original words were”A vote for me sends a clear signal….” I’ve edited them to acknowledge the concerns of those who have criticized me for campaigning. That’s not what this is about for me, and I’m on board with however people need to vote. What I’m looking for is for acknowledgment of the harm of abusive practices, and the importance of recognizing everyone’s right to be heard. #RequiresLove

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2015 Philip K Dick Award Winner Announced!

Now that it’s official, I can finally talk about this! Being on the Philip K Dick jury last year, for paperback original works, was a terrific experience for me, enabling me to discover numerous talented writers whose books I would otherwise not have read. And the ballot this year, in my opinion, was exceptional. I’ve been wanting to talk about the great books we read for ages. Once we had settled on the final ballot, even before our final deliberations, I knew I could feel confident that we had done our job well, if any one of the candidates had won.

Here are some brief reviews of the winner and the special citation, but you should definitely also read the other books that were nominated. It was a really tough call this year, to settle on just one.

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WINNER: THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE by Meg Elison

From the Amazon book page:

The apocalypse will be asymmetrical. In the aftermath of a plague that has decimated the world population, the unnamed midwife confronts a new reality in which there may be no place for her. Indeed, there may be no place for any woman except at the end of a chain. A radical rearrangement is underway. With one woman left for every ten men, the landscape that the midwife travels is fraught with danger. She must reach safety— but is it safer to go it alone or take a chance on humanity? The friends she makes along the way will force her to choose what’s more important. Civilization stirs from the ruins, taking new and experimental forms. The midwife must help a new world come into being, but birth is always dangerous… and what comes of it is beyond anyone’s control.

My take:

A brilliant book. I found myself sucked into this book right away and it pulled me all the way through… dare I say by the short hairs??? I loved Elison’s unflinching look at what the world might look like, in a world traumatized by mass deaths–one starved of women and of new life.

This book begins as a plague ravages the world in a matter of weeks–and women are ten times more likely to die. And it renders surviving women sterile. I loved the idea of the Unnamed Midwife helping give birth to the new civilization to replace the old. I found the protagonist’s resourcefulness, vulnerability, and mental toughness convincing and ultimately very moving. The author’s reflections on loneliness, loss, and sexuality, and on the multitude of ways sexualized violence might erupt–not only into slavery, horrific abuses, and the like–but also into creative recombinations like the Hives, that enabled people to find a way to bond and connect when there are 10 men for every woman, were gut-wrenching. I enjoyed how she used a multitude of journals and the varying of voices to give a broader perspective on events. The ending delivers a hopeful and powerful closure that left me satisfied and wanting to see more from this writer.

SPECIAL CITATION: ELYSIUM by Jennifer Marie Brissett

From the Amazon book page:

A computer program etched into the atmosphere has a story to tell, the story of two people, of a city lost to chaos, of survival and love. The program’s data, however, has been corrupted. As the novel’s characters struggle to survive apocalypse, they are sustained and challenged by the demands of love in a shattered world both haunted and dangerous.

My take:

This book was my personal favorite. I LOVE this book. Brissett presents a disturbing, powerful story of love, loss, and a slow and inexorable genocide. Impressively, she uses a complex spiral format and does it so seamlessly that she makes it look easy. This book evoked strong resonances for me of Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt and Crowley’s Engine Summer, with a side order of Catch-22. Beautifully crafted and powerful.

The fractious, loving, and passionate relationships between Antoine/Antoinette, Helen/Hector, and Adrian/Andrienne won my heart. The nature of their relationships was in constant flux, as their world transitioned to new expressions–lovers, friends, parents and children and adult siblings–but they always found a way to connect, as they sought to understand what was happening to them and around them. Beneath all this Brissett weaves a deepening mystery: what are the strange, hyper-intelligent animals that presage a transition? What is the dust and how is it connected to the fraying program that seems to control their lives? The glimpses we get of repeating yet contorted imagery and events begin to unveil the truth: that Earth has come under massive assault from an alien invasion and the characters’ lives are not their own. The reader’s horror grows as we realize the sheer scale of destruction. This is a very fine book, and it’s even more impressive to me that it’s a first novel.

 

Here are the other nominees. All really wonderful books–go and read them as well.

THE BULLET-CATCHER’S DAUGHTER by Rod Duncan (Angry Robot): A Steampunk mystery. Elizabeth is clever, slippery, a total illusionist, and at heart, deeply honorable. The book’s settings felt very real to me–from the greasepaint to the lion’s cages, to the dirty crowded colorful streets of London. I also loved the caper/ cloak-and-dagger plot, the circuses and gypsies, and the big reveal at the end, which I did NOT see coming and which really delivered. Lots of lovely stuff in this book. Good commentary on the human condition, and some nice touches on how power differentials across class, gender, and race both constrain people and can be subverted.

MEMORY OF WATER by Emmi Itäranta (Harper Voyager); This is a haunting post-apocalyptic tale of a world in which fresh running water is scarce, and a dictatorship that controls access to it. In our climate-change-threatened world, this book is very timely. The writer’s focus on the young women caught in a web of political powers far beyond their control, and their struggles to retain their dignity and to fight back was a unique take, and her prose is powerful and evocative.

MAPLECROFT: THE BORDEN DISPATCHES by Cherie Priest (Roc): Great trans-dimensional SF horror inspired by Lovecraft, the second in a trilogy. In book one, Lizzie Borden managed to singlehandedly save her town (and the world), by killing her father and stepmother with an axe. But that was only a temporary fix, and the monsters are finding their way back into our dimension. Yikes!

REACH FOR INFINITY edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris): It’s hard to weigh an anthology against a novel, but this is a stand-out space-faring anthology, chock full of original stories of the future by both well-known pros and newer voices. Writers featured include Ian McDonald, Ken Macleod, Pat Cadigan, Aliette de Bodard, Karl Schroeder, Hannu Rajaniemi, Karen Lord, Adam Roberts, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Alastair Reynolds, and Peter Watts, among others. Pick it up.

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Stross sounds off about Steampunk

Charlie Stross has a long essay posted on The hard edge of empire – Charlie’s Diary. He raises some of the problematic issues he feels the burgeoning Steampunk fad is skirting, and otherwise waxes a bit ranty about what he sees as recent over-exposure.

“It’s not that I actively dislike steampunk, and indeed I have fond memories of the likes of K. W. Jeter’s “Infernal Devices”, Tim Powers’ “The Anubis Gates”, the works of James Blaylock, and other features of the 1980s steampunk scene. I don’t have that much to say against the aesthetic and costumery other than, gosh, that must be rather hot and hard to perambulate in. (I will confess to being a big fan of Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius.) It’s just that there’s too damn much of it about right now, and furthermore, it’s in danger of vanishing up its own arse due to second artist effect.”

Worth a read if for no other reason than it’s part of the ongoing SFnal conversation.

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The Wayback Machine, Analog Version

glass houses analog cover jpg

Glass Houses first appeared as a serial in Analog, in 1991. Tor Books published the complete novel in 1992.

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