Paul Cook On SF: In Which I Lack The Ability To Even

Posted: September 6, 2013 in Critical Hit
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You know, as strange as it may sound given how much time I spend ranting on the internet, I actually live a rich, full life, one in which I regularly leave the house and talk to my friends about a wide range of things that do not, in fact, suck. I’m also a fairly busy person, especially right now, what with finishing up a new novel, writing various reviews and columns, tending my seven-month-old son and – oh, yeah – the fact that we just moved house. So even though I still make time for online shenanigans, the number of articles I read in full, per day, has dropped dramatically, which leaves me feeling like some sort of digital meerkat, briefly popping up into the bright, popcultural sunlight of the internet, then ducking back down into the subterranean warren of Shit I Actually Need To Do, No, Seriously, How The Fuck Is It September Already? And most of the time, it’s a policy that serves me well.

But invariably – and with a regularity that is fast depleting my finite stores of dispassionate, well-reasoned criticism – there comes a day when I poke my head above ground and encounter a fresh, steaming pile of bullshit, such that I start gritting my teeth and channelling Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You.

10 Things - Asshole Day

And today, we’ve hit the trifecta: this spectacularly douchey, concern-trolling, woe-is-my-unrecognised-talent Facebook post by John Ringo lamenting John Scalzi’s Hugo win, Mike Krahulik’s PAX announcement that he regretted ever discontinuing their rape-apologist Dickwolves merchandise, and – my personal favourite – an astonishingly incoherent post by one Paul Cook over at Amazing Stories on When Science Fiction Isn’t Science Fiction (which, surprise! turns out to be if it contains romance elements and is therefore written for ladies).

And I mean, OK: so Ringo is an entitled, embittered asshat, and Krahulik is the same foot-in-mouth, mostly jerky dude he always was, though with an increasing glimmer of self awareness and repentance, and those are definitely things worth talking about – as, indeed, many people are already doing. Once upon a time, I’d likely have gone in to bat about them myself. But like I said, I have limited ranting time these days, and so instead I’ll stick with responding to Paul Cook’s piece, because, seriously? Are we still having this same damn conversation about “real” SFF and why romance isn’t part of it?

We are?

Rage comics are you fucking kidding me

I wish I was, rage comics dude. I really wish I was.

Right from the outset of Cook’s piece, it’s pretty clear that we’re dealing with some pretty deeply-ingrained assumptions about the genre. To quote (my emphasis):

Most writers who publish in the science fiction field stay within the usual parameters of the field, continuing their careers writing what no one would doubt as standard science fiction. Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein to name but four, wrote and published their works as science fiction, with the occasional foray into the fantastic–but not outright fantasy. Heinlein did write Glory Road which was science fiction using fantasy tropes that no one would mistake for aspects of a regular fantasy novel. That is to say, Heinlein’sGlory Road isn’t at all like one of Robert Jordan’s epic fantasies nor does it resemble the Arthurian fantasy of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s classic (and truly excellent novel),  The Mists of Avalon.

That said, some writers who might have started off in science fiction soon reveal their true selves when they start publishing what they really want to write about.

Or, in other words: Cook’s definition of “standard science fiction” doesn’t include any “outright fantasy” elements (though it can include “fantasy tropes” PROVIDED nobody could mistake the story for being a “regular fantasy novel”,  meaning either “epic” or “Arthurian” fantasies). This definition appears to be sacrosanct to Cook, because when, in his estimation, SF writers deviate from “the usual parameters of the field”, they’re not just mixing it up, evolving the genre, exploring new narrative possibilities or otherwise striving for originality – no. They’re revealing their “true selves” and writing “what they really want to write about” – language which not only couches their deviation as a betrayal of SF, but which actively suggests their former use of the genre was somehow all a cynical act; that they never really wanted to write SF at all, caring only for their subsequent stories and not their original SF works, as though the latter output was merely a misbegotten firstborn left to fend for itself after the arrival of a long-awaited second child.

He then proceeds to list the authors to whom he thinks this wildly prejudicial and utterly bizarre characterisation applies. Namely: Gene Wolfe, Lois McMaster Bujold, and duo Sharon Lee and Steve Miller; he also complains about “steampunk writers… shifting over to writing about zombies,” and while he names no names in that instance, the paragraph in question is accompanied by a picture of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker cover, which would seem to indicate at least some measure of dissatisfaction with her work in particular.

Clearly, then, Cook feels strongly about what constitutes real SF – but despite how negatively he’s characterised such genre-hopping dilettantism, that doesn’t mean he necessarily hates the works in question; just the fact that people keep calling such books SF, when in his mind, they’re not. So what does he actually say to defend his position?

Of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, he says this (my emphasis again):

 I can tell you that these books–masterpieces as everyone seems to think they are–are actually medieval/Arthurian fantasies. In fact, there is virtually no real “science fiction” in these books other than various tropes… Severian’s travels and adventures and storytelling (Book Two has a long fairy tale inserted in the middle of the novel that goes absolutely nowhere and adds nothing to the novel) are straight out of a YA rite-of-passage fantasy…  The earth does not wobble on its axis (as it would if the moon were gone) and without vulcanism and tectonic plate induction in the ocean, carbon dioxide would not be removed from the atmosphere and recycled into the mantle where it can stay out of the atmosphere and not smother life. These things don’t matter to the fantasist. They didn’t matter to Wolfe.

Now, conceivably, that first backhanded disparagement – that people only “seem to think” Wolfe’s books are “masterpieces”, implying that Cook thinks they’re anything but – could just be the product of poor grammar, as the insertion of a comma after the word masterpieces would strongly imply that Cook agrees with its usage; and in either case, I don’t particularly care. Cook is, after all, entitled to his opinion about the merit of various books, and especially given that I’ve read no Wolfe myself, I’m hardly abristle at this possible slight to his honour. I mention it only because, if intended as a slight – and I suspect it is – it contextualises Cook’s subsequent judgements as belonging to a series of negative ones. In which case, the remark about the book resembling a “YA rite-of-passage fantasy” is clearly a disparaging one; and this sets off warning bells for me. Similarly, his subsequent assertion that proper details and scientific research “don’t matter to the fantasist” is jarring, as is the simultaneous inference that true SF always gets such things right. Being able to pick holes in the worldbuilding of a given novel might well demonstrate its structural failings, but that doesn’t mean the book belongs to a different genre. Off the top of my head, I can think of plenty of fantasy novels whose authors take extraordinary care with their inclusion of real-world details, just as I can name multiple SF stories that show a comparative lack of care for science. The whole idea of FTL travel and wormhole jumps, for instance, is just as handwavium-based as Wolfe’s decision to ignore vulcanism and a wobbly Earth axis, and yet I doubt that the inclusion of either element would irritate Cook to the same degree. Whatever: as I already said, I don’t really care what he thinks of Wolfe’s work – but I do care that he thinks sloppy worldbuilding is somehow a symptom of fantasy-writing.

Onwards, then, to his criticism of Bujold. This is where the real problems start, and in such an offensively baffling way that I can’t help but quote the whole paragraph (emphasis mine, again):

Another writer well-praised (from every corner) is Lois McMaster Bujold. Her great work is the Miles Vorkosigan series. These are supposed to be military science fiction stories, but they are really at their core Romance novels. At first, they were military science fiction novels of a higher order than most. But the romance elements creep in very early on. Bujold tips her hand in the eloquence of her language (normally a good thing) and the attention to detail that only women would find attractive: balls, courts, military dress, palace intrigues, gossiping, and whispering in the corridors. All of this is right out of Alexander Dumas. True, these intrigues and flourishes do happen in the real world (or they used to), but Bujold, over time with novels such as Miles in Loveand Cordelia’s Honor, you can see that Bujold is a closet romance writer. Not that this is a bad thing, but some of us aren’t that interested in romance. For me, personally, it takes much of the dramatic urgency out of a story if the hero is already married or if during a skirmish comes back to canoodle or wine or dine with his beloved before rushing back to the fray.

I honestly don’t know which is more painful: Cook’s efforts to try and say that really, it’s OK Bujold writes romance even though he doesn’t like it, or the totally oblivious sexism with which he undercuts this assertion. In remarking that Bujold “tips her hand” by including “romance elements” – which, he says, involve an “attention to detail that only women would find attractive” – he characterises romance as being a wholly feminine genre, such that, when he goes on to say that “some of us aren’t that interested in romance”, it seems pretty clear that by “some of us”, Cook means men.  Whether intentionally or not, he therefore manages to dismiss Bujold, one of the most respected and multi-award-winning SF writers out there, as not being a real SF author because she actually just writes romance and romance is for women only. Which makes his subsequent remark that all her “attention to detail that only women find attractive” is “right out of Alexander [sic] Dumas” all the weirder: I mean, what’s he trying to say with this? That Dumas only wrote for women, or that he was also a closet romance writer? It just doesn’t make any sense, and yet the insult to both women and romance is so palpable it left me staring at the screen in disbelief, jaw clenched.

On closer examination, though, it’s his final sentence that actually worries me most: specifically, the admission that it bores him “if the hero is already married”. It’s clear this description is meant to accurately summarise romance stories as a whole, but as even a cursory perusal of the genre would make plain, nothing could be further from the truth. The Happily Ever After is where, barring cameo appearances in future volumes, romance stories stop – it is emphatically not what constitutes their defining narrative structure. The Vorkosigan books, by contrast, feature both sides of the story: we see the characters meet and fall in love, but because their romantic, pre-HEA friction isn’t the defining aspect of the narrative, but rather just a single facet of a larger story, we also see them afterwards, getting on with their lives together. So while the series definitely contains romantic elements, collectively, the books aren’t romance novels. I don’t say that to defend Bujold against the accusation of writing romance, because I don’t believe there’s anything lesser or pejorative about writing romance instead of SF (and I certainly don’t believe it’s a women-only genre; female-dominated, maybe, in terms of readership and output, but that’s hardly the same thing, and a separate point besides). No: what bothers me is that, when Cook says he doesn’t like to read about married heroes who take a break from fighting to “canoodle” with their sweethearts, it feels like an admission that he prefers his (male) heroes to be single and to lack a romantic attachment to the women in their lives. And this is a very different thing: because whereas Bujold’s decision to portray happy, realistic, functional marriages necessarily involves male characters who treat the women they love with respect, Cook seems to be against that – because all that kindness and love and icky lady romance gets in the way of the action. And that makes me wonder: does he, then, have no issue with SF stories where the hero is a womaniser, someone who sleeps with various sexy maidens while in pursuit of his duty and doesn’t care enough to see them again afterwards, but who still cares just enough to be Tragically Wounded if they end up dead? Maybe I’m being uncharitable because this paragraph so profoundly rubbed me the wrong way, but even so – and especially given his citation of Heinlen, Clarke, Sturgeon and Asimov as stellar examples of real SF authors – I can’t help but feel that what he’s really objecting to in the Vorkosigan books isn’t the use of sex or romance, or even necessarily of marriage, but to the presence of female love interests who influence the plot in ways other than simply sleeping with the hero, and to the use of heroes who think about the women they love as partners rather than sex objects.

In talking about Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s novels – a paragraph which, once again, I’m forced to quote in full – Cook becomes even more disparaging about romance (my emphasis):

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s novels in their Liaden Universe® (from Baen Books) are also romance writers. Like the Vorkosigan novels, they begin as space adventures in the military science fiction genre, but their latest installments are romances only barely disguised with science fiction tropes and conceits. Lee’s and Miller’s stories in this series are carefully written, but I’d call them science fiction-lite because there really isn’t much tension in these stories. It’s as if, now that they’ve found their niche and their considerable audience, they want to play it safe. True, science fiction as a whole is indeed part of Romance Literature (if we go all the way back to the 18th century when novels were invented in England, with the Gothic novel leading the way), but some writers, by dint of their nature, turn to romance or the western or whatever. I’ve read several of the books in the Liaden Universe® and to me they are romances in disguise–with the couple coming together with a calm sense of inevitability rather than one preceded by blood, sweat, tears and some sort of significant loss. True, no science fiction or fantasy writer has the courage to end a novel the way Hemingway does in A Farewell to Arms, but then ours is an escapist genre. Which is also why we don’t have a Hemingway or Faulkner in our midst–but that’s another story.

By this point, the repetitive assertion that romance or romance writers are “disguised” or closeted somehow is really starting to wear me down. I find it depressing – but not actually surprising – that even though, in the very first paragraph, Cook is capable of acknowledging that SF stories can contain fantasy tropes without actually being fantasy novels, presumably because he wants to establish the credentials of his favourite authors as being beyond reproach, he spends much of the rest of the post categorically denying the idea that romance tropes can similarly exist in SF stories without causing the book in question to magically switch genres. The idea that Lee and Miller chose to write “science fiction-lite” by amping up the romance – and more, that this decision was a way to “play it safe” – is more than usually laughable given Cook’s simultaneous inference that it ruined the books; which begs the question, safe from what? Ridicule and accusations of selling out? Clearly not. I don’t even have the energy to try and unpack what’s meant by the claim that “some writers, by dint of their nature, turn to romance” – by what nature, exactly? There are so many things this could mean, all of them contextually pejorative, one of the least of which is the idea that “by dint of their nature” is a not-so-subtle code for “by dint of being born female, or having an interest in women”. At absolute best, Cook is simply so enamoured of SF as a genre that he’s inclined to view any departure from it by SFnal authors as not just a bad decision, but an actual character flaw – hence it being in their “nature” to revert to writing “romance or the western or whatever”. Which makes the fact that he then goes on to praise Hemmingway and Faulkner as being braver, better writers than anyone in SFF  all the more mind-boggling (never mind being an assertion that opens up a whole different can of worms).

Finally, he expresses his distaste for zombie stories mucking up steampunk and SF, and once more manages to throw in a gendered barb: “I have no interest,” he says, ” in reading about zombies, fancy dress balls, smooching warriors, or star-lit dinners on the terrace overlooking a waiting army about to go to war” – a remark which neatly mirrors his complaints about those pesky romantic details that “only women” like.  And that would be the end of it – except that, of course, he also manages to make an ass of himself in the comments. When confronted with accusations of sexism, Cook becomes angry, remarking that Lee and Miller, “competent as they are, are writing disguised romances” – which manages to be a more overtly disparaging slight about romance than he makes in the actual article.  He also refers to the romance elements in their books as being their “true predilections” – because clearly, if an SF writer writes romance, they mustn’t care as much about SF! The fact that he also claims to be “very precise in my wording, or I try to be” is, under the circumstances, rather heartbreaking. But it’s his response to accusations of misogyny that proves the most telling:

By accusing me of being a misogynist, you shut down all possibility of an informed analysis of any woman’s work. That’s a refuge I’ve seen critics in literature take for over 30 years, at least since the mid-1980s. It doesn’t work that way. Any work of art can be criticized, regardless of the gender of who wrote them, painted them, composed them, etc.

And I just… I don’t even know how to respond to this. Because Cook has said, right there in his own, apparently “precise” words, that Bujold’s work involves “the attention to detail that only women would find attractive” – details which Cook himself feels are detrimental to the story, and which he plainly states are a hallmark of Bujold’s romantic credentials. This is unequivocally a sexist remark, and the fact that Cook doesn’t recognise this fact – let alone understand that his disparagement of romance as both feminine and lesser is similarly gross – is the main problem with his piece. But the idea that misogyny is some kind of card that critics play to shut down the possibility of an informed analysis of women’s work? What planet is this guy even on? OF COURSE any work can be criticsed, regardless of the gender of the creator; that’s not in dispute. But that doesn’t mean that Cook isn’t being sexist in his analysis: and when he complains about the fact that accusations of misogyny have effectively been ruining criticism for thirty-odd years, it makes me wonder how many times in the past someone has called him out for sexist behaviour, and he’s chosen to interpret that as meaning “you can’t critique female writers because you’re male and therefore biased”, when what they’re ACTUALLY saying is “by all means critique female writers, but be aware that your internalised, negative assumptions about women, romance and femininity are influencing your judgement in unhelpful ways”. Like, seriously? Thirty years of viewing misogyny accusations as a tactic for dodging criticism rather than, you know, a legitimate fucking complaint about sexism in SFF, and he’s never once sat down and thought, Huh, maybe they have a point? Christ on a BICYCLE.

And then it gets worse:

I’m correct here. The books I mention as romances are romances. They are also very “light” in gravitas and absolutely devoid of metaphor.

More anti-romance bullshit! Because romance is light, devoid of metaphor and totally lacking in gravitas, AMIRITE LADIES? And obviously, the best way to prove you’re not sexist is to call romance a female-only genre and then disparage the shit out of it!

The last great sf story that, to me, resonated with metaphor was Terry Bisson’s “macs” which was about American’s natural desire to kill someone who’s harmed us.


Well, THAT’S not profoundly unsettling. (Note also, please, that the story in question came out in 1999, which means that, by his own admission, Cook hasn’t seen anything worthy in the genre for nearly fifteen fucking years.)

 I know I’ve offended you, only because I have had an opinion.

No, it’s not because you had an opinion; it’s because the opinion itself was offensive bullshit.

DeAnn, please, please explain to me what “ground” Lois Bujold has broken with her writing. She’s writing in the 1940s Astounding tradition of space adventures tinted with romance. That’s it. If you want ground breaking, read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar or his The Long Result or his Shockwave Rider. Don’t bore me with telling me these mediocre writers are ground-breaking. They’re just writing pulp fiction–pure entertainment. Lift away all the standard tropes and conceits from Bujold’s writing and you have stories where we know the hero gets his heroine and all will be well. Our writers have lost the courage to tell a story such as Thomas Disch’s Genocides or any one of Philip K. Dick’s novels. But, then, publishers publish what they think sells. Thus, romance, thus zombies. But that’s my opinion. And the fact that I have a divergent opinion makes me the most hated person on the internet.

And in this final comment, despite all his earlier protestations that being a romance writer “isn’t a bad thing”, Cook finally gets angry enough to be honest: Bujold breaks no ground with her stories – she is, in fact, “mediocre… pulp fiction – pure entertainment” – and romance is only popular, not because it has any merit, but because “publishers publish what they think sells”. And isn’t it interesting how, with the sole exception of Marion Zimmer Bradley, every single person Cook has held up as an example of brave, exemplary writing is an old white guy from his generation? Talk about being stuck in the past.

Dear Mr Cook, if you’re reading this: you’re not the most hated person on the internet. Michael Brutsch couldn’t even claim that much, and he might actually have deserved it. Nobody is sending you rape or death threats; nobody is telling you, in graphic detail, the things they’ll do to your children or pets in revenge for what you’ve said (though all those things have happened to women writers just for existing on the internet, let alone saying anything controversial). All they’re doing is sharing their opinions of your opinion, as they – we – are entitled to do; and because we think your opinion is bullshit, you’ve elected to view our response as persecution. You aren’t being persecuted; you’re being argued with, and the fact that you can’t tell the difference is a sign of the privileged echo-chamber in which, until now, I suspect you’ve spent your fannish life. I’d tell you to grow up, but seeing as how, the last good story you read was apparently written almost fifteen years ago, one suspects it wouldn’t help. As far as I can tell, your tastes are so firmly fixed in the stories of your youth that every development undergone by the genre since then is something you’ve elected to view with suspicion. And that wouldn’t bother me, but SFF is my genre, too, and I’m sick of watching bitter old men try to claw away and disparage everything about SFF that’s welcomed me and drawn me in by saying that it isn’t really SF; that the genre is changing, not because the audience and the world are changing together, but because shallow people just want to make money. I’m sick of it, and so I’m arguing against your opinion – at length, in my own time, even knowing that, unlike you, I am actually risking a genuinely abusive backlash by doing so, because that’s what happens to women on the internet when the really ugly trolls catch wind of us.

So why am I bothering, then?

Because I fucking belong here and you will not make me feel otherwise.

  1. shaunduke says:

    This is the point where I feel I need some kind of gif image involving someone dropping a pencil and mouthing “pwned.”

    So I won’t address your points, because I think you’re mostly spot on. What I will say is this: if he doesn’t like the stuff, why doesn’t he just stop reading it? I mean, there’s plenty of stuff out there that does exactly what he seems to be asking for…so stop reading the stuff you know you won’t like and move on with your life. I don’t read erotica. Doesn’t mean I sit around my house reading stuff I don’t like just so I can piss and moan about it on the Internet. I don’t like erotica so I don’t read it. It’s as frakking simple as that.


  2. Kate Elliott says:

    Yes! Only Hemingway had the courage to fridge the woman at the END of the book instead of at the beginning! Whoo!


  3. Pete says:

    Not to mention that he is flat-out wrong about the “missing moon” in the Torturer series – Severian mentions “the Forests of Lune” and the Moon’s greenish light at least once, and notes that he will seize any chance to visit it in the future. If he can’t get that right, it casts doubt on the rest of his arguments

  4. nathanrlong says:

    I don’t understand his idea that science fiction and romance can’t mix, and that real old-fashioned science fiction didn’t do that sort of thing. Two of the most romantic stories I can think of were written by old SF white guys long long ago – “The World Well Lost” by Ted Sturgeon (a gay love story from 1953!), and “The Void Captain’s Tale” by Norman Spinrad, from 1985. The old guard seems to have forgotten how diverse and inclusive SF could be back in the day.

  5. Harriet says:

    I find it fascinating that he holds up Sturgeon as one of his fine examples, given that (a) I think much of Sturgeon’s best work does move into not-traditionally-SF areas, particularly thematically; and (b) Sturgeon’s own definition of SF (or at least, good SF) was “a science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content.” A definition that is a perfect fit for – say – Bujold’s ‘Memory’ (and most of her other work).

    So Paul Cook doesn’t like romance or zombies. Fair enough, I’m not that keen on zombies myself. But how he can possibly extend that to say a book containing these elements is ‘not science fiction’ just beggars belief.

  6. Kate Elliott says:

    Shaun, that has always been a puzzle for me too: Why do people read things they know they are going to dislike or scorn? For one thing: Who has the time???

  7. staranise says:

    Bujold didn’t “tip her hand” with Cordelia’s Honor. It was published in 198fucking6, at the start of her publishing career. If Paul Cook feels somehow betrayed by her defection to the land of girlcooties, it’s only because he’s been wilfully blind to the fact that she’s considered women to be human beings the entire time.

  8. It’s pretty clear that the majority of people who claim romance has contaminated their SF/Fantasy (and this fellow is by no means novel or special in this regard) have never actually read a romance novel.

  9. […] Finally, Foz Meadows has a great point by point rebuttal of Paul Cook’s article. […]

  10. Mieneke says:

    “True, science fiction as a whole is indeed part of Romance Literature (if we go all the way back to the 18th century when novels were invented in England, with the Gothic novel leading the way), but some writers, by dint of their nature, turn to romance or the western or whatever.”

    I was already halfway out the door screaming, but this part of the article was where I lost it. Apart from the sweeping, misogynistic statement littered throughout the text, this is just factually wrong. Gothic novels didn’t lead the way in the creation of the English Novel, it was satirical and moralistic novels, such as Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, the works of Richardson and Fielding. And guess what, the latter two? Had lots of romantic elements in their books.

    Like Pete said above, if he can’t get the facts right, the rest of his arguments are suspect as well, in addition to being just offensive.

  11. hierath says:

    I’ve kind of given up with the internet this week, after I headesked a hole right through my desk and out the other side. I’m going to go back to writing books with yukky romance elements and girl cooties…

  12. […] Which then leads us to this lovely little gem of an essay: When Science Fiction is Not Science Fiction My favorite part? When it becomes clear in the comments that Paul Cook probably hasn’t actually read any of the books he’s denigrating. But he has a habit of pontificating from on high and expecting us lowly worms who don’t have Ph.Ds to listen to him: Why Science Fiction Poetry is Embarrassingly Bad. No, I don’t think so. (Many thanks to Rose Lemberg for alerting me to the existence of the SF poetry essay.) Additionally, Foz Meadows has written a great analysis of Cook’s most recent essay: Paul Cook on SF: In Which I Lack The Ability To Even […]

  13. sarahpinsker says:

    “please explain to me what “ground” Lois Bujold has broken with her writing.”

    How about having a series protagonist with multiple disabilities who challenges the status quo of his society at every chance he gets? I was on a panel on disability in SF this summer and Miles Vorkosigan was one of the primary examples. I imagine Mr. Cook’s rebuttal might be that he meant breaking ground in some scientific way, but most of SF’s groundbreaking works are groundbreaking because they give us new insight into people, not science. When he says that Bujold’s works have no gravitas or metaphor, he shows that he either didn’t read the books or doesn’t understand either concept.

    I’d also like to point out (as I think others have before me) that most of the golden age SF writers were professional writers first, SF writers second. They churned out stories for the pulps regardless of genre. And if I remember correctly, Asimov has a book in every category of the Dewey Decimal system. They weren’t betraying SF by writing other things. They were making a living, as any writer is entitled to do.

    • sculpin says:

      Yes to this, and I was also impressed by her choice to have supporting characters who had disabilities. Kou’s understanding of his disability is very different from Miles’. Taura could be argued to have a form of disability, and her story is also different. Elli gets a disability story arc as well. It’s unusual to have a writer create a disabled character and not turn him or her into Wheelchair Smurf.

      Plus, if I were going to try to introduce someone to the social model of disability, Bujold’s quaddie stories would be a fine place to start.

  14. Nicola Smith says:

    This man’s arguments are all over the place. He is inconsistent in his criticism and cannot appear to recognize that dismissing a book for the inclusion of one element – romance – is patently ridiculous. He cannot see passed it, which to me is an indication of someone so deeply lost in their prejudice that there is no point trying to hold a conversation with them. This is that guy I got angry at in my creative writing class because he refused to read/critique my fantasy piece because ‘he doesn’t like fantasy’. To him, that meant it couldn’t be well written, couldn’t be a good story, wasn’t worth his time. I lost respect for him. And then I copy edited his work. Heh.

  15. tinyorc says:

    Oh dear lord.
    “And of course you hate my guts. I expressed an opinion”
    “I know I’ve offended you, only because I have had an opinion.”
    “But that’s my opinion. And the fact that I have a divergent opinion makes me the most hated person on the internet.”

    What a poor little persecuted baby! As much as I hate the expression, THIS is literally a textbook example of what playing the fucking victim card looks like. It is tonally identical to a teenager screaming “Of course you won’t let me go to the party BECAUSE YOU WANT TO RUIN MY LIFE.”

    1. Write article about how every literary trope you personally do not enjoy does not count as SF with strong misogynistic undertones
    2. Get some pointed but largely civil pushback on your poorly researched and self-contradictory opinions
    3. Throw a shit fit and crown yourself Most Hated Person On the Internet
    4. ???
    5. Profit!

    But it’s still the women who are getting rape threats for simply for existing in online spaces who need to grow a thicker skin.

    Sigh and headdesk.

    “The attention to detail that only women would find attractive: balls, courts, military dress, palace intrigues, gossiping, and whispering in the corridors”

    So George RR Martin is a romance novelist now? The man can devote five pages to describing the intricate scrolling on a breastplate without breaking a sweat.

    • Nicola Smith says:

      I would be completely unsurprised to find he thinks of ‘fantasy’ as only one step above ‘romance’, and that only if it’s epic.

  16. […] really write real science fiction.  We’re not going get into that debate, because other people have done it far better than I can.  It’s apparently the time for all of this to break out, […]

  17. Benjamin Elgie says:

    I think he heard from someone that Dumas wrote romances, and not having understood the difference between “romance” as a type of novel and “romance” as a genre, he got confused?

    That still doesn’t explain what the hell “the attention to detail that only women would find attractive: balls, courts, military dress, palace intrigues, gossiping, and whispering in the corridors. All of this is right out of Alexander Dumas.” is supposed to mean. Does he think Patrick O’Brien’s Aubreyad books are romance novels? Or, like, half of the MilFic or political thrillers out there?

    The rest of his rant is also BS and misogynistic and everything else, but the part about Bujold is just weird.

  18. Sharon Lee says:

    The Books of the New Sun were published in the 1980s. Steve and I have been publishing what we like to call Space Opera since 1988 (with a 10-year gap in the middle). Lois has been publishing Vorkosigan books since 1986.

    Call it a quarter-century since any of us have begun to sin against the field.

    And Professor Cook is only just now getting around to noticing that.

    Being as he’s twenty-five years behind on his reading, I hesitate to suggest to him that he actually pick up a couple of romance novels and read them, but I really feel that’s the least he could do before using an entire genre as an insult

    • fozmeadows says:

      What blows my mind is that, the more he talks in the comments and the more other readers analyse his complaints, the clearer it becomes that he doesn’t seem to have remembered accurately, or even read, all of the books he’s complaining about.

  19. Lurkertype says:

    Okay, first he disses Gene Fookin’ Wolfe, then he says LMB writes girly stuff (although it’s identical to Dumas, who… wasn’t girly? plus GRRM goes on and on about the clothes and food), then he says all the relationships in the Liaden universe are achieved without struggle, which means he hasn’t paid any actual attention to the plots of the Liaden books — unless he thinks separation, torture, near-death, and giant galaxy-wide political plots aren’t struggle.

    So all I can figure is this dude isn’t actually a very good reader, and maybe should go back to See Spot Run and start over. Or at least he should actually read what he’s whining about. Or anything published this millennium, since he’s ranting about books from the 80’s.

    Possibly he should — and I use this phrase advisedly and knowingly — put on his big girl panties and try to deal.

    • lkeke says:

      Big Girl Panties! HA!!
      (That’s just hilarious.)

      Isn’t Star Trek/Wars considered Space Opera? I thought that’s what space opera meant. Its certainly highly emotional stuff (along with Firefly,Asimov, Heinlein…) and Trek has been one of the greatest tech influences of the past 50 years but that’s not girly? Or it is?

      This one just mostly confused me. Maybe he just wanted attention or is just having a “you dang kids get off my lawn” moment?

      • Lurkertype says:

        Star Trek and Star Wars are the quintessential Space Operas of our time. (and Firefly, to a lesser-known extent) I recall a whole bunch of romances in those, so they must have actually been girly and not real SF too. Maybe this dude hasn’t watched any TV or movies either.

  20. BellaBell says:

    My jaw dropped when I read about this guy. What an idiot. :/
    I have allways love SF and to say those kinds of things about it is just plain offensive.

  21. […] just read Foz Meadows’ post over here responding to Paul Cook’s piece at Amazing Stories about “When Science Fiction […]

  22. Periwinkle says:

    As others have said, Cook seems to have only just noticed books dating back to 1986 (Bujold) and 1988 (Lee and Miller). However, his mindset goes back much earlier. Misogynists have been making his exact argument since 1938… and losing. Many readers have probably seen Justine Larbalestier’s compilation from the pulps of the time, but it deserves repeating:

    One of those letter-writers was Isaac Asimov, aged 18. Every generation of misogynist SF writers/readers seems convinced that the field has been a patriarchal utopia, but that women are just starting to enter it and mush things up.

    Also, Cook clearly hasn’t read the same Vorkosigan Saga that I have. No one truly traumatises their characters like Lois McMaster Bujold. Other authors have a higher body count, but only through repetition. If you’re a Bujold character, your moment of deepest pain will be tailored just for you. You may still have a happy ending, but you have to earn it… usually through more pain.

    • azteclady says:

      I note that Isaac Asimov was an 18 year old idiot when he wrote that letter in support of a misogynist asshat–and I’m very tempted to dig through my copies of two of Asimov’s biographies for the money quote, in which he admits that he himself couldn’t write romance/emotion because it’s hard to write, and so, he avoided it as much as possible.

  23. […] Paul Cook, noted old white dude, claims that sf with romance isn’t really sf and that romance is for all those boring bits that girls like. He then gets offended that people are calling him sexist for this. Foz Meadows delivers the critical hit. […]

  24. […] And finally, there’s just the pieces of this article that are plain, regular, garden-variety sexism.  It’s mostly just exhausting.  Bujold gives herself away with her “eloquence of her language” and “the attention to detail that only women would find attractive: balls, courts, military dress, palace intrigues, gossiping, and whispering in the corridors.”  Only women like that stuff?  For serious, Cook, is this an eighties sitcom where men complain about how long their wives take to put on their makeup?  Women, being people, can like a lot of different things.  Men, also being people, can like a lot of different things, even courts, balls, and political intrigue.  As Foz Meadows so perfectly put it: Christ on a BICYCLE. […]

  25. Sharon says:

    The message seems to be: You have a whole genre that caters to your lighter-reading needs. Please stop sneaking into mine.

    When a poster uses “it’s so sad I can’t express my opinion without others coming down on it” as a shield, it’s pretty clear their goal in posting was something other than a dialogue. Online communication is very different from print, and some folks don’t seem to have made the adjustment.

  26. Tasha Turner says:

    Thanks for a great post. It’s obvious to me the man has never read a real romance and therefore is in no position to judge whether books in another genre are thinly disguised romance. I was a big romance reader from my pre-teens until my 30s. I graduated HS in 1985. I read a few fantasy novels during that time J.R.R. Tolkien, my brothers Conan books, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. I saw the first Star Wars movie when it finally made its way out to our rural community when it first came out but after it was a hit. I only really got into SFF after meeting my current husband in the late 1990s. I’m still a pretty eclectic reader, romance, mystery, espionage, YA, fantasy, sci fi, kids books, non-fiction, I’m all over the place.

    A PhD has been taught how to present an argument and support his thesis. I’ve seen kids in HS do a better job. Paul did a good job at looking like a special snowflake and a grumpy old man (no insult to old men intended). He managed to increase the number of people who have heard of him (negatively & checking his book rankings was a hoot). He managed to make Amazing Stories look bad. How much of this might be sour grapes? Few ratings and reviews on Goodreads, on Amazon none on his books.

    I suggest he be sent back to remedial reading 101, blogging 101, presenting and defending your argument 101, followed by a year sabbatical with required reading and pop quizzes on multiple genres as well as books over time. Possibly a new PhD program to prove he is still qualified to teach in his field.

    • Periwinkle says:

      Yes, Cook is failing to argue like an academic. Worse, the site moderators say they’re removing comments that amount to personal attacks on Paul Cook, yet many of his own comments are personal attacks on authors and commenters. In his most recent reply (and the thread appears to be closed permanently), he lumps Lois McMaster Bujold into a group of “mediocre” writers. She has won multiple Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards. That doesn’t mean you have to enjoy her work (I don’t enjoy every winner either), but to classify her as a “mediocre” writer is objectively, and outrageously, wrong.

      In that comment, he also shifts the goalposts, saying “She’s writing in the 1940s Astounding tradition of space adventures tinted with romance”. Personally, I’d disagree with this assessment; Bujold’s worldbuilding certainly uses elements of classic space opera, but the plots and characters wander off on their own merry tangents.

      However, true or false, it contradicts his original post. You can’t simultaneously write 1940s-style science fiction, and write science fiction that isn’t science fiction at all. And, you can’t introduce romance cooties in 1986 if they were part of the tradition in the 1940s.

    • Lurkertype says:

      Agreed. It’s pretty sad that someone who’s supposed to be teaching this stuff has such a poor grasp of the English language, terminology in his own field, logic, and rhetoric. He may be perfectly qualified to teach “lit’rary” fiction, but it’s obvious he hasn’t kept up with any other genres (which is, let’s face it, 99% of all books published).

      No, I will not get off his lawn. He can get off mine.

  27. I find it interesting that Mr Cook’s definition of romance seems to be limited to physically and emotionally intimate relations between men and women, gossiping about clothing, and palace intrigue, when my 19th Century Russian literature teacher (with 20+ years experience teaching) called Dostoevsky and Tolstoy Romantic writers, defining romance as “a hyper-idealised and unrealistic image or portrayal,” which is what he asserted they showed in their books.

  28. K.G. says:

    I was reading Amazing Stories’ blog for several months, until I realized that for all intents and purposes, Amazing Stories is the Fox News of the SFF blog world. I’ve got better things to do with my life than waste time on that, but thanks for taking one for the team.

  29. KC says:

    Wow, Cook’s post. Forced as hell; it reads like something a high schooler would turn in for English class. “The significance of the color green in The Great Gatsby”

    “Another writer well-praised (from every corner) is Lois McMaster Bujold. Her great work is the Miles Vorkosigan series. These are supposed to be military science fiction stories, but they are really at their core Romance novels. At first, they were military science fiction novels of a higher order than most. But the romance elements creep in very early on.”

    Check out that redundancy. How every little factoid is stranded on its own private island of a sentence. “How can I stretch out this turd of an idea as far as possible to make wordcount?”

    • Lurkertype says:

      Good analysis. And he’s supposed to be a college professor? This is the sort of writing you get when someone chooses a bigger font and larger margins for the hard copy.

  30. Jean Lamb says:

    I wish I could have mentioned E.E. “Doc” Smith, who in his Lensman and Skylark books had Tons O’ Romance cooties (including a married couple in the Skylark books who seemed to get along quite nicely), and in the Spacehounds of IPC, we had a lovely HEA for the hero, and the assumption that married life would keep him off active duty, too. Frankly, I was hoping that Cook would take the use of initials to mean that Smith was actually a woman…and given his obvious unfamiliarity with a lot of SF, he might have walked into it. But I expect that Amazing would have removed all that if he’d really stepped in it. (sigh…)

  31. Mark A. says:

    I think you are right to be annoyed with this guy’s article, but you give him way too much credit.

    I think I grasped the point he was trying to make, but it was clear from the excerpts you quoted that he was having trouble actually *saying* it. He is what I call “falsely articulate”, a trait I sadly sometime share. In an effort to say something, he ends up saying stuff (a lot of stuff in this case) that sounds like part of the argument, but really only serves to muddy the point and distract from it.

    For instance, one thing you quoted was the part about all of the books he mentioned lacked “gravitas’. to my mind, it doesn’t necessarily follow that romances lack gravitas. Perhaps he meant that and I missed the context. I think, though, that he was just throwing in another point against his example books. Sort of, “these books are romances, and romances are not SF and therefore, suck; these books are lacking gravitas, and books which lack gravitas are not SF and therefore, suck.”

    Perhaps not. At any rate, his writing lacked succinctness. I think he was thinking shallowly while trying to pad his word count.

    I think his reading is fairly shallow, too, if thinks Bujold is lacking gravitas.

    Everyone gets to define “science fiction” for himself. If he doesn’t like romance, fine. But he doesn’t get to tell *me* what I can or cannot read. If he wants more SF like his definition of it, he should stop moaning about it, and go write some of it himself!

    • Tasha Turner says:

      He has written a number of books. Check Amazon and Goodreads as well as Wikipedia. Based on book sales rankings and lack of reviews his writing career has not produced a bestseller or even a mid lister. Of course I don’t have access to all his sales numbers so his sales could be greater than they appear from the two sources I checked (Amazon & Goodreads).

  32. Sylvia says:

    First: Alexandre Dumas is a woman, writing romance for women!!!!
    Thank you Mr. Cook, you made my day.
    Ladies, buckle on your swash, it’s time for cloak-and-dagger feats of derring do!

    As to Lois Bujold – Two planets, with contrasting tech levels, is totally not science fiction because *drumroll please* a man from Backwards Barrayar is marrying a woman from Hi-Tech Beta! Therefore this is a romance, not SF.

    The Moon is Harsh Mistress is also a romance, in which Manny is much married, and little Milla who chooses to marry into her line-family is utterly gooey. And she dies. Which makes it a tragic romance.
    Oh, wait, is there some sort of romantic relationship between Manny and the political activist, who happens to be female?

  33. […] Paul Cook On SF: In Which I Lack The Ability To Even You know, as strange as it may sound given how much time I spend ranting on the internet, I actually live a rich, full life, one in which I regularly leave the house and talk to my friends about a … […]

  34. […] Paul Cook On SF: In Which I Lack The Ability To Even […]

  35. Eric Ashley says:

    I like Lois McMasters Bujold very much. I’ve read several of her books more than once. However, in a world where Redshirts got a prize, winning an award doesn’t prove virtue. Its like saying Mr. So and So got the Nobel Prize. Obama got the Nobel Prize for winning an election. Yassar Arafat (terrorist scumbag and likely pedophile.) got the prize. Mr. So and So should keep the money and return the prize. Perhaps back in the 80’s her prize meant something.

    As to John Ringo being embittered. Heh. I’ve met the man. Very charming and easy going. And much of his writing is tongue in cheek. He’s clearly having a good time tossing around giant asteroids and petajoules of solar blasting power.

    Now, let me make my thesis. SF which focuses too much on Romance (not Romance in the sense that Pournelle said SF was), and books that focus too much on Lust followed by Deep Wounding are inferior as SF, and inferior as books. Romance/Conquest should be at best tertiary in a story. Also, a more realistic sense of events would elevate the story, and the typical Romance or Conquest storyline is only slightly more realistic than Wonder Woman bouncing bullets off her bracelets. Finally, most R/C storylines tend toward the dull. So, majoring on the minors; unrealisticnd dull are the sins.

    Otherwise, you can write paranormal romance. And yes, I’ve read that too.

    Also, men naturally find talk of moonlit balcony dinners over armies to be slightly boring.

    Am I sexist? I hope so. Sexist means you can observe reality. Guys and girls like different things. Girls like to infiltrate the boys’ clubs which tends to drive out the boys. Most good writers are men, and as a man, given the choice I will naturally prefer an equivalent male to a female.

    That said, yea! for Andre Norton, and Bujold

    • fozmeadows says:

      You fucking HOPE YOU’RE SEXIST? Yeah, you can get the fuck out forever. BANNED.

      • smithster says:

        “Most good writers are men” lolol. Wow. Yeah. Can’t say I’m surprised that one missed the point/plot entirely.

        Letting girls in the club drives out the boys? Funny, but if you drive around the clubs most nights you will find the exact opposite story.

    • “Sexist means you can observe reality. Guys and girls like different things. Girls like to infiltrate the boys’ clubs which tends to drive out the boys.”

      How is this not a self-contradictory statement?

      Guys like [THING].
      Girls “infiltrate the club”, which is to say they come out and also like [THING].

      If guys and girls inherently like different things, why are both groups liking the same thing in the first place?

      Further, in what ways are the boys being “drive[n] out” of liking [THING]? As they say on Wikipedia: [citation needed]. Same goes for “men naturally find”. Not even the whole quotation, I really will need some hard scientific data which tells me which things I will find boring because they are natural and which things I will find boring because I personally do not find them interesting and/or which things I will find boring because of socialization which TOLD me that as a part of masculine gender performance, I must find them boring else I will not be a Real Man, which is usually defined as “not feminine” which I suppose could be the argument for the way in which men are “drive[n] out” of the clubhouse, though in that case it would be by homosocial forces and not by ebil wimminz messin wiff our SF.

      Further still, in what way is “men being manly men who are men but in space–hard sciences only plz except for Hitchhiker’s Guide” any more inherently realistic in story terms than Superman bouncing bullets off his chest, snapping scissors with his hair or bouncing heat vision (which, by its name, is a projection of concentrated heat, exciting air molecules as the heat-wave passes, creating the red laserlike effect) off a mirror as if it were a laser?

      It’s all well and good for you to say “I do not like romance in my speculative fiction because of reasons I do not need to justify to anyone as that’s a bit of personal taste that I have,” but please leave your generalizations/speculations/incorrect assumptions about me and the rest of the male-identified populace at the door. I, a fellow man (let’s not get into “no true Scotsman”, either) am not a good support or proof for your thesis and as such would ask that you narrow your thesis’ focus. Logic is an excellent analytical tool, but if your base suppositions are incorrect or you ignore swaths of your sample data, your conclusions become highly suspect and all that.

    • I’d say from your comment your quite convincingly sexist. Go you?

    • I dunno, *my* husband seems to adore a moonlit balcony dinner over armies. There’s nothing like sitting back against the cold marble pillars of your warpalace’s Display Balcony as the chill glow of the Huntress Moon skims the metallic shoulders of your massed army, quietly enjoying an intimate and romantic dinner with your soulmate and right hand before riding out on the dawn..

      “Do you remember that time when I drew you away from the battle in the medina, and took you up to the balcony, and fed you m’hanncha with my own hands under the moon?” I’ll reminisce. “We looked down at our army in the smoke and fire and ate honey and almonds.”

      And he’ll say, “Yes – I love it when you look after me like that. It’s so important when you’re excercising to keep up your blood sugar.”

      And I’ll say, “Look, I’m sorry about the blood sugar, I SHOULD have washed my hands first, but I DIDN’T, and it was a STICKY PASTRY, and it was nice fresh blood anyway, I’m SORRY.”

      Men naturally find talk of moonlit balcony dinners over armies to be exciting. And blood sugar is an acquired taste. But it takes a richly lived life to learn both those things.

  36. […] know that some guys likes their SF hard and manly. No fantasy elements, no romantic elements, and Asimov forbid you include anything which might […]

  37. […] know that some guys likes their SF hard and manly. No fantasy elements, no romantic elements, and Asimov forbid you include anything which might […]

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