Hot on the heels of the Jonathan Ross/Hugo Awards fiasco, Baen publisher Tony Weisskopf has written a post, The Problem of Engagement, which has gone up both at the Baen Books site and as a guest post on the blog of Sarah A. Hoyt, a Baen author. Though ostensibly calling for unity in fandom, Weisskopf’s piece has thus far had the exact opposite effect. Already, the piece has provoked a great deal of commentary, both on Twitter and elsewhere – these posts by John Scalzi and Ana of the Book Smugglers are both good examples – and, if you give it a read, it’s not hard to see why.
It begins as follows:
The latest fooforaws in the science fiction world have served to highlight the vast cultural divide we are seeing in the greater American culture. SF, as always, very much reflects that greater culture.
On its own, this might seem like a fairly innocuous statement to make – until you read further on, to the penultimate paragraph, and find this:
…SF is mirroring the greater American culture. Our country is different because it, like science fiction fandom, was built around an idea—not geographic or linguistic accident, but an idea—we hold these truths to be self evident. And it is becoming more and more obvious that the two sides of American culture no longer share a frame of reference, no points of contact, no agreement on the meaning of the core ideas.
Here’s my problem: intentionally or not, Weisskopf has begun by framing both SFF itself and the current tensions within the community as being a purely American concern, grown from American politics and American culture. The fact that much of what she’s observing stems rather from a deliberate rejection of this attitude – from the idea that SFF is a global community – seems completely to have escaped her. Which isn’t to say that internal American politics aren’t evident within fandom: obviously, given the size of the US and the breadth of its political concerns, they are. But in the age of international blogging and social media platforms, where it’s possible to communicate daily with fans and authors from all over the world; where Tor Books is about to publish Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, the first Chinese SF novel ever translated into English; where Japanese anime and manga have so long been staples of global fandom that it’s impossible to try and deny their relevance; where award-winning authors like Nnedi Okorafor, Aliette de Bodard and Helen Oyeyemi are writing (among other things) about cross-cultural politics through an SFFnal lens; where there are whole conventions dedicated to diversity and inclusivity, like WisCon and Nine Worlds; and where many of the field’s best writers are anything but straight, white and male, then acting as though every conversation and argument surrounding these issues is simply the result of Americans misunderstanding each other is, to put it bluntly, utterly wrongheaded.
That’s the real “frame of reference” Weisskopf is missing: the ability to consider American SF as just one part of a wider whole, rather than the be-all, end-all of fannish existence.
Having thus missed one point, Weisskopf promptly goes on to miss another:
When fandom was first starting there was the “Great Exclusion Act” when a group of young, excitable, fanboys attempted to spread their political/fannish feud propaganda at the first Worldcon in New York, and were not only prevented from doing so but not allowed back into the con. All fandom was aflame with war! (The fact that this line is a cliché is also a clue that fandom is not, and never has been, a calm peaceful sea of agreement.)
The reason we have a fandom to disunite now, is because calmer heads prevailed. Bob Tucker in particular, with intelligence and humor, led fandom to the idea that it ought have nothing to do with greater world politics, but should concentrate on the thing we all loved, that being science fiction. (Mind you, his sympathies were with the ones who were excluded, but he was able to overcome his own political inclinations for the best of fandom.)
What I find most curious about this section isn’t the fact that, within the space of two sentences, Weisskopf manages to effectively contradict herself, simultaneously asserting that divisive arguments are both an inherent aspect of, and a potentially fatal menace to, fandom; it’s that she’s speaking in familiar, eye-witness language about events that happened almost thirty years before she was born. Though she carefully doesn’t say so, the “Great Exclusion Act” took place in July 1939, a mere three months before the outbreak of WWII – a time when most people, let alone most intellectuals, were rightly concerned with the links between political action and culture. That being so, it hardly seems reasonable to write off the excluded writers – all of whom were members of the Futurians, a group which included Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl – as little more than “young, excitable, fanboys” trying to spread “feud propaganda”. (Especially when the man doing the excluding, Sam Moskowitz, apparently had a habit of selectively interpreting facts.)
Given her fondness for Americanising the issue, let’s put things in perspective with some American history: Weisskopf is citing a conflict that took place fifty years before the invention of the modern internet, twenty-six years before the overturning of Jim Crow, twenty-four years before women became legally entitled to equal pay, and twenty-three years before the first American state decriminalised homosexuality as a reason why modern fans should stop sullying the community with politics. Never mind that, thanks specifically to these and other startling political developments over the past seventy-five years, even American fandom is now a much more diverse entity than it was in 1939, with a commensurately greater investment in erasing such barriers to global participation as still exist: why should we bother? It’s not like science fiction is the literature of ideas or anything. Oh, wait.
The fact that fandom as an open culture survived more than seventy years is a testament to the power of that simple, uniting concept.
Yes: the concept that anyone can openly enjoy science fiction and affiliate with others who do likewise, provided they don’t live outside America or belong to any group of individuals whose rights are either currently or historically being curtailed by the US government, thereby limiting their ability to engage without being subject to abuse or discrimination.
That we are once again looking to be rift by a political divide was perhaps inevitable. But as fandom has grown, expanded and diluted itself –
By “diluted”, I assume Weisskopf means “made accessible to more non-white, non-straight, non-male persons than in 1939, on account of all the human rights they’ve been granted since then that have steadily made our community more accessible to others, whether we like it or not.”
– we may have won the überculture wars and lost our heart. We have not been able to transmit this central precept to new fans. Geeks are chic, but somehow we’ve let the fuggheads win.
And, from my observations, this is an inevitable consequence of the creation of any kind of fandom, from tattoos to swords to us. There is a thing people like. Thing people make initial contact with each other to discuss things and thingishness. At some point a woman (and it’s usually women, no matter what the thing) organizes gatherings, and thing fandom grows bigger and better. At some point, the people who care not about things, but merely about being a big fish in a small sea, squeeze out the thing people. Sometimes thing fandom just dies, sometimes it fissures and the process is recreated. So the fuggheads always win. The only question is how long can we delay their inevitable triumph?
SF fandom has managed to stave it off for a long time. Sadly, we no longer have a Bob Tucker. We don’t have one fan who is so widely respected and loved that his pointedly humorous yet calming voice can soothe the waters. Again, simply a reflection of the greater culture. When SF was aborning, radio and the pulps created huge mass audiences for entertainment. All of fandom read and were influenced by essentially the same small pool of creative endeavor. Now we have not only 300 hundred channels of cable (and nothing on), but the vast output of the Internet, both pro and amateur. It is possible to be a science fiction fan and have absolutely no point of connection with another fan these days.
“People who care not about things, but merely about being a big fish in a small sea”? What does that even mean? Up until now, Weisskopf has ostensibly been asserting that “fuggheads” are those who think political arguments are relevant to SFF, and as such, I can’t help but view her claim that “the fuggheads always win” as lamenting the fact that SFF has progressed in parallel with society. Which is why I tend to get very twitchy around arguments about genre purity and “real” fans: because at base, they invariably constitute a rejection of change. Once upon a time, fandom consisted of a group of people who’d read and loved a finite, specific subset of works: the “thing people”, as Wesisskopf has it, and their “things”. The problem is, of course, that the number and type of SFFnal works has dramatically increased in the 75 years since the Great Exclusion, such that newcomers are now defining themselves as fans – and, by extension, the concept of fandom itself – in reference to a very different subset of offerings, which – horror of horrors! – might not necessarily include any of those beloved, original works. This is what is meant by genre purity: that fans are not fans unless they discover fandom via a strictly limited canon of historical works, an unchanging core around which all subsequent offerings must necessarily orbit. But fandom – like genre, like society, like politics – is a culture, and no culture which lives is static. Contrary to Weisskopf’s Yeatsian fear that the centre of fandom hasn’t held, unleashing the rough beast of new SFF to slouch towards some politically correct Bethlehem, what’s really happened is this: the centre has shifted, and will continue shifting for as long as SFF remains a living entity.
For instance, a slur that has been cast at people who dare criticize the politically correct, self-appointed guardians of … everything, apparently, is that they read Heinlein. Well, Heinlein is one of the few points of reference those fans who read have. Of course we all read Heinlein and have an opinion about his work. How can you be a fan and not? The answer, of course, these days is that you can watch Game of Thrones and Star Wars and anime and never pick up a book. And there’s enough published material out there that it is entirely possible to have zero points of contact between members of that smaller subset of SF readers.
So the question arises—why bother to engage these people at all? They are not of us. They do not share our values, they do not share our culture.
Apparently, Weisskopf is unaware of the deeply ironic hypocrisy inherent in criticising the “self-appointed guardians of… everything” while taking on exactly that role to excommunicate whole swathes of modern fandom with the damning (and rather medieval) indictment, “they are not of us”.
And as for this false narrative of True Fans vs Pretenders – which categories are here defined as “those fans who read” (all of whom, apparently, have read Heinlen) and those who “watch Game of Thrones and Star Wars and anime and never pick up a book” – well. I’ve seen some pretty bizarre statements about SFF in recent years, but arguing that devotees of two of the biggest, most universally beloved and popular geek franchises plus an entire subset of cultural outpourings aren’t “real” fans has got to take the cake.
And I’m not sure there is a good enough argument for engaging them. There is only the evidence of history, which is that science fiction thrives on interaction.
You’ll have to excuse me for thinking that Weisskopf just answered her own question, though she goes on to debate it at some length. Why should fans continue to engage each other, not just about the stories they love, but about politics and the political dimensions of SFF? Because it makes us better. We are better, both as a genre and a community, when we confront historic racism and its ongoing implications. We are better, both as a genre and a community, when we endeavour to make our conventions free from sexual harassment. We are better, both as a genre and a community, when we celebrate diversity and the global nature of SFF and fandom. We are better, both as a genre and a community, when we acknowledge that we cannot be the literature of ideas without letting some of them change us. Yes, it can sometimes be exhausting and strange and disorienting to feel as though your beloved pastime has become nothing more than a series of scandals and angry reactions – believe me, I feel it too. The tectonic plates of fandom are shifting beneath our feet, and that can often lead to fire and explosions. But what’s happening isn’t the End of Days. We’re changing, evolving along with culture and the rest of human endeavour. By demonising the new dimensions of fandom, you’re not keeping the foundations pure and your devotion true – you’re dooming yourselves to extinction, like a species that feeds on a rapidly vanishing food source.
So the core of science fiction, its method, is still a valid way of creating the cultural artifacts we want. But is it necessary to engage those of differing political persuasions to get this method? I feel the answer is probably yes. You don’t get a conversation with only one opinion, you get a speech, lecture or soliloquy. All of which can be interesting, but not useful in the context of creating science fiction. But a conversation requires two way communication. If the person on the other side is not willing to a) listen and b) contribute to the greater whole, there is no point to the exercise.
I quite agree. The problem is that Weisskopf and I apparently disagree on what constitutes “the greater whole”. Those of us who view SFF as a global concern are trying to expand its horizons, seeking stories from a greater range of perspectives, voices and contexts than we’ve ever had before; and of necessity, that means pushing past boundaries – both political and narrative – that were previously seen as the limits of the genre. But it’s these same boundaries that Weisskopf and other traditionalists ultimately want to enforce, drawing a tight, neat circle around that same old subset of stories and interactions to make an immutable centre, only expanding the perimeter after enough time has passed that nothing brought within it could possibly be considered radical, in the sense of being upsetting or unfamiliar. Even if we don’t read him ourselves – and some of us do, and some of us don’t – nobody in the global camp has ever said that reading Heinlen doesn’t make you a real fan, because he’s not the right kind of author; but plenty of people in Weisskopf’s position have said exactly that about the works of N. K. Jemisin, or Faith Erin Hicks, or Hayao Miyazaki, or any number of other creators, because they’re not pure enough. I’d rather fandom be a space for anyone to pass through, no matter how briefly, enjoying what they like and bringing new things with them, than a zealously-guarded kingdom of roadblocks manned by gatekeepers who demand to see your Tolkien Credentials before letting you inside.
And yet, I can’t help but think that at some point, you have to fight or you will have lost the war. The fight itself is worth it, if only because honorable competition and conflict leads to creativity, without which we, science fiction, as a unique phenomenon, die.
This, then, is the real problem of engagement: that fandom isn’t apolitical, and never was. The idea that debate within the community is fine, provided you don’t go bringing politics into it, is a holdover from the days when politics, by virtue of actively excluding so many different and dissenting people, was therefore considered optional by everyone else – an exterior pursuit wholly disconnected from the business of everyday living. But political debate is only considered optional by those so obliviously content with the privileges afforded them by the status quo as to not understand how any further social change could constitute an improvement, on the basis that it either fails to benefit them directly or appears to diminish their power. As such, the current mania for protecting SFF from politics is synonymous with attempting to protect it from reality. Because it can’t be done, you end up instead with a group of people who’ve managed to convince themselves that their politics aren’t politics, but neutral defaults, angrily decrying those who admit their politics openly as the wilful contaminants of some sacred, apolitical space – as if SFF was ever such a sterile, boring thing! As with the devil, the greatest trick privilege ever pulled was convincing its beneficiaries that it doesn’t exist – but all they really need to do is peek behind the curtain.