Posts Tagged ‘History’

I’ve been comparatively quiet on the SFFnal blogging front of late, partly because I’ve been busy with every other aspect of my life, but mostly because I’ve been feeling burned out on the same endless cycle of arguments. Back in high school, I once spent a frantic evening completing a history assignment I’d technically had months to complete: we were meant to cut out daily articles in the newspaper pertaining to the Israel-Palestine conflict and explain how each current event was informed by the history we’d learned. The relevant clippings in hand, I found myself writing paragraph after paragraph explaining the exact same thing in slightly different words. It was an exercise in creative repetition, but it did win me that year’s history prize, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Without wanting to compare the current discourse in SFF to the Israel-Palestine conflict, I’ve started to feel much the same way about engaging with it as I did when writing that history assignment. By this point, surely, all the salient points have already been made by all the key parties, multiple times and in myriad different ways. We know why the debate started, and we know why it’s ongoing. The problem is that, no matter how eloquently we make these same points over again, new offences stemming from the original conflict continue to occur, and merely pointing out why that’s happening isn’t getting us any closer to solving it. Which isn’t to say that making those breakdowns isn’t still important or useful: it is. I just don’t always have the strength for it right now.

Enter the announcement of programming for World Fantasy Con 2016.

There’s a good breakdown of what’s happened here, courtesy of Sarah Pinsker, while the program itself can be found here, but in a nutshell, the issue is this: there are more references to H.P. Lovecraft in the program than to women or POC; there’s a use of offensive language; and there’s little to no acknowledgement of any recent writing in the genre.

This last point is the one I want to address.

By Sarah Pinsker’s count, of the thirty-two separate works cited in the program, only four were written in the last twenty years. Four. Pinsker, who saw an early draft of the proposed programming, raised this particular issue prior to publication with the head of programming, Darrell Schweitzer, in relation to a specific example. Here is Pinsker’s account of that exchange:

The Animal Fantasy panel with the “recent” example of Watership Down? I pointed out that was written before I was born. Kij Johnson and Ursula Vernon have written amazing award-winning animal fantasy in the last few years. He said “Watership Down is recent compared to Aesop and Chaucer.” AESOP AND CHAUCER. The modern field doesn’t stand a chance.

And here, according to the program, is current, full description of the Animal Fantasy panel:

19. Animal Fantasy. The form has been around since ancient times, and in recent years Watership Down, Walter Wagnerin’s The Book of the Dun Cow, Kij Johnson’s The Fox Woman et al. and several other such books did very well. Is this sort of fantasy still being written? What is its appeal?

To break this down, Watership Down was first published in 1972 – which is to say, 44 years ago. Wagnerin’s The Book of the Dun Cow came out in 1978, which is 38 years ago. The Fox Woman, by contrast, came out in 1999, a mere 17 years ago, but whether viewed individually or as a collective, referring to all these works as the product of “recent years” is blindingly inaccurate. It’s also, quite tellingly, an elision highlighted by the very next question: if the works you’re describing as successful are truly “recent”, asking if they’re “still being written” ought to be redundant.

To truly appreciate the ridiculousness of this, imagine if a major gaming con, like PAX, announced the following panel description in the year 2016:

19. First Person Shooters. This type of game has been around since gaming began, and in recent years Doom, id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D,  Rare’s GoldenEye 007 et al. and several other such games did very well. Are these sorts of games still being made? What is their appeal?

The only way someone could write such a panel description in good faith is if they know so little about the topic they’re proposing as to be unaware of the genre’s development, which in turn suggests they’re ill-equipped to investigate its output. Can you imagine a bunch of panellists trying to talk intelligently about what’s happening with FPS now – the types of title being released, the reasons people play them, the developments in the industry – while admitting themselves to be largely ignorant and/or dismissive of anything that happened after Quake? Can you imagine a panel about modern FPS whose members looked confused and frustrated when the audience asked about Overwatch, or who didn’t think Counter-Strike had that big an impact on the genre? That’s how out of touch the Animal Fantasy panel – and, indeed, the bulk of WFC’s programming – looks to me.

Of course, I don’t yet know who the panellists are, which is clearly going to inform how the Animal Fantasy panel (among others) is handled: whether the conversation sticks to the era suggested in the outline, or if newer works and developments are actually mentioned. But on the basis of what I saw at WFC in Brighton in 2013, which had a similarly retro bias in the programming, this is a con that’s more than capable of fielding myriad panellists whose genre knowledge doesn’t extend much past the mid-eighties. Indeed, it’s a con whose programming seems increasingly tailored to just that set while simultaneously claiming to be a modern, relevant industry con.

To borrow the gaming example again, the objection isn’t to the presence of panels discussing classic or older games, which can be a lot of fun and very informative for younger congoers wanting a better sense of their history: it’s behaving as if it’s not history at all – as if the genre still only really consists of Pacman, Return to Zork and the original Tomb Raider – while waving a vaguely disparaging hand at everything that’s happened since. Even if you don’t like the newer developments, you need to be able to acknowledge that they’ve happened, and to have some understanding of how they worked and what they did, in order to compare them to your preferences. But acting as though they’re invisible, as though they never really happened at all? That’s not only insulting to the audience, it’s just plain wrong.

And lest anyone take umbrage with the comparison of animal fantasy to FPS, the latter accounting for far more works in its field that the former: I chose that example precisely because FPS is well-known enough for the dissonance to be jarring. But animal fantasy, while a smaller subgenre, has nonetheless developed a lot since the 70s. To take the blindingly obvious example that somehow isn’t mentioned in the programming, I grew up reading Brian Jacques’s Redwall series, which began in 1986 – the year I was born – and only ended with his death, the final book released in 2011. The Duncton Wood series, published between 1980 and 1993, were another big influence, as was the TV show The Animals of Farthing Wood, aired between 1992 and 1995, which was an adaptation of the books of the same name, originally written in the late seventies. There’s also Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series – a staple of Australian literature – whose publication runs from 1958 to 1999, with both a live action film and an animated TV show produced in 1993 and 1994, respectively. None of which is exactly recent (while still managing to be more recent than the panel description), but which contextualises the crucial shift in the genre.

As Pinsker pointed out, Kij Johnson has written multiple works that fall into this category, all more recent than the 1999 example given in the programming, as has Ursula Vernon, notably her award-winning comic, Digger. There’s also Daniel Polansky’s The Builders, released last year with Tor. But in “recent years”, the majority of animal fantasy stories aren’t novels – they’re animated films and shows. Disney’s Zootopia, released in 2016, was an unparalleled critical success, but hardly arrived in a vacuum: all those cartoon adaptations mentioned above – Redwall had one too, along with The Animals of Farthing Wood and The Silver Bumby, to say nothing of the classic Watership Down film  helped to pave the way for it, as did countless others. I could sit here all day listing animal-centric animated films from the last thirty years, both literary adaptations and originals (The Secret of Nimh, Happy Feet, Kung-Fu Panda, Cats Don’t Dance, An American Tail, A Bug’s Life, Ice Age), and while I won’t, the fact that I can is exactly the point: unless you want to outlaw 90% of the discussion, you can’t have a sensible panel about animal fantasy as a subgenre without mentioning animation. You literally can’t, because that’s where the bulk of that particular subgenre exists, and that’s where it’s been thriving for twenty years.

Talking about animal fantasy purely in terms of novels makes as much sense as, well, applying the same restriction to a discussion of superheroes: yes, those books exist, and yes, they’re worth mentioning, but you’re kind of missing the main event. But I can already pretty much guarantee that, barring some major behind the scenes changes, you’re not going to get a WFC panel which addresses that fact. Many of you can probably guess why. For those who can’t, however, let’s run with this theme a little longer.

Elsewhere in her Twitter thread on the WFC programming, Sarah Pinsker mentions that seminal author Shirley Jackson, whose centenary this is, rates only a single programming mention compared to H. P. Lovecraft’s ten. On its own, that might not bother you, but compare it to the programming in 2013, which marked what would have been Arthur Machen’s 150’s birthday. An entire programming stream was made in Machen’s honour – Machen @ 150 – celebrating his works, his life and his influences on the genre, which amounted to eight separate panels explicitly invoking him in their premise. Similarly, in 2014, Robert Aickman’s centennial earned him seven different events commemorating his work. But Shirley Jackson’s centennial merits only a single event and a single mention – even though the program itself describes her as having written “much of the greatest and most distinctive horror of the 20th century”.

It’s not a coincidence that Shirley Jackson’s centenary merits only a single panel compared to what was organised for Aicken and Machen, just as it’s not a coincidence that the animal fantasy panel mysteriously makes no reference to the medium in which the bulk of those stories are produced. It’s not just that the programming is manifestly disinterested in the genre’s progress in the last twenty years – it’s that all those earlier, apparently more “definitive” works are only a curated selection of what’s considered classic and acceptable, which definition skews heavily towards male and “serious” and away from anything female, youthful or “frivolous”, like animation or YA.

If the position was, really and truly, that recent works are garbage, and that the only things worth discussing in SFF happened prior to 1996 (or 1986, for preference) then Shirley Jackson would merit at least as many programming items as Aicken or Machen – but she doesn’t, because she’s a woman. If the position was, really and truly, that there hasn’t really been any notable animal fantasy since 1999, then Brian Jacques, Elyne Mitchell and the wealth of early cartoon adaptations should at least rate an acknowledgement in the panel description – but they don’t, because kids’ animation isn’t respectable fantasy, Jacques wrote middle grade books, and Mitchell, assuming the programming team have even heard of her, is a woman. It’s the same logic which said that including a favourite in-joke of Schweitzer’s was more important than not using a racist slur in the programming titles (“Spicy Oriental Zeppelin”, though this, at least, seems to have been changed): they simply didn’t see the offence as a problem.

It’s not that I think Darrell Schweitzer and friends sat down at a table and asked, “Okay, how best can we exclude and minimise the contributions of women, people of colour, queer writers and anyone under fifty in our programming?”, though they could hardly have done a better job of achieving that outcome if they had. It’s that bias is an insidious, often subconscious thing, and where you’ve learned to only view particular things as worthy or important, regardless of the actual worth or importance of what’s on offer, you need to make an active effort to look at the whole picture. If your argument is that genre is an unbiased meritocracy – if that’s what you truly aspire for conventions and awards ceremonies alike to look like, the best works and writers rising to the top regardless of any other consideration – then the presence of homogeneity in your lineup should concern you, because it’s a sign that someone, somewhere is putting their hand on the scales.

Here’s the thing about awards lists and panel slots: they’re exclusive by definition, which means that someone, somewhere is always going to be miss out, whether personally or in terms of their preferences. Unless you’re handing out trophies for participation, then you’re always going to have arguments about how it was a travesty that so-and-so didn’t make the cut, and there’s always going to be both a political and a promotional aspect to whose names get bandied about. There’s no such thing as a perfect, absolutely objective nomination or adjudication process, because those decisions are ultimately based on individual preferences, and everyone has subjective reasons for liking what they like. That’s the nature of the beast, and it applies across the board, whether you’re talking about the Oscars, Crufts or a local primary school science prize. But when there is a massive, visible dissonance between what’s being created and what’s being praised – when that dissonance just so happens to map to wider social bigotry against particular groups and people – then it’s not unreasonable to advocate for a fairer process. There is, after all, a world of difference between the top prize going to the kid with the most awesome baking soda volcano you’ve ever seen, even if you thought the girl with the string beans was better, and watching some grinning lug who turned in a pile of horseshit take the trophy away from both of them.

 

The WFC 2016 program is frustrating, not just because it’s so manifestly disinterested in the ongoing development of SFF, but because it can’t even pretend with any degree of subtlety that its objections to those developments are anything other than a deep-seated preference for the opinions of straight white men. I’ve harped on the animal fantasy panel because Schweitzer’s response to Pinsker about it perfectly encapsulates the dissonance in his attitude, but it’s the same thing wherever you look. For god’s sake, there are more references to men born in the 1800s than to any women, living or dead. How can that possibly make sense at a convention where people are meant to go to discuss the genre’s future? How can such a convention even have a future, when it’s so hellbent on dismissing the reality of its inheritors?

Which, in a wider sense, is what’s happening right now with the Sad Puppy campaign and the Hugo Awards. Asked to share the playground equally with the other children, the Puppies lasted five minutes before deciding it was better to smash the swings and shit on the slide than let anyone use the shared equipment for games not of their orchestration. My toddler has more reasoned emotional responses, and he’s three.

But we know all that. We’ve said it before. What else is there to say?

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory:
You have no control
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.
– Lin-Manuel Miranda, “History Has Its Eyes On You”, Hamilton
.
As the Brexit vote and its consequences reverberate through the internet, I listen to Hamilton’s”History Has Its Eyes On You”, and of all possible things, I find myself remembering the morning of 9/11. I was fifteen years old, and as I stumbled through my parents’ bedroom to their en-suite to get ready for school, despite my habitual bleariness, I was conscious that they were both unnaturally still, frozen in bed as they listened to the radio. I remember my mother saying, unprompted, “Something terrible has happened in the world,” my stomach lurching at the graveness of her tone. I remember how, at school that day, the attacks were all anyone could talk about; how even the most diffident students begged our history teacher for permission to watch George Bush’s address on the TV in our classroom. Above all else, I remember the sense, not of fear, but of irrevocable change beyond my control: the knowledge that something material to all our futures had happened – was in the process of happening still – and yet we were expected to carry on as usual.
 .
I remember thinking about documentaries we’d watched in history or which I’d seen at home, segments where various adults were asked to give their eyewitness accounts of events that happened in their youth, and imagined being one day called on to do likewise. Where were you when it happened? How did you feel? What did you say? Did you know, then, what stretched out before you? What were the details? I was years away from wanting children, but I still wondered what I might say to my own hypothetical offspring, if some future history teacher asked them to interview a parent about the momentous events which they (meaning I) had lived through. And I thought of the propaganda posters I’d so recently studied for my own modern history class – that classic image of the beslippered pater familias sitting in his armchair, two cherubic children at his feet, and a pained, distant expression on his face as his daughter asked, “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?”
.
Great War
.
Neither one is a comparable situation to the Brexit vote, of course. (I hope.). But that feeling of history having its eyes on me – on all of us – is one of which I’ve felt increasingly conscious ever since the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party gained unprecedented power in Greece in 2015. I find myself thinking again of those high school history lessons, where Edmund Burke’s adage that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it first became a part of my awareness, a tritely profound observation that nonetheless remains relevant, and of all the early warning signs that preceded both world wars. Perhaps it’s just the consequence of having grown to adulthood in the spectre of 9/11, American politics the long shadow cast constantly over my Australian shoulder, but since then, I’ve never lost the awareness that my local world is only an engine part in a bigger and more complex machine.
 .
I have plenty of scathing things to say about the current state of secondary education in Australia, but it was a modern history unit on the Israel-Palestine conflict that inspired the core of my early university studies: Arabic as a language, the Arab World, Islam and the Middle East, Biblical Studies. Then as now, I understood that, whatever my personal atheism, it was the religious, political and cultural schisms developed over centuries between Judaism, Christianity and Islam that had ultimately shaped the modern world, and in light of that fateful day in September 2001 – in light of the history assignment for which I subsequently won a school award, cutting endless newspaper clippings on conflict in the Middle East to explain how each event went back to what we’d studied about pogroms and Zionism, the UN and oil and the Sykes-Picot Agreement – I wanted to try and understand the foundations of the present.
 .
I am, by nature, a storyteller. Narrative has patterns, and though we construct them knowingly in fiction, still they echo naturally in life, whose permutations are often far stranger than anything we can dream up. I look at where the world is poised, on the brink of men like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, Malcolm Turnbull and Boris Johnson, and for an instant the very air is textbook paper, a blurring of time and distance and a whisper of darkest timelines. I am a mater familias in an armchair as yet unbuilt, and as my son looks up from whatever device goes on to replace the common iPad, I hear him ask, “Who did YOU vote for in 2016, mummy?” I imagine a homework sheet that asks him to list the date of Jo Cox’s death the same way I once listed Emily Davison’s, and with as much bland dispassion. I wonder if his history module will cover the Orlando massacre, assuming it isn’t deemed too volatile for junior study, the same way I never learned in school that the queer prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, once freed, were immediately rearrested – homosexuality was still considered a crime, you see, even by the Allies.
 .
I wonder how many teenagers throughout the UK and Europe checked the results of the Brexit vote on their phones today, on laptops, in class, and watched it all with that same spectre of wrenching helplessness that I once did, as their future was altered without their say-so. Overwhelmingly, it was young people who voted Remain, and older folks who voted Leave, and while the result is a tragedy for all of them alike – regardless of how or whether they voted, older Britons have just been screwed out of their pensions as the pound falls to a 31 year low, a span longer than my lifetime – it’s the young whose futures have just been overwritten. Scotland might yet break from the UK, just as other countries might yet break from the EU; Canada is a lone bastion of Western political sanity right now, but everything else is disintegrating. To quote another poet:
 .
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. 
.
I don’t know where the world is headed; only that it scares me. We’ve fought through so much to achieve even the fragments of unity and fellowship we now possess, and yet the backlash against it has been so violent, so continuous, as to defy belief. It’s barely been two months since I left the UK, and already it appears unrecognisable, a distorted funhouse reflection trying desperately to possess the body that cast it. Perhaps the only way out is through, but at this point, I can’t imagine that we’re going to get there painlessly.
 .
I wonder who’ll live, who’ll die. Who’ll tell this story.

For a while now, I’ve been hearing chatter about Seth Dickinson’s upcoming debut, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, due for release in September this year. Some of what I’ve heard has been extremely positive; some has been less so. Either way, I was intrigued enough to be interested, and today I finally read the first two chapters, which are currently available online at Tor.com.

My gut reaction thus far: creeping unease.

At a technical level, Dickinson writes extremely well. His prose is clean and sharp and compelling with a good sense of pace, and he has a knack for conveying great scope with few words. He’s also telling a story about queer people, people of colour, women, imperialism, politics and colonialism, which is always going to interest me at a visceral level, and as such, I was never bored.

However.

The thing about writing SFFnal stories is that, no matter how fantastic the setting or distant the future we might write, they’re still ultimately shaped by our very real, very human now: by our cultures, past and present, with all the attendant histories and contexts that entails. Sometimes, the connection is more obvious than others, as when we’re deliberately trying to evoke the shadow of ancient Rome or Renaissance Italy, but however we might invent, dissemble, hybridise, paraphrase or otherwise imagine new worlds, we’re not making anything out of whole cloth. Our fingerprints pattern the weave, reminding us of the reality we’re trying, however briefly, to escape, and whether we do it consciously or not, the process still occurs, as inevitable as sunrise.

Thus: when Dickinson writes about the Empire of Masks, with its paper money, bureaucratic service exam and sterile hatred of unhygienic behaviour, which here means homosexuality in all its permutations, what I think of is a cross between Imperial Britain and Imperial China, the language and bigotry of the former married to the institutions and scale of the latter. Adding to this impression, the denizens of Falcrest, home of this chimerical empire, are described as follows:

“This was the first impression Baru had of the Falcrest people: stubborn jaws, flat noses, deep folded eyes, their skin a paler shade of brown or copper or oat. At the time they hardly seemed so different.” 

Anglophone language and epicanthic folds: it’s not a subtle marriage, and in these two chapters, it feels like Dickinson has smashed imperial China and Britain together without much regard for the consequences of the fit. Which, ordinarily, might raise my eyebrow without stirring complaint – generally speaking, I’m a fan of cultural mashups, especially incongruous or startling ones. But here, given the prominent focus on homophobia and queer persecution, I can’t get past the real world implications; or, more specifically, the real world history.

Because beyond the horrific history between Britain and China, which frequently involves the former exploiting the latter, there’s the inescapable fact that Imperial China didn’t have anything even vaguely resembling the institutional homophobia Dickinson is describing, because in China – as in so many other parts of the world impacted by white colonialism – the sort of scientific, medicalised, systematic homophobia that situated being queer as an illness was a Western import. Nor is this a difficult fact to ascertain, as per the very first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on homosexuality in China:

“The existence of homosexuality in China has been well documented since ancient times. According to one study, homosexuality in China was regarded as a normal facet of life in China, prior to the Western impact of 1840 onwards. However, this has been disputed. Many early Chinese emperors are speculated to have had homosexual relationships, accompanied by heterosexual ones. Opposition to homosexuality, according to the study by Hinsch, did not become firmly established in China until the 19th and 20th centuries, through the Westernization efforts of the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China. On the other hand, Gulik’s influential study argued that the Mongol Yuan dynasty introduced a more ascetic attitude to sexuality in general… Either way, it is indisputable that homosexual sex was banned in the People’s Republic of China from at least the twentieth century, until it was legalized in 1997.”

By comparison, the first British anti-sodomy law was the Buggery Act of 1533, which gave the crown the power to deal with an offence that had previously been handled exclusively by the Christian ecclesiastical courts. Consider this excerpt, for instance, from the Wikipedia article on homosexuality and psychiatry in a Western context:

“The view of homosexuality as a psychological disorder has been seen in literature since research on homosexuality first began. However, psychology as a discipline has evolved over the years in its position on homosexuality. Current attitudes have their roots in religious, legal and cultural underpinnings. In the early Middle Ages the Christian Church tolerated, or at least ignored homosexuality in secular cultures outside the Church. However, by the end of the 12th century hostility towards homosexuality began to emerge and spread through Europe’s secular and religious institutions. There were official expressions condemning the “unnatural” nature of homosexual behavior in the works of Thomas Aquinas and others. Unti the 19th century, homosexual activity was referred to as “unnatural, crimes against nature”, sodomy or buggery and was punishable by law, and even death. As people became more interested in discovering the causes of homosexuality, Medicine and Psychiatry began competing with the law and religion for jurisdiction. In the beginning of the 19th century, people began studying homosexuality scientifically. At this time, most theories regarded homosexuality as a disease, which had a great influence on how it was viewed culturally.”

With these two different narratives in mind, here’s the view of homosexuality held by Dickinson’s fictitious imperial Falcrest, as described in Chapter One:

“She went into the school, with her own uniform and her own bed in the crowded dormitory, and there in her first class on Scientific Society and Incrasticism she learned the words sodomite and tribadist and social crime and sanitary inheritance, and even the mantra of rule: order is preferable to disorder. There were rhymes and syllogisms to learn, the Qualms of revolutionary philosophy, readings from a child’s version of the Falcresti Handbook of Manumission.”

Clearly, then, this is type of homophobia is far more in the British mould than the Chinese. And thus my unease: because while Dickinson’s Masquerade, as his empire is externally known, is a fictional culture, what it evokes, in terms of real world comparisons, is a narrative wherein an undeniably white, colonial, homophobic agenda is being utilised by POC against other POC. Throw in the fact that, post-Western influence, modern China was, for a period, intensely homophobic – something the casual reader is more likely to know about than, say, the passion of the cut sleeve – and you have a narrative that, whether intentionally or not, subtly reinforces the stereotype of homophobia as a predominantly non-Western, non-white problem.

Further complicating matters is the planned trajectory of the titular protagonist – that is, of Baru Cormorant – as a woman from a formerly queer-friendly culture having to repress that part of her identity in order to rise through the Falcresti ranks, the better to one day change their ideology. To be clear: I have absolutely nothing against the idea of a story where a secret outsider strives to change a toxic system from within; that’s good stuff. The problem is that, by the end of Chapter Two, Baru – now eighteen – is set to leave her home island of Taranoke for life in the imperial service, having aged eleven years since the start of Chapter One. And while, as stated, Dickinson writes with great technical skill, for a story that’s being set up to portray Baru as the intended saviour of Taranoke culture, it’s troubling that we see her behaviour almost exclusively through the lens of Falcresti mores.

By which I mean: beyond its queer and polyamorous acceptance, we’re shown very little about Taranoke culture, and thus don’t have the proper sense of what Baru is setting out to avenge or protect beyond a deeply simplistic narrative of Homophobia Is Wrong. Baru’s time at the Falcresti school under the sponsorship of her patron, Cairdine Farrier, is the kind of thing I could easily read books about in its own right, but which in either case demands far more attention than two brief chapters can supply, no matter how well written they might be. Instead, we see far more of Baru’s acceptance of Falcresti logic than we do comparisons or conflicts with what she was taught before then; even the other students seem to have accepted the colonial mandate that the families and family structures they’ve known all their lives are wrong, as per this section in Chapter Two:

“Children began to vanish from the school, sent back out onto the island, into the plague. “Their behaviour was not hygienic,” the teachers said. Social conditions, the students whispered. He was found playing the game of fathers –

The teachers watched them coldly as their puberty came, waiting for unhygienic behaviour to manifest itself. Baru saw why Cairdine Farrier had advised her on her friendships. Some of the students collaborated in the surveillance.”

This level of indoctrination and complicity, presented in the absence of any compelling reason as to why the Taranoke students are so quick to abandon their own culture, is utterly jarring. We don’t get a sense of fear or coercion or other social changes beyond the plague and its impact; the children are seemingly cut off from their parents and families long before then, and it’s all glossed so quickly that what should be a nuanced explanation of cultural change and colonialism – but which is still the apparent heart of the novel, given that Baru is meant to be motivated by her time here to come back and fix everything – is instead rendered in brief, like an unimportant aside before the real story starts.

As a queer reader, the portrait Dickinson paints of Falcresti homophobia is genuinely unsettling, which is why the commensurate lack of attention paid to Taranoke customs feels like such an imbalance. Two chapters in, and all we know of queerness so far is that people suffer for it: Baru loses one of her fathers to the invaders, her cousin is threatened with molestation under the guise of corrective rape, Taranoke is colonised, and Baru’s two external allies both abandon her when they learn what she did to try and protect her cousin.

It’s queer tragedy porn in a fantasy context, and from what I’ve been told about how the book ends, that never really changes; arguably gets worse, in fact. And while I applaud Seth Dickinson for wanting to tell a story about how Homophobia Is Bad, complete with a cast of characters who are queer and female and POC, I can’t applaud his apparent decision to do so by making said characters suffer unbearably because of their orientation, the better to let the audience know that Homophobia Is Wrong.

The problem, then, is that The Traitor Baru Cormorant comes across as being a novel about queer oppression that is – whether intentionally or not – written for a straight audience: that is, for people who can find novelty and drama in stories about unrelenting queer oppression because they’ve never personally experienced it, whereas those of us who have just want, by and large, to read about queer people being people, preferably complex ones who get their fair share of happy endings rather than the traditional tragedy.

So, yeah. I’ll reserve full judgement for when (and if) I make it through the rest of the book, but right now, it doesn’t bode well.

Whenever we watch a film or read a book, regardless of genre, we always approach the narrative with a set of basic assumptions about its content. If the story is set in the present day, we’ll expect a certain degree of familiarity with the context, though obviously, these expectations will vary in accordance with where we live and where the story is set. If the story involves a discipline or profession with which we’re intimately acquainted, we’ll likely be more critical of its portrayal than otherwise, because any liberties taken or errors enforced will stand out to us. By contrast, if the subject matter is new, or if it involves something we only recognise as a vague conceptual outline, we’ll be more inclined to take the writer’s word for it – an accurate until proven in- mentality. Which is, somewhat paradoxically, how genre stereotypes often get started: if our only, first or primary exposure to a concept is through fiction, and if we automatically assume that what we’re shown is well-researched, then seeing it presented differently at a later date – even if the subsequent portrayal is more accurate – might trigger our scepticism, especially if we’ve seen multiple versions of the original lie, now leant a greater authority by the act of reiteration.

As such, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between an assumption based on fact, like our own, first-hand knowledge of a profession or practice, and an assumption which is itself based on other assumptions, like a popular, romanticised version of a certain historical era. For all that humans are voracious learners, we don’t always consider how or why we’re absorbing information until someone asks us to provide a source, and by then, it’s often too late.

But what happens when you apply this habit of assumptions to purely fictional concepts?

Science fiction and fantasy stories are full of impossible ideas which nonetheless influence our thinking, taking on lives of their own. Dragons don’t exist, but depending on how we first encountered them, we’re likely to have an opinion about their essential nature; on whether (for instance) they’re more properly treasure-hoarding monsters like Smaug, mystical protectors like Falcor, or soul-bonding companions like Mnementh and Ramoth. But while we might prefer a certain type of dragon, we’re also willing to accommodate changes to their mythology: our assumptions are more fluid than fixed, and if we see something new, our first thought won’t be that the writer is incompetent or misinformed, because we understand that fictional truths are malleable.

As such, we’re supremely unlikely to challenge the presence of a wide and varied range of dragons in SFF: the comic swamp dragons of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld don’t preclude the ferocity of Daenerys’s Drogon or the thoughtfulness of Temeraire, and even when we encounter dragons who completely subvert our Platonic ideal of the species – who don’t breathe fire, who can’t fly, who might be feathered instead of scaled – we still accept the possibility of them, because, well, it’s fiction! Dragons aren’t real, and so they can be whatever we want them to be, up to and including a shapeshifting race of scaly humanoids who live in a mountain-tree. But at the same time, we often hesitate to extend the same degree of narrative diversity to persons who actually exist, even within the parameters of fiction, because it violates one of our assumptions-based-on-assumptions, that women can’t or Vikings didn’t, and therefore hits a mental stumbling-block.

Which, as I’ve said before, is a problem. Particularly in SFF, we’re used to the idea that unreal elements – magic, dragons, FTL travel – are anchored to the narrative by the presence of realism in other areas, like believable characters and settings; but when we start using familiar as a proxy-term for real, we run the risk of letting ill-formed assumptions dictate the limits of the possible – and when we’re dealing with fundamentally impossible situations, that’s an even more pernicious habit than usual. Which begs the question: what are our limits, exactly, when it comes to accepting fictional scenarios? Obviously, there won’t be a universal answer, but in terms of trying to establish a personal one, I’m going to borrow a terminology of limits from BDSM, which is surprisingly applicable: that is, the concept of hard limits, soft limits and requirement limits.

For these purposes – that is, a discussion of narrative preferences – I’m using the following definitions: a hard limit is an element whose inclusion we won’t tolerate under any conditions; a soft limit is an element we’ll entertain under particular conditions, but which otherwise breaks us out of the story and/or compromises its realism; and a requirement limit is an element without which we’ll struggle to enjoy the story at all. Speaking personally, then, and by way of quick example: I would consider the presence of three-dimensional female characters to be a requirement limit. If you effectively eliminate women from the narrative, then you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that you’ve constructed a realistic setting; and even if you include a host of plausible, plot-centric reasons for their absence (all male armies, gender-based plague) I’m still going to look askance at your decision to do so. By the same token, a soft limit would be something like owner/slave romances: I’m not wholly averse to them, but I strongly dislike seeing the issues of consent and power imbalance handwaved Because Feelings.

As to my hard limits, though: that’s an interesting question. Certainly, there are narrative elements for which I have a strong dislike, but in most instances, I’d still classify them as soft limits – that is, as devices that only bother me when they’re done badly, instead of at all – and with the exception of specific triggers, I suspect the same is true for most people. But if we’ve only ever seen an element written badly, or if it’s something we haven’t encountered before, we might reflexively write it off as unrealistic, when what we really mean is that it pushes a limit we weren’t conscious of having, or that its unfamiliarity takes us out of our comfort zone. Engaging with narrative is ultimately a question of immersion, the willingness of a reader to suspend their disbelief, and as with BDSM scenes, it’s difficult to do that if we don’t trust the other party not to accidentally hurt us.

(I have a theory that the emotional comedown we sometimes feel on finishing a powerful story is an equivalent phenomenon to sub-drop, which suggests the interesting counter-possibility that the lethargy and self-doubt often experienced by authors on completing a novel is a type of dom-drop, too. In both instances, there’s a neurochemical rush brought about by intense emotional stimulus – the act of either connecting with a story, or controlling it – that comes to a sudden end, and if we then, for instance, find ourselves feeling guilty about the extent to which we’re obsessing over fictional characters or frightened that what happens next is beyond our control, I see no reason why that couldn’t lead to other knock-on, physical effects. That being so, there’s a commensurate argument to be made that participation in fandom may work as a form of aftercare for creators and consumers alike: a way of reassuring ourselves that our feelings are valid and reaffirming our preferences, which adds a whole new dimension to creator/fan interactions. But I digress.)

Perhaps, then, our idea of realism in this context is less to do with facts and more a question of feelings. A story doesn’t have to be literally realistic, in the sense of conforming to real-world rules, in order for us to believe in the premise; rather, it just has to feel authentic, in the sense of convincing us that the setting is internally consistent, and while our notions of narrative authenticity are always going to be informed by our assumptions, we can still take a flexible approach.

Enter the concept of fanfiction: stories written about settings and characters with which we’re already familiar, but which exist for the express purpose of changing them. By its very nature, fanfiction plays with our expectations: we go in knowing exactly what happens in canon, but every story still interprets and alters that canon differently, and if the original work is incomplete – a show still airing, a film trilogy missing the final instalment, an ongoing series of novels – any fics written before the end are going to have different jumping-off points to those written post-completion. For instance, while it’s common practice for fanwriters to reverse or ignore particular canon deaths, not every fic which features canonically dead characters is a retcon. Instead, it might have been written at a point in time before the deaths had happened, extrapolating future events on the basis of an endpoint that was subsequently superseded: a bifurcation in the timeline, rather than an attempt at overwriting it, and readers will have to navigate the distinction.

As such, fanfiction requires its audience to continually adjust their assumptions, not just about what might happen, but about what has happened already, even when this means uprooting our base concept of the original story. Donald Rumsfeld’s famous line about known unknowns is a strangely apt description of this process, and is therefore worth quoting, not least because the man himself would probably shudder at the comparison:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Or, to put it another way: we know the fic will draw from canon (known knowns) and that parts of it will be excluded or altered (known unknowns), but not what original material the writer will contribute (unknown unknowns). To this, I would also add a fourth category, constituting our base assumptions about narrative and worldbuilding in general: things we hold to be relevant or true, but don’t consciously take into consideration unless forced to do so (unknown knowns). And fanfiction likes to play with these, too – for instance, by making small, pertinent alterations to an otherwise real-world setting and treating them as normative, rather than as an integral aspect of the plot. Which isn’t to say that original fiction doesn’t do likewise. It’s just that, for whatever reason, fanworks seem more willing to take the concept further, making blanket changes to social/sexual norms instead of simply inserting magic into familiar settings.

By way of example, I recently read a Wild West AU where everything was as you’d expect, except for the blanket social acceptance of homosexuality and lack of racism; the primary romance was between two newly married men, while the external conflict involved a pernicious neighbour trying to steal their ranch, and none of the cultural changes were ever questioned. For all that Hollywood can produce something as utterly batshit and ahistorical as Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, I’ve never seen a mainstream narrative write an alternate history for the express purpose of exploring social equality in a different era – but steampunk guns, anachronistic swearing and giant mechanical spiders? No problem.

As an inevitable consequence of being human and having opinions about the world, we’re always going to take our assumptions with us into fiction. But being concerned with realism – or rather, with authenticity – and Malinda Lo has a fascinating essay on the subject, for anyone who wants to explore it in greater detail – doesn’t mean we should have to sacrifice whole fields of narrative possibility for lack of historical or personal precedent. The point of SFF isn’t to convince us that these stories could happen here, but to create a hypothetical elsewhere, parallel to our own, that’s sufficiently internally consistent, or engaging, or preferably both, for us to immerse ourselves anyway.

And if there are dragons involved, then so much the better.

 

 

 

Browsing the Guardian this week, I encountered a deliberately provocative headline – ‘Howard Jacobsen: All my books are apocalyptic. I have never met an intelligent optimist’ – and promptly did a double-take when I read down to see that Jacobsen has apparently been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his latest novel, J, which is being described as ‘dystopian’ and ‘apocalyptic’. I frowned at the computer screen, trying and failing to reconcile this information with Jacobsen’s self-professed status as someone who is contemptuous of genre things; a man who once argued that what makes genre fiction genre fiction is its formal predictability… the best novels will always defy category‘. And, indeed, it’s clear that Jacobsen does include dystopian fiction as a type of genre writing, as per his assertion that ‘internecine war will sometimes break out between the genrists – paranormalists deriding the moralistic pretensions of dystopians, for example‘. One could be forgiven for expecting, therefore, that Jacobsen has taken issue with such labels being applied to his own work; or at the very least, has failed to use those labels himself.

Apparently not. ‘In a way,’ he says, ‘all my books are apocalyptic.’

In his 2012 review of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Hal Parker made a salient observation about Chabon’s use of genre:

Reappropriating genre literature under the aegis of high culture has become a familiar convention of postmodern literary fiction; really, “literary genre fiction” is arguably a genre of its own at this point. Even more common is the practice of saturating a novel in a given milieu to such a degree that the milieu itself comes to serve as the “brand” of the novel. There, however, lies the rub: While Mr. Chabon is white, much of the milieu providing the “brand” of Telegraph Avenue (soul and jazz music, Blaxploitation films, the Black Panthers, Oakland and its environs) is unmistakably black. What this means is that “literary genre fiction” now runs the risk of becoming a kind of sophisticated “literary gentrification”—a process by which a predominantly black milieu is appropriated by a white novelist as a springboard. Put simply, is the story of “Brokeland,” whatever it may be, really Mr. Chabon’s to tell?

Though Parker is speaking specifically about a white writer’s appropriation of black culture, going on to link these elements with the novel’s arguable classification as a work of ‘gentrification fiction,’ the idea of literary gentrification has, I would argue, a wider and more general applicability which he himself acknowledges: namely, the idea of literary writers seeking to detach – and therefore, in their frequent estimation, elevate, or even rescue – genre ideas from their cultural, narrative and contextual points of origin. Part of what makes this such a difficult phenomenon to discuss, however, is the fact that ‘genre fiction’ has long since become an umbrella term encompassing wildly different types of writing, each with its own history, heroes and hallmarks, and each with varying points of intersection and overlap with the others. Much like a university attempting to unite a handful of disparate academic schools under a single banner by turning them into a college, ‘genre fiction’ is often treated – and, as a consequence, called on to defend itself – as if it were a single, coherent entity, and not, as per the university model, an administrative and academic siphonophore. As such, I would argue that genre fiction isn’t a genre in and of itself, but rather a college of genre – and that makes for some interesting analysis.

For instance: author N. K. Jemisin, who is African-American, has spoken in the past about her books being shelved in the African-American section of bookshops, despite the fact that she writes epic fantasy. It’s worth quoting her at length on this point, for reasons that will hopefully become apparent:

I understand why this section exists — because the publishing industry rather notoriously would not publish books by or about black people until the 1990s, unless those books were deemed of sufficient interest to white readers. Prior to the 1990s it was kind of hard for black readers to find these “accepted” black writers (outside of Black History Month), because there weren’t many of them, and because their works were mixed in with the mainstream. So black readers had to rely on word-of-mouth — which, pre-internet, was actually kind of limiting…

It took black authors self-publishing to lucrative success, with some rather famously becoming bestsellers by hand-selling self-pub’d books from the trunks of their cars, to prove to the industry that yes Virginia, black people do read, and what’s more they buy, and I dunno gee maybe it’s kind of racist to assume otherwise. So publishers paid attention and started snatching up black writers, and later black small presses, in an effort to latch on to this “new” audience. Many of them started heavy-handed marketing campaigns designed to appeal to the “urban” reader (where “urban” somehow = “black”) by using arcane language (e.g. “keepin’ it real!”) and plastering poorly-designed book covers with women who looked like music video refugees and men who looked like ex-cons. Or whatever the industry thought ex-cons looked like. And some black readers were grateful for the attention, after so long a time of neglect.

Problem is, most black readers aren’t “new” readers. That was a misconception derived from the initial racist assumption by publishers and retailers that “black people don’t read”; to people who swallowed that baloney, it must have seemed as though millions of black readers suddenly sprang fully-formed from E. Lynn Harris’ forehead in 1995. This is a completely illogical, frankly asinine assumption — what, were we all sitting around playing with our Dick and Janes before that? But that’s racism for you; logic fail all over the place.

And instead of dropping that original racist assumption that black people didn’t read, the industry gave it an upgrade: OK, black people do read, but they don’t read like the rest of us (read: white people, because Latinos and Asians and so forth don’t matter). And they don’t have the same need for well-drawn characters, engaging plots, etc., because they’re not very smart or well-read. All we have to do is give them are plenty of examples of people who look like them and speak “the vernacular” and deal with “their issues” (which are not like our issues). Profit! And because the industry also assumed that nobody but black people would want to read all this, y’know, “black stuff”, they decided to dump it all onto a single shelf, usually in the back of the store, and stick a label on it: African American Interest. Which might as well have read, “Everybody But Black People, Nothin’ to See Here. Move Along.”…

As a result of this old and new racism, the AAF section of today is mostly just a constricted, homogenizing ghetto. Writers stuck there — those who aren’t big enough to be cross-marketed — have lower earning potential, because it’s a lot harder to sell books when they’re marketed to 12% of the population than 100% of the population. Let’s not talk about how some black authors have been forced into this marketing classification against their will. And then there’s the problem of content reliability. There is no reason that anyone should look among the “thug love” books to find Alaya Dawn Johnson’s lyrical fantasy Racing the Dark. The folks who would be interested in one are highly unlikely to be interested in the other. But that is precisely what happened to her, because her book got shelved in the AAF section too.The Autobiography of Malcolm X has diddlysquat-all to do with Zane’s “Sex Chronicles”, but I have personally seen these two authors shelved side-by-side in AAF, I guess because X comes near Z on a bookshelf…

Worse, any bookstore or library that does this is, IMO, perpetuating the same racist assumptions that caused this problem in the first place. It all comes down to the idea of universality — which mostly just means “the ability to write something that appeals to white readers”, in my experience. Before the AAF boom, black readers were assumed to have no interest in books meant to appeal to white readers; hence the assumption that we “didn’t exist”. When our existence was confirmed, black readers were then assumed to be strange ducks, Not Like The Rest Of Us in taste or discernment, fundamentally alien — or Other — in our intelligence and thought processes. And black writers — despite having written mainstream books for generations — were assumed to be incapable of writing for anything other than this strange, alien audience. If “universality” = “whiteness”, well, of course we couldn’t possibly have it. Even if we did.

Trying to disentangle concepts of genre from concepts of race is, therefore, a highly problematic proposition, and one which ties in particularly to concepts of antiblackness, as per the fact that, as Jemisin points out, the African American section* is concerned only with the segregation of one specific racial identity. As such, it’s worth noting that both Howard Jacobsen and Michael Chabon are Jewish men, and while it’s conceivable that Telegraph Avenue might have been shelved in the AAF section, Chabon’s other works – such as, for instance, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which arguably belongs to the college of genre, and which, as the title suggests, is deeply concerned with questions of Jewish identity – would not receive the same treatment. Jacobsen’s J is similarly informed, taking place after an event described in his interview as a ‘mass pogrom’:

The new book is about the annihilation of any group, any “other”, Jacobson says. “The Jews happen to be the group that I know about, so it is informed by antisemitism, but the point is that if you get rid of ‘the other’ you then have an absence; an absence of irony, an absence of disputatiousness. No argument should ever win that completely.”

Not having read J – and despite my general dislike of Jacobsen, I’ll admit I’m tempted – I can’t pass any judgement on the quality of the book, its dystopian elements or its relationship with the college of genre. What I can say, however – and returning, at long last, to the original point – is that Jacobsen’s decision to write a dystopian work, embracing the potential of genre’s college without rescinding his previous disdain for it, and being rewarded for his efforts with a second Booker shortlisting, raises an important question. Namely: if, as Jacobsen himself contends, truly great novels defy categorisation, then in the game of literary gentrification, which writers are considered capable of transcending genre while still employing its tropes, and which are not? Because if, per Parker’s criticism of Telegraph Avenue, there’s a parallel to be made between the racial implications of a particular narrative and the context in which that narrative is both created and received, and by whom, then it doesn’t seem irrelevant that, whereas works like Jacobsen’s J, Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are, apparently without effort, classed as being both literary and genre-transcendent while still possessing strong dystopian roots, something like Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is not. When Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveller’s Wife, with its titular SFFnal conceit, can be shelved and discussed as a purely literary work, but Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze cannot, then we have a problem. When Nicholas Sparks, a man made rich and famous by his penchant for writing about tragically beautiful white people having romantic sex in the rain, states emphatically that ‘If you look for me, I’m in the fiction section. Romance has its own section… I don’t write romance novels,’ and the bookstores of the world agree with him, while N. K. Jemisin can end up shelved in the African American section regardless of the actual content of her novels, then yes: we have a problem.

Literary gentrification is not a simple matter of famous literary authors – who, coincidentally, tend to be straight, white men – cherrypicking SFFnal tropes and declaring them cleansed of genre, transcendent of but inspired by: it is as much a question of whose writing we deem capable of having this effect as one of which writers strive to have this effect, in that however much one tries to transcend, one cannot actually achieve it – or be told that such achievement has, in fact, occurred, regardless of intention – without a critical audience to argue, or even assume, that this is the case. The idea that works either by or about POC constitute a discreet genre is, as Jemisin points out, as problematic as it is established within the industry, but despite the college of genre being long defined as the home of ‘anything and everything not deemed literary fiction’, it had never quite occurred to me before that the former can be seen to fit within the latter. Perhaps this is yet one more reason why the question of diversity within SFF has become so prominent lately: we have, at long last, begun to argue for the rights of everyone in our college, however falteringly, and if those rights are ultimately defined as ‘the right of POC to not be viewed as inhabitants of a separate genre, but as an integral and assumed part of any readership or creative body’, then so much the better.

Because as much as I loathe seeing smug literary authors speak snidely about SFF in one breath while borrowing its tropes in the next, I’d be misplacing my outrage if this was the only level on which the phenomenon disturbed me. The archetype of the straight white male literary author is so culturally ingrained at this point that it can, at times, serve to obscure the very tangible prejudices underlying the reasons for its primacy: that, now as historically, in genre as in culture, the dominance of straight, white and/or Western men in a given sphere, coupled with a corresponding lack of representation from other groups, is not a fucking coincidence. I would be far more inclined to accept Jacobsen’s argument that truly great works transcend the classification of genre if the ability to bestow transcendence was not apparently restricted to a narrow class of person, not because they’re the only ones interested in producing such works, but because we assume their works possess a certain quality that the works of others do not, even when they deal with similar themes in a similar manner. Hypocritically borrowing from a genre one professes to despise is one thing, but doing so as part of a process of literary gentrification predicated on the selfsame dystopian history of racism, sexism and exclusion of the Other you’re ostensibly critiquing is quite another.

One cannot help but wonder if Jacobsen has noticed the irony.

*As the name suggests, the African American section is something you’re unlikely to find in bookstores outside of America. I’ve never seen an equivalent section separating out, for instance, Aboriginal literature in Australian stores, but that doesn’t mean such sections don’t exist, and if you’ve seen or heard of one, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

A couple of years ago, while attending an SFF convention, I made the mistake of participating in a geek trivia contest. Normally, I love this sort of thing, even when I lose badly: I spent a not inconsiderable portion of my tweens and teens playing the original edition of Trivial Pursuit for fun, despite the fact that even the most “recent” events on the cards were all older than me by more than a decade. My parents used to beat me hollow, but I loved it, because I always felt like I learned something. So, understandably, I embarked on this particular quiz with a feeling of optimism. I didn’t care that it was billed as “ridiculously hard” – I just wanted to have a good time, and maybe learn some cool, obscure facts about the history of SFF. Instead, the whole thing quickly became the single worst experience I’ve ever had at a convention.

The Round 1 topic was meant to be SFF literature: no time period specified. Not unreasonably, given the sheer breadth of SFF as a field, I’d expected the questions to cover a reasonable spread of works – some old, some new, some obscure, some famous. Instead, the range was much more limited; obliviously so. Before we all swapped papers for marking, I called out to the straight, white, middle-aged male MC (who’d also written the quiz) and asked a question: was there any answer to Round 1 that was not either a Dead White Male or an Old White Male?

He paused, looking stunned. “Oh,” he said. “I hadn’t noticed that.”

The film round was more of the same: the most recent movie referenced was a work of B-grade 90s SF. Everything else was from the 50s, 60s, or – more commonly –  the 70s. No answers involved women, let alone POC. At this point, the MC decided to hand out the sheet for the picture round. When he reached our table, he pointedly said to me, “You can’t call me sexist now, because an equal number of questions on here are about women. I made sure of it.” Which is to say: on the bonus round that was about identifying SFF characters and celebrities by their predominantly naked or scantily-clad arses, three of the pictures were of women: Ellen Ripley, Catwoman, and Seven of Nine. Three others were of robots, and the remaining four were men. Surprisingly, this didn’t cheer me up.

Next was a Star Wars/Star Trek round, which distinguished itself by featuring a single answer that involved a woman. (The question: what was Seven of Nine’s real name?) By this point, four of the five tables were visibly losing the will to live: the remaining team, which boasted two straight white men in their forties or above – one of whom was close friends with the MC – was something like 30 points ahead of their nearest competitors, and it was becoming increasingly apparent, from comments made by the MC, that the entire quiz had basically been designed as a series of in-jokes between him and his mate; this did not, however, stop him from calling the losing teams “pathetic”. To make things worse, once he’d handed out the arses sheet, the MC started deliberately mispronouncing and mocking our team name when he read out the scores, something which he continued to do for the rest of the evening. As we were the only ones to received this treatment, it was quite obviously meant as retaliation.

Then came the Doctor Who round, which had two questions that referenced the reboot and the rest of which was all about the classic series; which would have been fine, was the focus not specifically centered on a handful of obscure episodes that seemed to be personal favourites of the MC and his mate on the winning team (who was, unsurprisingly, the only one who got the answers right). At the start of this round, the MC announced loudly that these questions would “separate the men from the boys”. At this, a WOC from one of the other teams – who’d also noticed the somewhat SWM-heavy material – turned to me and said, “Well, what about the girls?”

The results of this round were so heavily skewed in favour of the MC’s friend’s team that even he acknowledged there was no point in doing the extra Doctor Who questions, and skipped straight ahead to Round 5, which asked us to list the shows, books, films or series responsible for particular swear words. The answer to the first question was Battlestar Galactica, which was, from memory, the most recent work referenced in the entire quiz. After that, we marked the arses. (Most recent, and most prominent on the answer sheet: a naked Daniel Radcliffe in Equus, though how that counts as SFF, I don’t know. Oh, and the Green Lantern.)

Naturally, the team captained by the MC’s mate won by a landslide; we came last, with a score the MC called “shameful”. By then, it was after midnight: the quiz had dragged on for hours, and the overriding mood among the participants was one of exhaustion, with expressions ranging from grim to baffled. Not unsurprisingly, the most irritated people were, pretty much universally, women and POC, all of whom had been actively excluded by the increasingly hostile host. I didn’t care that we lost: I cared that, at a convention with a diverse range of attendees, and which had put some effort into promoting discussions of bias in SFF, an event that should’ve been a fun end to the proceedings and a celebration of shared experience was instead turned into an exclusionary old boys’ club.

Which is what came to mind this evening, when a not-so-snappily-titled Buzzfeed quiz – What’s Your Geek Number? – cropped up in my Facebook feed. The whole thing is 300 questions long, and in that entire, lengthy list, which mentions a hefty number of specific titles and works by name, only two are created by women: Harry Potter, and My Little Pony. Everything else listed has either been written or created by men, and it’s notable that while there are multiple questions about the purchase and possession of merchandise in the male-oriented franchises, particularly relating to comics and Magic: The Gathering, neither of these female-dominated fandoms is explored in similar detail. In fact, male fans of My Little Pony even get a bonus point for liking the show, as they can effectively answer the same question twice, while women – the show’s traditional fanbase – cannot:

Buzzfeed Brony question

Which is sadly typical of the entire thing. While fandoms, behaviours and pastimes that are commonly held to be male-dominated are discussed in detail – programming, mainstream comics, Star Trek, Star Wars, Magic: The Gathering – there’s a conspicuous absence of female-dominated media. Right at the end, for instance, there are three questions about fanfiction, and a couple of passing references to artwork based on favourite series (though the term ‘fanart’ is never used), but there’s no mention of cosplay, costuming, knitting, filking, fanzines, slash, book blogging, meta-writing, YA novels, webcomics, or any other subcultures known for having a high percentage of female geeks. Which isn’t to say that women don’t program, or read mainstream comics, or like any of the other things the quiz puts a premium on; nor am I suggesting that, at 300 questions, the whole thing was really too short. I know this is just a random Buzzfeed quiz – which is to say, a literal timewaster – and that my analyzing it like this is going to have lots of people rolling their eyes, because why the fuck would anyone take it seriously?

But here’s the thing: at a time when various geeky cultures and subcultures are still gripped by lurking paranoia about the existence of Fake Geek Girls, and where women are so often asked to prove their geek credentials in ways that men just aren’t, creating a quiz whose content perfectly mirrors the extant debates about what “real” geeks are, in a way that makes it clear that “real geek” is code for “guy”, kind of helps to demonstrate the problem. Whenever mainstream culture stereotypes geekdom as a bunch of greasy, cheeto-stained white guys in sweat pants mouthbreathing in the basement of their parents’ house, we bristle collectively, because we know it’s unfair and inaccurate – a caricature some forty years out of date. But when we ourselves make assumptions about what the “average geek” looks like, we still tend to picture some variant of this same guy, with his Boba Fett statues and Kirk v Picard t-shirt, and treat him, if not as a yardstick, then as genesis: the archetypal Patient Zero who first spread the disease of dorkness to his likeminded fellows. We think of women and POC as interlopers, latecomers, erasing the history of their participation in fandom in a bid to reassure a particular resentful, insecure cluster of white men that, even if they’re not the only fans around, they’re still the most important, because they were here first: that men like them were solely responsible, not just for fandom as a concept, but for all those geeky fields – like computing, video games, movies, science fiction and fantasy – with which it’s now associated.

Only, no: they weren’t. Not exclusively. Not by a long shot.

The first ever novel, The Tale of Genji – which was also, coincidentally, a work of fantasy – was written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in around the year 1000, and is still being read today. In 1666, Margaret Cavendish published what is arguably the first ever work of science fiction, The Blazing World; but even if you discount her work on the grounds of obscurity, Mary Shelley is still recognised as the mother of modern science fiction for her 1818 publication of Frankenstein, which she wrote at the age of 19. The first ever crimefighting vigilante to go don a mask, a cape and a secret identity was the Scarlet Pimpernel, created by Baroness Emma Orczy in 1905. Women have been creating comic books since the late 1800s; even in the male-dominated Golden and Silver Ages, women like Nina Albright, Ruth Atkinson and Marie Severin were still known quantities. The whole concept of young adult novels – and, indeed, of teenagers as a distinct literary audience – was introduced by Sarah Trimmer in 1802, while the novel most widely held to have prompted the separate categorisation of YA in the modern era was S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, published in 1967.

The earliest surviving animated feature film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, was written and directed by Lotte Reiniger in 1926, while the world’s first animated films were the work of Quirino Cristiani. The first female film director, Alice Guy-Blache, was working as early as 1894; depressingly, though, it wasn’t until 1991 that Julie Dash became the first African-American woman to both write and direct a full-length film that was given a general theatrical release, Daughters of the Dust.  Such is the exclusionary strangeness of Hollywood that from the 1920s to about 1940, the only woman working as a director was Dorothy Arzner; yet during the same period, the majority of screenwriters were women. June Mathis was the first female executive for Metro/MGM in 1923; Mary Pickford founded United Artists in 1919; and writer Frances Marion became the first person ever to win two Academy Awards in 1932.

The world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace, wrote her famous algorithm 1842; and even in the modern world, as hard as it is to believe now, computer programming was originally considered to be a female occupation, and as such was female-dominated right up until the late 1960s. The first compiler for a programming language was developed by Rear Admiral Grace Hopper in 1952 – just one of her many pioneering developments. Modern spread-spectrum communication technology is based on an invention originally developed and patented by Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil. Many of the famous Bletchley Park codebreakers were young women; notably Mavis Batey, who cracked the Enigma code used by the German secret service while in her early twenties, thereby ensuring the success of the D-Day landings.

The majority of attendees at the first Star Trek conventions were women. It was Betty Jo Trimble who successfully campaigned to keep the original series running after it was nearly cancelled, just as it was Lucille Ball who pushed NBC to give the show a second chance after they initially rejected the pilot. The first, small Star Trek convention was the work of Sherna Comerford, while a much bigger second convention was organised by Joan Winston. The contents of the first Star Trek fanzine, Spockanalia – which was produced by Devra Langsam and Sherna Comerford – literally defined modern fanfiction, and by 1973, 90% of Star Trek fanfiction was written by women, which fandom also gave us the term Mary Sue (whose origins, contrary to popular belief, were purposefully satirical).

Women have also been involved in video games since the early days, too: to name just three, Roberta Williams co-founded Sierra Entertainment, Carol Shaw designed her first video game in 1978, and Anne Westfall programmed the hit EA game, Archon.  As early as 1993, it was reported that 64% of girls played video games for at least one hour a week, while in 2008, a study found that 94% of girls play video games. I could go on, but hopefully, I’ve made my point: that not only have women and POC always played an integral role in fandom, but that even in geeky arenas commonly held to have been white-male-only spaces until very recently, the assumed narrative is far from accurate. The histories have been glossed and elided, the narrative of white male supremacy touted as the natural result of innate interest and aptitude, rather than the purposeful consequence of exclusion, bigotry and ongoing bias.

And even in the present day, the elision continues. Everyone knows that Joss Whedon wrote Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog; what’s less well-known is that it was co-written by his sister-in-law, Maurissa Tancharoen, who also worked on Dollhouse and Avengers Assemble. We know that Mamoru Hosada is the breakaway director responsible for The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars and Wolf Children, but not that all three scripts were written by the same woman, Satoko Okudera. After decades of adoration by girls and women – decades in which the franchise has been roundly shunned as ungeeky  – My Little Pony has rocketed to prominence as both a valid fandom and within public consciousness, not because women are now being taken seriously, but because male fans have deemed the franchise worthy of their attention, thereby legitimising it. Here’s how quickly things have changed: in 2005, Penny Arcade ran a strip where a female character was mocked by male geeks for her My Little Pony casemod; come 2013, the Penny Arcade Report is running a supportive piece on bronies battling Hasbro.

Which brings me back to that stupid Buzzfeed quiz, and why, when it evoked the memory of that awful convention trivia night, I found I was physically angry. As innocuous as such small slights are in the abstract, they’re ultimately predicated on something bigger and more insidious: the ubiquity of bias, and the many ways in which ignorance feeds itself. This is why women in fandom are still suspected of being Fake Geek Girls: because the history that supports our claim to geekdom is a history too many of our peers have never learned, and have in fact been actively encouraged not to seek. Until sufficient male support legitimises female-dominated fandoms, we are forced to accept a lesser, periphery status; but once the men do take an interest, then suddenly, the women were never there to begin with.

I don’t care that some mook at Buzzfeed thinks that playing Magic: The Gathering is a more natural and obvious geeky pastime than cosplaying characters or writing fanfiction: I care that he no more seemed to realise he was making that distinction than the MC at the convention trivia night realised his quiz wasn’t just generally difficult, but specialised to the point of exclusion.Liking different fandoms is one thing, but assuming your fandoms are the only, the realest, the most legitimate fandoms, whether consciously or unconsciously, Because Dudes, is a quite another. And I, for one, am sick of it.


The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire,
We don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn,
Burn motherfucker, burn.

Fire Water Burn, The Bloodhound Gang*

Imagine you live in a town that’s constantly on fire. Not all of it, obviously – people still live there – but a large enough proportion of the buildings that, if you stop and look out the window, you’re usually bound to see smoke. The thing is, though, that it’s always the same old districts getting incinerated, to the point where you’re more or less used to it. You see sparks, you hear sirens, and without even bothering to investigate, you already know which bits are going up in flames – but because it’s never your neighbourhood, you’ve learned to tune it out. Sometimes, if a particular blaze gets close to a place you care about, you get angry – who are these careless firebugs, and why haven’t they been arrested? – but once the threat passes, you go back to your everyday routine, secure in the knowledge that you, at least, were never in any real danger. Even more rarely, when you wonder why your town has so many fires, you don’t give it too much thought, because the answer seems self evident: as the fires are localized, they must logically be caused by the people who live in those areas – otherwise, they’d have touched you by now.

Except, that explanation doesn’t really make sense, does it? Why would the same people be trying to burn the same old houses down, over and over and over again? Suddenly, you realise how fishy the whole situation really is, and for the first time, you start paying attention. You notice that, while some of the firefighters come from your neighbourhood, the vast majority live in the danger zones. Though the fires themselves had previously kept you from visiting the burnt-out places, you investigate, and realise they’re being more or less constantly rebuilt – from scratch, in some cases – by their inhabitants. And this troubles you, because if the fires aren’t just the result of clumsiness or malice on the part of a particular section of the populace – if the people you’d previously assumed were setting them are, in fact, engaged in a constant struggle to put them out – then why are there so many? And as you sit in your pristine, fire-free district, you suddenly notice something else: the contempt in which the fires and their victims are held by many of your neighbours. Whenever they see smoke, they sigh and tut about how “those people” are forever making a fuss about nothing, and can’t they just learn to ignore it all? If a firefighter passes through, they mutter darkly about “vultures” and “naysayers” – because clearly, as these people make a living from dealing with tragedy, they must therefore be invested in creating it. When the sirens wail, they don’t rush to help, but  sit back and lament the regularity with which their peace is broken. After all, it’s never their homes on fire, so they’re not the ones making the town look bad by constantly drawing attention to its failings.

All of this makes you feel uneasy; terribly so. You love your town – you’ve lived here all your life – but up until now, the fires have seemed a background issue. You’ve tuned them out, focussing instead on the unburnt parts: the classic architecture (smoke-stained and outdated though some of it undeniably is), the welcoming local culture (provided nobody mentions arson), the gorgeous parks (in the fire-free zones), the unique history. But if everything’s so wonderful, then why is there so much you’re discouraged from talking about? No longer content to assume that the firefighters must also be firestarters, you finally ask them obvious question: who or what are they really battling?

Carelessness and malice, is the answer – just not, by and large, from the denizens of the districts most affected. Lit cigarettes discarded by passing motorists (whose cars, coincidentally, bear a striking resemblance to those driven by your neighbours), children whose houses have never burned deciding to play with matches (though not, of course, in their own homes), the occasional pyromaniac setting fires to garner attention (the bigger the fuss, the better), and, very rarely, twisted criminals looking to cause some damage. The knowledge sits in your chest like a weight. Are my people always the villains? you ask. And: Don’t you ever burn yourselves? 

The chief firefighter sighs, as though she expected the question. She tells you: yes, many of your people help us. They do good works, and they speak for us in the unburnt districts, where we struggle to make ourselves heard, and that’s a very valuable thing. But some of them want rewards we’re in no place to give – nor should we need to. They think that, because their own homes aren’t threatened, they don’t really have to help, which means their time and effort are worth more than ours. Even if their skills are lesser, they’ll push our firefighters out of the way, more concerned with looking good alone than doing good as part of a team. And yes, we sometimes burn ourselves – of course we do! Pyromanics and criminals pop up everywhere, and accidents can happen to anyone. But because we live amidst fires, we take greater care not to set them by accident; we teach our children how to fight them, how to avoid them, and why you should always be wary of the danger they pose. We talk about fire safety, even when we’d rather be doing something else, because if we don’t, who will? Whereas your people, by and large, never learn those lessons at home. They only see that our districts burn, and so, when they want to play with fire, they come to us, and laugh when we take it seriously. And if we say to them, “This is all part of your town, too!”, they tell us, “Not really. Your bits are too burned to matter.” They don’t want us to fight for what’s ours, but they don’t want us to move into their parts, either.

So then you ask her, Why do you stay? If it’s all so terrible, why not move to another town?

Her answer is simple: Because we helped to build this place. We love it here, too. It’s just that we often love it for different reasons, and if we go, then who else will remember why they matter?

And that’s when you realise you have a choice: to keep on pretending there’s nothing wrong, or to grab a hose and start fighting fires.

This metaphor has been brought to you by The Committee Of People Who Are Sick Of Being Told To “Calm Down” About Stuff That Actually Matters, Because Pointing Out When Something’s On Fire  Isn’t The Same As Burning It Yourself: Seriously, Why Is This So Difficult To Understand? (And Also, While We’re On The Topic, Do You Really Think We Find This Process Enjoyable? I’m Sorry You’re Sick Of Hearing About It, But We’re Even More Sick Of Having Our Stuff Incinerated, Which Is Really Sort Of Worse.)  

*Though these specific lyrics are originally by Rock Master Scott & The Dynamic Three.